The critical buzz on Zodiac and Black Snake Moan.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
March 2 2007 1:38 PM

Mystery Unsolved

The critical buzz on Zodiac and Black Snake Moan.

Zodiac.
Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr. in Zodiac

Zodiac (Paramount). The so-called Zodiac killings—which took place in San Francisco in the 1960s—have never been solved, and director David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) doesn't provide a Hollywood ending either. Newsweek's David Ansen notes that he "boldly (and some may think perversely) withholds the emotional and forensic payoff we're conditioned to expect from a big studio movie," Nonetheless, many critics, Ansen included, seem to agree with the New York Times' Manohla Dargis that Fincher has created a "magnificently obsessive" film, one that is "at once sprawling and tightly constructed, opaque and meticulously detailed." A note of dissent is sounded by Stephen Hunter at the Washington Post, who gripes, "[W]ay, way too much of the film is guys sitting in a room talking about it over and over and over, waiting for a climax that never comes. The movie makes clear the agonizing reality that a manhunt is 99.9 percent talking and record-checking."CSI, we hardly knew ye. (Buy tickets to Zodiac.)

Black Snake Moan.
Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan

Black Snake Moan (Paramount). Hustle and Flow director Craig Brewer's latest is becoming known as the film in which Samuel L. Jackson chains a profoundly troubled, nymphomaniac Christina Ricci to a radiator—in order to save her, of course. Predictably, critics disagree on the effectiveness of this type of therapy. In New York magazine, David Edelstein writes that he "loved the picture's tabloid energy and heart. At bottom, Black Snake Moan is an old-fashioned feel-good, Sunday-schoolish kind of parable … " Still, he concedes, "Okay, it is pretty sexist." In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum sighs that the only way to enjoy the movie is to "[j]ump into the steamy B-movie, exploitation gospel pulp of it all." But Slate's Dana Stevens sees few redeeming qualities in Jackson's supposed exorcism of Ricci's demons: "Chaining someone to your radiator is wrong … Black Snake Moan appears to be—or, worse, pretends to be—oblivious to that simple fact. And that obliviousness makes all of the movie's supposed risk-taking seem more like exploitation." (Buy tickets to Black Snake Moan.)

Daniel Radcliffe
Daniel Radcliffe in Equus 

Equus (Gielgud Theatre, London). The fuss about this West End revival of Peter Shaffer's 1973 psychosexual mystery has nearly everything to do with its star, Daniel Radcliffe, better known for playing Harry Potter in the eponymous films. In this play, he's better known for getting buck-naked onstage. Harry Potter puns aside, critics are complimentary. The Guardian remarks, "Forget all the prurient press speculation about Harry Potter's private parts. The revelation of this revival is that Daniel Radcliffe really can act, proving that his screen appearances as JK Rowling's boy-hero are no flash in the magic pan." BBC News reports, "Boasting a well-toned physique and a compelling stage presence, Radcliffe quickly distances himself from his boy wizard alter-ego. Indeed, the overriding impression is of a gifted young actor casting off the shackles of a restrictive screen persona." And the Daily Telegraph echoes its peers, noting, "Radcliffe has come at the role with both seriousness of purpose and real talent."

Tyra Banks.
Tyra Banks of America's Next Top Model
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America's Next Top Model (The CW, 8 p.m. ET). The eighth season of Tyra Banks' high-camp reality competition kicks off Wednesday night, and critics finally seem to be tired of the formula. The New York Daily News sighs that the "runway and photography challenges are still interesting—especially an issues-oriented photo shoot and a rapid-fire shopping spree at Goodwill—but not very dramatic." But perhaps that's beside the point. While several reviewers complain that the show has failed in its promise to produce major new talent, it has created one superstar: its host. As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer points out, the show "continues to be the top-rated series on The CW because for young girls everywhere, it is the equivalent of Sunday service in the Church of Tyra."

Everyman, Philip Roth

Philip Roth. On Monday, Roth became the first writer to win the PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction three times when he received the prize for Everyman, a novel chronicling the deterioration and eventual death of its protagonist. Published last spring, the book was a critical smash. Nadine Gordimer wrote in the New York Times Book Review, "One comes away from the strong political overtones in Everyman with the open truth that subservience, sexual connotations aside, is a betrayal of human responsibility." One of the judges tells the Washington Post, "Roth has faced such terrifying truths absolutely straight, and made even this devastating material into a thing of beauty." Another judge comments to the AP, "Roth never looks away, never trivializes, never shrugs. He manages to wrestle with grief, the immensity of losing self." Losing out to Roth were runners-up Charles D'Ambrosio for The Dead Fish Museum, Deborah Eisenberg for Twilight of the Superheroes, Amy Hempel for The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, and Edward P. Jones for All Aunt Hagar's Children. (Buy Everyman.)

Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet

Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet (Pantheon). Mamet's new book of essays is subtitled "On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business," and it's in many ways a diagnosis and prescription for what's wrong with Hollywood today. In the New York Times Book Review, Slate contributor Walter Kirn remarks, "Since so many of Mamet's beefs with Hollywood are familiar and indisputable … one suspects that his interest in restating them is technical, aesthetic." The San Francisco Chronicle concludes that the book "is funny and angry and intemperate and passionate enough to tell the truth about movies and the desires that go into our making and loving (very, very few of) them." That's probably due, at least in part, to Mamet's prose style, which the Los Angeles Times' Maria Russo characterizes as "an odd—and oddly appealing—combination of wintry New England headmaster and former Chicago street-punk who's been stabbed and shot, but won the ensuing fistfight." (Buy Bambi vs. Godzilla.)

Martin Scorsese.
Martin Scorsese 

The Oscars. No one in Hollywood seems to begrudge Martin Scorsese his first-ever award, for Best Director, as David Carr muses on his Carpetbagger blog on the New York Times Web site: "Who among us can say with a straight face that Martin Scorsese did not deserve an Oscar, or, as luck would have it, a couple of them?"The Departed snagged best picture as well, and LA Weekly's Nikki Finke approved of the academy's decision in her Deadline Hollywood blog: "[T]he Oscars weren't sending a message, political or otherwise. They simply went with the best picture, which happened to be a gangster tale this year." Critics were pleased if unsurprised when Dreamgirls'Jennifer Hudson won best supporting actress—the "Cinderella story of this year's Oscars," as her hometown Chicago Tribune put it. But the nearly four-hour broadcast, and all its bells and whistles, exhausted some viewers. Los Angeles Times blog the Envelope gripes that, "[I]t felt more like we'd just watched a PBS pledge drive, not the 79th annual Oscar ceremony."

The Astronaut Farmer (Warner Bros.). Billy Bob Thornton plays a former NASA astronaut trainee turned rancher (last name: Farmer) who builds a spaceship in his backyard. Cheerful bromides about individualism and American gumption ensue, and some critics are charmed. In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum reflects, "Now might not be the ideal time to release a movie about an astronaut with an obsession, but Charlie's madness is far grander than any ho-hum NASA employee meltdown." In the New York Times, A.O. Scott notes that a different actor in the lead role (he names Kevin Costner) could have turned this film into an overly treacly mess, but Thornton "can be relied upon for understated dignity accompanied by an intriguing undertone of serious craziness." Other critics see a darker side to Farmer's fantasies. The Chicago Reader connects the film to the war in Iraq, warning, "The value of his dream and its potential for destruction are irrelevant. Refusing to accept defeat is all that matters—at least if you're the designated good guy." (Buy tickets to The Astronaut Farmer.)

Doree Shafrir is the executive editor at Buzzfeed.

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