Box office preview: “Unstoppable”? Perhaps

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Apparently Tony Scott and Denzel Washington enjoyed making their underground run-away train thriller, “The Taking of Pelham 123” so much, they decided to turn around and make an above-ground run-away train thriller. Not everything would be the same. This time Chris Pine would be in tow instead of John Travolta. Another difference is that, this time, the critics are majorly onboard as well, which may or may not indicate that “Unstoppable” will do better over the long haul than its sister film.

Both of my usual b.o. gurus are suggesting a low-to-mid twenties opening for the thriller from Fox, but there is still some daylight between them. Ben Fritz of the L.A. Times is expecting a tough race for the #1 spot with last week’s big winner, “Megamind,” which grossed over $46 million.  The Hollywood Reporter’s Carl DiOrio, who remains jolly even while his intro music grows oddly sinister, seems more sanguine that the amped-up train ride will do better. However, Fritz may be on to something considering that family animated films have proven to be leggy in the past and that a decline of significantly less than 50% seems very possible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Unstoppable” overperform.

Rachel McAdams, Diane Keaton, and Harrison Ford wonder: What's the story?There are two other major releases this weekend, but neither of them really seems to have much oomph behind them. True, jolly Carl is fairly high on “Morning Glory.” It’s a sort of update on “Broadcast News” minus the critical acclaim putting 32 year-old beauty Rachel McAdams alongside 60-something icons Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. My money is on Ben Fritz’s take, which is that it’ll be fortunate to break $10 million. Exhibit A is that the comedy from Paramount actually opened yesterday and hasn’t shown much life.

Coincidentally, $10 million is the reported budget for the effects-heavy science-fiction tale being released by Rogue and Universal, “Skyline.” The few critics who’ve seen it mostly agree that all the film really has to boast of are the effects. Fritz thinks it’ll do about the same as “Morning Glory” — though obviously from a younger and more male demographic. Since that amount is also roughly its budget, however, this film may just be a success.

Debuting in a fairly aggressive 41 screen limited release is the latest documentary from Ondi Timoner, who made the excellent “DiG!” and “We Live in Public” both of which never really got much distribution. This time, however, her film is getting some critical flack, not too surprising considering it’s kind of an anti-“An Inconvenient Truth” and features a maverick scientist who isn’t exactly a climate denier and who isn’t coming from a politicized perspective, but who does insist that all the global warming fear is just plain overdone. That is no majority scientific opinion. Entitled “Cool It,” it’s so far been ignored by far-right film blog Big Hollywood, which can only be a good sign.

Another film we all might be hearing from later on is the award-winning festival-friendly first feature from Lena Dunham, “Tiny Furniture.” It’s a comedy, but I don’t find this trailer funny so much as aggressively quirky and mildly annoying, perhaps because of the deliberately flat performances of the nonprofessional cast. On the other hand, I sort of dig the look of the thing. See if you disagree.

  

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Red Carpet Chatter: Mike Nichols Gets His AFI Lifetime Achievement Award

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Born in 1931 in what was very soon to become Hitler’s Germany, young Michael Peschkowsky was living in Manhattan by 1939. It was great luck both for the future Mike Nichols and for the country that accepted him.

Nichols is, of course, one of the most respected directors in Hollywood, and for good reason. He’s the original, craftsmanlike, and emotionally astute directorial voice responsible for such sixties and seventies classics as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,”  “Carnal Knowledge” and, of course, “The Graduate” (the source of his only directorial Oscar so far) as well as such eighties, nineties, and oughts successes as “Silkwood,” “Working Girl,” “The Birdcage,” and “Closer.” Even if some of the later films are not on the same level of quality as his earlier films — and several, especially his 1988 box office hit, “Working Girl,” stray into mediocrity — it’s still one of the most impressive and diverse careers of any living director in Hollywood.

That’s just on the big screen. On television, Nichols has rebounded in the eyes of many critics, directing two of the most acclaimed television productions of the last decade, 2001’s “Wit” with Emma Thompson, and the outstanding 2005 miniseries adaptation of Tony Kushner’s brilliant and mammoth epic play, “Angels in America.” With his 80th birthday just a year and a half away, he’s still working hard with two thrillers movies planned, including an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “High and Low” currently being rewritten by the decidedly counter-intuitive choice of Chris Rock.

Before he directed his first foot of film, Mike Nichols was a noted theater director. That in itself is not so unusual a root for directors to travel. What is different is that, before he was a noted theater director, he was half of one of the most influential comedy teams in show business history, Nichols and May. (His comedy partner, Elaine May, went on to become an important, if less commercially successful, writer and director in her own right.)

Still, from the moment he directed his first major play, Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” Nichols mostly abandoned performing. Today, his highly regarded early work is mostly known only to fairly hardcore comedy aficionados.

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Weekend box office: “Avatar” gets the double three-peat; “Legion” ascends to #2

Do I even need to tell you that “Avatar” once again topped the weekend box office? Well, I’m telling you anyway. I’m also adding that, as per the good people at Box Office Mojo, it suffered only a very modest 15.9% drop from last week and made a healthy estimated $36 million over this weekend, topping the box office for the sixth time running. Moreover, Jolly Carl DiOrio reports that, barring worldwide calamity of some sort, as of tomorrow, James Cameron‘s science fiction adventure looks to beat the record of his “Titanic” and be the number one worldwide moneymaker of all time.

Meanwhile, Nikki Finke, never anyone’s cheerleader, is quick to remind us that the film is actually only the 26th most popular film of all time when you adjust for inflated ticket prices, and I’m wondering if it’s possible to adjust for population growth over the century or so history of the movie business. Still, a buck’s a buck and there’s no taking away from James Cameron’s achievement in connecting in an intense and emotional way to the masses and getting them to part with not too small sums of money in fairly hard economic times.

We do have a bit of a surprise in the #2 spot. If you were here for the weekend preview, you’ll perhaps guess that  I am slightly surprised that the killer-angels movie, “Legion,” managed an estimated $18.2 million for Screen Gems with a very good per-screen average of $7,351 (it was on about a thousand fewer screens than most of the other top pictures). It managed this despite about zero buzz and some withering early responses. I guess young men just wanted to see a movie about buffed angels killing people and each other.

I just wonder if any religious types will take notice of it now. I simply have a hard time imaging a movie about kick-ass emissaries of God fighting each other and slaughtering people not offending someone, but that’s just me. On the other hand, Paul Bettany’s career as well as that of its first-time feature director Scott Stewart would seem to be newly blessed.

Following Warner Brothers’ “The Book of Eli,” which endured a fairly typical drop of 48.2% percent in its second week for an estimated $17 million, was the movie I pretty much expected to be in the #2 spot, “The Tooth Fairy.” The family-factor failed to come to the rescue for the PG-rated Dwayne Johnson comedy vehicle, which managed a fairly soft estimated $14.5 million. Considering it’s budget was $48 million as opposed to the $22 million for “Legion,” it has to be something of a disappointment for Fox.

Brendan Fraser and Harrison Ford in Still, that’s nothing compared to the drubbing the newly formed CBS Films took for the Brendan Fraser/Harrison Ford medical drama, “Extraordinary Measures.” A topical subject matter couldn’t erase the fuzziness pervading the film’s profile and came in at the #7 spot and made a matching $7 million in its first week. And here comes my obligatory medical metaphor….At this point, the prognosis for CBS’s movie foray might be a little shaky.

  

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Zzzzz….”Avatar”…zzzz

We’re deep, deep into the January doldrums this week with the studios putting out three new movies that will be lucky to be fodder for late night cable or very hard trivia questions after a few weeks. We also, of course, have one true-blue blockbuster dominating the box office for the sixth week in a row.

Sam Worthington in And so THR’s jolly Carl DiOrio is beyond certain that James Cameron will, by Sunday, not only be the director of the #1 and #2 moneymakers of all time (not adjusted for inflation) but also will be matching his own “Titanic” record of six consecutive #1 showings at the U.S. box office. He also says “Avatar” will make roughly $25 million. That sounds about right to me, but all I can really say for sure is that it does seem reasonably sure to wipe the floor with the three fairly lackluster looking films on tap for this weekend.

The Tooth Fairy,” at least, benefits from a quickly understandable premise which has some comic potential, as well as a very strong supporting cast. Dwayne “no longer ‘the Rock'” Johnson is an unpleasant hockey star forced to become the winged pixie of everyone’s childhood. Playing M to his emasculated James Bond is a slightly stern Julie Andrews, with Billy Crystal and Stephen Merchant of “Extras” as his Q branch operatives, while Ashley Judd performs love interest duties. The consensus on this one is that, while  it’s the very rare critic who will go so far as to admit to actually liking the thing — it has a lousy 11% “fresh” Rotten Tomatoes reading — it could have been worse. Talk about faint praise. The trailer isn’t exactly huge on laughs, but Crystal variation on his old Miracle Max shtick got a chuckle out of me. Considering the family factor and Johnson’s appeal, I suspect this Fox comedy will stand up nicely to the weak competition of the other new releases.

Speaking of weak competition, every review I glanced at, including the one from our own David Medsker, compared “Extraordinary Measures” to a TV movie. This fact-inspired maiden voyage for the newly formed CBS Films stars Brendan Fraser as a corporate executive with two children suffering from a rare disease who joins forces with Harrison Ford‘s curmudgeonly scientist to find a cure while battling the medical and corporate establishment.

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This type of material can work in theatrical films as was proven by both Steven Soderbergh with “Erin Brockovich” and, before that, George Miller with the underrated “Lorenzo’s Oil.” (Nick Nolte’s Italian accent wasn’t all that bad, besides, he got the emotions right.) The consensus here, however, is that pedestrian execution destines this film to fairly instant obscurity — a familiar face and an aging superstar won’t be enough to attract major audiences to a film that really could have used a few some good reviews. Instead, it got only 23% percent of critics at Rotten Tomatoes admitting to even a mild liking for the film.

Only one critic we know of has even seen “Legion.” Released by Sony and made by a first time director with a background in effects work, this one sounds to me like an action/horror remake of Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” or “Wings of Desire” gone very, very wrong. The film has very literal killer angels besieging a diner — because hashhouses are always the best place to start an apocalypse. Starring Paul Bettany as the week’s second ass-kicking winged mythological being and Dennis Quaid as a sick looking middle-aged guy, DiOrio says this is “tracking best among young males” and I can’t imagine who else would see this one. Judging by Mr. One Critic’s ultra-harsh review, even they may find better better things to do. As for what religious people will make of a film which has angels wielding machine guns, I can only imagine.

  

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The Scream Awards go down the rabbit hole (updated)

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There was a time in this world when young people were frequently slightly ashamed of being bigger than average fans of horror, science fiction, fantasy, and especially comic books. I, personally, wasn’t embarrassed …and I paid a price. Those days may be over. In any case, the capacity crowd that showed up for Spike TV’s Scream awards, largely in costume and largely dramatically over- or under-dressed for a nighttime outdoor show after a very warm day, seemed more like club kids and less like the kind of uber geeks who become entertainment bloggers and film critics and stuff like that.

The Scream Awards are, in their fun/silly way, a big deal. Big enough to attract a good number of stars and even a few superstars like Tobey Maguire, Jessica Alba, Morgan Freeman, Harrison Ford, Johnny Depp and his living legend “Pirates of the Caribbean” muse, Rolling Stone Keith Richard.

I, however, am not such a big deal and was reminded of that fact when, prior to the show I found myself with the less fashionable members of the not-quite paparazzi on the “red carpet” (actually a checkered walkway) with my little digital camera and even smaller digital recorder device, wondering whether I’d really get a chance to ask a question of one of the super-famed folks, knowing that the only question I could think of at the time would be something in the nature of “What’s it like be the most notorious rock and roll star in the world, having your blood changed, and snorting your late father’s ashes?” That probably would have been inappropriate, especially if I asked it of Jessica Alba.

What actually seems to happen at events like this is that, if you’re a small-timer especially, most of the big stars either go through another entrance or walk right by you at warp speed. Meanwhile, folks who are a bit more anxious to meet the press find their way to you with the help of PR types. As an example, for about half a second, I was almost able to talk with actor Karl Urban, who did such a great job homaging DeForest Kelly while putting his own hilarious stamp on “Bones” McCoy in “Star Trek.” However, within a nanosecond he remembered he was in a big hurry and politely scurried off.

After a few odd reality show people I didn’t recognize, and the pretty young actress who assays the part of “Female Addict” in “Saw VI,” our first actual notable was statuesque model turned actress Tricia Helfer. Helfer is, make no mistake, a true superstar to TV sci-fi fans and is best known as Number Six, aka “the hot blonde cylon” on “Battlestar Galactica.” The actress appeared with her significant other, the owner of a British accent and a Giaus Baltar-style beard, but I’m sure that’s a total coincidence. I had a not terribly consequential discussion with her — lost because I apparently forgot to press the “on” button on my digital recorder. One would expect no less an effect from Number Six. UPDATE: Yeesh! As pointed out by my PH compatriot John Paulsen, the actress was actually Kate Vernon, who played the lady-MacBeth-like Ellen Tigh. It is true, all statueseque blonde women in shiny dresses look alike to me! My apologies to all concerned or unconcerned.

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