Box Office Preview: “Little Fockers” to top “Tron: Legacy” and “Gulliver’s Travels” opens, but, come on, “True Grit” is here. Yee-haw and Merry Xmas.

I could almost end this pre-Christmas Weekend box office preview with the overlong headline above. Nevertheless, I’ll fill in the blanks a little.

Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller face off over

For reasons known only to the masses of this nation’s moviegoers and the strange gods they pray to, the third film in the saga of Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) and his oh-so-hilariously quirky family and in-laws, is expected to top the weekend handily. That seems especially so in the wake of the soft opening last weekend of “Tron: Legacy.”

The nation’s critics, however, will not be pleased. My esteemed colleague/boss, the usually gentle and kindly Will Harris, lost all his holiday cheer and did not spare the rod on “Little Fockers.” He’s hardly alone. Especially for a film with some of the biggest stars of the last forty years in supporting roles, it’s getting absolutely abysmal reviews. A rare exception among the Rotten Tomatoes pull quotes is one of my favorite critics and cinephile bloggers, Glenn Kenny. Glenn admits to having very low expectations and laughing a few times. He went on to rave that the film is “not particularly excruciating” and only 90 minutes long.

As for the cash predictions, it’s not Christmas without jolly Carl DiOrio, who I assume is vacationing this week while Pamela McClintock is pulling b.o. oracle duty at The Hollywood Reporter. She tells us that the magic number over the long holiday weekend is $60 million for the “Little Fockers.” With Ben Fritz of the L.A Times also taking some time off it appears, Daniel Frankel of The Wrap adds that “Fockers” could make as much as $70 million for still somewhat beleaguered Universal. With this many stars, I guess it’s possible people will be fooled persuaded into paying $10 or more a head to see it. And, with the diversity of ages, it should prove that folks from 1 to 92 apparently can’t get enough of poop jokes.

Jeff Bridges takes aim at the box office in Vastly higher up the cinema chain of being, if vastly lower on budget and with only two megastars in tow, “True Grit” will do its best to restore the box office luster of the classic western to our movie screens. It’s apparently an unusually straightforward film for the Coen Brothers, who re-adapted the poignant and funny novel by Charles Portis that was previously filmed back in ’69 by Henry Hathaway with a certain former Marion Mitchell Morrison in the role of irascible, trigger happy Rooster Cogburn. Since it’s the Coens, naturally, the reviews are as rapturous as those for “Fockers” reviews are heinous. Our own Jason Zingale’s sincere but qualified praise seems almost a pan by comparison.

There seems to be a consensus that $20 million for Paramount will be the weekend take for the tale of retribution in the badlands. That’s not bad for a film that cost a relatively modest $38 million (“Fockers” is another $100 million comedy.) Still, can’t hope rooting for a Western to do even better.

Apparently wishing to avoid getting completely ignored in the wake of the other two openers, the  Jack Black vehicle, “Gulliver’s Travels,” will be opening Friday, not Wednesday, to modest expectations. Considering the film allegedly somehow connected to a literary classic by Jonathan Swift had one of the worst trailers I’ve ever seen, that seems fair.

Those wanting to flee the loudness and crudeness of mainstream cinema this weekend may check out “The King’s Speech,” which is expanding into 600 theaters on much Oscar buzz as is the way of the Weinsteins. Or, if they live in a very big city indeed, the debut in limited release of the latest from the arty and gentle Sofia Coppola and Focus Features, “Somewhere.” As in “somewhere there’s a movie about family won’t rely primarily on scatological humor.”

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“Resident Evil: Afterlife” reaps goodness at box office

It’s been a hard day and I’m going going to keep it short and sweet. And how sweet it is for the husband-and-wife team of star Milla Jovovich and director Paul W.S. Anderson. Aided by those premium ticket prices for 3D movies and — as pointed out by Nikki Finke — using footage actually shot in 3D, the film easily won the weekend as indicated earlier and sailed to a record gross for the action-horror franchise. Specifically, the estimate for the weekend was $27.7 million for Screen Gems/Sony according to Box Office Mojo. It’ll likely drop off in significantly next week, but the damage is already done.

Elsewhere, there wasn’t that much box office love going around on this traditionally weak weekend. “Takers” came in at #2 and showed some relative legs with $6.1 million, again for Screen Gems/Sony, which is having a decent month. Meanwhile, both of last week’s toppers suffered significant second week declines. “The American,” from Focus Features, really did seem to suffer from some poor word of mouth and netted only a bit under $5.9 million.

Last week’s silver medalist, “Machete,” with two sequels announced in its end credits, suffered the geek second week curse and dropped by over 63% netting only 4.2% million. On the other hand, after seeing the film myself this weekend I heard some highly informal Hollywood scuttlebutt indicating the budget was significantly lower than $20 million figure we’ve heard for the very funny, but awfully slack, straight-faced tongue-in-cheek homage. So, it’s still possible Danny Trejo as Machete may kill again, if so, I’m guessing Fox will keep him on a tight budget.

  

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Weekend box office: The “Inception” brain caper goes according to plan; “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” gets a swat in the tuchas

Those of us speculating on the possibility of a surprise in either the high or low direction for “Inception” early on Friday (okay, that would mainly be me), have now been silenced by the weekend estimates. They appear to have come down on the highish side of what the professional prognosticators expected, even if some of them were confessing to uncertainty. (Where did I read that? It’s gone now from where I thought I read it but maybe my dreams are being manipulated by a crack team hired by a Japanese billionaire who hates Nikki Finke.)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in So, no, Christopher Nolan’s highly praised but also controversial science-fiction thriller film for Warner Brothers is officially not “too smart” or too not-franchise-associated to be a hit, if an estimated $60.4 million is enough to constitute a hit these days for a $200 million film. It’s also worth noting that it managed this without an artificial boost from inflated 3-D ticket prices. I wonder if some math whizzes out there can compare this to the “disappointing” $77 million opening for “Avatar.” Anthony D’Alessandro points out this is the strongest North American opening ever for a Leonardo DiCaprio-headlined movie, which includes “Titanic.”(That box office stinker only made about $28 million domestically it’s first weekend.)

Still, as always, the question remains “legs” and how the word-of-tweet-facebook update-txt-mouth goes. The L.A. Times reported that the film scored a B+ on Cinemascore, reportedly dividing the audience by age with under 25-ers giving it an A and us oldsters giving it a B-. So are middle-aged filmgoers more discerning or younger ones more open to real genius? (Hey, politically, I tend to agree more with under-25 years olds more than people my own age who mostly loved Ronald Reagan, who I believe peaked in “Storm Warning” with Ginger Rogers.)

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Hollywood (and the rest of California) destroyed! Millions to be made!

John Cusack in

Yes, with just one really big new release this week, it’s looking like Sony and Roland Emmerich’s eschatological extravaganza, “2012,” will most definitely take the box office crown this weekend. Prognosticators are, however, offering a pretty broad range of possible results. Pamela McClintock of Variety says that “observers” are guessing the mega-disaster tale will make “north” of $40 million “or even substantially more” on its opening. The ever jolly Carl DiOrio of The Hollywood Reporter gets more specific on the “substantially more” and suggests that those mysterious tracking surveys mean that $55-65 million is “doable” for the first would-be blockbuster I’ve ever heard of to be based on the Mayan calendar. Some of this speculation, of course, is based on the large success ($186.7 million domestically) of Emmerich’s other mass destruction based sci-fi flick from 2004, “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Still, there are some issues, including an outsize running time of 2 hours and 38 minutes, forty minutes longer than “Day.” Predictably, most critics are making fun of the film. Let’s face it, Emmerich isn’t exactly known for thoughtful cinema. Still, while the film only scores a meager 32% “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, it does seem to generate a certain number of backhanded compliments from those who think it edges into guilty pleasure territory, including from our own David Medsker and a darn funny, three-star review by the Chicago Tribune‘s Michael Phillips. In any event, that running time could be an issue in terms of number of shows per day and also simply by annoying impatient filmgoers. However, the teen boys who go to this stuff never seem to mind a long running time if they get their share of thud and blunder and, by all accounts, “2012” provides oodles of some of the best wanton destruction in some time.

Bill Nighy in Being released in some 882 theaters, as compared to 3,404 for “2012,” is Focus Features’ “Pirate Radio.” It’s a shortened version of a fact-inspired comedy that was called “The Boat That Rocked” in the UK. Writer-director Richard Curtis of “Love, Actually,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” and cult TV favorite “Blackadder,” is once again splitting critics with this ode to the glory days of sixties pop. However, a running theme in the reviews appears to be that, for a comedy about a bunch of radio rebels forcing their way illegally onto English airwaves during the heyday of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, it’s a bit polite. And so, the RT rating is a mehish 56% as of this writing.

I should add, though, that there’s something about Richard Curtis — I’d guess it’s gratuitous niceness — that tends to make some critics underrate his films. “Love, Actually” was a terrific piece of work in my own opinion, but it only earned an RT rating of 63%, though it also earned roughly a million bucks for each percentage point. Will Harris, who got to travel to our nation’s mother country to participate in the press junket for “Pirate Radio” is of a like mind, but feels this effort is worthy but a bit less wonderful its predecessor. (Will’s interviews from his trip are highly recommended. I suggest you start with Richard Curtis.)

And that’s it for the major/semi-major releases, but there’s some very interesting action amongst the limited flicks. First, as per Box Office Mojo, the critically lauded, sure-to-be Oscar nominated “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire,” which did amazing limited release business last weekend for Lions Gate with a per-screen average of $100,000 in 18 theaters, is expanding to 174 screens this weekend. Apparition/Sony’s critically derided and sure to be utterly un-awarded “Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day” is bumping up to 244 screens after showing some cult strength.

Finally, in an interesting strategy for a fairly high profile animated family film with an all-star voice cast, “Fantastic Mr. Fox” — from Fox, naturally — is opening in four theaters this weekend. The thinking here is, I’m guessing, that this isn’t just any animated family film based on a popular children’s book by Roald Dahl, but one directed by arthouse fave Wes Anderson. Though there may, or may not, have been significant issues during its making, it wound up with great reviews. In fact, the painstakingly non-CGI puppet animation is collecting the most consistently good notices of Anderson’s entire remarkable career, as reckoned by Rotten Tomatoes, beating even his instant classic “Rushmore” by four points. So, giving “Mr. Fox” a little time to percolate and spread some good word of mouth by opening it more slowly makes a lot of sense. It’s a strategy that should be used a lot more often, with good movies that is.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

  

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Tyler Perry can do well all by himself

Tyler Perry in "I Can Do Bad All By Myself"

Tyler Perry’s latest for Lionsgate, “I Can Do Bad All By Myself,” which once again features his crazed cross-gender alter-ego, Madea, over-performed its expectations by a few million and nabbed the weekend’s top box office spot with an estimated $24 or 25 million. The reason for the discrepancy, by the way, is that it appears that the numbers Nikki Finke nabbed late last night are differing slightly from those being offered by Variety and THR.

Finke is characteristically spinning the gross as a negative for Perry, since his last film made $41 million on its opening run. However, that was “Madea Goes to Jail.” If there’s one thing we’ve learned about film marketing in the current climate in recent years, having a title that explains your premise never hurts. Just ask “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” Of course, that’s not the whole story — just ask “Snakes on a Plane.”

Considering that this film is actually getting okay reviews (58% “fresh” on the RT Meter as of this moment) from the critics who’ve sprung for a film bucks to see the movie this weekend, it seems that Perry is offering a least a modicum of story-and-music based entertainment. Low expectations may also be helping. The good news for him is that it seems to be pleasing his large, predominantly African-American and female, fan base — ensuring that his modestly budgeted films remain profitable. I wonder if Lionsgate is reevaluating its decision not to screen “I Can Do Bad” in advance; they actually might have found some decent quotes to help pull in some newbies. Tyler recently signed a deal to make a film of the 1975 poetry-based Broadway sensation by Ntozake Shange, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Is critical respect of some sort in his future?

9With an estimated $15.2-$15.5 for Focus Features over its first five days and an on-track $10.9 million for the weekend, “9” seems to have found its audience. As I recounted last time, it’s only the eighth movie to be so numerically named, if you don’t count the original short film that launched it. (The true no. 9 will be Rob Marshall’s upcoming film of the Broadway musical “Nine.”) Now, I don’t how I missed this before, but the computer animated dystopian tale from newcomer Shane Acker was actually released on Wednesday of last week. That was not simply to get a jump on the competition, but to milk the fact that it was September 9, 2009 — i.e., 09/09/09. I guess the numerical mojo didn’t hurt.

Coming up in the #3 spot was neither of the two remaining major theatrical releases, but…drum roll…”Inglourious Basterds” once again proving wrong those who assumed that a subtitles and cinephilia heavy flick would ward-off rank-and-file filmgoers. At roughly an estimated $6.5 million in its fourth week for the Weinstein Company, Quentin Tarantino‘s latest has accumulated about $104 million so far, which I think is about double what some insiders expected from it. It seems fairly certain now that, with the benefit of at least a few Oscar nominations, it’s going to beat the $108 million take of “Pulp Fiction,” though perhaps not adjusted for inflation.  I can’t wait to see what Tarantino’s next step will be.

The critically dissed Kate Beckinsale “Whiteout” — which Fox tried to pass off as sci-fi horror in the tradition of “The Thing” but is really more of an action-thriller/whodunit — and Summit’s Heathery actual horror/slasher remake, “Sorority Row,” went down to an ignominious, youth-audience splitting, defeat. Each film made just over an estimated $5 million. The real horror film (i.e., “Row”) did slightly better than the fake one set in Alaska, but they were both unable to beat even the second week of the fourth-place “All About Steve,” and came in at the sixth and seventh spot on their opening week. Ouch.

  

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