EARTH STOOD STILL EARTH-SHAKING AT BOX OFFICE

The Day the Earth Stood Still did indeed turn out to be critic-proof, as many box-office analysts had predicted. After being pounded by reviewers on Friday, the movie went on to earn an estimated $31 million in ticket sales over the weekend. After holding on to the top spot for the previous two weekends, Four Christmases slipped to second place with $13.3 million. The romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn brought its three-week gross to $88 million. Another holiday comedy, Nothing Like the Holidays, which received a number of positive reviews, opened in seventh place with just $3.5 million. But the big draws were the little Academy Awards contenders playing in just a handful of theaters. They included Doubt ($525,030 in 15 theaters); Gran Torino ($284,000 in 6 theaters); The Reader ($170,000 in 8 theaters); and Che: ($60,100 in 2 theaters).

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Media by Numbers:

1. The Day the Earth Stood Still, $31 million; 2. Four Christmases, $13.3 million; 3. Twilight, $8 million; 4. Bolt, $7.5 million; 5. Australia, $4.3 million; 6. Quantum of Solace, $3.8 million; 7. Nothing Like the Holidays, $3.5 million; 8. Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, $3.3 million; 9. Milk, $2.6 million; 10. Transporter 3, $2.3 million.

MOVIE REVIEWS: DOUBT

"I know people who are absolutely certain what conclusion they should draw from this film. They disagree," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times about John Patrick Stanley's Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The same could be said about the critical reaction to the film itself, although many would agree with Ebert's conclusion: "Doubt has exact and merciless writing, powerful performances and timeless relevance. It causes us to start thinking with the first shot, and we never stop. Think how rare that is in a film." Contrast those words with those of Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily News who concludes that Shanley has not effectively converted his stage play to the screen. "Shanley clearly could not bring himself to excise some of his more theatrical, verbally overdecorated lines from the screenplay. These may have sounded good live but, filmed, they make for clunky moments that yank you right out of the picture," says Strauss. To be sure, even the film's naysayers find much to like about it. Rafer Guzmán in Newsday faults director Shanley for being "painfully literal," and concludes, "Given the incendiary subject and powerful cast, Doubt could have been explosive, but ends up merely solid." Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times also voices his doubts about Shanley's decision to "open up" his play -- which won four Tonys and a Pulitzer Prize -- for the screen version. In "changing it from a four-actor stage play to a film with multiple characters and numerous extras, Shanley seems to have lost a certain amount of faith in what he'd written," Turan says. There is even wide disagreement over Meryl Streep's performance as a nun who suspects a priest of pedophilia. Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post begins her review by applauding: "A great actress delivers a breathtaking star turn in Doubt" Lou Lumenick in the New York Post begins his by writing: "The marvelous Meryl Streep is frighteningly good." But Manohla Dargis seems ambivalent about her performance, writing in one sentence that Streep "blows in like a storm, shaking up the story's reverential solemnity," then, in the next. "The performance may make no sense in the context of the rest of the film..." and later: "Ms Streep appears to be in a Gothic horror thriller while everyone else looks and sounds closer to life..." And Wesley Morris in the Boston Globe faults Shanley for allowing Streep to "exhaust a range of ominous facial expressions. It's like watching a jack-o'-lantern pull out all the stops." He agrees that Streep is the "pièce de resistance" of the film, but he adds: "If only she resisted a little more."

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE READER

Stephen Daldry's The Reader was obviously intended as an Important Film, dealing as it does with the Germans' collective guilt over the Holocaust and coming as it does during Oscar-movie season. And virtually every critic treats it as such. An exception is the New York Post's Kyle Smith, who deftly lampoons the movie as if he had graduated magna cum laude from the Mel Brooks School of Mockery. "Think of it as Schindler's Lust," Smith writes, referring to the romance between a German teenager, Michael Berg, played by David Kross, and an older woman, Hanna Schmitz, played by Kate Winslet, who turns out to have been a death-camp guard during World War II. "Those who have daydreamed (and who hasn't?) of a nude Kate Winslet barking, 'You don't matter enough to upset me' or 'Read to me first, den ve make luff!' are in for a treat. But German accents can either be funny or terrifying, and this movie isn't terrifying," Smith remarks. The film raises numerous issues without engaging them, Smith suggests. Finally, he quotes one character, a Holocaust survivor played by Lena Olin who advises the middle-aged Michael, played by Ralph Fiennes, "Go to the theater ... if you want catharsis." Smith concludes: "I was sitting in a theater and I wanted it. It wasn't there." Several other critics make the same point, although less humorously. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times suggests that the scene between Fiennes and Olin, in which Olin lectures the Fiennes character about exploiting the Holocaust amounts to "an admonition that arrives too late for this fatuous film." She sums up by writing that while the photography, performances, and lighting are all first-rate, "You have to wonder who, exactly, wants or perhaps needs to see another movie about the Holocaust that embalms its horrors with artfully spilled tears and asks us to pity a death-camp guard. You could argue that the film isn't really about the Holocaust, but about the generation that grew up in its shadow. ... But the film is neither about the Holocaust nor about those Germans who grappled with its legacy: it's about making the audience feel good about a historical catastrophe that grows fainter with each new tasteful interpolation." Rafer Guzmán in Newsday agrees. "The attractive cast and lovely photography make a great-looking film, but underneath lies a tangle of unappealing ideas," he writes. Nevertheless, several critics appear to endorse its Oscar-worthiness -- even to the point of also endorsing its moral perspective. Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel praises the filmmakers for reaching "for something almost unique in Holocaust stories -- an understanding of the perpetrators, of degrees of guilt and the absolution that no person who lived through that era could possibly feel he or she deserves." And several critics who scorn the movie manage to heap praise on the performance of Kate Winslet. The Associated Press's Christy LeMire writes: "Winslet is in the nearly impossible position of trying to make us feel sympathy for a former Nazi concentration camp guard -- but, being an actress of great range and depth, she very nearly pulls off that feat completely." And the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern comments that Winslet "transcends , by far, the limits of her character's narrow soul."

MOVIE REVIEWS: FROST/NIXON

It's a movie with the stolid title Frost/Nixon, and it's about a series of interviews that aired in 90-minute segments in 1977 between British celebrity interviewer David Frost and the disgraced former President Richard Nixon. Sounds like stuff that PBS might have taken a pass on for Masterpiece Theater, right? Wrong, say most critics, who have bestowed nearly undiluted acclaim on it. "Neither the title nor the subject matter prepares you for the pure fun of Frost/Nixon," writes Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. "It's hard to imagine how a film built around one-on-one interviews could be entertaining, but Frost/Nixon could not be more enthralling" echoes Claudia Puig in USA Today. And Joe Morgenstern assures readers in The Wall Street Journal: "It's a movie in the fullest sense, entertaining and instructive in equal measure." And while Michael Sheen receives fine notices for his performance as Frost, Frank Langella receives passionate raves for his performance as NIxon. "The movie totally belongs to Langella, who captures Nixon's basso rumble and stooped shoulders perfectly - but also his piercing intelligence," says Lou Lumenick in the New York Post. "Something remarkable happens" towards the end of the film, writes Morgenstern in the WSJ. "Langella the actor starts to vanish, and he's replaced by the spectral presence of a once-omnipotent chief of state contemplating, in pitiless close-ups, the nature of his deeds and the depth of his fall." Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune predicts that Langella's performance "is destined for an Oscar nomination." And Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily News thinks he deserves to win. "Langella does the finest movie acting of the season," he concludes. And Kennicott in the Washington Post puts it more tersely: "As Nixon," he writes, "Frank Langella is perfection." Kenneth Turan thinks that director Ron Howard, who was playing Richie Cunningham on Happy Days when the actual interviews aired, should not be overlooked when accolades are inevitably handed out. "Frost/Nixon," he sums up, "wouldn't have succeeded as well as it does without his experience, his professionalism and his skills."