The critical buzz on Ratatouille and Evening.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
June 29 2007 12:56 PM

Rat Power

The critical buzz on Ratatouille and Evening.

Ratatouille: C'est magnifique! Click image to expand.
Ratatouille: C'est magnifique!

Ratatouille (Disney/Pixar). Peter O'Toole voices a merciless restaurant critic in this rats-in-the-kitchen tale; perhaps shamed by the character's ruthlessness, reviewers are unrestrained in their admiration. The New York Times' A.O. Scott calls the CGI spectacular "a nearly flawless piece of popular art"—and concludes his review with a phrase little seen in the arts pages: "[T]hank you." As expected, Pixar's animation dazzles. Variety writes, "The entire production is a captivating visual delight, as the fluid shifts between human and rodent perspective, and the camera's sensitivity to different gradations of light and color, are nothing short of stunning." Critics also heap praise on director Brad Bird, whose earlier credits include The Iron Giant and Pixar's blockbuster The Incredibles. New York's David Edelstein puts him "somewhere between Chuck Jones and Michelangelo." Click here for an Los Angeles Times interview with the maestro; Slate has a video slide show on Brad Bird's career. (Buy tickets to Ratatouille.)—June 29

Evening. Click image to expand.
Evening

Evening (Focus Features). Critics pan this drama about an old woman's deathbed reminiscences of lost love and a life lived in regret, despite its strong cast and serious literary pedigree. Evening is based on the acclaimed novel by Susan Minot, and co-written by Minot and The Hours author Michael Cunningham. But the movie—which The New Yorker's David Denby derides as "too complicated and fussy"—shows that "not every book deserves its own film," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "Evening is not about sickness and dreadful death. It's about how some words that pass muster on the page can sound terribly precious coming out of a real person's mouth." In the Los Angeles Times, Carina Chocano criticizes Cunningham for introducing a new psychosexual story line "that echoes themes from his own work, but doesn't do the movie any favors." Minot and Cunningham's collaboration was one-sided but not acrimonious; click here for a New York Times story on the writing process. (Buy tickets to Evening.)—June 29

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Manhunt 2 (Rockstar Games). Gamers will have to keep waiting for the latest ultraviolent offering from the outfit behind the Grand Theft Auto franchise; the publisher has suspended distribution following an outright ban in the United Kingdom and Ireland and an unprecedented "Adults Only" rating in the United States. Expect a tamer version later in the year. A taste of what you're missing: IGN.com proclaims (approvingly) that "no game we have ever played or seen is as over-the-top violent or downright gross as this action-stealth splatter fest. … [I]n Manhunt 2 you can, Wii remote and nunchuk in hands, use a pair of pliers to clamp onto an enemy's testicles and literally tear them from his body in a bloody display." The New York Times buys the publisher's argument that Manhunt is no more violent than horror films: "Side by side … movies seem to be way ahead of games in delivering top-notch gore." The Boston Globe notes that video-game watchdogs are fretting about the increased interactivity offered by the Wii, but Britain's Guardian admonishes readers to resist seeing the game as a sign of the times: "Rockstar's idea of cool ultraviolence belongs in another era when publishers really did think like—and aim their products exclusively at—teenage boys." Most interesting is the staggeringly long dialogue between Newsweek's N'Gai Croal and MTV News' Stephen Totilo, who played through a lot of the game together. Example: Totilo asks, "Who are we when we game? What kind of people does the Wii reveal us to be? … Worthy of censor or not, who does Manhunt 2, at least momentarily, make us?" Read the three- part dialogue.—June 28

iPhone. Click image to expand.
iPhone

Apple's iPhone. Geeks are camping in the streets to be first in line for the long-awaited gadget, which goes on sale Friday afternoon; meanwhile, the first detailed product reviews suggest the iPhone may actually be worth the wait. The Wall Street Journal's Walter Mossberg, dean of American tech critics, gives the device his blessing in a review written with Katherine Boehret: "We have been testing the iPhone for two weeks, in multiple usage scenarios, in cities across the country. Our verdict is that, despite some flaws and feature omissions, the iPhone is, on balance, a beautiful and breakthrough handheld computer."Newsweek's Apple-partisan Steven Levy agrees: "[O]ne of the most hyped consumer products ever comes pretty close to justifying the bombast." And USA Today's Edward C. Baig backs them up: "After months of hype, Apple has delivered a prodigy —a slender fashion phone, a slick iPod and an Internet experience unlike any before it on a mobile handset." Of the various concerns iPhone watchers have expressed—battery life, typing on the touch screen, etc.—the most serious problem seems to be sole-carrier AT&T's network. In a positive review, the New York Times' David Pogue complains about Web browsing when WiFi is unavailable: "[Y]ou have to use AT&T's ancient EDGE cellular network, which is excruciatingly slow. The New York Times's home page takes 55 seconds to appear; Amazon.com, 100 seconds; Yahoo, two minutes. You almost ache for a dial-up modem." About voice calls, he snipes, "If Verizon's slogan is, 'Can you hear me now?' AT&T's should be, 'I'm losing you.' "—June 27

My December by Kelly Clarkson.

My December, Kelly Clarkson (RCA Records). The American Idol winner and pop diva recently broke with RCA chief and Breakaway producer Clive Davis in a battle for creative control, and had to cancel her summer tour because ticket sales were slow—and critics are having a hard time focusing on the music. In the Los Angeles Times, Ann Powers writes, "My December is unlistenable in the sense that nobody can really hear it. Sometimes this happens to a work of art: The din around it from a controversy renders the thing itself mute." To the extent that they weigh in on the songs, reviews are mixed. Entertainment Weekly's Chris Willman likes the album—which he calls "the boldest and best effort ever by an Idol star"—but he concedes, "That's not to say that Davis was off his rocker when he purportedly didn't hear a hit." The New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh sniffs that the album is "not very good … Everyone's rooting for Ms. Clarkson, but that's no guarantee she'll win." (Buy My December)—June 27

The Mix-Up, Beastie Boys.

The Mix-Up, Beastie Boys (Capitol). The new album from the hip-hop stalwarts is … all instrumental, and critics are underwhelmed. The New York Times concedes the group has recorded some pleasant summer background music, but complains, "They're riffing on the same retro grooves that might, on another album, serve as samples; you could call them the Uncredible Bongo Band." In EW, Douglas Wolk adds,"[T]hey don't quite have the rhythmic mojo of the circa-1970 obscurities they're imitating here, and many tracks … fail to develop into actual tunes. Who'd have guessed that a Beastie Boys record could be too subtle?" And Pitchfork argues that "[i]t's every instrumental rock record's responsibility to come off as more than just a collection of studio jam sessions, and that's where The Mix-Up ultimately fails." Nobody seems mad about the album, though. As PopMatters puts it: "So now they're taking a break." But no one can resist a few zingers, either. In a charitable review for Rolling Stone, Rob Sheffield snipes, "Mike D still drums like Meg White's dad." (Buy The Mix-Up)—June 26 

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.

Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson (Graywolf Press). The little-known Norwegian novelist's latest attracted scant critical attention in the United States before it won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award —a 100,000 euro purse—earlier this month, beating out works by J.M. Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy, and Salman Rushdie. But times change. Novelist Thomas McGuane reviewed the book, which follows an old man's retreat into the solitude of the northern country, on the cover of last weekend's New York Times Book Review. He particularly admires "the ingenuity of the narrative," and proclaims: "A fairly short novel with a timescape of half a century that seems to have left out nothing important is a bit of a miracle." The New York Sun compares Petterson to Marilynne Robinson, writing that "[he] has something like her talent for scene setting and chronological collage," and noting his "tempered, minor-key retrospection." Scoring an early capsule review last month, Entertainment Weekly gave Horses an A, also praising its narrative dexterity but concluding, "the real trick is in the way everything finally, neatly converges into an emotional jolt." (Buy Out Stealing Horses.)—June 26

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard.

The Maytrees, Annie Dillard (HarperCollins). Best known for her nature writing, Dillard fills her second novel—which follows the marriage of two bohemian types living in Cape Cod, Mass., after World War II—with careful attention to the details of both love and landscape. Most critics are ecstatic. Writing the cover review for Washington Post Book World, novelist Marilynne Robinson raves: "When we see through [the protagonist's] eyes, it is as if the objects of her attention lift off the page. Her awareness invests the world with dimensionality and presence, summoning a sharp sense of the ontological strangeness of creation and the mystery of our place in it." And the New York Times argues, "Though the plot moves smartly, the Maytrees' internal journeys are the main attraction. … [Dillard] is often looking at the cosmos when she appears to be writing about horseshoe crabs, seals or even feral children." But the book should appeal to more than just the philosophically inclined. The Los Angeles Times sighs, "Every so often, a novel comes along that describes a relationship with such thoroughness that you almost feel better about love." As USA Today puts it, "Forget the trashy paperbacks. Maytrees is the perfect beach book for the serious reader." (Buy The Maytrees.)— June 25

Blake Wilson is a Slate contributor and former Slate editor.

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