WOLVERINE EXPECTED TO TEAR UP BOX OFFICE

There appears to be little doubt that X-Men Origins: Wolverine will open this weekend with the biggest gross of the year -- possibly as high as $120-130 million -- thereby setting a record for the first weekend in May, according to box-office prognosticators (who, incidentally, have had a lousy record themselves this year). Some indication of how big the opening gross will be may come as early as Friday when the tally for tonight's (Thursday) midnight opening in about 1,500 theaters comes in. Twentieth Century Fox, which is releasing the film, is making no grandiose predictions for it, with executives telling the Hollywood Reporter that they would deem a $70-million bow to be "acceptable." And Fox sales manager Chris Aronson told TheWrap.com: "The expectation bar has to be set at a realistic place. It's a spin-off of a movie that's been sequelized twice." Over the same weekend last year, Iron Man opened with $102.1 million. The last X-Men feature, The Last Stand took in $122.9 million in its first weekend three years ago. The current sequel (or "prequel") faces four potential obstacles: 1. Widespread viewing of a pirated workprint that was posted online at the end of March; 2. Considerable negative buzz on fansites; 3. Overwhelmingly negative early reviews (see separate item); 4. Competition from the Matthew McConaughey romcom, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, which has been tracking strongly.

EARLY REVIEWS: X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE

The theme of most of the early reviews of X-Men Origins: Wolverine is similar: too much flash, too little imagination. Moviegoers will be able to see the special effects that were not included in the pirated workprint that showed up online a month ago, but several critics are saying they don't help. According to The Hollywood Reporter critic Kirk Honeycutt, they're "top-notch but too many. They become a crutch when scenes don't work." The Village Voice's Robert Wilonsky goes so far as to recommend that moviegoers not waste their money on the theatrical version. "Wait for the [completed] bootleg," he suggests. Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News writes: "People who saw the illegal download or are hungry for a blockbuster will likely find it a clanky mess." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times remarks that the film amounts to a lot of "mayhem, noise and pretty pictures." He goes on to say that he has been "powerfully impressed" by other film versions of comic-book superheroes. "I wouldn't even walk across the street to meet Wolverine." Stars Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber are left pretty much unscathed by all the scathing critical comments, however. As Peter Howell concludes in the Toronto Star: "The whole thing would collapse under the weight of its own pretensions were it not for the considerable acting prowess of Jackman and Schreiber, who know how to give good growl. They know they're in a comic book movie, but they act like they're making Apocalypse Now, and God bless 'em for it."

STUDIOS FLEE MEXICAN FLU

Hollywood studios are postponing the release of their early summer movies in Mexico due to concerns over the spread of the swine flu, the Los Angeles Times reported today (Thursday). Particularly affected, the newspaper said, are the upcoming releases of Star Trek, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Angels & Demons. The newspaper noted that Mexico accounts for about 6 percent of all overseas box-office revenue. A delay, the Times observed, could undercut the performance of the films when they finally do open in Mexico since it would allow pirated copies to flood the market. Earlier reports had indicated that one of the few businesses in Mexico not hurt by the flu outbreak has been video rentals -- which are booming.

Cinemark Movie Club