Either “Avatar” takes the weekend box office, or we’re all in big trouble

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in

Variety has gone behind a pay wall. Jolly Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter is either taking a night off or filing later. Still, this is one week when, if I may paraphrase Bob Dylan, I don’t need a weatherman to tell me which way the wind’s blowing. As a science-fiction adventure sure-to-be blockbuster, James Cameron‘s “Avatar” has pretty much everything going for: huge ballyhoo, much of its centered on its groundbreaking use on “performance capture” (not mere motion capture) and what everyone seems to be describing as a new and more immersive 3-D, strong advance sales (skewing male as of right now), and solid reviews.  Sure, it’s actors aren’t precisely A-listers, but we all know what good stars are these days. I’m sure people will eventually remember that Sam  Worthington, Zoe Saldana, and Sigourney Weaver were in there some place.

The latest from James Cameron at this point has racked up an 82% “fresh” on the Tomatometer and a whopping 96% from the usually harder to please “top critics,” with only Village Voice‘s exacting J. Hoberman submitting a mildly negative review that is actually about as positive as a bad review can be.

Our own Jamey Codding is positive, but not quite ecstatic. Ken Turan, a critic I respect but often disagree with for his rather schoolmarmish tastes — don’t get him started on Tarantino — waxes poetic and compares the technical breakthroughs to “The Jazz Singer.” I personally hope that isn’t quite the case. 3-D is cool as an occasional treat, but I just don’t see how it’s necessary for every movie. Of course, there were people who said that about sound movies too, but don’t laugh too much because there are still people who thought they were right! (Not me. Being a word guy, I like talkies. My fogeyosity has limits) In any case, Roger Ebert might be summing things up nicely when he writes:

There is still at least one man in Hollywood who knows how to spend $250 million, or was it $300 million, wisely.

Sam Worthington in So, we know that “Avatar” will, baring apocalypse or a mass, blindness-inducing plague, win the weekend. The real question is, by how much? Well, considering it’s opening in 3,453 theaters and probably taking up nearly every higher priced regular size and Imax 3-D screen in the country, I’d say the sky is the limit for the moment. Beyond that, I really don’t have the kind of information to make these kind of assertions, but fortunately there is Daniel Frankel of The Wrap who says that the gurus have agreed the Fox film will do over $60 million at least and possibly as much as $90 or $100 million.

As for the long term prospects over the coming weeks and months for “Avatar,” as far as I can tell there’s now reason to expect anything but some large degree of success. The good reviews, I think, bode well for far stronger than average word-of-mouth for an effects-laden blockbuster. Indeed, as word gets out of the film’s love story, more females will likely want to check this one out. Of course, as with Cameron’s extremely female-friendly “Titanic,” a backlash of some sort is inevitable.  “Titanic” is probably the most hated widely beloved movie ever made, though that sure didn’t hurt its commercial or Oscar prospects. I sort of suspect that won’t be the case here, but given the “Dances with Wolves”-style story and scenes that are being seen as referencing the more venal lowlights of the Bush Administration, some blowback and/or beneficial controversy from Sarah Palin’s idea of “real America” may be in the cards.

Still, this is the movies and spectacle always trumps ideology. According to Frankel, the really good news for James Cameron and company is that they have most of the nation’s 3-D screens to themselves until March. He’s a got a huge budget to recoup, but something tells me things will be just fine for Cameron.

Observers are bearish on There is another wide release this weekend and, with its appeal to adult women, “Did You Hear About the Morgans?” should theoreticaly have some counter-programming hopes for Sony and Relativity Media. However, I have a theory that movies with complete sentences for titles almost never do very well. In fact, things don’t appear to be too rosy for this marital comedy in which Hugh Grant and Sarah Jessica Parker are an unhappy married couple whose marriage is given a new lease on life when they wind up in witness protection. Forecasters are not bullish and the film is expected, as per Daniel Frankel, to make only about $8 million. The problem appears to be that people don’t think it’s funny. My PH colleague Jason Zingale certainly doesn’t seem to have found much to laugh about.

Perhaps aided by ever-lowering standards for rom-coms, the last film that teamed Hugh Grant and writer-director Marc Lawrence, the just kond of okay “Music and Lyrics,” did surprisingly well with RT’s “Cream of the Crop” critics especially. “The Morgans” however, have  so far generated a pretty lousy Rotten Tomatoes rating of 11%. Michael Phillips of “At the Movies” and the Chicago Tribune has my favorite RT pull quote of the week:

It’s not just the sound of crickets you hear watching this movie. It’s the sound of dead crickets.

I guess that’s like the sound of one hand, not clapping.

“Morgans” appeals to an older audience that, while not likely directly swayed by reviews, is a bit more discriminating with their movie going dollar. Let’s just say that, things are looking very, very good right now for “The Princess and the Frog” to hit the #2 spot this week.

There’s some Oscar activity — to widely varying degrees — in limited release. “Precious,” “Up in the Air,” “The Road,” and “Me and Orson Welles” are expanding to 1003, 396, 175, and 134 screens respectively.  The first two films’ Oscar hopes at this point seem a lot stronger than the latter’s. Rob Marshall’s highly touted Fellini-via-Broadway musical adaptation, “Nine” will show up in three theaters while the country music drama “Crazy Heart” with Jeff Bridges — definitely the man to beat this year so far for the Best Actor Oscar — will play in four houses. And, for aging romantics and the fogeyish-in-heart comes a historical romantic costume drama,  “The Young Victoria,” opening in 44 theaters. Oscar hopes are pinned on the lovely Emily Blunt in the title role.

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