Summary Judgment

Winter Movie Roundup

Winter Movie Roundup

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Jackie Brown (Miramax). Quentin Tarantino’s first film since Pulp Fiction reinforces reviewers’ mixed opinion of him as clever but self-indulgent. His trademark dialogue–street toughs riffing about daily trivia with pseudoprofundity–still delights critics. They also welcome his rehabilitation of ‘70s blaxploitation heroine Pam Grier, who stars as a money-laundering stewardess trying to scam both her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and a federal agent (Michael Keaton). But most critics  say Jackie Brown lacks Pulp Fiction’s inventiveness and drags on too long (2 and a half hours). Tarantino, says Newsday’s Jack Mathews, has taken “one of Elmore Leonard’s lesser novels and draw[n] it out as if it were Chekhov.” (Slate’s David Edelstein likesJackie Brown. And click here for the official site.)

Wag the Dog (New Line Cinema). Critics crown Barry Levinson’s film the wittiest of the recent political comedies. A spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) orchestrate a fake war to divert attention from a presidential sex scandal. Hoffman is said to have given “one of the most subtle and precise comic performances … since Tootsie” (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). Critics also like David Mamet’s screenplay for its jabs at the news media, out-of-touch liberals, and “everything that’s awful in American life nowadays” (Richard Schickel, Time). Dissenting, The New Yorker’s Daphne Merkin bemoans the film’s “sophomoric” humor and its “cozy, video-ready cynicism.” (See the official site. Also see Jacob Weisberg’s dissection of Hollywood’s narcissistic take on Washington.)

As Good As It Gets (Sony/TriStar). Reviewers split over James L. Brooks’ romantic comedy about an obsessive-compulsive, misanthropic writer (Jack Nicholson) and a struggling waitress (Helen Hunt). Some say it “echoes the quirky appeal of [Brooks’] Broadcast News” (Janet Maslin, the New York Times) and call Nicholson’s performance his best in years. Others say the film’s schmaltzy dialogue and contrived plot have the “staying power of cotton candy” (Merkin, The New Yorker). (The studio plugs the film.)

The Postman (Warner Bros.). Near-unanimity on the verdict: Actor-director Kevin Costner’s latest is “truly awful” (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). The post-apocalyptic Western about a band of mailmen who save the United States is faulted for its ridiculous premise, mawkish dialogue, and megalomaniacal directing, among other things. It would have been “a half-hour shorter without Costner’s close-ups of his own horizon-scanning mug,” says the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley. Some hope the film will convince Hollywood studios to stop letting actors direct. (The trailer is available here.)

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Tomorrow Never Dies (MGM/United Artists). Despite a critical drubbing, the 18th James Bond film still grossed $66 million in its first two weeks. Reviewers say the film, a “conventional techno-thiller” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times), lacks its predecessors’ tongue-in-cheek charm, and they insist it’s time to retire the Bond franchise. As the sixth Bond, Pierce Brosnan is said to be debonair but not strong enough to overcome the film’s clichs. Another common complaint: egregious product placements–“enough blatant endorsements to make the film itself incidental” (John Anderson, Newsday). (An official site celebrates the Bond franchise.)

Kundun (Touchstone Pictures). Critics pronounce Martin Scorsese’s biopic about the young Dalai Lama beautiful but dull. They admire the film’s scenic mountain vistas and elegiac tone, saying the latter resembles “a meditative and incantatory piece of music” (Pico Iyer, the New York Review of Books). Most critics respectfully note that the lack of a plot and the lengthy scenes of Buddhist priests in prayer don’t make for high excitement. “[E]verything a movie about the Dalai Lama should be except dramatically involving” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). The New Yorker’s Louis Menand says that despite surface differences, it’s just another Scorsese “guy” flick: “Kundun is Casino with Buddhists.” (See Slate’s review and the film’s site.)

Recent “Summary Judgment” columns

Dec. 24:

“The Year in Review in Review”

Dec. 17:


MovieDeconstructing Harry;

MovieScream 2;

TelevisionAlly McBeal (Fox);

Art–“Gianni Versace” (Metropolitan Museum of Art);

Architecture–Museum of Modern Art (New York City);

BookHogarth: A Life and a World, by Jenny Uglow.

Dec. 10:


MovieGood Will Hunting;

TelevisionBreast Men (HBO);

TheaterThe Diary of Anne Frank;


BookA Certain Justice, by P.D. James.

Dec. 3:

Architecture–J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles);

TheaterThe Old Neighborhood, by David Mamet;


MovieWelcome to Sarajevo;

TelevisionPublic Housing (PBS);

BookRelease 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age, by Esther Dyson;

Photography–“Weegee’s World: Life, Death, and the Human Drama” (International Center of Photography Midtown).

–Franklin Foer