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Short Takes
HOOP ROOTS By John Edgar Wideman At 60, Wideman, a two-time PEN/Faulkner Award winner, is too old for playground basketball, the game he loves. He is the perfect age, however, to drift back and examine his rise from ghetto prodigy to Ivy League hoops star to literary Brahmin. At all phases playground ball is there, teaching creativity, the difference between "solo triumph" and group participation, and other life lessons. There are too many basketball-is-like-jazz musings, but at its best moments, Hoop Roots brings a touch of Proust to the blacktop.

SAMUEL JOHNSON IS INDIGNANT By Lydia Davis Some of Lydia Davis' stories are shorter than this review, but they are funnier, smarter, and will prove more memorable. In deadpan prose, Davis turns philosophical snippets into fiction, with moving results. It is rare for a writer to challenge the tradition of storytelling and still be a pleasure to read. Davis' stories are as clear as children's books and somehow inevitable, as if she has written down what we were all on the verge of thinking ourselves.

HEIST Directed by David Mamet Gene Hackman is the thief, Danny DeVito is his financier, and for two hours they engage in an insanely complicated effort to rob a shipment of gold bullion and double-cross each other. Writer-director David Mamet has so many obligations to his plot that he has neither time nor energy to develop these or any other characters (played by the likes of Delroy Lindo and Ricky Jay) beyond the bounds of genre cliche. Or to dole out more than a few lines of his usually smart dialogue. The result is a well-tooled machine chugging coldly along a twisting road to nowhere.

SHALLOW HAL Directed by Peter and Bobby Farrelly Hal (Jack Black), a cheerful boor in denial about the foxy women who deny him, meets a heavenly being (motivational flack Tony Robbins!) who lets Hal see the beauty of homely women--to him, the hippopotamic Rosemary looks like Gwyneth Paltrow. This fable, with its Shrek-like conceit, could be the Farrellys' mission statement about their fascination with human eccentricities: retardation in There's Something About Mary, albinism in Me, Myself & Irene, obesity, spinal bifida and vestigial tails here. We mock, they say, because we care. But that doesn't make the film elevating or amusing. Torpor sticks to the actors' feet like gum on a movieplex floor. Will Hal make you laugh? Fat chance.

AMERICAN ROOTS MUSIC Various Artists Box sets fall into two categories: too comprehensive or not comprehensive enough. Count this four-disc companion to the PBS music documentary among the latter. Sixty-eight tracks is plenty for an individual act but a mere freshman introduction to American roots music. With limited breadth, the curatorial choices are critical. There's not a false step on the Country and Blues discs, with room for both the obvious (B.B. King, Hank Williams) and the exuberantly obscure (Whistler's Jug Band?). But while the Cajun, Tejano and Native American selections are individually clever, their close proximity emphasizes similarity rather than the genres' diversity.

I MIGHT BE WRONG--LIVE RECORDINGS Radiohead The group may be the only contemporary rock act that matters, but its ambition often comes at the expense of warmth; the average Radiohead record is about as sweet as barbed wire. When live, however, the band opens up. The bells, whistles and scratches that dominated Kid A and Amnesiac are still there, but Thom Yorke's tenor is allowed to soar above rather than fight through them, revealing melodies in unexpected places. This set also includes the lovely True Love Waits, with its aching, Sarah McLachlan-esque chorus, "Just don't leave." What's next? A cuddly Rumsfeld?

BEHIND THE LABELS: OXYGEN Sunday, Nov. 18, 7:30 p.m. E.T. Chinese and Filipina women come to the U.S. territory of Saipan to pursue the American dream. They sew clothes labeled "Made in the USA." But they work in sweatshops for measly pay and are forbidden to strike or get pregnant, says Tia Lessin's strident but revelatory documentary about wage slavery, American-style.

November 19, 2001 Vol. 158 No. 22

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