The critical buzz on the haute couture collections and License To Wed.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 6 2007 2:09 PM

Say "I Don't" to License To Wed

The critical buzz on Mandy Moore's new movie and the haute couture collections.

License To Wed
License To Wed

License To Wed (Warner Bros.). Critics hate this romantic comedy in which a priest, played by Robin Williams, puts a dumb-and-ordinary couple through a three-week gauntlet to test their love before he'll marry them. In the Boston Globe, Wesley Morris writes, "This is the sort of lobotomized, condescendingly lazy movie that leaves you resentful of Hollywood." Though some reviews excoriate Williams more in sorrow than anger, all find his character unaccountably and unforgivably creepy and sadistic. Salon is furious about the film's "contrived insistence that this pop-psychology-spouting, bedroom-spying pastor knows what the couple needs better than they themselves do. Just do what the man in the collar says, it suggests, and it'll be all right. It's an offensive idea, one we get enough of in real life." A.O. Scott puts a finer point on it in the New York Times, writing, "[ License To Wed ] is only the latest attempt by a Hollywood studio to pander to prurience and piety in a single gesture, and to avoid giving offense by treating all possible factions of the public equally, which is to say like idiots." (Buy tickets to License To Wed.)—July 6

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Haute couture in Paris

Haute Couture Collections. Fashion houses present their fall couture collections in Paris and Rome this week and celebrate two significant birthdays: Dior's 60th anniversary and Valentino's 45th. The Guardian explains that the rival fêtes "represent the two faces of haute couture: the modern interpretation, represented by the flamboyant John Galliano for Christian Dior, versus the traditional incarnation, as embodied by the smooth, perma-tanned Valentino." In fact, Galliano presented a nostalgic collection—while throwing a ball for 3,000 at Versailles. Valentino's three-day extravaganza kicks off Friday and will center on a formal ball at the Villa Borghese. But critics wonder if the over-the-top parties and clothes are really something of a swan song. In the New York Times, Cathy Horn explains that couture has been reduced to being a part of the megabrands' marketing efforts: "[E]veryone knows that couture is an elaborate marketing tool. Profit is beside the point and given that Dior can spend $2 million on a show—before you add gypsies, fire eaters and caterers—it isn't even remotely attainable." Click here for photos and reviews of the individual shows on Style.com.—July 6

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Premature Evaluations. Of note: The New York Times' David Halbfinger reports that more and more publications are jumping the gun and running movie reviews early, violating the "old gentleman's agreement" that they be held for opening day. Ungentlemanly bloggers—and an arms race between the New York Post and New York Daily News—are apparently the principal culprits, with everyone else playing catch-up. So far, the Post's Lou Lumenick has responded, pointing out that the Times tends to publish dramatically early reviews as well, writing on films screened at festivals months before their theatrical releases. "But somehow my own trip to London to catch 'Spider-Man 3'' is newsworthy," he kvetches, "because I work for a tabloid"—then speculates, "[P]erhaps this is just the Gray Lady's typically circuitous way of letting its impatient readers know that less-than-stellar reviews of 'Harry Potter' are available out there."—July 6

Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn 
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Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in Rescue Dawn

Rescue Dawn (MGM). Iconoclastic German documentarian Werner Herzog's new movie is a big-studio POW escape adventure starring Christian Bale. The picture opened on the Fourth of July in Los Angeles, New York, and … Camp Anaconda, Iraq. What's that about? Critics are quick to note that Herzog made a documentary feature about Rescue Dawn's real-life protagonist back in 1997, and that the emotional terrain of this new film is a snug fit with the director's oeuvre. The New York Observer explains: "[W]hile it is an exceptionally well-made genre film, polished enough to make a killing in both art houses and shopping-mall multiplexes, it honors the classic Herzog theme of idealistic man versus predatory Mother Nature in a battle to achieve impossible goals." And most reviewers think it succeeds on both registers. The Los Angeles Times' Carina Chocano writes, "Aside from a riveting adventure story that Herzog tells in all of its terrifying, stripped-down simplicity, 'Rescue Dawn' is a fascinating study of human particularity." " 'Rescue Dawn' is likely to be a surprise summer hit," predicts Salon. "[T]his marvelously photographed, tautly constructed big-screen spectacle puts you through the emotional wringer and hauls you out the other side." Few critics feel much need to sniff at Herzog's Hollywood turn, but Variety does remark that "suspicions linger that he may have seen [ Rescue Dawn ] as a last-chance crack at making a bigger-budgeted, mainstream venture that could earn coin and backing for more unusual future projects." (Buy tickets to Rescue Dawn.)— July 5

Takeru Kobayashi, left, of Japan, and Joey Chestnut, right
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Takeru Kobayashi, left, of Japan, and Joey Chestnut, right

Nathan's Famous Hot-Dog Eating Contest. Joey Chestnut has reclaimed the "mustard belt" for the United States, defeating reigning champion Takeru Kobayashi of Japan and setting a new world record of 66 dogs in 12 minutes in this Coney Island, N.Y., Fourth of July competition. As always, reporters relish the relative freedom the event gives them to goof off in print. The Associated Press calls Chestnut "the great red, white and blue hope" and describes the early minutes of the battle in a detailed dispatch: "The two gastric gladiators quickly distanced themselves from the rest of the 17 competitors, processing more beef than a slaughterhouse within the first few minutes." Only slightly less breathlessly, the New York Times recounts that "[t]he outcome was unclear until the end, the rivals being neck and neck throughout the competition. After both men appeared to finish with 63 hot dogs eaten, the judges spent several minutes in a somewhat bizarre recount. To determine a winner, the judges counted the scraps left on the plates." Meanwhile, Fox Sports has the gall to raise an eyebrow at competitor ESPN for "play[ing] up the 'event' by giving it mock analysis during SportsCenter," mere moments after reporting that "Kobayashi was claiming an arthritic jaw injury. … Analysts thought it to be a ruse, which it was."— July 5

Still from Transformers. Click image to expand.
Transformers

Transformers (Paramount). Critics agree that Michael Bay's cars-and-robots extravaganza is poorly paced, formulaic, and at times nearly incomprehensible. They're divided, however, about whether this spoils the fun. Entertainment Weekly writes, "For anyone who grew up with the Hasbro action figures that first appeared in 1984 … it's a kiddie dream come true to groove on the heavy-duty sci-fi transformations." And Variety excuses the uninspired performances by admitting that "everyone involved knows the actors are mere props for Industrial Light & Magic's CGI team, which has put together an impressive show of the latest tech advances … the digital animation has never been better." But Manohla Dargis of the New York Times can't conceal her disgust with the film's crass red state ethos, noting, "The movie waves the flag equally for Detroit and the military, if to no coherent end. … American soldiers tearing it up in the Middle East while American cars keep up the fight at home, along with plugs for Burger King, Lockheed Martin, Mountain Dew and the Department of Defense." Also, a great catch from the New Yorker's Anthony Lane: "[A] passerby exclaims in the midst of the film, 'This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!' To be proud of your achievement is one thing, but to plant film critics inside your movie and review it favorably as you go along: that takes genius." (Buy tickets to Transformers. Read John Swansburg's appreciation of the original movie and Dana Stevens' review in Slate.)—July 3

Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass.

Peeling the Onion, by Günter Grass (Harcourt). The Nobel Prize-winning novelist famous for forcing Germany to reckon with its Nazi past created a scandal last year when he revealed that he had served in the elite Waffen SS during the war. Now that his memoir detailing that period is available in English, critics attempt their own reckoning. The Village Voice wants more answers, complaining that "the questions that burn in the reader's mind are barely addressed. Call Grass's teenage Nazism a forgivable crime; what about the coverup?" And the New York Times' William Grimes finds the book frustrating as memoir, calling it "a verbally dazzling but often infuriating piece of work, bristling with harsh self-criticism, murky evasions and coy revisions of a past that, Mr. Grass steadfastly insists, presents itself to his novelist's imagination as a parade of images and stories asking to be manipulated." Nonetheless, the Los Angeles Times is impressed with Grass' moral courage in simply publishing the book, which it also praises for its honesty: "Grass tries to coax his earlier self out of his past, and with this book, he is forging a memorial to that younger man. He is exposing him, expressing his shame and delivering his stories." Looking for a précis on the controversy? Click here for a New Yorker essay by Ian Buruma published last fall, which also praises the book as "a memoir of rare literary beauty." (Buy Peeling the Onion. Read Barbara Probst Solomon's review in Slate.)—July 3

A Russian Diary by Anna Politkovskaya.

A Russian Diary, by Anna Politkovskaya (Random House). The dissident journalist and human rights activist was putting the finishing touches on her chronicle of recent Russian political life when she was assassinated in Moscow last fall, and reviews repeat much of the praise recorded in her obituaries. According to Salon, "Anyone curious about why Russia's post-Soviet flirtation with democracy has been such an erratic affair will find Anna Politkovskaya's 'A Russian Diary'an indispensable tome." And Mother Jones writes that the book "depicts life in Vladimir Putin's Russia with some of the sweep of Tolstoy and a lot of the darkness of Dostoyevsky." But critics seem disappointed that the book offers little personal revelation. The Guardian notes: "This is not a conventional diary. … [Y]ou will not glean from it those intimate details of Politkovskaya's daily life that might make you feel you had got to know her." And the New York Times complains, "Oddly, for a journalist who never feared writing in the first person, she recedes here —even when she had a starring role in the events she is describing." "Nevertheless," as the English-language Moscow Times concludes in a somewhat-mixed review: " 'A Russian Diary' is an important book. … [It] provides a crucial record of the country's slide toward an isolated, angry reincarnation of its former Soviet self, seen through the eyes of a sensitive and perceptive observer." Read the first chapter at nytimes.com. (Buy A Russian Diary.)—July 2

Blake Wilson is a Slate contributor and former Slate editor.

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