The critical buzz on The Nativity Story and the Wiggles.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Dec. 1 2006 1:55 PM

Mary, Quite Contrary

The critical buzz on The Nativity Story and the Wiggles.

Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac in The Nativity Story
Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac in The Nativity Story

The Nativity Story (New Line). Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown tackles the story of Jesus' birth, and critics are mixed on her interpretation. (Commentators have also noted that 16-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays the teenaged Mary, is pregnant in real life, as well.) In the New York Times, A.O. Scott appreciates that the film "sticks to the familiar details of the narrative and dramatizes them with sincerity and good taste," and the Chicago Tribune admires how Hardwicke and screenwriter Mike Rich have made perhaps the best-known story in the Western world "seem fresh and vital." The Washington Post is less impressed, sighing, "Hardwicke plays it safe, duly hitting all the familiar marks and trotting out all the familiar tropes."Slate's Dana Stevens calls the film "fatuous, sappy, and dull." (Buy tickets to The Nativity Story.)

The Wiggles

Greg, the Yellow Wiggle."It is a supergroup departure that will trigger tantrums in nurseries around the world," intones the Guardian. Indeed, the news that 34-year-old Greg Page, lead singer and yellow-turtleneck-wearer of the phenomenally popular Australian kids' band the Wiggles, will retire due to a chronic illness has been met with shock—though it seems unlikely that kids will really notice. Page will be replaced by Wiggles understudy Sam Moran: "[T]he band and their backers are hoping that as long as it wiggles and wears yellow, the group's fans will get over it soon," notes the International Herald Tribune, and as Red Wiggle Murray Cook told the U.K. Herald: "If someone's wearing the yellow shirt and he's got black hair, he's pretty much Greg."

Michael Crichton, Next
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Michael Crichton, Next (HarperCollins). Critics are impressed with Crichton's latest book about genetic research, which has an initial print run of 2 million. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin calls Next"un-put-downable," remarking, "What's interesting about it is not that Mr. Crichton may be the only pop novelist writing Google code, but that he can weave it into a plot," and Time notes, "It helps that he makes biotechnology fun." The story of a man who's half chimpanzee, Next also draws on real events, such as a court case involving UCLA's use of a leukemia patient's tissue to develop a line of cells. The Los Angeles Times lauds Crichton's big-picture approach: "Crichton is surely on to something … we risk being blindsided by tomorrow's challenges to our notions of what's possible and moral." (Buy Next.)

Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards

Tom Waits, Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards (Anti-). This 3-CD set— Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards refers to the names of the discs—pulls together a combination of new and old music from Waits, though he's reworked any previously released tracks. The songs add "a truckload of characters to his dramatis personae," notes Entertainment Weekly, which gives the set an A. Music site Pitchfork slaps an 8.4 rating on Orphans, calling it "a shadow greatest hits that offers testimony to his unique and diverse talents," and the Los Angeles Times raves, in a four-star review, that Orphans is "a teeming, seething menagerie too antic to be corralled, a leviathan too vast to be easily grasped." The New York Times' Jon Pareles singles out Brawlers for special praise, musing that it "collects rocking tall tales that contemplate love, sin and the road, and it could stand alongside Mr. Waits's best albums." (Buy Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards.)

Pandora's Box

Pandora's Box (Criterion Collection). Critics approve of a new, double-disc edition of G.W. Pabst's 1929 silent film starring Louise Brooks as a Berlin showgirl with a seemingly broken moral compass. The Los Angeles Times applauds Criterion's restoration of the film, noting, "Brooks never looked lovelier in the high-definition digital transfer." The New York Times likes the set's extras—a 1998 Turner Classic Movies documentary on Brooks, as well as a book of essays that includes Kenneth Tynan's 1979 New Yorker piece, "The Girl in the Black Helmet"—and concludes, "This superlative package is one of the finest Criterion releases in quite some time—a definitive edition of a seemingly inexhaustible film." (Buy Pandora's Box.)

Tom Stoppard
Tom Stoppard

The Coast of Utopia. Voyage, the first play in Tom Stoppard's star-studded trilogy about 19th-century Russia, has opened in Manhattan, and critics are mostly swooning for director Jack O'Brien's production. In a rave review, the New York Times' Ben Brantley writes, "Voyage pulses with the dizzying, spring-green arrogance and anxiety of a new generation moving as fast as it can as it tries to forge a future that erases the past." The Washington Post is more measured in its praise, calling Voyage"sprawling and majestic (if overstuffed)," observing that it's difficult to create a connection with many of this installment's 36 characters (the trilogy features 70 roles played by 44 actors). But the Associated Press applauds Stoppard's script: "There is air of almost joyous expectation to much of Stoppard's language as these fellows luxuriate in talk of revolution, politics, philosophy and art." And the Philadelphia Inquirer praises the production's casting, writing that actors such as Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, and Amy Irving are here "working at the top of their craft." (Buy tickets to The Coast of Utopia.)

Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan. A bit of a literary tempest erupted Sunday, when the London Mail printed an article comparing a passage about Nightingale nurses during World War II in McEwan's 2002 novel Atonement to a 1977 memoir by British romance novelist Lucilla Andrews, who died in October. (The author of the Mail article, Julia Langdon, also wrote Andrews' obituary for the Guardian, and raised the issue then; it is unclear why it has only now become such an imbroglio.) McEwan defended himself in Monday's Guardian, writing that he has always acknowledged his debt to Andrews, both in public and in a note at the end of Atonement, and that "she created an important and unique historical document" in her memoir. The New York Times wonders what the line between research and copying is, and asks, "[I]f material had been borrowed, how grave an offense had been committed?" And the Australian book-review blog Happy Antipodean shrugs, "A few snipped quotes from here and there should not overly trouble readers."

Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year. The Times'annual list was published online last week. The fiction/poetry category included such books as Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française, while the nonfiction list ranged from memoirs like Jonathan Franzen's The Discomfort Zone: A Personal History to political books like Thomas E. Ricks'Fiasco: The American Adventure in Iraq. The entire list was immediately dissected by the literati. The blog Bookninja observes, "This NYT holiday tradition says 'notable' which is not necessarily 'good,' but there are some great titles in here," though Bookslut, another blog, begs to differ, saying, "It's the most boring list of books since they released their Notable Books of 2005." Bookslut also determined that 94 percent of the year's notable books were released by "conglomerate publishing." The blog of the National Book Critics Circle's board of directors notes that the list includes about 10 finalists for National Book Critics Circle awards.

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