The summer movie season comes to an official end with the Labor Day holiday weekend unleashing three new releases plus the national expansion of a fourth.

Lionsgate offers the action crowd "Crank," Warner Bros. provides the suspense thriller "The Wicker Man," Sony takes a shot with the basketball drama "Crossover," and Yari Film Group goes nationwide with its period thriller "The Illusionist." Each is hoping that current champ "Invincible" will fumble the ball. The summer-ending frame is often a time when moviegoers catch up on hit films they haven’t seen yet so notable holdovers could see their four-day grosses grow beyond their three-day takes from last weekend. Overall, the marketplace remains overcrowded with too many films fighting to get a slice of the box office pie.

British action star Jason Statham attacks the U.S. for the second Labor Day weekend in a row with his latest pic "Crank." Co-starring Amy Smart, the Lionsgate release sees the actor playing a poisoned hitman who must keep his adrenaline up in order to stay alive. Unlike his PG-13 "Transporter" flicks, "Crank" carries a more restrictive R rating which could narrow its target audience. It’s been a tough summer for R-rated action films with movies like "Snakes on a Plane" and "Miami Vice" both underperforming. But if there’s any distributor who can successfully target young adult males with these types of films with intriguing concepts, it’s the "Saw" studio.


Jason Statham showing off his dramatic range

"Snakes" was the only pure action film in the top ten last weekend so competition for "Crank" may not be too fierce. Statham has seen his starpower grow in the last couple of years and that might benefit his latest pic too. Still, the marquees are jam packed with choices this weekend so it will be tough to fight off other films and convince moviegoers that their time and money should be best spent here. A year ago this weekend, "Transporter 2" opened at number one with a four-day tally of $20.1M. However, that Fox pic was a sequel, had a less restrictive rating, and bowed in 900 more theaters. Given "Crank’s" debut in about 2,400 locations, it could end up with around $13M over the long Friday-to-Monday period.

With his twin towers drama still in the top ten, Nicolas Cage hits the big screen for the second time in a month with the psychological thriller "The Wicker Man." The PG-13 film stars the Oscar-winning actor as a cop investigating a cult while looking for a missing girl. Labor Day weekend has been a good time for creepy thrillers, especially for ones that appeal to high school and college students like the "Jeepers Creepers" pics. "Wicker Man’s" rating will help its cause, but whether it can excite teens will determine how big it can become. With a half-dozen production companies, six producers, and seven executive producers all involved, it’s hard to say if this is really director Neil LaBute‘s film. Warner Bros. has given "Wicker" a decent marketing push, but it has not become a must-see thriller. A marketplace flooded with pictures will provide plenty of competition for adults and this one will have to work extra hard to stand out in the crowd. Ending a disappointing summer for the studio, "The Wicker Man" bows in over 2,500 theaters and could scare up around $12M over the four-day period.


Nicolas Cage and Ellen Burstyn in "The Wicker Man"

Sony goes after the urban youth audience with its new basketball drama "Crossover" which finds two young streetballers competing in the world of underground hoops. The PG-13 film is getting a moderate release in 1,023 theaters which will limit its potential, however a solid per-theater average could result. Compared to reigning box office champ "Invincible," this new sports drama will attract a much more ethnic audience and should play primarily to teens and young adults. "Idlewild" will provide some competition for African American moviegoers, however the OutKast pic is playing to an older audience. With Anthony Mackie, Wesley Jonathan, and Wayne Brady heading up the cast, "Crossover" does not offer up much starpower. But it could be a short-term choice for the back-to-school crowd in urban markets. Over the Friday-to-Monday holiday span, "Crossover" might shoot up about $5M.


The first rule of underground streetball is…

After two weeks of strong results in limited release, the period mystery "The Illusionist" expands wide from 144 theaters to approximately 1,000 sites across North America. One of the summer’s best-reviewed films, the Edward NortonPaul Giamatti drama opened in 51 theaters with a powerful $18,195 average and widened on its second frame scoring a still-potent $12,745 average. Glowing praise from critics and solid word-of-mouth could help sell "The Illusionist" to moviegoers who would not ordinarily buy tickets to a film with these stars. Competition will be tough, though. For only the second time all year, ten films surpassed $5M last weekend and most are looking to remain relevant over the holiday session. "The Illusionist" could capture the same amount over four days this weekend pushing its cume to about $9M.


Those illusionists get all the chicks

More new movies enter into limited release on Friday. IFC Films unveils the documentary "This Film is Not Yet Rated" in exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles. The unrated film (it was given an NC-17, but is going out with no official rating) explores the mystery behind the movie ratings system as determined by the Motion Picture Association of America. Writer/director Ed Burns returns to theaters as a private investigator searching for a missing woman in "Looking for Kitty." The R-rated drama is being released in one solo New York house by ThinkFilm.

Last weekend, Mark Wahlberg‘s football drama "Invincible" scored a number one opening and was the only film to attract more than $10M in ticket sales over the frame. Word of mouth has been good and the Disney release would like nothing more than to land another win over the holiday session. The four-day gross might see only a small drop from last weekend’s three-day bow. A decline to about $15M would give "Invincible" a total of $38M after 11 days.

Labor Day weekend has historically been a great time for hot late-summer indie films to reach out to broader audiences and "Little Miss Sunshine" hopes to be the latest one to capitalize on its buzz. Four-day increases over the previous three-day weekends in recent years have included 17% for "March of the Penguins" last year, 35% for "Garden State" in 2004, 80% for "Napoleon Dynamite" that same year, and a whopping 104% for "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" in 2002. That PG-rated blockbuster added about 300 theaters over the holiday frame while the R-rated "Sunshine" will only increase its current count of 1,430 by a hundred or so. The Fox Searchlight hit could charm about $9.5M from ticket buyers over the long weekend and boost its cume to $36M.

LAST YEAR Jason Statham ruled the Labor Day weekend box office with the number one opening of his action sequel "Transporter 2" which grossed $20.1M over four days. The Fox hit went on to collect $43.1M. The comedy sensation "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" slipped to second place with $16.5M over four days displaying another great hold in its third frame. Debuting in third with $11M was the thriller "The Constant Gardener" from Focus which went on to gross $33.6M and become a major awards contender. Rounding out the top five were the DreamWorks suspense flick "Red Eye" with $9.4M and Miramax’s adventure pic "The Brothers Grimm" with $9M. Two new films opened with weak results outside of the top ten. Miramax’s "Underclassman" bowed to $3.1M on its way to $5.7M while Warner Bros. took in just $1.2M for "A Sound of Thunder" leading to only a $1.9M final.

Author: Gitesh Pandya, www.BoxOfficeGuru.com

Jason Statham in "Transporter 2" was the go-to guy over the holiday weekend, hauling in an estimated $20.2 million from 3,300 screens. This is a marked improvement over the debut of the original "Transporter," which opened to $9.1 million, eventually snagged a grand total of $25.2 million, and then became a bona-fide hit once the DVD was released.

With a budget of approximately $32 million, "Trans2" looks to turn a tidy profit well before Fox releases the double-dip Special Edition in eight months. The film also broke the record for a Labor Day debut, knocking "Jeepers Creepers 2" and its $18.3 million opening into second place.

Stepping graciously into second place was the two-week champion known as "The 40 Year-Old Virgin," which added about $16.5 million to its total of $71.9 million. Debuting in third place was Focus Features’ "The Constant Gardener," which tallied nearly $11 million from only 1,346 theaters. (An indicator that moviegoers are perhaps looking for some more grown-up material? One can only hope so.)

Rounding out the top five were Wes Craven‘s "Red Eye" ($9.3m holiday weekend, $45.4 million total) and Terry Gilliam‘s "The Brothers Grimm," which added nearly $8 million to its $27.6 million total haul. A pair of late-season holdovers, Miramax’s "Underclassman," and WB’s "A Sound of Thunder," debuted in rather terrible form. The cop-in-school comedy made $3 million from over 1,100 screens, while the ill-fated Ray Bradbury adaptation yielded only $1.1 million from just over 800 theaters.

Next Friday sees a pair of latecoming hopefuls: Screen Gems’ courtroom-occult flick "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" will debut on over 2,900 screens, while the Samuel Jackson / Eugene Levy buddy comedy "The Man" will appear on about 1,800. For a closer look at the weekend numbers, have a peek at the Rotten Tomatoes Box Office page.

This week we have a movie about international intrigue ("The Constant Gardener"), a mercenary ("The Transporter 2"), the problems of time travel ("A Sound of Thunder"), and a cop who goes back to school "Underclassman").Which one will get the best marks from the critics?

Director Fernando Meirelles‘ first film, "City of God," was a marvel, as it examined the lives of the poor in Rio de Janeiro while simultaneously being exhilarating entertainment. So what does he do for an encore? "The Constant Gardener," a film that critics say manages to be both exiting and a thoughtful, angry diatribe against neo-colonialism in Africa. The film, starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, tells the story of a mild-mannered British diplomat who finds himself in the midst of an international conspiracy. If, at 79 percent on the Tomatometer, it falls a tad below "City of God" (93 percent), the scribes still think it’s one of the smartest films of the summer.

Jason Statham is back in his signature role, as "The Transporter 2" continues the story of the ex-special-forces-agent-turned-mercenary, and the critics are as divided on the sequel as they were on the original. While some say the latest installment is absurd and riddled with plot holes, others say it’s got enough excitement to keep action fans satisfied. It’s currently at 50 percent on the Tomatometer; the original was a shade better, at 51 percent.

The sound you hear may be thunder, or it may be the pounding of critics’ keyboards to pan "A Sound of Thunder," a new science fiction film based on a short story by Ray Bradbury. Starring Edward Burns and Ben Kingsley, the movie examines the potentially devastating effects of time travel on the course of history. The critics say the film has all the negative trappings of 1950s B-movies; with cheesy dialogue and way more fi than sci, "A Sound of Thunder" is at nine percent on the Tomatometer.

What was high school like for you? At my school, there was a car theft ring, and all of a sudden there was this new, popular guy at my school, who I was stunned to find out later was an undercover cop. As you may have guessed, "Underclassman," starring the very likable Nick Cannon, is not the height of realism, critics say. But, even worse, it is not original at all, copping riffs from "Beverly Hills Cop" and "21 Jump Street." The critics are giving this one a flunking grade; at zero on the Tomatometer, "Underclassman" won’t make it out of summer school.

Recent Luc Besson Productions:
————————————–
66% — Unleashed (2005)
42% — High Tension (2005)
10% — Taxi (2004)
51% — The Transporter (2002)
46% — Wasabi (2002)
48% — Kiss of the Dragon (2001)

Universal’s "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" maintained its grasp on first place at the box office for a second consecutive weekend, beating out a trio of newcomers without exerting too much effort. "Virgin" pulled in $16.4 million in its second frame, which is a rather impressive 23% decline from its opening weekend. So far the 40-year-old has sold nearly $49 million worth of tickets.

Debuting in second place was Terry Gilliam‘s "The Brothers Grimm," which tallied just over $15 million from just under 3,100 theaters. Also holding over fairly well from last weekend was Wes Craven‘s "Red Eye," which added just over $10 million to its $32.6 million total.

The top five was rounded out by Paramount’s "Four Brothers" ($7.8m weekend; $55.3m total) and "Wedding Crashers," which tossed an extra $6.2 million on to its $187.7 million money-pile.

This past Friday also saw the rather inauspicious release of the subterranean chiller "The Cave," which made about $6.2 million from 2,200 theaters, and the ensemble rom-com "Undiscovered," which brought in under $700,000 from 1,300 theaters.

Next week sees four new wide (or semi-wide) releases, including Fernando Meirelles‘ "The Constant Gardener," WB’s oft-delayed "A Sound of Thunder," Fox’s genre sequel "Transporter 2," and the Miramax high-school comedy "Underclassman."

As always, you should feel free to stop by the Rotten Tomatoes Box Office page for a closer look at the cineplex moneymakers.

Click here if you’d like to see a trailer for "Just Like Heaven," which is the new romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon as a ghost who falls in love with Mark Ruffalo.

Based on the novel by Marc Levy, adapted for the screen by Leslie Dixon, Peter Tolan, and Ronald Bass, and directed by "Mean Girls" helmer Mark Waters, "Just Like Heaven" also stars Donal Logue, Jon Heder, and the director’s lovely wife, Dina Spybey.

Septmber 16th is when this ethereal rom-com hits the screens, so you guys might want to start telling your girlfriends that you’re just dying to see "Lord of War" or "Proof" — they open on the same weekend.

One of Sundance’s more buzzed-about films was the dark high school comedy "Pretty Persuasion," and now you can check out the trailer over at Quicktime’s Trailer Site. Described by some as "Heathers" meets "Election"…

…The profane and acid-tongued farce stars Evan Rachel Wood ("Thirteen"), James Woods ("The Virgin Suicides"), Ron Livingston ("Swingers"), Selma Blair ("Hellboy"), and Jane Krakowski ("Alfie").

The plot centers on "a sexual harassment scandal that engulfs an exclusive Beverly Hills private school. Wood plays a teen who frames her teacher for sexual harassment."

Sure to be a somewhat controversial comedy, "Pretty Persuasion" was written by first-timer Skander Halim and directed by Marcos Siega ("Underclassman"). The film, which is of a decidedly R-rated "Persuason," opens in limited release on August 12th.

Nick Cannon plays a youthful bike cop who’s enlisted for undercover duty at a posh private school in "Underclassman," the trailer for which can now be seen at Yahoo! Movies. Directed by Marcos Siega ("Pretty Persuasion") and penned by "Girl Next Door" scribes Brent Goldberg & David Wagner, "Underclassman" has been sitting in a Miramax vault for many a moon — but hey, it might be good anyway!

Alongside Mr. Cannon you’ll find Roselyn Sanchez ("Boat Trip"), Shawn Ashmore ("X-Men 2"), Kelly Hu ("Cradle 2 the Grave"), and everyone’s favorite old stoner, Cheech Marin.

"Underclassman" registers for class on August 5th.

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