Up, by Shania Twain (Universal). Two discs with the same songs: red mixed as pop, green mixed as country. "I am willing. Lord, I am more than willing," writes The War Against Silence's Glenn McDonald in a bizarro half-rave/half-pan. "Shania is cute, I like Mutt's lumpy songs, I think the gimmicks are adorable, and if I can happily sing along with Japanese I can't translate yet, how can I object too vehemently to sunny nonsense in my own language?" On Entertainment Weekly, an amused Chris Willman says it's "like ABBA 'Gold' without all the melancholy"—and gives it an "A." But on Epinions, one peeved listener glowers that Shania's muddled techno experiments are "bringing in the wrong type of fans to Country." (Up.)
Adaptation (Columbia). "The notion of meta has never been diddled more mega than in this giddy Möbius strip of a movie," thrills Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum—part of a phalanx of reviewers touting "the boldest and most imaginative studio film of the year" (although a few raise an eyebrow at the wacked-out ending). The film's writer's-block conceit proves contagious: Film Threat's Clint Morris frets over how much of the plot to give away; the Christian Science Monitor's David Sterritt jokes about writing " a review of myself writing the review"; and the New York Times' endearingly confessional A.O. Scott finds himself "suddenly awake in the middle of the night, pulse racing, fretting over the movie's intricate, fascinating themes." (Buy tickets for Adaptation.)
Analyze That (Warner Bros.). Pans of this sequel's " exhausted one-joke scenario" segue into comparative praise for The Sopranos. "It's not just that Tony Soprano is richer, darker, cooler, and scarier," shrugs Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman. "The dude gets more laughs." But a stubborn subset insist the mob comedy offers " instant antacid relief" to its cable cousin's dyspepsia, with the Los Angeles Times' Manohla Dargis arguing that it's actually better than the original, held aloft by its " sheer weightlessness of purpose." (Buy tickets for Analyze That.)
Empire (Universal). In the Miami Herald, Rene Rodriguez denounces the Latino drug-dealer plot as "a witless, unoriginal mishmash of gangsta-drama clichés." But there are a few surprising quasi-raves: The Los Angeles Times' Kevin Thomas calls it " engrossing and utterly uncompromising," and an enthusiastic Bruce Fretts suggests in Entertainment Weekly that "between bursts of automatic gunfire, the story offers a trenchant critique of capitalism." (Buy tickets for Empire.)
Music Critics. Ah, pure payola, how we've missed you! In the Detroit Metro Times, Fred Mills exposes a Web site that charges indie bands $20 for reviews. Responding to the site's punk page defending the policy, Mills satirizes their justifications: "Publicists charge clients for their services, which is only right, therefore definitely good. So we charge for a similar service— double plus good!"
Bush at War, by Bob Woodward (Simon & Schuster). This " instant first draft of history" provides juicy access to the Bush war room—and provokes debate about Woodward's leaky research techniques. In the Los Angeles Times, Edward N. Luttwak calls it "a type of journalism that virtually amounts to tacit blackmail: Talk to me, spill your share of secrets—or at least your personal touchy-feely confidences—or I will cast you as the villain." But in the Washington Post, Fouad Ajami asserts that if historians quibble, "readers keep coming back for more. Eventually, the historians will have their day ... Their prose will be richer, their accounts fuller. But for now, we are fortunate to have this richly detailed view of our nation's central policy command." (Bush at War.)
Solaris (20th Century Fox). A warmish reception for this "icily controlled movie about fundamentally chaotic emotions." But if the majority praise Stephen Soderbergh's remake as "an almost perfect balance of poetry and pulp," cranky dissenters say that it's made " for the graduate students who know everything about movies except how to enjoy them." And for each critic fretting about the film's uncommercial braininess, there's another finding "a surprising depth of feeling within its egg-shaped head." On Metacritic, the debate continues, with one superfan sighing that overhearing other theatergoers complain of boredom "made me want to twist people's heads off." (Buy tickets for Solaris.)
How To Be Alone, by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux). An " unfailingly intelligent, intermittently infuriating and notably coherent collection" is how the New York Times' A.O. Scott described this selection of sorry/grateful essays by the noted Oprah survivor. All fall, the book has received respectful notices for cultural explorations that "might seem shrill were he not such a seductive writer." But latecomer James Wolcott weighs in harshly, backhanding Franzen in the New Republic for possessing the maddening self-involvement of "a budding writer-politician, a junior pollster." Wolcott complains that "Jonathan Franzen must be stopped, and yet he can't be stopped, because the catapulting success of The Corrections has granted him a lifetime permit to pontificate— a license to preen." (How To Be Alone.)