400 Screens, 400 Blows is a weekly column that takes an in-depth look at the films playing below the radar, beneath the top ten, and on 400 screens or less.

Not long ago, newspapers began showing signs of trouble, which included the laying off of film critics. At around the same time, and probably not connected in any way, studios began increasingly to open movies in theaters without screening for the press, realizing that stupid Tyler Perry movies, or horror remakes, or what have you, would probably make money regardless of what the reviews said. These combined factors led to a series of editorials asking about the necessity of film critics. Thankfully, that discussion has died down, and we're still here. And I can add that I don't think The Dark Knight (375 screens) would have done such monster business without the enthusiastic approval of nearly every critic on the planet.

But what needs to be discussed now is the necessity of directors. If film criticism was viewed yesterday as a job that anyone could do (no knowledge of film or film history necessary!) then film directing today is viewed in much the same way. Take a look at the colossal mess that is Mamma Mia! (279 screens). Here's a film that cost $50 million, and it was entrusted to Phyllida Lloyd, who had no experience. From the looks of things, Lloyd probably decided that, as long as it looks like everyone is having fun, then it doesn't matter if things like tone, moods and pacing ever matches up. You can have self-conscious musical numbers one moment, then moody, emotional ones the next. You can have a knockout performance by Meryl Streep and a mixed one by Pierce Brosnan.




Then we have Diane English, a director with only TV experience, handed a project like The Women, which cost $16 million. She also held the future of a career as big as Meg Ryan's in her hands. And she bungled it. She turned in a remake that swapped bitchy wit for a cuddly, weepy sitcom. Nothing worked; Annette Bening played a fashion magazine editor who tried to improve sales by marketing at smart people! (Success rarely, if ever, comes by appealing to smart people.) And taking over the Joan Crawford role, Eva Mendes nailed the "sexy" part, but completely failed to make a credible, scenery-chewing villain.

Paul W.S. Anderson has made half-a-dozen movies, but when they're all bad as his new one Death Race (142 screens), why does he get to keep working? In any other business, if someone bungled their job this regularly and this completely, wouldn't he be collecting unemployment, laying on the couch and watching "Oprah"? It's true that there are a lot of camera-shakers in the business right now, but Anderson's so-called action scenes consist of mushy, jerky footage that someone like Martin Scorsese would leave on the cutting room floor in disgust.

Which brings me back to Christopher Nolan, who is genuinely qualified to make movies. Why? Because he started by making short films and low-budget features that concentrated on ideas and using the form to enhance those ideas. Just check out Nolan's debut feature, Following (1998), made for the ludicrous sum of $6000 (the price of breakfast on Mamma Mia!). It's an exemplary film, a crackerjack crime story that blows away most of what passes for expensive Hollywood fare right now. That's how Nolan earned the right to make The Dark Knight, and that's how he developed the instinct and skill to pull it off. Nolan rises to the top of today's heap, and the others should be weeded out.