Breach (Universal). Director Billy Ray's spy thriller about real-life FBI turncoat Robert Hanssen (Chris Cooper) breaks from the usual genre conventions by taking the view that evil is best served banal. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis lauds this approach: "This conception of the F.B.I. as a more bureaucratically constipated, possibly more malevolent version of, say, Microsoft, if nowhere near as securely fortified, is Mr. Ray's masterstroke." Another FBI agent (Ryan Philippe) is instrumental in bringing about Hanssen's downfall, and the Hollywood Reporter comments, "The movie boils down to a character study where the stakes couldn't be higher." Unlike most critics, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman prefers Ray's previous film, Shattered Glass, to Breach but allows that "for most of it, I was held—by Chris Cooper's dour portrayal of walled-off demons, by the director's fascination with a deception that, on the surface of it, doesn't add up." (Buy tickets to Breach.)
Bridge to Terabithia (Disney). Adults who recall childhood days spent engrossed in Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia can be assured that Disney and its CGI wizards have not trampled on a sacred talisman; the film adaptation of the 1977 novel "manages to expand the original vision, yet preserve much of its intense emotion," promises the Chicago Tribune. The movie seems to resonate beyond a typical kids' flick for many critics. The Washington Post ruminates, "It turns out that Bridge to Terabithia is not just carefree fantasy about escaping to an imaginary world but also an unsettling but finally moving meditation on mortality." And the trade publication Variety predicts that the film "should play well theatrically but may connect better with audiences on homevid; in either venue, parents and children should have tissues at the ready." (Buy tickets to Bridge to Terabithia.)
Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Free Press). The feminist critic of Islam, former Dutch parliamentarian, and current American Enterprise Institute fellow engenders yet more controversy with her "brave, inspiring and beautifully written memoir," as the New York Times' William Grimes has it. A native of Somalia, Ali fled an arranged marriage and eventually landed in the Netherlands. She went into hiding following the 2004 murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh—his killer called for Ali's death—and later resigned from Parliament following accusations of immigration violations. Writing in the Washington Post, Slate contributor Anne Applebaum puts Ali in good company: "In the tradition of Frederick Douglass or even John Stuart Mill, Infidel describes a unique intellectual journey." But other critics note that her personal story keeps changing ($) and take issue with her reactionary politics. A Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman told the Associated Press, "Unfortunately her message is one of bigotry, not one of mutual understanding." (Buy Infidel.)
Ten Days in the Hills, Jane Smiley (Knopf). The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist's latest—about a group of Hollywood types holed up in a director's house in L.A.—draws inspiration from Boccaccio's 14th-century Decameron, in which 10 characters who have fled Florence to escape the Black Death entertain one another by telling stories for 10 days. The Los Angeles Times calls Smiley's reinterpretation "a blazing farce, a fiery satire of contemporary celebrity culture and a rich, simmering meditation on the price of war and fame and desire." Bloomberg News blushes that all that meditation comes with a healthy side of copulation: "In fact, there's so much sex in Ten Days in the Hills … and it's so explicit that the question arises: Is this porn?" (No, says the reviewer.) But the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani takes out her hatchet, writing, "[Smiley's] narrative all too often devolves into a sort of tape-recording of her characters' conversations, so that we are treated to endless, unedited transcripts of bedroom, dining room and poolside dialogue." (Buy Ten Days in the Hills.)
West, Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway). The alt-country songstress' latest album resonates with most critics. Many of Williams' new songs were inspired by the death of her mother and a difficult breakup, and the Boston Globe remarks that they "enrich as well as exhaust, and engender cautious optimism." Others praise Williams' vocal versatility. Entertainment Weekly raves, "Rock's best female singer easily veers from city-slicker-smooth alto sweetness to ravaged Louisianan drawl." But some reviewers are critical of what they call West's narrow focus. The Los Angeles Times complains, "The pain of love is hardly a new subject for Williams, but it's never pinned her to the ground the way it does here." And Ben Ratliff of the New York Times has the opposite problem, griping, "Ms. Williams's strong suit is going simple and direct, but West loses its focus and goes wide and long. It develops a grandiosity problem." (Buy West.)
The Grammys. The Dixie Chicks cleaned up at this year's awards ceremony, taking home trophies in five categories—including song and album of the year. The Associated Press notes that their victory is especially sweet, as it vindicates the band's rebellion "against a country-music establishment that turned its back on them following 2003 remarks critical of President Bush." Critics yawned at the overall program, though—and even a performance by the reunited Police failed to impress. The San Francisco Chronicle scoffs that the evening reconfirmed "that the Grammys are hopelessly stuck in the era of headbands, Pong and unironic mustaches." And the New York Times points out that the telecast's ratings are down, warning that "the larger travails of the music business will still loom over any good vibes emanating from the festivities. Even a doubling of sales of digital albums failed to make up for the continued downward trek of CD sales."
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 (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.)