RACING FOR SECOND

Few analysts expect Warner Bros.' Speed Racer to win the box-office race this weekend. The film -- likely to attract mostly families with small kids -- is expected to gross around $30-35 million. That's about a third of what Iron Man earned a week ago, so if that film drops even 60 percent, it would remain at the top. Analysts suggest that such a plunge is unlikely, especially given last week's exit polls indicating that it may even do considerable repeat business. Today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times indicated that Warner's top execs are concerned that Speed Racer has been tracking so poorly that only "a narrow sliver of boys 7 to 11 years old" seem eager to see it. Warner's marketing chief Sue Kroll told the Times that she was "bewildered" about the tracking surveys, noting that preview audiences have responded favorably to the film. "There is a disconnect between how people react to the film and what the tracking is indicating," she said. The studio's concern is no doubt amplified by the fact that the movie may have cost some $250-300 million to produce and market. Analysts are also not betting that What Happens in Vegas will hit the jackpot. The 20th Century Fox film, the only other major movie to open wide this weekend, is expected to earn around $15 million, perhaps less.

MOVIE REVIEWS: SPEED RACER

Reviews of Speed Racer are likely to compound the nervousness of Warner Bros. execs over the Wachowski Brothers' expensive animated/live-action movie. Cheap horror films are often treated with greater critical kindness. Consider Joe Morgenstern's critique in the Wall Street Journal: "This toxic admixture of computer-generated frenzy and live-action torpor succeeds in being, almost simultaneously, genuinely painful -- the esthetic equivalent of needles in eyeballs -- and weirdly benumbing, like eye candy laced with lidocaine," Morgenstern writes. A.O. Scott has a less corrosive review, but it's nearly as damning: "The childhood experience the Wachowskis evoke is not the easy delight of lolling in the den watching one cartoon after another, but rather the squirming tedium of sitting in the back seat on an endless family car trip, your cheek taking on the texture of the vinyl seat as some grown-up lectures you on the beauty of the passing scenery," he says. Or take Kyle Smith's comparison in the New York Post: "This adventurously awful film is awful in many ways at once," Smith observes. "It is, like a Ferraro poking across East 42nd Street at rush hour, fast yet slow. It is futuristic ally retry. Its attention span is measurable in microseconds, yet it runs more than two hours. And it spent a trillion dollars imitating the look of a 10-cent cartoon from the primitive '60s -- artistically, the Cro-Magnon era. I was initially awed by its splendors. But when I'd had my fill, there was still an hour-45 left." Nevertheless, a few critics are impressed with the artistic achievement of the animators. "On the levels of technical craftsmanship and pure eye-candy, Speed Racer is some kind of triumph of the will," Try Burr comments in the Boston Globe. And Refer Guzmán in Newsday calls it "one of the most visually audacious films to come along in years."

MOVIE REVIEWS: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS

What Happens in Vegas, starring Ash ton Butcher and Cameron Dial,shoots snake-eyes with critics. Some of their reactions: Rock Grown in the Toronto Globe and Mail: "What Happens in Vegas should damn well have stayed in Vegas." Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal: "What Happens in Vegas should have stayed in development -- forever." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "One of those junky time-wasters that routinely pop up in movie theaters." Claudia Puig in USA Today: "A mediocre movie that takes no chances." Michael Sragow in the Baltimore Sun: "A screwed-up screwball farce." And while Speed Racer at least got props from a few critics for artistic merit, Michael Phillips concludes tersely about Vegas in the Chicago Tribune: "The movie looks like crud."

ARS GRACIA WHAT?

Just weeks after announcing that it is closing down its New Line Cinema unit, Time Warner said Thursday that it will also be shuttering Picturehouse, the art-house arm of New Line, and Warner Independent Pictures, Warner Bros.' own specialty unit. In an interview with today's (Friday) Los Angeles Times, Warner Bros. CEO Alan Horn insisted that the company was not abandoning independent films. "But after a lot of introspection, we decided that, for us, what distinguishes a specialty movie from a big Warners movie isn't the marketing and distribution but the movie itself," he said. "So we'll still be looking for movies that interest us creatively. But when we make the movie or acquire the movie, we'll hand it over to our existing marketing and distribution group. They've proven they can handle any kind of film." Nevertheless, in reporting on the company's decision, the Wall Street Journal commented that it represents "the latest sign that Hollywood studios are gun shy about the art-house movie market they once coveted."
Cinemark Movie Club

Brian B.