The critical buzz on The Queen,Scissor Sisters,and Ugly Betty.

The critical buzz on The Queen,Scissor Sisters,and Ugly Betty.

The critical buzz on The Queen,Scissor Sisters,and Ugly Betty.

Highlights from the week in criticism.
Sept. 29 2006 3:26 PM

All Hail The Queen

The critical buzz on Helen Mirren's latest, Ugly Betty, and Scissor Sisters.

The Queen(Miramax). The critics who've long worshipped at the altar of Helen Mirren have found much to delight them in The Queen, Stephen Frears' new movie about Queen Elizabeth II, Tony Blair, and the death of Princess Diana. In Salon, Stephanie Zacharek is enamored with Mirren's portrayal of Elizabeth's inner life: "Mirren's performance is glorious: Rather than impersonate the queen … she reaches deeper to locate the buried, calcified thoughts and feelings that might guide this deeply inscrutable woman." Mirren's "Queen Elizabeth is maddening, hilarious, and deeply human, galumphing around the Balmoral estate in a tartan raincoat and waders as the Britain she thought she knew crumbles around her," Slate's Dana Stevens proclaims, calling The Queen "one of the smartest political films I've seen in years." In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis asserts that The Queen "serves as a return to form for the director," who also helmed Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. (We're deliberately avoiding mention of Mrs. Henderson Presents.) (Buy tickets to The Queen.)

Scissor Sisters, Ta-Dah(Polydor/Universal Motown).These glam New Yorkers have garnered generally positive reviews for their second album. In Entertainment Weekly, Jon Dolan finds that the band has reached a new level of introspection: Ta-Dah "undercuts whimsy with an unexpected but intriguing air of melancholy … even some of the kickiest stuff has an unexpected emotional punch"—the result of a spandex overdose, perchance? "[Lead singer Jake] Shears has a dark side—his sometimes cynical lyrics show that he knows Rome always burns while the decadent fiddle," Ann Powers writes, darkly, in the Los Angeles Times. Of course, Pitchfork has to rain on this parade of self-reflection. Mark Pitlyk writes that you can take the drag queen out of the disco, but the disco never really leaves the drag queen: "On record … their extravagance becomes a hurdle. Not only are the Sisters' bawdy pop tracks overripe with in-jokey musical gags, they're relentlessly, almost confrontationally exuberant." Crotchety Brit Alex Needham, writing in the NME, is likewise skeptical: "Where are the songs about the crystal meth addicts, the hookers, the fat girls and the backroom boys?" (BuyTa-Dah.)

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Ugly Betty(ABC). This new show about a homely girl from Queens who lands a job at a fashion magazine is " Dynasty crossed with an after-school special," deems Slate's Troy Patterson. But most of the critics have dusted off the cliché arsenal for their reviews. In the Washington Post, Tom Shales brings on the metaphors: "America Ferrera, as Betty, is a day full of sunshine—and, conversely, sometimes a night full of moonlight." (I'm glad we've got that cleared up.) Ellen Gray, of the Philadelphia Daily News, holds Betty up as an anti-chick-lit heroine: "ABC's plucky Ugly Betty shines as bright as the honking big braces young Betty Suarez (America Ferrera) wears, a beacon to viewers weary of Ally McBeal wannabes and Smart Women Behaving Badly," while New York magazine's John Leonard compares her good-naturedly to "a friendly sausage." But the New York Times' Virginia Heffernan warns viewers against turning Betty into the belle of the ball prematurely: "Maybe we should watch aloofly," Heffernan muses (aloofly?). "Let's let Betty find her locker and her lunch table, and observe her without asking that she be more than she is."

String theory. Physicists found themselves squinting at the spotlight this week as the challenges to string theory grow louder. String theory—for those of us who didn't make it past e=mc2 in physics—says that the world is made up not of particles but of tiny strands of energy called strings that vibrate in various ways. The only catch is that no one's been able to actually, um, prove that the theory exists. In The New Yorker, Jim Holt reviews two new books about string theory, chalking up the root of the current brouhaha to physicists looking for proof from "something other than hard empirical evidence in their quest for a final theory. And that something they call 'beauty.' But in physics, as in the rest of life, beauty can be a slippery thing." Indeed. Over at Scientific American, JR Minkel claims that string theory proponents are proffering a disturbingly ambiguous theory of the universe: "String theory 'predicts' that dark energy can be anything you like—not exactly the kind [of] statement that would win over doubters."

A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints(First Look Pictures).Astoria, Queens native Dito Montiel's autobiographical coming-of-age yarn has its schmaltzier moments, but critics praise Montiel's joie de vivre. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott practically bubbles over with enthusiasm, calling Saints "one of the more remarkable American directing debuts in recent years … [Montiel] has made a picture so full of life and feeling that the screen can hardly contain it." "A damn interesting piece," Lisa Schwarzbaum proclaims in Entertainment Weekly, but Premiere's Glenn Kenny tsk-tsks the director for his melodramatic tendencies: "Imagine if Scorsese's Mean Streets served up something as cringe-worthy as its unfortunate gay-baiting scene about every ten minutes or so, and you'll get the idea." In the Village Voice, Rob Nelson splits the difference, equivocating that "whatever the first-time filmmaker lacks in subtlety and finesse—not even the snow-white Sundance Screenwriters Lab could bleach Montiel's script of its corner-deli grit—he recoups by other, more playfully attitudinal means." But how come no one has pointed out that Saints sounds exactly like Entourage's artsy coming-of-age tale in New York, Queens Boulevard? (Buy tickets to Saints.)

Shostakovich turns 100. Or, at least, he would have if he were alive, but there's still time for tributes galore—including a new two-ruble coin issued by the Russian government bearing the controversial composer's likeness. In the Los Angeles Times, Miles Hoffman hyperbolizes, "A hundred years from now, barring global flood or frizzle, our descendants will still be listening to his music, as their descendants will be 200 years from now, and so on without limit." At DailyKos, poster chingchongchinaman takes the opportunity to recall some of his favorite performances of Shostakovich's work, noting that a performance of his Jewish Folk Poetry in Paris in 1997 "is perhaps the single most joyous [Shostakovich] live performance I've ever seen."

Also on the SJ radar this week: Steven Lee Myers' piece in the New York Times about the upcoming Sacha Baron Cohen movie Borat: The Kazakh government may be upset about Cohen's portrayal, but it turns out the average Kazakh is just happy his country's getting a little (dis)respek. Myers quotes a correspondent for a Kazakh TV station: " 'I do not feel any false patriotism,' said Mr. Bayen, who, like all ethnic Kazakhs, bears no resemblance to Borat whatsoever. 'I saw portions of his show, and I can say it is funny.' "