Babel (Paramount Classics). Oh, how Alejandro González Iñárritu loves a complicated story line. His third collaboration with screenwriter Gabriel Arriaga features no fewer than four interconnected plots, and Slate’s Dana Stevens notes, “Babel handles all of its story lines equally well.” But The New Yorker’s David Denby seems like he’s had it up to here with González Iñárritu’s overly coincidental moviemaking. Though González Iñárritu “creates savagely beautiful and heartbreaking images,” Denby takes him to task: “He abuses his audience with a humorless fatalism and a piling up of calamities that borders on the ludicrous.” A.O. Scott, writing in the New York Times, decides to split the difference, sighing, “In the end Babel, like that tower in the book of Genesis, is a grand wreck, an incomplete monument to its own limitless ambition … It’s a folly, and also, perversely, a wonder.” Or, throw caution to the wind and take Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers at his word when he calls Babel“the year’s richest, most complex and ultimately most heartbreaking film.” (Buy tickets to Babel.)
Death of a President (Newmarket Films). Critics give the technical aspects of British director Gabriel Range’s faux documentary about an imagined assassination of President Bush grudging respect but are less enamored with the film itself. In the Village Voice, J. Hoberman calls it “dramatically inert but a minor techno-miracle,” while in the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday asks, “Is it politically provocative agitprop or merely a cynical, exploitative stunt? Probably the latter, but one that has been performed with unusual dexterity.” Whether agitprop or a stunt, several theater chains have banned the film, and some television stations are also refusing to show ads for it. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir knocks those making a fuss over the film’s pseudo-realism: “Most of it is made-up controversy, fomented by possibly well-intentioned people (but also by boobs and morons) who haven’t seen the film and who ascribe powers to mass-culture products that they don’t actually possess. Nobody’s going to kill Bush because it happens in a movie.” (Buy tickets to Death of a President.)
Tower Records. The liquidation of Tower Records has begun, as have the requisite elegies for the venerable chain of music stores. The Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed writes, sadly, “Tower did take seriously its mission to be the world’s most important record outlet.” In the New York Times, Anthony Tommasini laments the demise of the location near Manhattan’s Lincoln Center, because of its role in the classical music community: “For many people, tracking down a CD online, with only various critiques by unknown purchasers to guide them, is not the same as mingling with other opera buffs in front of the Verdi shelves.” At the blog Serenade in Green, Stephen V. Funk notes that he doesn’t own an iPod and wonders whether the growth in digital music led to Tower’s rapid downfall: “I’ve been mourning the loss of Tower Records lately … I can’t help but notice that there’s never anyone younger than me shopping at Tower or any other record store these days.” R.I.P., Tower.
Once Again, John Legend (Sony). R&B singer John Legend’s follow-up to his Grammy-winning debut Get Lifted”blends lush, elegant band arrangements with stylish synth parts and cool samples,” raves Jonathan Ringen in Rolling Stone, but some critics don’t quite know what to make of Legend, who seems to relish defying convention. “Like his music, Mr. Legend, a 27-year-old singer-songwriter, is at once old-fashioned and trendy, courtly and cool, attention-grabbing and understated,” marvels Melba Newsome in the New York Times. Meanwhile, on the music blog Stereogum, a debate rages over whether Legend has a right to compare his music to Jeff Buckley’s, as he recently did in a Rolling Stone interview. “[N]one of us take self-claims to sounding like Jeff lightly,” Stereogum cautions. But commenter DW Dunphy doesn’t sweat the comparison: “Buckley was an incredible artist and wrote some deeply felt songs. If his ghost influences Legend to write from an alternate source than ‘that gold-digger’ or ‘my boyz at the club with the grillz and the rimz’ or worse yet, ‘uh-huh, yeah, f’real,’ God bless him.” (Buy Once Again.)
Alex Kuczynski, Beauty Junkies (Doubleday). The New York Times scribe’s exposé of the plastic surgery industry has, surprisingly, not left critics repulsed by the graphic descriptions of Kuczynski’s adventures in Restylane —in fact, the Washington Post’s Diana McLellan lauds the author for her “sumptuously fact-packed” book. Elle trills, “It’s her unique mix of in-depth reportage and unmasking of personal vulnerabilities that takes Beauty Junkies beyond shock value into something much more complex.” But the New York Times Book Review’s Toni Bentley (who knows a bit about exposés herself) is less captivated by the way Kuczynski uses her own experiences to move the story along, intoning, “Kuczynski’s objective-subjective straddle can be compromising; at the very least, it argues against the supposition, in this age of the memoir, that one’s vanity is expiated by self-exposure.” (Buy Beauty Junkies.)
Stephen King, Lisey’s Story (Scribner). King’s latest is being watched nervously by his publishers to see whether the horrormeister’s popularity will translate into more-highbrow success. So far, the reviews are encouraging. In the New York Times, Janet Maslin calls Lisey’s Story “a tender, intimate book that makes an epic interior journey.” In Denver’s Rocky Mountain News, Mark Graham enthuses that Lisey is “a love story and supernatural suspense tale rolled into one gripping read,” but the Boston Globe’s Erica Noonan is more tempered in her praise. “It’s not the thrill ride some of us may have hoped for, but there is beauty and depth in King’s gentle journey,” she observes. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Edward Champion, however, is dismissive, griping, “King has tried too hard to turn out a literary masterpiece.” (Buy Lisey’s Story.)
The Prestige (Touchstone). The moment of the magician has arrived, as The Prestige received generally positive reviews and nabbed the No. 1 spot in the weekend box-office feeding frenzy. The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr calls Christopher Nolan’s film “grand, half-crazy fun,” and many critics seem awed by the film’s sleight of hand: “The Prestige wants to fool your senses by ripping a hole in reality,”Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman exclaims, while Slate’s Dana Stevens notes, “It doesn’t want to explore epistemological questions about the nature of perception and memory; it just wants to mess with our heads.” But Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek is less enamored with the Memento director’s efforts: “[Christian] Bale and [Hugh] Jackman, two very gifted actors, seem a bit lost among the ever-mounting plot mechanics.” (Buy tickets to The Prestige.)
Charles Frazier, Thirteen Moons (Random House). What do you say about a novel that got an $8 million advance and entered the New York Times best-seller list this week at No. 2? If you’re the Times’ Michiko Kakutani, you sniff that it’s “a lot closer to Larry McMurtry than to Cormac McCarthy.” In The New Yorker, Louis Menand is equally uncharitable about Frazier’s Cold Mountain follow-up: “There is too much lapidary sententiousness, too much moral reverb, in the prose … We could take the characters more seriously if the author took them less seriously.” In LA Weekly, however, Claire Messud lauds the way in which Frazier portrays the American West: “It is in his love of place, and his strikingly astute observation of how people live in their landscape, that Frazier is unparalleled.” (Read Stephen Metcalf’s review of Thirteen Moons.) (Buy Thirteen Moons.)