CAROL HAS A DICKENS OF A TIME

Moviegoers were about as tight-fisted at the box office over the weekend as Ebenezer Scrooge was at the grindstone in his day. The top film, Disney's A Christmas Carol, which stars Jim Carrey as Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, opened with an estimated $31 million, far below analysts' expectations of about $40-45 million -- and less than half what Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa earned when it opened with $63.1 million during the comparable weekend a year ago. But while most critics called the performance of the movie disappointing, particularly for a movie that was said to have cost close to $200 million, others pointed out that it took in more than Robert Zemeckis's previous motion-capture animation films, including The Polar Express, which opened with $23 million, and Beowulf, with $28 million. Besides, Disney apparently intends to milk it for another seven weekends before Christmas. "You know you're in for a marathon rather than a dash," Chuck Viane, Disney's president of domestic theatrical distribution, told Reuters. Slipping to second place was the Michael Jackson concert documentary This Is It, which dropped a moderate 39.7 percent to $14 million. (It continued to perform strongly overseas, however.) The comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats opened in third place with a better-than-expected $13.3 million. Another new film, The Fourth Kind, followed with $12.5 million. Rounding out the top five was Paranormal Activity, which fell 48 percent to $8.6 million. Nevertheless, the $15,000 film's total gross has now risen to $97 million, putting it on track to pass the $100-million mark before next weekend. Meanwhile the critically praised Precious opened in just 18 theaters with $1.8 million -- or a staggering $100,000 per theater.

The top ten films for the weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Box Office Mojo:

1. Disney's A Christmas Carol, $31 million; 2. Michael Jackson's This Is It, $14 million; 3. The Men Who Stare at Goats, $13.3 million; 4. The Fourth Kind, $12.5 million; 5. Paranormal Activity, $8.6 million; 6. The Box, $7.9 million; 7. Couples Retreat, $6.4 million; 8. Law Abiding Citizen, $6.2 million; 9. Where the Wild Things Are, $4.2 million; 10. Astro Boy, $2.6 million.

MOVIE REVIEWS: THE BOX

How much you're likely to enjoy The Box, which opened at the box office in sixth place with $7.9 million over the weekend,may well depend on how well you are able to cope with preposterous story lines. Indeed, that word -- "preposterous" -- cropped up in many, if not most, of the reviews of the film. In her mixed review, Manohla Dargis in the New York Times regarded The Box as "a serious work that insists on its own seriousness even when it edges toward the preposterous." However, Claudia Puig in USA Today wrote that "director Richard Kelly has fashioned a preposterous tale that lacks the wit that made his Donnie Darko a cult classic." Elizabeth Weitzman in the New York Daily News scoffed at the movie's "preposterous special effects." But Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times, while acknowledging that "preposterous" is "one of my favorite adjectives," nevertheless went on to write, "If you make a preposterous movie that isn't boring, I count that as some kind of a triumph." He concluded: "This movie kept me involved and intrigued, and for that I'm grateful. I'm beginning to wonder whether, in some situations, absurdity might not be a strength." But "boring" was indeed the operative term for several critics. "Have you ever actually tried watching paint dry? A sloth walk? Grass grow?" Asked Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times. "You can have all the 'thrills' with none of the chills courtesy of The Box."

WAL-MART SETS OFF DVD PRICE WAR

Wal-Mart touched off a DVD price war on Friday when it announced a special pre-release price of $10 for many soon-to-be-released titles, including Terminator: Salvation, Angels & Demons, Julie & Julia, and Star Trek. Target quickly followed suit, adding such blockbusters as Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, G Force, and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Amazon then joined the fray, and Best Buy was expected to do so as early as today (Monday). Each of the retailers cautioned that the $10 deals were only available via their websites for advance purchases and only until the DVDs are officially released.

ATTENDANCE, SALES FALL AT AMERICAN FILM MARKET

The contraction of the independent movie business was evident in Santa Monica over the weekend where the number of filmmakers who have managed to survive the economic downturn and continue to display their wares at the American Film Market seemed woefully sparse. Several panelists appearing at a conference session on the future of independent filmmaking noted that many traditional sources of funding have vanished and that several banks, facing their own crises over the collapsed real-estate market, have pulled out of entertainment financing altogether. Various reports observed that the prevalence of horror flicks -- particularly those featuring vampires -- at the AFM seemed more flagrant than ever. (In addition to numerous Twilight knock-offs, one of the films in search of a buyer was Girlfriend, co-produced by and starring Jackson Rathbone, who co-stars in the Twilight movies.) The Hollywood Reporter summed up its rundown of the top vampire movies on display at the AFM by remarking, "There's plenty for buyers to sink their teeth into."