Summary Judgment

Following Man

How Luke Wilson got so bland, plus Arnold and Reese do it again.

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Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (Warner Bros.). Somewhat surprisingly, critics don’t terminate this sequel. Pinch-hitting director Jonathan Mostow may lack James Cameron’s “unusual gift for finding drama amid all the explosions, chases and collisions,” writes A. O. Scott, but he does film them “with professionalism and something like wit.” The filmmakers take a likably “old fashioned,” “Gallagher Sledge-O-Matic approach to storytelling—smashing, crushing, wrecking and pulverizing everything,” explains the AP’s Anthony Breznican, but they do those things “real good.” Though the Terminatrix, a new villain, has “maybe three sentences in the entire film, and they’re short ones,” nearly everyone loves her; she’s played by Kristanna Loken with the “steely glare of Sharon Stone,” the look of “a blond Alyssa Milano,” and a “default setting on hissy fit.” Nevertheless, the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick leaves the theater feeling annihilated: “Please, please contribute to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s campaign —It may be the only way to stop another sequel.” (Read David Edelstein’s review in Slate.) (Buy tickets to Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.)

Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde (MGM). “Red, White and Blah,” is more like it, writes the Orlando Sentinel’s Jay Boyar. “The clothes have the best lines” in this “Ms. Ditz Goes to Washington” sequel, which takes Elle Woods to the Capitol. Whereas Reese Witherspoon gave the first film some “satirical energy,” in this follow-up—”insipid mush from the movie meat-grinder”—she comes off as “an irredeemable idiot,” hisses Joe Williams in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. But Time’s Richard Schickel doesn’t mind the absurdist fluff—”We’re making fables, not reality here“—and in the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis agrees: There’s something “far out about a movie as willfully frivolous as this one dropping the names of PETA and Princeton philosopher Peter Singer as casually as Versace.” Elvis Mitchell, however, dismisses the allusions, clothes, and other “external gestures and flourishes” as superficial, closing with yet another food metaphor: “These frosted vanilla Pop-Tarts are all context and no subtext.” (Buy tickets to Legally Blonde 2: Red White & Blonde.)

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Swimming Pool (Focus Features). This “sunny, mean little suspense drama,” directed by François Ozon “with the edgy chill of Roman Polanski,” leaves critics mulling over its indeterminate final scenes. “I’m glad that I am bound to secrecy because to disclose the ending, or endings, might imply that I understood them,” puzzles the New Republic’s Stanley Kauffmann. The Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro finds the plot—about a buttoned-up British mystery writer (Charlotte Rampling) who’s obsessed with the sexy daughter of her French publisher (Ludivine Sagnier)—“less than compelling,” but thinks Rampling, who reveals considerable “sensuality (and skin),” gives a fierce performance. The AP’s Ben Nuckols agrees: “Rarely has it been so compelling to watch someone sit and type.” But the Village Voice’s Dennis Lim finds the film’s “prismatic game of refraction and reflection” somewhat empty and obvious. The Swimming Pool“may be an overly apt central metaphor in this case: Did Ozon really intend to make a movie this transparent?” (Buy tickets to Swimming Pool.)

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Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (DreamWorks). This animated movie banishes all signs of its once-Arab characters in favor of a “Greco-Roman coat that seems like whitewash.” The film “purée[s] the Arabian Nights, Jason’s quest for the golden fleece, the voyage of Odysseus, and some special-effects intensive revisionism into a homogenous stew,” writes the Onion’s Tasha Robinson, but it does so “in the service of a lively ride.” Kenneth Turan isn’t quite so forgiving about the film’s screenplay, which “consists of nonstop wisecracks of the ’Things to do, places to go, stuff to steal’ variety.” Sinbad tosses an “explosive into a fish with the glib, ‘Stand by for sushi!’ ” Most critics find the star-studded voice talent equally flat. Though some praise Michelle Pfeiffer’s “sultry purr” as Eris, the goddess of chaos, Brad Pitt’s boring inflections lead the Arizona Republic’s Scott Craven to “imagine the star lounging on a recliner, beer in hand, watching the latest Friends episode while delivering his lines.” (Buy tickets to Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas.)

Luke Wilson

Luke Wilson. This month, Wilson is “forced to stand by, practically mute” as boyfriend to Kate Hudson in Alex and Emma; Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; and Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde 2. According to Time, these “characters of unsurpassed earnestness and passivity” suggest that Wilson “has established a comfortable niche as the male ingenue … just handsome enough to be believable as a love interest but not so pretty.” “You get the feeling that you’re annoying people by being in so many movies,” Wilson tells the New York Daily News, and he’s sort of correct. “Hollywood’s prop du jour” is spending “so much time standing behind do-it-themselves superwomen this summer that he seems to be auditioning for the part of Steve Trevor in a future version of ‘Wonder Woman,’ ” avers Elvis Mitchell. Indeed, over the last few weeks, other critics have called the actor “puppy like,” “ever bland,” and “sleep-inducing” and have accused Wilson of failing “to provide evidence he has any resources to waste.” The AP’s Christy Lemire assures us, “he can do more,” but only “when his older, more audacious brother, Owen, and director Wes Anderson are involved.”

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Benjamin Franklin, by Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster). This “celebratory” biography depicts Franklin as, among other things, a PR guru, and the St. Petersburg Times’ John Freeman calls Isaacson, the former managing editor of Time and chairman of CNN, “the perfect writer to appreciate Franklin’s genius for using media to further his own goals.” The author’s expertise helps illuminate the “publishing wars between Franklin and his rivals,” notes the L.A. Times’ H.W. Brands: “He writes with the intimacy and respect of one battle-scarred veteran for another.” Isaacson also paints Franklin with a “modern gloss,” describing our founding father as “geeky” and skilled at “damage control,” the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Winik points out. But the Washington Post’s John Ferling observes that Isaacson’s “grasp is less certain when he turns to Franklin’s political activities and, most important, the roles he played during the American Revolution,” resulting in a book that is more “readable” than “penetrating.” (Buy Benjamin Franklin.)

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Trading Up, by Candace Bushnell (Hyperion). USA Today’s Jocelyn McClurg describes Janey, the fashion model-cum-aspiring screenwriter heroine of this “all very entre nous” novel, as a melange of Lily Bart, Scarlett O’Hara, and the Hilton sisters: “Bushnell fancies herself an Edith Wharton of the new millennium.” But if Wharton’s Bart was constrained by social expectations, “Janey isn’t trapped by anything bigger than her own laziness, pretensions, and greed,” writes Laura Miller in Entertainment Weekly. “If she sells her soul, it’s for designer clothes.” Posing as Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, Michiko Kakutani admonishes the character, who’s always looking to “trade up” for another man or another career: “You become a slut! And not a slut with a heart of gold, but a slut with a heart of ice! And who wants to read 400 pages about someone icky like that?!” Other critics find Bushnell, whose weekly column inspired Sex and the City, in “acid-tongued fine form,” and the New York Observer’s Adam Begley closes the book feeling “perfectly” satisfied. “Put it this way: When it was over, I felt the urge to light up a cigarette and ask Candace if it was as good for her as it was for me.” (Buy Trading Up.)

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Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (Sony). “If the Guinness Book included a record for most camera angles employed to shoot derrieres,” McG—who directed the first Charlie’s Angels along with this “feeble,” “sloppy” sequel—“would hold the crown,” says the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro. The “ass fetishism,” which the Dallas Observer’s Luke Y. Thompson finds “even more evident in this film than the last,” includes both visual “bumps and grinds“—the first shot is Lucy Liu’s “butt emerging from a box”—and an aural “slew of butt puns”—the Angel played by Drew Barrymore is named Helen Zass. Even “the storytelling is bumpy and lumpy,” writes Malcolm Johnson in the Hartford Courant. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Sean Axmaker concurs: “It resembles a movie so much that soon it demands something resembling motivation, character, a plot, anything to explain the seemingly arbitrary connections between the stunts and the skits.” And Elvis Mitchell, as is his wont, sums up the film with a food metaphor: “Like eating a bowl of Honeycomb drenched in Red Bull.” (Buy tickets to Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.) (Read David Edelstein’s review in Slate.)

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28 Days Later (Fox Searchlight). “As if the PETA people didn’t have enough bad press already,” activists accidentally unleash a deadly virus when they break into a primate-research facility in this zombie horror movie from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and novelist Alex Garland. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane believes the film suffers from a “serious shortage of fright” thanks to its propensity to “chop and chivy the images along.” But other critics are sufficiently creeped out by this “environmental cautionary tale,” which A.O. Scott and others agree is deeply indebted to the “hack-or-be-chomped” “visionary ghoulishness of George Romero.” Most focus on the film’s evocative look. The stripped-down digital video “conveys the appropriate fog of permanent doom” in a “haunting post-Armageddon London” where “metallic-blue rainfall spatter[s] down from the skies.” But the Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson contends that the film, which tries to make a political statement, musters only “fleeting glimpses of historically suggestive imagery” instead: “Romero had Vietnam and post-industrial consumerism; what do Boyle and Garland have?” (Buy tickets to 28 Days Later.)

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We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (Counterpoint). The New York Observer’s Philip Weiss calls attention to this “gutsy” epistolary novel, which takes on “the taboo that you can’t dislike your own children.” Weiss argues that the book—about a Columbine-like massacre, but told from the perspective of Eva, the perpetrator’s mother—has attracted the “underground” attention of “literate women” around New York City. Novelist Pearson Marx lauds the book for dispensing with the clichés of “mommy lit,” which usually “has to end on an upbeat note.” And the Seattle Times’ Wingate Packard adores Eva—an Armenian American who has “found herself in exile in America because of her son’s crime”—because she’s a completely original creation: “adventurous, worldly, funny, sharp and vain.” The Plain Dealer’s Vikas Turakhia finds he can’t turn away from this “slow, magnetic descent into hell,” although he notes that Shriver’s novel “provides so brutal an experience that to recommend it feels a bit perverse.” (Buy We Need to Talk About Kevin.)

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Welcome Interstate Managers, Fountains of Wayne (S-Curve). The “clever lyrical portraits” on this third album from the “criminally unheralded” New York quartet have critics dancing in the street. The songs chronicle New England ennui—“opening a vegan restaurant in Vermont” or “being fired from American Airlines”—and capture “that moment when campus greenery gives way to office parks” and “highballs in airport lounges take the place of cheap beer by the pool,” writes Keith Phipps in the Onion. Which is not to say the album is depressing; New York Times critic Neil Strauss notes that despite its themes, Welcome always seems to “face the sun.” G. Beato of the Washington Post explains that FOW (as fans call them) juxtapose “deadpan resignation with endless-summer harmonies,” to create a sound that evokes, at various points, every happy band you’ve ever heard of: the Beatles, Paul Simon, the Beach Boys, and the Cars. (Welcome Interstate Managers.)

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Dead Like Me (Showtime). John Masius, the executive producer of this new series about an 18-year-old girl named George who dies and becomes a reaper, occasionally describes it as “Seinfeld on acid,” but critics compare the show to a short-lived high school drama. “Could just as easily have been called My So-Called Death. ” “It’s My So-Called Former Life.” “Let’s call it My So-Called Afterlife,” writes the San Francisco Examiner’s Sonia Mansfield, who is happy to watch a show “that features a teenage girl whose biggest dilemma isn’t whether she wants to date Pacey or Dawson.”Dead Like Me “handles adolescent angst by showing how death makes George as depressed and resentful as life did,” explains Margo Jefferson in the New York Times, but “Who wouldn’t be dismayed when the first person you meet after you are no longer alive … is Mandy Patinkin?” asks New York’s John Leonard. Though Newsday’s Noel Holston thinks the creators shoot for “black comedy” but land at “cute morbidity,” the Los Angeles Times’ Howard Rosenberg, the show’s staunchest supporter, spots allusions to Our Town and ardently calls this dramedy “smartly written and urbane, tender without being sappy, and rich in wonderfully dark, twisted wit.”