300 (Warner Bros.). Dawn of the Dead director Zack Snyder's ultraviolent film about the battle between Spartans and Persians at Thermopylae in 480 B.C. has some critics looking for a message about contemporary politics. The New York Times explains that the story "could be construed as a thinly veiled polemic against the Bush administration, or be seen by others as slyly supporting it"—but Snyder insists he had neither in mind when he made his film, an adaptation of the graphic novel by Sin City's Frank Miller. The movie itself is receiving mixed reviews. In Entertainment Weekly, Lisa Schwarzbaum lauds the film's spectacle but warns, "[S]urfaces, most of them computer-generated, are all this newfangled sword-and-sandals epic is about," and Slate's Dana Stevens predicts the film will be "talked about as a technical achievement, the next blip on the increasingly blurry line between movies and video games." On this note, the Los Angeles Times' Kenneth Turan sighs, "[U]nless you love violence as much as a Spartan, Quentin Tarantino or a video-game-playing teenage boy, you will not be endlessly fascinated." (Buy tickets to 300.)
The Host (Magnolia). This Korean horror film—about a bus-sized monster that emerges from a river—is also a compelling family drama. Oh, and it critiques American military hegemony. New York magazine's David Edelstein remarks, "This is a portrait of a country's deepest anxieties, which just happen to be distilled into a mandibled squidlike reptile. It has the tang of social realism." The Chicago Tribune notes that the film "boasts a photogenic antagonist from the deep," but "[i]t's also savvy enough to make you care about the human factor." But Salon's Andrew O'Hehir finds some doom amidst all the excitement, as the film's strength causes him to lament the state of the genre: "In terms of humanity and cinematic ambition and any other admirable quality you can name, this picture stands in splendid isolation among contemporary horror films. This invites the question of exactly how horror arrived at its present dismal state." (Buy tickets to The Host.)
Captain America. Marvel Comics' Captain America—he of the red, white, and blue uniform and heretofore unchallenged patriotism—was killed by a sniper in a comic published Wednesday. His death comes as the climax of a Marvel story line called "Civil War," in which new laws have required superheroes to register with the government; Captain America had challenged the regulations. The Los Angeles Times notes, "The role of homeland rebel is a far cry from the hero's early days" as a World War II officer. CNN writes that Marvel has said the story line "was intentionally written as an allegory to current real-life issues like the Patriot Act, the War on Terror and the September 11 attacks." Whatever the motivation, fans were in mourning, though skeptical that Marvel has really killed off "Cap" for good. Publishers Weekly's comics blog The Beat sighs, "[K]illing Cap in this day and age was a no brainer. And yes, we all know that he's coming back. That's part of the gag."
Jean Baudrillard. The French philosopher and outspoken critic of consumer culture died Tuesday in Paris. Long a favorite of graduate students, he was best known for his theory of "hyperreality"—which argues that the "real" world has been replaced by one of simulated experiences and emotions, thanks to TV and Hollywood, among other things. Ironically, his work helped inspire the 1999 film The Matrix, which a USA Today blogger recommends as "definitely the most palatable way known of getting down a swig of Baudrillard." A maverick, Baudrillard "was once considered a postmodern guru, but his analyses of modern life were too original and idiosyncratic to fit any partisan or theoretical category," notes the New York Times, and Le Monde places him squarely outside any fashionable or unfashionable ideology or doctrine. The AP comments delicately that "[a]lthough many Americans were puzzled by his views," Baudrillard was, nonetheless, "a tireless enthusiast for the United States—though he once called it 'the only remaining primitive society.' "
The Father of All Things, Tom Bissell (Pantheon). Bissell—author of the short-story collection God Lives in St. Petersburg and a contributing editor at Harper's—has written a memoir about growing up with a Vietnam vet dad, and critics seem charmed by both this new perspective on the Vietnam War and Bissell's skill as a travel writer. In the New York Times Book Review, Joe Klein writes that Bissell brings "a clear, fresh eye to events that many of us have allowed to slip into the infuriatingly painful past." A few years ago, Bissell and his father visited Vietnam together, and a significant portion of the book concerns this trip and the Bissells' relationship, leading Entertainment Weekly to conclude, "As they wander from Hue to Danang, father and son perceive a chasm between their worldviews that would be unbridgeable but for their abiding affection." And the Los Angeles Times raves, "Bissell's beautifully written book adds a chapter to the rich literature of familial struggle." (Buy The Father of All Things.)
Heyday, Kurt Andersen (Random House). New York columnist and Turn of the Century author Andersen's second novel is an epic 640-page romp across 1848 America, with a heavy backdrop of European revolutionary spirit. Some critics are impressed. The Los Angeles Times calls Heyday a "major historical work, of lore and wisdom, irony and humor," and the Houston Chronicle raves, "[A]s in the best historical fiction, the future doesn't seem predetermined but exists as a series of possibilities—for good and for evil." Others are more tempered in their judgments. Newsweek deems it an "upmarket page turner" and qualifies its faint praise by griping that "the tempo drags for a while before the slam-bang finale." And the New York Times' Janet Maslin finds Heyday wanting, though she allows that the book is "animated by a boyish enthusiasm and camaraderie that does much to offset its compulsive pedantry." (Buy Heyday.)
Neon Bible, Arcade Fire (Merge). The sprawling Montreal indie ensemble has garnered a staggering level of press attention for its second full-length album, with (remarkably similar) fawning profiles in both the New York Times Magazine and the The New Yorker. Indeed, Neon Bible seems to resonate with most critics. Pitchfork (which gave the band's debut, Funeral, a nearly unheard-of 9.7 score and granted this one an estimable 8.4) calls Neon Bible a "shapely work, gracefully building to fall away to build again, as the band sustains a mood that's both ominous and exhilarating." In Entertainment Weekly, Slate's Jody Rosen comments that the album's songs "gust and spread out, like huge landscapes hurtling into view."Rolling Stone's David Fricke stands as a lonely dissenter, writing that band's ambitions have spawned a "huge sound that only sparkles on the edges, leaving [frontman Win] Butler alone in the middle, railing against rising tides, falling bombs and the nonstop rain of shit on television like he's singing from the pulpit of an empty cathedral." (Buy Neon Bible.)
The Lost Tomb of Jesus (Discovery Channel). Sunday evening's broadcast of this documentary was perhaps anticlimactic, since the show's aha moments—researchers discover Jesus' tomb in Jerusalem, and he seems to have been married to Mary Magdalene (just like the Da Vinci Code!) and fathered one "Judah, son of Jesus"—had already been digested by countless commentators. (Having James Cameron as one of the producers only added fame to the fire.) Critics are skeptical of the claims, despite the imprimatur of several scholars who confirm—or at least, do not deny—that the tomb could have belonged to Jesus and his family. U.S. News notes wryly, "You pick your scholars, you get your verdicts." The film itself is "enjoyable," writes the New York Times' Alessandra Stanley, "mostly because it is scripted like a cryptology treasure hunt and centered on the Indiana Jones-ish persona of [co-producer] Simcha Jacobovici." And the Boston Globe throws up its hands at the controversy, writing: "[W]e cannot say with absolute certainty that Jesus did not rise from the dead and settle in New Jersey."