The Mummy (Universal Pictures). The enthusiasts (“What grand, ghoulish gore!” Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal) are outnumbered by the detractors (“hopelessly overwrought and deeply dopey,” Richard Schickel, Time), who say 1) it’s not remotely scary; 2) the sarcasm and self-conscious irony grow tiresome; 3) it’s permeated with anti-Arab racism; and 4) the mummy isn’t a real mummy, he’s “a mutating Industrial Light and Magic Special Effect” (David Edelstein, Slate), or as Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, “[I]f you made a nourishing winter soup out of white beans and Terminator, this fellow is what you would find at the bottom of the pot.” (Read Edelstein’s review in Slate.)
The Phantom Menace (20th Century Fox). “The movie is a disappointment. A big one” (David Ansen, Newsweek). Time and Newsweek run negative early reviews of The Phantom Menace, complaining that the film is dialogue-heavy, not especially exciting, and marred by weak acting. Both agree that the fight scenes, an extended desert chase sequence, and the special effects and scenery are top-notch. The reviews mention in passing that this disappointment is a natural result of the advance hype but don’t mention their own roles in generating that hype. Richard Corliss opens his Time review with this questionable line: “To get in, you needed a ticket, more precious than a passport out of Kosovo.” (Find out the latest news on the film on this fan site.)
The Castle (Miramax). Good reviews for this corny Capra-esque Australian comedy about a working-class family’s fight to keep its precious but hilariously tacky home from being demolished for an airstrip. The film is “[a] triumph of sustained silliness” (Andy Seiler, USA Today), which pokes fun at the family’s bad taste while elevating their home-grown values and simple familial love. On the down side, the film’s pretty much a one-trick pony: It “continually dares us to sneer at their garish tastes” (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). Somehow the critics come out smiling anyhow. (Click here to watch the trailer.)
Ricky Martin, by Ricky Martin (Columbia). The media are feasting on the English-language debut of this Puerto Rican pop star and former Menudo member. The album itself is deemed passable musically–Martin has a “serviceable” voice (Ethan Brown, New York) and a set of reasonably catchy tunes. But what’s really on sale is Martin himself. Going for him: 1) infectious charisma as seen at his terrific performance at the Grammys and which is constantly on display on MTV; 2) boyish good looks–he was named one of People’s “50 Most Beautiful People”; and 3) he’s friends with Madonna. Also important is the press’s hunger for a new trend to write about, which has led to the recent designation of Latin music as the Next Big Thing, and Martin’s poppy crossover album is just what they’re looking for. (This site has photos, sound clips, and info on Martin.)
The Onion. The Madison, Wisc.,-based satiric newspaper/Web site rides a wave of recent publicity: Our Dumb Century (written by the editors) is now No. 3 on the New York Times’ paperback best-seller list, editor in chief Scott Dikkers appeared on Conan O’Brien’s show, and the publication has signed a deal to make a series of TV specials. The New Yorker attributes the Onion’s wildly popular deadpan humor to its location. “Instead of allowing itself to be sliced, diced, sautéed, and served up at Spago or Balthazar, The Onion, by just sitting out there in Madison, has grown into something large, beautiful and strange-shaped, like a 4-H crop exhibit with a blue ribbon on it at the Wisconsin State Fair.” (Click here to read the latest online issue.)
Home Town, by Tracy Kidder (Random House). Critics call Kidder’s exploration of Northampton, Mass., interesting but unfocused. He writes mainly about a local cop, Tommy O’Connor, but his story is interspersed with tangents on the town’s history and various oddball local residents. As Ben Yagoda writes in the New York Times Book Review, “somewhere along the way, Kidder must have decided not to write a book about Tommy O’Connor.” The critics praise Kidder’s reporting, but most find the discursive style slow going. (Listen to an interview with Kidder about how he decided to write this book. [Requires free registration.])
The Drowning People, by Richard Mason (Warner). The 21-year-old British author’s youth and good looks are cited as major factors in the blockbuster advance ($800,000) and ballyhooed publication of this ponderous gothic novel. The critics are not amused. Newsweek’s Jeff Giles calls it a “hokey tragic romance” and Entertainment Weekly’s Vanessa Friedman says it “reads like a high school essay–‘write the story as if you were Charlotte Brontë.’ ” Publishers Weekly gives the book its only upbeat review, praising the narrator’s “compelling voice” and calling the author “remarkably assured.” (Read an excerpt from the book here.)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (20th Century Fox). Mediocre reviews for the 10 millionth recent film adaptation of a Shakespeare play. The cast is posh (Calista Flockhart, Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci), but the magic never quite gels. Kline is singled out for his excellent Bottom.
A Dangerous Friend, by Ward Just (Houghton Mifflin). Polite reviews for Just’s 15th novel, which follows a group of Americans working for a nongovernmental organization in Vietnam in 1965. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt raves (“extraordinary”) in the New York Times.