Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (New Line Cinema). Good reviews overall. Several critics carp that Mike Myers’ horny ‘60s swinger is not as novel the second time around: “Most of the silliness has become pretty strenuous and some of the sweetness has settled into desperation” (Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal). But despite their protestations, reviewers can’t help recounting all their favorite jokes from the film, a habit that effectively dilutes their complaints. On the plus side: The characters of Dr. Evil and his son, Scott Evil, are fleshed out and funnier this time around. On the minus side: Heather Graham doesn’t match up to Elizabeth Hurley as Myers’ ladylove. (Slate’s David Edelstein is one of the film’s biggest fans, saying it’s “better than anyone dared hope: bigger, more inventive, and more frolicsome than its predecessor, with a grab bag of scatological gags that are almost as riotous when you think back on them.” Click here to read the rest.)
The Red Violin (New Line Cinema). Director François Girard (Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould) hits the musical theme again in this “odd, piquant tale” (Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly) that traces the peregrinations of a priceless 17th-century violin. Is it an “utterly predictable” (Richard Schickel, Time) gimmick for a costume drama, or is it a fascinating ride through history? Stephen Holden (the New York Times) is in the first camp, complaining that as soon as the spectacular score subsides the movie “clatters back down to earth.” But others find the film “beautifully crafted, intricately designed” (Eric Harrison, the Los Angeles Times) and credit Samuel L. Jackson’s outstanding performance as a crotchety and morally ambiguous violin appraiser. (Click here to find out more about the film.)
Hannibal, by Thomas Harris (Delacorte). Stephen King raves in the New York Times Book Review that this sequel to The Silence of the Lambs surpasses its predecessor: “It is, in fact, one of the two most frightening popular novels of our time, the other being The Exorcist. … If Hannibal Lecter isn’t a Count Dracula for the computer-and-cell-phone age, then we don’t have one.” But Christopher Lehmann-Haupt (the daily New York Times) speaks for most critics when he notes that this one, while a fantastic thriller, “simply lacks the compact power of the previous books.” A few reviewers are horrified by the amped-up gore (a man cuts off his own face, feeds it to dogs, then has the dogs’ stomachs pumped so he can try to have the recovered nose surgically reattached). Says Deirdre Donahue (USA Today): “You end up wanting to quickly kill off Hannibal Lecter yourself, just to stanch the flow of foul language, repellent imagery and bloodshed.” (Click here to read the rest of King’s review; the page also includes a clip of Harris reading from Hannibal.)
Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice,by A.S. Byatt (Random House). Booker Prize-winning author A.S. Byatt’s collection of fanciful tales wins the hearts of most critics, although all admit that some stories don’t quite work. But when she’s on, Byatt’s writing “leaps and pirouettes, shimmies and shivers” (Gabriella Stern, the Wall Street Journal) and has an “aura of extravagant ingenuity” (David Barber, the Boston Globe). A few find the tales a bit too similar–there is a theme throughout of the conflict between the warm southern temperament and the cold northern one–but most deem the sameness unimportant when the writing is so superb. (Click here to read an interview with Byatt.)
Surrender, by the Chemical Brothers (EMD/Astralwerks). The dance-music duo surprise critics with their latest: “Instead of revisiting blocks already rocked, the Brothers venture down untravelled paths from which their contemporaries have shied away. … The world has already praised the Brothers as creators of clever, catchy dance tracks, but Surrender will finally make the public respect these guys as mature, intelligent and enterprising musicians” (M. Tye Comer, CMJ). What’s different this time is that they’ve relaxed a little and broadened their horizons from exclusively dance-oriented music: “This is a subtler, moodier, sweeter, funkier record, less in-your-face, more in-your-heart. Even the dance instrumentals are booty shakers, not bone crunchers” (David Gates, Newsweek). (Click here to listen to samples from the new album.)
Terror Twilight, by Pavement (Matador). Excellent reviews for the fifth album from indie rock’s favorite lo-fi sons. It’s not as groundbreaking as 1994’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, but it’s close: “[T]he music is leaner and cleaner, with lunatic word play that remains an advanced course in pretzel logic” (Chris Nashawaty, Fortune). The album “redefines the band’s stellar status” (Colin Berry, the San Francisco Chronicle), and vocalist-guitarist Stephen Malkmus delivers not just the expected musical power-punch but dead-on lyrics as well: It’s “his most direct statement of purpose ever (in short: Things hurt, and growing up is hard, but kissing helps)” (Joe Levy, Rolling Stone). (Click here to listen.)
Californication, by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (WEA/Warner Bros.). After years of addiction and attempts at recovery, the nearly 16-year-old California band has entered dinosaur land. Most critics come down hard: Newsweek’s Gates says “it’s mostly midtempo mush,” and Entertainment Weekly’s David Browne detects a “whiff of desperation” on the record. On the upside: 1) Former guitarist John Frusciante returns to give the band a hint of their former jammy-jammin’ glory; and 2) Rolling Stone is wildly positive (four stars), if completely alone in its enthusiasm–“They’ve written a whole album’s worth of tunes that tickle the ear, romance the booty, swell the heart, moisten the tear ducts and dilate the third eye” (Greg Tate). (Click here to watch a multimedia presentation on the band.)
Learning Curve, by DJ Rap (Sony/Columbia). Critics give a polite nod to the debut album from one of the few female DJs in the boys’ club world of electronic music. Most praise her for being able to hold her own, as opposed to noticing any genuine musical ability, and note that the album is far more pop-oriented than the drum ‘n’ bass and jungle she spins live.