i>THUNDER REIGNS WHILE GUSTAV RAINS

The four-day Labor Day holiday, ordinarily a lackluster one at the box office, lacked even more luster than usual this year, as the top film, DreamWorks/Paramount's Tropic Thunder took in just $14.3 million. Last year, Halloween opened with $30.6 million, a record for the holiday. It was the sixth consecutive weekend that the box office produced totals lower than last year. "Kind of an underwhelming end to a great summer," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office trackers Media by Numbers, told the Associated Press. The box office, he indicated has had to compete with the Olympics and Hurricane Gustav (which washed out attendance in a wide area of the Southeast) and also to confront the overall languishing economy. Nevertheless, the weekend, which also marks the end of the summer season for the studios, set a new record of $586.9 million, even though that figure was just 0.43 percent above last year's. Attendance was down 3.5 percent, however. Things are not expected to improve much next weekend. September is often the time of year when studios dump their least promising titles.

The top ten films for the four-day Labor Day weekend, according to studio estimates compiled by Media by Numbers:

1. Tropic Thunder, $14.3 million; 2. Babylon A.D., $12 million; 3. The Dark Knight, $11 million; 4. The House Bunny, $10.2 million; 5. Traitor, $10 million; 6. Death Race, $8.2 million; 7. Disaster Movie, $6.9 million; 8. Mamma Mia!, $5.8 million; 9. Pineapple Express, $4.5 million; 10. Vicky Cristina Barcelona, $3.5 million.

THE (BOX OFFICE) NEWS WASN'T ALL BAD

There were a few impressive figures at the weekend box office. The Woody Allen movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona remained the biggest draw on a per-theater basis, averaging $5,103 at at 692 theaters. It dropped only 7 percent from last week. The Don Cheadle thriller Traitor was second on a per-theater basis as it averaged $4,869 at 2054 outlets. The Universal musical Mamma Mia!, which earned $5.8 million, actually improved slightly in its seventh week, up 1 percent from last week. Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight crossed the $500-million mark to bring its total to $504.7 million in its seventh week. And Universal's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor although falling out of the top ten to 12th place, added another $3.5 million to its take to put its total at $98.7 million and also to put it in position to cross the $100-million mark by next weekend. On the other hand, Star Wars: The Clone Wars fell out of the top ten in just its third week as it took in only $3.5 million to bring its current gross to $30.4 million.

KNIGHT MOVES TOWARDS $500 MILLION OVERSEAS

Overseas, The Dark Knight continued to rack up impressive gains;, remaining in first place with $19 million to bring its international sales to $417 million and its worldwide total to $922 million, according to The Hollywood Reporter. It now appears to have a better chance of hitting the $1-billion mark worldwide than it does to break Titanic's domestic record of $601 million. Second place went to another holdover as Mamma Mia! took in another $12.1 million to bring its international total to $258.3 million and its worldwide total to a sensational $391.2 million. Otherwise the overseas box office was about as dull as it was in the U.S.

CRITICS ROCK VENICE FESTIVAL'S BOAT

The selection of films for this year's Venice Film Festival is getting as many negative reviews as some of the actual on-screen fare. "The overall impression here is one of disappointment and everybody is desperate for a really good film in competition," Reuters commented in a report from the festival. The French wire service Agence France Presse observed that "reactions to the first crop among the 21 movies vying for the Golden Lion [range] from lukewarm to hostile." It said that the U.S. entry The Burning Plain, directed by Guillermo Arriaga and starring Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, "disorients the viewer with flashbacks that cannot be identified as such until much later in the film." However, a few films have appeared to be standouts, in particular Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki's take on The Little Mermaid, called Ponzo on the Cliff by the Sea. Deborah Young of the Hollywood Reporter called it "a refreshing thirst-quencher in a thus-far dry lineup." (Director John Landis, a member of the Venice jury, told the BBC, "Tonight we saw a Japanese anime about a fish, and then we had sushi. We really did! I was thinking, 'This is ironic.'") Japanese director Takeshi Kitano's Achilles and the Tortoise has emerged as the front-runner in the competition although Paolo Mereghtetti, the critic for Corriere della Sera wrote, "Despite some refreshing and surreal touches of humor, the tone seems uselessly gratuitous," referring to certain violent scenes.

PRODUCERS BLAST SAG'S PUSH POLL

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has called the Screen Actors Guild's "push poll" urging members to back its negotiating stance a "delay tactic ... designed to deliver just one thing: a result preordained by SAG's negotiators." The postcard poll was included in a mailing sent to members over the weekend along with a 14-page newsletter headed, "Your negotiating committee fights on to achieve a fair contract." The newsletter also claims once again that SAG negotiators are continuing to hold informal discussions with the AMPTP, something the AMPTP continues to deny.

Cinemark Movie Club
Brian B.