Donnie Brasco (TriStar/Sony). Despite a general expression of weariness with mob movies, Donnie Brasco is deemed a critical success. Critics give three reasons: 1) A buddy pairing of unusual moral complexity between an undercover agent (Johnny Depp) and his Mafia mentor (Al Pacino). 2) Nuanced acting from the usually overwrought Pacino. 3) A star turn by Depp, who delivers "an intense, quietly flawless performance" (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). (The Donnie Brasco site has stills, clips, and a game that enables virtual infiltration of the mob.)
Smilla's Sense of Snow (Fox Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Fox). Critics extol the charms of British actress Julia Ormond but pan Danish director Bille August's adaptation of Peter Hoeg's 1993 best-selling glaciological whodunit. "What will surprise everyone is the dry iciness, the burning coldness of Ormond's Smilla," says Time's Richard Schickel. The movie itself is said to be a muddle. TheNew Yorker's Terrence Rafferty describes it as "a ghost story that thinks it's a murder mystery," complete with Arctic Circle chase scenes at the end. "Soggy Euro-pudding," says the British Independent.
David Helfgott World Tour. Journalists decry the exploitation of David Helfgott, the mentally ill former piano prodigy and subject of the biopic Shine, as a "freak show" (Sydney Morning Herald). They point out that during the first leg of his tour in Australia, he lost his place in midperformance, screamed while playing, and wandered into the audience. His David Helfgott Plays Rachmaninov (RCA/Victor), currently No. 2 on Billboard's classical-music charts, is "more listenable than his live recitals," says Newsweek, but it is "still muddy, noisy and boring."
Crisis Center (NBC, Fridays at 10 p.m. EST). Critics find NBC's latest dramatic series insufferable. Daily Variety's Ray Richmond says the show, which focuses on volunteers in a San Francisco community clinic, "has the disconcerting effect of a neon sign flashing, 'We're doing television that makes a difference.' " (In the first episode, underage Asian prostitutes are clothed, teens are prevented from committing suicide, and a kidnapped baby with spina bifida is returned to its parents.) The Washington Post's Tom Shales suggests another name for the series: "A Bunch of Klutzes Who Should Mind Their Own Business." (Click here to go to NBC's plug for Crisis Center.)
Feds (CBS, Wednesdays at 9 p.m. EST). Law & Order executive producer Dick Wolf's latest law-enforcement drama is anointed the best among the midseason shows. Despite the familiarity of its premise (government lawyers hunt down villains and prosecute them), it is said to be less than formulaic. New York's John Leonard praises the cast, which includes Blair Brown (The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd) and Regina Taylor (I'll Fly Away). (See the Feds page on the CBS site.)
Arsenio (ABC, Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. EST). Former late-night talk-show host Arsenio Hall told Newsweek that he wanted his sitcom about a cable sportscaster to be a conventional comedy about black urban professionals. Critics agree that it's a conventional comedy. "The show has all the flair of an Oxford shirt set off by a rep tie," says Time's Ginia Bellafante.
Just Shoot Me (NBC, premieres Tuesday, March 4, at 9:30 p.m. EST; regular air time Wednesdays at 9:30 p.m. EST). Yet another sitcom about a single female journalist, this one has a high-profile cast (George Segal; sex, lies, andvideotape's Laura San Giacomo; and Saturday NightLive's David Spade). "If NBC wanted to clone its sitcoms, you think it could aim higher than Suddenly Susan and TheNaked Truth," says USA Today's Matt Roush. (Preview the show on the Just Shoot Me page.)
CrazyRhythms: Richard Nixon and All That Jazz, by Leonard Garment (Times Books). Nixon lawyer and defender Leonard Garment emerges as the anti-Dick Morris--a charming neurotic, free of self-importance and attentive to emotional nuance. Reviewers focus on Garment's past as a clarinetist, on Nixon's insecurities, and on the unlikely friendship between the anti-Semite and the Jew: "Count Metternich, meet Woody Allen" (Thomas DeFrank, the Washington Post).
First-Novel Roundup: Time and the Wall Street Journal award measured praise to Lives of the Monster Dogs, by Kirsten Bakis (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), and Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels (Knopf). Lives of the Monster Dogs tells the story of dogs outfitted with voice boxes and prosthetic hands who move to New York and become socialites. "Ms. Bakis, with admirable audacity, has set herself the almost impossible task of making these dogs 'human' and just misses the mark," says the Journal. Fugitive Pieces is a poetic telling of the life of a Holocaust-survivor-turned-poet. "Her prose does not race; it hovers, insinuating its way in and around timeless mysteries," says Time. Both novels, however, are said to be excessively self-conscious. Time also considers Necessary Madness, by 19-year-old Jenn Crowell (G.P. Putnam's), noteworthy. The book itself, the story of a 30-year-old American widow in London, is unimpressive. But the author's precociousness has already led to the sale of the foreign rights and to a major movie deal.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Helen Hayes Theater, New York). The new play by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy)--a romantic comedy about self-hating Jews in Atlanta on the eve of World War II--is said to teeter between the "the serious-comedy tradition of Neil Simon's autobiographical trilogy" (Linda Winer, Newsday) and sitcom schmaltz. "Its form is the theatrical equivalent of comfort food, something for those who like their nostalgia repackaged in the guise of something new," says the New York Times' Ben Brantley. Variety predicts several Tony Award nominations.
Recent "Summary Judgment" columns:
Movie--The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition;
Television--Miss Evers' Boys;
Book--Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, by John Gregory Dunne;
Book--American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson, by Joseph J. Ellis;
Book--Whittaker Chambers: A Biography, by SamTanenhaus;
Movie--Blood and Wine;
Book--Gladstone: A Biography, by Roy Jenkins;
Book--Asylum, by Patrick McGrath;
Book--Hungry Ghosts: Mao's Secret Famine, by Jasper Becker;
Art--"Henry Darger: The Unreality of Being."
CD--Pat Boone in a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy, by Pat Boone;
Movie--When We Were Kings;
Movie--Prisoner of the Mountains;
Book--What Falls Away: A Memoir, by Mia Farrow;
Book--Before the Dawn: An Autobiography, by Gerry Adams;
Book--A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, by David Foster Wallace;
Television--The Chris Rock Show.
Book--Personal History, by Katharine Graham;
Book--What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation, by Charles Murray;
Book--Do the Windows Open?, by Julie Hecht;
Movie--Waiting for Guffman;
Art--"Willem de Kooning: The Late Paintings, the 1980s";
Theater--Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus;
Event--"On Cultural Power: The Wilson-Brustein Discussion."
--Compiled by Franklin Foer and the editors of Slate.