Summary Judgment

Kevin Spacey, Lubricant Salesman


Mission: Impossible 2 (Paramount Pictures). It’s less confusing than the first one, and it’s got John Woo directing, but somehow this Tom Cruise espionage ‘n’ explosions fest doesn’t leave the critics drooling. To be sure, the ending sequence is “an ecstasy of testosterone-fueled kineticism” (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post), but overall this film is “even more empty a luxury vehicle than its predecessor,” and “Woo lays on his own particular high-octane stylishness so thick the results edge perilously toward self-parody”—the film ends up feeling like “a two-hour trailer for itself” (Dennis Harvey, Daily Variety). All in all, “there’s good stuff here—but we’re still grading on the corporate-star-vehicle curve” (David Edelstein, Slate). (For a fascinating explication of the semiotics of Tom Cruise’s hair, read A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times: “In his shaggier moments— Born on the Fourth of July, Magnolia—he allows himself more room for feeling, and gets more award nominations.”)

Shanghai Noon (Buena Vista Pictures). Top-notch reviews for this martial-arts western starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson (co-writer of Rushmore). It’s Chan’s “most enjoyable Hollywood outing to date” (Andy Seiler, USA Today), and his work is complemented by a hilarious turn from Wilson, who “would steal the movie if Chan were not so clever at sharing it with him” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). The stunts are great, Wilson’s ad-libbing is priceless, and it puts last year’s entry into this genre, Wild Wild West, to shame. “[G]iddily, effervescently funny … in classic western tradition, a celebration of male bonding, unabashedly juvenile, boyishly risqué and disarmingly sweet. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Chan have enough chemistry to fuel a string of sequels” (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). (Visit the official site.)

The Big Kahuna (Lions Gate Films). Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito hand in excellent performances as industrial-lubricant salesmen at a conference in Wichita, Kan. But good performances aren’t enough to make the movie fun: “[A]fter a while, sitting in a darkened theater and watching three desperate souls stuck in a suite with nothing but a cheeseball, carrot sticks and frustration between them starts to wear thin” (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). Complaints: 1) Too stagey and claustrophobic (it was adapted from a play). 2) Does Kevin Spacey ever play anyone who’s not a sarcastic fast-talker? 3) The bummed-out salesman is turning into a cliché. (Find out more about Spacey at this fan site.) 


Pastoralia, by George Saunders (Riverhead). Uniformly positive reviews for Saunders’ second story collection. His “ingenious satiric fantasies” (David Gates, Newsweek) typically feature sucker protagonists (whom critics call “bathetic losers,” “hapless heroes,” and “hapless losers”) and take place in an extreme version of the present time or a few years in the future. The characters work in amusement parks playing cavemen, watch TV shows like How My Child Died Violently, attend seminars with themes like “Now is the time for me to win!” and generally struggle to make sense of their unhappy lives. It’s “as riveting as a two-bit freak show” (Thomas K. Grose, U.S. News & World Report). (Read Saunders’ short story “The Falls”here.)

The Binding Chair or, A Visit From the Foot Emancipation Society, by Kathryn Harrison (Random House). Excellent reviews, save for one scathing (and hilarious) write-up in New York magazine. Although many critics note that Harrison’s last book, The Kiss, detailed her consensual incestuous relationship with her father, most manage to focus on the novel at hand. It follows a turn-of-the-century Chinese woman whose bound feet define her (especially when she leaves her homeland), and her younger, more liberated female cousin. As in her past work, Harrison “examines how women get and use sexual and social power” (Kirkus Reviews), and this novel counts as “her best work to date, an intricately and elegantly constructed narrative about intersections of character and fate, history and chance, and the ironic, tragic fulfillment of hearts’ desires” (Publishers Weekly). Daniel Mendelsohn writes for the dissent, arguing that at the heart of this historical, panoramic literary work “there beats the heaving heart of a Judith Krantz novel” and that “Harrison’s failure thus far to see in the world anything but her ‘issues’—however legitimate they may be—continues to cripple her work” (New York). (Read the rest of Mendelsohn’s review here; read the first chapter here.)


All Hands on the Bad One, Sleater-Kinney (Kill Rock Stars). Can’t anyone think of something nasty to say about this female punk trio from Olympia, Wash.? Judging from the response to this, their fifth album, no. As with previous releases, the praise just keeps on ramping up: “[I]ndie rock’s darlings have grown up and developed into skilled songwriters … weaving nervous, urgent energy with infectious melodies. It’s a total package of brains, beauty and brawn” (Amy Sciarretto, CMJ). The only thing close to a complaint is that they’re too good, sort of “straight-A-student punks, the endearing kind who’ve always read the right textbooks and never failed to strike the proper empower-chords.” But even that complaint is followed by a retraction: “[W]hile the words can look didactic on a lyric sheet, the singing never ossifies into ‘messages,’ moral posturing, or one-way metaphors” (Howard Hampton, the Village Voice). (Click here to find out when the band is coming to your town.)