SAG VOTE -- WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

In a surprise -- and somewhat confusing -- result, members of a dissident group of the Screen Actors Guild won a bare majority of the 11 seats up for reelection on the union's national board. Members of the Unite for Strength faction took five board seats and Membership First candidates also took five; an independent candidate, Morgan Fairchild, who has been critical of the Membership First leadership and was endorsed by Unite for Strength, also was elected to the board. Nevertheless, the election did not appear to represent any overwhelming mandate for a settlement of the current labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The Unite for Strength group had championed a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists but had refrained from criticizing the demands of the union negotiators. And while clearly some SAG members voted for UFS candidates because they believed the current stalemate was costing actors more than they could ever hope to gain from the union's demands for new media productions, others apparently split their votes between UFS and MF candidates. The vote did appear to suggest, however, that SAG's leadership would be unable to secure a strike authorization from the required 75 percent of the membership, leaving it with little leverage in talks with the AMPTP and raising the possibility of a stalemate that could extend into next year.

SPIELBERG, JACKSON CAN'T GET BUDGET OK FOR TINTIN

With studios finding it especially difficult during the current financial storm to find funding for their pictures, Universal Pictures has rejected a film submitted to it by Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, the Los Angeles Times reported today (Friday). The final budget for their 3-D animated Tintin had come in at $130 million. In reporting the studio's decision, the Times commented, "Universal's refusal to finance Tintin underscores how in today's tough economic climate, bottom-line concerns trump once-inviolable relationships between studios and talent. Until now, however, filmmakers of Spielberg's and Jackson's stature were thought to be immune to the brass-knuckles tactics of the studios. Squeezed by a business trapped between rising costs and leveling revenues, the two filmmakers are Hollywood's latest -- and most prominent -- victims of cost containment." The newspaper also observed that Universal's decision places Spielberg in a position of "embarrassment" as he prepares to end his relationship with Paramount. Many had supposed that Universal, where he maintains his offices, would become the distributor for Spielberg's DreamWorks productions. Now, it is supposed, he will presumably have to go "hat in hand" (as the Times put it) to Paramount in hopes of getting the Tintin film made.

FOUR NEW FILMS NOT LIKELY TO SHINE

Four new films, Ghost Town, Igor, Lakeview Terrace, and My Best Friend's Girl, enter an already crowded box office this weekend, The latter two films are the only ones expected to make much of a splash. (My Best Friend's Girl, starring Kate Hudson, Dane Cook, and Jason Biggs, was not screened for critics.) Lakeview Terrace is expected to top the box office with about $11-14 million.

MOVIE REVIEWS: LAKEVIEW TERRACE

Neil LaBute's Lakeview Terrace, in which a black cop played by Samuel L. Jackson, terrorizes an interracial couple (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) who become his neighbors, is already sparking controversy -- among the critics. In his Chicago Sun-Times review, Roger Ebert predicts: "Some will find it exciting. Some will find it an opportunity for an examination of conscience. Some will leave feeling vaguely uneasy. Some won't like it and will be absolutely sure why they don't, but their reasons will not agree. Some will hate elements that others can't even see. Some will only see a thriller. I find movies like this alive and provoking, and I'm exhilarated to have my thinking challenged at every step of the way." On the other hand, Claudia Puig writes in USA Today: "While the story might spur discussion on an important subject, the film ends up following a formulaic route. As social commentary, it doesn't go deeply enough, and as a psychological thriller, it peters out in silliness." Likewise critics are divided over the performance of the movie's star, Jackson. In the Austin American Statesman critic Chris Garcia praises it, saying that Jackson's "roiling, rhythmic voice is an instrument of interrogation and intimidation. It barks, recoils, then rears up and roars. He has a rapper's control of tone and timbre, turning passion and ire into a kind of sociopathic backbeat." But A.O. Scott concludes in the New York Times: "Mr. Jackson's glowering, bellowing performance is so close to self-parody that I had to check the end credits to make sure I hadn't been watching Dave Chappelle doing an extended version of his Comedy Central impersonation."

MOVIE REVIEWS: GHOST TOWN

Ricky Gervais, who gained fame in the U.K. as the star of the original The Office, makes his starring film debut in Ghost Town. While U.S. TV executives concluded that it would be better to have an actor with an American accent play the lead character of the sitcom here, Gervais's British accent doesn't appear to be a drawback in this film. John Anderson in Newsday writes that his performance in the movie instantly establishes Gervais "among the funniest men in film." Kyle Smith in the New York Post calls him "lethally funny." Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News says that he is "unfailingly brilliant." A. O. Scott in the New York Times observes that Gervais brings to his role some of the same "comic tics" that he displayed on The Office: "a stammering befuddlement that is simultaneously verbose and nonsensical; sickly smiles and joyless laughs in which his mirth curdles with self-doubt; a tongue-tied staccato; and his special mixture of clueless grandiosity, insensitivity and stifled humiliation." As for the film itself, Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post concludes: "There's a special place in heaven reserved for that all-too-rare cinematic occurrence: the Really Good Movie. And Ghost Town, a by-turns hilarious and affecting romantic comedy starring Ricky Gervais, is headed straight for it."

NOTE:

A summary of reviews for Igor and My Best Friend's Wedding will appear here on Monday.

Brian B.