Summary Judgment

Play It Again, Sean

Movies

Sweet and Lowdown (Sony Pictures Classics). Woody Allen’s documentary-style film about fictional ‘30s jazz guitarist Emmett Ray (played by Sean Penn) is “a likable, lively little ditty” (David Ansen, Newsweek) that doesn’t add up to much, but makes for a welcome change of pace from Allen’s recent work. Penn’s performance is “mercilessly funny, scarily precise and mysteriously deep. It’s a portrait of the artist as a perfect swine” (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). British newcomer Samantha Morton steals the show as a mute laundress who becomes Ray’s lover: “Rarely has a performer mined such complex and potent emotion from such simple materials: a smile, a shrug, an attentive winsomeness” (David Ansen, Newsweek). One critic dissents: Mike Clark of USA Today calls the film “depressing” and only “sporadically amusing.” (Slate’s David Edelstein says it’s “unexpectedly delectable.” Click here to read the rest of his review.)

The End of the Affair (Columbia Pictures). Raves for director Neil Jordan’s (The Crying Game) “hauntingly beautiful” (Cathleen McGuigan, Newsweek) adaptation of a Graham Greene novel. The story of a wartime affair that runs aground on one party’s religious faith is “[h]andsomely mounted, literate, emotionally sophisticated” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times) and filled with a “dreamy intensity” (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). Nearly every reviewer notices the crackling chemistry between stars Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes. USA Today’s Mike Clark gives the film its only pan, citing a “lumbering” story and “soulless” sex scenes. (Visit this Julianne Moore fan site  for photos, news, and biographical information.)

Get Bruce (Miramax). This “fond, frequently hilarious” (David Ansen, Newsweek) documentary about the Hollywood comedy writer Bruce Vilanch gets kind reviews all around. “Get Bruce is exactly the kind of documentary we all want to have made about ourselves, in which it is revealed that we are funny, smart, beloved, the trusted confidant of famous people, the power behind the scenes at great events and the apple of our mother’s eye” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Vilanch has written for just about every current big-screen celebrity, and Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Lily Tomlin, and Rosie O’Donnell (to name-drop a few) appear in the film singing his praises. (Click here to visit Vilanch’s Web site.)

Books

Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It, by Gina Kolata (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Just named one of the New York Times’ “Notable Books” of 1999, this chronicle of the struggle to understand the flu virus that killed about 700,000 Americans wins high marks for the way it blends rigorous science and a gripping detective story. Kolata, a science writer for the New York Times, has produced “an extraordinary account of one of the most significant public health tragedies of this century” (Elizabeth Whelan, the Washington Times). Even more fascinating than her account of the original pandemic, Kolata tails the various groups of scientists and the divergent paths they traveled as they unraveled the virus’ secrets. (Click here to read the first chapter.)

Blue at the Mizzen, by Patrick O’Brian (Norton). Critics question whether the 20th entry in this series of nautical novels set in the 19th century will actually be the final one, as the author has promised. But that seems to be the only thing they’re skeptical about. Otherwise they lavish affectionate praise on O’Brian and seem to regard his main characters as old friends. What exactly is the appeal? Some say the books are “a sort of Hardy Boys for smart, literate men” (Patricia Ward Biederman, the Los Angeles Times), while others rave about “O’Brian’s extraordinary learning and gift for classical prose” (Amanda Foreman, the New York Times Book Review). (Click here to visit this index to all the Web sites devoted to O’Brian.)