Anna and the King (20th Century Fox Film Corp.). Critics bemoan the absence of songs in this latest film depiction of the romance between British widow Anna Leonowens and King Mongkut of Siam, familiar to most viewers through the musical The King and I. Critics contend that leads Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-Fat have weak chemistry and that the film is “a luxuriant, lumbering behemoth … pleasant, occasionally amusing–and often dull” (Andy Seiler, USA Today). Roger Ebert gives a surprisingly harsh review: “It is an exotic escapist entertainment for matinee ladies, who can fantasize about sex with that intriguing bald monster and indulge their harem fantasies” (the Chicago Sun-Times). Jay Carr of the Boston Globe dissents from the pack, calling the film “a lot more than The King and I minus Rodgers’s and Hammerstein’s music. It’s a broader, wider, deeper, fuller canvas.” (Click here for more on the real King Mongkut.)
Bicentennial Man (Buena Vista Pictures). When Robin Williams and director Chris Columbus last teamed up, on Mrs. Doubtfire, they scored. This time they do not. Based on a short story by Isaac Asimov, the film follows an android that slowly gains human qualities and ends up as “a cornball drone of greeting-card sentiment” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The beginning scenes–when Williams plays a non-human–are the film’s highpoint: “[T]he sad fact is Williams is at his best while trapped in [the robot’s] original sleek form. His performance is subtle, his reactions restrained. The more Robin is exposed, the more ham is served.” Eventually the film degenerates into “Patch Android” (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today). (Click here for more on Asimov.)
The Cider House Rules (Miramax). Decent notices for the first film adaptation of a John Irving novel for which he’s deigned to write the screenplay. Lasse Halström (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) directs. USA Today’s Mike Clark calls the coming-of-age story set at an orphanage in 1940s Maine “passive but passable.” Michael Caine’s turn as the benign head of the orphanage (a doctor addicted to ether) is excellent, but Tobey Maguire, playing the orphan Caine takes under his wing and grooms to be his successor, is too deadpan for most critics. A few praise the film’s understated pleasures: Richard Corliss of Time calls it “a small epic with subtle strengths.” (Click here to find out more about the book the film is based on.)
Mailer: A Biography, by Mary V. Dearborn (Houghton Mifflin). This unauthorized biography of one of America’s feistiest contemporary authors and public figures draws excellent reviews. Dearborn casts a cool eye on Mailer’s attention-getting tactics (he suggested that soldiers in Vietnam should only kill people they were willing to eat), his drunken outbursts, his wife-stabbing episode, and delivers what critics agree is an evenhanded, engrossing, “crisply written” (Sven Birkerts, Esquire) book that will prove difficult for Mailer’s official biographer to follow. One complaint: Dearborn “prefers to get Mailer’s contradictions and irrationalities onto the page as story” instead of exploring the meanings behind them, and she “likes to knock the stuffing out of [Mailer] when she finds him too upholstered” (Caleb Crain, the New York Times Book Review). (The New York Times’ “featured author” section on Mailer offers an archive of reviews and profiles from the paper.)
I Gave You All I Had, by Zoé Valdés, translated by Nadia Benabid (Arcade). Critics heap praise on Cuban-born Valdés’ second novel: The “rambunctious new novel is an appetizingly rich stew, full of the varied flavors of Latin culture … sumptuous …exuberantly translated” (Anderson Tepper, the New York Times Book Review). Spanning 50 years in the life of a country girl who moves to Havana, the book is “a messy, passionate indictment of Fidel Castro’s Cuba, packed with grotesque caricatures, implausible crises and generous dollops of magic realism” (Gabriella Stern, the Wall Street Journal). (Read the first chapter here, courtesy of the New York Times.)
Midnite Vultures, by Beck (UNI/Geffen/DGC Records). Rolling Stone, the Washington Times, and just about everyone in between adore Beck’s tribute to ‘70s funk (with countless ‘90s styles including hip-hop and country mixed in). Beck nails the highbrow vote, with Luc Sante’s Village Voice musing that the music has “a texture and effect that is not far from that of the hand-painted non-collages of James Rosenquist,” as well as the lowbrow vote: USA Today says it “radiates party vibes” (Edna Gundersen). Other critics rave that “one track after another leaps out at you until you’ve got 11 new favorite songs” (David Gates, Newsweek), and that it’s 1999’s “most relentless gas–laughing or otherwise–of a party album” (Chris Wilman, Entertainment Weekly). One dissenter takes umbrage at Beck’s heavy borrowing from black music: Mike Jenkins writes in the Washington Post that the album “can’t escape its minstrel-show undercurrents” and that the album’s genre-bending “stunts” sink Beck “deeper in stylistic debt than he can ever repay.” (Click here to listen to clips from the album.)
Movie: Stuart Little (Columbia Pictures). The digital mouse is cute, but it’s the family cat, voiced by Nathan Lane, whose wisecracking barely keeps this adaptation of the E.B. White children’s classic from becoming intolerable. Apparently “it’s easier to make a mouse talk than to come up with something interesting for him to say” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times).