Italian for Beginners (Miramax). Mostly glowing reviews for this Danish Dogma comedy written and directed by Lone Scherfig, the first female filmmaker to adhere to this group's requirements of hand-held camera work, natural light, and cinéma vérité freedom. The plot: A recently widowed pastor "falls in with (and, ultimately, helps sort out) a crowd of mildly eccentric, somewhat vulnerable thirtysomething singles" taking Italian lessons (J. Hoberman, the Village Voice). Of course, the New York Times' famously scathing Stephen Holden claims that while the film's "hip, off-center" aesthetics help to illuminate the characters, "the movie adds up to little more than feel-good fluff." But the Los Angeles Times'equally tough Kenneth Turan disagrees, calling it "as completely charming a romantic comedy as this still-new year is likely to see." (Click here to view the trailer.)—A.B.
No Man's Land (United Artists/MGM). Critics get out their best adjectives for reviews of documentary filmmaker Danis Tanovic's debut fictional film. It's a "blunt, satiric yowl" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly), a "trenchant political cartoon" (Jay Carr, the Boston Globe), a "bleakly funny parable" (Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times) about two soldiers, a Croat and a Serb, trapped in a trench together in 1993. Though the premise is comedic, beware: The movie is "so grimly, insistently realistic that its absurdism hits you in the stomach more than in the funny bone," says Stephen Holden of the New York Times. It's an "antiwar weapon from a filmmaker who has seen battle firsthand and has lived to make art from memories of hell" (Schwarzbaum). (Click here to read a statement about the movie, written by Tanovic.)— B.M.L.
Snow Dogs (Walt Disney Pictures). Critics are ready to put Dogs to sleep. Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. stars as a Miami dentist who travels to Alaska to find his birth parents and train a dog-sled team. "Once there, he slips on the ice, falls in the snow, slips on the ice a few more times, is pursued by a bear, falls in the snow and is dragged behind a dog sled. Then, if I recall correctly, he slips on the ice" (A. O. Scott, the New York Times). There is speculation that the five credited screenwriters watered down each other's drafts; whatever the explanation, movies "don't get stickier or dopier than Snow Dogs." (Gene Seymour, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here for the film's official site.)— B.W.
Motherland, by Natalie Merchant (Elektra). High marks for Merchant's third album since her days as one of the 10,000 Maniacs. Reviewers praise her willingness to transcend her previous "world-weary voice, depressing outlook on life, and self-righteousness" with both a "rootsy feel" (Dan Aquilante, the New York Post) and "prescient imagery," as heard in the song "The House Is on Fire": "As Middle Eastern violin filigrees float over reggae rhythms, [Merchant] intones, 'There's a wildfire catching in the whip of the wind that could start a conflagration like there has never been' " (Rob Kemp, Rolling Stone). The critics' consensus: It's "healing" country/folk-based music composed of "raw emotions and artistic purity" (Steve Matteo, Newsday) that could have benefited from a slightly "lighter" approach but nevertheless "makes a strong case for its serious-mindedness" (Kemp). (Click here for Merchant's official Web site, which, strangely enough, features a link to The Nation on its main menu.)— A.B.
Jay-Z Unplugged (Def Jam). Great reviews for this live recording from rap king Jay-Z. The live instrumentation, supplied by the Roots' rhythm section and a string quartet, "boosts the tracks beyond their chilly cut-and-paste studio origins" (Joshua Klein, Billboard). The album's guest singers (especially Mary J. Blige and Jaguar Wright) supply "several moments of pure delirium," says Rolling Stone's Tom Moon in a four-star review. "Jay-Z comes alive too," says Entertainment Weekly's David Browne, with "the glare of an inner-city action hero. ... [ Unplugged ] adds a new, unheard element to his sometimes deadening music: celebration." All in all "it makes you wish that all MCs would go au naturel" (Klein). (Click here to read about the ongoing battle between Jay-Z and rival rapper Nas.)—B.M.L.
Starsailor, Love Is Here (Capitol). Generally favorable notices for the U.S. debut of Starsailor, the "the latest group to be heralded in the hype wars of the British music publications" (Joe Heim, the Washington Post). All praise the band's "irresistible, expansive melodies" (Jenny Eliscu, Rolling Stone). The problem is that "overheated, self-absorbed" singer James Walsh (David Browne, Entertainment Weekly) "seldom delivers lyrics worthy of the melodies or musicianship" (Edna Gunderson, USA Today). The album "suffers from a start-to-finish wimpiness that seems in need of a good kick in the pants" (Heim). But Walsh is only 21, and the Los Angeles Times' Steve Hochman finds Love Is Here"moving and compelling enough that the youthful sins ought not be merely tolerated, but encouraged." (Click here for the official Starsailor Web site.)— B.M.L.
Books Tepper Isn't Going Out, by Calvin Trillin (Random House). Laughs for the New Yorker wit's 21st book, a comic novel about Murray Tepper, a Manhattan senior-cum-urban legend obsessed with finding (and keeping) the perfect parking spot. Described with "great, cranky affection," Trillin's city "has a rich tradition of appreciating the ridiculous" as found in "the way the word 'nice' (as in 'a nice whitefish') may be used in a delicatessen" (Janet Maslin, the New York Times). Critics also praise the book's irony: Murray, whom many want to "see a shrink, becomes shrink to the people admiring of, and attracted to his mite of self-assertion" (Colin Walters, the Washington Times). Still, some wonder: "Would any true New Yorker find a guy who sits in a parked car for hours this fascinating?" (Kevin Cowherd, the Baltimore Sun). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.
Summer in Baden-Baden, by Leonid Tsypkin, translated by Roger and Angela Keys (New Directions). Critics echo Susan Sontag, who in a New Yorker essay remarked that after reading this "kind of [recently discovered] dream-novel, in which the dreamer, who is Tsypkin himself, conjures up his own life and that of Dostoyevsky in a streaming, passionate narration," one emerges "purged, shaken, fortified, breathing a little deeper" and "grateful to literature for what it can harbor and exemplify." United by "Tsypkin's amazing style, operating through page-long sentences, extending themselves in breadth and depth," the book is like "traveling along a Mobius strip, whose two sides turn out to be, uncannily, a single thing" (Donald Fanger, the Los Angeles Times). Some reviewers, however, note the book's simplest virtue without imitating its elasticity: "Love is at the very core of it" (Marie Arana, the Washington Post). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.
Iron Flag, by the Wu-Tang Clan (Loud). After a string of disappointing releases, Wu-Tang returns to critics' good graces. Ol' Dirty Bastard sits this album out (he's in jail), but the not-incarcerated "Clan members come through in this collaborative effort with gritty lyrics, highly rhythmic tunes and murderous beats" (Colneth Smiley Jr., the Boston Herald). Though it doesn't reinvent the wheel, with a tight 12 songs—"and there's not a dud in the bunch" (Renee Graham, the Boston Globe)—and only two guest stars (Flavor Flav and Ron Isley), critics praise the album's focus. "Wu-Tang Clan can again raise its flag in victory" (Soren Baker, the Los Angeles Times). (Click here to buy items from the Wu-Tang Clan's clothing line, Wu-Wear. Yes, the "Wu Deville" sneaker comes in infant sizes.)— B.W.