Highlights from the week in criticism.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 29 2004 2:31 PM

The Man Who Knew To "Mosh"

Responding to Eminem's powerful new political video.

"Mosh," by Eminem. Irony may not have died after 9/11, but it's ailing in the election run-up: First Jon Stewart cusses out Crossfire, now Eminem drops self-referential games for a direct broadside on President Bush. "[O]ne of the most overtly political pop music videos ever," "Mosh" features an army of hip-hop fans and soldiers gathering to storm voting booths. "The beat is a clanging, leaden monstrosity made for marching, not dancing," says Salon's Thomas Bartlett, and the lyrics are "articulate, persuasive and powerful." The central "army as moshpit" metaphor seems to describe the Democratic Party base, analyzes Pitchfork, but the track also addresses have-nots "who've been largely excluded" from politics. As blogger (and professor) Juan Cole puts it, "Eminem cannily turns the Republicans' Southern Strategy against them, calling for a revolt against Bush policies by the guys Howard Dean referred to as having Confederate flags on their pickup trucks."

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Ray (Universal). Jamie Foxx basked in Best Actor buzz all summer long for his Ray Charles portrayal in this biopic, and the rumors are confirmed with rave reviews. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls Foxx "practically telepathic," and the Dallas Observer says his take on Charles is "less impression than inhabitation." The Chicago Tribune adds that he "almost erases the barriers of life and time." But critics do complain that the movie succumbs to biopic clichés and reverence for its subject. "Ray drinks lustily from a goblet of hackneyed show-biz and triumph-over-adversity conventions," presenting Charles' life as "a series of screaming headlines and stunning triumphs," gripes the Onion. Because it crams so much life into two-and-a-half hours, it "feels like too much and yet not enough," agrees the Miami Herald: "The film has lionized Charles instead of humanizing him." (Read Slate's take.) (Buy tickets to Ray.)

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Birth (New Line). Nicole Kidman provides another example of an actor who's able to transcend a flawed movie, playing a widow convinced her husband has been reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy. Kidman may look "like a famished elf," according to LA Weekly, but she turns in a "brilliantly nuanced performance" says the New York Times. She's "incandescent," adds the Los Angeles Times. But even Kidman can't save what most critics think is a somewhat ridiculous premise. Mary Kay Letourneau and Rosemary's Baby are the key reference points, and the movie ultimately tilts toward the former. While "the ick-factor deepens as the story progresses," "the mystery never does," complains the Onion. Everyone's talking about the scene where Kidman and 11-year-old co-star Cameron Bright take a bath together: The Village Voice thinks it's "reasonably chaste," but the Dallas Observer calls it "the nuttiest apologia ever for pedophilia." Entertainment Weekly condemns it as "the definition of exploitation." (Buy tickets to Birth.)

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Saw (Lions Gate). The third monosyllabic movie of the week is a serial-killer thriller with a jagged but rusty edge. In this "stylish wallow in sadism," two men chained by the ankles must saw off their feet in order to escape. Rolling Stone calls Saw"gross as hell," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says it's "genuinely and profoundly perverted," and the New York Times is reminded of both Abu Ghraib and an especially gruesome episode of Fear Factor. "Gorehounds will love" the film, according to the Dallas Observer, and the Chicago Tribune finds it "oddly satisfying, though the gag reflex never entirely goes away." Most critics are more repelled than scared, however. Saw's "sadism is topped only by its absurdity," says the Chicago Reader. Sure, "it makes you squirm a few times," adds Entertainment Weekly, "but too often it makes you giggle." (Buy tickets to Saw.)

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Villages, by John Updike (Knopf). Updike continues to plow the terrain of sex and suburbia in his 21st novel, the story of a 70-year-old computer executive reflecting on his life and adulteries. Generous critics see Villages as a nuanced look back at Updike's former work: The Chicago Tribune says "our pleasure becomes more refined and complicated when specific moments recall ones in earlier books." More often, though, reviewers say the magic is gone. Michiko Kakutani thinks this is "a weary exercise in the recycling of frayed and shop-worn material," and the New York Observer calls it "tired, timid, shaky" in comparison to Philip Roth's 21st book. At least Updike's "poetic porn" still stimulates the Miami Herald—without that, however, "you are left with lavish descriptions and an uninvolving plot." For Lee Siegel, even the sex writing has gone sour: What was once "a transcendent obsession" now "threatens to become a patented field of operations." (Villages.)

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The Surrender, by Toni Bentley (Regan Books). A more metaphysical strain of sex writing lives on in this memoir by a former ballet dancer who found God through anal penetration. Publisher's Weekly calls The Surrender"wonderfully smart and sexy and witty and moving," and Leon Wieseltier says it "might be a small masterpiece of erotic writing." Charles McGrath of the New York Times thinks it hits "the grand rhapsodic note" of old-fashioned sex lit—Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin—every now and then. But detractors find Bentley self-absorbed. She's "a preening, narcissistic performer" who "parades her cleverness in too-cute prose," according to the San Francisco Chronicle. The New York Times Book Review commends her bravery yet mocks her "laboriously facetious punning jags," and her "gruesome" lapses into advice mode. The Washington Post similarly cringes at "creeping ridiculousness"—and rather prudishly labels The Surrender"an apotheosis of female self-loathing." ( The Surrender.)

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The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary, by Robert Alter (Norton). This rare solo translation of the Hebrew Bible offers a glimpse of "the dark and often surprisingly unpious sensibility that essentially invented Western religious life," says Judith Shulevitz. Michael Dirda is most impressed by the book's abundant footnotes (for which he seems to have a thing); they're its "chief glory." For John Updike, however, this "overload of elucidation" makes it hard "to maintain much momentum." Cynthia Ozick also sees a contrast between "divine authority" and "the authority of a teacher's manual," which prompts her to reflect on the Bible as literature: "If the God of the Bible is not 'real,' then—in creative-writing-course argot—the Bible's stories won't and don't work." Perhaps that's why Updike * didn't enjoy Alter's translation: He says that for "the ancient Hebrews God was simply a word for what was: a universe often beautiful and gracious but also implacable and unfathomable." ( The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary.)

from a basement on a hill, by Elliott Smith (Anti). Smith's final, posthumous album (he died in murky circumstances last year) gets rave reviews, and critics swear it's not just respect for him postmortem. After all, says Jon Pareles, "even if Mr. Smith had survived, the album would have come across as a junkie's suicide note."from a basement on a hill is "an album about the seductions of oblivion," concurs Kelefa Sanneh in Rolling Stone, yet it also "teases extraordinary wit and warmth from songs that float lazily toward happiness."Entertainment Weekly compares that "blend of stark minimalism and pungent melody" to the Beatles'White Album, and hears someone who "found his focus in ways he hadn't always before." As for the drugs, they were "everything and nada," says the Village Voice—Smith actually wrote about heroin before he ever took it. And his macho attitude toward women—"more Brando than bruised indie boy"—was just as key to his sensibility. (Read Slate's obituary of Elliott Smith.) (from a basement on a hill.)

Correction, Oct. 27, 2004: This item originally stated "Perhaps that's why confirmed atheist Updike didn't enjoy Alter's translation." Because Updike is not a confirmed atheist, the editors have amended the statement. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

Ben Williams writes "Summary Judgment" forSlate.

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