The critical buzz on Stardust and Rocket Science.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 10 2007 2:06 PM

New Movies for Nerds

The critical buzz on Stardust and Rocket Science.

Stardust.
Clair Danes in Stardust

Stardust (Paramount). Most critics enjoy—but stop short of respecting—this sprawling fantasy flick based on the illustrated novel by Neil Gaiman. The Washington Post smirks that its "combination of whimsy and gothic melodrama seems to have been cobbled together from focus groups held at Comic-Con and Renaissance fairs." Which is also to say, as Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman—among others—does: "It's the closest the movies have come in a while to the nudgy, knowing fairy-tale enchantment of The Princess Bride." The overstuffed story involves Claire Danes as a sort of fallen angel, Michelle Pfeiffer as a wicked witch, and a lot of CGI. Reviews are split on whether Robert DeNiro's turn as a cross-dressing pirate is an infantile distraction or a brilliant raspberry to Johnny Depp's Captain Sparrow. The New York Times' Stephen Holden plays it safe: It's "either a piece of inspired madcap fun or an excruciating embarrassment." (Buy tickets to Stardust.)— Aug. 10

Rocket Science.
Reece Thompson and Anna Kendrick in Rocket Science

Rocket Science (Picturehouse). This twee comedy about high-school debate and adolescent awkwardness from Spellbound director Jeffrey Blitz just might be the next indie crossover hit. Jim Ridley's amusing review in the Village Voice reflects his ambivalence about the genre: "Rocket Science is yet another Eagle vs. Little Miss Napoleon Dynamite quirk fest that practically frames its characters in cartoon panels"—but then again, he really admires its honest take on the misery of high school. Premiere is bully on the film and its director, writing that "Rocket Science might prove to be the handiwork of a burgeoning cinematic genius." The movie came out of Sundance last winter with rave reviews, including Variety's stacking it up against the 1999 hit Election: "Blitz's film is ultimately a sweeter, more heartfelt picture." (Buy tickets to Rocket Science.)—Aug. 10

Daddy Day Camp
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Daddy Day Camp (Sony). The 2003 kids' comedy Daddy Day Care starred Eddie Murphy and cleared more than $100 million at the box office. This sequel stars Cuba Gooding Jr. and critics are exacting brutal revenge for enduring 89 minutes of clichéd potty humor. The Washington Post writes, "it's gotten to the point where Gooding's presence on a marquee practically guarantees we'll be bashing our heads against the seat in front of us."Variety is little kinder to the film's rookie director: "Some former child stars have been known to overdose on drugs, get busted for carrying guns, pose nude for Playboy and appear on late-night infomercials. Fred Savage has directed 'Daddy Day Camp.'" Puzzlingly, the New York Times thinks the movie is all about martial values, calling it "a recruiting poster for kids."USA Today is probably closer to the mark: It's just the "antithesis of summer fun." (Buy tickets to Daddy Day Camp.)—Aug. 9

The Septembers of Shiraz

The Septembers of Shiraz, by Dalia Sofer (Ecco). Don't be fooled by the godawful title; early critics are rooting for this serious debut novel about the trials of a wealthy family following the Iranian Revolution. Novelist Claire Messud praises the book highly in the New York Times Book Review, calling it "miraculously light in its touch, as beautiful and delicate as a book about suffering can be." The Wall Street Journal emphasizes that "the novel is political only in part. If it can be said to be about anything, it is about tenderness within families: its preciousness, its fragility and its persistence." Nor are its politics simple. The action centers around the imprisonment and torture of the family's father, an innocent man. But, as the Christian Science Monitor writes, "Sofer paints a complicated picture of postrevolutionary Iran: The Amins (and especially their relatives) aren't entirely innocent, having shut their eyes to brutality and corruption under the shah." (Buy The Septembers of Shiraz. Read the first chapter at NYTimes.com.)—Aug. 9

James Wood. Congratulate TheNew Yorker on poaching the book critic away from the New Republic. The New York Times quotes Wood's longtime editor Leon Wieseltier's response: "The New Republic plays many significant roles in American culture, and one of them is to find and to develop writers with whom The New Yorker can eventually staff itself." Read the full article and Wood's contributions to TNR.—Aug. 9

Spook Country

Spook Country, by William Gibson (Putnam). Art, commerce, and surveillance converge in this dark novel about our paranoid post-9/11 times, which critics are praising highly in—alas—largely incoherent reviews. A New Yorker squib captures the major narrative threads as well as anyone: "The convoluted and politically insistent plot involves a missing shipping container, a former rock star, a Cuban-Chinese crime-facilitating family, and an Ativan addict coerced into domestic espionage." But as Bill Sheehan writes in the Washington Post, "Despite a full complement of thieves, pushers and pirates, Spook Country is less a conventional thriller than a devastatingly precise reflection of the American zeitgeist, and it bears comparison to the best work of Don DeLillo." And the Los Angeles Times praises Gibson's craft: "[F]ew authors equal Gibson's gift for the terse yet poetic description, the quotable simile—people and products are nailed down with a beautiful precision approximating the platonic ideal of the catalog." Bonus: Britain's Times has a dispatch from a Gibson book reading in … Second Life. (Buy Spook Country.)— Aug. 8

The Stage Names by Okkervil River.

The Stage Names, Okkervil River (Jagjaguwar). This veteran Austin indie act follows up its 2005 hit Black Sheep Boy with some self-indulgence: an album about the sorrows and joys of a life on tour. Surprisingly, it's great. Seattle's Stranger writes, "[Songwriter Will] Sheff has mustered the confidence to indulge virtually every fat-headed cliché of the newly successful rock musician. … With all that's stacked up against it then, it's particularly impressive that Sheff and Co. succeed on nearly all counts." Pitchfork agrees: The Stage Names is "about the folly of popular music and its attendant lifestyles, but these songs are so good and so moving that they only give us stupid, stubborn hope." And lyrics aside, the band sound fantastic. Filter calls the music "[w]ildly alive, majestic and by turns brooding and raucous." (Buy The Stage Names. Visit the band's MySpace.)— Aug. 7

Lonelygirl15 Season Finale. Click image to expand.

RIP Lonelygirl15. Religious cultists killed Bree, the star of the YouTube hoax-turned-Web soap, in its 12-part season finale, which posted Friday. The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan, long captivated by the character, sighs, "The first full-fledged online-video series moved fast, and worked well, and it was the beginning of something." The Washington Post elaborates: "Her digital life was proof that Internet audiences hunger for more than unscripted animal tricks, comedy shorts and music videos. It was through Lonelygirl15, in part, that we explored the question: What's 'real' on the Web and does it even matter to those watching?" Fans can follow actress Jessica Lee Rose to her new gigs in TV and film; the series itself will continue in a second season, beginning Monday, following other characters. And the producers have rolled out a new Web program, KateModern, hosted on the social-networking site Bebo.com. Kate's a lonely British art student, but the show seems to be all about product placement. Britain's Times and Independent spill the beans on Bebo's money chase.—Aug. 6

Johnny Marr performs with Modest Mouse at Lollapalooza. Click image to expand.
Johnny Marr, former guitarist for the Smiths, performs with Modest Mouse at Lollapalooza

Lollapalooza 2007. Some 130 indie acts and old favorites like Patti Smith crowded the three-day Chicago festival's nine stages, playing to as many as 160,000 people. Pearl Jam headlined a blockbuster Sunday lineup, but Iggy Pop, playing with his Stooges, stole the show. Rolling Stone writes, "Pop might be sixty years old but he's still pure animal, a sinewy banshee of a frontman better than a majority of artists two-thirds his age." Midway through his set, he beckoned hundreds of fans onto the stage to dance to a riotous "No Fun." Reuters gets the money quote: " 'It'll go down in Lollapalooza history,' said Layne Eckensberger, 12." Critics call the resurrected Lollapalooza, now in its third year, a success—though they're a bit sour about its new corporate overlords, Austin concert promoters C3. The Chicago Tribune calls the event "in many ways the embodiment of the new corporate festival, where everything's a brand and has a sign and a slogan to prove it." (Read Pitchfork's coverage of the smaller acts. Read Time Out Chicago's Lollapalooza blog.)—Aug. 6

Blake Wilson is a Slate contributor and former Slate editor.

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