The Cooler (Lions Gate). This Vegas flick "singlehandedly revives the art of the sex scene," with help from William H. Macy and Maria Bello. Andrew Sarris calls their bedroom scene "lyrically convincing"; A.O. Scott thinks it's "explicit, but also awkward and funny"; and Stephanie Zacharek claims it makes us feel "in the moment, as if we were playing music with the characters instead of just watching them perform." They're less convinced by the plot, about a guy who's so unlucky he gets paid to cool off gamblers on a hot streak by standing at their table. Sarris thinks this "admittedly original" idea isn't "substantial enough to stand scrutiny" at feature length, and the L.A. Weekly complains of "outsized ambitions and a too-clever-by-half twist ending." But USA Today points out that the film is "basically made by its three leads." Alongside Macy and Bello, there's Alec Baldwin in what Premiere calls "an inexorable, career-marking performance" as a casino boss. (Buy tickets to The Cooler.)
The Last Samurai (Warner Bros.). This Tom Cruise epic "may sound like a war movie," says the Village Voice, "but it's actually a western: Dances with Wolves ... in Kimono." Critics are more impressed by "the majestic brutality of the battle sequences" than the "Gaijin fantasy" of the plot: Cruise plays a cynical American soldier who trains the Japanese army to fight a samurai uprising, only to switch sides. Still, the kimonos win raves: "Doesn't Tom Cruise look handsome in a long dress!" exclaims Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. (But in his samurai armor, says the Wall Street Journal, he looks like a "hirsute turtle on its hind legs.") Cruise actually seems to win some critical respect with this film: The Chicago Tribune says he gradually "takes over the screen" and "rises into the movie's heroic dimension" while David Denby admires the pounding he takes, saying, "nobody can deny that Cruise is a scrapper." (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to The Last Samurai.)
Honey (Universal). If you believe the Washington Post, this hip-hop dance movie, which stars Dark Angel's Jessica Alba, is "about the way Alba moves and how good she looks." But the Dallas Observer thinks Honey"exists solely to sell a soundtrack." (A series of cameos from the likes of Missy Elliott and Ginuwine lend the film "the story arc of an afternoon spent watching BET or MTV2.") The only debate over the cheesy plot—Alba teaches inner-city kids to dance—is whether it's derived more from Flashdance or Electric Boogaloo. As for the star's performance, the Philadelphia Inquirer is impressed by her "solar energy," but the Chicago Tribune thinks her "midriff should receive equal billing," and the Miami Herald sneers that she has "only marginally more street cred than Paris Hilton." (Buy tickets to Honey.)
In America (Fox Searchlight). Many critics are deeply moved by My Left Foot director Jim Sheridan's autobiographical "blend of kitchen-sink and magical realism," which follows the struggles of an Irish immigrant family in Manhattan. The Wall Street Journal thinks the film "opens up our capacity to feel," and the New York Times' A.O. Scott says it will "pierce the defenses of all but the most dogmatically cynical viewers." (Perhaps Scott was thinking of the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris, who dismisses In America as a "lesson-laden, tear-jerking fairy tale.") There's no disagreement on lead Samantha Morton: Salon's Charles Taylor calls her nothing less than "one of the greatest actors ever," and The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wonders, "Is there a more bewildering presence in modern movies?" (Read David Edelstein's review.) (Buy tickets to In America.)
Angels in America (HBO). HBO's two-part, $60 million adaptation of Tony Kushner's AIDS epic is hailed as the best theater, best TV, and best movie this year. Critics note that the play's split-stage scenes and magical effects transfer naturally to television— Time's James Poniewozik calls it "an HBO drama before HBO dramas as we know them existed"—and the heavyweight cast (Pacino, Streep, Thompson) is mostly praised. But although Angels is, as the Chicago Tribune notes, "far more hostile to the legacy of Ronald Reagan" than CBS's incendiary biopic, no one actually objects to this controversial classic. (Newsweek even complains that all the plaudits make Angels sound as boringly nourishing as "a recommended daily allowance of fiber.") Frank Rich and Andrew Sullivan do bicker over the play's historical accuracy, though, and others debate its contemporary relevance: Alessandra Stanley thinks "the apocalyptic fillips" make Angels"as much a capsule of the 1980's as Clifford Odets'Waiting for Lefty is of the Depression."
The Reagans (Showtime). "It's hard to believe that this is what all the fuss was about," says the Oregonian of this "fairly ordinary TV biopic," and most critics concur; even the New York Post denounces censors as "loony, paranoid alarmists." The Washington Post's Tom Shales is one of the few to find the show offensive; he calls it "a matter of bad timing" (given Reagan's illness), "as well as bad manners." But the New York Times praises James Brolin's Ronnie as "uncannily convincing and respectful," and the Salt Lake Tribune notes that The Reagans"actually takes much bigger pot shots at first lady Nancy, most of their children and Reagan's staff." Others agree: Judy Davis' Nancy—"so taut that you could play Bach on her"—draws several comparisons to Faye Dunaway's harridan in Mommie Dearest.
The Early Stories: 1953-1975, by John Updike (Knopf). In the New York Times, Cynthia Ozick opens ceremonies by intoning "John Updike: the name is graven." On some sort of canon contact high, she mentions Cather, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, then compares the mass of Updike's oeuvre to Dickens, his style to Nabokov, his breadth to Bruegel. (Other critics invoke Samuel Coleridge and Flannery O'Connor.) In The New Yorker, Louis Menand plumps for Joyce—with whom Updike shares a fondness for "eucharistic metaphor"—but spends more time on an elaborate comparison with Tiger Woods, on the pretext that the mechanics of the short story are like those of a golf swing. Leave it to Michiko Kakutani to spoil the ambience: She calls the collection "a decidedly spotty production" that "indiscriminately" sets "clumsy apprentice works" and "ham-handed experimental efforts" alongside "classic gems." (Sam Tanenhaus reviewed this book for Slate.) ( The Early Stories.)
The Black Album, by Jay-Z (Def Jam). Compared to hip-hop heroes like Biggie Smalls and Tupac Shakur, says the New York Times, "Jay-Z has a significant handicap: He's alive and well." The solution: to "stage his own death" by releasing a final album. (No one believes the rapper is actually calling it quits.) In the wake of Jay-Z's last, bloated release, the Washington Post calls this putative farewell "something of a comeback"; on The Black Album, he "rediscovers brevity and consistency," the Onion observes. Jay-Z takes his career as his subject matter—it's "his own self-contained Behind the Music episode," says the Chicago Sun-Times—and even brings his mother along to "trade cocky congrats and bittersweet remember-whens" on one track. But in the Village Voice, Elizabeth Mendez Berry calls him "a hustler first, an artist second" and laments that Jay-Z "seems afraid to swap [this persona] for a newer model." (Read Slate's take.) ( The Black Album.)
W.B. Yeats, a Life: The Arch-Poet 1915-1939, by R.F. Foster (Oxford University Press). Critics wonder at the Herculean research—"a marvel of integrated accomplishment," according to the New Republic's Helen Vendler—presented in this biography. The Boston Globe admires Foster's "intrepid" attention to Yeats' many, disparate interests, and the Atlantic Monthly is fascinated by the well-drawn "fantasia of Yeats's personal life." Yet there is disagreement on the biographer's approach, which refuses the epic themes the poet used to describe his life in favor of a day-by-day chronology of his actions that refuses to look ahead. The New York Times' somewhat contorted argument: This method is perfectly "in tune with its subject … while Yeats did wish to foretell the future, he also celebrated the unforeseeable." But in Harper's, Denis Donoghue disagrees, saying the tactic runs counter to the entire thrust of Yeats' work: "The trouble with this genial program is that Yeats had little interest in straws and flotsam; he did not submit to the tyranny of events." (BuyW.B. Yeats: A Life.)