Summary Judgment

White Albums

Is Elvis-love racist? Plus other bits from the week in criticism.

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Blue Crush (Universal Pictures).”A surfer-babe movie so tactile it practically dunks the audience in the water,” writes Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly. Other critics join Gleiberman in giddy girl-power virtual reality: The New York Times’ A.O. Scott effuses that “ shimmery photography carries the breeze and spray of the island right into the theater,” while the Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan says, “[T]here’s so much H20 in this film, my notes had mildew on them the next day.” Yo, Point Break, can you do that? (Buy tickets for Blue Crush.)

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Possession (USA Films). Sympathetic pans for this—ye gods!—glossy Neil LaBute romance. In the Chicago Tribune, Michael Wilmington calls it “a polished, luscious-looking misfire.” A few heated defenders like Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek find the movie wildly romantic, but others complain of “ precious little chemistry” (William Arnold, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) and an “ unpleasant treacle effect” (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). (Buy tickets for Possession.)

BaadAsssss Cinema (IFC). Isaac Julien’s antic, interview-packed documentary celebrates the kick-ass genre’s “ good guilty pleasures” (Edward Guthmann, the San Francisco Chronicle). In the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Christopher Kelly faults Julien for downplaying blaxploitation’s sell-out side. But the Chicago Daily Herald’sTed Cox calls the film’s subversive thesis overdue: While silly on the surface, these movies were in fact “as groundbreaking and influential as more ‘idealistic’ efforts at social change.”

Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley. Ah, the King: 25 years dead and still with the PR! At Time, there’s Elvis as “Huck Finn with a guitar“; at the New York Times, Elvis as glorious shape-shifter. Meanwhile, in the Guardian, Helen Kolawole performs a timely meta-critique, complaining that such coverage is straight out racist: “We are eternally bound to live in a skewed world where Elvis is king of rock’n’roll, Clapton is the guitar god, Sinatra is the voice and Astaire is the greatest dancer.” (In the Charlotte Observer, Tonya Jameson takes a satirical route to the same point, suggesting that perhaps the King wasn’t so white after all, but rather “the original undercover brother.”)

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Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Belasco Theatre, New York). Critics adore Edie Falco’s “shopworn luminosity” (Clive Barnes, the New York Post) and Stanley Tucci’s intensity and abs. But while the New York Times’ Ben Brantley applauds the “enchanted spell of intimacy” cast by the revived Terrence McNally romance, others haul out code words: “exceedingly slight” (Howard Kissel, the New York Daily News), “attractive yet fairly slight” (Barnes). USA Today’s Elysa Gardner’s lack of praise is less faint: “as dated and cloying as an old episode of thirtysomething.”

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Charles Dickens: A Penguin Life, by Jane Smiley (Viking Press). Most reviewers liked Jane Smiley’s “admirable, compact introduction” (Adam Woog, the Seattle Times) to Dickens’ life and work, part of the Penguin Lives series. But the Spectator’s Philip Hensher is dreadfully disappointed: “The insistent crackle of wit present on every page of Jane Smiley’s novels has bafflingly been replaced by the vaguest and least thoughtful phrases of reviewers.” As for her suggestion that The Old Curiosity Shop is unreadable: “Miss Smiley, your pants are on fire and you are talking about the maddest extravaganza the unconscious mind ever committed directly to paper.” (Charles Dickens.)

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Goodbye Tsugumi, by Banana Yoshimoto, translated by Michael Emmerich (Grove). Does pop Japanese author Yoshimoto write teenage characters like a teenager or, like, like a teenager? In the Washington Post, Janice P. Nimura reviews it both ways. In the St. Petersburg Times, John Freeman notes that while the main character is meant to be in her early 20s, she sounds like she’s 10: “She is fond of words like glitter and shimmer, and her descriptions often begin with several reallys.” (Suggested musical accompiment: Shonen Knife.) (Goodbye Tsugumi.)

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A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose, by B.R. Myers (Melville House Publishing). For fans of last year’s snobs-vs.-Oprah debate, B.R. Myers has gestated last year’s Atlantic Monthly article into a big, squalling brat of a book—courtesy of the folks at The gist: Snooty critics wrongly admire “literary novelists” like Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy (not to mention poor punching bag Rick Moody) while ignoring Stephen King. Fox News is all over the thing. The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley called the original article “useful mischief“; the Los Angeles Times’ Lee Siegel, “phony populism.” More TK! (Buy A Reader’s Manifesto.)

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Daybreaker, by Beth Orton (Heavenly). A few critics may worship Orton as a “golden-throated folktronica goddess” (Amy Sciarretto, CMJ) with a voice “hot-wired to her heart” (Barry Walters, Rolling Stone)—but on, Jason Nickey derides “mellow dreck pouring like chicken soup from the speakers.” Orton’s celebrated genre mix is just hype, he writes: “The songs are just so tentative and directionless, and the whole electro-acoustic thing so formulaically and routinely applied, that she seems like a mere pawn at the mercy of her collaborators and record company.” (Daybreaker.)

Department of Critical Consequences
When African-American critic Wanda Coleman panned Maya Angelou’s latest in the Los Angeles Times, a local bookstore banned her from her own book-signing! In response, Coleman traces the messy history of black-on-black literary crit, defending her right to “voice my expertise, be it praise song, mixed bag or dissent.” Meanwhile, Minnesota theater critic Dominic Papatola reviews a local production called Bring Me the Head of Dominic Papatola—a revenge fantasy complete with excerpted Papatola pans scrawled on the set. (Sample: “I felt my organs shutting down from the production’s sheer, toxic awfulness.”) “What these people have against me,” writes Papatola wryly, “I have no idea.”