GURUS EXPECT CLAUS TO FLY

Christmas will arrive early at the box office this weekend with the new Vince Vaughn comedy Fred Claus. Box office forecasters estimate that it will take in $22-26 million and wind up as the top attraction. Coming in a close second, they predict, will be last weekend's winner, American Gangster, with about $18-22 million -- or possibly Bee Movie, which ranked No. 2 last weekend. Analysts have expressed little hope for the war-related Lions for Lambs, despite the fact that it costars Tom Cruise, Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Films about the Middle East conflict have all performed poorly at the box office, and Lions, the first United Artists film produced under the aegis of Cruise,has been bombed by critics. This will be the first weekend in which films will premiere without their stars having had access to the late-night talk shows, since most of them are in rerun mode in the wake of the writers' strike. On Thursday, however, Vaughn, an avowed conservative and Republican, appeared on Bill O'Reilly's The O'Reilly Factor on Fox News to promote Fred Claus.

MOVIE REVIEWS: FRED CLAUS

Critics have united in a chorus of "Bah, humbug" to greet Fred Claus, starring Vince Vaughn. Most compare the film -- unfavorably -- to Elf. Glenn Whipp in the Los Angeles Daily News remarks that the differences between the two are striking. "Instead of adapting his schtick to the family genre, Vaughn shoehorns his machine-gun-talking, wise-guy persona into an overlong holiday film that leaves an aftertaste like past-expiration-date eggnog," he writes. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times calls it "Elf without the goofy jokes ... a lackadaisical mess." Mick LaSalle in the San Francisco Chronicle begins his review by describing the movie as "a complete bust, derivative and uninspired, boring and dull, not funny, not moving and about a half hour too long. It makes a beeline for mawkishness at every turn, but all its emotions are unearned and false." And if that's not strong enough, consider Kyle Smith's review in the New York Post. The movie, he writes, is "not like a lump of coal in your stocking. Coal is useful; you can burn it. This movie is more like a lump of something Blitzen left behind after eating a lot of Mexican food."

MOVIE REVIEWS: LIONS FOR LAMBS

Supporters of the war in Iraq have surprisingly found most of the nation's major film critics on their side. The critics have come down heavily on the anti-war film Lions for Lambs, with many of them warning that it is fatally boring. Carina Chocano in the Los Angeles Times comments that it "looks like a stage play and plays like a policy debate." Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times writes that "there is a long stretch toward the beginning of the film when we're interested, under the delusion that it's going somewhere. When we begin to suspect it's going in circles, our interest flags." Says Kyle Smith in the New York Post: "I went to a wartime thriller, but then a Poli Sci 101 seminar broke out." Similarly Ann Hornaday remarks in the Washington Post: "For all its passion and topical currency, Lions for Lambs plays too often like a college colloquium, with one extended scene of a classroom debate suffering from all the sleep-inducing effects of the real thing." Looking at the movie from a Canadian perspective, Geoff Pevere in the Toronto Star writes: "A lumpy, ill-dramatized and ultimately enervating liberal Op-Ed piece flailing for dramatic purchase, this steroid-inflated Sundance workshop may prove most effective as a demonstration (as opposed to an antidote) of the political desperation that hamstrings the American middle-left."

STUDIOS TAKE SWORD TO CHINESE PIRATES

Warner Bros., Paramount and DreamWorks have a new tactic to fight piracy in China: sell high-quality DVDs at about the same price bootlegs are going for on the black market and make them available quickly after their U.S. release, according to Daily Variety. The trade publication, citing unnamed industry sources, said that other studios could join the trio within the next year or 18 months. The tactic is being tested first with Transformers, which is being sold for just $2.95 in stores in China and was released there on Nov. 1. It will be followed by Shrek the Third on Nov. 28.

IS SONY SIGNALING END OF WAR OVER HD VIDEO?

In the first hint that he may be reconsidering whether to continue the battle with Toshiba over high-definition video, Sony chief Howard Stringer said Wednesday that the format battle between the two companies has become "mostly a matter of prestige." In a speech in New York Thursday night, Stringer also suggested that the battle over Sony's Blu-ray system and Toshiba's HD DVD "doesn't mean as much as all that." At one time, he suggested, it might have been possible to unify the two formats, and if time travel were possible he would try to do that now. He decried the decision of Paramount/DreamWorks to sign an exclusive deal (worth a reported $150 million) to release films exclusively in the HD DVD format. "We were trying to win on the merits, which we were doing for a while, until Paramount changed sides," Stringer said.

BROADWAY CRITICS SLAM MUSICAL FRANKENSTEIN

Critics are puttin' on the razz for Mel Brooks' attempt to recreate his 1974 comedy Young Frankenstein as a Broadway musical. "The show takes many of the elements that made The Producers such a delight and then saps them of their joy by overselling them," Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times. Out of town critics who converged on Broadway for the opening were even harsher. In the Chicago Tribune, Chris Jones called it "a colossal -- and, boy, is this show a monster -- disappointment." Peter Marks in the Washington Post described the show as "a teeter-tottering patchwork of slipshod gags, recycled dance routines and tinny tunes." Several critics note that the show opened with terrific buzz and such high expectations that few doubted it would sell out -- even with orchestra seats going for $450 at the box office and for thousands of dollars through scalpers. But as Charles McNulty in the Los Angeles Times observed: "We enter wanting to bust a gut, so no wonder we're a little let down when we leave with only a nostalgic grin." And Louise Kennedy concluded in the Boston Globe that the show "has millions of dollars' worth of pyrotechnics and other special effects with which to light up the stage, and it deploys them with abandon. Unfortunately, though, that doesn't mean that lightning strikes twice."

Brian B.