The critical buzz on Martin Scorsese, Shortbus, and Lee Siegel.

The critical buzz on Martin Scorsese, Shortbus, and Lee Siegel.

The critical buzz on Martin Scorsese, Shortbus, and Lee Siegel.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Oct. 6 2006 4:08 PM

Gangs of Boston

The critical buzz on Martin Scorsese, Shortbus, and Lee Siegel.

The Departed (Warner Bros.).Oh, how the critics have been longing for a Martin Scorsese film they can lavish with praise! And starring Jack Nicholson, to boot. "All the actors bring their A games to this triumphant bruiser of a film," Peter Travers trumpets in Rolling Stone. In the pantheon of male directors who make very male films about violence, betrayal, and the city (always the city), Scorsese and Michael Mann currently sit on top. But as Matt Dentler at IndieWire decrees, "The Departed is what we hoped Miami Vice would be." We, indeed. And the Boston Globe's Ty Burr lauds it for being "the closest we've come yet to The Great Boston Movie, a beast that requires more honesty than filmmakers (and audiences) have been willing to grant." But in Slate, Dana Stevens cautions against critical hyperbole: "It feels like the kind of movie critics might overpraise." There are some naysayers, though, especially those who recall Infernal Affairs—the 2002 Hong Kong-made movie upon which The Departed is based—with fondness. "[F]or all its snap, crackle, and pop, it's nowhere near as galvanic emotionally" as Infernal Affairs, sighs New York's David Edelstein. I knew Infernal Affairs, and Departed, you're no Infernal Affairs … (Buy tickets to The Departed).

Shortbus (ThinkFilm).Is it possible for critics to avoid using uncomfortable metaphors when reviewing a movie about sex? For Mark Olsen at the Los Angeles Times, the answer is no: "Though it flirts with the hard-core, there is something strangely flaccid about Shortbus, a ragged, uneven quality that, however purposeful, makes it feel less than fully formed." (Confidential to Mr. Olsen: We know someone who can help.) Manohla Dargis at the New York Times splits the difference by avoiding explicit comparisons, though her analogy is instructive: "[T]he carnal interludes in Shortbus are integrated into the narrative, much as the singing and dancing are in Oklahoma!" Of course, that's a musical featuring a number called "I'm Just a Girl Who Can't Say No." Clever, Manohla! Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum likes her pornography a bit more polished: "If I'm going to see sex on screen—as opposed to the brushing of teeth—I want something hotter." Now that's perhaps the most uncomfortable image of all. (Buy tickets to Shortbus.)

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Lee Siegel. After turning "sprezzatura" into a verb (sprezzatura: to impersonate in the comments section of a blog in such a transparent fashion that even one's fans are embarrassed), the New Republic editor and former Slateart critic has a new crusade: to write a book on Internet culture, to be published by Doubleday sometime next year. Siegel recently sent around an e-mail looking for a research assistant ("preferably a graduate student"), which was promptly posted on several Web sites. As blogger Atrios pointed out on Eschaton, the idea of Siegel writing a book on Internet culture is ripe for parody. "What's next?" he wonders. "A textbook on theoretical physics by George W. Bush? A Guide to Civility and Manners from Michael Savage? A foreign policy treatise by Peter Beinart? Oh, wait … "

Little Children (New Line).Mixed reviews for the film version of Tom Perrotta's novel about an unnamed Massachusetts suburb. Newsweek's David Ansen calls it "hard to shake off," perhaps because of its surefire combination of bored housewives, a pedophile, extramarital affairs, and suburban ennui. Or perhaps it's the fault of Kate Winslet—"as fine an actress as any working in movies today," according to A.O. Scott in the New York Times. But Salon's Andrew O'Hehir calls out director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) for having "made a type of movie rather than an individual movie, an upscale formula picture that announces its own moral seriousness rather than something built organically from mind and heart." And writing in the Village Voice, Ella Taylor sighs, "This overly long movie, made sluggish by a superfluously novelistic narrator, feels divided against itself, driven by opposed impulses of tragedy and dark humor … " (Buy tickets to Little Children.)

State ofDenial, by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster). Schadenfreude special! Publishing types were atwitter over the weekend about the New York Times and New York Daily News' canny pre-empting of Woodward and his publisher's long-planned publicity rollout for his devastating critique of the Bush administration. Instead, with excerpts published in both the Times and the Daily News, S & S was forced to move up the on-sale date. Critics say the book doesn't come to many new conclusions, except that Woodward has revised his previous sunny opinion of the Bush administration. "Still, State of Denial is a dogged piece of reporting—rich in anecdote, telling detail, fascinating snippets of conversation and troubling stories heretofore untold," Tim Rutten tantalizes in the Los Angeles Times. "Woodward's impressively detailed … revelations about the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war and its aftermath are meeting with some of the same 'denials' referenced in the book's title," opines Chuck Leddy in the Boston Globe. Proving Leddy's point, the White House trotted out another installment of their "Setting the Record Straight" series (previous editions have included "Sen. Kennedy on Iraq" and "President Bush's Pro-Growth Tax Relief Benefits All Americans Who Pay Income Taxes"), this one titled "Five Key Myths in Bob Woodward's Book." (BuyState of Denial.)

Salman Rushdie. Mr. Fatwa himself starts a potentially delicious literary feud by reaming John Updike for the negative review Updike gave Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown last year in TheNew Yorker. Rushdie told the Guardian: "Somewhere in Las Vegas there's probably a male prostitute called 'John Updike.' The thing that disappointed me most about Updike is that he did not say in that review that he had just completed a novel about terrorism. He had to sweep me out of the way in order to make room for himself. … The new one [ Terrorist ] is beyond awful. He should stay in his parochial neighbourhood and write about wife-swapping, because it's what he can do." Come now, Mr. Rushdie, tell us how you really feel. "I'm allowed to say it, because he was really rude about me," he sniffed. Let's go to the tape, shall we? In his review, Updike upbraided Rushdie for "verbal hyperactivity of the sissy-Assisi sort" that "nudges the hip reader on page after page"; he also charged that Rushdie's books "pour by in a sparkling, voracious onrush, each wave topped with foam, each paragraph luxurious and delicious, but the net effect perilously close to stultification. His prose hops with dropped names, compulsive puns, learned allusions, winks at the reader, and repeated bows to popular culture. His plots proceed by verbal connection and elaboration as much as by character interaction." We'll have to call this round a draw.

Friday Night Lights (NBC).If the reviews are any indication, tonight's debut of the TV version of Peter Berg's 2004 movie of the same name (which was based on H.G. Bissinger's book of the same name, about high-school football in Texas) is a make-or-break proposition for NBC, currently languishing in the ratings race. Lights has the potential to be "not just television great, but great in the way of a poem or painting, great in the way of art with a single obsessive creator who doesn't have to consult with a committee and has months or years to go back and agonize over line breaks and the color red," Virginia Heffernan effuses in the New York Times. "You've seen it all before, but Berg's sharp powers of observation and a talented and very pretty young cast … keep it fresh," writes Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald. "You don't have to be a football fan to fall in love with this series," Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic Melanie McFarland concludes sunnily. One of the few discordant notes is sounded by the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jonathan Storm, who calls Lights a "standard high school sports soap opera." As the Field Turns, perhaps.

The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, by David Kamp (Broadway). A.O. Scott jumps from his comfortable perch in the New York Times film pages to the front page of the Book Review, assessing Kamp's "lively, smart, horrendously titled new book" about the shifts in the American palate in the postwar years, first at the hands of James Beard, Julia Child, and Craig Claiborne, and later in the kitchens of Alice Waters, Mario Batali, Thomas Keller, and the like. "Without quite saying so—and with admirable lightness of touch for just that reason—Kamp uses food to suggest a broader history, a tale of tastes and trends embedded in the grand epic of American consumer capitalism," Scott proclaims grandly, though he takes Kamp to task for being "pretty content with Whole Foods and Starbucks and the ubiquity of mesclun." Never mind the incongruity of free-range chicken nuggets; this is "a page-turner filled with fascinating footnotes, delicious dish about bold-faced names and an in-depth look at the ways in which a series of food pioneers touched off a revolution," Linda Castellitto gushes in USA Today. Some foodies are less than impressed, however. "A pretty flat account praised (on the dust jacket) by yupscale restaurant heavies," sniffs poster Gary Soup on the Chowhound message boards. Let the endive wars begin! (BuyThe United States of Arugula.)