Summary Judgment

King of Comedy

The critical buzz on Borat, CMJ, and Volver.

Borat.

Borat (Twentieth Century Fox). There’s hardly a critic in the land who’s not enamored with Sacha Baron Cohen’s devastating portrayal of Kazakh “journalist” Borat Sagdiyev and his madcap journey through the United States. “He’s a walking cherrybomb id, a fusion of Andy Kaufman and Howard Stern,”Entertainment Weekly reflects. The Village Voice trumpets, “The man who invented Borat is a masterful improviser, brilliant comedian, courageous political satirist, and genuinely experimental film artist. Borat makes you laugh but Baron Cohen forces you to think.” Baron Cohen’s sheer chutzpah—his rendition of “Throw the Jew Down the Well” has been widely documented—leaves his motives somewhat obscured, as Slate’s Dana Stevens notes: “Whether you attribute that gall to fearless honesty or shameless crassitude is up to you.” Perhaps the joke is, in fact, on all of us, the New Yorker’s Anthony Lane theorizes: “It is as if [Baron Cohen] were outraged by the business of our being human—as if, in laying bare our follies, he were just quickening the process by which we already make fools of ourselves.” (Buy tickets to Borat.)

CMJ and the Latin Grammys. In an article in the New York Times about indie music festival CMJ, Kelefa Sanneh notes that, instead of the all-embracing monoculture of the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in which people enjoyed a “shared experience,” music has come to be dominated by what he terms “mini-monocultures.” But Sanneh implies that this splintering has also led to a curious de-politicization of music: “Most bands at CMJ don’t aim to change the world, or even to irritate it. They can survive, even thrive, in their own mini-monoculture.” There was another not-so-mini musical monoculture on display in New York this week: The Latin Grammys were held in Manhattan for the first time. Shakira (and her hips) was the big winner this year, but as the Los Angeles Times’ Agustin Gurza and Matea Gold observe, “The array of winners—many of them well-respected in their fields—debunked the common wisdom that this year has represented a slump for Latin music.”

Volver(Sony Pictures Classics). Pedro Almodóvar’s festival favorite finally lands in theaters and with it, Penélope Cruz’s inscription in the Hollywood-actress canon, as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott argues: “With this role Ms. Cruz inscribes her name near the top of any credible list of present-day flesh-and-blood screen goddesses, in no small part because she manages to be earthy, unpretentious and a little vulgar without shedding an ounce of her natural glamour.” The New York Observer’s Rex Reed concurs: “All dressed up in peppermint-candy stripes, with a cherry mouth and a gaze of perpetual sensuality, she’s a delicious piece of work.” It doesn’t hurt that the film is Almodóvar’s “fourth triumph in a row,” trills Newsweek, noting that it “flows effortlessly between peril and poignancy, the real and the surreal, even life and death.” (Buy tickets to Volver.) 

Sophie's Choice.

William Styron. The Sophie’s Choice author died this week at his home on Martha’s Vineyard at the age of 81, and critics sadly note his passing. In an appreciation in the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani puts away her sword and reflects, “There was an elegiac tone to much of his work, a heightened awareness of loss and longing and regret.” Kakutani observes that the Virginia native’s “prose bore the full imprint of the Southern tradition: it was lush, luxuriant, sometimes purple.” In the Washington Post, Wil Haygood takes the opportunity to consider Styron’s friendship with writer James Baldwin, which spanned nearly three decades: “It is not too much to say that they loved each other. And that they were each American to the bone.” Other tributes make delicate mention of Styron’s struggles with depression. The Los Angeles Times comments that Styron’s “open, searching, personal account did much to heighten awareness of the often misunderstood condition,” and the AP declares, “Styron drank like a writer, suffered like one, and, as Vidal once commented, even looked like one. He was a handsome, muscular man, with a strong chin and wavy dark hair that turned an elegant white.”

YouTube and myspace.

YouTube and MySpace Get Tough. This week, YouTube started taking down Comedy Central video clips, and MySpace began yanking copyrighted music from users’ profiles using an automated program called Gracenote. But YouTube and Comedy Central were quick to come to a compromise, and YouTube has since reposted some of the clips. This has led to grumbling that it was all a negotiating tactic by Comedy Central parent Viacom. At information-technology blog TechDirt, poster Mike reflects, “Similar to the companies that hinted at future lawsuits just as they were negotiating with YouTube, Viacom is likely using this to put pressure on Google/YouTube to cough up a better deal for them.” On BoingBoing, reader Aaron Newton notes, “It’s moves like this, which aren’t necessary due to the way the DMCA [Digital Music Copyright Act] works, that makes sites like this less socially relevant. MySpace is a haven for bands because it gives them these tools and doesn’t make them really work hard to get their stuff online.”

Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (Knopf).

Richard Ford, The Lay of the Land (Knopf). The third installment in Ford’s series of books about New Jerseyite Frank Bascombe sees our hero firmly planted in middle age and facing treatment for cancer. Many critics—who have been following Bascombe since Ford’s first book about him, 1986’s The Sportswriter—have developed an almost familial attachment to Ford’s protagonist. “It can feel, writing about these books, that you are not evaluating a literary artifact so much as passing judgment on a person,” muses A.O. Scott in the New York Times Book Review, and in the Guardian, Tim Adams cautions, “It is tempting to see Frank as a kind of American Everyman, but Ford knows him so well that he is never anything less than distinctly individual and real.”Slate’s Blake Bailey, however, finds Bascombe a “hard fellow to figure out, as he seems to adopt and discard personae on almost every other page.” Indeed, some of Bascombe’s extended ruminations on life have rubbed critics the wrong way. Entertainment Weekly’s Gregory Kirschling jabs, “We like Frank even if he sometimes turns into a bit of a windbag,” and the Los Angeles Times’ David L. Ulin yawns, “The book meanders, taking pages to describe the simplest interactions, with an eye to detail that can be overwhelming, numbing, far too full.” (Buy The Lay of the Land.)

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing (Pantheon).

Laura Kipnis, The Female Thing (Pantheon). The four chapters—dirt, sex, envy, and vulnerability—of Slate contributor Kipnis’ follow-up to her 2003 pro-adultery polemic Against Love have sparked a bit of a critical contretemps—mostly among women. (Sections of this book appeared in different form in Slate.) What to make of this academic (Kipnis teaches at Northwestern) who, as Salon’s Laura Miller puts it, “is like the intelligent woman’s version of whatever Carrie Bradshaw was supposed to be on Sex and the City“? Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Alexandra Jacobs sneers, “It’s as if Kipnis has eagerly Hoovered up every piece of media lint about white upper-middle-class ‘chicks,’ to use her saucy non-professorial parlance, and is now emptying the vacuum bag in our presence.” Toni Bentley, reviewing for Bookforum, discloses that Kipnis criticized The Surrender, Bentley’s paean to anal sex, as being “infused with the ecstasy of self-exposure” and takes the occasion to observe that Kipnis “offers no answers but does a Derrida on the female situation and leaves us to sort out the awful mess.” But the New York Observer’s Sheelah Kolhatkar takes the bird’s-eye view (no pun intended) to note, “Both the television and print worlds are crowded with self-important boys fighting amongst themselves, but there’s no Simone, Susan Sontag or even a kooky new Camille Paglia on the horizon”—and thus, she implies, Kipnis’ “self-consciously irreverent voice” is a welcome one. (Buy The Female Thing.)

Shut Up & Sing (The Weinstein Company).

Shut Up & Sing (The Weinstein Company). Positive reviews and a little controversy never hurt anyone, as the new documentary about the Dixie Chicks ably demonstrates. “Life in Bush America gets a blunt, honest telling in this documentary that makes you want to stand up and cheer without ever begging for tears or glib sympathy,” trills Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers. Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines “is a bull in a china shop with the voice of an angel, and you can’t help but cheer her fuck-you to a kow-towing music industry, and to all the bullies who picketed her concerts, wanting her dead,” raves LA Weekly’s Ella Taylor. And the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick straight-shoots that it’s simply “sharper and far more entertaining than most political documentaries.” (Buy tickets to Shut Up & Sing.)