Marie Antoinette (Columbia). The critics are split over Sofia Coppola's interpretation of the short life of the French queen, played by Kirsten Dunst, though many note the film's strangely apolitical nature. In the New York Times, A.O. Scott reads meaning into Coppola's confectionary portrait: "Beneath its highly decorated surface is an examination, touched with melancholy as well as delight, of what it means to live in a world governed by rituals of acquisition and display." But The New Yorker's Anthony Lane is less captivated by the film's unabashed superficiality, noting, "There is no morality at play here, no agony other than boredom, and, until the last half hour, not a shred of political sense." In New York magazine, David Edelstein dismisses the film as "basically the story of a little lost rich girl who becomes a party girl who becomes a national disgrace—in an utter vacuum."Slate's Dana Stevens takes the strongest stance against Coppola's version of events. "Just because the film's heroine has nothing to say about politics, revolutionary or otherwise, doesn't justify Coppola being similarly dumbstruck." (Buy tickets to Marie Antoinette.)
Flags of Our Fathers (Paramount). Clint Eastwood's film about Iwo Jima has left most critics impressed with the 76-year-old director. "He's doing risky work while his contemporaries retire or, worse, conform," lauds Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. Kenneth Turan, in the Los Angeles Times, is equally impressed with Eastwood, whom he says "handles this nuanced material with aplomb, giving every element of this complex story just the weight it deserves." Reviewers also note the present-day parallels. The Paul Haggis-penned film "raises pointed questions about how heroes, and wars, are packaged and sold," writes David Ansen in Newsweek, so "it's hard not to think his movie is a commentary on today." But not everyone is as enamored with Eastwood's work. Premiere's Ethan Alter dismisses Flags as resembling "one of those dry History Channel documentaries, only with more elaborate re-enactments." And movie blog Cinematical poo-poohs, "There's a good 30-minute war movie in Flags of Our Fathers, if you're willing to sit through another hour and a half of vintage Paul Haggis crybaby-psychobabble to see it." (Buy tickets to Flags of Our Fathers.)
Diddy, Press Play (Bad Boy). The artist formerly known as Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, and Puffy (and his real name, Sean Combs) could have stepped it up a bit for his first album in five years, critics say. "Too many long and overblown numbers," sniffs the Los Angeles Times' Natalie Nichols. And they tend to agree that the guests on the album—who include Christina Aguilera, Big Boi, and Mary J. Blige—and its producers—who include the Neptunes, Timbaland, and Kanye West—are the glue that holds the album together, for better or for worse. "The musical brilliance that surrounds him only serves to highlight Combs's shortcomings as a rapper," grumbles the Guardian's Alexis Petridis. And in an otherwise complimentary review, AllHipHop.com's Sidik Fofana observes, "Press Play celebrates the Hip-Hop formula, not the Hip-Hop craft." (Buy Press Play.)
Running With Scissors (Tri-Star). Mostly pans for Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy's adaptation of Augusten Burroughs' memoir about being sent to live with his mother's shrink at the age of 12. "Quite a feat of dullness," sighs Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum. "One of the worst big-screen adaptations of a great book you will ever see," gripes Giant magazine's Web site, and Ella Taylor in LA Weekly doesn't find much to recommend, either: "The movie reaches for black comedy and comes up empty of anything more than strained burlesque." One of the few voices of dissent comes from Salon's Stephanie Zacharek, who finds salvation in the performances by the likes of Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin (does anyone hate Alec these days?), Lynn Redgrave, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood: "The picture's saving grace is that so many of the actors warm to the material." (Buy tickets to Running With Scissors.)
Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War, by Robert L. Beisner (Oxford). The New York Times Book Review takes out its big guns for Robert L. Beisner's 800-page tome about Truman's fourth secretary of state. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's front-page review reflects on the role of secretaries of state ("The position of secretary of state is potentially the most fulfilling in the government short of the presidency"; "For a secretary of state to be effective, he or she has to get into the president's head, so to speak."), in what is ultimately more a review of Acheson's job as secretary than of Beisner's book. In the New Republic, John Lewis Gaddis lauds Beisner's book for being "the first to focus on the Truman-Acheson relationship," but complains, "The size of the book obscures its sharpness." And the New York Times' Walter Isaacson points out that Beisner's book may be more informative than Acheson's own memoir: "It is not as rollicking and witty, but Mr. Beisner's prodigious mining of archives and oral histories makes it actually far more reliable and accurate than Acheson's martini-lubricated memories." (Buy Dean Acheson: A Life in the Cold War.)
Literary prizes. Orhan Pamuk's win of the Nobel Prize in Literature last week prompted more commentary about his politics than his literary contributions. (He was famously brought to trial this year for "insulting Turkishness," though the charges were dismissed.) The Guardian notes that Pamuk's win has not only divided public opinion in Turkey, but also highlighted the nature of the Turkish chattering classes: "[T]he debate is also typical of the country's elite: determined to be taken seriously on the international stage, but only on its own terms." Meanwhile, all the discussion of Pamuk's win overshadowed the announcement of another prizewinner last week: Kiran Desai became the youngest woman (at 35) to ever win the Man Booker Prize for her book The Inheritance of Loss, beating out shortlisters such as M.J. Hyland and Sarah Waters. But Desai is hardly blind to politics. In her acceptance speech, she said, "Given what the political climate has been in the States, I feel more and more Indian in so many ways."
The Light of Evening, by Edna O'Brien (Houghton Mifflin). Irish novelist and short-story writer Edna O'Brien's 20th book, the story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship, is a "rich, dense novel," proclaims the Chicago Tribune's Ellen Emry Heltzel. In Slate, Claire Dederer overcomes her initial difficulty with O'Brien's prose to note, "O'Brien's language, so troubling at first, seemed to render me useless for other writers, who in comparison come off as both indelicate and afraid." In the New York Times Book Review, Erica Wagner calls Evening"a passionate book, a tormented book, a confused book." The end of the book, Wagner writes, has "a stage-managed feel." Likewise, in the Washington Post, Louise Bernard notes that O'Brien "strains to find a compelling close," and her "overly constructed attempt to shock the reader at the novel's end … simply doesn't ring true." (Buy The Light of Evening.)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie(Acorn Theatre).Many critics turn up their noses at this off-Broadway revival starring Cynthia Nixon, whom the AP's Michael Kuchwara calls "strident and curiously lacking in conviction" in the title role. "She's not idiosyncratic enough or as enthralling as she must be for the play to fly," sighs the New York Daily News' Joe Dziemianowicz, while the New York Times' Ben Brantley notes that Nixon's "pinched Scottish accent forces her voice into uncomfortably nasal upper registers that suggest Miss Brodie could be Minnie Mouse's cousin from Edinburgh." But the appeal of seeing the former Miranda on stage seems to be transcending the critical pans; the show has just extended its run. (Buy tickets to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)