An “Avatar” five-peat for MLK weekend?

With “Avatar” holding remarkably well last weekend to the tune of over $50 million, there’s every reason to expect another very strong performance over the coming Martin Luther King Day holiday. Still, along with the holiday, this is also the first weekend since Christmas where James Cameron‘s science-fiction adventure is facing some new decent genre competition.

That comes via “The Book of Eli,” another “Mad Max”-esque post-apocalyptic neo-western, this time starring Denzel Washington and featuring a bit of a religious element. The Warner Brothers film is getting mixed reviews and only rated 45% on the Tomatometer. Beneath the surface, however, I’m sensing that the film actually provides a bit of fun and while star power hasn’t been good for much lately at the box office, my hunch is the combination of a tried-and-true action-flick premise and this particular star is just strong enough to be reasonably potent here.

Denzel Washington in Directed by the Hughes Brothers who, rather unbelievably, haven’t released a theatrical film since 2001’s  fairly decent “From Hell” disappointed at the box office, “Eli” is expected to earn about $30-40 million. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a very close result. Jolly Carl DiOrio nevertheless fully expects an “Avatar” victory and reminds us that it would be the first five-time #1 streak since “The Sixth Sense” wowed audiences back in 1999.

The week’s other major new release is “The Spy Next Door,” a family-oriented Jackie Chan vehicle from Lionsgate that has managed the neat trick of getting eactly 0% of critics to give it a positive review at Rotten Tomatoes. Still, if parents will fork over beaucoup bucks for a certain singing group from the genus rodentia, it’s just possible they’ll take one for the family team by sitting through this possible kiddie-pleaser as well. Jolly Carl is talking about as much as $20 million for “Spy,” presumably partly because of the family appeal of costars George Lopez and Billy Ray Cyrus. As an admirer of Chan’s great Hong Kong work, I have to say that I’m sorry he feels he has to has to work with the guy who brought us “Beethoven.”

That’s it for major new releases, but Peter Jackson’s movie version of Alice Siebold’s “The Lovely Bones,” is finally going wide this week. According to Box Office Mojo, it’ll be expanding from 13 theaters into 2,563, about 500-800 fewer than the major releases I’ve discussed so far. Considering the lackluster reviews and only so-so awards showing for this theoretical piece of awards-bait so far, I wouldn’t expect anything too huge here this weekend   — though apparently younger females have been liking the film, or at least that’s who the film is being marketed to these days. In any case, a surprise Golden Globe or two at Sunday night’s show wouldn’t hurt it’s MLK day Monday. It could use a miracle or two.

Saoirse Ronan in

  

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“The Reign of the Na’vi IV”

The humans of Yes, if this weekend at the box office were a movie, it would be a less than super-imaginative sequel. Once again, “Avatar” ruled at the U.S. box office. As seen on the mighty weekly chart of Box Office Mojo, James Cameron‘s mythic, politically pointed, science fiction adventure once again took the crown with an estimated $48.5 million for Fox. That’s a drop of only 29.2% in its fourth box office weekend, following a huge and long prior holiday weekend. No doubt helped out by those premium 3-D and Imax ticket prices, it also enjoyed the nation’s highest per screen average at about $14,173. In the relatively short time I’ve been doing this, I don’t think I’ve ever seen that happen on a movie’s fourth week.

As reckoned by the Mojo, “Avatar” is the now the #1 domestic moneymaker for 2009 and the #7 cinematic cash cow of all time, with a very definite bullet considering its signs of considerable ongoing strength. In others words, this is a movie people actually enjoy, not merely tolerate because it offers enough explosions to distract them for a couple of hours.

On the other hand, just to keep things in perspective, adjusted for inflation, “Avatar” is still a 56 steps down from the all-time ticket seller, “Gone With the Wind.” On the other hand, lest James Cameron should be threatened by any momentary bouts of untoward humility, at least in terms of raw cash he really is box office king of the world right now. “Avatar” is already the #2 grosser of all time at $1.331 billion, $500 million and change behind “Titanic” — written and directed by you-know-who. Can I still wish Cameron had brought in a competent wordsmith/dramaturg to smooth out the very rough edges on both films?

As for the second and third place positions, we had another photo-finish in which Warner’s “Sherlock Holmes” narrowly edged out Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” by a rodent hair. The world’s greatest literary detective brought in just a hair more than an estimated $16.6 million and the musically inclined woodland creatures managed an estimated $16.3 million. With the holiday weekends at an end, they both exhibited more typical drops for typical Hollywood product, with “Holmes” dropping by 54.6% and “Chipmunks” by 53.7%.

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A Na’vi, some singing rodents, and Sherlock Holmes walk into a movie theater…

…And never leave.

Well, that’s the scenario provided by jolly Carl DiOrio, the only box office prognosticator I have access to now that Variety has gone behind that pay wall. I certainly have little reason to doubt that Fox’s “Avatar” will experience a fourth weekend atop the box office pile, considering how the film has most definitely emerged as one of those rare demographic-spanning productions that becomes a self-perpetuating “must see” phenomenon. It’s already the tenth biggest domestic money-maker of all time at $380 million+ and I’m almost afraid to check the international numbers.

The last movie like this was “The Dark Knight,” which also ruled the roost four weekends running, but sometime tells me that the appeal of James Cameron’s movie might actually be wider over the long run in terms of attracting an older and less gender-specific audience. I could be easily be wrong about that but, considering how excellently the film has been holding up to now, even a relatively precipitous post-holiday drop still seems to promise another very hefty payday for Cameron’s epic spectacular.

Family appeal should never be underestimated at the movies. However, I have to admit that I’m a bit stymied by the degree of success of Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel.” It’s just that I can’t imagine adults wanting to see it. Still, the movie came in third in a photofinish with Warners’ “Sherlock Holmes” last week (both made $35-36 million), and both movies apparently seem set for a similar repeat. Personally, though I wouldn’t be surprised if either film experienced a bigger than expected post-holiday drop. I found the opening hour of “Holmes” pretty dull stuff, despite a lot of running around and mucking about and it’s not like moviegoers don’t have some interesting options this weekend.

Indeed, unusually for the first post-holiday weekend of the New Year, we have two rather solid-looking entertainments on tap. Hopes are reasonably high for “Daybreakers,” to be a strong #4 for Lionsgate. It appears to be a clever, horror/sci-fi/action/satiric variation on an old Monty Python sketch, in which a world dominated by vampires  must deal with dwindling supply of delectably sanguinary humans. It’s an intriguing enough conceit to draw my attention despite the film probably having too much gore for my taste and having almost certainly way too much of leaden star Ethan Hawke for my preference. Still, a second billed Willem Dafoe can go a long way toward fixing that and critics are reasonably, though not ridiculously, positive, as in type O. Top critics are a leaning a hair negative, also as in type O, though it definitely has its fans.

Finally, there’s something about “Youth in Revolt” which, despite the fact that most people, including most critics, seems to like it well enough, makes people somewhat downplay its commercial possiblities — despite being part of the ever-popular genre once dubbed by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel as “the horny teenager movie.” The plot is also a variation on Woody Allen’s “Play It Again, Sam” (a horny adult movie and stage play), which certainly worked well in its day and has more than little appeal to the nerd within all of us. Certainly, director Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl,” “Chuck and Buck”) has a low key comic style that may not spell blockbuster though being based on a popular series of novels won’t hurt, I suppose.

Another side of Cera In any case, I don’t think we’ve seen the end of Michael Cera‘s box office appeal even if he’s inevitably been the subject of something of a backlash from those who argue he’s a one-comic-trick pony, though playing a dual role as his dangerously roguish alter ego might help there. Also, Cera’s memorably named costar, Portia Doubleday, is generating her own interest. That can’t hurt. The Weinstein Company could certainly use a bit of commercial help, right now. DiOrio is calling for the film to just break double-digits, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a surprise, especially given the lack of youth-friendly films and actually funny comedies right now.

  

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“Avatar” tops a weekend of holiday box office bounty

If you’ve been following the horse-race over at Nikki Finke’s place, you’ll know it’s been a very long holiday weekend of box office ups and down. However, for those of us who can wait a day or two for the results, it’s actually somewhat simple.

Avatar movie image (3)

James Cameron‘s super-expensive 3-D extravaganza for Fox, “Avatar,” emerged as the victor of a three-way battle for the top prize with an outstanding second-weekend estimated take of $75 million and an absolutely minuscule drop from it’s first weekend of 2.6%, according to Box-Office Mojo. The Hollywood conventional wisdom has it that most science fiction films drop by at least 50% on their second weekend. Clearly, this is not most science fiction films and the fact that people are waiting to see this one in 3D and paying extra for the privilege is not hurting. So, as I’ve alluded to often enough, the word of mouth on this thing is something else. However, as always, I await the backlash as some folks plunk down their extra-heavy 3D ticket price and fail to have a religious experience.

Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson, or some version thereofSecond place, of course, was Guy Ritchie’s unorthodox action-comedy take on probably the oldest genre franchise in the biz, “Sherlock Holmes.” The Robert Downey, Jr./Jude Law team-up loosely drawn from the late 19th/early 20th century works of Arthur Conan Doyle defeated “Avatar” and all-comers on its record setting Christmas opening. It then fell a bit and earned a still whopping estimated $65.38 for Warner Brothers, a company that certainly has some experience with franchises. Better yet, this one is in the public domain, which means fewer folks get a share in the wealth.

Fox’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” actually beat “Avatar” by a couple of million on its early opening day last Wednesday, but fell sharply on Christmas Eve and rebounded the rest of the weekend, for a very healthy estimated third place showing of $50.2 million. Critics may detest it; parents may barely tolerate it, but, to paraphrase the old blues song, the little kids understand (or don’t know any better). The film’s total estimated take starting from its early opening is just a tad over $77 million.

Considering it’s a Golden Globe-nominated sex comedy presumably aimed at a very grown-up audience — not only because of the average age of its stars but also because it’s R-rated, Universal’s “It’s Complicated” has generated the critical equivalent of a shrug, with our own David Medsker coming down on the very much negative side. That doesn’t bode extremely well for this sort of movie, which can use all the critical and awards help it can get.

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in Still, this weekend’s rising tide managed to lift this boat to the tune of an estimated $22 million or so, which is really not bad for this kind of film. Or, it wouldn’t be because Nikki Finke claims the budget was $80 million, which is way high for this kind of movie  and suggests to me that it’s possible stars Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin let their agents negotiate extra-hard for a big pay-day because they were perhaps less than wowed by the film artistically. Universal just doesn’t seem to be cutting itself any breaks lately.

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Christmas mish-mosh at the box office

I have to keep this fairly short tonight, but suffice to say that things are going to be very busy over this long Christmas holiday weekend and just how it will shake out is anyone’s guess. I’m certainly not going to try, though I think it’s safe to say the battle for the #1 spot will be between the second weekend of the Fox-released “Avatar” and Guy Ritchie’s action/comedy oriented “Sherlock Holmes” starring Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Holmes and Dr. Watson. It’s getting pretty decent reviews as well, though the Rotten Tomatoes “Top Critics” are split down the middle. Not that that’s likely to mean one less dollar in Warner Brothers’ coffers.

There is another strong commercial contender, it actually opened today, and it’s reviews are anything but decent. I speak of “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel” from Fox, which was excoriated by our own David Medsker and 75% of critics in general. Still, La Finke reports that online sales are unusually strong and one should never underestimate the power of kiddie appeal. At the same time, it goes a lot better when parents don’t leave the theater angry and making a mental note to keep up with their birth control regimen — and Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” is still relatively fresh and it seems a lot more parent-friendly.

Also, there’s plenty of action in grown-up/awards-movie-ville. Nancy Myers’ rom-com, “It’s Complicated” with Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin, might get a boost from older moviegoers, particularly women, happy to see folks their own age actually still having sex and stuff in movies. However, the Golden Globe nominations it garnered may be a flash in the pan as the critics are not especially impressed. This looks like a case of the Globes living up to their rep and being notably star-struck.

In somewhat fewer theaters, major Oscar contender “Up in the Air,” finally goes into the releasing big leagues for Paramount, expanding into 1,895 theaters according to Box Office Mojo. The Rob Marshall-directed “Nine” is going into 1,412 theaters. The flashy Broadway musical adaptation with a cast that includes Daniel Day Lewis, Penelope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Kate Hudson, Nicole Kidman, the eternal sex goddess/great actress Sophia Loren and, for all I know, the reanimated corpses of Greta Garbo and Clara Bow, has long been touted as an Oscar contender but, looking at the disappointed reviews, I seriously have to wonder. A poorly reviewed musical hasn’t been a hit at the Oscars since the badly bloated “Oliver!” and “Hello Dolly!” were released in 1968 and 1969. “Nine” might do okay because of its sexy/smart ad campaign and star power, but it’s hard to imagine a critically unloved Fellini-derived musical having any kind of staying power at the box office and even harder to imagine it having a more than token showing at the Oscars — but then I’m forgetting those ten best picture slots.

Fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut, “A Single Man” starring Colin Firth, has been racking up a lot of acclaim and awards heat, and is opening in 46 theaters. It’s a probable art house hit, and Firth is one of those actors who just keeps getting more interesting.

Finally, Box Office Mojo isn’t saying how many theaters it’s opening in, but Terry Gilliam’s semi-surrealist fantasy, “The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus,” is coming out this Friday; it’s the film Heath Ledger was midway through production on when he died suddenly in early 2008, but which was completed by casting the late actor’s friends Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell to play aspects of his character. My review of it is forthcoming so I’ll keep my opinion to myself for now, though it has scored an RT rating of 62%. I understand it’s done okay in Europe, but my strong hunch is that commercially it’s a non-factor here.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sherlock_holmes_2009/?critic=creamcr
  

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