Breaking and Entering (MGM). Mixed reviews for English Patient director Anthony Minghella's latest, the story of a London architect (Jude Law) caught between his depressive girlfriend (Robin Wright Penn) and a winsome Bosnian refugee (Juliette Binoche). In The New Yorker, David Denby calls the film "a shrewd and decent movie rather than a great one." And Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum dismisses it as a "handsome-looking exercise in Gentry Guilt." But LA Weekly's Ella Taylor admires its serious themes, writing that the film "taps into contemporary urban panic, a state of mind in which the hopeful 20th-century pieties of 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' have thinned into a gossamer skin stretched tight over the gathering tensions of the postindustrial city." (Buy tickets to Breaking and Entering.)
Catch and Release (Sony Pictures). The reviews are—surprisingly—not so bad for this new romantic comedy starring Jennifer Garner. Indeed, first-time director Susannah Grant, who wrote the screenplays for Erin Brockovich and In Her Shoes, has managed to craft what the Los Angeles Times calls "an oddly appealing, if innocuous, movie of considerable charm." In the New York Times, Stephen Holden writes that the film is "refreshing for what it doesn't have. There is no whiny princess-mongering, with a spoiled golden girl put on a throne and crowned amid oohs and ahs, while diamonds and dollars rain from on high." The Washington Post is less forgiving about Garner's performance, writing that, "The engaging, almost giddy innocence she brought to 13 Going on 30 and the super-agent vitality she brought to Alias are conspicuously absent here." (Buy tickets to Catch and Release.)
Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi (HBO, Thursday at 9 p.m.). Disgraced former Christian leader the Rev. Ted Haggard figures prominently in Pelosi's cheeky but substantive documentary about evangelicals, delighting critics with comments about sexuality that seem ironic after his sordid fall. "There is a God," smirks the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley, "And he punishes those who overreach on television." The Washington Post's Tom Shales remarks, "[T]he Christians we see in this film are unyielding in the rightness of their ideas … and if someone challenges them, they simply say God has told them the truth." The Baltimore Sun enjoys the fun as well but gripes that "Friends of God doesn't have much to say about what those [evangelical] beliefs mean to 'the future of America.' "
About Alice, Calvin Trillin (Random House). Trillin's ode to his late wife, who died of heart failure in 2001, has resonated with critics. The Los Angeles Times calls it a "short and sweet elegy," and the New York Times Book Review muses, "Sometimes we come across a piece of first-person writing that shocks us back into a restorative innocence vis-à-vis the human heart." Critics and audiences were already familiar with Alice Trillin from her husband's books about food and travel, as well as the New Yorker memorial piece from which this book is adapted. But as the Boston Globe points out, Trillin's book isn't so much about Alice's death as her life: "From the first page, Calvin Trillin makes it clear why we're here. We are going to spend a few hours with somebody we miss." (Buy About Alice.)
Oscar nominations. Excitement over Little Miss Sunshine's best-picture nomination was overshadowed by shock that Dreamgirls got shut out of the category —despite receiving eight other nods. The New York Times' David Carr speculates that the academy "decided that that there was not enough movie in the movie. [I] fell for all the stitching between songs, but others did not." But even Dreamgirls skeptics responded with surprise. New York's David Edelstein writes, "I thought Dreamgirls was thoroughly mediocre (with one song, "We Are Family," among the most eardrum-lacerating things I've ever heard), but the dis is stunning." Others noted the nominations' unusually international scope. "That global power is perhaps best represented by Babel, which was filmed in four countries and told in five languages, with a screenwriter and a director from Mexico," muses the Los Angeles Times. (Read Slate's Kim Masters, Dana Stevens, and Timothy Noah on the Oscar nominations.)
Wincing the Night Away, the Shins (SubPop). Critics are enthusiastic about the third full-length album from the Portland indie rockers. "[T]he band's biggest strength is an uncanny gift for conjuring a deep, vivid, and palpable sense of the familiar," muses music Web site Pitchfork. The New York Times' Kelefa Sannah writes, "Like the other Shins albums, this one is sneaky; it takes hold slowly but insistently." In Entertainment Weekly, Slate music critic Jody Rosen calls frontman James Mercer's lyrics "odd and engrossing: He's one of indie rock's finest lyricists, even—especially—when he's not making much sense." And Rolling Stone concludes, "The melodies are very nearly on a par with the curlicues and knockout drops of the band's breakthrough, and Mercer is still singing so lithe and refined you'd think Ray Charles had never existed." (Buy Wincing the Night Away.)
The Good, the Bad & the Queen (Virgin). It's not surprising that the self-titled debut from this new band is garnering tons of buzz: Led by former Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, the band also counts Paul Simonon (the Clash), Tony Allen (Africa 70/Fela Kuti), and Simon Tong (the Verve) among its members. The Los Angeles Times admires the insta-supergroup: "With equal emphasis on groove and hook, and given an experimental spin by the production, they craft a catchy form of art-rock, at once more casual and immediate than Blur's Britpop." Also reflecting on Albarn's past, the Guardian muses, "To think Albarn was once compared unfavourably to [Oasis'] Liam Gallagher. These days, that seems a bit like comparing David Bowie to Les Gray of Mud." (Buy The Good, the Bad & the Queen.)
The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer (Random House). Mailer's first novel in 10 years imagines the life of a young Adolf Hitler. In an exhaustive 6,000 word essay for the New York Times Book Review, Lee Siegel praises the work, writing that The Castle in the Forest is "Mailer's most perfect apprehension of the absolutely alien. No wonder it is narrated by a devil. Mailer doesn't inhabit these historical figures so much as possess them." The Boston Globe points out that Mailer has long held a Manichean worldview and that his new book is "saturated with a very material sense of evil: The moods, textures, auras and above all the smells that announce the entrance of the Devil into earthly affairs." The Los Angeles Times calls Mailer the "most metaphysical of America's major novelists" but gripes that his decision to end the book in Hitler's adolescence "seems only to have prepared the material, not to have fully examined it. The Hitler of infamy … has not yet come into being." (Buy The Castle in the Forest.)