Summary Judgment

Is Dogville a Dog?

Critics battle over the merits of Lars von Trier’s latest.

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Dogville (Lions Gate). Lars von Trier’s antirealist fable, which stars Nicole Kidman as a woman brutalized by a Rocky Mountain community, was controversial at Cannes—and critics are still arguing. Premiere calls Dogvillea masterpiece” and says von Trier does “more with one shift of lighting than many directors can do with” a “whole arsenal of effects.” J. Hoberman agrees, praising Kidman’s “remarkable performance” and claiming von Trier “has imagined an America that, in its iconography and concerns, seems almost a contribution to American literature.” But for naysayers like David Denby, the film is “an attack on America” that takes place “in the dead zone of schematic abstraction.” As always, von Trier’s depiction of women is criticized: He “employs the spectacle of female suffering as the basis for what has become a depressingly cruel and merciless worldview,” says Manohla Dargis in the Los Angeles Times. (Read David Edelstein’s review.) (Buy tickets to Dogville.)

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Jersey Girl (Miramax). The movie that became Bennifer’s last gasp is “a weird, private and terrible concoction,” says LA Weekly. Ben Affleck plays a movie publicist who raises a daughter after his wife (Jennifer Lopez, who’s only onscreen for 15 minutes) dies in childbirth, then finds romance with video store clerk Liv Tyler. Critics gag on the saccharine plot: “Sap practically oozes from the screen,” sneers the Philadelphia Inquirer; this is “the film equivalent of making goo-goo noises and chucking a baby under the chin,” sniffs the New York Times. Affleck gets mixed reviews. The Los Angeles Times says he’s “such a transparent actor” that watching him “in tears is not a sight for the faint of heart,” but Rolling Stone finds him “modest and engaging.” Director Kevin Smith (who says he knew his film would be panned) is less fortunate. The Dallas Observer says he used to make fun of movies like this; “now he’s just another guy working the assembly line.” (Buy tickets to Jersey Girl.)

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The Ladykillers (Buena Vista). “Looking rather like a dissipated Colonel Sanders” (Los Angeles Times), Tom Hanks leads an incompetent team of criminals in this Coen brothers remake of a classic Ealing Studios black comedy. Critics are relieved to see Hanks step away from his everyman persona for what the Onion calls “an unforgettable caricature of Southern gentility turned foul.” He’s “always had a streak of the caustic,” says Entertainment Weekly, “and he lends the movie the full, devious force of his bristly spirit.” Hanks is matched by Irma P. Hall’s African-American grandmother, who unwittingly rents her basement to his crew; she’s “outstanding,” “a tower of homey virtues and small-town values,” admires the Hollywood Reporter. Hanks and Hall aside, however, The Ladykillers is “uneven,” says the New York Times: “There are long stretches where its inventiveness flags and its humor wears thin.” (Buy tickets to The Ladykillers.)

Twentieth Century (American Airlines Theater). Did everyone see this 1930s Broadway comedy on a different night? Ben Brantley goes purple for Anne Heche’s scrappy movie siren, “her posture melting between serpentine seductiveness and a street fighter’s aggressiveness, her voice shifting between supper-club velvet and dime store vinyl.”  Peter Marks at the Washington Post, however, can’t see past Alec Baldwin’s megalomaniacal theater producer: “If actors were deployed like military hardware, Alec Baldwin would be the M1 tank. Firepower and mobility: That’s what he’s built for.” (As everyone notes, Baldwin “has put on an astonishing amount of weight.”) Clive Barnes of the New York Post has eyes for both actors—and an equally vivid image for Baldwin, who “pouts like a bejowled pigeon in a mating ritual.” And the Associated Press, rounding out the bunch, hates them both, calling him “miscast” and her “hyperactive.” What everyone does agree on: “There’s little real wit in the evening,” as Reuters puts it.

Zaha Hadid.Iraqi-born British citizen Hadid became the first woman to win architecture’s prestigious Pritzker Prize this week, despite having only six buildings to her name. The Daily Telegraph calls this “final vindication in what has been a long and difficult struggle for credibility“—Hadid’s designs have often seemed “impracticable.” (“Her renderings,” says Slate’s Christopher Hawthorne, “seemed to be composed from the perspective of a helicopter dipping into a crazy sideways tailspin.”) The New Republic reliably supplies a melodramatically contrarian viewpoint, claiming Hadid’s selection creates “at least the appearance of affirmative action” and “threatens to further widen the rift between ideas and practice that is slowly undermining architecture’s ability to contribute to society.” On a more sanguine note, Herbert Muschamp admits that Hadid’s identity may have been “a factor,” but testifies that “her vision can alter a person’s outlook,” adding vaguely that her buildings are about “the changing status of the urban center in a time of global change.” 

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The Fountain at the Center of the World, by Robert Newman (Soft Skull Press). This British antiglobalization novel, which culminates at the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization, “reads like what you’d get if Tom Wolfe clambered inside the head of Noam Chomsky,” according to the New York Times—“it elegantly and angrily scorches a lot of earth.” Yet while the book “is frankly ideological,” says Salon, Newman is “too interested in his characters, both the noble and the despicable, to turn any of them into cartoons.” Most reviewers are happy to follow the Dickensian narrative around the globe, from “keen observations of everyday life in Mexican villages” to “chaotic scenes” rendered “in such vivid detail that the readers can almost feel the singeing tear gas.” But the Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages complains about “creaky plot mechanics” and calls this “the bookworm’s SUV“: “Just toting it around gave me a feeling of superiority over the legions who are still breaking The Da Vinci Code.” ( The Fountain at the Center of the World.)

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The Devil’s Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square, by James Traub (Random House). The conventional wisdom about the recent cleanup of Times Square “is nearly the reverse of the truth,” claims Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker. This history shows that Mayor Koch and a few rich real-estate owners deserve the credit (or the blame); “Mayor Giuliani, basically, was there to cut the ribbon, and Disney to briefly lend its name.” Everyone admires Traub’s ability to “acknowledge that change may not always go in the directions we’d like it to, but that waxing sentimental over the lost past is fruitless and self-indulgent,” as the Washington Post puts it. The New York Times enjoys the book’s “dizzying demonstration of just how many Manhattans have occupied the same slice of real estate,” but the Wall Street Journal notes that the one “constant has been the Sign” and compares MTV to the Ziegfeld follies of the 1920s. Gopnik says at least one thing has changed: He laments the disappearance of “weird stores”—small businesses, from restaurants to camera-rental firms, that refract “the city’s vitality and density.” (The Devil’s Playground.)

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Rise of the Vulcans, by James Mann (Viking). In charting the long, intertwined history of Bush’s war Cabinet—aka the “Vulcans,” as Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Wolfowitz, Powell, and Armitage dubbed themselves in 2000—James Mann chronicles 30 years of U.S. foreign policy. Most reviewers, like Michiko Kakutani, find him “lucid, shrewd,” and “blessedly level-headed.” Tracing policy debates dating back to Vietnam, Vulcans provides “a much-needed antidote” to simplistic tales of the “battle between hawks and doves,” says the Wall Street Journal. (And, in describing an early face-off involving Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Kissinger, it “achieves what many thought impossible: making the Ford administration fascinating.”) Yet “by omitting Bush, Mann gives us the doughnut but not the hole,” says the New York Times Book Review; “the president may influence his aides as much as they guide him.” And the Los Angeles Times wants more analysis, griping that Mann is like “a play-by-play sports announcer who provides copious details but lacks a colleague to supply color commentary.” (Rise of the Vulcans.)

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Disarming Iraq, by Hans Blix. “A 304-page book about weapons inspections, written by a Swedish septuagenarian, doesn’t sound like an inviting prospect,” admits the Los Angeles Times. “But the story Blix has to tell is amazing.”Disarming Iraq details the hardball tactics of the Bush administration, but those in search of “score-settling or petty gossip” “will be disappointed,” warns the Washington Post: “Despite Blix’s postwar vindication, he resists the temptation to gloat.” (And admits that he, too, believed Iraq had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.) In fact, his critique of U.S. policy is “genteel and fair” compared to “most observers overseas,” says the New York Times—although he’s “too multilateralist and legalistic,” and he underplays the intransigence of both Saddam and the French. While “Blix writes like a bureaucrat,” according to the Seattle Times, he’s also “very human,” says the Dallas Morning News, “showing delight at gestures such as being served crumpets by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.” (Disarming Iraq.)