The critical buzz on Anna Nicole Smith and The Lives of Others.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Feb. 9 2007 3:37 PM

Anna Nicole Smith, R.I.P.

The critical buzz on Anna Nicole Smith and The Lives of Others.

Anna Nicole Smith.
Anna Nicole Smith

Anna Nicole Smith. The former Playboy pinup and much younger widow of oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall died Thursday following an unexplained collapse at her hotel—and reactions have ranged from grief to ridicule. CNN.com published reader e-mails expressing sorrow and bewilderment: "She retained this strange charm that made me like the girl," writes one woman. "She came from nothing and nowhere and determined to make something of herself." And the Washington Post memorializes, "[T]he shock of her death at 39 was far bigger than that of just any celebrity. She had gotten under our skin, and taken on a role we didn't quite realize was so big in the history of marriage, money and sex." But Smith's death also evoked scorn and derision; someone defaced her Wikipedia entry almost immediately, and others speculated cynically about her past ploys for money—which included selling photos of her recently deceased son for $650,000. On Hollywood gossip blog Defamer, a commenter writes, "I wonder how much she asked the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel for rights to host her death ... I wouldn't be surprised if she (i.e. [her lawyer and rumored husband Howard K.] Stern) had already negotiated exclusive photo rights to the autopsy and funeral." (Disclosure: I am covering Smith's death for the gossip blog Gawker, which is owned by the same parent company as Defamer.)

The Lives of Others.
The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others (Sony Classics). The German contender for best foreign language film at the Oscars —a drama about a playwright and a secret police officer set in the former East Germany—has won over many critics, including the often-crotchety Anthony Lane. "A movie this strong … is never parochial, nor is it period drama. Es ist für uns. It's for us," Lane writes in The New Yorker, echoing a potent line in the film. In Slate, Dana Stevens raves that Others is an "intricate, ambiguous and deeply satisfying movie, a tautly plotted tale of state surveillance and personal betrayal that ultimately becomes an ode to the transformative power of art." And the New York Times' A.O. Scott applauds how "the easy, complacent distance that informs much historical filmmaking is almost entirely absent from this supremely intelligent, unfailingly honest movie." (Buy tickets to The Lives of Others.)

Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster

Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster (Holt). Auster's new novel—in which characters from his previous books visit an unnamed amnesiac narrator who seems to represent Auster himself—has exhausted some critics with its metafictional games. Salon sighs, "When Auster gets cooking, he's like a magician who can amaze us by sawing a woman in half; when he's not, as in Travels in the Scriptorium, it's as if he's sawing away without a woman in the box." But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette finds much to recommend in Auster's Beckettian fable, ruminating that "Auster seems to have returned to his metaphysical roots with this story that ruminates on identity, purpose, responsibility and knowledge in a setting that harks to French existentialist conventions." And the Philadelphia Inquirer remains convinced of Auster's skills: "Say what one will about Auster's repetition of devices—the book within a book, the off-stage tormentor, the loss of memory—he has become frightfully good at manipulating a good story out of them." (Buy Travels in the Scriptorium.)

Lost
Lost
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Lost (ABC, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.). The desert island show resumes, and critics wonder whether its increasingly impatient fans will stick with it—using far too many puns on "lost" in the process. The six-episode miniseason that ran in the fall "deflated the island drama's momentum," grumbles the Associated Press, "leaving many fans and critics disappointed, discouraged and worried that Lost may have lost its way." Without revealing any plot twists, the San Francisco Chronicle offers some hope: "Let's just say that the writers have either quickened the pace of some revelations, or maybe we've missed the show so long … that the pulse seems lively and fresh." And the Boston Globe consoles those who fear the show has taken an irrevocable turn for the inscrutable, promising that the episode "doesn't share The Answer to All, of course, or even The Answer to Anything Big. But it does provide clues and references."

A Weekend in the City, Bloc Party

A Weekend in the City, Bloc Party (Vice). The British nouveau-postpunk rockers' follow-up to their 2005 hit, Silent Alarm, has some critics rolling their eyes at lead singer Kele Okereke's tortured tendencies. The Washington Post gripes, "Unfortunately, while the sense of malaise is compelling and the band's conviction undeniable, the message is unclear," and the New York Times calls the album "[c]laustrophobic with multitracked vocals and baroque effects." But online music magazine Pitchfork finds Bloc Party's earnestness compelling, remarking, "If they have the demeanor of rock's teacher's pets, they have the talent and the work ethic, too—they're attentive, conscientious, and good at what they do." (Buy A Weekend in the City.)

Infinity on High, Fall Out Boy

Infinity on High, Fall Out Boy (Island). Emo-punk phenomenon Fall Out Boy steers toward the mainstream with its fourth album *, but critics wonder whether the band's new production values and self-importance will turn off its mopey MySpace fan base. "Mall rats will be forgiven if they can't relate as well to the new material," writes the Boston Globe. "The question is, will Fall Out Boy?" The Dallas Morning News sneers that the new album—which follows the 3-million-selling From Under the Cork Tree—is "an assured and unabashed grab at pop stardom, with enough hooks to reel a sea of teenage fish and enough oh-way-oh choruses to keep shower singers engaged until entire limbs prune up." Still, Slate's Jody Rosen, writing in Entertainment Weekly, finds something to redeem the band and its much-photographed Pete Wentz: "Wentz's words have a pleasing vernacular spunkiness—this is the Esperanto of young American suburbia, poetry of the mall and the chat room." (Buy Infinity on High.)

Prince at the Super Bowl.
Prince performs at the Super Bowl

Prince at the Super Bowl. Prince's Super Bowl halftime show didn't disappoint critics or the audience—and his classic "Purple Rain" seemed appropriate in the soaking wet stadium: "[H]is greatest anthem turned a soggy 10-minute show into a summation of purpose …" writes the Miami Herald. "It was a momentous salute to a dramatic career." The New York Times' Kelefa Sanneh adds, "Yesterday's command performance was yet more proof that Prince has made that familiar journey from pariah to American treasure. He has a catalog of hits that everybody seems to love (even the players, who normally take little interest in the halftime show, were quoted praising Prince)." And perhaps most important for the NFL, there were no "wardrobe malfunctions." As USA Today notes: "[Prince] gave the NFL his word and a signed contract. He kept his end of the bargain."

Rules of Engagement.
Rules of Engagement

Rules of Engagement (CBS, Mondays, 9:30 p.m.). This heavily promoted sitcom stars Oliver Hudson, Patrick Warburton, and David Spade as friends who are, respectively, just-engaged, long-married, and a die-hard bachelor. Mild hilarity ensues. The Los Angeles Times calls Rules of Engagement"a sweet-tempered show, well made and well played." Some critics find the premise tired but agree that Warburton (best known for playing Elaine's boyfriend Puddy on Seinfeld) makes the show watchable with his deadpan affect. The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan puts it: "Warburton has a wonderful way of underselling a line, yet using his sonorous voice to wring the most dry wit from it. This thinly constructed show may be worth watching for the sly Warburton alone."

Correction, Feb. 6, 2007: The item about Fall Out Boy's Infinity on High misidentified the album as the band's second. It is the band's fourth full-length album. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)

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