Movieline Attractions: Ready. Aim. Avatar.

Welcome back to Movieline Attractions, your regular guide to everything new, noteworthy and Na'vilicious at the movies. This week, while I'd like to say it's a close, competitive holiday block of new releases at the box office, I'm afraid there really is only one story. You know the one I'm talking about. Tall? Blue? Cat noses? That's the one. Read on and help me parse it and its peers.

WHAT'S NEW: Occasionally I like to think back to a June 2008 lunch meeting I had with a couple of Fox representatives. Talking about some of the releases on the horizon, we got through the formalities of Australia, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Marley & Me, Wolverine, and a few others before the table fell silent. "And then you know about Avatar, right?" one of them asked me.

"James Cameron's thing?" I replied. "No more than anyone else."

He waved his hand and leaned back. "Nobody does," he said. "But we've seen some stuff from it. It's like..." His eyes widened -- this, despite the muscular afternoon sun in our faces, despite the staid order of the titles that preceded this one. "It's like... So the actors are the aliens? And..." He was quiet again. It was as though even Fox's finest hadn't yet innovated hype to match what Cameron was hammering out over in New Zealand.

Clearly he and the rest of the studio have fixed that in 18 months, because Avatar is pretty much the last must-see film of the decade and the dazzling template for those to come. Superlatives aside, it's just different -- often frustrating and appallingly tin-eared, but never anything less than sincere in its story of one Marine's quest to basically join and save an alien civilization. And oh yeah, it's the 800-pound, $300 million gorilla at the box office. Avatar's singularity causes problems from the forecasting perspective as well: It's 3-D, it's IMAX, it's 161 minutes, it's tracking seemingly better and better every day, but no one knows if women want to see it (particularly with the film's female lead, Zoe Saldana, hidden under a CGI mask and Sigourney Weaver, great as she is, not quite the marketplace influencer she was 25 years ago). It's a review-proof film whose reviews are overwhelmingly positive, blissfully reproaching such leaden FX-ercises as Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Terminator: Salvation (the latter of which misuses Avatar's star Sam Worthington and all but shits on its founder Cameron's legacy).

Between the marketing, the psychic reach and just the general hoi polloi intrigue, we've got quite the calculus to untangle here. What's not in doubt is Avatar's long-term potential; what's almost impossible to predict, however, is where it all begins. I think the going call of three days, $74 million is awfully conservative, even with the female quadrants sheared off and the running time compromising the opportunity for thousands more screenings each day. The unprecedented 170+ IMAX screens will make up for some of that; 2,000+ 3-D screens will make up more. But I think as word gets around today and tonight -- or not even "word," but rather that same flummoxed speechlessness that froze even Avatar's once and future studio champions -- the crowds will build. Let's just say $87.5 million by Sunday night. Perhaps Avatar's biggest coup is that it made an optimist out of me.

Sony will bring the requisite counterprogramming in the form of Did You Hear About the Morgans?, starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant as a deteriorating married couple whose love is restored during a witness protection episode in Wyoming. That's all there is to say about that: $14.5 million and off. You. Go. Among the week's smaller Oscar fare, Crazy Heart got a midweek jump on Nine, both for now in limited release in Los Angeles and New York. Also opening: In NYC only you've got Francois Ozon's winged-baby fable Ricky, the Oscar-shortlisted animated feature A Town Called Panic, and the self-discovering artist drama The Other Side of Paradise; in L.A. you've got the Bruce Dern/Blythe Danner curmudgeon-romance indie The Lightkeepers and Mischa Barton's family drama Don't Fade Away.

THE BIG LOSER: None. The worst-case scenario for Morgans is that The Blind Side yanks a million or two off the top, but let's talk next week when It's Complicated kicks it off the face of the Earth. Or at least on to DVD.


THE UNDERDOG: The Young Victoria might actually be the real counterprogramming option for those purposely avoiding Avatar: Emily Blunt stars as, well, the young Victoria, thrust on to the throne at age 18 and beset with all manner of existential woe and romantic inertia. Enter Albert (Rupert Friend), Victoria's ruddy first cousin and suitor, and watch as she upturns the monarchy forever. Blunt and Friend are both physically too old for their roles, but their playfulness (on top of Julian Fellowes's tight, typically peerless screenwriting) evens it out. Director Jean-Marc Vallée graciously lets them float in Patrice Vermette's gorgeous sets and even finer lighting by cinematographer Hagen Bogdanski. It's all just the picture of dignity, even as you sense that below all that gloss, these folks were having a ball with this stuff.

FOR SHUT-INS: It's a small list, but this week's new DVD's pack a wallop: Inglourious Basterds, The Hangover, G-Force, Taking Woodstock, The Tudors: Season 3, and season four of Robot Chicken.


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