So, guess what’s topping the box office this weekend

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in Yes, the holiday weekend is barely half-way over and tonight’s Golden Globes could alter things slightly. Nevertheless, the Box Office Mojo’s weekend estimates are out and, don’t even bother to wait for it, Fox’s “Avatar” was once again the box office leader with a solid $41.3 million estimated take and a still very low drop of only 17.9% on its fifth go-round. Domestically, “Avatar” is already the #3 all-time moneymaker with a total of $491,767,000. Worldwide it has defeated, “The Return of the King” and is now #2 at just over $1.6 billion, just a couple billion shy of another movie you might have an opinion about, “Titanic.” James Cameron might have to buy an additional Malibu estate for his self-esteem to live in.

Just to keep us from falling completely asleep, however, there were some new members of the top 3 this week. The post apocalyptic actioner with a spiritual tint, Warner Brothers’ “The Book of Eli,” performed as per the expectations I described last time and has a current weekend estimate of roughly $31.6 million. That will definitely be happy news not only for star Denzel Washington but for directors Allen and Albert Hughes, whose last film, “From Hell” was not a box office success despite the presence of another big star, Johnny Depp. (Indeed, one of that film’s producers left the film business and has gone on to become one of the most powerful and annoying members of the left hand side of blogosphere, but that’s a story for another time and place.)

Denzel Washington in

As for the #3 spot…it’s not really a weekend if I don’t make an completely wrong predictive comment — when will I learn to keep my trap shut? Anyhow, the marketing strategy turning a critically dissed piece of Oscar bait into a film aimed at female tweens and teenagers has paid off with a very decent estimated third place showing of just over $17 million for “The Lovely Bones” and Paramount/Dreamworks. The film has been out in limited release for several weeks, but went into over 2,500 theaters and apparently the timing was correct.

A brand new wide release, “The Spy Next Door,” a frankly lame looking vehicle for Jackie Chan, did fairly unimpressive business for a wide release film on its opening weekend despite . It came in the #6 spot with an estimated $9.7 million for Lionsgate, which might be enough if the film’s budget is low enough. In other “cudda been worse” news, it’s 0% on the Tomatometer on Friday has blossomed to 9% with four critics failing to dislike it.

Michael Cera in Finally, the vampire role-reversal flick a la Monty Python’s “Bicycle Repairman” sketch, “Daybreakers,” which did rather well last week, suffered a huge 67% drop in its second time out, going from a $15 million last week to about $5 million this week. And, because I’m a nice guy, I’ll keep the word on “Youth in Revolt” to myself.

  

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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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Monday movie stuff

Peter Jackson and friend* With “The Lovely Bones” starting to look like a disappointment — and that’s definitely true so far in terms of award nominations and reviews, Peter Jackson may be starting to look ahead to his other projects. Among them, via the Playlist, is WWI and the devastating Battle of Gallipoli. The 1915 battle was the subject of a terrific Peter Weir film from 1981 that starred the young Mel Gibson, but Jackson adds that it only covered a few days of the battle, so there’s plenty of story left to tell. Weir wants to get the film ready in time for 100-year anniversary of the bloody episode, which helped define the national identities of both New Zealand, Australia, and Turkey. If you’re counting, I guess that gives him four or five years to ready the film

* Speaking of upcoming projects involving Peter Jackson (and Steven Spielberg), it’s time to start boning up on your Tintin knowledge before 2011, and if you live in L.A. and have time to get over to West Hollywood’s Meltdown Comics over the next day or so, here’s one cool opportunity to do just that.

* It’s not just superhero and adventure comics that are becoming movies. Behold, a rom-com comics adaptation.

* A suddenly agent-less Shia LaBeouf has decided a manager and a lawyer is enough. Nikki Finke deems this a “SHOCKER!”

* Adrian Curry selects the decades greatest posters over at the Auteurs. Personally, I think poster making is a lost art. Things are usually way too literal these days, but Curry’s choices are strong.

* Would you want to face Alec Baldwin in a real-life court of law? How about prosecuting? “ABC…Always be convicting.” Still, it’s possible he might need a seasonal gig at some point to help him work his way through law school…

  

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“Princess and the Frog” leaps as expected; “Invictus” is a bit short of the goal line

The Princess and the FrogIf you compare tonight’s post to what I said on Thursday, you’ll see there were no gigantic surprises this week. Disney’s return to traditional cell animation with “”The Princess and the Frog” performed pretty much completely in line with expectations and earned a very nice, though not gigantic, $25 million over its opening weekend. So says ever jolly Carl DiOrio and also the handy dandy Box Office Mojo chart.

Clint Eastwood‘s “Invictus,” on  the other hand, came in third behind the $15.4 million performance of the mega-sleeper “The Blind Side,” to earn a slightly short-of-the-mark $9.1 million. It’s worth noting that the politically-tinged Eastwood film was in a smaller number of theaters and had a very respectable average of $4,275 per screen. That is just a wee bit short of the more commercially successful Sandra Bullock vehicle, which is also a racially themed, fact-based, inspirational sports tale.

Otherwise, recent releases held on in more or less typical ways and there really wasn’t anything too exciting happening. In particular, there where no big break-outs among limited release films. The latest new entry into the late-year Oscar sweepstakes, the festival hit, “A Single Man,” did fine on its opening week in nine theaters earning $216,000, but the directorial debut of clothes designer Tom Ford, based on a book by Christopher Isherwood, will probably need some bigger awards buzz than its currently getting if it’s going to break out of the arthouse ghetto even a little bit.

The Lovely Bones,” however, managed the week’s biggest per-screen average of $38,000. However, that was only at three theaters. Considering the film’s very disappointing critical performance and its dark subject matter, its commercial prospects still seem even dimmer than it’s awards prospects. Indeed, it looks to be eclipsed in every way by the violent little sci-fi flick film co-writer-director Peter Jackson produced earlier this year for award-winning first-timer Neil Blomkamp, “District 9.” Still, a technical nomination or two might help “Bones” to be a less gigantic come down for Peter Jackson.

Saoirse Ronan in

  

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“The Princess and the Frog” to top Clint, Mandela, and that rugby guy

We technically have only major new release this week.  Clint Eastwood‘s “Invictus” is already scoring with critics and will no doubt do well enough initially based largely on the fact that Eastwood is one of the few directorial names that actually means something to the mass audience some of whom may believe he’s actually in it. The appeal of stars Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon and the now nearly saintly status of Nelson Mandela won’t hurt either, though the name might throw some off the scent. In any case, not even Mandela, movie stars, or the mighty Clint can compete against a Disney princess.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog” has been doing dynamite business playing extremely small and special engagements and will be going out to some 3,434 theaters this weekend as opposed to a relatively modest 2,125 for “Invictus.” It’s probably the final rub that “Princess” actually edges out “Invictus” slightly on the Tomatometer, though both films are well short of the Pixar-plus 90% stratosphere in any case.

Anyhow, it’s an interesting pairing and very much in the zeitgeist of Obama’s America. As Roger Ebert points out, this is the first Disney animated film to feature African-American characters since the Disney-banned “Song of the South.” It even features a once unthinkable more or less interracial romance.

Morgan Freeman in “Invictus” is also interesting racially and politically because it deals with the dismantling of apartheid, a system of injustice that many of Clint Eastwood’s fellow Republicans downplayed or minimized during the Reagan and Bush years, while characterizing Nelson Mandela as  a dangerous terrorist, or at least someone who palled around with Yassir Arafat and assorted communists. (That second part was true; what was also true was that those particular communists were mostly anti-apartheid heroes like Joe Slovo.) To his credit, Eastwood has always marched to his own drummer and few avowedly liberal filmmakers have been as thoughtful or sensitive on ethnic matters, so  he may just be the perfect director to bring the topic to the mainstream.

Reviewers seem to agree that “Invictus” is perhaps as much a political drama along the lines of, say, “The Queen,” as it is an inspirational sports film. On the other hand, it is the very model of the kind of film that gets nominated for, and wins, Academy Awards. Seeing as once promising potential awards-contenders — like ex-critical darling Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones,” which got a somewhat conflicted nod from our own David Medsker but  is getting overall mediocre-to-bad reviews as it stumbles into a very limited release this week — are falling by the wayside, Oscar is once again likely to be Clint Eastwood’s best friend at the box office.

As discussed by jolly Carl DiOrio, who dispensed with his video segment this week, “The Princess and the Frog” is thought likely to make roughly $25 million, it’s first weekend as its grosses will be somewhat moderated by the fact that winter vacation hasn’t started yet for most elementary students, while “Invictus” will likely earn in the $12-14 million range. A surprise is possible, but I see not reason to argue with the gods of tracking this weekend.

  

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