News Corp. President and COO Peter Chernin says that he and other top media executives "worked hard to find a middle ground" in their negotiations with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the Directors Guild of America (DGA), the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes (sic) (IATSE) "and we are not going to throw that out to do a deal with" the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In an interview with TV Week Chernin said things are going "horribly" between SAG and the producers. Referring to a possible strike authorization vote that the union says it intends to put before its members, Chernin said, "This is a bad time to go out on strike. Obviously, I have a bias here, but a strike would be devastating to the creative community." SAG leaders have not responded to his comments. Meanwhile, LA. Weeklycolumnist Nikki Finke reported on her blog Thursday that the WGA has reached an agreement with Tyler Perry Studios under which his House of Payneand The Brownsseries will be covered under a WGA contract and four writers who were fired from the productions will be rehired.


Box office analysts are suggesting that the punctuation mark in the title of Oliver Stone's George Bush biopic W. ought to be a question mark instead of a period. Daily Varietycommented today (Friday): "Opinions are divided as to how W. ... will play. One school of thought says curiosity alone will fill theater seats, while the other questions whether people want to see a film about an unpopular president in his waning days." L.A. Timesbox-office predictor Josh Friedman is among the latter, saying that the movie "could face apathy from a public that has just watched eight years of the real thing." He then added, "A glimmer of hope is that Bush has been, you know, 'misunderestimated' before." The Hollywood Reporter indicated that the film could benefit from "broad audience anticipation for the release just weeks before the presidential election." The film has received mostly positive reviews. Most analysts believe that the film to beat this weekend will be the video-game-based Max Payne, which has received mostly negative reviews. The film is expected to gross between $18 million and $21 million. Two other newcomers, Sex Drive and The Secret Life of Bees, are expected to finish in the bottom half of the top ten.


A.O. Scott of the New York Times is one of several critics who can't figure out what Max Payne, starring Mark Wahlberg,is supposed to be all about. But no matter. "A coherent story would be a lot to ask, and would in any case slow down the movie's rhythm," he writes. Likewise Claudia Puig comments in USA Today: "About the only thing it has going for it is the stylized production design and a few cool special effects, but the story couldn't be more inane nor the characters less credible." In the New York Post, Kyle Smith sums up: "Max Paynehas three words on its mind: blam, blam and blam." Sam Adams in the Los Angeles Times is among those who suggest that video games rarely make good cinema launch pads. "Turning video games into movies may be one way for studios to coax teenagers away from their laptops," he observes, "but this time around, the results are miserable, in every sense of the word." And Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune latches onto the obvious pun: "Max Payne," he writes, "offers max pain."


Somewhat surprisingly W. has turned out to be director Oliver Stone's best-reviewed film in ages. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Timesawards it four stars and calls it "fascinating." And he suggests that unlike other Stone biographies, this one about President Bush, contains "not a line of dialogue that sounds like malicious fiction. It's all pretty much as published accounts have prepared us for." However, Manohla Dargis in the New York Timesreminds her readers that the movie is, after all, "a work of imagination," and she adds: "It says nothing new or insightful about the president, his triumphs and calamities. (As if anyone goes to an Oliver Stone movie for a reality check.) But it does something most journalism and even documentaries can't or won't do: it reminds us what a long, strange trip it's been to the Bush White House." Josh Brolin's portrayal of the president receives nearly universal praise. Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journalwrites, "Mr. Brolin's performance is hugely enjoyable." Claudia Puig in USA Today comments that Brolin "gives a strong and credible impersonation of George W. and brings the man to life." Lou Lumenick in the New York Postsays, "Josh Brolin is superb." And Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily Newscalls Brolin's performance "nuanced yet piercing." But Bob Strauss in the Los Angeles Daily News suggests that Stone may have leaned over backwards to provide a "balanced" look at the president. He writes: "Buying the administration's story that Bush really did believe Saddam had WMDs until well after the Iraq invasion is one thing; making a Bush movie that doesn't dramatize 9/11 nor mention the historic 2000 election controversy is negligent at best - and craven if it was left out in hopes of dodging partisan criticism." And Ann Hornaday in the Washington Postsuggests that the title could have stood for "Why?" As she puts it: "Why this movie -- a rushed, wildly uneven, tonally jumbled caricature -- and why now? Why, when Americans and citizens around the globe are still coming to terms with the implications of so many Bush policies, would they want to pay money at the box office to see what amounts to an extended Saturday Night Liveskit?"


In reviewing The Secret Life of Bees, starring Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson and Queen Latifah, Roger Ebert indicates that the standards by which films are ordinarily judged can sometimes be set aside. He writes: "If I sense the beginnings of a teardrop in my eye during a movie, that is evidence more tangible than all the mighty weight of Film Theory. "The immediate experience," one of the wisest of critics called it. That's what you have to acknowledge. I watched the movie, abandoned history and plausibility, and just plain fell for it." But several other critics are not willing to so distance themselves. "The film insists so strenuously on its themes of redemption, tolerance, love and healing that it winds up defeating itself," writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. And Rick Groen in the Toronto Globe and Mailconcludes: "If you like your sentimentality sweet and sticky, then The Secret Life of Bees is definitely your jar of honey."


Summaries of reviews of additional new movies will appear here on Monday.