| Movie Jerry Maguire (TriStar). Critics are surprised by how much they like the latest Tom Cruise vehicle, the sentimental education of a coldhearted, supersuccessful sports agent. The New York Observer's Andrew Sarris went to Jerry Maguire expecting to indulge in "Tom Cruise-bashing" but left charmed by its "feel-good holiday entertainment with emotional zest." "Cruise's charm hasn't been this potent in years," enthuses Newsweek's David Ansen. ( People's Tom Gliatto disagrees, accusing Cruise of making his eyes "intensely shiny, like a lemur's," when he wants to convey emotion.) SLATE's Sarah Kerr and New York's David Denby concur that Cruise's performance as a corporate shark amounts to a successful satire of his usual role as triumphant stud: "He shows us that there's a terrifying abyss under the confidence--no ideas, no particular personality, no nothing," says Denby. They both give director Cameron Crowe (Singles, Say Anything ...) the credit. "Cameron Crowe has broken into big-time commercial filmmaking without losing his soul," says Denby. (Sony's site for the film includes trailer clips and a chance to win a trip abroad.)|
| Book Airframe, by Michael Crichton (Knopf). Touchstone Pictures has already laid out $8 million to film Crichton's latest novel, and most reviewers can see past the novel to the movie to come. "The pacing is fast, the suspense nonstop," Cynthia Sanz writes in People. "Airframe seems born for celluloid." In Newsday, Jean Hanff Korelitz says that the thriller reads "annoyingly like a fleshed-out screenplay, with characters allotted--if they're lucky--a single descriptive line." Airframe--which traces the investigation of a fatal airplane malfunction--is mainly attacked for the main character's cardboard personality and her irritating tendency to lecture on the minutiae of airplane construction. But The New Yorker's John Lanchester calls Airframe "one of Crichton's satisfying thrillers, his best since Jurassic Park," with underrated social value: "After all, not many books deliberately aimed at the top of the best-seller list will contain a bald plea for increased federal regulation." (The Random House site for Airframe includes a chapter of the book, a forum on whether flying's safe, and more.)|
| Movie and Books Evita (Hollywood Pictures); Santa Evita, by Tomas Eloy Martinez (Knopf); Eva Perón, by Alicia Dujovne Ortíz (St. Martin's); In My Own Words (New Press). The Evita juggernaut gathers momentum. Newsweek and Time review the film three weeks before it opens Christmas Day. Newsweek's David Ansen calls the movie "gorgeous" and "epic," though politically muddled: "Instead of insight you get spectacle." The magazine tells the story of how Madonna beat out Meryl Streep and Patti LuPone for the role--British filmmaker Alan Parker assures readers that when the movie opens, "no one will think anyone else could have done it"--and Time movie critic Richard Corliss revels in all the fuss: "Madonna is a magnet for all eyes. You must watch her. And to find the soul of the modern musical for once on the big screen, you must see Evita." Newsweek and TheNew Yorker take on Tomas Eloy Martinez's historical novel, Santa Evita; Alicia Dujovne Ortíz's Perón bio, Eva Perón; and Perón's own dedicated-from-her-deathbed meditation, In My Own Words. The NewYorker's Alma Guillermoprieto calls Santa Evita "brilliant"; Newsweek's Brook Larmer calls Eva Perón "gossipy" and In My Own Words "apocryphal." Also, fashion critics disagree as to whether Madonna's Dior-like costumes, with the help of a "Christian Dior" show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will bring back the French designer's 1950s "New Look." The New York Times' Amy M. Spindler says no: "Honey, nobody wants to look matronly," Spindler quotes designer Bill Blass as saying. SLATE's Anne Hollander says yes, probably , while cautioning that modern women may not be ready "to celebrate feminine charm with luxury and high artifice." The Evita film site has clips, stills, etc. (Item to be updated regularly.)|
| Television Bastard Out of Carolina (Showtime). When Ted Turner's TNT network dropped Anjelica Huston's adaptation of Dorothy Allison's 1992 novel--Turner reportedly couldn't stomach the graphic scenes of child rape--Showtime picked it up. It's finally airing this Sunday, and most critics wish it weren't: They say Bastard, which stars Jennifer Jason Leigh as a poor Southern woman whose husband molests her daughter, is simply too degrading to watch. Even reviewers who focus on the heroines' resilience don't like the violence. Lisa Schwarzbaum's generally positive review for Entertainment Weekly says that "when Huston grabs us by the eyeballs and forces us to watch such sickening violence, we become voyeurs--and feel ashamed." New York's John Leonard laments that, in translation from text to television, Allison's taut prose has been sacrificed and one character, de-lesbianized: "Savage and disquieting art has been turned into merely competent television." (Showtime's site has downloadable photos from the film.)|
| Book The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum (Knopf). Nissenbaum's history of Christmas has elicited sparse but wildly various reactions: "Fascinating," says Kenneth L. Woodward in Newsweek; "100-proof hogwash," says Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post. Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, argues that Christmas was never really a pristine occasion for good will and Christian selflessness; it was a rowdy, carnivalesque bacchanalia of drinking, rioting, and fornicating in the streets. The New York Times Book Review's Frances Stead Sellers finds the argument "rather unsurprising," but concedes that "this is entertaining material, and Mr. Nissenbaum makes the most of it."|
| Opera Benjamin Britten in New York. By the end of this season, four operas by Benjamin Britten will have been performed in the city, and The New Yorker's Alex Ross deems this a canonization of sorts for Britten, who died in 1976: "This composer is making the transition to classic status." Ross and NewYork's Peter Davis agree that the challenge of Britten's work is its weirdness--the cruelty and murky psychologizing of the operas, the difficult orchestral music. They are both generally pleased with the biggest production, the Metropolitan Opera's A Midsummer Night's Dream, although Davis criticizes the "sluggish, unresponsive, and distinctly unmagical" Met orchestra, and Ross quibbles with the set's queasy-making colors, "including a particular shade of green, which, for lack of a match on the color wheel, I am going to call NyQuil Milkshake." In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini approves of the emphasis Dream director Tim Albery has put on the homoerotic relationship between Oberon and Puck; Albery does justice, he writes, to the "theme of sexual dominance" which runs through Britten's work.|
--Compiled by David Kurnick.
Illustrations by Mark Alan Stamaty