Summary Judgment

Wet, Hot American Summer

The worst movie title of the year, plus other dish from this week’s reviews.

Connie Chung Tonight(CNN) and Donahue (MSNBC).Critics have come not to bury Connie Chung but to praise her! On, 
Aaron Barnhart sticks it right between the ribs: “Last Monday’s debut of ‘Connie Chung Tonight’ … will occupy a cherished spot in my video collection, right next to the opening night of ‘The Chevy Chase Show’ on Fox and the pilot episode of ‘Emeril.’ ” Carina Chocano’s deadpan evisceration in Salon is even more devastating. “The world is full of slick, polished and commanding anchors brimming with authority and poise,” she notes. But “delivery, poise, lucidity, coherence, the ability to understand a joke or reference, a solid command of the facts and having a clue aren’t everything.” Phil Donahue’s new show was more gently tweaked for his slapdash interview skills. Caryn James of the New York Times describes “Phil Donahue as the white-haired contrarian dragon on the left; Bill O’Reilly as the fire-breathing dragon on the right; poor little Connie Chung as the awkward, unopinionated dragon in the middle.”

Eight Legged Freaks (Warner Bros.). Numerous critics invoked a classic monster movie put-down—comparing Eight Legged Freaks unfavorably to beloved cult favorite Tremors. But there’s a bizarre split between reviewers gnashing on subtext and those applauding the movie’s lack of it. In the Dallas Morning News, Tom Maurstad lauds the filmmakers for not being “clever-cool; they don’t burden viewers with a lot of heavy-handed and obvious satire.” Yet in theWashington Post, Stephen Hunter uses academia-speak in his review while also mocking it: “Eight Legged Freaks isn’t a monster movie, it’s a ‘monster’ movie.” He calls it “postmodern folk art, a tricky transaction in which the work isn’t just a story, it’s a genre survey, a homage, a meditation, a parody and, oh yeah, while it’s at it, still a pretty good story.”

Tadpole (InDigEnt/Miramax). The stepmom sex comedy—a digitally filmed Sundance prize winner—is praised high and low as a whimsical technological underfrog: “the first real DV date film” ( Ron Wells, Film Threat). Bebe Neuwirth is singled out for her “ leggy, smirking bravado” as the stepmom’s vixenish pal (Stephen Holden, the New York Times).

Report From the Hudsucker Proxy Department
“The contest is over: K-19: The Widowmaker is, without a doubt, the worst title that any would-be blockbuster has been saddled with this summer. … Is it a mountain-climbing epic? A sequel to the 1989 James Belushi-German shepherd comedy? The deeply moving tale of a new kitchen cleanser that leaves your counters sparkling and husbandless?” ( Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly).

Heated Prose Alert
It’s been a hot, wet American summer, and movie critics—preserved in icy screening rooms like so many heads of Ted Williams—seem to be letting the humidity seep into their reviews.

Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times: “Freaks strains to succeed as a piece of well-intentioned camp, but those sweat stains in the armpits and that dew dammed up over its eyebrows is more evident than the laughs it produces.”

Jack Matthews, the New York Daily News, on The Fast Runner: “If a nearly three-hour movie in the Inuktitut language of the Native Canadians once known as Eskimos does not immediately strike you as proper summer fare, think of it as air conditioning for the mind during the hot days ahead.”

Rex Reed in the New York Observer: “In a summer of brain-dead popcorn flicks dedicated to the premise that some people will endure anything to buy two hours of air-conditioning, it’s a pleasure to discover a few small nuggets of truth in the rockpile. You’ll find me lining up for a second helping of Road to Perdition and reveling in the crisp, cool seductiveness of a new gem called Tadpole.”

Music Highly Evolved, by the Vines (Capitol). Rip-off or rave-up? The Australian branch of the “garage revivalist” movement garners both wry high-fives and cranky dissents. “A promising first effort that suffers from retro fever, natch, but with all of their members still in their early twenties, the Vines have plenty of time (and enough songwriting smarts) to outgrow their influences,” writes Christian Hoard in Rolling Stone. Entertainment Weekly files it in their “Critical Differences” column: Rob Brunner says it’s “second-rate grunge retread” (Grade: C!) while Brian M. Raftery defends their “spirited execution” against claims of “silverchairesque charlatanism” (B+!). (Buy.)

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, by the Flaming Lips (Warner Bros.). The “long-reigning kings of big-sky psychedelia” (Greg Kot, Rolling Stone) win giddy fanboy-and-girlish raves for their follow-up to The Soft Bulletin. “Only Crispin Glover has gone farther on the fumes of weirdness,” opines Josh Tyrangiel in Entertainment Weekly. NME’s April Long praises their “sublime pop glory” and “philosophical and quixotic worldview.” “Coyne’s rickety voice gives human warmth to a console glow of keyboard whooshes and surges of electronica that venture out like astral projections.” Mmm, shiny. (Buy.)

ArtThe Paintings of Joan Mitchell,” the Whitney Museum of Art. Peter Schjeldahl’s gorgeous ode to Mitchell in The New Yorker made me itch to see this “dense, dazzling retrospective” by a renegade second-generation Abstract Expressionist whose “orneriness was the palace guard of her lyricism.” “She might be seen as the last great foreign-born French painter, invigorating Parisian painterly sensuousness with American nerviness and New York School rigor. … There isn’t a wrong note in her cadenzas—only a swarm of piquant, fugitive grace notes falling like loose change.”

Book s
Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs (St. Martin’s). Thrilled thumbs up for this “hilarious, freaky-deaky, berserk, controlled, transcendent, touching, affectionate, vengeful, all-embracing” memoir of a therapy-addled ‘70s childhood. The Washington Post’s Carolyn See confesses that she loves the central character, Augustus, “as much as Huck and Tom.” The book “promotes visceral responses (of laughter, wincing, retching) on nearly every page,” writes Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times and “contains the kind of scenes that are often called harrowing but which are also plainly funny and rich with child’s-eye details of adults who have gone off the rails.”

Snobbery, the American Version, by Joseph Epstein (Houghton Mifflin). Sniffs of approval for Epstein’s argument that “in a society more ostensibly egalitarian than ever, snobbery has not only survived, it has proliferated and intensified” (Martha Bayles, the New York Times). Some reviewers, like Bayles, seem unnerved by the author’s oddball mix of analysis and confession, but others laud “funny, fluid essays that appear to be charming banter but are actually deep and serious” (David Brooks, the Wall Street Journal). Inthe Los Angeles Times, ultra-snob John Simon terms it “a tasty cake made mouthwatering by an array of raisins” and notes insiderishly that Snobbery will create a new hierarchy among critics—based on how many citations they merit in the index.

Why I Am a Catholic, by Garry Wills (Houghton Mifflin). Nontheologians may find reviews of this book rough sledding, riddled as they are with angel/pin doctrinal disputes. Still, beneath the nit-picks, everyone seems to admire Wills’ more personal follow-up to the polemic Papal Sin. In the Chicago Tribune, Jason Berry praises Catholic as both “an earnest quest to have readers see [Wills’] own faith as genuine” and “a probing history in which the scholar relentlessly demonstrates how much institutional rot … must be endured by Catholics who see the church as a spiritual force greater than the sum of its man-made flaws.”