Critics' Picks

What you need to see, read, do this week: Hypnotic novels, riveting movies and sexy "Sesame Street" guests.

Published August 23, 2008 10:55AM (EDT)

"In the Woods" and "The Likeness" by Tana French
I'd heard good things about Tana French's first novel, "In the Woods," so when a paperback copy arrived with her latest, "The Likeness," I decided to check out the first chapter. I came to four days later with unwashed hair and a massively backlogged to-do list. Although technically crime fiction (the narrator of each book is a police detective), French's fiction is hypnotic and truly mysterious in a way I associate more with Donna Tartt. There's something fundamentally unsolvable about these stories, which makes them all the more compelling. -- Laura Miller

Irma Thomas' "Simply Grand"
Irma Thomas has been on the R&B scene for about as long as Aretha Franklin and Etta James have, although widespread recognition for her warm, enveloping tone and expressive but underplayed phrasing has been slow in coming: She finally won a Grammy, her first, in 2007 for "After the Rain." But if you haven't yet discovered the singer who has earned the nickname "Soul Queen of New Orleans," the brand-new "Simply Grand" is as good a place as any to start. The idea was to match Thomas with piano accompaniment from the likes of Dr. John, Randy Newman and John Medeski, and the result is a bold, refreshing record that provides a respite from the noise and clutter of everyday life -- perfect for these last days of summer. -- Stephanie Zacharek

Lech Majewski films on DVD
Polish-born artist, filmmaker, theater director and all-around Renaissance man Lech Majewski is somewhere on the outskirts of conventional cinema, where it bleeds into the art world. He remains little known to film buffs, despite having produced a body of work that occasioned a 2006 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, but now Kino International has brought four of his films to DVD for the first time. Majewski isn't much interested in conventional narrative structure, but the best of his movies do have stories and characters; his 1993 "Gospel According to Harry," a blank, bleak social satire, features future "Lord of the Rings" star Viggo Mortensen as a suburbanite golf-playing husband visited by a George H.W. Bush-style president, Liz Taylor and an omnipotent IRS agent. Oh, also, the oceans have dried up and the whole country is buried in sand. Majewski's masterwork to date, though, is the surpassingly beautiful 2004 love story "The Garden of Earthly Delights," told entirely through the lens of an amateur filmmaker (Chris Nightingale) as he documents his romance and voyage to Venice with a gorgeous English-rose art historian (Claudine Spitale) who has urgent reasons for seeking to decode the symbolism of Bosch's eponymous painting. It's a lush, riveting and remarkably sexy tear-jerker. -- Andrew O'Hehir

Daniel Mendelsohn's "How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken"
Memoirist and critic Daniel Mendelsohn gives the lie to anyone who thinks classics professors who have taught at Princeton can't review pop culture without stuffiness or condescension. His essays, published mostly in the New York Review of Books over the past decade or so, and now collected in "How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken," tackle Almodóvar, Pinter, Sophia Coppola and 9/11 films, among other subjects. He synthesizes his interests in Greek literature, mass culture and homosexuality, and illuminates new and old without undue bias. He handles these tricky figures and works of art with thoroughness, uncommon wit and a consistently rational tone that cuts through B.S. like a bejeweled katana. But despite his way with a sharp assertion, Mendelsohn never takes gratuitous potshots, not even when they seem inevitable, as in his dissection of Dale Peck's notoriously snarky book "Hatchet Jobs." While his attachment to the primacy of authorial intent can make his theater criticism feel a tad old-fashioned, his arguments are always passionate, sound and persuasive; his insights, keen and delightful. My favorite: Of Jack Twist's wife in "Brokeback Mountain," he writes, "her increasingly elaborate and artificial hairstyles serv[e] as a visual marker of the ever growing mendacity that underlies the couple's relationship." -- James Hannaham

Neil Patrick Harris and Will Arnett on "Sesame Street"
Forgive me if I'm a little distracted while pouring the Cheerios this morning. It's just that "Sesame Street," now in its 39th season, has me all a-flutter. Sure, for my 4-year-old, it's all about that tomato-hued pain in the ass Elmo. But for me, it's Neil Patrick Harris, singing and dancing at a level that's almost too sexy for the early-morning preschool set. I'm besotted with his winged, well-dressed Shoe Fairy. And if Harris weren't enough to make me go sweeping the clouds away, there's comedy's favorite jerk, Will Arnett, consorting with Muppets as an inept magician. The "Arrested Development" obsessive's ship has finally come in! My daughter may be learning her numbers; her mom is definitely honing her appreciation of hilariously charming celebrities. -- Mary Elizabeth Williams


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