Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Warner Bros.). The first Potter was slammed in comparison to Lord of the Rings. The sequel earns better, yet similarly irritable, notices—praising zippier pacing and Kenneth Branagh but labeling director Chris Columbus "a master of the obvious and the emphatic" (A.O. Scott, the New York Times). Still, "if it doesn't fly, this 'Chamber' at least hovers nicely a few feet off the ground," half-praises Lisa Schwarzbaum in Entertainment Weekly. Most unexpected political rant: in the Dallas Observer, where Gregory Weinkauf calls George Bush "a retarded monkey" midway through admiring the film's whimsy. (Buy tickets for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.)
Ararat (Miramax). Atom Egoyan's " conflicted epic" about the Armenian genocide employs distancing techniques that to some " just seem distancing," while others praise "a strong emotional connection between past and present, the historical and the personal." "Until its final moments this almost great movie feels as if it's racing against itself in a neck-and-neck battle between its troubled heart and its egg-shaped head," writes Stephen Holden in the New York Times. "The heart wins by a nose." (Buy tickets for Ararat.)
Half Past Dead (Screen Gems). This " underlighted, overplotted and accurately titled" action flick showcases Steven Seagal "grunting mightily to hold on to his dwindling audience," writes Elvis Mitchell in the New York Times. Critics unite to mock the film's " barn-door-size" plot holes and " enigmatic slab" of a star. "At this point, the bloated action figure couldn't restore his street cred if he joined the Wu-Tang Clan," snarks Bruce Fretts in Entertainment Weekly. (Buy tickets for Half Past Dead.)
Far Away, by Caryl Churchill (New York Theater Workshop). A " ravishing, deeply disturbing" play that "summons anxieties both primal and mercilessly particular to the times in which we live," raves Ben Brantley in the New York Times. Newsday's Linda Winer calls it a "tiny gem of paranoia, desperate humor and cataclysm." In the Village Voice, Alisa Solomon labels Churchill and Tony Kushner "Western Theater's greatest political imaginations"; the New York Observer's John Heilpern says the play is " an act of uncanny clairvoyancy"; and in the New York Post, spoilsport Donald Lyons makes dorky Harry Potter jokes and gripes about not having fun.
Justified, by Justin Timberlake (Jive). "If you don't love this album through and through, you have no joy or beauty in your soul, and you should chop out your kidneys and give them to Barry White," enthuses PlayLouder's Adam Alphabet (in a review insane and dirty enough you probably shouldn't click the link at work). Rolling Stone gives it four stars—"Yes, the record's that good. Justin, you're a free man."Entertainment Weekly's review is more measured, praising a standout track that's "part electro shuffle and part symphonic sulk" but noting a "strangely anonymous" quality to Timberlake's collaboration with the funky Neptunes. Meanwhile, "Mrs. Giggles" labels it " splendorous softporn music"—tenderly lamenting the fact that Michael Jackson went nuts and Justin had to take over where he left off. (Justified.)
T-Mobile Sidekick (Danger). "I have a technology boner that could cut glass," panted Boingboing's Cory Doctorow last March, when he first laid eyes on this PDA/cellphone/IM-er/game-playing/e-mailing/photo-taking/Web-browsing thingamajig—a "friendly wireless Internet gadget about the size and heft of a thick pork chop" (Kevin Maney, USA Today). Folks on Slashdot kvell about the nifty scroll-wheel. EW praises it as perfect for spies. At Hiptop Nation, bloggers post photos from the road. Only caveat: Some gripe that it's tricky to dial numbers not already in one's database, while others shrug, "This is the 21st century. Weren't we supposed to stop having to type raw phone numbers by now?"
The Crazed, by Ha Jin (Pantheon). "So haunting, so wrenching, so great," raves Carolyn See in the Washington Post. " Poignant and brave," writes John Freeman in the Star Tribune. In the Houston Chronicle, William J. Cobb calls it "a work of literature, in the highest tradition of Anton Chekhov or Yasunari Kawabata, suffused with an aching purity that admits a life of pain." But in the Boston Globe, Gail Caldwell slashes at the hype, pointing to "some awful prose and some shockingly naive sentiments" and asserting that "To laud Jin for the depth and humanity of his imprint of modern China ... is justified. To canonize him for writing in a language he has yet to master is not only wrong-headed, it's an insult." ( The Crazed.)
The Secret, by Eva Hoffman (PublicAffairs.) Reviews for Hoffman's first novel, a sci-fi psychodrama, call her fiction writing less compelling than her nonfiction but find the ideas " boffo on other levels" (Zofia Smardz, the Washington Post). Still, several critics seem disgruntled by the emotional shortfall. While the Guardian's Maya Jaggi finds the book " intriguing and deeply sinister,"Dispatch Online's Justine Gerardy terms it " rather cold and unengaging"; and in the Chicago Tribune, Julia M. Kline is tempted to "shake [Hoffman's] annoyingly introspective creation and say: 'So, you're a clone. Deal with it.' " (Buy The Secret.)