Books | Film | The Blurbs

June 24, 2005

Blurb Racket 6/24/05

Our weekly roundup of misleading review blurbs—in ads for movies, books, theater, and more—takes on Heights, The Girl in the Café, Sahara, and more.

Carl Bialik

The critic blurb is a staple of arts advertising. Yet if you look behind some blurbs, you'll find quotes out of context, quote whores, and other questionable ad practices. Blurb Racket exposes the truth behind critics blurbs in movies, new-release videos, paperbacks, New York theater, and anywhere else blurbing can be found. The ads are pulled from the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other sources. Movie titles link to, which compiles movie reviews in a far-more honest way than do movie ads. Other links go to official sites, where available, or Amazon if not. See the inaugural Blurb Racket column for background and useful links.


Heights (Sony)

Jack Mathews, New York Daily News: "Delightful! Unravels like a breezy mystery novel."
Not quoted: "Despite efforts to 'open' the film up with street scenes and trips to the theater, 'Heights' is stage-bound throughout, and the secrets it would like to keep are very predictable."

The Talent Given Us (Daddy W Productions)

Dennis Lim, Village Voice: "Raw, fascinating ... blessed with almost shockingly unselfconscious performances."
Actual line: "This raw, fascinating, often unpleasant film is not in the least coy about its queasy mix of exploitation and therapeutic exhibitionism. A stunt premised on the unembarrassed supply of too much information, The Talent Given Us is blessed, if that's the right word, with almost shockingly unselfconscious performances."
Not quoted: "basically a glorified home movie..."


The Girl in the Café (HBO)
Oregonian: "An endearing romantic comedy."
Actual line: "This new offering from HBO Films is at its heart a bit of political propaganda wrapped into an endearing romantic comedy that starts losing its laughs when it gets to Reykjavik and decides its teachable moment has arrived."


These blurbs come from publishers' websites and ads in the New Yorker.

Sahara, Michael Palin

Daily Telegraph: "Brisk, fresh ... makes you want to go where he has gone, if not necessarily to eat camel liver."
Actual line: "Given all this, Palin could be forgiven for failing to see anything for the crew and failing to write anything but committee memos. But he's as professional about the writing as he is about everything else, and if his diary doesn't dig too deep, it's brisk, fresh and, like the programmes, makes you want to go where he has gone, if not necessarily to eat camel liver."
Not quoted: "Yes, it's the book-of-the-television-series by that man renowned for his modesty. The same man who appears in 19 of the 28 pictures in the first 30 pages. Here's Palin boarding a train, Palin knee-deep in sand, Palin scribbling in his notebook, Palin being massaged in the hammam ... That's the trouble with a book-of-the-series: the star, whether he likes it or not, has to remain a star on the page."

Spectator: "A good-humoured romp through the greatest desert on earth."
Not quoted: "The problem with these sorts of books, though, is that they tend to be almost an afterthought to the television programme, rushed out to coincide with its broadcast. ... the reader is no sooner drawn into wrestling in Senegal, the early days of aviation in St Louis, Michael on his moped in Mali, or Mungo Park's efforts to chart the River Niger, than our adventurer is slipping into a fresh Brooks Brothers shirt and chinos and hitting the road again. It's all a little disorienting. As you would expect from Weidenfeld, it's crammed with attractive photos, though there are rather too many of Palin for my liking. Michael munching kebabs in Morocco; staring into a honeyed Saharan sunset; enduring a bruising massage in a hammam; kicking around a football with a group of kids; watching, transfixed, as a motorbike rider zooms past on the Paris-Dakar Rally. You get the picture. You get lots of them, in fact. ... Like many English travellers, Palin is obsessed with his bowels, so lavatorial musings are everywhere."

Transgressions, Sarah Dunant

The Mail on Sunday: "Pulses with emotional truth and heart."
Actual line: "Why does such an intelligent writer fall back on the moral simplicity of unexplored, obsessive criminality (stalkers, murderers, serial rapists), when her narrative pulses with emotional truth and heart? Compelling and distressing, this teeters on the brink of being a brave and interesting novel."

The Irish Times: "A supercharged, knuckle-in-the-mouth, heart-stopping roller-coaster of a book."
Actual line: "Sarah Dunant has written a supercharged, knuckle-in-the-mouth, heart-stopping roller-coaster of a book that teeters on the edge of camp melodrama, that is hip—remember, hip is only around the corner from the bum—with it, and just a hint pornographic."
Not quoted: "In the end, it is hard to know what to make of the book. Is Transgressions a serious effort to analyse the psyche of a threatened woman who decides to fight back? Most certainly it is. But is all the controversial, and gratuitous, sex and violence necessary? By today's standards, probably. In another time and place, innuendo might have sufficed, but to be effective nowadays, everything must hang out."

The Times (London): "A chilling—sometimes terrifying—and tautly written thriller."
Actual line: "Transgressions is a chilling—sometimes terrifying—and tautly written thriller, but, ultimately, it cannot fulfil its own ambitions."
Not quoted: "For contrast, Dunant weaves in gobbets of the cheap Czech novel, a pretty poor pastiche of the bottom end of the market. 'When did it start,' wonders Elizabeth, 'this obsession with sexual violence?' It is hard to say, but Sarah Dunant is certainly doing her bit to feed it."

In the Shadow of the Law, Kermit Roosevelt

Alan M. Dershowitz, New York Times Book Review: "Roosevelt's gritty portrayal ... rings true ... I recommend this book with real enthusiasm."
Not quoted: "This is an impressive first novel—with equal emphasis on both adjectives. Kermit Roosevelt's legal coming-of-age story is quite commendable in its perceptive and witty insights into the post-law-school life of big-firm associates. But 'In the Shadow of the Law' also suffers from the showoffy-ness of an aspiring artiste strutting his stuff. Roosevelt, who worked for several law firms before becoming an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, knows his subject, but he can't seem to stop himself from using SAT words that few readers will understand without a dictionary ('lagniappe,' 'susurrus,' 'velleity'). He is also overly fond of metaphors and similes, especially those involving the military. His characters don't simply shave, they engage in 'brutal hand-to-hand combat with the razor.' "

To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming

Chicago Sun-Times: "A rich and fulfilling story, and time spent with these characters is to be cherished."
Actual line: "The plot is not the author's best, and the book meanders a bit too much through its multiple viewpoints to maintain the level of suspense she is trying to reach. Even so, though, this is a rich and fulfilling story, and time spent with these characters is to be cherished."


People Are Living There

New York Times: "Exquisite! Very rewarding performances by the four actors."
Actual line: "Things do pick up, however, in the play's second half, when Milly decides that the way to show up her boyfriend is to celebrate. What follows is the worst birthday party of all time, and Suzanne Shepherd, the director, stages it with exquisite patience, including a long, silent stretch of eating that will leave any dietitians in the audience appalled and everyone else laughing. ... Apparently it's no fun turning 50 whether you live in South Africa or in Elizabeth, N.J. That may be the main insight to be gleaned from the Specific Theater Company's revisiting of 'People Are Living There,' an unrewarding Athol Fugard play that benefits from some very rewarding performances by the four actors."
Not quoted: "All three of the main actors give strong performances, and Emma Myles makes the most of her smaller role as Shorty's romantic interest. But their efforts are in service of a motionless story: starts bleak, stays bleak."
For misleadingly implying that "exquisite" applied to the whole show, and for cherry-picking "very rewarding performances" from a very negative sentence, this blurb receives Gelf's award of Bogus Blurb of the Week. "Fantastic. A real treat!"
Actual line: "There is a bleak, melancholy shadow over everything and Fugard gives us few things to laugh at. (Though not necessarily from lack of trying) I have to admit that I began to lose interest in the first half of the play because it is light on plot and heavy on banter. However, things really pick up and become interesting theatre when the party begins. There is about ten minutes of fantastic theatre when all talking ceases and we only hear (and see) the characters attacking the party food. This scene had the most impact on me. Fugard shows us throughout the play what happens to us when we sit around and wait for life to come to us instead of attacking it. So I saw this scene as a futile attempt at attacking life and the one moment when the characters break out of their shells. This is very refreshing, but then immediately afterward Fugard falls back on dramatic speeches to reveal his characters' innermost feelings. ... It is a real treat to see this rarely-performed Fugard play."


New York Times: "Fierce, ferocious and slyly funny!"
Not quoted: "The first half of the show is filled with honest and introspective reflections, but the second half seems less dramatic and, at times, a bit forced." "Funny, touching and endlessly charming! This will one of the best moments onstage this year!"
Not quoted: "Chin is less successful in making Border/Clash into a cohesive play. For starters, the choice to present her story chronologically is a bit uninspired. Despite director Rob Urbinati's efforts, it ends up feeling very choppy as we jump suddenly from age 10 to age 15 to age 18 all on Garin Marschall's cheery Lifesaver-colored set. The production also leaps stylistically from moments of straightforward storytelling, to theatrical monologue to slam poetry. Each of these parts is handled expertly, but the overall piece winds up with a frenetic, staccato quality."
Gelf has no idea what "This will one of the best moments onstage this year" means, but at least it was taken directly from the review.

Village Voice: "Gifted and immensely likable! Rhythmic gold!"
Actual line: "This gifted vocal artist excels equally at prose and verse, and her unforced charm invigorates the play's patchwork structure. Immensely likable, Chin remains something of a bohemian cliché. The more she emphasizes her multifaceted individuality, the less individual she becomes. Of course, no one is more aware of this than Chin, who diffuses her self-seriousness with ample self-mockery. Her 'angry woman poetry' is often 'laced with humor to make it go down easier,' she explains teasingly. Beating her own critics to the punch, Chin gets the last laugh, and then spins it into rhythmic gold."

The Constant Wife

Hilton Als, the New Yorker: "Splendid! Everything about this production is such a pleasure! Mark Brokaw's direction is impeccable! Kate Burton and Lynn Redgrave bring such verve to their work that one is reminded of what is missing from so many of today's performances: the ability to play, and to enjoy it. An extraordinary cast!"
Actual line: "Everything about this production is such a pleasure—from Allen Moyer's set design and Michael Krass's costumes to Mark Brokaw's impeccable direction—that the hackneyed plot and loopy logic barely register. None of it would have worked, of course, if Brokaw hadn't assembled such an extraordinary cast. Burton and Redgrave bring such verve to their work that one is reminded of what is missing from so many of today's performances: the ability to play, and to enjoy it."

Clive Barnes, New York Post: "A sparkling comedy! Kate Burton gives a magical performance! Lynn Redgrave is flawless!"
Not quoted: "Brokaw's production—saddled with a Chinoiserie decor by Allen Moyer as ugly as it is unlikely—is deft and clever. It is smart enough to bring the play home, despite ghastly overacting from Cumpsty, an all-too-stolid Dossett and a frantic Conlee."

Robert Feldberg, Bergen Record: "A merry, beautifully acted production! Superb!"
Not quoted: " 'The Constant Wife,' which opened Thursday night at the American Airlines Theatre, is a drawing-room comedy that has echoes of Shaw, Coward and Wilde but hasn't the depth of the first, the fizz of the second or the razor wit of the third."

Spot a misleading media quote in an ad about a movie, show, book, or anything else? E-mail Gelf with your find.

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Article by Carl Bialik

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