Summary Judgment

Almost Infamous

The critical buzz on Truman Capote, 30 Rock, and Man of the Year.

Toby Jones in Infamous

Infamous (Warner Independent). There’s no use trying to evaluate Infamous on its own merits. A.O. Scott in the New York Times reassures us, “There is no reason to choose between Bennett Miller’s Capote, which came out almost exactly a year ago, and Douglas McGrath’s Infamous, which opens today.” The Washington Post’s Stephen Hunter categorizes each thusly: “[W]hile Capote was a parable of ambition, Infamous is a parable of love.” And woe unto the moviegoer who confuses the two! The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan is less parabolic, sniffing that the first half of the film “gives off a tone of arch stylization that plays as artificial, overwrought and off-putting.”Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers does his part in raising the eyebrows of the art-house crowd, confiding, “The film’s most pleasing surprise is the beautifully nuanced portrait of Capote’s confidante, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee, by”— Miss Congeniality herself—”Sandra Bullock.” (Buy tickets to Infamous.)

Alec Baldwin and Tina Fey in 30 Rock

30 Rock (NBC). Infamous isn’t the only inadvertent copycat this week, and the critics can’t help but compare 30 Rock to the other Saturday Night Live-satirizing show on NBC’s lineup this season. “30 Rock, like its comedy-drama cousin Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, is pretty darn funny, a bitterly merry comic jihad against corporate stupidity and mendaciousness,” trumpets Glenn Garvin in the Miami Herald. The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik calls 30 Rockone of the zaniest —and most savvy—workplace comedies in years,” but Amy Amatangelo, who writes the TV Gal blog on Zap2It, has already cast her lot with Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip—the other show. In fact, 30 Rock left her cold, mostly: “I just didn’t find the comedy that funny. … Alec Baldwin remains the only reason to watch the show.” Perhaps he’ll find a way to insert his Schweddy Balls into the show.

Robin Williams in Man of the Year

Man of the Year (Universal). Robin Williams never met a wig he didn’t like, but if only that which served him so well in Mrs. Doubtfire could save him in Barry Levinson’s almost universally derided film about a comedian who becomes president. “There’s not a moment in Man of the Year when Williams isn’t straining or hectoring,” Lisa Schwarzbaum sighs in Entertainment Weekly. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Carrie Rickey notes that the cast members—who include Laura Linney, Christopher Walken, and Lewis Black—are “individually fine although they appear to be in different films” and “tread warily on each other’s turf, like Martian and Venusian making adjustments for an alien gravitational field.” (John Gray, meet Barry Levinson.) The Village Voice’s Robert Wilonsky, huffs that Levinson “loses his movie, his audience, and his purpose in a tangle of conspiracy theories and crackpot notions that sink the movie just when it begins to transcend expectations.” (Buy tickets to Man of the Year.)

Deliver Us From Evil(Lionsgate).Former TV producer Amy Berg’s directorial debut about pedophilia in the Catholic Church has not left critics at a loss for words. “It’s a howl of rage and a keen-eyed study of a subject,” Slate’s Dana Stevens writes. Ella Taylor in LA Weekly notes that Berg “lifts the subject clean out of private pathology into the realm where it belongs: the rampant and systematic abuse of theological and institutional power.” The film focuses on the victims of Father Oliver O’Grady, who abused dozens of children while working as a priest in California and now lives in Ireland after serving several years in jail. But it also condemns O’Grady’s superiors, particularly Roger Cardinal Mahony, now archbishop of Los Angeles, and by extension the entire Catholic Church. As A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times, the film “is clear-sighted, tough-minded and devastating, a portrait of individual criminality and institutional indifference, a study in the betrayal of trust and the irresponsibility of authority.” Powerful stuff. (Buy tickets to Deliver Us From Evil.)

Battlestar Galactica (Sci-Fi). In its third season, Battlestar Galactica may finally have reached a critical tipping point. On Crooked Timber, a culture blog, poster Scott McLemee muses, “If someone hinted two years ago that one day I would be eagerly awaiting the third season of a remake of Battlestar Galactica, my response would have been something like, ‘Get away from me, crazy person, because that is crazy, what you are saying to me.’ ” But most critics take pains to point out that this is more than another dorked-out sci-fi fest. “[T]he real drama here still rests in the human relationships: flawed characters, struggling to make it through chilling times without sacrificing too much of themselves in the process,” Salon’s Heather Havrilesky observes earnestly. Is it based on real-life current events? Perhaps, but Joanna Weiss cautions in the Boston Globe that “Battlestar is less an allegory about current events than a rumination on how we might view things if tables were turned.” A commenter on Television Without Pity’s message boards probably puts it best (using some BG vocab in the process): “Damn I’d forgotten how frakking awesome this show is.”

Ron Rosenbaum, The Shakespeare Wars(Random House).Critics seem impressed by the scope (and size—601 pages!) of Rosenbaum’s “besotted, passionate new book,” (Walter Kirn in the New York Times Book Review), but some, like the Washington Post’s Michael Dirda, take issue with the way the author “makes everything intensely, even histrionically personal.” Rosenbaum sets aside the pesky question of whether Shakespeare was, in fact, Shakespeare and concentrates instead on the conflict-ridden state of contemporary scholarship on the Bard. The result “is occasionally Shakespearean: superfluous, excited, at once dizzying and redundant,” equivocates Daniel Swift in the Los Angeles Times. Bookforum critic and prominent Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro confides that really, you only need to read the first 150 pages or so, to find “by far the best material“—about editing Shakespeare—”in this long and digressive book.” English majors, take note. (BuyThe Shakespeare Wars.) (ReadSlate’s dialogue with Rosenbaum.)

Book Review Brawl. The letters section of the most recent  New York Times Book Review sets a new unhappy author standard. Here’s Michael Bérubé, taking Alan Wolfe to task for his review of Bérubé’s What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: “Surely it is not the job of academic fields of study to advance narrow and partisan agendas.” Then there’s Sidney Blumenthal, none too pleased with Jennifer Senior’s piece on his book How Bush Rules: Chronicles of a Radical Regime: “Was this supercilious piece intended to be a book review?” Media critic and Columbia prof Todd Gitlin piles on, asserting, “Relentless criticism and cogent analysis of a relentlessly dangerous and hard-to-believe administration make Senior uncomfortable.” Let’s not forget David Thomson, wounded by Lawrence Levi’s review of his Nicole Kidman biography: “I was trying to get at some deeper points about acting, film, power and so on—but alas, I fell short of Levi’s snob standards,” Thomson sniffs, alerting the Book Review’s readers that his book has recently gotten a positive review in the San Francisco Chronicle. But things get downright nasty in Franz Wright’s letter about Joel Brouwer’s review of Charles Wright’s new book of poems (the Wrights are not related). “Why not assign beginners to review other beginners, and when dealing with the work of proven contemporary masters like Wright, take the trouble to enlist the mind of someone capable of writing intelligent prose?” Wright growls.

The Decemberists, The Crane Wife(Capitol).It’s the major-label debut of the Portland band known for infusing their songs with words like “palanquin” and “pachyderm.”  “They’ve gone and infused a bit of prog and Pink Floyd into their chamber pop,” music blog Sterogum observes, but this leaves Justin Sheppard of Prefix Magazine nonplussed: “I’d just as soon forget what I can only describe as the sound of [frontman Colin] Meloy furiously masturbating while he lives out his personal prog-rock fantasy.” Most other critics are less concerned with Mr. Meloy’s nighttime pursuits than with what Nate Chinen in the New York Times calls “the band’s sharpest and most satisfying work.” On Pitchfork, Stephen M. Deusner doles out a very respectable 8.4 rating, but also wonders, “Will nine-minute mariner epics play in Peoria?” (BuyThe Crane Wife.)