Bryan Singer’s "Superman Returns" cleaned house at the Saturn Awards over the weekend. (Hey, don’t laugh. The Saturn Awards have been around for over 30 years and they pay some fine attention to the genre films we all love so much.)

Check out these winners and then tell me the Saturn folks don’t have pretty good taste:

Best Science Fiction Film: "Children of Men"
Best Fantasy Film: "Superman Returns"
Best Horror Film: "The Descent"
Best Action/Adventure/Thriller Film: "Casino Royale"
Best Animated Film: "Cars"
Best International Film: "Pan’s Labyrinth"
Best Actor: Brandon Routh ("Superman Returns")
Best Actress: Natalie Portman ("V for Vendetta")
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Affleck ("Hollywoodland")
Best Supporting Actress: Famke Janssen ("X-Men: The Last Stand")
Best Performance by a Younger Actor: Ivana Baquero ("Pan’s Labyrinth")
Best Director: Bryan Singer ("Superman Returns")
Best Writing: Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris ("Superman Returns")
Best Music: John Ottman ("Superman Returns")
Best Costume: Yee Chung-Man ("Curse of the Golden Flower")
Best Makeup: Todd Masters and Dan Rebert ("Slither")
Best Special Effects: John Knoll, Hal Hickel, Charles Gibson and Allen Hall ("Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest")

Best DVD Release: "The Sci-Fi Boys"
Best DVD Special Edition Release: "Superman II"
Best DVD Classic Film Release: "Gojira"
Best DVD Collection: James Bond Ultimate Edition
Best DVD Television Series: "Masters of Horror"
Best Retro Television Series on DVD: "Adventures of Superman"

They also gave out some TV awards, which you can check out at Sci-Fi.com. (There’s also a full list of nominees so you can see which flicks got beat up by Superman.) I think they might be just a bit too much drooling over "Superman Returns," but hey, I’m not on the voting committee.

Stomping into the number one spot over the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend was the college dance drama "Stomp the Yard," which grossed an estimated $22M in its opening weekend to push three-week champ "Night at the Museum" into second place. Exceeding even the loftiest of expectations, the PG-13 step dancing pic averaged a loud $10,726 from only 2,051 theaters.

Over the past 22 months, only "Borat" has reached the top spot with fewer theaters. With Monday being a holiday, studios will release complete four-day weekend estimates then. "Stomp the Yard" was budgeted at only $14M and generated two-thirds of its business this weekend from African American moviegoers, according to studio research.

After ruling the box office for three weeks, the effects-driven comedy "Night at the Museum" slipped to second place but still posted healthy numbers grossing an estimated $17.1M. Fox has now collected a hefty $185.8M and saw its weekend tally decline by only 28%. Sliding only 29% was Will Smith‘s Golden Globe-nominated turn in "The Pursuit of Happyness" with an estimated $9.1M in its fifth frame. Sony has banked $136.5M while the popular Museum-Pursuit duo has grossed a stunning $322M together.

Paramount expanded its hit musical "Dreamgirls" from 852 to 1,907 theaters and climbed a notch into fourth place with an estimated $8.1M. Off only 6%, the DreamWorks production has taken in $65M thus far with the $100M mark expected to be broken in the near future. "Dreamgirls" is considered the frontrunner to win the Golden Globe award for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical on Monday night and is looking to secure several Oscar nominations next week which the studio hopes will allow the pic to have legs. But after four weeks of incredible averages, the PG-13 film saw its per-theater average slide to $4,259 from its nationwide release.

The studio also expanded its urban high school drama "Freedom Writers" from 1,360 to 2,179 sites and ranked fifth with an estimated $7.1M. The gross dipped by only 24% for the Hilary Swank flick while the average tumbled by 53%. Total stands at $18.4M.

Three of the top five films over MLK weekend featured predominantly African American casts while "Freedom" boasted a multicultural school saga. For the Hollywood film industry, it was a rare sight. However between the King frame and Black History Month, a handful of studios have discovered how to tap into the sizable African American moviegoing audience with the right films in the January-February corridor.

Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón followed in sixth with his futuristic drama "Children of Men" which grossed an estimated $6.4M, down 37%, for a $21.4M total to date. The Clive Owen thriller was given 299 more theaters, but suffered a slowdown as its average dropped 49% in only its second weekend of wide play. "Children" has also grossed $32.5M overseas.

Three new releases followed but ticket buyers were not too excited about any of them. The drug dealer drama "Alpha Dog" bowed in seventh place with an estimated $6.1M from 1,289 locations for a respectable $4,765 average. Justin Timberlake, who conveniently announced his breakup with Cameron Diaz just days before the film opened, stars in the ensemble cast of the R-rated drama.

The serial killer pic "Primeval" debuted close behind in eighth place with an estimated $6M from 2,444 theaters. Despite having the widest release in the freshman class, the R-rated chiller averaged a weak $2,450 for Buena Vista. MGM released The Weinstein Company’s kidpic "Arthur and the Invisibles" but bombed with an estimated $4.3M from 2,247 playdates for a poor $1,914 average. The PG-rated adventure featured both live action and animation plus featured the voices of Madonna, Snoop Dogg, and Robert De Niro. Audiences had no interest.

Rounding out the top ten was De Niro’s spy thriller "The Good Shepherd" with an estimated $3.9M, down 39%, for a $54.3M cume.

Sony Classics widened its Chinese historical epic "Curse of the Golden Flower" from 55 sites in limited release to 1,234 theaters nationwide and collected an estimated $2M. That gave the Zhang Yimou drama a flimsy average of only $1,624 with a total to date of $4.4M. Moviegoers were more in the mood for dancers stomping than daggers flying.

The top ten films grossed an estimated $90.2M over the Friday-to-Sunday period which was off 3% from last year when "Glory Road" opened at number one with $13.6M; and down 20% from 2005 when "Coach Carter" debuted on top with $24.2M over three days.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

Can Ben Stiller and his living artifacts four-peat at the top of the North American box office, or will one of the new releases take the crown over the four-day Dr. Martin Luther King holiday weekend? Ticket buyers will decide.

Leading the freshman class is the dance drama "Stomp the Yard" which could have breakout potential. Also opening are the fantasy pic "Arthur and the Invisibles," the drug dealer pic "Alpha Dog," and the horror flick "Primeval." With so many schools closed on Monday, the new films are targeting students of all ages who will have extra time on their hands.

The west and east coasts meet in "Stomp the Yard," a story of a Los Angeles student enrolled in an Atlanta university who uses his unique style to help his fraternity compete in a step dancing contest. The PG-13 film is short on starpower, but makes up for that with terrific marketing which is the real ingredient that will put asses into the seats. Sony has cut exciting trailers and commercial spots which should spark lots of interest with teens and young adults. Plus, MLK weekend is the perfect time to open a black college film since interest will be high for this particular subject matter. African American students will especially be out in solid numbers. However, the opening of Justin Timberlake‘s "Alpha Dog" could take away some of the young adult crowd.

"Stomp" should appeal to the same audiences that delivered bigger-than-expected openings for "Drumline" ($12.6M opening, $6,865 average), "ATL" ($11.6M, $7,212), and "You Got Served" ($16.1M, $8,341). The urban youth of America possesses tremendous spending power and Hollywood has just woken up to this in recent years financing low cost flicks that return handsome profits through theatrical and DVD sales. "Stomp" also offers an appealing story relevant to today’s young people and looks to join this list. Stepping into 2,051 theaters, "Stomp the Yard" could collect about $16M over four days this weekend.


An action shot from "Stomp the Yard."

The weekend’s only new kidpic comes in the form of the French production "Arthur and the Invisibles," a groundbreaking feature which mixes live-action with animation in a fantasy tale. The PG-rated film from The Weinstein Co. is directed by action professional Luc Besson ("The Fifth Element," "Joan of Arc") and features the voices of Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel, Snoop Dogg, and Madonna. With so many young children across the country having a long school holiday, "Arthur" should get some play as the only new option for parents who have taken enough trips to the Museum. Of course "Happily N’Ever After" flopping last weekend shows that family audiences will not come out for just anything. With about 2,500 theaters, it is the widest of the new titles which could help it get into double digit millions over the extended frame. The marketing push has been admirable too. MLK weekend has often seen better-than-expected results for debuting kiddie flicks like "Kangaroo Jack," "Racing Stripes," and "Hoodwinked." "Arthur and the Invisibles" may carve out its share of the pie and gross roughly $11M over the four-day period.


Those troll dolls have found a new purpose in "Arthur and the Invisibles."

Pop music king Justin Timberlake joins an ensemble cast which includes Emile Hirsch, Sharon Stone, and Bruce Willis in the gritty drama "Alpha Dog." Directed by Nick Cassavetes, the R-rated film tells of a drug dealer who kidnaps the younger brother of a friend who owes a debt. The Universal release is based on true events and will target older teens and twentysomethings. The marketing makes the film look slick and cool plus JT provides a built-in audience of fans that can be tapped into.

However, two main obstacles are in the way – the rating and competition from "Stomp the Yard." A large portion of Timberlake’s fans are young teens and they will have a hard time buying tickets. Plus, "Stomp" will be distracting the urban youth with its slick look and milder PG-13 rating. On top of that, the studio’s release is not too wide. These factors should curtail the potential of "Alpha." Critics have given solid support which may help a little, although Time Out New York boldly calls the pic the worst movie of the year in its zero-star review. Opening in about 1,200 theaters, "Alpha Dog" might bite down on around $8M over the long weekend.


Timberlake gets down in "Alpha Dog."

Every horror film since Halloween has flopped and the streak looks to continue with "Primeval" from Buena Vista. The R-rated film about a news crew hunting down a killer boasts no starpower and lacks a compelling plot worthy of the ten-dollar bills of genre fans. Marketing support has been weak and awareness is not very high. The fright flick seems to have the same potential as last month’s "Turistas" which bowed to a weak $3.6M and $2,282 average. "Primeval" will open wider with about 2,000 theaters and has an extended four-day session so a gross of roughly $6M could result followed by steep drops.

Zhang Yimou has seen solid but not spectacular averages for his latest Chinese epic "Curse of the Golden Flower" which has already grossed $2.2M from its limited release in about 60 theaters. Its average of $6,104 last weekend will drop considerably as it expands nationwide into about 1,200 playdates. The Mandarin-language period piece seems to be going too wide too fast and with all the choices in the multiplexes, Sony Classics may find it difficult to get multiplex crowds into all those new seats. "Curse" will try to play to fans of the "Hero" director, but Chow Yun Fat and Gong Li are no Jet Li and Zhang Ziyi at the American box office. A $4M gross over the long weekend could result.


These horses must be suffering from "The Curse of the Golden Flower."

Ben Stiller and Will Smith have been inseparable blockbuster brothers atop the box office charts for the last three weeks. But the weekend’s new releases should finally cause a breakup. Stiller’s runaway smash "Night at the Museum" has been holding up incredibly well against any competition that has come its way and will attempt to become the first film since 2003’s "The Return of the King" to remain number one for four consecutive weekends. The only thing standing in its path is a possible teen explosion for "Stomp." "Museum’s" four-day holiday gross could slip 25% from last weekend’s three-day figure giving the Fox hit about $18M and a remarkable cume to date of $187M.

Smith has done pretty well for himself too with "The Pursuit of Happyness" which should see another solid turnout over MLK weekend. A 20% drop would give Sony a four-day tally of $10M boosting its total to a stellar $137M.

Since it opened nationally on Christmas Day, "Dreamgirls" has been posting the best per-theater averages of any wide release. Now, Paramount will more than double the run and expand the Golden Globe nominee for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical from 852 to about 1,800 theaters. The Jamie FoxxBeyonce Knowles musical is the favorite to take home that honor, plus other statues, and the studio wants to make sure the product is available everywhere once the wins occur. Plus, films with African American casts routinely do very well over the King frame so a jump in sales is assured. For the four-day period, "Dreamgirls" may climb to around $11M putting the cume at $68M. If it wins the Globe for Best Picture and secures a sizable number of Oscar nominations the following week, the total domestic take could certainly surpass the $100M mark as it did for "Chicago" four years ago. The Richard Gere musical reached a similar $63.8M at the end of the weekend it went fully national into 1,841 locations and went on to a sensational $170.7M final total.

LAST YEAR: Disney kicked off the first of what would be many hit sports flicks in 2006 with the basketball drama "Glory Road" which opened at number one over MLK weekend with $16.9M over four days. The live action film barely beat out the animated comedy "Hoodwinked" which also grossed $16.9M over the Friday-to-Monday period, but was about $50,000 shy of the number one spot. The duo reached $42.6M and $51.2M, respectively. Third place also was held by a new release. Paramount’s Queen Latifah comedy "Last Holiday" bowed to a solid $15.5M on its way to $38.4M. Rounding out the top five were former number ones "The Chronicles of Narnia" with $12.8M and "Hostel" with $11.4M over the long weekend. Fox’s romance "Tristan & Isolde" found few lovers in its debut opening to $7.6M on its way to just $14.7M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

This week at the movies, we’ve got a kid who ventures into a magical world ("Arthur and the Invisibles," with voice work from Robert De Niro and Madonna), a frat dance-off ("Stomp the Yard," starring Meagan Good), a lavish tale set during the Tang Dynasty ("The Curse of the Golden Flower," starring Chow Yun-Fat and Gong Li) and a ripped-from-the-headlines teen crime pic ("Alpha Dog," starring Bruce Willis and Justin Timberlake). What do the critics have to say?

Written by Nick Hershey and Alex Vo

"Arthur and the Invisibles" is a partially animated children’s film from director Luc Besson. Ten-year-old Arthur must find a passage to a magical world populated by tiny little beings called Minimoys in order to save his grandfather’s home. Critics say that the story tries to do too much, and the film wastes the big-name voice talent on a predictable script (including Robert De Niro, Madonna, and Snoop Dogg). In addition, they note that while the animation is interesting, it doesn’t hold up to the current CG standard. At 28 percent on the Tomatometer, "Arthur and the Invisibles" may not be something to see.


"Look how you’ve grown! You’re as tall as my ex-boyfriend now."

Two rival fraternities compete for the allegiance of a street dancer from Los Angeles in "Stomp the Yard." "Stepping" is the latest dance, and "Yard" has plenty of pep, thanks to appealing performers like Columbus Short and Meagan Good. But critics say that while "Stomp" contains impressive musical and dance numbers, it loses its momentum during the intervening soap opera-style subplots. At 27 percent on the Tomatometer, "Stomp" doesn’t quite go the extra yard.


"Let’s stomp the desert!"

You wouldn’t expect it from a Yimou Zhang movie, but "The Curse of the Golden Flower" is something not to be over-thought, but simply watched. Critics say the film goes to great lengths to visually mesmerize the audience, with enormous sets lavished in gold and silk, jade and brocade, and exquisitely bloody swordfights. But they also say the story is melodramatic. Really melodramatic. At 63 percent on the Tomatometer, this one’s both a blessing and a curse.


Apparently they had Jell-O shots in the Tang Dynasty.

Like a Hollywood remake of a Larry Clark movie, "Alpha Dog" is a glossy yet unflinching look into a violent and hedonistic teenage community. Bruce Willis and Sharon Stone play scene-chewing figures of authority, but critics say it’s Justin Timberlake who’s noteworthy, and the relationship his and Anton Yelchin’s character develop is the emotional tether that holds "Alpha Dog" together. The scribes say that while some of the techniques director Nick Cassavetes employs are a bit over the top, he’s able to draw good performances out of the cast. At 63 percent on the Tomatometer, this "Dog" has bite.


"Step 1: Cut a hole in a box."

Looks like we’re starting the year off right: we’re just two weeks into 2007, and already we’ve got a movie that wasn’t screened for critics. It’s called "Primeval," and it’s about a serial killer that has claimed more than 300 victimsm. It’s probably mediocre. Guess that Tomatometer.


Nope, it ain’t ‘The Searchers.’

Also opening this week in limited release: the compelling Holocaust documentary "Verdict on Auschwitz" is at 100 percent; "God Grew Tired of Us," a powerful doc about the Lost Boys of Sudan, is at 93 percent; "Ever Since the World Ended," a mockumentary about post-apocalyptic San Francisco, is at 75 percent; and "Tears of the Black Tiger," a heavily stylized Thai western, is at 73 percent.

Luc Besson-Directed Films:
———————————-
50% — Angel-A (2007)
30% — The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999)
68% — The Fifth Element (1997)
81% — Leon The Professional (1994)
86% — La Femme Nikita (1990)

Moviegoers will have plenty to choose from over the long Christmas holiday weekend as four new star-driven wide releases hit the marketplace adding to an already crowded marquee.

The Ben Stiller fantasy pic "Night at the Museum" leads the way as the frame’s only new comedy while the Matthew McConaughey football drama "We Are Marshall" offers an inspirational story based on true events. Meanwhile, a pair of Italian Stallions hop into the director’s chair as Sylvester Stallone‘s boxing drama "Rocky Balboa" and Robert De Niro‘s espionage thriller "The Good Shepherd" offer even more choices to holiday moviegoers. As is typical of this time of year, Christmas Eve will hurt the box office on Sunday as last-minute shopping and early theater closings will take their toll. But the Monday holiday will see a major recovery since Christmas Day brings forth a surge in traffic to the multiplexes.

Blasting into nearly 3,700 theaters including 72 Imax venues is the comedy "Night at the Museum" which finds Ben Stiller playing the new night watchman at New York’s Museum of Natural History where all the artifacts and statues come to life each night. Director Shawn Levy ("Cheaper by the Dozen," "The Pink Panther") leaves behind Steve Martin to work with a younger funnyman and more special effects. The PG-rated film is aiming for broad audiences hoping to bring in entire families looking for a fun time this holiday season. "Museum" also plans to score with teens and young adults as the only major comedy option for them. With "The Holiday" being the only other laugher in the top ten to register with that lucrative group, look for a solid response.

Stiller brings considerable starpower to the film but he also gets backup from comedians like Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais, and Dick Van Dyke. Plus with the prestigious ‘and’ credit already claimed by Williams, Owen Wilson takes a sizable supporting role but is so cool that he is nowhere to be found in the credits at all. Audiences want happy and funny films during the Christmas holidays and "Night at the Museum" should post muscular numbers thanks to its starpower, lack of comedy competition, mild rating, and formidable marketing and distribution push. Fox looks to close up the books on 2006 by taking over the number one spot this weekend. Attacking 3,688 locations, "Night at the Museum" could debut to about $34M over the four-day Friday-to-Monday holiday period.

Ben Stiller in "Night at the Museum."

Sylvester Stallone brings the eye of the tiger back to the multiplexes one last time in "Rocky Balboa" which got a jumpstart on the holiday weekend with its Wednesday launch. The MGM release brings the iconic boxer back to the screen in what is supposedly the end of the franchise with Stallone back in the saddle as writer and director. In this tale, Rocky is brought back into the ring when media hype prompts fans to wonder who the best boxer is of all time. The underdog story on screen mirrored the one within industry circles. How could a franchise that died 16 years ago with the poorly-received "Rocky V" find its way back into the hearts of today’s moviegoers. MGM and the "Judge Dredd" star moved forward. Today, they proudly claim one of the best reviewed films of the Christmas season and the Wednesday bow is being counted on to get die-hard fans out early so they can spread positive buzz at work and in school going into the lucrative yet overcrowded weekend period.

With so many other films in the marketplace, and plenty with PG or G ratings aimed at luring in full families, "Rocky Balboa" will have to take its time at the box office as many moviegoers may need some convincing before spending money on the followup to the Tommy Gunn flick. Older adults are the ones who remember the excitement of the franchise, but the studio is hoping they could bring their kids with them for an uplifting tale that makes you feel good inside. "The Pursuit of Happyness" and "We Are Marshall" will be direct competitors in the feel-good genre and the latter will steal away many sports fans too. "Balboa" will have to rely on nostalgia and good word-of-mouth to carry it through round after round. Already playing in 2,752 theaters and adding more locations on Friday, "Rocky Balboa" may gross about $16M over four days and around $21M over six days.


Stallone is back for one more round in "Rocky Balboa."

For football fans this holiday weekend, Warner Bros. trots out another pigskin drama with "We Are Marshall" starring Matthew McConaughey, Matthew Fox, and David Strathairn. The PG-rated film tells the true story of the football program at Marshall University in West Virginia which had to be rebuilt from scratch after a plane crash killed most of the players and coaches. Hollywood seems to have an endless line-up of sports dramas these days and since most of them become commercial successes, it’s no wonder that they keep getting churned out. Just a few months ago, moviegoers powered the football flicks "Invincible" and "Gridiron Gang" to the number one spot with bows of $17M and $14.4M, respectively. "Marshall" should play to much of the same audience and with its underdog feel-good story, the time of year will help since people are in the mood for that type of emotion.

Reviews have not been too good, but that should not matter much. "We Are Marshall" is meant for sports fans and those who love stories about overcoming adversity, regardless of how predictable they may be. Sales from the heartland should be solid and with the tame rating, entire families can come out together. Plus McConaughey is a reliable draw at the box office and is believable as a quirky football coach. Still, competition will be strong and coming from all directions so a blowout will not be possible. Opening in 2,606 theaters, "We Are Marshall" could score about $14M over the Friday-to-Monday frame.


They are Marshall.

Countering the parade of PG flicks is the R-rated CIA thriller "The Good Shepherd" directed by Robert De Niro. The Universal release stars Matt Damon as Edward Wilson, a loyal government agent who helped to create the agency during the Cold War. Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, John Turturro, and De Niro also star. "Shepherd" boasts solid starpower which could help the film have broad appeal. The subject matter appeals to the 30+ crowd, but Damon and Jolie should help to pull in twentysomethings. Teens and ethnic audiences will have minimal interest. Critics have been mixed on the film which could impact the overall turnout.

The last few months have not been kind to star-driven period dramas aimed at adult audiences. Pictures like "Hollywoodland," "All the King’s Men," and "Bobby" have all struggled to find paying audiences with none reaching the $15M mark in total sales. "Shepherd’s" cast is what will allow it to rise above those failures. But the fight for the attention and time of mature adults will be fierce and a running time of nearly three hours will allow for one less showtime per day on every screen further cutting into its commercial potential. Infiltrating 2,217 locations, "The Good Shepherd" might capture around $13M over four days.


Matt Damon and Alec Baldwin in "The Good Shepherd."

With the calendar year coming to a close, things continue to get crowded in the specialty arena this weekend. Clint Eastwood‘s award-winning war drama "Letters From Iwo Jima" debuted on Wednesday in limited release ahead of a January expansion similar to what Warner Bros. did two years ago with the director’s "Million Dollar Baby" which went on to reign at the Oscars. Edward Norton and Naomi Watts star in the period romance "The Painted Veil" from Warner Independent which also platformed on Wednesday in New York and Los Angeles. Thursday brings the limited launches of Miramax’s "Venus" starring Golden Globe nominee Peter O’Toole and the Chinese period drama "Curse of the Golden Flower" from Sony Classics which stars Gong Li and Chow Yun-Fat.


Zhang Yimou’s "Curse of the Golden Flower."

Last weekend, Will Smith scored a number one hit with "The Pursuit of Happyness" which continues to please audiences. Overall moviegoing should increase over the holiday weekend, but more choices for adult audiences will give Sony some competition. "Pursuit’s" four-day take could drop 25% from its three-day debut gross giving the film about $20M and a cume of $58M after 11 days.

As a sci-fi actioner, Fox’s "Eragon" is likely to see one of the largest drops in the top ten. The dragon adventure might fall by 35% to around $15M over the four-day session leaving the studio with $46M.

Kidpics score big points over Christmas so "Charlotte’s Web" might see many of those fans who skipped out last weekend actually show up this time. The Paramount release’s four-day tally may slip 10% from its three-day bow and bring in roughly $10M. That would give the family film a total of $27M after 11 days.

LAST YEAR: With Christmas falling on a Sunday, the observed holiday on Monday gave the box office an expanded four-day holiday frame allowing the mega holdovers to repeat atop the charts. "King Kong" spent its second weekend at number one and grossed $33.3M over four days and was closely followed by "The Chronicles of Narnia" with $31.7M in its third adventure. The combined haul for the pair soared to $285M with much more still to come. Newcomers rounded out the top five with Jim Carrey defeating Steve Martin in the battle of the comedies. Sony’s "Fun With Dick and Jane" opened in third with $21.5M over four days while Fox’s sequel "Cheaper by the Dozen 2" settled for fourth with $15.3M. Final tallies reached $110.3M and $82.6M, respectively. Sony also claimed fifth with "Memoirs of a Geisha" which expanded nationally and took in $10.2M over the long weekend. Also opening were Fox Searchlight’s Johnny Knoxville comedy "The Ringer" with $7.7M over four days, the Jennifer Aniston pic "Rumor Has It" with $7.5M in two days for Warner Bros., and Universal’s "Munich" with $6M in four days. The films went on to reach $35.4M, $43M, and $47.4M respectively. The debuting horror pic "Wolf Creek" opened outside the top ten with $4.9M in two days on its way to $16.2M.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

The latest from from the director of "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero" is on its way, which means we’re due for a few new posters and maybe even a trailer. So click on in if you have more than a passing interest in Zhang Yimou‘s "Curse of the Golden Flower."

Click here to check out the goods at MonkeyPeaches.com.

Here’s how Sony describes their movie: "China, Later Tang Dynasty, 10th Century. On the eve of the Chong Yang Festival, golden flowers fill the Imperial Palace. The Emperor (Chow Yun Fat) returns unexpectedly with his second son, Prince Jai (Jay Chou). His pretext is to celebrate the holiday with his family, but given the chilled relations between the Emperor and the ailing Empress (Gong Li), this seems disingenuous. For many years, the Empress and Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye), her stepson, have had an illicit liaison. Feeling trapped, Prince Wan dreams of escaping the palace with his secret love Chan (Li Man), the Imperial Doctor’s daughter. Meanwhile, Prince Jai, the faithful son, grows worried over the Empress’s health and her obsession with golden chrysanthemums. Could she be headed down an ominous path? The Emperor harbors equally clandestine plans; the Imperial Doctor (Ni Dahong) is the only one privy to his machinations. When the Emperor senses a looming threat, he relocates the doctor’s family from the Palace to a remote area. While they are en route, mysterious assassins attack them. Chan and her mother, Jiang Shi (Chen Jin) are forced back to the palace. Their return sets off a tumultuous sequence of dark surprises. Amid the glamour and grandeur of the festival, ugly secrets are revealed. As the Imperial Family continues its elaborate charade in a palatial setting, thousands of golden armored warriors charge the palace. Who is behind this brutal rebellion? Where do Prince Jai’s loyalties lie? Between love and desire, is there a final winner? Against a moonlit night, thousands of chrysanthemum blossoms are trampled as blood spills across the Imperial Palace."

Wow, sounds like a soap opera. "Curse of the Golden Flower" opens on December 22nd.

Helen Mirren‘s astoundingly successful biopic "The Queen" is getting some serious competition from Pedro Almodovar‘s latest, as "Volver" has emerged a frontrunner for the box-office returns (and Awards Season affections) of the artsy crowd.

"The Queen," directed by Stephen Frears, was picked up in October 2005 by Miramax, who then cited the pick-up as the desire to build "an eclectic, wide-ranging slate of specialty projects." With a good-sized (at least for a studio indie) budget estimated at $15 M, it seems Miramax’s acquisition of the quiet Brit royalty drama was a stroke of genius; since debuting in a scant three-theater limited release at the end of September, the film has built unrelenting momentum into a domestic gross of $10.1 M.

Of course, box-office recognition for "The Queen" has mirrored the response of critics, making it both a successful money-maker and a deserving prestige pic. That wave of laurels can be traced back to September, when it debuted to great acclaim at the Venice Film Festival and went on to win three of that festival’s awards (for Best Screenplay, Best Actress, and the FIPRESCI Prize; Frears lost the Golden Lion to Zhang Ke Jia‘s "Still Life").

"The Queen" is currently Certified Fresh and sitting pretty at 98 percent on the Tomatometer, only three out of 120 critics having disliked it (including Stella Papamichael of the BBC, who wrote of it "The tabloid appeal is obvious, but Morgan’s script is tomorrow’s chip paper."). Most critics, however, agree with the Toronto Star‘s Peter Howell that the picture is "led by Mirren in a title role that demands Oscar glory."

But on the whole the critics are raving; it’s no surprise, then, that Helen Mirren has been pegged for months as a shoe-in for Best Actress. She knows it, too; her steely, powdery visage on the film’s poster screams confidence — "It’s mine, all you other actresses get out of my way!" — a statuette finally in her hands, after two previous unrealized nominations (for "The Madness of King George" in 1995, and "Gosford Park" in 2002). Plus, Mirren’s on a royal roll, having just won an Emmy for playing another Elizabeth, Elizabeth I, in the acclaimed 2005 HBO miniseries.

But last weekend a contender emerged to threaten Helen Mirren’s near-lock on the Best Actress award. And her name is Penelope.

Penelope Cruz, carrying an equally strong ensemble piece, is simply luminous in "Volver," a quasi-magical tragicomedy by Spanish director Pedro Almodovar released by Sony Pictures Classics last week. Like "The Queen," "Volver" has reaped praise from critics the world over. And although it only just opened in limited release in the U.S., it’s also poised to make big bucks — and make it’s leading lady a strong candidate for Oscar.

A foreign film after all, "Volver" premiered in Almodovar’s native Spain last March and proceeded to rake in the dough on its tour across Europe, Latin America, and other markets. It also hit up the festival circuit — Almodovar is a certified auteur, and proved so by nabbing a Best Screenplay award at this year’s Cannes, (although he lost the Palme d’or to Ken Loach‘s IRA drama "The Wind That Shakes the Barley"). His film also won the festival’s Best Actress prize — a shared honor awarded to the six female leads of "Volver."

"Volver" is no slouch when it comes to the Tomatometer, either; it’s currently at 93 percent, with 60 reviews. And what of the numbers?

Since debuting this spring overseas, the Almodovar film has grossed $61.5 M worldwide; last weekend it posted "Queen"-like numbers, averaging $40,400 per screen in only five theaters (when "The Queen" debuted in three theaters this fall, it took in a similar $40,671 per site). On November 22 "Volver" will hit 20 more theaters, with more and more playdates as its platform release continues — and, you can be sure, as it keeps filling seats.

All of this is has set Oscar-watchers abuzz, as Cruz — certainly known to American audiences, albeit for eye-candy roles and the spectacle of a Spanish beauty circulating in Hollywood — seems a compelling Best Actress alternative to Mirren. As the beleaguered yet beautiful young mother Raimunda, Cruz’s performance is revelatory; IGN Movies critic Todd Gilchrist muses "she is strong, weak, tender, tough, sexy, and maternal, often all at once." Slant Magazine writer Ed Gonzalez writes "‘Mildred Pierce’ won Joan Crawford an Oscar, and Almodóvar’s quaint riff on the Michael Curtiz classic may do the same for Penélope Cruz."

The LA Times’ Gold Derby columnist Tom O’Neill calls Mirren "the Best Actress frontrunner" but also that "Penelope Cruz has The Babe Factor in a race crowded with older gals." And while these two are certainly reigning over awards contention right now, a handful of other names have been thrown into the ring, including four-time nominee Kate Winslet for "Little Children," multiple-time nominee and twice-winner Meryl Streep for "The Devil Wears Prada," and three-time nominee Annette Bening (for the critical dud "Running With Scissors."

But there’s plenty of time left in the year for more nominees, and a trio of forthcoming flicks have more potential Best Actress-worthy thesps: Dame Judi Dench, for "Notes on a Scandal" (December 25), her co-star Cate Blanchett for Steven Soderbergh‘s "The Good German" (December 15), and — surprise, surprise — Chinese actress Gong Li for "Curse of the Golden Flower," the forthcoming period epic from Zhang Yimou (December 22).

Li’s entrance into the speculative arena is the most recent, and the most interesting; with turns in her first two American movies within the last year ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "Miami Vice") Li has certainly bumped up her exposure stateside. Plus, anyone remotely familiar with Chinese cinema knows she has the skills to be in contention (see "Raise the Red Lantern," "Ju Dou," or any other films she made with director Yimou). But "Curse of the Golden Flower," to be released by Sony Pictures Classics, will have the barriers of language and culture to overcome, and while the same can be said of Almodovar, Cruz, and "Volver," it will certainly be a bigger hurdle for Yimou, Li, and "Flower."

I’ll keep this short and sweet: If you’re a fan of movies like "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," you probably have a rather large interest in seeing Zhang Yimou‘s latest, "Curse of the Golden Flower." And now there’s all sorts of production stills and featurettes available for your perusal.

Check out all the cool stills over at TwitchFilm.net, and then head on over to the flick’s official site for a lot more goodies.

Synopsis, courtesy of ComingSoon.net: "In the spirit of such landmark Asian films as Akira Kurosawa‘s "Ran" from Japan and Zhang Yimou’s own "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers," "Curse of the Golden Flower" promises to be Zhang Yimou’s most colorful and biggest production to date, fusing high drama and romantic intrigue with the best of contemporary martial arts. The plot concerns the volatile balance of power between the King (Chow Yun Fat) and the Queen (Gong Li) and his three sons, which entails betrayal, deceit and passion, pitting the King against Queen and father against sons. The glorious canvas includes many of the creative team behind "Hero" and "House of Flying Daggers": cinematographer Zhao Xiading (Oscar nominated for "House of Flying Daggers"), production designer Huo Tingxiao, action director Tony Ching Siu-Tung, sound designer Tao Jing and producers Bill Kong and Zhang Wei Ping. The music is composed by Shigeru Umebayashi ("Hero, "2046," "In the Mood for Love") and the costume designer is Yee Chung Man ("So Close")."

"Curse" opens on December 22nd.

It’s been reported that the early (and positive) reviews for Chow Yun-Fat‘s "Curse of the Golden Flower" were bought and paid for by the film’s production company — but the actor has responded by stating that the news is entirely untrue, and he’s looking for some apologies, too.

From MonkeyPeaches.com: "Chow Yun-Fat, who plays the lead character in Curse of the Golden Flower, has officially denied through a written statement, that he had ever said individuals who gave positive reviews to the film were hired by the studio. According to the statement published on Sina.com.cn, the rumor was actually fabricated by a reporter, who failed to get a ticket to see the film. Chow had demanded the reporter and the organization the report works for to apologize to him and the production company Beijing New Picture Film Co."

Click here for the full report.

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