Summary Judgment

Minnie Driver Turns Ugly

Best in Show (Warner Bros). Mockumentary master Christopher Guest (This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman) doesn’t exactly win a blue ribbon with this film on dog-show culture, but he’s not far off. Parker Posey, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard (whose performance as a bumbling announcer is a critical favorite), and others in the ensemble cast worked without a script, ad-libbing from a rough outline. The results are described either as “a little more hit-or-miss than its predecessors” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times) or as “well-organized, exquisitely nuanced skit comedy” (Stephen Holden, the New York Times) and a reinvigoration of the mock documentary: “[J]ust when you thought the genre had lost its sparkle, along comes Christopher Guest to remind us how good it can be … it’s as smart, quiveringly alert and fleet of foot as a purebred pointer on the scent of fresh game” (David Ansen, Newsweek). (The official site includes film clips and outtakes.)

Remember the Titans (Buena Vista Pictures). The only surprising thing about this by-the-numbers football ‘n’ racial integration flick is that it was produced by Jerry “More Car Chases and Explosions, Please” Bruckheimer. Based on the true story of the 1971 integration of a Virginia high school, the film has some good performances (Denzel Washington’s coach is much complimented), but it’s more about warming hearts than testing limits: “[T]he movie is heartfelt, yes, and I was moved by it, but it plays safe” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Some are less generous: “It’s so smug and so proud of itself, and you can tell that everybody involved conceives of it as a civics lesson instead of a story” (Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post). Many scoff at Bruckheimer’s departure from type: “Titans is apparently producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s idea of a serious, small-scale movie, but by any reasonable standard, it’s still boorish and flatulent” and “engineers a shameless moment of courageous-athlete poignancy that wouldn’t be out of place on NBC’s doggedly lachrymose Olympics coverage” (Dennis Lim, the Village Voice). (Find out more about the high school in the film here.)

Beautiful (Destination Films). Ugly reviews for Sally Field’s directing debut. Minnie Driver stars as a bitchy, underhanded beauty-pageant contestant who later sees the error of her ways. Critics call it “a movie with so many inconsistencies, improbabilities, unanswered questions and unfinished characters that we have to suspend not only disbelief but intelligence as well” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Who’s to blame for this dud? “Responsibility for the movie’s relentless shrillness belongs both to Sally Field, who is making her insecure feature-film debut as a director, and to Ms. Driver, who is woefully miscast” as the beauty queen (Stephen Holden, the New York Times). (Did you know that the preliminary Miss America judging is based 40 percent on “Talent,” 30 percent on “Interview,” 15 percent on “On-Stage Personality in Evening Wear,” and 15 percent on “Physical Fitness in Swimsuit” ?) (Click here to find out more at the pageant’s official site.)

Books J immy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, by Chris Ware (Pantheon Books). Astoundingly good reviews for Chris Ware’s collection of his “Acme Novelty Library” comics: “[T]his haunting and unshakable book will change the way you look at your world” (James Poniewozik, Time). (The raves should to a certain degree be taken with a grain of salt, as it’s unlikely that any reviewer who was not already a die-hard fan would even push to cover this under-the-radar book in the first place.) Describing four generations of hopelessly lonely, ineffectual men all named Jimmy Corrigan, the book switches from the 19th century to the present and various points between: “Jimmy’s inability to interact with the world makes for a humorous tragedy more worthy of comparison to Ivan Goncharov’s novel Oblomov … than to anything in the comics genre. Some will find Jimmy Corrigan slow and depressing; they will be wrong. It is thrilling, moving, profoundly sympathetic—and it is the most beautiful-looking book of the year” (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly). But more than the plot, critics can’t heap enough kudos on Ware’s art, which is “studded with small, precise panels that regularly expand to reveal stunning draftsmanship” (Tucker). Or as Ruben Bolling enthuses in Slate, “This is a Goddamn Masterpiece of American Art.” (Read a discussion between Ted Rall and Ruben Bolling on recently published comics collections in Slate.)

David Boring, by Daniel Clowes (Pantheon). The other comic book collection of the moment is also well reviewed, but not with nearly the same sense of hyperbolic awe. This collection is part pulp novel, part film noir, and “captures the feeling of being young and filled with ennui and living in America at the end of the 20th century. … Boring is anything but” (Andrew D. Arnold, Time). A few find the somewhat confusing tale too over-the-top (the main character gets shot in the head twice and lives, is obsessed with women with large rear ends, and winds up stranded on a remote island as the rest of the United States experiences some sort of germ warfare). “[Clowes] alternates moving scenes of personal alienation and despair with bizarre transitions, portentous plot twists and an unconvincing mix ‘n’ match of genres” (Publishers Weekly). Or as Ted Rall writes in Slate: The “tip o’ the hat to everything-and-the-kitchen-sink postmodernism gets a bit much at times.” (Click here for an exchange on recent comics between Ted Rall and Ruben Bolling in Slate. Find out more about the movie being made with Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi out of Clowes’ last book here.) 

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (Random House). In what must be every critic’s dream, Jonathan Yardley’s Washington Post review of Michael Chabon’s last novel, Wonder Boys, made a big impression on the author. As he says in a New York Times profile: “[Yardley] said, you know how to do this, you’ve written two novels with a very limited scope, now go out there and let’s see what you can do.” So, as the review demanded, Chabon went out and wrote a “towering, swashbuckling thrill of a book” (Susannah Meadows, Newsweek) filled with “the kind of charged prose that leaps 600 pages of fantasy and social history in a single bound” (R.Z. Sheppard, Time). The story traces a pair of cousins who create a popular comic book series in the 1930s and ‘40s. A few critics complain that the book could have used some trimming, but most temper their criticisms with praise: “[R]eaders could complain that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay feels structurally ramshackle; others may want to warn Chabon about over-indulging his penchant for lists,” but finally the book is “absolutely gosh-wow, super-colossal—smart, funny, and a continual pleasure to read” (Michael Dirda, the Washington Post). (Read the first chapter here.) 


Music, by Madonna (Warner Bros.). Mixed reviews for the latest album by the woman now referred to as a “pop chameleon” (Barry Walters, Rolling Stone). (When did she stop being the “material girl”? After baby No. 2?) Madonna continues in the techno/dance vein she broached with 1998’s Ray of Light and is aided by two techno mixmasters, Mirwais and William Orbit, who fill the album with blips, bleeps, and trippy enhancements to Madonna’s familiar voice. Quite a few critics complain that “like a trailer for an action movie, if you’ve heard the single (maybe, like, 20 times already on VH1) then you’ve heard the best moments of Music. Of the scant nine songs that follow, the majority feel self-consciously stiff” (Lorraine Ali, Newsweek). Even worse, others say “it commits a heretofore unimaginable Madonna sin: Like its title, it’s a little drab.” (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). An equal number stick up for Madonna, saying the songs are “the work of someone worth rooting for again: a little older, a little humbled, happy just to enjoy the party and let others wear the lampshades, a bit of an underdog even” (Phil Dellio, the Village Voice). And then there are those who just genuinely enjoy the record, “a blissful and bubbly crazy quilt of pop, techno, funk and folk” (Edna Gundersen, USA Today). (The album’s official site includes news, photos, and fan club information.)