Reviews from the Mainstream

“Subjectivity is the only possible approach to reviewing. What is a review but an opinion? Those who call for you to be objective are revealing that they have not given the matter a moment’s serious thought. Most times, those calling for objectivity are essentially saying they wish you had written a review that reflected their subjective opinion.”
Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times “The best defense I can muster for what we critics do is really quite simple. Ideally, the thrust and urgency of any one of our opinions hinges less on the judgment than on the depth and passion with which it’s expressed. My opinion, in short, has no more ‘value’ than yours. I can only hope that I give voice to it in a way that enriches the experience of the art form we both love.”
Owen Gleiberman, EW “I look at a sequel as an entity that ought to be intelligible to someone who didn’t see the original – but must reward anyone who did. In other words, I certainly do relate it to what has come before – who wouldn’t?”
Lisa Schwarzbaum, EW


I’ve been talking about the difference between mainstream reviews and ratings and those found in typical romance publications since 1996, in the first year of Laurie’s News & Views (now At the Back Fence). Rather than reiterate the same discussion again here, I’ll first list the various issues of LN&V/ATBF where we’ve considered this topic, then I’ll present some mainstream reviews we haven’t posted before. Why do this? We’d really like to put an end to the discussion that comes up every time a we post a very negative review. By showing how our reviews are in the same style as negative mainstream reviews, and just about always less critical than negative mainstream reviews, we hope to show that we are in the mainstream and those other romance publications who find that even the worst of books are “acceptable” have skewed readers’ perceptions of what a review is and what it does.


On Reviews and Ratings at AAR (and some other nifty links on the topic!)


Reviews from the Mainstream

Snippets from a variety of reviewers on the movie Gigli:

Baltimore Sun: An affair to forget. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez fall flat on their pretty faces in the dumb, dull ‘Gigli’… Excruciating…The movie proves to be singularly unfunny and static almost from the non-get-go. Virtually nothing happens; the movie is all premise.

Chicago Tribune: Put together enough pointless, random details, and you get Gigli, a movie that’s less incompetent than bewildering… Bartha apparently has downloaded Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” performance; he’s got the agitated muttering and blurted non sequiturs down cold. And when he smiles, Brest never fails to thrust the camera right up to his face. At such moments, the orchestral score becomes coated in so much syrup, it could open its own IHOP franchise… Affleck already grappled with love for a lesbian in “Chasing Amy.” The difference here is a significant drop-off in IQ points. Affleck plays Larry Gigli like Edward Burns on stupid pills. Al Pacino’s hammy cameo (an almost redundant phrase by now) is indicative of what’s wrong with “Gigli.” Pacino’s mob honcho is supposed to be menacing, but he’s just full of gas… The result is as convincing as Pat Boone covering NWA songs.

New York Daily News: Gigli is a disaster. Although Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez fell in love while making this crude black comedy, which opens tomorrow, they play unappetizing characters who deserve each other only because no one else would have them. The one thing the movie has going for it is, as my dearly departed grandmother might have observed of J.Lo, “That girl’s kishkes are hanging out!”… the script, by writer-director-producer Martin Brest, looks as if it began life as a crime drama with a heart. It has since morphed into a comedy without a pulse… Two cameo appearances in “Gigli” are so odd and gratuitous, we’re just going to pretend they never happened. One involves Christopher Walken, who deconstructs his dialogue into component words and then delivers them in some sort of salute to Kafka. The other involves Al Pacino, who is under the misconception that he is in a decibel contest.

USA Today: An embarrassing debacle…the rare movie that never seems to take off, but also never seems to end. It tries hard to titillate, but ends up making audiences want to avert their eyes… The stars preen for the camera but strike no sparks with each other. There’s no question that Lopez knows how to steam things up: Check out her scenes with George Clooney in 1998’s Out of Sight. But Affleck had more chemistry with buddy Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting than he does with Lopez, whom he met while making this film and now is his fiancée. Maybe it’s because Lopez appears so in love with herself that there’s no room for anyone else.

The Globe and Mail (Toronto): A hit taken out on the audience… Quite apart from anyone’s feelings about their blandness, wealth, good looks and questionable acting gifts, Affleck and Lopez have made a truly awful movie together. This is not just ordinary bad in a Bad Boys II sort of way, but a hypnotic, black hole of a movie that sucks reputations, careers and goodwill down its vortex. Rarely has a movie that doesn’t star Madonna achieved such a skin-crawling mixture of deluded preening and bungled humour.

Miami Herald: Gigli — which had been tainted by bad buzz since Brest was forced to change his original, tragic ending after test screening audiences threw vegetables and large power tools at the screen — was rumored to be in the same league as Showgirls and Battlefield Earth. But the movie isn’t bad enough to merit worst-of-all-time status. Gigli’s awfulness is of a rarer, more precious variety. It’s the sort of bizarre, ill-conceived picture you can’t believe exists, but are secretly glad it does… The phrase ”they don’t make ’em like this very often” has never felt more appropriate.

Los Angeles Times: Nearly as unwatchable as it is unpronounceable… this movie would stink even without its big-ticket stars, which isn’t to say that either is entirely blameless… For 40 minutes or so, Gigli and Ricki swap stale banter as the actors feign animosity and Bartha sneaks off with the movie by channeling Dustin Hoffman’s “Rain Man” shtick. A protracted scene in which the camera and Gigli both leer at Ricki’s wobbly yoga moves as she sings the praises of the female anatomy has irrefutable camp value, as does an inevitable seduction capped by the memorable line “it’s turkey time – gobble, gobble.” Yes, it certainly is.

Washington Post: The movie, written and directed by Martin (“Beverly Hills Cop”) Brest, is basically an oglefest for die-hard fans of J-Lo and Ben-Yo. The story? Puh-leez… Guys, I’m telling you: Don’t go to this movie! It’s “Chasing Amy” with guns! You’re walking into a trap! This is for fans of the holy couple, but they already know that.

Jeffrey Lyons on WNBC-TV: Unfortunately, my seat faced the screen.

New York Times: Though he is a Los Angeles native, Larry’s accent sounds as if he had been raised in the part of New Jersey that’s just outside Boston… Larry’s name is pronounced ZHEE-lee, or as he likes to say, “rhymes with really.” As in really, really silly, which is the kindest way to describe this hopelessly misconceived exercise in celebrity self-worship, which opens to nationwide ridicule today. Gigli may be a patchwork of ideas that have been put to better use in other movies but it has a special badness all its own.”

Wall Street Journal: The worst movie of our admittedly young century. More stupefying follies may come, but it’s impossible to imagine how they’ll beat this one for staggering idiocy, fatuousness or pretension.

San Francisco Chronicle: The most thoroughly joyless and inept film of the year, and one of the worst of the decade. We’re talking about a disaster, and not of the fun “Showgirls” variety, either.

Boston Globe: An overlong, joyless, and inconsequential affair, full of dead air, and possessing only a few moments of jaw-dropping bad taste. It’s a dull disaster… Maybe that’s not up there with “No more wire hangers, ever” in the Bad Movie Hall of Fame. But it’s close enough.

Premiere: In case the Razzie Award announcers have any difficulty with the pronunciation, Gigli rhymes with “really.” As in “really bad,” or “really offensive,” or “really wish I’d remembered my gun so I could just shoot myself now and end the misery.”… It is tricky to say what to make of the chemistry between Ben and J. Lo, as their scenes together are often so mortifying that it’s hard to stay focused on the screen. The dialogue, written by director Martin Brest (who’s coming off another winner, Meet Joe Black), is so clunky and lacking in subtlety that it plays like a cross between soft-core porn and a really uncomfortable sex-ed class… To recap: Gigli is uncomfortable, offensive, and boring. If you want to see Ben and J. Lo, buy a tabloid. You’ll be better off. Really.


From The Washington Post (Tom Shales), 2003, on the TV mini-series Caesar (excerpts only):

“Caesar.” You’ve had the salad. Now see the movie. Or wait — don’t. You should be warned that the salad — depending on the quality of the anchovies — is likely to be more enjoyable. “Caesar” the movie does not “bestride the earth like a colossus,” as it was once said that Caesar did. Draggy and druggy, the four-hour two-parter, airing tomorrow and Monday at 8 p.m. on TNT cable network, is as tepid as a nap but not as refreshing.

… Pompey, played with a heavy face by Chris Noth… looks like a cross between Dean Martin and Sylvester Stallone, both drunk. The dialogue written by Peter Pruce and Craig Warner is on the hackneyed side. “How do I know I can trust you?” Caesar asks Pompey. “You don’t,” Pompey says roguishly as he rides off into the distance. That kind of exchange must have been considered trite even back in 65 B.C.

In 58 B.C., Caesar leads legions of Roman soldiers against a rebellious Gaul, while back in the Senate, the legislators bicker and quibble. Actors such as Christopher Walken look uncomfortable in their dingy togas and sound uncomfortable with the corny lines….

In a letter to Calpurnia, Caesar says that “waiting” is the most hellish aspect of war. So it is for the viewer as well. Sieges just aren’t much fun, and this one becomes nearly intolerable. Sadly, the filmmakers behind “Caesar” bit off more than they could chew — and they seem to take forever attempting to chew it.


From The Washington Post, 2003, on the movie The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (full review):

There is something extraordinary about “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” and that is the extraordinary ordinariness of its awfulness. It’s not brazenly bad or heroically bad or stridently bad. It’s bad in all the old, dull ways of being bad: poor performances, absurd story, dreary special effects, witless dialogue and the excessive length of someone taking himself far too seriously.

Certainly of the comic-book-derived movies of summer, it is the worst. And where I fully expected to write “Only Sean Connery emerges from the wreckage unscathed,” I must instead write: “Only Sean Connery emerges from the wreckage scathed.”

Boy, is he scathed. Such scathing you’ve never seen, all self-inflicted. In the film, he confines most of his acting to his left eyebrow and his right fist; they’re his only body parts that seem engaged. In all other respects, his performance must be modeled on Darrell Hammond’s brilliant impersonations of him on “Saturday Night Live” as arrogant and stupid but also stubborn and boring. He’s all four here, and also loud but sublimely uninteresting in a movie rich with uninteresting things.

The story pits six adventurers drawn from late 19th-century literature against your run-of-the-mill sociopath hell-bent on world domination while talking in a bad German accent and wearing both a mask and fake scars. Another one of those. Still, you might think that the film could earn a few brownie points simply on the basis of drawing its characters, through the vessel of the Alan Moore illustrated novel, from actual books. The seven are Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and chum Hyde (they count as one), Stoker’s vampire, Verne’s Nemo, Wells’s Invisible Man, and, last but still least, H. Rider Haggard’s Quatermain. Quick, lit majors, which author does not belong?

The answer is Haggard, who was a routine Empire hack with a really cool name; the others, with much less cool names (though “Mark Twain” is pretty cool) are all great writers, and to see them trashed in this illiterate saga of destruction seems almost an act of cultural desecration. Is nothing sacred? The answer is: Yes, the holy grail of Computer Generated Imagery, at whose altar this sad moron-fest worships with the conviction of the truly demented.

As Twain wrote, anyone looking for a plot here should be shot. But hold your fire, folks — here’s what I gleaned from the chaos: That previously noted mad wacko is trying to gin up World War I 15 years early. In 1899, utilizing a series of advanced weapons (tanks, assault rifles, wire-guided rockets and so forth), he first commits an atrocity in German uniforms in London and then in English uniforms in Berlin. Thus the British Secret Service recruits Quatermain (Connery), a big-game hunter and blowhard who found Haggard’s fictitious King Solomon’s Mines, to lead a team of the previous identified “extraordinary gentlemen” against the tyrant.

But each of the gentlemen (and woman) is trivially imagined and poorly acted. As Dorian Gray, Stuart Townsend is all metrosexual swish and perfume; as vampiress Mina Harker (the widow of Jonathan Harker, hero of “Dracula”), Peta Wilson is La Femme Narcoleptic; as the Invisible Man, Tony Curran simply doesn’t register. Naseeruddin Shah, evidently an Indian actor of great distinction, simply seems like the guy in the turban as Nemo. Poor Jason Flemyng, a fine actor, is an amusing Jekyll but a grotesque Hyde, hamstrung by the most preposterous of the summer’s computerized bodies, which buries his tiny head in a cartoonish zeppelin of muscularity, including hands and forearms that make Popeye’s look like Twiggy’s. But worst is Shane West as Secret Service Agent Tom Sawyer, a gun-toting, wise-cracking deconstruction of one of the great characters of American literature. West just seems like another routine blond punk, and you wonder: Why is he in a movie? There must be six interns in this very newsroom who could play this part as well.

Clearly it’s pointless to denounce “League” for its ludicrous anachronisms, when they’re meant to be part of the fun. It’s not the concept that isn’t fun, though, it’s the execution, which is thunderously rotten and obvious. The Nautilus, Nemo’s legendary undersea vessel, is depicted as a Tom Clancy Class missile sub with interior decoration by Cecil Beaton. It knifes through the water faster than our nukes do now, yet its draft is shallow enough to permit it to navigate the Thames, the canals of Venice (where the second act takes place) and a river that runs from the Indian subcontinent to Mongolia (that would be the locale of Act III). Whoever dreamed this up is asleep at the keyboard.

Presumably the same person imagined the climactic setting, a factory of advanced war machines in those frozen wastes of Mongolia. Yes, that would be a great place to build war machines, lacking as it does a railhead, a harbor and any access other than a dogsled across tundra. Hey, geniuses: Once you get ’em built, how do you get ’em out?

But the movie is at its weakest in the department of illusion. The action sequences are all but indistinguishable from one another, or from a fire drill in a fireworks plant: lots of running and screaming and incoherence, while buildings collapse all over the place. The director, Stephen Norrington, can’t choreograph motion within the frame to keep it expressive, and the CGI is so dark and ominous it dwarfs the mere mortals scurrying about. It’s —

Oh, why go on? What’s the point? “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” just plain reeks.


From EW, 2003, on the movie From Justin to Kelly:

What is Justin Guarini’s hair made of? Jheri Curled caramel? (Actually, that must be what he uses to lubricate his vocal cords.) I certainly had a lot of time to contemplate the question when I saw “From Justin to Kelly,” the appalling bland de soleil musical that’s the latest demonstration that reality TV tie-in movies don’t work. Just pretend, for a moment, that they did. Imagine that six months from now, your local omniplex is dominated by the 5,000-screen nationwide opening of movies like ”The Real Bangkok” and “From Clay to Ruben.”

But I digress into nightmare. How bad is ”From Justin to Kelly”? Set in Miami during spring break, it’s like ”Grease: The Next Generation” acted out by the food-court staff at SeaWorld. Justin, cast as the cool-dude ”mayor” of spring break, spends the entire movie getting his text messages crossed with nice girl Kelly Clarkson. He may, in other words, have missed nabbing the crown on ”American Idol,” but he’s still chasing after the winner. You could say that the beach-blanket imbecility is no worse than what we got in ’60s musicals like ”Where the Boys Are,” except that Connie Francis didn’t sing as if she were selling passion by the yard.


From Kirkus Reviews, 2003, on the novel Trading Up (excerpt only):

Though she’s a past master of the New York scene and the neuroses and accoutrements of its more fabulous denizens, Bushnell runs into more than a few snags when she tries to rev this lumbering, chaotic novel forward. It’s all well and good to create a creature as devastatingly cold-hearted and childish as Janey just so we can stand back and watch the chaos ensue (á la Valley of the Dolls, too bluntly alluded to), but a lurching, frequently stalled plot gets in the way to an almost embarrassing degree. A nearly nonexistent sense of humor unfortunately negates any vicarious pleasure to be got from either Bushnell’s better observations or Janey’s monstrous diva-tude.


From Publishers Weekly, 2003, on the novel Die in Plain Sight (excerpt only):

Heavy on romance and light on mystery, Lowell’s latest romantic thriller (after Running Scared), set in the art world, promises fireworks, then fizzles out.

In spite of the high-concept plot, most readers will guess the outcome well before the end of the book, and the speed and ease with which Lacey unravels three decades of murder and mayhem defy credibility. The wide array of characters and the engaging lesson on California art are enjoyable, but they can’t make up for the lack of suspense.


From Kirkus Reviews, 2003, on the novel Diary of a Groupie (excerpts only):

A career groupie is hired to use her tried-and-true wiles for revenge on a suspected child molester. Tyree has fortunately decided to pare things down after the 400-page bloat of his last effort (Leslie, 2002), though that’s about it. One can’t expect to be wowed by the prose after an stiff opening line (“Main Street in Las Vegas, Nevada, was the hottest spot for adult fun and games that America had to offer”), but it’s still impressive just how uninteresting Tyree is able to make his seemingly juicy plot-points. Unfortunately, once Tyree moves the action eastward, this already-thin tale becomes even more dangerously stretched, with barely enough steam to limp to its conclusion. Hard to figure what the point of it all is. Meanwhile, Tyree’s hopelessly schlocky style causes at least a couple of serious embarrassments per page.

(Excerpts submitted by Wendy Crutcher)


From Reuters/Hollywood Reporter, 2003, on the TV show For Love or Money:

Poor NBC. For the network that is now putting the “broad” in broadcasting, it has come to this: a “Bachelor” knockoff from executive producer Bruce Nash (“Meet My Folks,” “Mr. Personality”) that seems like an unintentional parody of the whole quasi-reality dating/get-rich-quick genre.

It’s like, all of the good (and even bad) ideas are now taken, so what’s left? How about “Joe Bachelor Personality Millionaire?” That’s pretty much “For Love or Money” in a nutshell, taking several established concepts, stirring and winding up with a bewildering, completely absurd mishmash.

It’s not a good sign when a TV critic watching the two-hour opener is left confused as to the goal and payoff. But that’s the case. Here’s what was clear: Rob, a 33-year-old lawyer from Dallas with chiseled good looks, a soft-spoken manner and improbably perfect hair, showed up at a Bel-Air mansion to choose from among 15 foxy young bachelorettes (only two of whom were as old as 30). He is clearly looking for love. But that’s where the easy answers end.

See, what Rob doesn’t know (but the ladies do) is that the femme he selects to be his … er … “something” will also be receiving $1 million. Maybe. She will then be choosing between keeping the million or keeping him. Only she doesn’t know until the very end that she’ll have to make that choice. I think. And Rob also may or may not become privy to the whole money thing before he has to make a final choice. But we’re just not sure. But that’s really pure speculation on my part. In fact, my take on the concept itself is a bit speculative. Don’t expect much help from our overly earnest host, Jordan Murphy.

Of course, there would be nothing stopping the winning lady from rejecting Rob, grabbing the cash and then taking up secretly with him (or at a later date). What is NBC going to do, sue her for the money back? But alas, we digress.

“For Love or Money” is all staged from the perspective of the women, naturally. And when we say “staged,” that should perhaps be taken literally. There are, after all, four story editors (including a senior one) listed in the credits, which would seem to indicate more than a bit of choreography inside the, uh, reality. And you can pretty much predict where all of the various plot (yes, plot) twists and turns will fall in the two-hour kickoff (with five weeks to follow). Here is where they dress to kill. Here is where they backstab. Here is where they start to form alliances. Here is where the bad girls emerge and the good girls start gossiping about them.

It all leads to the usual collection of soft-focus cameras, candlelight, momentous music and super slo-mo (used to maximum effect while the women descend a winding staircase to meet their man for the first time). The final half-hour is utilized to make for the most drawn-out elimination of five candidates imaginable, one designed to impose maximum humiliation on the rejected. The handful of first-week walkoffs must make a show of tossing $1 million checks made out to them into a roaring fire and then enter waiting taxicabs that will take them back where they’re presumably wanted.

“For Love or Money” is so intensely dreadful that you can actually feel your brain stem separating from your cranium while watching it. To paraphrase a popular slogan, it’s not TV. It’s NBC.


From Publishers Weekly, 2003, on the novel Distant Shores (full review):

Having found her audience with Summer Island and On Mystic Lake, Hannah returns with another second-chance-at-love story, this one as bleak as the soggy Pacific Northwest setting. Perimenopausal former artist Elizabeth Shore is feeling lost and miserable these days, as daughters Jamie and Stephanie matriculate at Georgetown and husband Jack focuses on jump-starting his stalled sports broadcasting career. So Elizabeth, tellingly nicknamed “Birdie,” compulsively redecorates her empty nest and pesters Jack with lugubrious questions about what’s wrong with their lives. Then Jack scores a journalistic coup, and in his implausibly meteoric return to broadcasting glory, winds up in an efficiency apartment in New York City, halfheartedly fending off the advances of both a nubile assistant and a Hollywood bombshell. Meanwhile, back in rainy Oregon, Birdie grieves for her beloved late father, joins a support group for “passionless” women, starts to paint again and talks to herself in the self-help homilies Hannah favors (“No more cheerleader years for me. I need to get in the game”). She even has a rapprochement with newly widowed stepmother Anita, who, in a particularly explosive burst of character development, somehow transforms from a tacky Southern “Bette Midler on speed” to a white-haired sylph favoring “long, flowing” white dresses. (When Birdie finds her bliss, she discovers she’s miraculously lost weight.) Hannah’s tried-and-true formula includes the predictable happy ending, complete with life lessons tearfully learned, but only hardcore fans will make it to the last page of this dreary soap.


From CNN 2003, on the novel The King of Torts (excerpts only):

John Grisham fans disappointed by his last book, “The Summons,” should be rejoicing. The traits that made that novel distinctive — well-crafted characters and a story designed to stimulate the brain rather than the adrenal glands — are nowhere to be found in his latest offering.

“The King of Torts” is old-school Grisham. It’s a tale told at blazing speed, pausing nary a beat to delve into the ethical or moral conundrums it poses. The story is populated by cookie-cutter people — most of them lawyers — set against a backdrop of high-stakes legal games of chicken.

A reader would have to be comatose not to predict the ending after the first hundred pages — especially a reader who has read Grisham’s earlier books. “The King of Torts” seems less like a new novel than a pastiche of his backlist. Everything about the story and the characters is familiar. Reading the book is akin to eating a meal in one of those “neighborhood restaurant” chains. It’s competently prepared, sufficiently satisfying and instantly forgettable.


From Entertainment Weekly, 2003, on the movie Pinocchio (excerpts only):

“In Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio, the beloved/insipid Italian director and clown skips through rooms like a hypomanic elf while the gee-whiz voice of Breckin Meyer….”

“His Pinocchio is meant to be adorable, but he comes off as less an enchanted puppet than as a harmlessly deranged middle-aged man prancing about in the kind of froufrou cream-colored pantsuit that Dinah Shore retired to her back closet in 1977.”

“…the shoddy fake sets and general tone of rustic medieval rib nudging are enough to make you wish that someone would stop Roberto Benigni before he commits wooden whimsy again.”


From Book Magazine, 2002, on the novel Leslie (full review):

Lurid melodrama doesn’t even begin to describe this overheated novel from bestselling author Tyree about four young women attending a black college in New Orleans whose lives resemble a poorly choreographed reality show. There’s Ayanna, the trash-talking wanna-be rapper; Bridget, the aristocratic snoot; and Yula, the stereotypical loser. Standing apart from the pack is the book’s doomed heroine, Leslie, the beautiful, brilliant daughter of a proud Haitian immigrant. Leslie takes a downward turn after developing a fixation on Bridget’s Creole boyfriend and an interest in voodoo. The potentially engrossing drama and vivid settings are marred by soap opera-like complications involving gangsters, AIDS and infidelity. By the end, Leslie resembles a raving harridan, consumed with thoughts of revenge for all that’s gone wrong.


From Publishers Weekly, 2002, on the novel Narcissus in Chains (excerpt only):

Her obsessions with lust serve mainly to overwhelm a rickety plot. Blake needs to put her clothes back on and get back to work. Too much flesh and not enough plot leads to the old but so true saying, “Less is more.”


From Kirkus Reviews, 2002, on the novel The Mulberry Tree (full review):

Billionaire leaves his widow nothing but a ramshackle farmhouse. Mousy Lillian doesn’t complain. She’d always been content to hide in the corners of rich Jimmie Manville’s life, anyway. He doted on his plump little wife, though plenty of people wondered why he didn’t get a woman who wasn’t afraid of her own shadow. Surely he had a reason for leaving his fortune to the sister and brother he hated, or perhaps he was planning to change his will before he died in a plane crash. In any case, Lillian believes that challenging the will is fruitless: she lied about her age when she signed her marriage certificate, so the marriage wasn’t even legal. On the advice of Jimmie’s lawyer, she takes a new identity as Bailey James, gets a nose job, then slinks off to the farmhouse in rural Virginia. Her consuming grief has made her lose weight, so now she’s actually beautiful, just like that. She renovates the place and swaps life stories with hunky carpenter Matt Longacre. As Bailey gossips with nosy neighbors Patsy and Janice (the trio has started a jam-making business), she hears the story of six local boys who, years ago, saved a rural high school from being blown up by a bomb. Acclaimed as heroes, they went their separate ways . . . some now dead, some still living. The six had some connection to Bailey’s dear departed husband-but what? When she finally figures it out and realizes that the harelipped teenager in an old photo is Jimmie, and that Jimmie had changed his name, the mystery is solved. The nasty sister and brother who’ve laid claim to Jimmie’s billions may not be his relations at all. Bailey puts down her jam spoon and goes after what’s rightfully hers. Hard-core fans might make it through these thickets of haphazard plot. But sloppy prose and unappealing characters mark a low for the perhaps too-prolific Deveraux, author of “twenty-seven New York Times bestsellers.”


From Publishers Weekly, 2002, on the novel Running Scared (excerpt only):

Who would have thought there’d be a market for retro kitsch . la Remington Steel, complete with two protagonists fighting their attraction for each other as well as dumber-than-doorpost crooks? Apparently, Lowell, whose long string of romantic suspense novels (Moving Target, etc.) have earned her a Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lowell’s research is thorough, but it’s often presented awkwardly, with copious information on authenticating antique jewelry as well as slightly more interesting background on druidic lore. The narrative is formulaic from start to finish: will any reader not guess that after Shane warns her away for safety’s sake, Risa still dangerously goes for the gold solo in the end? An all-talk wrap-up takes the edge off the action, but Lowell’s readers will be more interested in the romance, anyway.


From the Washington Post, 2002 on the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (excerpts only):

“Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” is big, dull and empty. Small kids who are entertained by aquariums, lava lamps, melting ice cream and other forms of random motion might enjoy it – when they’re not peeing in their pants because of the giant snake at the end – but most human creatures who have evolved to sentience will be ground into numbness by its drear totalitarianism.

I have no idea who the fraud is: author J.K. Rowling, screen adapter Steve Kloves or hapless, chopless, effects-mad director Chris Columbus, who, come to think of it, pretty much always makes flat, dull movies (“Stepmom”!). Whatever, whichever, whoever, nobody associated with this production appears to have thought hard about storytelling – about, to borrow a felicitous phrase, the uses of enchantment.

The whole thing is a strange combination of frenzy where there should be placidity, and placidity where there should be frenzy. Nothing much happens in the story proper, but a great deal happens outside it. In other words, it looks like a movie, it sounds like a movie, you see it in a movie theater, but it’s not a movie. It’s like a 2 1/2-hour preview.

The film lacks what might be called a whole theory of story. It never understands the difference between dramatic incidents that amplify theme and character and build to an inevitable yet stunning conclusion, leaving the reader or viewer spent and happy; and arbitrary incidents that eat up screen time but don’t advance the journey or the characters at all, lead nowhere, and wind up in a climax, no matter how spectacular, that thematically has nothing to do with what has come before. In short, nothing is connected, nothing coheres, there’s no game plan, really. It’s just a bunch of happenings that ape the progress of a story but never quite reach the threshold of narrative.

All the way through, in fact, the movie overplays the mundane and fails to illuminate the dramatic.

“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” – all sound, all fury, narrative significance zero.

The immediate cast of youngsters is unimpressive. Radcliffe is indeed coming more and more into k.d. lang, with that severe shock of hair, that pale, inert, angular face, those damned cute glasses. His two cohorts are even less impressive. Pal Weasley is played by Rupert Grint with too much going on in his face; pal Hermione (Emma Watson) has too much hair, though of the three she’s the sprightliest.

The rest of the cast is mostly old Brits underused and (one hopes) overpaid, with the single exception of Kenneth Branagh, who turns in an amusing if ultimately irrelevant performance as the school’s most narcissistic teacher. But why waste the great Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Richard Harris, Jason Isaacs, Fiona Shaw, John Cleese, Julie Walters and, most tragic of all, Alan Rickman in nothing roles that demand but a tenth of their formidable talents? They’re simply window dressing to up the class quotient.

(review submitted by Phoebe Belseley)


From Entertainment Weekly, 2002 on the novel The Little Friend (excerpts only):

According to the U.S. Department of Buzz, Donna Tartt’s second novel is the most eagerly anticipated book of the year. Fair enough: In 1992, her first, ”The Secret History,” surfed a 50-foot wave of hype with aplomb. A tale of ecstatic sex, ritual death, and muddled retribution at a New England liberal arts college, it was a best-seller with both Quality Lit cred and Brat Pack chic, and though it went wobbly in the middle and soggy at the end, its sleek sentences offered wit and moral weight.

The Little Friend, however, wipes out. It is an extended prose catastrophe. My personal favorite howler is lodged on page 511: ”Steam rose from the hot, verdant ground. Far below, in the weeds, the Trans Am was hunched in a disturbing, confidential stillness, raindrops shimmering on the hood in a fine white mist….” In its mingling of the emptily precious and the indiscriminately ominous, the passage typifies the pretension of this incoherent melodrama.

The disorder first manifests itself as bad Faulkner… By the time Danny enters the novel, Tartt has shifted from the long sentences of the opening to a more brisk overripeness. She is loose with adverbs. Characters say things ”soberly,” ”belligerently,” ”faintly,” and ”impassively,” while exhaling ”audibly” and stuffing bills into pockets ”laboriously.” That’s just page 204. Laughingly, I turned to discover Danny twisting ”rather spasmodically.” Dumbfoundedly, I wondered how a mosquito might sting someone ”luxuriously.” Such prose events disqualify ”The Little Friend” as literature and also rule it out as decent trash. It’s hard to dive into an action scene when people running for their lives turn to notice ”the path they’d beaten through the yellow-flowered scraggle of bitterweed, and the melancholy pastels of the dropped lunchbox….”

With her Harry Houdini epigraph, the author’s telegraphing of the climax begins before the story does. Tartt’s workhorse adjectives are ”dreamy,” ”mysterious,” ”hazy,” ”delicate,” ”gloomy,” ”spooky,” ”dim,” and — dozens and dozens of times — ”strange” and ”vague,” a clue that she has strained hard, at the expense of plot and character, to create an air of unreality and has achieved…a strained unreality. Who could have anticipated that ”The Little Friend” would be the most eagerly overwrought book of the year?


From Newsweek, 2002 on the novel Emperor of Ocean Park (excerpts only):

In Jorge Luis Borges’s tale “The Book of Sand,” a bibliophile acquires an alarming volume with an infinite number of pages and no reachable beginning or end: “Several pages always lay between the cover and my hand. It was as if they grew from the very book.” That’s how it feels to read Stephen L. Carter’s “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” whose 657 pages could have been 257 if he’d just gotten on with his story….”

I’ve already forgotten not only the solutions to half the tedious mysteries Carter lugs around before unpacking them (…) but a lot of the mysteries themselves. The only one that’s really stuck is a sort of meta-mystery: why would a publisher pay $4.2 million to a first novelist manifestly without skills and apparently without gifts ?

For a teensy fraction of Knopf’s $4.2 million, they could have given Carter a week at Bread Loaf [the Middlebury College-sponsored summer graduate program] where any competent teacher and a hit of peer pressure could have straightened some of this out. But “Ocean Park” has problems that no amount of cutting and editing could have cured.


From the Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert), 2002 on the movie Half Past Dead (excerpts only):

“Half Past Dead” is like an alarm that goes off while nobody is in the room. It does its job and stops, and nobody cares. It goes through the motions of an action thriller, but there is a deadness at its center, a feeling that no one connected with it loved what they were doing. There are moments, to be sure, when Ja Rule and Morris Chestnut seem to hear the music, but they’re dancing by themselves.

The plot is preposterous, but that’s acceptable with a thriller. The action is preposterous, too: Various characters leap from high places while firing guns, and the movie doesn’t think to show us how, or if, they landed. A room is filled with teargas, but what exactly happens then? The movie takes the form of a buddy movie, but is stopped in its tracks because its hero, played by Steven Seagal, doesn’t have a buddy gene in his body. (I know, he takes seven bullets for his partner Nick, but I don’t think he planned it: “I’ll take seven bullets for Nick!”)

Seagal’s great contribution to the movie is to look very serious, even menacing, in closeups carefully framed to hide his double chin. I do not object to the fact that he’s put on weight. Look who’s talking. I object to the fact that he thinks he can conceal it from us with knee-length coats and tricky camera angles. I would rather see a movie about a pudgy karate fighter than a movie about a guy you never get a good look at.

The film has little dialogue and much action. It places its trust so firmly in action that it opens with a scene where the characters have one of those urban chase scenes where the car barely misses trailer trucks, squeals through 180-degree turns, etc., and they’re not even being chased. It’s kind of a warm-up, like a musician practicing the scales.

Do not read further if you think the plot may have the slightest importance to the movie….


From CNN, 2002 on the novel Excalibur Alternative (full review):

‘Excalibur’ a truly awful book

The trick of successfully crafting science fiction is to balance the “science” with the “fiction.” The best examples of the genre capture the reader’s attention with an interesting or exciting speculation about the future, and hold that attention with a well-told story.

The Asimov “robot” stories, for example, are chock-full of fascinating hardware, but their real appeal lies in what they reveal about humans. Writers who can weld a good idea to a good story are hailed as “grand masters” of the genre.

That is not a distinction David Weber is likely to claim for his novel “The Excalibur Alternative.”. He got the “good idea” half of the equation right, but he failed to attach it to a good story. Indeed, calling the plot of the book a “story” at all stretches the definition of the term.

Here’s Weber’s good idea: a galaxy-spanning civilization decrees that commercial interests competing for trade rights on less-developed planets cannot use advanced technology against the natives. So an enterprising trader decides to dragoon a 14th-century English army to fight his battles.

The possibilities of such a premise are endlessly intriguing. There are inherent conflicts — between a medieval society and a technologically advanced civilization; between humans and alien non-humans; between soldiers honor-bound to defend king and country and the trader who cares nothing about honor and everything about profit.

Alas, Weber declines to exploit any of these conflicts. Nor does he bother to develop any of his characters into fully realized beings, human or otherwise.

The trader doesn’t even merit a name. He is referred to only as “the demon-jester”, a shorthand version of his physical description. The protagonist, Sir George Wincaster, is a cardboard cutout, even though most of the story is told from his point of view.

Setting back the genre

“The Excalibur Alternative” loosely falls into the sub-genre of military science fiction, but readers interested in the military aspects of the story will be disappointed. Although the Englishmen are involved in an extended military campaign, hopping from planet to planet, very few of the battles rate more than a few paragraphs of description. More often, Weber offers only Sir George’s observations of a battle after the fact.

“These natives,” Weber writes, “like so many, many others he’d faced in the demon-jester’s service, had never imagined anything like an English bowman. That much had been obvious.” So much for the “military” aspect of the story.

And the author’s attempt to pull off a grand plot twist fails miserably. The reader can spot the ending coming from a parsec away.

Science fiction as a genre carries the baggage of its beginnings, when writers — and readers — were more interested in the design of weapons and star drives than they were in offering insights on the human condition. Weber, on the other hand, seems more interested in the design of the longbow and plate armor than in the starship that carries the Englishmen from battle to battle.

Although he tosses around terms like “phase drive” and “time dilation,” it’s not clear that he understands the concepts any better than Sir George does. (He doesn’t help his cause by filching jargon from “Star Trek.”)

As an adventure story, “The Excalibur Alternative” is woefully short on action. As a military chronicle, it is woefully short on strategy and tactics. As science fiction, it is merely woeful.

Those who attempt to gain respectability for the genre would be horrified if this book became a success. Weber sets science fiction back 50 years, to the days of ray guns and bug-eyed monsters.


From Entertainment Weekly, 2002, on the novel Red Rabbit (excerpts only):

”Red Rabbit” offers so many scenes of people sitting and talking about what could happen to Rabbit that you might mistake this for a John Updike novel (there’s even a chapter called ”Rabbit Run”) if a single line of it were well written. Clancy would no doubt plead realism in his defense. ”It wasn’t like the spy novels,” he harrumphs in the book. ”The job of a CIA officer was composed of a good deal more boredom than excitement.” Which may be true, but this is a spy novel, Tom.

Clancy seems less inclined to generate intrigue than to wallow in post-Sept. 11 Cold War nostalgia.

Clancy does readers a further disservice by setting Rabbit in the past: He renders his trademark obsession with gadgets obsolete. Some technogeeks read Clancy novels primarily to acquire data about the latest military hardware. This obviously can’t be incorporated into a period piece that takes place in an era when fax machines were cutting edge.

Such a low-tech, action-starved novel might be more readable if Clancy’s flabby prose style packed more muscle. He’s much like Jack, a part-time scribe whose ”word mechanics were serviceable — but not particularly elegant.”

But Rabbit’s biggest problem is that it lacks any semblance of suspense. We know Pope John Paul II won’t be assassinated, even as Clancy attempts to stack the odds against Jack preventing it. At one point, protecting the pontiff in mobbed St. Peter’s Square seems so impossible that Jack thinks, ”This mission is a real s—burger.” He took the word right out of my mouth.


From the Chicago Sun-Times (Roger Ebert), 2002 on the movie Tuxedo (excerpts only):

The movie is silly beyond comprehension, and even if it weren’t silly, it would still be beyond comprehension. It does have its moments, as when the tuxedo inadvertently cold-cocks James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, and Jackie Chan has to go onstage in place of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business. He’s very funny as James Brown, although not as funny as James Brown is.


From CNN, 2002, on the movie I Spy (full review):

I Spy’ a rancid, witless movie

If the ’60s TV show “I Spy” helped formulate the mismatched-buddy genre of action comedies, the movie version starring Eddie Murphy and Owen Wilson slaughters it.

Graceless and witless, “I Spy” manhandles what should have been a decent pairing of comic actors with contrasting but complementary styles.

It takes really clever action and wily exchanges to score nowadays with this whole tired scenario of opposites in arms. But it feels as though director Betty Thomas and company didn’t even try, figuring they already had the goods with a couple of stars and a recognizable brand name, spiced up with explosions, feeble gunplay and poorly staged stunts.

On television, “I Spy” broke ground for teaming black and white leads, Bill Cosby as agent Alexander Scott and Robert Culp as his civilian partner, tennis player Kelly Robinson. The show also had a brain and a heart, and the heroes made for a genuinely interesting contrast.

Murphy and Wilson, though, are mismatched boobs, insufferable in their boorish bickering and unamusing incompetence.

Shrill and bewildering

Early on, it’s annoying that the dialogue becomes indecipherable amid the stars’ shrill, simultaneous babble. Later, it’s an elixir, saving viewers the trouble of even attempting to sort out the nonsense they’re braying.

The most bewildering fact is that it took four credited screenwriters, two also sharing story credit, along with Murphy’s esteemed knack for ad-libbing to deliver a movie’s worth of chatter whose laughs can be counted on one hand.

Wilson takes on the equivalent of Cosby’s character, playing U.S. agent Alex Scott, assigned to retrieve a stolen stealth bomber before Budapest arms dealer Arnold Gundars (Malcolm McDowell) can peddle it to terrorists who want to nuke Washington, D.C.

Conveniently, middleweight boxing champ Kelly Robinson (Murphy) is heading to Budapest to defend his title and happens to be on Gundars’ guest list for a pre-fight bash. Under cover as Kelly’s trainer, Alex gains access to Gundars’ pad to try to track down the missing plane.

From then on, the only need-to-know details are that mayhem — scads of dreary and muddled mayhem — follow Kelly and Alex’s every move. The unimaginative action is further cheapened by clumsy editing; the movie’s static shots of picturesque Budapest make for better viewing.

Little chemistry, no laughs

The filmmakers toss in a couple of lame subplots: Blustering Kelly helping romantically inept Alex to seduce bombshell fellow agent Rachel (Famke Janssen); and Alex’s espionage envy of super-spy Carlos (Gary Cole, badly made up as a Latino, with coal-black hair that looks as if it were dyed with shoe polish).

When he edges toward raunchy, Murphy borders on funny. But unlike his R-rated “Beverly Hills Cop” and “48 Hrs.” personae, he’s crippled here by a PG-13 rating.

Wilson’s laid-back style worked nicely in “Shanghai Noon,” where he was passive partner to Jackie Chan. As instigator rather than sidekick in “I Spy,” Wilson’s comic detachment clashes with his character’s take-charge attitude, pretty much killing his deer-in-the-headlights routine.

Janssen has little more to do than look sly. McDowell, who can play evil and odious with the best of them (check out this year’s “Gangster No. 1”), is wasted in “I Spy,” a hushed little villain without a speck of menace.

The advertising blitz for “I Spy” will attract huge crowds on opening weekend. But if you spy a sequel creeping your way, stab it with a pitchfork and bury it in the backyard, then celebrate by sampling the original “I Spy,” whose three-season run is available on DVD.


From Movieline Magazine, 2000, on the movie Head Over Heels (full review):

Once upon a time, a very clever man named Alfred made a very clever movie about a man who spies out his window on his neighbors. Well, this idea was so good, that lots of people have stolen it. But they forgot the golden rule: thieves never prosper!

If you forget the golden rule and wander into a screening of Head Over Heels, your punishment will be worse than a weekend on Alcatraz. It stars the hapless Monica Potter (who seems to have barely recuperated from the diabetic coma induced by Patch Adams) as Amanda, a lonely New York single hoping to find true love while moping over the paintings she mutilates–oops, I mean restores–at the Metropolitan Museum. By a stroke of luck, she becomes the roommate of four gorgeous models in a loft the size of Cincinnati, which tips you right off that we’re in Never-Never Land. But the closet–to die for! Right across the street, in another glam loft, lives Jim Winston, played by Freddie Prinze Jr. and his sparkling range of emotions (bland smile, furrowed brow, humble hang-dog–you get the picture). Amanda and Jim meet cute when the Great Dane he’s walking tries to hump her. Now that’s what I call passion!

As any sane woman would, Monica indulges her crush by snooping on Jim’s every move, aided by the models who obviously have nothing else to do. When she thinks she sees him kill a woman and somehow dispose of the body, she does the only sensible thing, which is spy on him some more, get all dewy-eyed, follow him around, go out with him, even–gasp!–go to bed with him. In most states, this is called either insanity or stalking. In Hollywood, it’s called romantic comedy.

Naturally, Jim isn’t what he seems, but there is so little tension in Head Over Heels that the ending is a foregone conclusion. No, Amanda doesn’t hump the Great Dane after all. Which might have been an improvement over the unbearably lame plot, the unbelievable coincidences, the absurd dialogue and the director’s (Mark Waters) mistaken belief that pratfalls equal screwball, and that toilet humor is somehow going to entice young women to drag their dates to see 89 minutes of mediocrity where the shoes in the models’ closet upstage all the action.

Rent Rear Window instead.


From Movieline Magazine, 2000, on the movie The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (full review):

No doubt the people behind Rocky and Bullwinkle had visions of Roger Rabbit dancing in their heads; at one point there’s even a little in-joke about the earlier movie that mixed animation and live action.

But whereas Roger Rabbit seemed impudent and racy, this new film is a leaden bore. It’s difficult to imagine what inspired the producers to revive the cartoon characters who charmed TV audiences back in the ’60s. Their movie is set in the present, when the flying squirrel and the dimwitted moose are called out of retirement to stop Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro), Boris (Jason Alexander) and Natasha (Rene Russo) in their latest scheme to take over the world. These three veteran thespians have thankless one-dimensional roles (even for a cartoon), and they’re quickly reduced to mugging and screeching.

Screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan has done good work in the theater, and he provided the tasty premise for last year’s Analyze This. Despite a few clever jokes here, but he hasn’t been able to provide a strong enough narrative to keep us from snoozing. Lonergan doesn’t get much help from another theater refugee, director Des McAnuff, who fails to provide the nimble touch that fantasy requires.

It’s even more difficult to imagine an audience for this misconceived mess. The jokes about the movie business will go over the heads of children, and these gags aren’t sharp or scintillating enough to capture the imagination of adults.

Another new family film, Chicken Run, does a far better job of striking a balance between juvenile buffoonery and more sophisticated satire. Those who have fond memories of “Rocky and Bullwinkle” will be sorely disappointed. While the studio honchos may have hoped to start a new franchise built around these two lovable critters, they’re going to find themselves saddled with a less appealing varmint–a turkey hemorrhaging red ink.


From Entertainment Weekly, 2000, on the novel Dream Catcher (excerpts only):

”Dream Catcher” is terrible, and I mean that in multiple senses of the word.

Salinger, unskilled at her chosen project and unsure about her own voice, skitters and thuds from topic to topic. . . The next she’s fluttering like a 19th-century lady diarist. . . .

. . . her lumpy prose is draped over wooden tent poles of psychoanalytic insight


From Entertainment Weekly, 2000, on the movie But I’m a Cheerleader (excerpts only):

Have Cathy Moriarty and Kathleen Turner become the same person? Every year or so, one of them gets cast as a blowsy, angry, frog-voiced harridan in a movie that reeps of camp misogyny, and it always takes me a minute or two to figure out which one I’m watching. Is it the former neo-noir sexpot of Raging Bull or the former neo-noir sexpot of Body Heat? At this point, John Waters should probably team the two of them in a glorious remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Sitting through the poisonously smug, one-joke indie comedy But I’m a Cheerleader, I quickly figured out that this time it’s Moriarty. She’s got a distinctive fascist whiplash hostility as she blurts out lines like “You hormonal hussy!”. . . .

The organizations that are currently laboring to “deprogram” people from gay to straight could use a bit of deprogramming themselves, but the issue is just prevalent enough to call for a geniune hot-button satire, and not this jejune fantasy of prison-camp homogenization When Lyonne makes out with a tomboy bad girl played by Clea DuVall, who’s like Ally Sheedy’s derisive kid sister, But I’m a Cheerleader turns gushy and earnest, with folk-grunge acoustic strums canonizing their sensitivity. Forget pink dresses and housework: Any self-respecting lesbian should rear up in horror at a movie that tells her that this is how she’s supposed to be.


From The New York Times, 2000, on the movie Battlefield Earth (full review):

“Man is an endangered species,” announces one of the titles at the beginning of the sci-fi lump “Battlefield Earth.” And after about 20 minutes of this amateurish picture, extinction doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Sitting through it is like watching the most expensively mounted high school play of all time. The film is stocked with evil aliens who, in their padded body stockings, plastic armorlike fittings and matted hair extensions, resemble nothing so much as members of GWAR, the metal-rock parodists that Beavis and Butt-head loved. It may be a bit early to make such judgments, but “Battlefield Earth” may well turn out to be the worst movie of this century.

“Plan Nine From Outer Space” for a new generation, “Battlefield Earth” is set in the year 3000, after the beings from the planet Psychlo have conquered our planet in only nine minutes. Humans have been reduced to grunting illiterates by the Psychlos (who have the same name as their home planet). “Stupid man-animals,” bellow the Psychlos, who at nine feet tower over the Earthlings, though several feet of Psychlo height seems to come from the offworld Doc Martens they sport.

The chief nasty, Terl (John Travolta), wants nothing more than to finish his stretch supervising workers on Earth and return home to Psychlo. But political matters, which make parts of this movie look like some alien version of C-Span, trap him on Earth forever. Terl devises a scheme to put the man-animals to work in the gold mines for him, after which he’ll have a small fortune and rule Psychlo forever.

Terl sees potential in one particularly rebellious cave dweller (Barry Pepper) and straps him to a machine that beams the wisdom of the ages into his head. Little does Terl realize that by educating a human, he is sowing the seeds of his own destruction.

Adapted from the novel by L. Ron Hubbard, who cranked out sci-fi pulp by the cubic ton, “Battlefield Earth” has the musty feel of the days when the genre’s highlight was Flash Gordon. For example, it never gets around to explaining what Psychlos do with gold in the first place.

They also have to write reports and send them back to the home office, where presumably work even duller than this takes place: that’s right, it’s the horrifying Planet of the Bureaucrats.

None of the aliens — who apparently are evil just because it feels good — get around to chortling: “Puny Earthlings! No one can save you now!” But Mr. Travolta does the next best thing. He throws back his head and delivers a stage laugh that would embarrass the villain from the shoddiest Republic Pictures serial or an episode of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” The eye-rolling broadness of his turn in “Broken Arrow” suddenly becomes a marvel of nuance and understatement.

“Battlefield Earth,” directed by Roger Christian (“Nostradamus,” “Masterminds”), is beyond conventional criticism. It belongs in the elect pantheon that includes such delights as “Showgirls” and “Revolution”: the Moe Howard School of Melodrama.

Hubbard created the Church of Scientology — news to just about no one — and when the beams of light fly into the bound Mr. Pepper’s head, it has the unfortunate appearance of a nightmare version of Scientology. (Mr. Travolta, a member of Scientology, is one of the film’s producers.)

The only professional thing about the movie is the sound: it’s so loud you feel as if you’re sitting on a runway with jets taking off over your head. The drone of real aircraft would be preferable to what passes for plot. Mr. Travolta is a big enough star to survive “Battlefield Earth,” though any career that includes this film and the sludgy melodrama “Moment by Moment” may be placing too much faith in the karma of the comeback. Surprisingly, Forest Whitaker defies the laws of dramatic gravity and entertains as Terl’s idiotic sidekick, Ker.

Mr. Pepper’s character is referred to by his fellow Earthlings as a greener, meaning he’s always looking to the other side, where the grass is greener. That would be just about anyplace other than theaters showing “Battlefield Earth.”

“Battlefield Earth” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). It includes astonishingly loud violence and intimations of alien sexuality.


From the Denver Post, 2000, on the movie Viva Rock Vegas (excerpts only):

At last, the truth can be told about last Saturday’s dramatic photo of Elian Gonzalez facing an armed government agent:

Elian had just seen an advance screening of ‘The Flintstones: Viva Rock Vegas’ – and when the armed man broke in to take him away, he thought they were going to make him watch it again. Hence, the look of horror on his face.

The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas” is that bad. It’s the kind of movie that makes you want to step in front of a bus after seeing it, if only to erase the rancid memories. As you watch it, you can feel your IQ plummmeting….

…Given the rather elaborate sets and digital effects, one can only imagine how many millions were spent on this film – and then fantasize about how the money might have been better used. Like, for example, bundling it into small piles of bills and tossing them into a roaring fire.


From USA TODAY, 1999 on the book UFOs, JFK and Elvis, wherein the author is called “addle-brained”:

Here’s a thought. What if Lee Harvey Oswald, driven by his own set of devils, really did act alone to kill President Kennedy in November 1963?

Nah. It works much better, as comedian, television detective and now author Richard Belzer believes, to suggest that a grand conspiracy has been keeping the American people in the dark.

Or a little conspiracy. Or a patchwork quilt of midsize conspiracies stitched together to cover one big one. Or two.

And it’s all in the mordant, sepulchral style that made The Belz a cult hero long before his star turn on TV’s recently deceased Homicide series.

For that’s how the slim tome UFOs, JFK and Elvis: Conspiracies You Don’t Have To Be Crazy To Believe is best taken — as a platform for the scouring pad that is Belzer’s sense of humor.

On the Warren Commission, which investigated the Kennedy assassination and endorsed the “lone gunman” theory: “There’s only one living member, and that’s Gerald Ford. He’s also the dumbest member. Coincidence?”

On police who congregated near the site of the fatal shots: “Oddly enough, there was no doughnut residue found at that location.”

But alas, as history or even journalism, the book just won’t answer.

For one, there’s nothing new alleged here, though it is rather breathtaking to see all the conspiracy theories, from the borderline reasonable to the outright paranoiac, marching forward from Belzer’s addled brain.

And all the questions he poses long have been asked and answered by such debunkers of the conspiracy theories as Gerald Posner.

Which leaves us to ask, why now? If The Belz really believes this stuff, that’s too bad. If he doesn’t, even worse.

Could the answer lie in a publisher’s haste to cash out the Belzer name as Homicide rides off into syndication?

I don’t know about you. I suspect a conspiracy.


From Kirkus Reviews, 1998, on the novel The Magic Circle (excerpts only):

Like Neville’s 1988 debut, The Eight, another daft, overstuffed, sprawling sofa of a yarn involving dozens of famous figures, places, and objects, along with a mysterious manuscript that nobody ever gets to read, oh, yeah, and the collapse of communism.

The heroine’s devastating discoveries concerning her family’s murky history are intriguing and worthwhile; pity Neville didn’t just junk the rest of it.


From the New York Times, 1998, on the novel Street Lawyer (excerpts only):

John Grisham clearly isn’t one of the more talented writers around, but he’s certainly one of the luckiest.

“The Street Lawyer” follows a familiar Grisham recipe: cast a young, idealistic lawyer as the underdog and pit him against a big, powerful opponent with money and resources to spare; construct a fast, relentless plot line that moves ahead like a hungry (if very nearsighted) shark, and toss in some topical social issues to give the whole thing a veneer of relevance.

One problem with this stilted, jerry-built novel is that Grisham has never been particularly good at creating characters with any real emotional depth.

Because Grisham gives us no insight into Michael’s emotional makeup, because he defines him purely through externals — what he wears, what he drives, what he earns — he is unable to make his transformation from well-heeled yuppie to penniless advocate of the homeless the least bit understandable or authentic.

To make matters worse, Michael emerges as a particularly unsympathetic hero: sanctimonious, self-dramatizing and willfully adolescent.

Matters are not helped by Grisham’s atrocious dialogue. Michael speaks almost entirely in cliches.

As for Grisham’s much-vaunted storytelling skills, they are little in evidence in this novel. Yes, he does keep the plot lines unfurling, but he’s like one of those circus clowns, pulling scarfs, rabbits and eggs out of his pockets at random.

Whenever the story seems in danger of slowing down, he contrives a new flurry of events. . . Grisham is too busy charging ahead to bother fleshing out any of these developments with the sort of emotional or physical detail that might make them feel plausible or real. The result is a perfunctory brand-name novel with an unlikable hero, a slapdash plot and some truly awful prose.


From Publishers Weekly, 1998, on the novel One Perfect Rose (full review):

Hoping to exploit the success of Putney’s Fallen Angels series, Fawcett is launching its first rack-size hardcover romancesmall enough to fit on the mass market shelves at the local supermarket but durable enough to cost more. There were originally four “dashing, complicated Regency rakes,” as Putney once called the heroes of her Fallen Angels, but with the quartet finished in 1995, she has continued to write spinoffsRiver of Fire and now this novel. Stephen, fifth Duke of Ashburton, seventh Marquess of Benfield, etc., learns that he has only a few more months to live. Widowed (the former duchess was a cold girl with a fondness for needlework) and childless, Stephen takes to the road to ponder his fate and joins a roving troupe of Midlands actors. In an uncharacteristic move for the dutiful duke, he asks one of the actresses, Rosalind (the “perfect Rose”) to marry him and share his last weeks on earth. Veterans of historical romance will twig to Stephen’s “disease” pretty quickly, but the hero and heroine figure it out a few tedious, gastric chapters later; meanwhile a sugarcoated out-of-body experience teaches him all about love. Like the other couples who inhabit this series and for all their servants, swell clothes and cavernous residences, Stephen and Rose are basically a nice middle-class pair. Spies or thieves, gypsies or dukes, Putney’s lovers are fundamentally alike: scratch those checkered pasts and you have the makings of a carpool.


From Kirkus Reviews, 1998, on the novel Mirror Image (excerpts only, and note that the reader is insulted):

With 370 million books in print, Steel’s 45th novel arrives even while her last four titles wait like gold bricks in Dell’s paperback inventory. Mirror Image tells of Olivia and Victoria Henderson, identical twins born in 1893, such close look-alikes that even their bewildered, widower father can’t tell them apart-an unlikelihood one must just accept. Toss out grammar as well; the first paragraph, describing Edward Henderson’s home and family, tells us that “Nestled as they were in Croton-on-Hudson his attorneys came to see him fairly often.” But Steel’s golden drone captures readers and laughs at criticism (emphasis added)

Cliché follows ever bolder cliché as the Steel style grinds out its mellow surprises for the blissfully half-asleep. . .


From Entertainment Weekly, 1997, on the novel Hornet’s Nest (full review):


Patrica Cornwell Bamboozles her Loyal Fans with Hornet’s Nest, a New Novel that has All the Buzz But None of the Bite of her Popular Kay Scarpetta Novels Series

You have to give Patricia Cornwell some credit. It takes guts for the author of several best-selling crime novels (Cause of Death, Cruel and Unusual, From Potter’s Field) to strike out suddenly in a brand-new direction and jettison the character who made her famous–risking not only her credibility but the wrath of disappointed readers. HORNET’S NEST (Putnam, $25.95) is a big gamble, all right; unfortunately, it’s an even bigger mess. Not only is Cornwell’s series hero, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, nowhere to be found here, neither is any semblance of reality.

Even though the setting is Charlotte, N.C., this is very definitely the land of make-believe, and the story would make even Horatio Alger wince. Twenty-two-year-old Andy Brazil, who’s been “updating TV shows and movie blurbs” for The Charlotte Observer’s weekly television magazine, is rewarded for his industriousness by being promoted…to police reporter. His first day on the new job, Brazil discovers that he’ll be riding in a patrol car with none other than Deputy Chief Virginia West, a tough-talking 42-year-old “woman who still turned heads and had never been married to anything beyond what she thought she was here on earth to do.” Naturally, West bristles at being partnered with the eager-beaver reporter (who wouldn’t?), though her boss, Chief Judy Hammer, figures it’s a good public relations ploy.

Despite the hokey setup, you might be willing to go along with Cornwell if she did anything interesting or inventive with the material. She doesn’t. The novel unfolds in a series of hectic vignettes that run the gamut from traffic direction to the slapstick shenanigans of a vengeance-seeking redneck truck driver to the search for yet another serial killer. As the book gallops recklessly on and on, you finally become impatient, wondering how such folly could have been published. In the past, Cornwell showed herself to be a captivating natural storyteller, and while her prose has never been especially stylish, it’s always done the job. Hornet’s Nest doesn’t feel written so much as dictated on the run. When, for example, Deputy Chief West spots a middle-aged computer systems analyst across the room, she immediately identifies her as “a cowardly little worm…exactly fitting the profile of people who set fires, sent bombs by mail, tampered with products like painkillers and eyedrops, and harassed others with hate notes and anonymous ugly calls over the telephone.”

Here’s a novel where all the good guys are good-looking, and all the bad guys (or weaklings) are decidedly not; where the only major gay character is portrayed as a sexual predator, with much buffoonish mincing; where an obnoxious banker and political manipulator is described–with absurd insensitivity–as being “Jewish”; where the police action is often interrupted to explore the fantasy life of an Abyssinian house cat; and where the author, with unbounded hubris, even feels comfortable speaking for God: “…the Almighty had a rather big plan for this special recruit….It was going to prove rather astonishing, if the Almighty didn’t say so Its-Almighty-Self.”

Somebody page Dr. Scarpetta–quick! F


From Publishers Weekly, 1997, on the novel Say You Love Me (full review):

Romance write Lindsey stays true to form-and formula-as she continues to chronicle the romantic entanglements of the Malory clan. Set in Regency England, sometime between 1811 and 1820, the latest Malory novel (after Love Me Forever) includes the three stock romantic figures: a Virgin, a Villain and a Rogue. The Virgin is Kelsey Langton, who willingly agrees to be auctioned off in a London whorehouse to pay her uncle’s debts and ensure her younger sister a marriageable future. The Rogue is handsome Lord Derek Malory, who plunks down a fortune to make Kelsey his mistress rather than see her bought by the Villain, Lord David Ashford, an insane sadist who takes his sex with a healthy splash of blood. The implausible set-up quickly becomes ludicrous as Malory falls in love with Kelsey, but her unwillingness to reveal her true background prevents a wedding. Malory’s ardor for Kelsey is inflamed when Ashford kidnaps her, necessitating a heroic rescue in a grisly dungeon where Kelsey is on the verge of being whipped and mutilated for Ashford’s pleasure. In the end, family secrets fall from both the Malory and Langton family trees like rotten apples while social conventions are swept aside. Scant historical detail and 20th-century dialogue make this unfortunate novel even more far-fetched.


From Kirkus Reviews, 1997, on the novel A Place to Call Home (excerpts only):

A white-bread take on the stock elements of southern family saga….

The two fall effortlessly back in love, and the last hundred or so pages can only defer their happiness through red-herring complications. A cloyingly sweet love story whose willful heroine and grudge-bearing hero remain strangely unsympathetic.


From Entertainment Weekly, 1997, on the novel Violin (full review):


Anne Rice’s Hard-to-Swallow Tale of a Ghostly Violion Comes Unstrung Long Before Playing its Final Notes
Like watching a once-great athlete who continues to compete long past his physical prime, or seeing a once-great beauty whose face has been pulled tauter than a tightrope by a surgeon’s knife, reading Violin, Anne Rice’s 13th supernatural tome (13!–she should have known) is a depressing experience.

Her ability to create alluring, if far-fetched, characters, which has given her vampire books remarkably long lives, isn’t apparent here. The central characters–Triana, a middle-aged New Orleans widow, and Stefan, the ghost of a centuries-old Russian aristocrat with a paranormal talent for the violin–are laughable in their posturing. And Rice’s overwrought prose has gone grotesquely rococo.

The plot is simple: Upon the death of her second husband from AIDS, Triana enters an extended period of psychosis in which she blames herself for her mother’s death, her younger sister Faye’s disappearance or death, her small daughter’s death, and the death of her first marriage. Her despair attracts Stefan and his ghostly Stradivarius; inevitably, he drags her back into his spirit world to witness the terrible wrong that was done to him and caused his death. Then, in a theoretically uplifting catharsis, which takes place under the gaze of the enormous Christ over Rio, they set each other free from their respective burdens of guilt and hate. (Stefan also bequeaths a great talent for the violin to Triana, who’s always worshiped the instrument.) Beethoven’s ghost makes a cameo appearance, as does Paganini’s, but even they can’t rescue this off-key work.

Fans, be warned–disillusion lies within. Better to go back to Lestat and rediscover Rice in her prime. F


From Kirkus Reviews, 1996, on the novel The Notebook (full review):

Sparks’s debut is a contender in the Robert Waller book-sweeps for most shamelessly sentimental love story, with honorable mention for highest octane schmaltz throughout an extended narrative. New Bern is the Carolina town where local boy Noah Calhoun and visitor Allison Nelson fall in love, in 1932, when Noah is 17 and Allie 15 (“as he . . . met those striking emerald eyes, he knew . . . she was the one he could spend the rest of his life looking for but never find again”). Allie’s socially prominent mom, however, sees their Romeo-and-Juliet affair differently, intercepting Noah’s heartrendingly poetic love-letters, while Allie, sure he doesn’t love her, never even sends hers. Love is forever, though, and in 1946 Allie sees a piece in the paper about Noah (he’s back home after WW II, still alone, living in a 200-year-old house in the country) and drives down to see him, telling the socially prominent lawyer she’s engaged to that she’s gone looking for antiques (“ `And here it will end, one way or the other,’ she whispered”). And together again the lovers come indeed, during a thunderstorm, before a crackling fire, leaving the poetic Noah to reflect that “to him, the evening would be remembered as one of the most special times he had ever had.” So, will Allie marry her lawyer? Will Noah live out his life alone, rocking on his porch, paddling up the creek, “playing his guitar for beavers and geese and wild blue herons”? Suffice it to say that love will go on, somehow, for 140 more pages, readers will find out what the title means and may or may not agree with Allie, of Noah: “You are the most forgiving and peaceful man I know. God is with you, He must be, for you are the closest thing to an angel that I’ve ever met.” An epic of treacle, an ocean of tears, made possible by a perfect, ideal, unalloyed absence of humor. Destined, positively, for success.


From the New York Times, 1996, on the novel Air Frame (full review):

Perhaps wary of treading on Arthur Haley’s ground, Mr. Crichton starts ”Airframe” by merely courting disaster, with an incident in which a passenger jet, TransPacific Flight 545, is badly shaken but manages to land at LAX with just three dead. Bad weather? Pilot error? A design fault in the aircraft? The boss of the plane’s manufacturer, a hard nut named Marder (”he got results”), puts a young woman named Casey in charge of finding out what went wrong with the flight (”she had to perform”). Impressing the boss is one of the great unacknowledged subjects of the modern-day thriller — Tom Clancy, his eye on his middle-management readers, is understandably keen on the subject — but in Mr. Crichton’s books it reaches a truly ruthless pitch: his fiction is one long efficiency drive.

To add to her woes, Casey also has to fend off a fact-flouting television journalist, another woman who has to perform for a results-hungry boss: ”Just remember, Jennifer,” he barks, ”don’t come back with a parts story. I don’t want a . . . parts story.” The author, on the other hand, has different plans. Mr. Crichton loves nothing more than a good parts story. He went to town on the bits and bytes of office technology in ”Disclosure,” and even the dinosaurs in ”Jurassic Park” had to compete for our attention with the inner workings of the park’s computerized sentry system. True to form, he pores over Flight 545 with near Joycean zeal. We get to hear of ”sneak circuits,” ”thrust reversers,” ”unusual rubstrips” and ”dwell-time fatigue” — all of which sound like leftovers from a Crichton sex scene, of which there are none here. Mr. Crichton’s affections lie elsewhere. They lie with Flight 545’s wings, ”precisely shaped to within a hundredth of an inch.” The tools with which they are shaped are even better, ”precisely aligned to within a thousandth of an inch.” Dependable things, too: here they are again, 20 pages later, still ”calibrated to thousandths of an inch.” In this case, the tools are actually about to fall from a great height onto the head of the heroine.

That she is a heroine might be considered a small victory against the charges of sexism leveled at ”Disclosure,” a victory Mr. Crichton might have consolidated a little more successfully if Casey didn’t sound so much like Mr. Crichton in drag: ”You know anything about aerodynamics? No? Well, an aircraft flies because of the shape of its wing.” Casey goes about her investigations; dodges the odd falling tool; is almost, but not quite, attacked by ominous-looking men on three occasions. For long stretches, though, she simply engages the mechanics in long-playing conversations about aircraft safety, a subject so engrossing to Mr. Crichton that you can almost hear the crunch of regret with which he brings his dialogue to heel: ”If the engineers design an aircraft for a 20-year life span — say, 50,000 hours and 20,000 cycles — we’ll do more than twice that in the pit, before we even deliver to a customer. We know the planes will stand up. How’s your coffee?”

So how’s the book? Does it still stand up as a thriller? I suppose I should have noticed the early warning signals sounding from the initial disaster scene itself, which Mr. Crichton describes with all the bored languor of someone checking in baggage: ”The alarms continued to sound. The passengers continued to scream. The plane was still in a dive.” However, I refused to give up. Granted, Flight 545 didn’t actually crash, but surely there were more planes where that one came from; and so, drawing hope from the number of small children dotted around the opening chapters, I strapped in for another of Michael Crichton’s topical scare stories and prepared for takeoff.

Two hundred pages later, I was suffering from a serious case of dwell-time fatigue: ”Her job was still the same as it had always been: to find out what happened to Flight 545.” Trust Mr. Crichton to have surveyed all the possible plot options of an air crash — terrorist missiles, hijackings, F.B.I. cover-ups — and to have decided to stick it out, through thick and thin, with the people who get to check the rivets. Help comes in the form of a subplot involving the press, which muscles its way to center stage as Casey attempts to keep Jennifer and her exclamation points at bay: ”They had a story! Fantastic!” ”A fabulous story.” ”A fast-moving morality story, happening now.” As you read those words you begin to worry that Mr. Crichton is, for the first time in his career, getting ready to align himself on the side of nonfabulous slow-moving morality stories happening yesterday. And so it proves.

Casey has to convince Jennifer that jet planes are as safe as houses. You suspect that Mr. Crichton saw all this as a corrective to tabloid sensationalism — but what an odd thing for a thriller writer to sneer at, particularly Michael Crichton, whose virtues so closely tally with those of a good tabloid journalist. Something very odd has happened here: Mr. Crichton hasn’t written an anti-press novel so much as an anti-Crichton novel — an anti-thriller, even, in which the heroine’s fate depends partly upon her dispelling any outside interest in her story. And she succeeds. I wouldn’t normally give away the ending of a thriller, but then ”Airframe” isn’t much of a thriller. Rather, it’s a book about air disasters that you could quite happily pick up at the airport and read on the plane, before slipping into deep, dreamless sleep.


From Kirkus Reviews, 1992, on the novel The Bridges of Madison County (full review):

Here’s a Hallmark card for all those who have loved and lost: a mushy memorial to a brief encounter in the Midwest. One enchanted afternoon, across her Iowa farmyard, Francesca Johnson sees a stranger: “his eyes looked directly at her, and she felt something jump inside.” He reminds her of a gazelle, make that a leopard or, better yet, “some star creature who had drafted in on the tail of a comet,” for obviously he’s come “a long way, across more than miles.” In fact, 52-year-old National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid has driven from Washington State to shoot the covered bridges of Madison County; what wonderful luck for these soon-to-be-lovers, this hot August of 1965, that 45-year- old Francesca’s husband Richard, along with their two children, is at a state fair for a week. The Italian Francesca, who married Richard 20 years before in Naples but now feels “compromised and alone,” asks the equally lonely, equally sensitive Robert to dinner. That’s Day One; on Day Two, they fall in love; and when they make whoopee, it’s as much spiritual as physical, what with Robert whispering, “I am the highway and a peregrine and all the sails that ever went to sea.” On Day Four, their last together, Francesca announces she must stay with her family, but their bond is forever: As Robert says, “in a universe of ambiguity, this kind of certainty comes only once.” Looking back years later, Francesca concludes that undying, romantic, extramarital love is compatible with family values. That conclusion should sit well with the target audience; for as fake and pretentious as it is, this first novel is based on hard-nosed commercial calculations. The publisher, promising a big push, clearly expects its silly goose to lay a golden egg, and, who knows, maybe it will.


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