HOW LOUD THE THUNDER?

Until Thursday, the collective wisdom of box-office prognosticators was that DreamWorks/Paramount's Tropic Thunder would finally unseat The Dark Knight at the top of the box office. Now, they're hedging their bets. Tropic Thunder, it seems, may have run out of lightning before the weekend began, with The Dark Knight emerging as the dark-horse possibility to win a fifth victory. Thunder opened on Wednesday to a less-than-spectacular $6.5 million, then rapidly fell on Thursday to $4.5 million -- a bad sign. The Batman sequel remained steady at about $3 million on each of those days. Analysts were unsure why Tropic Thunder appeared to be fizzling so soon. It received mostly solid reviews -- better ones, in fact, than Pineapple Express, which opened a week earlier with nearly twice the number of ticket sales. Apparently the call for a boycott by organizations representing the mentally disabled was not responsible. The Los Angeles Times reported today (Friday) that when online ticket seller Fandango asked its customers whether the boycott call made them less interested or more interested in seeing the movie, 77 percent responded "more interested." The Dark Knight also faces a challenge from the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which opens today. However, analysts say it's difficult to predict how the film will do. Although it appears to be a sure bet to attract preteen boys, it could also attract a sizable number of inveterate fans of the franchise. Also opening this weekend is the horror film Mirrors, which was not screened for critics. In addition, Woody Allen's latest comedy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which has received the filmmaker's best reviews since his 2005 film Match Point, is making its debut in only 692 theaters.

MOVIE REVIEWS: STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS

With each new release of a Star Wars movie, the reviews grow harsher. The animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars is being shot down by critics as if it were a target in a video game -- with which it is being compared. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times says that producer George Lucas has reduced the franchise "to the level of Saturday-morning animation." It is, he writes, "a deadening film that cuts corners on its animation and slumbers through a plot that (a) makes us feel like we've seen it all before, and (b) makes us wish we hadn't." Joe Neumaier in the New York Daily News regards the film as "the latest indignity" to Star Wars fans. Linda Barnard in the Toronto Star comments that Lucas has "whored out the much-loved Star Wars saga." And while some critics suggest that small children may enjoy the film, Jason Anderson in the Toronto Globe & Mail warns, "parents may be perturbed by the film's relentless violence." But Nathan Lee actually gives the movie a left-handed compliment in the New York Times, writing that it "comes as something of a surprise: it isn't the most painful movie of the year!" Likewise Roger Moore in the Orlando Sentinel writes that it is "actually better than expected." And writing in the Los Angeles Times, Michael Ordoña grants that "there's knockout animation, facsimiles of popular characters and plenty of action. But anyone older than 8 with the majority of brain functions intact will have a bad feeling about this."

MOVIE REVIEWS: VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA

Critics keep falling in and out of love with Woody Allen. They're back in love with him again with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times cheers, "This is the genuine comeback, a romantic comedy that's a major summer entertainment with serious underpinnings." Rafer Guzmán in Newsday calls the film a "minor masterpiece .. a seemingly effortless but deeply meaningful film." Claudia Puig in USA Today positively waxes rhapsodic: "Vicky Cristina Barcelona is as exhilarating, captivating and enjoyable as a summer romance in an exotic city." Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun calls it "blissfully entertaining." But Allen continues to irritate some critics who still wish he would return to his once endearing comedy schtick. Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times writes that "despite promising elements, Vicky Cristina Barcelona "is too intent on being taken seriously to be more than mildly diverting. Allen said in interviews that this was a film about relationships, not a comedy, and he was not being falsely modest. ... [It] has neither the humor nor the insights to captivate."

"TECHNICAL ISSUES" DELAY NETFLIX

Since Monday, NetFlix has been unable to ship millions of movies to its subscribers, the company acknowledged Thursday, blaming the problem on "severe technical issues" but declining to describe the issue any further. Today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times said that the problem came to light on Monday and resulted in all shipments being halted on Tuesday. On Wednesday it was only able to send out about half the discs subscribers had requested. On Thursday all shipments were halted again in the morning, then resumed in the afternoon. According to the Times the disks went out to about 2.8 million subscribers, about a third of the company's total number. A company spokesman said that it hoped to have service restored by today. In a message posted on its website, NetFlix apologized and informed subscribers that they would be receiving credits.

UNIVERSAL COUNTS $1 BILLION IN OVERSEAS SALES

Universal said Thursday that as of Wednesday its overseas ticket sales had topped $1 billion for the year, the earliest it had ever hit that figure. The studio attributed the success to strong sales this month for the hit films Mamma Mia! and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. For all of 2007, the studio took in $1.034 in international revenue. Its domestic -- i.e., U.A. and Canadian -- tally now stands at at $805 million, bringing its current worldwide gross to $1.84 billion.

HARRY POTTER TO BE DELAYED

Harry Potter fans will have to wait until next July to see the latest installment in the Warner Bros. franchise. On Thursday the studio said that it had changed the release date of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince to July 17, 2009. It had originally been scheduled to open on November 21. The studio maintained that there had been no production delays, but that the writers' strike had delayed other tentpole productions that it had hoped to have ready for the peak summer months.

Cinemark Movie Club
Brian B.