Tarzan (Walt Disney Pictures). Critics from all corners rave over Disney’s first major release of the summer: “Never has an animated feature seemed more animated by sheer kinetic joy” (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). What makes it so great? 1) The animation, bolstered by a new technique called “Deep Canvas”; 2) Phil Collins’ energizing, percussion-heavy soundtrack; and 3) the timeless Tarzan story (although some note un-PC bits have been left out of this version). Janet Maslin (the New York Times) calls it “one of the more exotic blooms in the Disney hothouse.” A few gripes from the fringes: According to the Village Voice’s Richard Gehr, although beautiful to look at, the film is “numbingly formulaic” and rife with the usual Disney clichés: “absent parents, unthreatening yet princely hero, perky but ditzy heroine, swarthy villain, cute sidekicks, hugs, lessons, and a CD’s worth of forgettable pop tunes.” (Click here to see a listing of all the Tarzan films, all the way back to 1918’s silent Tarzan of the Apes.)
The General’s Daughter (Paramount Pictures). Critics dump on the gratuitous violence–especially a rape and murder scene involving a naked woman staked to the ground–in this thriller starring John Travolta, James Woods, and Madeleine Stowe. For Roger Ebert (the Chicago Sun-Times), it’s a “well-made thriller with a lot of good acting” but is “so unnecessarily graphic and gruesome that by the end I felt sort of unclean.” Director Simon West (Con Air) “shows a knack for underutilizing good actors while pumping up the story’s gratuitously ugly side” (Maslin, the New York Times). And in his scathing review in the Wall Street Journal, Morgenstern probably doesn’t realize that his line describing the film as “soft-core porn in an expensive star package” is likely to attract rather than repel the target audience. (Click here to find out more about John Travolta.)
Run Lola Run (Sony Pictures Classics). This high-energy German film has taken its native country by storm, and American critics are equally impressed: It’s a “hyperkinetic pop culture firecracker of a film” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). A woman (Lola) has 20 minutes to run across town and recover money lost by her boyfriend. If she’s too late, he’ll be killed. And so “Lola takes off, trucking along with a muscular R. Crumb look and distinctive flaming-cranberry hair,” and from that point on, the film is full if “smashing bravado” and “sheer cleverness” (Maslin, the New York Times). The film crackles with little tricks–at times Lola morphs into an animated figure, and her trip starts over three times, each version ending differently. A few critics pipe up with complaints–the film is weightless and a bit air-headed–but most find Lola’s whirlwind race against time exhilarating. (Click here to read David Edelstein’s review in Slate.)
Shadow: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate, by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster). Critics are wary of the unimpressive analysis and shaky sourcing in Bob Woodward’s latest, which delves into the effects of Watergate on the presidency. Shadow“is filled with authoritative accounts of conversations … that are at best re-creations based on biased participants’ memories, at worst near-fabrications” (Frank Gannon, the Wall Street Journal). And as Jake Tapper notes in Salon, reviewers “regurgitate the most titillating tidbits, usually missing the point of the tome’s larger thesis.” Highlights: Clinton was afraid his wife wouldn’t forgive him (what a shocker) and Hillary Clinton was deeply pained by her husband’s affair (another surprise). Speculation has arisen about who gave Woodward the Clinton material, and according to the New York Post, the “No.1 suspect” is Robert Barnett, a partner of Clinton’s personal lawyer, David Kendall. (Click here to read an excerpt and here to read Chatterbox’s take on the book in Slate.)
Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys, by Will Self (Grove Press). Reviewers fall into two camps on Self’s latest collection of stories. One deems it more of the same old riffing on the underside of society, “calling up as many vile impressions of humanity as possible” (Liesl Schillinger, the Washington Post), while the other detects a new maturity in Self and labels this “his most disciplined storytelling yet,” marked by “a new control and polish (Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times). Everyone concedes that his writing is masterful; it’s just a question of whether he has progressed. Jonathan Lethem (the New York Times Book Review) finds both ends of the spectrum in the book: “When he’s at his best, Self’s struggle with these opposed gifts conjures up fiction that alternately boggles, amuses and horrifies. At his worst, he merely offers punch lines that are laboriously stretched on a rack of realist detail.” (Read the first chapter here.)
Da Real World, by Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott (Wea/Elektra Entertainment). Hip-hop’s most innovative female artist turns in her second album, and critics deem it a worthy follow-up to her blockbuster platinum debut, Supa Dupa Fly (1997). But after praising the album’s freshness and listing the many guest artists (from Eminem to Aaliyah to Lil’ Kim), most critics start nit-picking. Main gripes: The rhymes are only so-so, and the tired sexual politics that provide most of the lyrical subject matter send a mixed message. (Click here to read an interview with Elliott.)
¡Viva el Amor!, by Pretenders (Warner Bros.). Borderline reviews–“competent but utterly unexciting” (Natalie Nichols, the Los Angeles Times)–for the band’s first album in five years. Front woman Chrissie Hynde still shines with her trademark snarl and gravelly voice, but some of the songs are serious clunkers, and even the best sound like a rehash of the band’s older material.