Summary Judgment

The Devil in Miss Ryder


Pay It Forward (Warner Bros.). Critics split over this idealistic movie about a kid (The Sixth Sense’s Haley Joel Osment) who dreams up a scheme for increasing altruism: “tissues or barf bag, take your pick” (Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today). The barf bags are about equal to the tissues, and some reviewers want both at the same time. Kevin Spacey plays Osment’s teacher, and Helen Hunt is his mother; tissue-clenchers think these stars save the movie. “That it succeeds at all—that the film elicits moments of genuine feeling, rather than the derisive laughter it deserves—is largely thanks to the three principal actors” (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). The ending is the source of deep annoyance. The studio requested, Crying Game-style, that critics keep it secret, but that doesn’t mean they have to keep quiet about their opinion of it: “The people at Warner Brothers have asked reviewers to refrain from divulging, I’d like to think because they were ashamed of themselves for stooping to gratuitous spiritual pornography” (Scott). Osment is singled out for special praise, showing “the equal of adult actors in the complexity and depth of his performance” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Best obligatory Sixth Sense joke comes from Scott, about Osment’s optimistic character: “He sees nice people.” (Slate’s David Edelstein thinks the film tries too hard: “The movie isn’t just gunning for Academy Awards. It wants the Nobel Peace Prize.” Click here to read his review.)

Bedazzled (20th Century Fox). Enjoyable, but Elizabeth Hurley and Brendan Fraser are no match for Raquel Welch and Dudley Moore, who starred in the 1967 version. The premise is a fun one: The schlumpy Fraser sells his soul to Hurley for seven wishes. Each wish transports Fraser into an alternative life: a Colombian drug lord, an NBA star, etc. The consensus is that “though amusing from moment to moment,” the movie is “erratic, unfocused and uncertain where it’s going” (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times). But the moments when Fraser flexes his comedic muscles are “outrageous fun” (A.O. Scott, the New York Times) even if it’s only “broad multiplex humor” (Mike Clark, USA Today). Highlight of the movie? Fraser’s transformation into a New Age cheeseball: “Fraser’s sensitive guy—so unbearably tender, he can’t stop shuddering with tears at beautiful sunsets—is almost worth the price of admission” (Desson Howe, the Washington Post). (Click here to ogle Hurley.)

Lost Souls (New Line Cinema). Yet another devil drama, this one starring Winona Ryder who “has gone from her normal Limoges porcelain skin to looking like the star of a video by the slash metal band Tool” (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). Frequent Spielberg cinematographer Janusz Kaminski makes his directorial debut in this one, and it is his visual sense that prevents the movie from becoming a complete disaster: “In its darkest hour, the movie is saved from total hell” by Kaminski’s “sensuous visual instincts” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). The story is a by-the-numbers possession deal, with Ryder playing an assistant to a group of exorcists for hire. Some like the look of the film enough to forgive its triteness, but most don’t: It “possesses the art and craft of a good movie, but not the story. … Here’s a being who once declared war on God and is now facing Winona Ryder. What a comedown” (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). (Find out more about exorcism here.)

Book Bellow: A Biography, by James Atlas (Random House). The critical reaction to this long-awaited biography is uniform: “a biographer more scrupulous than Atlas is hard to imagine. … I could no more stop reading his biography than I could stop reading Saul Bellow after he blew the blinds off the windows in my head” (John Leonard, the New York Times Book Review). “Well worth the wait … [a] vigorous and incisive portrait” (Publishers Weekly) One exception: A windy review in the Los Angeles Times inexplicably dismisses Bellow’s achievement out of hand (“[o]ver and over again Bellow has revealed what happens to a potentially remarkable talent when compromised with yearning for success”) and trashes Atlas’ book as an “anthology of received opinions” that is “as wanting in insight as it is in malice” (Frederic Raphael). But the critic’s lack of adequate explanation for his claims (other than to denounce a few of Atlas’ locutions: ” ‘Vast and devastating’ is a phrase so charmlessly banal that you wonder if Atlas has an editor, or an ear”) makes his pan somewhat suspect. Other than this anomalous review, the only disagreement is over the question of whether Bellow’s relentless, often vicious cannibalization of his family and friends for literary material reduces the merit of his novels. Atlas himself takes no overt position on this, preferring to simply display Bellow’s various cruelties and let readers draw their own conclusions. A.O. Scott, writing in Slate, sums up the paradox: “This may be why Bellow is arguably the pre-eminent novelist of the era: He has used more people, feasted on the carcasses of more friends, lovers, and wives than any of the competition. Does this make him a monster? After reading Atlas—but even before that, as a result of reading Bellow himself—I have to say yes. Does it make him a great novelist? Well, also yes.” (Click here to read the rest of Scott’s discussion with Brent Staples on the Bellow biography.)

Music If I Could Only Fly, by Merle Haggard (Epitaph). Good reviews for Haggard’s latest, released by the label best known for punk groups like Rancid and the Offspring. (As Nashville becomes increasingly pop-ified, aging country misfits such as Haggard have been adopted by a younger generation of rockers who identify with the hardscrabble message and simple tunes.) This album isn’t anything especially new; it’s a pleasingly “low-key, assured session imbued with Hag’s mellowed delivery and trademark restlessness (the luminous title track), sentimentality (’Wishin’ All These Old Things Were New’), and horniness” (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). One of the most pleasing aspects of the album is the way Haggard “finds a middle road that’s unusual for country: self-acceptance, totally free of bluster or self-pity” (Ben Ratliff, Rolling Stone). (Click here to listen to sound clips of his songs.)

Oui, by The Sea and Cake (Thrill Jockey). Solid notices for the indie band’s fourth album. The disc “doesn’t offer any serious divergence from the Chicago collective’s now well-established sound, just a further refinement of it” (Colin Helms, CMJ), but for most critics, making “prettier and prettier records on small budgets” is good enough (Ben Ratliff, the New York Times). This “fetching new record … is a light, lean effort that wraps the seductively propulsive pull of Brazilian-style rhythms in a gauzy patina of delicate, evocative instrumental color” (Rick Reger, the Chicago Tribune). They “have mastered the musical balancing act between tactile and intangible, threading its silky pop with languid jazz guitar progressions, warm synths, and rhythmic panache. It’s a unique tapestry that has helped the group become one of the most popular acts in independent rock” and Oui is “one of this year’s most enjoyable albums” (Jonathan Cohen, Billboard). (This fan site provides tour dates, photos, and audio clips.)