Highlights from the week in criticism.
July 30 1998 3:30 AM



Franklin Foer Franklin Foer

Franklin Foer is a Slate contributing editor and the author of World Without Mind.


The Modern Library's 100 Best English-Language Novels Since 1900. Centennial list-making kicks into high gear. Critics are predictably dismissive. Gripes: 1) It's a stunt to boost sales. 2) It's the handiwork of stodgy white males. 3) It celebrates impenetrable highbrow books, such as Joyce's Ulysses, which critics admit to never having read. 4) It includes forgotten middlebrow novels from the '30s and '40s at the expense of Pynchon, Morrison, Updike, "and almost every other contemporary novelist people actually read" (Louis Menand, The New Yorker). 5) A deluge of similarly ridiculous lists is imminent. (To see the full list, click here, and to hear the dead authors gab about the list, click here. Also "Culturebox" weighs in on the subject.)

Point of Origin, by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam). The best-selling novelist's eighth murder mystery about a female medical examiner, in as many years. Critics note it contains Cornwell's trademarks: vivid descriptions of autopsies, soft-porn sex scenes, over-caffeinated one-liners, and inchoate plots. It doesn't even live up to the minimal demands of "the beach-blanket potboiler" genre, says the Chicago Sun-Times' Henry Kisor. Noting the book's dedication to Barbara Bush, Slate's Sarah Kerr calls Cornwell a candidate for "today's leading conservative novelist."


Disturbing Behavior (MGM). The latest in a wash of Scream-bred teen horror flicks is roundly panned as a "disappointing adolescent thriller starring no one you ever heard of" (Michael O'Sullivan, the Washington Post). Despite a promising premise--high-school students are lobotomized into conformity by a guidance counselor and their parents--the film is said to be packed with clichés (faces in windows, hands on shoulders) and lacking either an ironic or a frightening touch. (See the official site.)


Pi (Live Entertainment). High praise for rookie director Darren Aronofsky's $60,000 thriller about the paranoid mind of a math genius: "a personal, visionary ... art film par excellence" (Todd McCarthy, Daily Variety). Critics like its dark humor and shadow-heavy style, deeming Aronofsky to be the "rare indie filmmaker who doesn't want to make hip romantic sitcoms" (Richard Corliss, Time). Not all are impressed: The New York Times' Stephen Holden calls the black-and-white hand-held camera style "awfully hard to watch." (Click here to read the diary of Pi star Sean Gullette. Here's the official Pi site.)

The Thief (Stratosphere). Critics applaud this anti-Soviet political allegory wrapped in a romantic drama, which is set in '50s Russia. A thief disguised as a soldier seduces a single mother and becomes a father figure for her 6-year-old son. Kudos for the film's Gogolesque characters and Dostoyevskian nihilism; laments about the general paucity of foreign films in America. The New Yorker's Anthony Lane complains, "There is no established etiquette for getting people to see them. 'Hey, we should try this cool one about ... the lean years of postwar Stalinism.' "


Raves mount for Saving Private Ryan. The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter calls it "simply the greatest war movie ever made, and one of the great American movies." A small school of dissenters also emerges: John Podhoretz writes in the Weekly Standard, "Omaha Beach was a site of tragedy and triumph, and it was triumph that gave meaning to the tragedy. [Steven] Spielberg's inability to grasp these ideas ... shows his limitations not only as an artist but as an adult." (Click here for David Edelstein's review in Slate of the film.)


Recent "Summary Judgment" columns

Movie--The Mask of Zorro;

Movie--Saving Private Ryan;


Movie--There's Something About Mary;

Music--Hello Nasty, by the Beastie Boys;

Book--Lucky Bastard, by Charles McCarry;

Theater--Twelfth Night;


Television--Drudge (Fox).

Tina!--The Tina Brown Years;

Art--"Unknown Terrain: The Landscapes of Andrew Wyeth";

Movie--Small Soldiers;

Movie--Lethal Weapon 4;

Movie--Buffalo 66;

Music--Embrya, by Maxwell;

Music--Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, by Lucinda Williams.



Death--Roy Rogers;

Book--Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, by Ron Rosenbaum;

Book--Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration, by Tamar Jacoby;

Book--Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding;

Performance Art--The Return of the Chocolate Smeared Woman, Karen Finley.

Movie--Out of Sight;


Movie--Dr. Dolittle;

Movie--Gone With the Wind;


Book--Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton, by Dianne Wood Middlebrook;

Book--The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman.

--Eliza Truitt