The critical buzz on The Brave One and In the Valley of Elah.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 14 2007 4:39 PM

Yuppie-sploitation

The critical buzz on The Brave One and In the Valley of Elah.

The Brave One
Zoe Kravitz, Jodie Foster, and Victor Colicchio in The Brave One

The Brave One (Warner Bros.). Jodie Foster's top-flight performance as a softie, liberal public radio host turned stone-cold vigilante killer lends a touch of class to this "upscale revenge drama" (the Onion A.V. Club). The Los Angeles Times isn't alone in seeing a contradiction in terms: a movie "trapped in a no man's land between seriousness and pulp trash." But most critics think it works—reprehensible or no. Despite himself, the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter gives in: "You may hate yourself for yielding to the expertise of the manipulation, but the vicarious thrill of 'The Brave One' is the sense of pulling your own trigger on pure evil and watching the bullet tear through." And at least Scott Foundas, in the Village Voice, thinks that mechanism—turning liberals against their better instincts—makes this an important movie: "more worth writing, talking, and thinking about than anything that has tumbled off the Hollywood assembly line in a good long while." (Buy tickets to The Brave One. Read Eric Lichtenfeld's Slate piece on vigilante movies.)— Sept. 14

In the Valley of Elah
In the Valley of Elah

In the Valley of Elah (Warner Independent). Crash director Paul Haggis tackles the hidden costs of the war in this spare mystery, which follows a retiree's investigation of the murder of his son, a soldier just returned from Iraq. Most critics endorse the movie for its message, and Owen Gleiberman gives it a straight "A" rave in Entertainment Weekly, calling it "a lacerating, bone-deep inquiry into the war." David Edelstein sums up the picture's flaws in New York: "As a narrative, it's clunky. As a whodunit, it's third-rate. As the drama of a closed-off man's awakening, it's predictable." But that's the windup to a quite positive review. Tommy Lee Jones, the lead, wins high praise all around. The New York Times' A.O. Scott writes, "[T]here is something inarguable, something irreducibly honest and right, about Mr. Jones's performance."Variety has a dissenting take, calling it another in "a line of recent movies … that fail to capture the realities of war experience and familial angst beyond basic truisms and pictorial surfaces." (Buy tickets to In the Valley of Elah. Read Dana Stevens'review of In the Valley of Elah in Slate.)—Sept. 14

Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates, Kenny Chesney

Just Who I Am: Poets and Pirates, Kenny Chesney (RCA). Nearly everyone weighing in on the Kanye West/50 Cent showdown (see below) suggested that this party-boy country superstar might beat them both in sales. Probably not, but know this: Chesney is a chart-topping, stadium-filling commercial powerhouse. Just Who I Am is a push into new territory—more rueful reflection than rum-swilling or girl-chasing—and critics aren't quite sure he's ready for it. Entertainment Weekly thinks he is: "[T]he tentative maturity that threads its way through Just Who I Am reveals an artist ready and able to try something deeper." And PopMatters, in a sort of hipster's guide to Chesney, endorses his new sentimentality: "[I]t's actually rather touching if you let it be; if you can suspend the snark long enough to enjoy a line like 'when your hourglass runs out of sand / you can't flip it over and start again.' " But the Philadelphia Inquirer calls Chesney a "perennial lightweight" and pooh-poohs the whole thing: "The Tennessee native continues to fall flat when he tries to be serious and introspective." (Buy Just Who I Am. Visit Kenny Chesney's MySpace.)— Sept. 13

Kanye vs. 50.
Kanye West and 50 Cent

Kanye vs. 50. It looks like Kanye West will triumph in his album-release battle with 50 Cent. Both rappers dropped new discs Tuesday, and early sales reports as well as Rolling Stone's record store exit poll point to West. Either way, as New York magazine's Vulture blog points out, Universal Music cleans up. And in the Village Voice, a provocative-if-befuddling essay from Greg Tate considers what the matchup suggests about the progress of black culture. A sample: "Mr. West and Mr. Cent may indeed be assholes, but they're symbolic assholes who remind us that American Darwinism has produced a species of Negro Male who can now exploit his fetishized vernacular aura as profitably as multinational corporations can the minerals in your whole damn ancestral homeland."—Sept. 12

Graduation, Kanye West

Graduation, Kanye West (Roc-A-Fella). On the whole, critics think West has the better disc—very dynamic, if not quite revolutionary. Stylus writes, "Musically, at least, it's the most accomplished thing he's ever done."Rolling Stone adds: "West tries hard to address the problems on his first two albums, and succeeds: The new disc is tighter than Late Registration." And Pitchfork sighs: "[H]e might actually deserve the legendary status he constantly ascribes to himself."Entertainment Weekly's Neil Drumming is less keen. He admires West's efforts to improve his vocal talents—but think he's lost sight of his real gift: "Sadly, Graduation doesn't quite establish West as the supreme double threat he dreams of being ... Maybe Kanye West the producer and Kanye West the rapper should stop competing and look out for each other a little better." (Buy Graduation. Visit Kanye West's MySpace.)—Sept. 12

Curtis, 50 Cent

Curtis, 50 Cent (Aftermath). Reviews are a little cooler for this album, excepting the New York Post's full-throated endorsement: The tabloid calls Curtis"a timeless artistic achievement that transcends a petty mine-is-bigger-than-yours feud and elevates gangsta rap out of the ghetto of novelty music." Others think it's fine—good, even—but devoid of surprises. PopMatters makes a typical pronouncement: "[T]here isn't much on Curtis to love. Which isn't to say to say that this is a bad album. It isn't. It's a solidly above-average rap record." The Washington Post agrees: "On Curtis, 50 Cent is a rapper in perfect form, at the top of his game, playing flawlessly, without inspiration." Also: A Los Angeles Times profile of 50 Cent as a would-be underdog, battling with his label … and himself. (Buy Curtis. Visit 50 Cent's MySpace.)—Sept. 12

Tell Me You Love Me.
Adam Scott and Sonya Walger in HBO's Tell Me You Love Me

Tell Me You Love Me (HBO, Sundays at 9 p.m.). The pre-release buzz for this new drama was all about the sex—more graphic than in any other American TV show—but it turns out the program is really about relationships. Comparisons to Ingmar Bergman are thick on the ground, and at its best the show "absolutely pinpoints marital decay" (Entertainment Weekly). Many critics like the show, which follows the private lives of three unhappy couples, but even boosters like LA Weekly concede that its uncomfortable subject is "something you ultimately have to steel yourself for in a weekly series." Others scorn the show's cheerless and sometimes shopworn insights. The Los Angeles Times dismisses the conceit as "three couples up to their elbows in narcissism, contemplating the various crises of their white, middle-class lives."Salon loathes the characters and doesn't find any relief in their steamy couplings "[I]t's gross, because I hate them." (Read Troy Patterson's review of Tell Me You Love Me in Slate.)—Sept. 11

Britney Spears.
Britney Spears

MTV Video Music Awards. The big news from last night's awards show is Britney Spears' disastrously botched comeback performance of her new single "Gimme More." A merciless New York Post writes that "she danced like she had a pantload"; gossip blog Idolator helpfully digests other critics' abuse. More stars competed for headlines with their own bad behavior: Sarah Silverman trashed Spears in her monologue, and Pamela Anderson exes Kid Rock and Tommy Lee came to blows. MTV shook up the format this year, handing out only 11 awards (Justin Timberlake took four; Rihanna grabbed two for "Umbrella"). Instead, the show focused on performances, many of which were informally staged in hotel "fantasy suites" at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. Viewers only got glimpses of much of this, the idea being that MTV can repurpose the footage later for the Web. But the Boston Globe disliked the "frenetic pace," complaining: "Can't we just watch?" Related: The New York Times' Virginia Heffernan ponders MTV's future. (Watch a Web stream of the VMA acts. Read Rolling Stone's VMA live blog.)—Sept. 10

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