Orange County (Paramount). This flick's opponents lack a willingness to be won over by either generational aesthetics or the devilishly madcap antics of the skivvy-swathed Jack Black. New York Times critic A.O. Scott calls the story, about an inspired surfer who wants to escape the suburbs for Stanford, "as full of youth-comedy stock characters, and as wildly overplotted, as Not Another Teen Movie." And in a departure from type, the Los Angeles Times'Kevin Thomas pans it, stamping it a "suburban sub-Candide balderdash for teens" with "virtually no connection" to "the actual Orange County or Stanford." But Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwartzbaum uncovers a "uniquely warped but maturely tolerant worldview" in screenwriter Mike White, while Rolling Stone's Peter Travers appreciates a "wow cast," directed by Jake Kasdan (son of Lawrence) and starring, among a swarm of Hollywood jokesters, other celebrity children like Colin Hanks (son of Tom) and, as his girlfriend, Schuyler Fisk (Sissy Spacek's daughter). (Click here for the official Web site, where you can take the Orange County SAT.)— A.B.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le Pacte des Loups)(Universal Focus). Critics say "14-year-olds of all ages" will appreciate this French action flick, which arrives complete with plentiful "nudity, dismemberment and bloodshed" (Elvis Mitchell, the New York Times). Several critics note that it's a film "that no one should take too seriously" (Kenneth Turan, the Los Angeles Times) given its ridiculous combination of styles and plot lines: a mix of horror, kung-fu, and period drama set in the 1700s, the film was apparently produced by an "explosion at the genre factory," says Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Nonetheless, Ebert says, "I would be lying if I did not admit that this is all, in its absurd and overheated way, entertaining." (Click here for a long, long description of the true story on which the movie is based.)—B.M.L.
Stillmatic, by Nas (Columbia). Decent notices for this fifth album by the nemesis of New York rap king Jay-Z. A "deadly serious, score-settling farrago of put-downs and indignant lectures" (David Segal, the Washington Post), Stillmatic shows Nas having "regained much of the lyrical firepower that had eluded him since his classic debut album, 1994's Illmatic" (Soren Baker, the Los Angeles Times). But critics agree Nas traverses more meaningful ground than that of hip-hop battlefields. His "strength has always been incisive lyrical analyses of current events" (Steve Jones, USA Today); "Nas paints vivid if familiar pictures of a world in turmoil" (Jon Young, Newsday). In fact, the only thing keeping Nas down seems to be his lack of humor, the gift that "makes Jay-Z such an appealing braggart" (Segal).— A.B.
Stephen Ambrose and Plagiarism. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes busted best-selling author and historian Stephen Ambrose for plagiarizing parts of his latest book, The Wild Blue, about WWII B-24 bomber pilots. Apparently Ambrose stole phrases from University of Pennsylvania professor Thomas Childers' The Wings of Morning (1995), another book about the same pilots, while simply footnoting it as a source of research. On Jan. 5, Ambrose apologized through his publisher for having made "a mistake," saying that the error will be corrected in future editions. Childers said about the apology: "I think it is a classy thing to do and I appreciate it" (Associated Press). But on Forbes.com, Mark Lewis asserts he has "identified a similar problem with Ambrose's Crazy Horse and Custer, which Doubleday published in 1975. Ambrose borrows phrases from the late Jay Monaghan's Custer: The Life of General George Armstrong Custer, published by Little, Brown & Co. in 1959." Sure, Ambrose footnotes the paragraphs in question, citing Monaghan as a source. "But several times he presents Monaghan's words as his own, without quotation marks" (Lewis). (Click here for Forbes.com's passage-by-passage analysis of Ambrose's newly discovered improprieties.)—A.B.
I'll Let You Go, by Bruce Wagner (Villard). "A lumpy blend of fairy tale, youth-detective story and haute ethnography" (Jay McInerney, the New York Times), this latest from the "noirish Hollywood satirist" inspires vivid, and mainly disappointing, reviews. Some call the story, which traces a mystery through an LA family dynasty, the "mausoleum Hollywood deserves" (Mark Harris, Entertainment Weekly). But even though "all of the major characters are lovable eccentrics," the book's "token villains," who "might as well have long, waxed mustaches," stay "largely offstage—a real waste of Wagnerian talent" (McInerney). In fact, despite its "excess of every kind—a hyperabundance of characters, plotlines, wealth, emotions, words," the novel "ultimately founders because, unlike [Proust's] In Search of Lost Time, it's not a true bildungsroman" (Joy Press, the Village Voice). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.
He Kills Coppers, by Jake Arnott (Soho). Solid reviews for the British author's second novel: "a study of men for whom moral clarity is more concept than certainty" (Andiee Paviour, Entertainment Weekly). "Told from three angles, with a wonderful mix of period detail and atmosphere, this is a fine, evocative novel covering the 20-year search for a cop-killer by two flawed anti-heroes" (Stuart Price, the Independent). The "mise-en-scene is well realized and enjoyable: 60s Soho gangsterdom, replete with tarts, bent coppers, seedy journos, dirty books, and dubious Masonic goings-on" (Charles Mitchell, the Spectator). But there is one chief shortcoming: Arnott's "truest gifts are for sights and sounds, as well as for the more marginal figures"; he "sometimes has difficulty filling out his major characters" (Hugo Lindgren, the New York Times). (Click here to read an excerpt.)— A.B.