Friday, February 29, 2008

This week's multiplex diary

Basketball, courtly intrigue and a real-live Miss Piggy

The surprisingly tepid "Semi-Pro," is yet another comedy from Will Ferrell. This supposed look back at the American Basketball Association won't be booed off the court, but it's flatter and lamer than it should have been. The movie misses as either wild comedy or as an exhilarating immersion in the hoops euphoria of the ABA, a league that folded when four of its teams were absorbed into the NBA before the start of the 1976 season.

"Semi-Pro" could have been called "The Will Ferrell Show". Sporting an Afro the size of a rain forest, Ferrell dominates nearly every scene as Jackie Moon, the owner and coach of the Flint Tropics, a misnamed team located in "sunny" Flint, Mich. Moon specializes in dumb promotions (bear wrestling, for example) and fancies himself a '70s stud, having recorded a popular song called "Love Me Sexy," which he pronounces "sex-ay."

Ferrell skillfully does what he usually does (whatever that might be), but the movie can't seem to make up its mind whether to be an unashamedly dumb comedy or a ragtag sports movie about a team whose highest aspiration involves finishing fourth. We get a few laughs, but not enough unifying comic spirit.

Woody Harrelson joins Ferrell in this often-futile quest. Harrelson plays a fading basketball star who's traded to the Tropics and who hopes to make one last run at the kind of glory that would translate as mediocrity for any other team.

Put this one in the debit column: Hollywood still owes us a movie about the ABA. "Semi-Pro" fails to score either with a slam-dunk or a long three-pointer.

The same might be said of "The Other Boleyn Girl," except they probably didn't have basketball in the 16th Century. They probably didn't have a proto-feminist movement either, but that didn't stop the adapters of Philippa Gregory's novel from putting a 21st century spin on this ripe (make that "trashy") bit of historical fiction.

"The Other Boleyn Girl'' mixes bodice-ripping melodrama and courtly intrigue in what amounts to an emotionally garish movie about two sisters who battle each other for the affections of Henry VIII, portrayed here by Eric Bana, an actor who seems to specialize in brooding. The sisters -- Natalie Portman (as Anne) and Scarlett Johansson (as Mary) -- are at the center of a movie in which the costumes probably are heavier than the movie's themes.

Directed by Justin Chadwick and written by Peter Morgan ("The Queen"), "The Other Boleyn Girl" contrasts the two sisters, both of whom are pushed around by their slightly ineffectual but ambitious father (Mark Rylance) and their more conniving uncle (David Morrissey). The men hope one of the girls will win Henry's affections, thereby bringing profit and prestige to the Boleyn family.

At first, it's deemed that Anne will make a fine mistress for Henry, who happens to be married to Catherine of Aragon (Ana Torrent). But the honor soon falls to Mary, who gives Henry a daughter. The ungrateful monarch reacts to the news indifferently and then relegates Mary to second place. It seems he already has begun to view Anne as the better catch. Meanwhile, the matriarch of the Boleyn clan (Kristen Scott Thomas) looks on with steady disapproval, presumably because she loves her daughters and is sick of living the 16th century version of "It's a Man's World."

As it turns out, Anne has ambitions of her own. She's not shy about chasing what she wants, even it means double-crossing her sister. If you think all of this sounds like a rerun of "Dallas," you're not far off the mark.

The acting isn't quite where it needs to be. Portman lacks the kind fire that might have driven a woman such as Anne. Johansson seems better suited to play the less flamboyant Mary, the more loyal of the sisters. Loyalty, of course, is a relative term in such corrupted environs: Mary had to leave her husband to leap into Henry's royal bed. The most interesting female character, Torrent's surprisingly sympathetic Catherine of Aragon, is pushed aside so that the two young American stars can duke it out. Even Henry knows that he's doing Catherine wrong, but he can't help himself. He's fallen under Anne's spell.

Chadwick doesn't satisfy either prurience or historical curiosity, and "The Other Boleyn Girl" winds up feeling like a drama that was written to make contemporary points about male-dominated power games.

All history, I suppose, must be refracted through a contemporary lens, but the lavish costumes of "The Other Boleyn Girl" can't quite make the characters feel authentic. "The Other Boleyn Girl" should satisfy your craving for courtly conniving, but it's nothing over which to lose your head.

And speaking of heads.... Christina Ricci's is adorned by a pig snout in a fable about a young woman saddled with a family curse: She's born with a pig's nose. Director Mark Palansky's Penelope leaves one shrugging, grateful that it's not worse and sorry that it's not as sharply drawn as it might have been.

Leslie Caveny's screenplay takes place in London, where Penelope's mother (Catherine O'Hara) tries to marry off her daughter. A cynical reporter (Peter Dinklage) hires a young man (James McAvoy) to court Penelope and deliver an exploitative photograph of this supposedly beastly woman. Of course McAvoy's character softens and actually begins to care about Penelope, who eventually becomes a tabloid sensation and London's hottest new celeb.

Ricci sells this character without wallowing in the sty of self-pity, but the movie is a middling affair. Reese Witherspoon, one of the movie's producers, appears briefly as a Vespa-riding young woman who befriends Penelope. All I can say is that I got more pleasure out of watching Witherspoon in the deliciously satirical "Hillary's Inner Tracy Flick," which makes fine use of footage from "Election" to comment on Hillary Clinton's campaign persona. (See it on You Tube.)

Complaint to the filmmakers: Ricci doesn't look shocking enough to inspire the kind of revulsion that her prospective beaus show.

The art-house antidote

The box-office receipts may not show it, but this is an especially good weekend to abandon the multiplex for the more stimulating confines of the art house. In a fairer world, two of this week's new movies -- "4 Months, 3 Week & 2 Days" and "The Band's Visit" -- would have been short-listed for best foreign-language film. For a variety of reasons -- some involving outmoded Academy rules -- neither made Oscar's cut. Both are superior works that demand attention.

Director Christan Mungiu bursts onto the international film scene with"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," an unadorned but absorbing drama about a woman seeking an abortion during the final days of the Ceausescu regime in Romania. At the time, the procedure was illegal.

Winner of the Palm d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, "4 Months" exemplifies the kind of filmmaking that has an unshakeable belief in the audience's power of discernment. Mingiu allows the drama to unfold in front of an unblinking camera, a technique that insists we form our own conclusions.

"4 Months" focuses on two college students. It's 1987, and a steady stream of bartering and underground dealing has corrupted the university atmosphere. But not all problems can be bargained away easily. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant, and she asks her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to help. Gabita doesn't want to have the child, which means she must venture into the perilous waters of the black market.

To obtain an abortion, Gabita must rent a hotel room and deal with the unscrupulous Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a business-like abortionist who demands more than money. Ivanov creates a villain that -- in his way -- ranks with Javier Bardem's creation in "No Country For Old Men." Bebe's matter-of-fact delivery makes him especially monstrous, a man whose every move is self-serving.

I won't give anything more away, but I will tell you that "4 Months" includes shots that may make you wince or avert your eyes. It's also important to know that "4 Months" is not about abortion. Even after you've seen the film, you may not know exactly where Mungiu stands on the issue. That's because his movie is less interested in moralizing than in depicting the ways in which exploitation and greed become underground commodities in a brutally oppressive society. Bleak and unremitting, "4 Months" chronicles life in the midst of degrading circumstances that force just about everyone into some kind of furtive activity.

Much of the movie takes place in the hotel room where Gabita goes for her abortion, but there's a sequence in which Otilia leaves to attend her boyfriend's mother's birthday party; an atmosphere of cheery denial prevails among the celebrants. Given what we've already seen, the party proves chilling, another bitter pill in a bleak and, I think, terrifying slice of life.

If you need to restore a bit of faith in humanity after "4 Months," you can turn to "The Band's Visit." This Israeli import may be a deadpan comedy about an improbable subject, but it evokes genuine feelings about the possibilities for peaceful co-existence in the Middle East. Well, sort of.

"The Band's Visit" is one of those nothing-much-happens, but-lots-is-suggested movies. Its slender story begins when the Alexandria Police Ceremonial Orchestra -- composed of eight Egyptian policemen -- finds itself stranded in a backwater Israeli town. The band is supposed to play at an Arab Cultural Center, but the town doesn't have one. The lost musicians are a long way from the town where they're scheduled to perform.

In their starched, powder blue uniforms, these men couldn't look more out of place, but as director Eran Kolirin's gentle comedy unfolds, stereotypes begin to crumble. The band's trumpet player (Saleh Bakri), who seems to have an uncommon skill with women, admires Chet Baker, particularly Baker's rendition of "My Funny Valentine." And the band's dour leader (Israeli actor Sasson Gabai) shares an unlikely moment of emotional intimacy with the Israeli woman (Ronit Elkabetz) who suggests that the band stay overnight. The band doesn't really have much choice. There's no way out of the town until morning.

Kolirin captures the boredom and isolation of small-town living while setting up scenes that genuinely deserve to be called charming. An example: The band's flirtatious trumpet player takes an awkward Israeli young man under wing and gives him a quick lesson in the seductive arts.

As should already be clear, "The Band's Visit" prefers small human moments to booming plot points. Some of the band members dine with an Israeli family, not all of whose members are happy to see them. A trip to a local restaurant by Elkabetz's character and the band leader provokes stares. It's not so much that the Israelis are hostile; it's more that they're nonplused.

Despite the movie's obvious desire to show that people can be more alike than different, "The Band Visit" never becomes sappy or preachy. The Israelis and Egyptians don't immediately fall into one another's arms, and we're not entirely sure whether this unplanned bit of cultural exchange will have any lasting impact.

Despite the bonding that takes place, the mournful seclusion of small-town living never loses its grip on the movie or us, and by the end, "The Band's Visit" has created its own sad but beautiful music. Sad because the town's isolation can't entirely be broken; beautiful because the characters give it a try.

If you admired Fernando Meirelles' "City of God," a blistering 2002 look at life in the impoverished favelas of Rio, you may want to check out director Paulo Morelli's "City of Men," a similar movie that suffers by way of comparison with is predecessor. Morelli, who has worked with Meirelles, centers on a young man's search for his father. There's plenty of gunplay, macho posturing and gang warfare as the movie accumulates atmosphere and heartbreak en route to a mildly hopeful conclusion.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Strong work honored at the Oscars, but where was all the excitement?

As had been widely predicted, "No Country For Old Men" won the Oscar for best picture, but a couple of surprises brought some much-needed life to tonight's generally lackluster Oscar show, notably Tilda Swinton's upset win in the best-supporting-actress category and Marion Cotillard's triumph as best actress.

Cotillard's victory over favorite Julie Christie ("Away From Her") came as a bit of shock, although it probably shouldn't have. Cotillard's portrayal of Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" was a bravura piece of work that actors -- who make up a majority of the voters -- clearly could appreciate. I didn't expect Cotillard to win, but only because I wasn't sure that the picture had had enough exposure.

Despite such surprises and a genuinely sweet moment in which Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova took home the Oscar for the best song -- "Falling Slowly" from "Once" -- the evening seemed to suffer from a decided lack of electricity, so much so that it made me wonder whether Oscar isn't beginning to lose most of its luster.

Many observers seem to feel that it's not a healthy sign that the movies nominated for best picture -- with the exception of "Juno" -- haven't been widely seen; it also has been noted that none of this year's acting awards went to American-born performers. And if one were of cynical bent, it would be easy to employ Norma Desmond's line from "Sunset Boulevard;" the pictures sometimes do seem to be getting smaller.

But for me, it's not the nominated movies that cause irritation, but the show. I have no arguments with any of this year's choices, and I admired all but one of the best-picture nominees. (I wasn't a particular fan of "Atonement.") Yet, I watched the Oscars without the usual sense of excitement. It wasn't that the show left me wanting more, but that it made me feel as if I were seeing some pallid, alternate universe version of the Academy Awards. The festivities -- hosted with only moderate success by Jon Stewart -- even ended early, as if for once, the industry had run out of ways to congratulate itself.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Another teen learns a life lesson

Summary: A smart teen comedy and another helping of John Sayles

It may sound like a contradiction in terms, but "Charlie Bartlett" has been described as a "thinking man's teen comedy." Too many teen movies over too many years made me skeptical about whether "Charlie Bartlett" would be as "fresh" as promised, but I went to see it anyway. The reason: to watch Robert Downey Jr. play a high school principal concerned about the distribution of drugs in his school.

OK, that's a cynical take on my part. Downey's a terrific actor and his personal background -- drugs and jail -- should have no bearing on the roles he plays, but I'm too much of a news sleaze not to take reality into account. So off I went to see a teen comedy that's supposed to be an "intelligent" addition to a genre known mostly for dopey humor.

As often happens, the hype was too much. "Charlie Bartlett" doesn't descend into teen-comedy hell as it evokes memories of more original work such as "Rushmore," but it's no little gem, either. It also took me half the picture to make up my mind about Anton Yelchin, who plays the title character, a rich kid whose mother (Hope Davis) puts him in public school after he's kicked out of the last in a long string of prep schools. Yelchin ("Alpha Dog") ultimately finds ways to make us care about a kid who's way too glib, and his scenes with Davis -- a caring mother with few parental skills -- have a nice vibe about them.

At first it looks as if "Charlie Bartlett'' will follow a fish-out-of-water formula. Still wearing his preppie blazer, Charlie shows up at Western Summit High School. He quickly learns that his upper-crust exterior (his mom has the kind of money that allows Charlie to live in a mansion and own a chauffeur-driven Rolls) isn't going to play well with the school's tough guys, especially with Murphey Bivens (Tyler Hilton), a particularly aggressive thug.

Charlie, however, is not easily defeated. When the family shrink puts him on Ritalin, Charlie quickly realizes that there's money in prescriptions. He turns emotional difficulty into entrepreneurial triumph, forming a partnership with Hilton's Murphy -- who has been making Charlie's life a living hell -- and begins selling drugs. Charlie's no ordinary dealer; he accumulates his stash of prescription drugs by visiting a variety of shrinks and spewing pre-digested symptoms. He then sets up shop in the boy's lavatory, offering counseling and medication to his fellow students. Charlie rises to the top of the school popularity chart as the pusher man who really cares about his customers.

By this time, you may have noticed that I haven't yet gotten around to Downey, who mostly wanders the movie's fringes. As it turns out, Downey's Principal Gardener is a fairly shabby authority figure. His wife has left him, and he's made friends with the bottle. The school superintendent has him on a short leash, and he worries about his daughter Susan (Kate Dennings), who's a student at Western Summit, as well as Charlie's blossoming love interest.

When the movie gets around to its serious side, director Jon Poll does less well. What? You thought there'd be no serious side. No such luck. Charlie can't go on dispensing drugs and practicing amateur psychiatry without penalty, and the script sets about teaching him a chastening lesson.

Downey does a good job in a downbeat role that doesn't quite fit into the film's comic fabric. He was great as a skeptical reporter in "Zodiac," and he continues to prove that he's an actor with rage and an undiminished sense of daring. And there's one scene in "Charlie Bartlett'' -- it involves whiskey and a gun -- that allows Downey to dance along a dangerous edge. It probably doesn't belong in this movie, but it reminds you of what Downey can do -- even in a mildly pleasing teen comedy that's not quite as inventive as it might have been.


John Sayles' last movie, the Denver-based "Silver City," was a disaster that left Sayles with nowhere to go but up. And up he goes in "Honeydripper," a movie set in segregated Alabama during the 1950s.

The story takes place at the time when the blues were giving way to rock 'n' roll, and juke boxes were pushing live music onto the unemployment line. Sayles' builds the story around Tyrone Purvis (Danny Glover), a piano player who's trying to maintain control of the Honeydripper, a ramshackle nightclub. Purvis' pal Maceo (Charles Dutton) offers support.

To save his club, Purvis arranges for a legendary guitarist -- Guitar Sam -- to play a one-night gig at the club. When a wandering young guitarist (Gary Clark Jr.) shows up, it's a sure bet that he, too, will play a role in saving the club. The movie's punches are slow in arriving, but they're all pretty much telegraphed.

My major complaint about "Honeydripper" has to do with the way Sayles extends scenes and sequences. I kept thinking that the movie's pacing -- languid to dull -- needed a swift kick in the pants, but "Honeydripper's" a step in the right direction for Sayles, whose commitment to capturing the many flavors of American life remains both praiseworthy and unmatched.

Rampant creativity in "Be Kind Rewind"

Summary: Michel Gondry ("The Science of Sleep") wants to rescue the playfulness of movies from megabuck seriousness by upholding the idea that good-spirited silliness is worth defending. "Be Kind Rewind" travels a bumpy road, but it allows Gondry to reach his destination.

There's much about Gondry's "Be Kind Rewind" that doesn't compute. In an era of the DVD, the story takes place in a store that specializes in videos that rent for $1 per day. Moreover, a movie that wants to champion naivete and insouciance takes place in the dilapidated recesses of Passaic, New Jersey. If none of that was enough, "Be Kind" features some of the most enjoyably lame movie parodies we've seen in some time. Bolstered by Gondry's commitment to hand-made creativity, these mini-movies shriek against the special-effects driven world of Hollywood where action and comedy are kings and where whimsy tends to be trampled under the heavy, "RoboCop" feet.

"Be Kind" takes place mostly in a video shop owned by a tired but good-hearted businessman (Danny Glover). The town wants to condemn the property and drive the Be Kind Rewind Video and Thrift Shop into the projects. The situation becomes worse when two bumblers intervene. The no-account Jerry (Jack Black) manages to erase every tape in the store, much to the dismay of Mike (Mos Def), who actually works in the store.

Using an antiquated video camera, the young men decide to make their own versions of the store's stock. They call the process "sweding," and set out to imitate "Ghostbusters," "Rush Hour 2," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Boyz N The Hood," and (most hilariously) "The Lion King."

Because "Be Kind" involves unabashed fantasy, the movie asks us to believe that these bizarre, little videos become a popular phenomenon with the residents of Passaic. Gondry's approach harkens back to an older era of Hollywood formula when eager kids put on plays in barns to save beloved community institutions.

In their drive to accumulate enough profits to keep the video store afloat, Black and Def are joined by a vibrant Melanie Diaz, who assists in the moviemaking process. Mia Farrow signs on as a dippy neighborhood woman, and Sigourney Weaver shows up to look imperious as a copyright attorney who threatens to slow the amateur filmmakers' roll.

"Be Kind Rewind" is not a movie that everyone will enjoy, and it's not even a perfect example of the kind of happy fable that Gondry has tried to make. Black, for example, can seem miscast and overly manic; he's working way too hard even for someone who's playing a whack-job character, and Def's one-note performance could have used some variation.

But I found something appealing in the movie's mixture of preposterous artifice and community solidarity. It made me smile.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Sweet and sour big-screen Valentines

Had "Definitely, Maybe" been released a couple of years ago, it would have been greeted as a better-than-average romantic comedy built around the slightly bizarre notion that a soon-to-be-divorced father (Ryan Reynolds) would tell his 10-year-old daughter (Abigail Breslin) an unusual bedtime story, one that detailed the ups and downs of his pre-marital relationships.

But the movie arrives just when Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama are locked in bruising combat for the Democratic presidential nomination. "So what?" you ask. So this. As the story develops, Reynolds reveals that his idealistic devotion to the candidacy of William Jefferson Clinton ended in disillusionment. Just what Hillary needed: a romantic comedy mired in the fizzled promise of the Clinton years.

Granted this is a somewhat incidental ingredient in a story about a man who introduces us to the three most important women in his life (Elizabeth Banks, Isla Fisher and Rachel Weisz), but wouldn't it be ironic if a romantic comedy wound up adding to Hillary's apparently mounting woes?

The movie? Well, Reynolds is bland, but the women aren't. Banks plays Reynolds' college sweetheart, a woman who may not be the dream girl that she initially seems. Weisz portrays a New York writer whose relationship with a professor (Kevin Kline) doesn't curtail her amorous activity, and Fisher appears as a worker in the Clinton campaign.

Breslin (familiar from "Little Miss Sunshine") doesn't have much to do. She's part of a framing device that's evidently designed to add intrigue to the proceedings. Reynolds' Will tells his daughter the story of how he hooked up with her mother, but doesn't say which of the women wound up being her mom. He changes all the names and encourages the girl to guess, which leads to the movie's sentimental conclusion.

Adam Brooks handles the directing chores competently, and it should be noted that the movie derives from the producing team of Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, who were responsible for "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," both of which seemed snappier and more energized.


And then, there's "Jumper." I'd been looking forward to this helping of sci-fi because of director Doug Liman ("The Bourne Identity" and "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"). But an under-explained premise -- genetic mutations allow a young man (Hayden Christensen) to teleport himself from one location to another -- an overly frenetic editing style and a skimpy story turn this one into a major disappointment.

As various young people, jump around the globe, someone must try to stop them or there's no movie. In what passes for a plot, Jumpers are tracked by Paladins who want to kill them. Why? Because Jumpers evidently aren't aware that all actions have consequences. It's as if they're putting one over on the cosmos, and the Paladins won't stand for it.

Samuel L. Jackson -- boasting a head of white helmet hair -- signs on as the chief Paladin. He chases Christensen's character and his girlfriend (Rachel Bilson) around the globe. Diane Lane plays the mother who abandoned Christensen's David when he was five; Michael Rooker portrays David's wayward father, and Jamie Bell appears as Griffin, another Jumper.

Say this, though; the production had a great travel budget with major segments shot in Rome, Tokyo and New York. You get to see the Rome's Colisseum and lots of Tokyo neon, but "Jumper" never feels full or rich enough; it's like watching a quarter of the movie.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Acting out in medieval Bruges

"In Bruges,'' which opened this year's Sundance Film Festival, finds first-time director Martin McDonagh biting off more than he comfortably can chew. But some amusing moments among the actors -- particularly Brendan Gleeson and Ralph Fiennes -- add a giddy tilt to a dark comedy about a couple of hit men who, quite improbably, wind up cooling their heels in the medieval Belgian town of Bruges.

I don't know why you keep going to movies, but one of the reasons I persist is that I occasionally run across something that tickles me out of a momentary funk. I had that kind of experience watching "In Bruges," particularly when Gleeson and Fiennes went toe-to-toe as a dour hit man and his exasperated boss. It's not always fatal to know you're watching a couple of actors at work -- and sometimes it even helps. That was the case for me with Gleeson -- down-to-earth, stolid and marinated in melancholy -- squared off against a mercurial Fiennes, as his unforgiving boss. When Fiennes goes at Gleeson, it's a bit like watching an angry wave attack a well-eroded shoreline.

The bulk of the story involves a trip to Bruges by Gleeson (sort of an elder statesman of hit men) and Colin Farrell (as a hit man suffering the burden of terrible guilt). Eager to avoid a nagging conscience, Farrell's Ken tries to have as good a time as possible in a town he considers a hopeless backwater; he strikes up a relationship with an intriguing young woman (Clemence Posey) and a dwarf (Jordan Prentice) who's in Bruges shooting a movie.

As is sometimes the case with first-time directors, McDonagh -- a playwright by trade -- strains to add quirkiness and edge. Moreover, the attempt to mix dark comedy, character study and gangster grit never quite coheres.

But Gleeson, Fiennes and Farrell are reason enough to give this one a look. Fine actors toying with one another remains a wondrous thing to behold, and to the extent that "In Bruges" affords us the opportunity, we should be grateful.


Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days & 30 Nights -- Hollywood to the Heartland. It might be the year's longest title; in fact, Vince Vaughn's new movie might be longer on title than on laughs, which is too bad. Vaughn took time out of his busy movie schedule to gather four comics and join them on the road for a 30-day marathon tour. The ensuing documentary mixes backstage footage, personal information and on-stage performances as the tour wends its way through the U.S. heartland. Vaughn offers on-stage help as he reels in guests including Jon Favreau and Justin Long. The four comedians -- Ahmed Ahmed, John Caparulo, Bret Ernst and Sebastian Masicalco -- alternately hit and miss with their routines. Each has an identifiable style, but it's difficult to tell whether any of them ever will crack the A-list. It's easier to say that the movie falls short of top-flight entertainment, offering sporadic laughs tempered by the usual anxieties of the road and by the fact that the tour eventually comes into contact with Hurricane Katrina and some of its victims.

Friday, February 1, 2008

The season of disposable movies

Summary: Time was critics reviewed every movie that opened in the markets they covered. Publications that employed several critics had an easier time of it, but even those with only one critic (most of the magazines and newspapers in the country) struggled to make sure that every new movie received some attention. Well, as a famous singer and social prophet once said, "the times they are a changin'.

In my experience, most critics welcome the opportunity to see and review everything. But the studios have learned that some movies are better left unseen by those who might insist on thinking and writing about them. The aim, one supposes, is to minimize negativity and maximize grosses on the all-important first weekend of a movie's release.

Case in point: Last weekend, "Meet the Spartans" became the country's No. 1 movie. It wasn't screened for critics. Those who eventually did get around to reviewing "Spartans" gave it a thorough drubbing. The movie scored an abysmal 10 out of 100 at, an aggregate review site.

This week the studios have chosen not to show "The Eye," a horror movie starring Jessica Alba as a blind concert violinist whose sight is restored, and (in most markets) "Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus; Best of Both Worlds Concert." I'm not especially eager to see either of these movies, although "The Eye" -- a remake of another slice of Hong Kong horror -- might be worth a look: It's part of an increasingly prevalent Hollywood trend: appropriating the creepy creativity of Asian horror.

Critics have little power to alter this non-screening trend, which coincides with a de-emphasis of movie coverage by many papers. As more and more movies resemble "disposable" products -- here one week, gone the next -- criticism begins to acquire a disposable quality, as well. So don't be surprised if "Hannah Montana'' -- a pre-teen magnate -- emerges as the weekend's box-office winner. Did I mention it's in 3-D?

The one movie that was screened this week: "Over Her Dead Body.'' Here's yet another movie that's notable mostly for its casting. Eva Longoria -- make that Eva Longoria Parker -- tries to find big-screen life as a woman who's killed on her wedding day when an ice sculpture falls on her. Her fiancee (Paul Rudd) goes into a tailspin until his sister (Lindsay Sloan) introduces him to a psychic (Lake Bell).

Writer/director Jeff Lowell, who has done most of his work on TV, produces a TV-like movie that's long on contrivance and short on laughs. Following the lead of many ghostly predecessors, Kate returns to make sure that Bell's character doesn't get her hooks into Rudd's character, who earns a comfortable living as a veterinarian. "Over Her Dead Body" plays with the kind of conceits that might have been fun in a Cary Grant/Katharine Hepburn screwball comedy of the 1930s, but the movie lacks the sophistication, wit and panache of its genre elders. Here, dumb slapstick looks mostly like...well...dumb slapstick.

Still, the releasing studio (New Line) should be applauded for not taking the easy way out. The movie was screened, and critics have had an opportunity to weigh in. Expect audiences to tune out.