Bowling for Columbine (United Artists). Michael Moore's latest documentary "mixes smart satire, petty bullying, and tough humanism," writes the Onion's Nathan Rabin—a blend that "would come across as pat and mean-spirited if it weren't so clearly rooted in a sense of horror and concern."Time Out New York calls it "problematic yet essential." Meanwhile, Salon's Jeff Stark learns that Moore's personal charm is kryptonite to his harshest critics. (Buy tickets for Bowling for Columbine.)
Swept Away (Screen Gems). The critics think Madonna doesn't transcend her character's phoniness in this Guy-Ritchie-directed remake. "Striking a pose is not the same as embodying a person," chides A.O. Scott in the New York Times. The character is "so one-dimensionally nasty you feel embarrassed for the other characters, who at least aspire to two dimensions," complains the Washington Post's Desson Howe. But the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris sees the film differently: "After a ghastly start, it becomes a curiously affecting document of a director trying to show the world why he loves his wife —not the changeling pop star, but the actress." (Buy tickets for Swept Away.)
White Oleander (Warner Bros.). "[A] Dickensian (or is it Winfreyesque?) journey" (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly) that finally delivers only because of the "sheer theatrical strength of the star actresses." While everyone praises Michelle Pfeiffer and Alison Lohman, who makes "the year's most auspicious screen acting debut" (Stephen Holden, the New York Times), many suggest that the movie's "mix of grit and lyricism doesn't jell" (Michael Wilmington, the Chicago Tribune). And if the best reviews are mixed, the worst are full of passionate intensity, like this from the Washington Post: "'Oleander': Looks Pretty but Stinks." (Buy tickets for White Oleander.)
Punch-Drunk Love (Columbia Pictures). Pigs fly, and citified critics rave about this sweet Adam Sandler movie. "No mere plot summary can do justice to the wild, sweet pleasures of 'Punch-Drunk Love,' " writes the New York Times' A.O. Scott of Paul Thomas Anderson's offbeat romance. "[A] comedy of discomfort and rage that turns unexpectedly sweet and pure," purrs the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan. (Buy tickets for Punch-Drunk Love.)
The Rules of Attraction (Lions Gate). Director Roger Avary is "a crude dramatist but an able anthropologist," says the Washington Post's Stephen Hunter of this cynical teens-gone-rich flick starring James Van Der Beek. Queasily disapproving reviews suggest that "Cinematic pyrotechnics aside, the only thing Avary seems to care about are mean giggles and pulchritude" (Manohla Dargis, the Los Angeles Times). A few critics, though, have a soft spot for the "gleefully black-hearted tale" (Mark Olsen, LA Weekly). (Buy tickets for The Rules of Attraction.)
Birds of Prey (WB). "Heaven on earth for us comic book fans" (Eric Deggans, the St. Petersberg Times), featuring "fantastical visuals and quippy butt-kicking" (Diane Werts, Newsday). While the Miami Herald's easily threatened Glenn Garvin takes a retro-paranoid view of the show as "a brooding gothgirl power fantasy about nurturing your inner bitch," the New York Times' Caryn James finds it "much closer to the wit of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' than to the banal witchcraft of 'Charmed,' or the earnest, overpraised C.I.A. drama 'Alias.' "
Autograph Man, by Zadie Smith (Random House). Reviews of Smith's second novel open with firecracker celebrations of her first—then commence unflattering comparisons, in varying shades of exasperation or sympathy. James Wood in the London Review of Books chafes at the main character's ethnic mind games, and the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani calls the book "[d]our where 'White Teeth' was exuberant; abstract and pompous where 'White Teeth' was brightly satiric; tight and preachy where 'White Teeth' was expansive." The Atlantic Monthly's Thomas Mallon is more sympathetic, although he ends with the slightly ominous Yoda warning to the author that "although she has more talent than just about anyone else in the room, no one, she needs to be reminded, has talent to burn." (Buy Autograph Man.)
Blue Shoe, by Anne Lamott (Putnam Publishing Group). "After reading 'Blue Shoe,' you feel as if you had sat on the kitchen floor and talked with the author late into the night about your mothers, your bodies, your lovers and God," enthuses Cynthia Smith in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, while the Minneapolis Star Tribune's G.E. Patterson compares "her full embrace of the messiness of real lives" to that of Balzac and Zola. The Christian Science Monitor's Ron Charles worries about her too-accepting fan-base: "At some point, every artist needs to work for someone who won't celebrate each drawing she tacks up on the refrigerator." (Buy Blue Shoe.)
Demolition, by Ryan Adams (Lost Highway). Critics rumple their brows over this package of outtakes, half-praising another "close-but-not-quite release from Adams, by turns striking and mundane" (Noel Murray, the Onion). Despite the songwriter's " blindingly fervent prolificacy" (Colin McElligatt, Stylus), some suggest he begins to " confound more than he intrigues" (Bill Holdship, Launch). But on Rollingstone.com, fervent fans suggest putting things in perspective: "It doesn't have the magic that 'Heartbreaker' had and it isn't the epic that 'Gold' was … but it isn't SUPPOSED TO BE. It's demos, people!" ( Demolition.)
Bram and Alice (CBS). Squicked-out TV critics vie for adjectives to describe this sitcom pilot's premise—caddish dad unknowingly hits on estranged daughter—with TV Guide settling on "icky" and "gamy," the New York Daily News " odious" and "skeevy." But in the Miami Herald, Glenn Garvin defends the Frasier team's new show: "Honest, Bram and Alice is not only not as bad as it sounds, it's an enjoyable comedy about attempting to build a family relationship on shaky foundations." Some find Alfred Molina miscast (Phil Rosenthal of the Chicago Sun-Times even resorts to conspiracy theories to explain his presence), but Salon's Carina Chocano adores his " delightfully rakish" character.