Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 15 2004 3:28 PM

Tango and Trash

Critics say no to J. Lo's new movie, Shall We Dance?

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Shall We Dance? (Miramax). J. Lo's ice-cold movie streak continues with this "bit of fox-trot fluff," a remake of a 1996 Japanese movie. Lopez plays a dance instructor who supposedly spices up the life of a bored husband (Richard Gere), but the two share only "one electric moment of intimacy," says the Miami Herald. She's "so vaporous that she threatens to float off somewhere over the Sears Tower"; he's "so withdrawn he barely seems to exist." (The New York Times adds an amusing analysis of Gere's chemistry with his leading ladies.) Nevertheless, Stephen Holden is ready to rumba, calling Shall We Dance? a "gaudy, sequined invitation to freedom" that's "blissfully untethered to reality."Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum feels all too tethered by the movie's insistence that its stars are "characters with real problems": It "never gives its heart freely and honestly to the satiny whirl of post-Chicago showbiz spectacle it so clearly wants to be." (Buy tickets to Shall We Dance?)

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Team America: World Police (Paramount). Probably the only puppet film to be toned down for an R rating, this satire of the war on terror from the creators of South Park"proves everything is funnier when it's done by marionettes," says the Miami Herald. Everyone agrees Team America is hilarious—the Washington Post laughed "so hard" it "made little moaning noises"—and on target. It "slyly underlines" the way "all our action cinema, and more than a little of our national policy, now celebrates fake strength and fake power," praises Entertainment Weekly. But some find the tasteless humor repetitious, not to mention homophobic. LA Weekly goes so far as to say the directors want to make "a satirical gay fuck flick." And their political affiliations are questioned, too—A.O. Scott discerns "a pronounced conservative streak amid the anarchy." (Read David Edelstein's Slate review.) (Buy tickets to Team America.)

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P.S. (Newmarket). In Dylan Kidd's follow-up to the much-lauded Roger Dodger, Laura Linney plays a Columbia University admissions officer who sleeps with an applying student (Topher Grace) because he reminds her of a long-lost love. Anthony Lane sarcastically wonders whether replacing SAT's with "W.A.C., or wine-and-copulation, might, over the long term, run into a number of practical snags." And both Peter Rainer and Manohla Dargis are offended by the film's implication that Linney is over the hill: He calls it "a depressing sign of these Botoxed times"; she's sad that Linney "has to endure the indignity of such excremental nonsense." This week's hyperbole award goes to the Village Voice's Michael Atkinson, who interrupts his jaded evisceration to claim that this "may"—just may—"be the first American film in decades to honestly, unglamorously capture impulsive sex between two recognizable human beings." (Or at least since The Cooler, anyway.) (Buy tickets to P.S.)

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Antics, by Interpol (Matador). Like fellow New York rock renaissance stars the Strokes, Interpol consolidates its style on its second album. Most critics aren't bothered. The Gothic, post-punk sound "may be predictable," admits the Onion, "but if predictable means rock-solid and mostly magnificent, why bother asking for more?" The band's gloomy mood inspires some doomy overwriting, though. City Pages gets lost in a "thoroughly varnished, gleaming corridor of black mirrors"—a place where the band sounds "less like a rock group and more like some uncatchable entity of music." And Pitchfork splits emotional hairs: Apparently, "where Interpol were once synonymous with emotive desolation, they here opt for an atmosphere of poignant resignation."New York, the main voice of dissent, says the band's "cocoon of maudlin love" feels "too much like a retreat" at a time when the world demands engagement. ( Antics.)

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The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 3: 1955-1991, by Norman Sherry (Viking). "One of the great ventures in contemporary biography" has come to a sorry end, says Bookforum: After two "exemplary" volumes, the finale is "poorly organized, overly wordy, a tendentious work that verges on hagiography." Sherry won authorization to pen the biography after agreeing to follow Greene's footsteps around the globe, and he contracted gangrene and dysentery in the process. It's no wonder, then, that "his relief at bringing the project to completion is written all over" this book. The Los Angeles Times says this biography's problem is familiar: "[N]ot just trees, but countless tiny leaves, vines and tendrils" of quotidian detail obscure our view of the life's forest. Beyond Sherry's failings, there's much disapproval of Greene's. The Washington Post wonders who was "the real victim" of his tortured relationships (the appendices include a list of "47 favorite prostitutes"), and Newsday calls his political declarations "downright adolescent." ( The Life of Graham Greene, Vol. 3: 1955-1991.)

Anne Rice on Amazon. The latest chapter in the ongoing saga of writers posting Amazon reviews is Anne Rice (like Newt Gingrich, a site regular) blasting critics of her final Vampire Chronicles volume. After touting her ability to "ignore denigrating and trivializing criticism as I realize my dreams and my goals," Rice suggested that anyone who doesn't like Blood Canticle is overlooking "how this complex and intricate novel establishes itself within a unique, if not unrivalled series of book[s]." In follow-up comments with the New York Times, Rice emphasized her disdain for editing and compared herself to Pavarotti and Hemingway—winning little sympathy. "If she weren't such an egomaniac, which is obvious from her rant, Rice would have established an ongoing relationship with an editor that she trusted," responds one poster. Another adds, "If she can't take the heat she should stay out of the Literary Amazon Kitchen."

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The Double, by José Saramago (Harcourt). The 1998 Nobel winner's new novel is about two men who are virtual clones of each other. But some critics think the real doppelgänger is Saramago himself. Newsday says he's succumbed to "the Nobel Curse" and been replaced by a "drab double" who "shows no consideration for his readers, droning endlessly on without humor or verve." John Updike is more circumspect but also finds Saramago's voice "as overbearing and possessive, in its way, as that of a moralizing Victorian." The Washington Post complains that, unlike forebears Calvino and Borges, Saramago doesn't take his creepy subject matter seriously—"there is an obvious archness … that quickly distances the reader from any emotional involvement." Saramago's main defender, John Banville, admits the author "spins out to more than 300 pages a tale that Borges would have elegantly dispatched in three" but claims this "clever, alarming and blackly funny tale" has revitalized an overly familiar plotline. (The Double.)

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Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Nick Flynn (Norton). This memoir about the author's difficult relationship with his father, an alcoholic and failed novelist, wins raves but raises questions about the boundaries between fiction and autobiography. Flynn has "a compelling voice and a wry sense of humor," says Vendela Vida in the New York Times, and the Boston Globe praises the book's "delicate, poetic logic." But "Flynn's economy with the facts of his own life"—he portrays himself as a Rimbaudesque figure, though he's a creative writing teacher—"risks undermining the credibility of his memoir," argues the Washington Post. Maybe such distinctions don't matter, implies Stephen Elliott in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Memoirs often are called novels, just to add a layer of protection to the characters inside," and "this brilliant memoir would be no better or worse billed as fiction." (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.)

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War Trash, by Ha Jin (Pantheon). "Human" is the word that's repeated in reviews of this fictional account of a Chinese soldier's experience as a POW during the Korean War. His struggle for survival in various prison camps is "a reminder that for many people snagged on the barbs of history, the fiery rhetoric of battle is merely an abstraction," says the Christian Science Monitor. Some find the narrator's muted, straightforward voice tedious—the San Francisco Chronicle complains about "a long, tough slog of a book" that "seems more of historical interest than of dramatic"—but more find it quietly moving. "[S]tiff and formal," yes, says Russell Banks in the New York Times, but also "recognizably, authentically, universally human." The amateurishly enthusiastic Banks also calls War Trash a "timeless" moral fable, and the Los Angeles Times seems to agree: Seen from the perspective of the "hellish" camps depicted, "Abu Ghraib could be tradition, not aberration." (War Trash.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.