i>SAW TO CONQUER

There'll be something for just about everybody at the box office this weekend. For sheer mindless entertainment as Halloween approaches, there's the horror film, Saw III, which is expected easily to sell the most tickets (but which was not screened for critics). For those who enjoy film as art, there's the highly praised and award-winning drama Babel, from director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. There are also several controversial smaller films, including Death of a President, Catch a Fire, Shut Up and Sing, and Running with Scissors.

MOVIE REVIEWS: BABEL

Few films have provoked such intellectual scrutiny as Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel, starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett. Consider A.O. Scott's comments in the New York Times: "The individual scenes are sometimes so powerful, and put together with such care and conviction, that you might leave the theater feeling dazed, even traumatized. Babel is certainly an experience. But is it a meaningful experience? That the film possesses unusual aesthetic force strikes me as undeniable, but its power does not seem to be tethered to any coherent idea or narrative logic. You can feel it without ever quite believing it." Now, consider Carina Chocano's comments in the Los Angeles Times: "Clearly, González Iñárritu knows his Weltschmerz, and he burrows deep into the existential loneliness of each character to create a kaleidoscope of cumulative human sadness and grief over the state of the world. With uncommon empathy and insight, he elicits moving performances from all the actors." Virtually all of the critics agree that Babel is one of the best films of the year. Rex Reed in the New York Observer goes further. Calling it a "masterpiece," he writes: "We still have two months to go, but at this point, in my opinion, I consider Babel the best film of 2006."

MOVIE REVIEWS: DEATH OF A PRESIDENT

Writing about Death of a President, critics are compelled to focus their attention on a scene in the film in which an actor, playing the role of the president of the United States, is assassinated in Chicago in 2007. The actor's face has been digitally replaced by George W. Bush's. "As a medium-left liberal with a fierce belief in free speech and artistic expression, I'm proud to live in a country where the government can't prevent the release of a fictional film depicting the assassination of the real-life president," Richard Roeper writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. "That said, I find the idea repugnant and morally objectionable." But his cross-town colleague, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune begins his review with the words, "It is not irresponsible." Lisa Kennedy in the Denver Post calls the controversial scene "a crude stunt." Carrie Rickey in the Philadelphia Inquirer expresses ambivalence about it. "Sure, movies are protected speech. But is this exploration or exploitation?" she asks. However, if the actual face of the actor were shown, she concedes, the film might not have "scored the same points." Indeed, Kyle Smith writes in the New York Post, "If this movie were about the murder of a fictional president, it wouldn't even earn a theatrical release." On the other hand, Gene Seymour in Newsday calls the controversial scene "more a crafty technical exercise than an incendiary device." Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun, who describes the film as "excitingly well-made," also defends it as "a responsible piece of political fiction." And Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times writes, "Somewhere within this smoldering heap of controversy is a technically inventive, thoughtful, but otherwise not particularly earth-shattering movie."

DOWNLOADING MOVIES A FLOP, SAYS MAGAZINE

PC World magazine has tested all of the major movie-download services and has found each of them wanting. "Some downloadable films are more expensive than their DVD counterparts and offer fewer features," the magazine says in its online edition. "Downloading the movies can be tiresome. And watching films on something other than your PC or portable device can be a pain." The magazine observed that Apple's iTunes Music Store provided the "slickest" service but pointed out that it currently offers only about 100 feature-length films -- all of them from Disney -- and that many of them don't come with the "extras" that are featured on DVDs. The magazine concluded: "For now, downloadable movies are like popcorn without any butter or salt -- tolerable, but hardly tempting."

DVD SALES SOARING

After enduring one of its worst slumps -- the aftereffect of last year's box-office downturn -- the DVD business is expected to set a new record for October, according to Home Media Retailing magazine. The trade publication observed that the 16 theatrical films released this month together earned $1.1 billion at the box office, including 20th Century Fox's X-Men: The Last Stand, which alone accounted for nearly 25 percent of that amount. Five million copies of the DVD version were sold during its first week in stores. Other strong performers were The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, The Little Mermaid Platinum Edition, Click, and Over the Hedge. In an interview with HMR, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment president Mike Dunn observed, "The summer box office was up 7 percent this year, which is translating into a strong fourth quarter for home entertainment."

NOKIA'S "MISSION" -- TO SELL CAMCORDER BY GIVING AWAY MOVIE

In a deal with Paramount, Finland-based Nokia will sell its new Nokia N93 camcorder/video player complete with a memory card holding the full-length version of Mission: Impossible III, the company said Thursday. The device, which sports a 2.4" color screen, is due to be offered first in Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey and the U.K. "Once you have watched the movie," a company news release said, "you can store it on your PC and enjoy the 512MB of storage for shooting pictures and video." (Curiously, the release also states, "Please note that the movie cannot be played on the PC nor can it be copied to another memory card.")

Brian B.