Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (Warner Bros.). Critics are slightly disappointed by the much-awaited first installment in the Potter series. All praise the actors, especially young Daniel Radcliffe, who shows "mature self-possession" in the title role (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly). Mixed reviews for the special effects; all critics weigh in on the "Quidditch" game sequence in particular, and while some praise the "gravity-defying action" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times), others say it's a "blur of mortifyingly ordinary computer-generated effects" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). In general, the movie is unusually faithful to J.K. Rowling's book, and critics think this indicates a lack of creativity, a "dreary, literal-minded competence" (Mitchell) designed to satisfy the masses. "There's a palpable avoidance of risk as this new mythology is wheeled gingerly into the marketplace and carefully positioned to zap your pre-sold brain," says J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. But will the kids like it? Probably. "All in all I'd give the film 10 out of 10 because it was really good. My mum's already booked tickets to go and see it again and I'd recommend it to anyone," reports BBC News stringer Geraint, a 10-year-old resident of Newcastle, England. (Click here to "practise your wizarding skills" at the film's official Web site.)— B.M.L.
Amélie (Miramax). Critics savor director Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "sugar rush of a movie," a film jammed with "imagery that covers every square centimeter of the screen" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). The title character (Audrey Tautou) spends her days finding ways to make people happy. Around her, Jeunet uses effects to create a vision of Paris that is "orderly, safe, colorful, has no social problems, and is peopled entirely by citizens who look like extras from An American in Paris" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times). Perhaps everything's too cheerful. The Village Voice's J. Hoberman says Amélie's "manic pace serves to mitigate the movie's cloying sentimentality." (Click here to visit the film's official Web site.)—B.C.
The Wash (Lions Gate Films). This "sloppy and shoddy piece of work" (Joe Leydon, Variety) is a wash with the critics. The plot, such as it is, involves rapper Dr. Dre getting a job as the manager of the car wash where his ne'er-do-well roommate (Snoop Dogg) works. USA Today's Mike Clark observes, "the projectionist could probably show the reels in any order and have the movie make just as much sense." One of the gentler adjectives employed by critics is "moronic" (Gene Seymour, the Los Angeles Times); Michael O'Sullivan of the Washington Post cautions that the film is aptly named: "you're likely to crave a shower after this profane and sophomoric exercise in 'humor.' " (Click here for information about Car Wash , widely recognized as the greatest car wash movie.)— B.W.
Novocaine(Artisan). "I've had more fun at root canals," hoots the New York Observer's Rex Reed about this part-film noir, part-screwball comedy starring Steve Martin. The plot: An antiseptic dentist crosses the bridge from banality to carnage when a hot, junkie femme fatale (Helena Bonham Carter) rocks his chair and his world. Utilizing voice-over as an expositional tool, Novocaine "cheats wildly on p.o.v. and salivates over bad metaphors, while the wildly oscillating tone never finds its key" (Jessica Winter, the Village Voice). Martin fails in his dramatic portrayal of a "neo-Hitchcockian wrong man" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). And despite David Atkins' attempt to "expose hidden moral decay" with a dental metaphor, "his slack direction fails to touch a nerve" (Peter Travers, Rolling Stone). (Click here to visit the film's official Web site.) —A.B.
The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Nathalie Babel and translated by Peter Constantine (Norton). Lit-crits lap up the terse, war-inspired words of this Russian raconteur, who, at age 40, was unfairly tried as a spy and killed at the hand of Stalin's NKVD. Yet opinions on Constantine's translation clash. Citing the book's description of an aggregate of stars as "urinating soldiers,"The New Yorker's John Updike claims Babel's "far-fetched tropes explode off the page." Conversely, Slate's Alex Abramovich argues Constantine's "tin ear" causes him to fall "short of the mark," taking "undue liberties with the text" and rendering certain passages "garbled and meaningless." Funny that the voice of reason should come from The Nation's kvetchy connoisseur of all things bookish, John Leonard: "There will doubtless be gripes about this or that … but not from me. I'm familiar with Babel only from previous translations." (Listen to Constantine read from Roaming Stars, one of Babel's screenplays, on WNYC-FM's The Next Big Thing.)— A.B.
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Laundry Service, by Shakira (Epic). Critics balk at the Colombian pop-rock diva's English-language debut. The reason? Good ol' assimilation. Even though the album finds Shakira "unafraid of merging musical flavors" (Billboard), it "is the ultimate in crossover nightmares. Its wan ska-pop, faux-country ballads, and generic rock barely betray a Spanish accent or any musical heritage" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). "Shakira's voice is a wild and beautiful instrument, capable of delivering scorching moments of musical passion." But "surrounded by a battalion of producers and songwriters, the 24-year-old yodel[er] can't quite overcome the pedestrian nature of most of the material at hand, the bulk of which she co-wrote" (Ernesto Lechner, Rolling Stone). (Click here to visit the official Shakira Web site.)— A.B.
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Britney, by Britney Spears (Jive). Grisly reviews for Spears' third album about her oh-so-imminent adulthood. Sure, Britney "claims new prerogatives" (with songs like "Overprotected" and "Let Me Be") and "accepts new risks" (i.e., the challenges of R&B). But at 19 Spears still clings to "pedophilic impulses": "Her self-declared self-definition would be a lot more convincing if she wasn't continually reminding listeners that she's young and then moaning like a phone-sex operator" (Jon Pareles, the New York Times). Or as Barry Walters writes in Rolling Stone, Spears' "Lolita shtick is nearly past its expiration date." In fact, it's her "girlish delivery" and "the impersonal, synthetic quality of the music," that makes her music anything but "adult or erotic" (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly). (Click here to visit Britney's official Web site.)—A.B. To buy this cd from amazon.com, click here.
Ken Kesey (1935-2001).The death of the "Pied Piper of the psychedelic era" (Christopher Lemann-Haupt, the New York Times) and author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest caused "the energy of America" to drop "by a volt or two" (Henry Allen, the Washington Post). In addition to his writing, Kesey was also the star of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which detailed "a series of quests undertaken by Kesey and a band of friends he named the Merry Pranksters to experience roadway