The critical buzz on Superbad.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Aug. 17 2007 12:21 PM

Supergood

The critical buzz on Superbad.

Superbad (Sony). Last month, the New Yorker's David Denby lamented the state of romantic comedy, as epitomized by Judd Apatow's phallocentric Knocked Up. But this teen sex comedy, co-written by that film's star, Seth Rogen, and co-produced by Apatow, has him rethinking his position: "I recently wrote that I could happily do without any more movies devoted to the breaking of the male bond. Yet here's an uproarious and touching picture on that theme." Superbad follows two high-school nerds in their mock-epic quest to score booze and get laid. It's incredibly (incredibly!) obscene and, critics think, extremely hilarious. David Edelstein of New York magazine notes "a nonstop stream of F- and P- and D-words that would make David Mamet sit up and salute." But as the New York Times' Manohla Dargis writes, the film is attuned to "[t]he divide between what a man says … and how he really feels inside … no matter how unapologetically vulgar their words, no matter how single-mindedly priapic their preoccupations, these men and boys are good and decent and tender and true." In a phrase: Classic Apatow. (Read Dana Stevens' review of Superbadin Slate. Buy tickets to Superbad.)—Aug. 17

Trapped in the Closet, R. Kelly (Jive).The Independent Film Channel is posting 10 new episodes of R. Kelly's hip-hopera on its Web site—one each day. And the Byzantine bed-hopping saga is getting, if possible, weirder. The best commentary is at New York magazine's Web site, where performance artists Neal Medlyn and Kenny Mellman are blogging their responses to each chapter. Here's Mellman: "So, Jesus Christ. It's becoming some weird amalgamation of Philip Glass or John Adams and Tyler Perry's plays. The melody just keeps repeating, more so in this new episode than in the previous ones. There's still no recognizable hook!" Also, they love it. Actually, everyone does. Completely bizarre: Evan Shapiro, the suit at IFC who brought Trapped to the network, explains its significance at the Reeler Blog: "Trapped in the Closet challenges the traditional mores and sexual stereotypes of the current climate as boldly—and hysterically—as many films coming out of Hollywood or the indie movement." Confused? The New York Times fills in the background. (WatchTrapped in the Closet on IFC.com. Buy the new episodes on DVD. Check out "Weird Al" Yankovic's parody.)—Aug. 16

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Versatile Heart, Linda Thompson (Rounder). The folk legend's latest is a family album: a collaboration with her children Teddy and Kamila (musicians in their own right), and friends Rufus and Martha Wainwright. Billboard writes that "the new generation gives her vitality and a sense of renewed purpose." But the New York Daily News reassures readers, "All this ace support … never overshadows the album's centerpiece: Linda Thompson's voice, in all its understated, glowing glory." Which is also to say, critics who like acoustic folk like this album. Nobody thinks this is her best work, but as Paste writes, she's "the queen of bittersweet melancholy." (BuyVersatile Heart.)—Aug. 16

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman (Thomas Dunne). What would happen to the world—both natural and man-made—if human beings suddenly disappeared en masse? Veteran journalist Alan Weisman combines scientifically informed conjecture and original reporting to answer that question. The result is an environmental manifesto that's climbing the best-seller lists and fascinating critics. Gary Kamiya's insightful review for Salon explains the book's immediate appeal: It "taps into one of our deepest, if only furtively acknowledged, pleasures: imagining destruction." Though the New York Times' Janet Maslin finds it "a punishingly bleak picture," more critics take comfort in the ultimate triumph of resurgent nature. Business Week calls the book "a curiously optimistic vision of the apocalypse." The consensus view is that this thought experiment is smart packaging for an important message. But Michael Grunwald, writing for Washington Post Book World, doesn't think so: "Ultimately, The World Without Us is trivia masquerading as wisdom." (Buy The World Without Us. Visit its elaborate Web site.)—Aug. 15

High School Musical 2.

High School Musical 2 (Disney, Friday at 8 p.m.). Unexpectedly, the first High School Musical TV movie quickly grew into a bona-fide media empire worth a cool billion; among other things, its soundtrack was the best-selling album of 2006. So, can the sequel, due this week, live up to its fans'extremely high expectations? Things sound good for Disney. Entertainment Weekly writes of the soundtrack: "While this material won't upstage the Rodgers and Hammerstein legacy, it is on par with the previous soundtrack's sweet, crafty fun." The New York Times covers its ears—essentially ratifying the music's teen appeal: "Parents may be terrified to discover that the new CD is, if anything, even peppier and brassier than its predecessor." In an early review of the movie, Reuters admonishes adults to see the bright side of the franchise's relentlessly good nature: "Even with its eye-rolling plot and its McMusic, High School Musical 2, like the original, does well by doing good." Still don't believe HSM is a big deal? Check out star Zac Efron on the cover of Rolling Stone. (Buy the High School Musical 2 soundtrack. Read Marisa Meltzer's explanation of the High School Musical phenomenon in Slate.)— Aug. 14

Hey Hey My My Yo Yo by Junior Senior.

Hey Hey My My Yo Yo, Junior Senior (Rykodisc). After the success of their debut, D-D-Don't Stop the Beat, the Danish dance-music duo's second album has had an unusually long gestation: Originally released in Japan in 2005, it drops in the States only this week. But it's making a splash. PopMatters likes the music but doesn't think it has much commercial appeal: "This is the kind of Pop music with a capital 'P' that just doesn't go very far on supposed pop radio these days." But largely positive reviews in mainstream publications might suggest otherwise. The Boston Globe describes the sound as: "a goulash of '80s hip-hop, electro-pop, and shameless disco shaken in a rhinestone-studded tumbler, poured into Smurf-shaped highball glasses, and garnished with tiny paper parasols." (In case you aren't sure, that's a good thing.) The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones writes that their "darkest mood is probably 'psyched.' " Wonder what the in-crowd thought when they bootlegged the album way back when? Read Pitchfork's 7.9 review from 2005. (Buy Hey Hey My My Yo Yo. Visit Junior Senior's MySpace.)— Aug. 14

David Duchovny as Hank in Californication. Click image to expand.
David Duchovny in Californication

Californication (Showtime, Mondays at 10:30 pm). Critics like David Duchovny as the misanthropic novelist anti-hero of this new softcore sex comedy. What they think of the show largely depends on how they feel about its Curb Your Enthusiasm-meets-Red Shoe Diaries premise. The New York Sun's Brendan Bernhard writes: "Californication wants us to get on board with a guy who's having a dissolute, irresponsible blast, and frankly it does a damn good job of it."Salon's Heather Havrilesky concurs: "[M]aybe Californication is just another self-indulgent story told by yet another self-indulgent writer, but with so much sex, booze and mean-spiritedness in the air, it's hard not to enjoy all of it." But the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley doesn't bite: "Californication tries to poke fun at the hypocrisy and delusions of Hollywood, but it doesn't have enough wit or sense of place to be very convincing. Mostly the series comes off as male payback for Sex and the City, a series that often belittled men and treated them as sex objects." (Read Troy Patterson's review of Californication in Slate.)— Aug. 13

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

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