The Weekend Warrior

The Weekend Warrior: Dec. 18 - 20

Source: Edward Douglas
December 15, 2009

Greetings and welcome back to the Weekend Warrior, your weekly guide to the weekend's new movies. Tune in every Tuesday for the latest look at the upcoming weekend, and then check back on Thursday night for final projections based on actual theatre counts.

Updated Predictions and Comparisons -

1. Avatar (20th Century Fox) - $72.4 million N/A (up 4 million)

2. The Princess and the Frog (Disney) - $15.5 million -37% (up .2 million)

3. Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Sony) - $11.5 million N/A (same)

4. The Blind Side (Warner Bros.) - $11.0 million -30% (up .2 million)

5. Invictus (Warner Bros.) - $5.2 million -40% (down .3 million)

6. Disney’s A Christmas Carol (Walt Disney) - $4.8 million -30% (down .3 million)

7. The Twilight Saga: New Moon (Summit) - $4.1 million -48% (down .1 million)

8. Up in the Air (Paramount) - $3.2 million +12% (up .4 million and one spot)

9. Brothers (Lionsgate) - $3.0 million -40% (down one spot)

10. Old Dogs (Disney) - $2.7 million -39% (same)

Weekend Overview

We're just one week away from Christmas, and while this is normally a down weekend where very few movies open big, that tradition may be thrown out the window with the release of director James Cameron's first movie in 12 years, the sci-fi epic Avatar (20th Century Fox) starring the likes of Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldano. Because it's the weekend before Christmas, people will spend their time shopping or catching up on work, which might keep this from having an enormous opening. Even so, with the added price of tickets for IMAX and 3D screenings, the preferred format of choice, and the glowing reviews the movie's been getting should help Cameron's welcome return open in the range of King Kong or the first "Lord of the Rings."

Offered as counter-programming for older women is the pairing of Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant in the high concept romantic comedy Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Sony). Hugh Grant and director Marc Lawrence have experience on this weekend, which is where their Two Weeks Notice with Sandra Bullock opened a few years back, although this one might not fare as well, since it looks like a fairly standard high-concept comedy, one that's more likely to bring in business in the busy movie week after Christmas Day.

This weekend last year, three new movies opened but none of them were able to make more than $20 million as Jim Carrey's high concept comedy Yes Man (Warner Bros.) topped the box office with $18.3 million, followed by the Will Smith drama Seven Pounds (Sony) with $14.8 million. Opening in third place, the animated The Tale of Despereaux (Universal) grossed a disappointing $10 million in its opening weekend. Nothing else made more than $10 million and the Top 10 grossed $77 million, an amount which should be bested if Avatar does as well as we think it will, and this weekend should be more like 2006 and 2007, where the Top 10 grossed over $130 million.



Avatar (20th Century Fox)
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Peter Mensah, Laz Alonso, Wes Studi, Stephen Lang, Matt Gerald
Written and directed by James Cameron (Titanic, Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator, T2: Judgment Day)
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science-Fiction
Rated PG-13
Plot Summary: After losing the use of his legs, Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is assigned to the planet of Pandora where he's been commissioned to interact with the natives, the savage ten-foot tall Na'vi, using a complex system of controlling a Na'vi "avatar," but Jake soon finds himself falling for a beautiful Na'vi woman named Neytiri and becoming closer with his new tribal brethren, forcing him to make a tough decision when it looks like war is coming between the humans and the Na'Vi.

Mini-Review Setting aside whether or not James Cameron's first movie in 12 years is the "gamechanger" some have declared it to be, what "Avatar" can claim without question is how it provides proof that Cameron hasn't lost a step and is still as relevant and future-thinking a filmmaker today as he was in the '80s and '90s. He also continues to realize how the technology and visuals can only go so far and that at the heart, one has to have a story worth telling and characters who the audience will care enough about to follow for 2 and a half hours or more.

We arrive on the planet Pandora along with Sam Worthington's Jake Sully, clearly not your typical action movie hero, being a disabled war vet who has been assigned to a role normally reserved for scientists and researchers. Using technology, they link to life-like soulless clones of Pandora's natives, 10-foot tall savages called The Na'vi, with the intention of infiltrating their tribe and convincing them to relocate. Planetside, Jake meets the beautiful Neytiri, daughter of the chieftain of one of the tribes, and he's given a chance to prove he belongs with them. As one might expect, Jake's time with the tribe creates mixed emotions on his mission to relocate them causing friction with his commanding officer, forcing Jake to pick a side when war erupts.

While there are a lot of fresh new ideas in play here, Cameron relies on the simplest storytelling methods possible to convey the surprisingly liberal messages. Because of this, it never feels like the director is repeating himself while revisiting some of the themes that made his earlier films such beloved sci-fi classics. Part of this is because he does so in a way that makes them far more relevant to current world issues and modern moviegoers. One doesn't need to be hit in the head to immediately get the correlations between the situation on Pandora and the world today, from the military and corporate fatcats wanting to mine Pandora (read: Iraq) for its resources, causing friction with the primitive locals whose lifestyle is driven by spirituality. The film also deals with environmental issues that have been on many minds as of late with the Na'vi's jungle homestead being threatened by the government's desires to strip-mine their planet. Sure, it's obvious and blatant, but Cameron is able to get the message across in a far more subtle way, because the film is infinitely entertaining. There's more than a little irony between Jake inhabiting a Na'vi avatar and the Na'vi's communion with their environment by creating their own physical links to the creatures and flora of the planet. Of course, if you really take your time to study the movie, you probably will find flaws in the story, things that probably should have been answered, like how Jake's generically-engineered avatar is a able to perform all the functions of the Na'vi including some that humans had never been allowed to witness before.

Cameron's script runs the gamut from thoughtful and clever discussions about the implications of the humans' presence on Pandora to corny somewhat obvious one-liners, but the action is on par with Cameron's best work in "Aliens" and the "Terminator" movies without ever losing sight of the characters or the story.

As Jake Sully, Sam Worthington confirms his future not only as an action hero, but also as the type of leading man audiences will thrill to watch on the screen in any given situation. Zoe Saldana's all-CG performance is incredibly impressive, as the FX team is able to capture every nuance of her facial expressions and emotion. Working with Cameron for the first time since "Aliens," Sigourney Weaver proves to be the anchor in between the human and Na'vi worlds in more ways than one, and Cameron throws more than a few knowing winks at fans of their earlier collaboration. Playing the Marine general, Stephen Lang's performance goes way beyond scenery chewing, but that sort of over-the-top villain fits in with previous archetypes Cameron has used in the past, as does Giovanni Ribisi in the role played by Paul Reiser in "Aliens."

More than anything else, the film looks absolutely stunning, as FX house WETA have clearly outdone themselves, taking everything they learned with Peter Jackson on "The Lord of the Rings" and King Kong to create a fully CG environment and inhabitants that never feel as if they've been manufactured in computers. Instead, you're transported to this world and once you're pulled in, your attention rarely waves. The fact WETA could produce such a high-level quality work that stands up to the added scrutiny involved with 3D proves them to be not only at the top of their game but also head and shoulders above others who have tried to create realistic performance-capture films.

This is the movie the "Star Wars" prequels hoped to be and probably should have been, a movie that can easily sit on anyone's DVD/Blu-ray shelf alongside "Aliens," "The Abyss" (and even "Aquaman") to be considered another science fiction classic, further bolstering Cameron's already impressive film legacy. Here's hoping he follows it up with something else soon. Rating: 9/10

Analysis:

Easily one of the most anticipated movies of the year is James Cameron's first narrative feature in 12 years, the original fantasy sci-fi epic Avatar, which has quietly been in production over the last few years until it exploded in July with a 25-minute Comic-Con presentation, as well as a well-attended "Avatar Day" preview back in October. The movie has been a long time in the making due to the amount of CG involved, as he's combining the performance capture of movies like Beowulf with some of the big action set pieces that Cameron became famous for from movies like Aliens and the "Terminator" movies. Besides being considered a visionary for creating the latter franchise and movies like The Abyss, Cameron also holds claim to having directed the biggest single movie of all time with Titanic, which grossed $600 million domestically and $1.8 BILLION worldwide after opening almost exactly 12 years ago.

Times have changed a lot since Titanic and you rarely if ever see a movie come along that opens moderately--Titanic only made $29 million its opening weekend which is nothing by today's box office--and then sticks around for weeks atop the box office at #1 as people, mostly young women, see it repeatedly over and over with different groups of friends. There is a reason why it has been and always will be considered a box office phenomena and why it's been hard for any movie to do better. The type of fervor that surrounded Titanic back in its day has now been transplanted to the likes of Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" series, although those movies now do all their business opening weekend. Movies like Spider-Man and The Dark Knight have come close to achieving the box office receipts of Titanic, but the latter just fell short despite setting a new opening weekend record. The thing is that ever since the start of the current decade, box office became more and more about opening weekend and less about legs, and there are very few movies that remain in the Top 10 for more than five or six weeks. That's partially what made Titanic such a phenomenon, something that's greatly added to the excitement surrounding the return of Cameron, who probably wouldn't have returned after such a long time if he didn't think he was putting his best foot forward with a movie that stands up to some of his best.

Indeed, Avatar is an epic action and FX movie which combines sci-fi and fantasy archetypes with real world correlations that will allow it to be embraced by mainstream audiences of all ages and genders, even if it doesn't have as much of the romance that drove Titanic to such box office heights among young women.

As far as the cast, Cameron was one of the early supporters of Australian actor Sam Worthington, who was then picked by McG to star opposite Christian Bale in his attempt to relaunch Cameron's vision with Terminator Salvation, and Worthington is also playing Perseus in Warner Bros.' remake of Clash of the Titans next year. He's clearly being set-up as an action star of tomorrow. Cameron also had the foresight to hire Zoe Saldana to play one of the main Na'Vi characters well before J.J. Abrams selected her to play Uhura in his new version of Star Trek. Cameron has also been reunited with Sigourney Weaver who turned into a kick-ass heroine in Cameron's Aliens, which might be the movie Avatar most closely resembles.

There's been quite a lot of skepticism about the movie due to the look of the Na'Vi with the finicky sci-fi geek crowd being surprisingly negative about the movie due to Cameron's decision to go the performance capture route. Many of those opinions come from people watching clips and the teaser online rather than on the big screen in 3D, which is the way the movie was meant to be seen. The problem is that trying to create realistic humanoid characters using performance capture is difficult--hence the mixed reaction to Robert Zemeckis' last few movies--and while one can certainly strive for the technical and acting achievement of Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies or even the title creature in Jackson's King Kong, there's always the danger of creating a situation where audiences aren't into the look of your movie. That was part of the reason why Cameron and 20th Century Fox have done so many big presentations for the movie in various places including video game conferences, as well as the impetus for showing footage at "Avatar Day."

A key to Cameron's return was his desire to explore what can be done with Digital 3D and IMAX formats, which is why they will generally be the format of choice for people going to see this movie in its theatrical run. That's good news for the movie recouping its reported $300 million plus production budget, because theaters can charge significantly more for tickets for the premium format. In fact, IMAX in New York City, as an example, is charging $18.50 per ticket compared to the normal $12.50 ticket price, nearly 50% more for IMAX, and yet, one can expect that those screenings will be the first to sell out this weekend.

While 20th Century Fox has not had a great year outside their family films, they certainly know how to sell and distribute a film like this going by the success of George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequels, and they wisely waited until last week before screening the movie for the first time for everyone. It immediately started receiving rave reviews from a lot of different critics and even got a few award nominations over the weekend, so clearly, the movie is on par with some of Cameron's best work.

The week before Christmas is generally slow and notoriously bad for new movies, although that didn't stop Peter Jackson from releasing all three "Lord of the Rings" movies as well as his remake of King Kong, all which did decent business despite opening on Wednesday, which would normally cut into their weekends. One might assume Avatar is the type of fanboy movie that will only appeal to older guys, but in fact, both younger and older women thrive on fantasy and science fiction. There's also nothing currently in theaters quite like it, allowing it to open without a lot of direct competition.

Star Trek may be a good barometer for Avatar in that it's another highly-anticipated FX movie that started getting huge buzz and critical raves a couple weeks before opening, driving interest up even further. It also opened in IMAX though not 3D, and it had screenings on Thursday night which were added into its $79 million opening weekend box office. While Avatar has the James Cameron name and legacy behind it--which probably doesn't have that much weight with younger moviegoers--it's still an unknown property, which means older moviegoers and women will likely wait until the holiday week to see it rather than rushing out. Although the movie is PG-13, one can definitely see parents taking their kids to see the movie over the holidays, which should also help it attain the type of blockbuster legs we've seen with movies from "Star Wars" to "Spider-Man" to "Pirates of the Caribbean." Sure, Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes might cut into some of its business next weekend--and so could Alvin and the Chipmunks for that matter--but Avatar will still dominate the digital 3D and IMAX locations at least for the next few months.

Why I Should See It: James Cameron is back with a movie that stands up to his greatest sci-fi action epics.
Why Not: Not everyone digs the idea of motion capture CG and there's a lot of it in this movie.
Updated Projections: $70 to 74 million opening weekend and it will probably tap out a little higher than our original projection, somewhere around $320 million

COMPARISONS



Did You Hear About the Morgans? (Sony)
Starring Hugh Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sam Elliott, Mary Steenburgen, Elisabeth Moss, Michael Kelly, Wilford Brimley
Written and directed by Marc Lawrence (Music and Lyrics, Two Weeks Notice)
Genre: Comedy, Romance
Rated PG-13
Tagline: "We're not in Manhattan anymore."
Plot Summary: Meryl and Paul Morgan (Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant) are a successful Manhattan couple whose marriage is dissolving, but when they witness a murder, they become targets of a killer and are placed in a witness protection program in the Wyoming Rockies, forcing them to slow down and accept the little things in life, and maybe rekindle the romance in their marriage.

Analysis:

With the holidays coming around, movies targeted specifically for women are going to be abundant, and here's the first of two romantic comedies coming out in the next two weeks. This one benefits from having one of the most popular actresses among women and a long-time British heartthrob who has continually shown he can bring women into theaters when paired with the right leading lady and premise.

For Sarah Jessica Parker, Did You Hear About the Morgans? is her first major release since opening the first Sex and the City movie to the tune of $56.8 million last summer, and one presumes her popularity among women can extend beyond her most famous role as Carrie on the HBO hit. Even before the "Sex and the City" blockbuster, Parker already had a couple of previous hits under her belt, including the holiday comedy The Family Stone, which also opened in early December to $12.5 million but took advantage of the holidays to gross $60 million total. Her next movie, Failure to Launch, pitted her against Matthew McConaughey and that ended up grossing $88 million.

Now she's been teamed with one of Britain's top experts, Hugh Grant, making his first movie appearance since starring with Drew Barrymore in Music and Lyrics and this reunites him with that movie's director Marc Lawrence, who also directed Grant's similarly high concept Two Weeks Later, which opened on the same weekend seven years ago, that one pairing him with Sandra Bullock. Grant has a pretty solid track record with American moviegoers since his breakout in Richard Curtis' Four Weddings and a Funeral 15 years ago, and though he's had a few bombs like Mickey Blue Eyes, he also has a string of comedies that have done well, though often, that falls upon the popularity of his female co-star like Julia Roberts (Notting Hill) and Renee Zellwegger (Bridget Jones' Diary). His last movie, Music and Lyrics, ended up with $50 million opening moderately over Valentines' Day weekend.

(The movie also stars Wilford Brimley... not that it will make much of a difference to those who might want to see the movie but I just like typing the words "Wilford Brimley" and I love that wicked cool moustache of his.)

Just like every other romantic comedy, this has just as many bad things going against it, the main one being that the premise looks absolutely moronic, very high concept and silly and not unlike recent dogs like Renee Zellwegger's New in Town, which bombed earlier this year, making just $16 million, plus it's also reminiscent of Steve Martin's comedy dud My Blood Heaven, though that was about a gangster in the witness protection program who ends up in a small town. On top of that, the movie has one of the most unwieldy and unmemorable titles one could possibly imagine rather than one that rolls off the tongue while ordering tickets. Neither of those should matter to women who might really want to see funny and romantic fare; certainly looking dumb didn't hurt one of Sony's summer rom-com hit The Ugly Truth starring Katherine Heigl and Gerard Butler, which grossed nearly $90 million over the summer.

Fortuntately, the only other movie this weekend Avatar isn't likely to appeal to women, at least not immediately, because it looks like typical male-driven geek fodder and other female-driven movies like Sandra Bullock's The Blind Side have already been around long enough to have been seen. The weekend before Christmas is never a great weekend to open a movie like this, because even bigger comedy stars like Jim Carrey have had movies open weakly when people realize they can just wait until the holidays. A movie like this would normally find all of its audience over the holidays, but next week, it has Nancy Meyer's It's Complicated nipping at its heels, which might be a stronger choice for older women off from work for that week. Because of this, we expect this to be one of the holiday's weaker offerings.

Why I Should See It: If you're a fan of Sarah Jessica Parker or Hugh Grant then seeing them together should be thriller.
Why Not: And yet, you'll wish it was for a movie that doesn't look like complete crap.
Projections: $10 to 12 million opening weekend and roughly $60 to 65 million total.

COMPARISONS



THE CHOSEN ONE:

You know it's awards season when there are so many good and great movies being released, which made it harder to pick just one "Chosen One" this week, so we went with two.

Crazy Heart (Fox Searchlight)
Starring
Written and directed by Scott Cooper (debut)
Genre: Drama, Musical
Rated R
Tagline: "The Harder the Life, the Sweeter the Song."
Plot Summary: Country singer Bad Blake (Jeff Bridges) has been playing dives and bowling alleys across the Southwest when he meets a reporter named Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a single mother who might be able to save Blake from himself, as he drinks himself into an early grave.

Interview with Scott Cooper

The first time I heard about Scott Cooper's directorial debut, it was when someone mentioned it being picked up by Fox Searchlight last month, and most of the talk was about Jeff Bridges' performance as run-down country singer Bad Blake being his key into the next Oscar race. Not being a fan of country music in any of its guises, I couldn't even imagine for a second that this film would have nearly as much effect on me as it might on others who have any sort of connection to one of America's most enduring musical genres.

We meet Bridges' protagonist (of sorts) as he's driving around the Southwest playing unconventional venues like bowling alleys and disparate dives--the first venue will immediately draw comparisons to "The Big Lebowski" but those will soon be forgotten. Bad Blake has run out of steam and he's almost out of money, but playing in front of audiences in these places is just something he needs to do to get by, and we see that he doesn't take it very seriously, often performing drunk to the point where his local back-up band has to sing for him. Even though things aren't going well, the crotchety singer agrees to do an interview with a pretty newspaper reporter, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, and he soon falls for her as he spends more time with her and her son Buddy. She knows full well about Bad's drinking problems and that he will ultimately hurt her, but she allows herself to fall for him. Meanwhile, Blake's former protégé Tommy Sweet, played by Colin Farrell, has become one of those country singers who plays huge venues in front of thousands of people, and Tommy's success has left his mentor so bitter that he can't even see that the younger singer is trying to help him.

Like with Mickey Rourke's memorable character in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler last year--and that comparison will probably be made a lot more than The Big Lebowski one--Blake realizes he has an illegitimate son who he tries but fails to reconnect with. Eventually, Blake falls so hard that he's forced to try to clean up his act and start writing songs again, helped greatly by his former protégé. While the themes of redemption in the movie are fairly blatant, Scott Cooper never goes for the obvious Hollywood ending some might be expecting, which makes the film all the more indelible.

This is not a movie with a cut-and-dried beginning, middle and end, told more in a verité slice-of-life style, although it's clearly more scripted than those types of movies normally are. The performances by Bridges, Gyllenhaal and Robert Duvall (in another small but memorable role) are so finely-honed you never feel as if you're watching actors, which is quite a credit as much to Cooper as it is to his cast. Blake isn't exactly the most likeable character and if played by any other actor, you might have trouble rooting for him, but you never lose interest in what he might do next, whether he's living up to his nickname or not.

This is just a wonderful movie, quite a feather in the cap for the first-time director, beautifully shot and brought to life with original music and song that will have you bopping your toe and tapping your head long after you leave the theater. That plays as much a part in one's enjoyment of the movie as watching Jeff Bridges realizing one of his most memorable film characters in years with a performance you won't quickly forget.

Crazy Heart opens on Wednesday in New York and L.A. then expands down the road.

Nine (The Weinstein Co.)
Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Kate Hudson, Stacy Ferguson, Sophia Loren
Directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha); Written by Michael Tolkin, Anthony Minghella
Genre: Musical, Drama
Rated PG-13
Tagline: "This Holiday Season, Be Italian"
Plot Summary: Famous Italian filmmaker Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is having trouble coming up with an idea for his new movie, which needs to start filming very soon, and at the same time, he's having troubles balancing his time between his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his actress/muse (Nicole Kidman), his mother (Sophia Loren) and other women around him (Kate Hudson, Judi Dench).

Interview with Rob Marshall (Sometime next week)

Review (Coming Soon!)

It opens in New York and L.A. for one week of exclusive screenings than opens wider on Christmas Day. We'll talk a lot more about the movie in next week's column.

Honorable Mention:

Ricky (IFC Films)
Starring Alexandra Lamy, Sergi Lopez
Written and directed by François Ozon (8 Women, Swimming Pool, Under the Sand)
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Unrated
Plot Summary: After getting pregnant from a one-night stand, a factory worker and single mother named Katie (Alexandra Lamy) gives birth to a son she names Ricky but the constantly-crying baby causes strain on the family, but then Ricky starts going through an unexpected transformation that changes everything.

Ricky opens on Wednesday at the IFC Center in New York.

Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)

Also in Limited Release:

The Young Victoria (Apparition) - In this new drama from director Jean-Marc Vallée and screenwriter Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), Emily Blunt plays England's Queen Victoria during her early years as monarch where her crown is at the center of a power struggle from a number of forces. It opens in select cities on Friday then expands on Christmas Day.

Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)

A Town Called Panic (Zeitgeist Films) - Stephane Aubier and Vincent Pata's stop motion action-adventure comedy tells the story of three toys named Cowboy, Indian and Horse who share a house in the countryside. After successful festival screenings at Cannes, Toronto and Fantastic Fest, the zany Belgian film opens on Wednesday at the Film Forum in New York and then in L.A. on December 29.

Mini-Review: (Coming Soon!)

The New Daughter (Anchor Bay) - Kevin Costner stars in this thriller as a man who moves with his two kids to a farm after getting divorced, but then his daughter (Ivana Baquero of "Pan's Labyrinth") starts acting oddly, which may be connected to a burial mound in the field. (Maybe she's possessed by the ghost of the girl buried there? That's my guess just from the description.) It's getting dumped into select cities. Should be on DVD soon enough.

The Other Side of Paradise - Arianne Martin stars in Justin D. Hilliard's comedy as a young artist named Rose who tries to find herself while on a road trip across Texas to her first gallery showing, along with her friend Alex (John Elliot) and his younger brother Jamie (Frank Mosley) who was just released from prison. It opens at the Quad Cinema on Friday.



Next week, it's Christmas!!!! And a bunch of movies are going to try to steal Avatar's thunder including Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes (Warner Bros.) starring Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams; Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel (20th Century Fox) starring Alvin, Theodore and the other one whose name I can't remember; and It's Complicated (Universal) brings together Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin. Also, a bunch of other movies that have been playing in limited release will go much wider.

Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas




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