Casino Royale (Columbia). Critics are enamored with director Martin Campbell's choice of Daniel Craig as the new James Bond (and their reviews come with Bondisms aplenty). "Mr. Craig's Bond looks as if he has renewed his license to kill," approves the New York Times' Manohla Dargis. "If Mr. Campbell and his team haven't reinvented the Bond film with this 21st edition, they have shaken (and stirred) it a little." The Philadelphia Inquirer marvels, "Craig reconstructs Bond as inscrutable and vulnerable, a secret agent just as likely to wear an untucked shirt as a bespoke suit, one who sweats stuff big and small." In other words, a real, complex man, as The New Yorker's Anthony Lane observes, "Craig has the courage to present a hollow man, flooding the empty rooms where his better nature should be with brutality and threat." And Slate's Dana Stevens commends Campbell's choice "to give us a Bond who's both metaphorically and literally stripped bare." (Buy tickets to Casino Royale.)
Fast Food Nation (Fox). The critics approve of Richard Linklater's fictionalization of Eric Schlosser's muckraking book. "While the climactic images of slaughter and butchery—filmed in an actual abattoir—may seem intended to spoil your appetite, Mr. Linklater and Mr. Schlosser have really undertaken a much deeper and more comprehensive critique of contemporary American life," reflects the New York Times' A.O. Scott. The Los Angeles Times notes that Linklater makes his points "skillfully, and with a light touch, without resorting to bombast, melodrama or false polemic," and Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum lauds the movie for having "a logic that can't easily be shrugged off." And in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman considers that, "as blunt as Fast Food Nation is, it's also a surprising piece of social criticism to emerge (like Borat) from the status quo folks at Fox." (Buy tickets to Fast Food Nation.)
National Book Awards. Despite the now-annual grumbling about the relative obscurity of the nominees, last night's awards ceremony was a high-powered black-tie affair that saw Richard Powers and Timothy Egan—whom the New York Times called a "surprise" winner over favorite Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11—emerge as the winners for fiction and nonfiction, respectively. Last month in the New York Times Book Review, Colson Whitehead called Powers'The Echo Maker—about a man whose recovery from a car accident is marred by a rare brain disease—"a lovely essay on perseverance in all its forms." Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of the Great American Dust Bowl is "a classic tragedy, with all the elements of ambition, pride and retribution," the San Francisco Chronicle observed last January. Also at last night's ceremony, poet Adrienne Rich won the annual Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, telling the audience that a poet's job is to challenge "that brute dictum: 'There is no alternative.' " (Read Slate's review of The Echo Maker.)
Al Jazeera English. The Arabic-language channel's English version launches today, though not without controversy—Al Jazeera has aired videos from Osama Bin Laden and images of dead American soldiers, and cable providers in the United States won't be carrying the Qatar-based channel. Most Americans interested in checking it out will have to watch it online. The Washington Post notes, "[W]hile AJE's close association with al-Jazeera might turn out to be its calling card with English-speaking Muslims around the world, it has become its biggest liability in the United States." On his blog, U.K. media consultant Simon Dickson critiques the first broadcasts of the new channel: "There weren't really any obvious 'news' lines to a lot of the reports. I'm sure conditions in Sudan are terrible, but nothing has obviously happened today to make them any worse than yesterday. … Maybe this is just the channel making an early mark, but it's going to have to develop a harder news edge."
Joanna Newsom, Ys (Drag City). The 25-year-old neo-folk harpist with the beautifully eccentric voice has wowed critics with her second album, the almost-unpronounceable Ys. The Guardian calls the five songs on the 55-minute album "remarkable: richly melodic, they ebb and flow in entirely unanticipated directions," and pronounces the album possibly "the best musical investment you make all year." Online music magazine Stylus argues that while Ys is "ridiculously overwritten, over-performed and self-contained, her fables always sublimate into the hot fog of real emotions just before they calcify." (That's a good thing.) Even the persnickety music Web site Pitchfork relents and grants Newsom a near-perfect 9.4 rating, gushing, "It's intricate and crammed with information, but it's never bookish, and she never sits back in a spell and lets her heart flutter: She swoops into the sky and races across the ground, names every plant and every desire, and never feels less than real." (Buy Ys.)
Yusuf Islam, An Other Cup (Atlantic). Critics are mostly kind to the former Cat Stevens' first pop album in 28 years. The Los Angeles Times reflects that Stevens' "gift was for framing heavy sentiments in settings as artless as children's songs, and he does that again on this exquisitely orchestrated album." In the New York Times, Jon Pareles also compares this religion-infused effort with the musician who brought us "Morning Has Broken," commenting, "The old Cat Stevens, who pondered earthly loves and sorrows and spiritual yearning, has been replaced by a songwriter who finds all his answers in faith: an Islam that promises peace, love and light." Only Rolling Stone is less diplomatic, sniffing, "Appropriately for a guy once pegged as an English James Taylor, now he sounds like late-period Taylor, only doofier." (Buy An Other Cup.)
Michael Lewis, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (W.W. Norton). Slate contributor Lewis' new book—about a destitute black boy named Michael Oher who was improbably taken in by a wealthy, white evangelical Christian family, the Touhys, and now plays football for Ole Miss—has left even the most unmovable critics moved. In the New York Times Book Review, George Will concludes, "Oher's story is not pretty, but Lewis tells it well —and against all odds, it may be heading for a happy ending." The Houston Chronicle observes, "There is a lot about Oher's past that the Touhys don't know and can't know, and Lewis beautifully captures how Oher seems to secret those pains in his massive bulk." On his blog on Washingtonpost.com, Joel Achenbach lauds, "It's Lewis's best book because—in addition to the Moneyball-like investigation of how a pro sport values its players—it has this extraordinary Pygmalion story at its core." (Buy The Blind Side.)
Erik Larson, Thunderstruck (Crown). The Devil in the White City author's latest effort at mixing a true-crime story with a seemingly unrelated historical narrative has drawn mixed reviews. Here, he tries to connect a sensational murder of a woman by her doctor husband in early 20th-century London with Guglielmo Marconi's work in wireless communication. "In the earlier book this method was disarming; this time it's predictable, and the strain shows," comments the New York Times' Janet Maslin, and the Washington Post concurs: "The narrative style that served Larson well in The Devil in the White City seems to bedevil him here. The constant shifts between his two plot lines become strained and confusing." The San Francisco Chronicle seems to ask, gently, why Larson feels compelled to intertwine two stories in the first place, noting that if the story of the murder had been published on its own, it "could have been a delightfully page-turning, 200-page true-crime story, but it probably wouldn't have had the big-book heft to compete for big literary awards." (Buy Thunderstruck.)