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Box Office Combat: "Civil War" keeps Vampire Foes at Bay

War is Hell, and Gold at the Box Office: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny shot scenes from a "Civil War." / Photo courtesy of A24.

War is Hell, and Gold at the Box Office: Kirsten Dunst and Cailee Spaeny shot scenes from a "Civil War." / Photo courtesy of A24.

There's a little bit of everything for everybody in the weekend's box office top five. The biggest surprise is who prevailed in a duel between thorny political drama and a sure-fire horror franchise starter. Read on, and mark your calendars to nourish your movie-going week.

1. Civil War: $11 million

The doldrums of the spring season at the box office received a shock to the system with the surprisingly enduring cultural warfare of “Civil War.” Alex Garland’s provocative take on American divisionism may be Film Twitter’s favorite punching bag, but it has proven resilient at the box office. The aura of cooler-than-thou distributor A24 and the noisy controversy around the movie seem to have worked. The movie scared up $11 million this weekend, for a total two-week tally of $45 million. Not bad for a movie that cost 50 million dollars. It may seem a modest investment compared to the obscene budgets of summer tentpoles, but it is A24's most expensive movie to date. It looks clear when it comes to recouping the investment, and with a little luck, it will have legs that will keep it onscreen until summer.

A24’s gamble seems to have paid off, with more moola to come from the international box office. Bear in mind, outside of the US, the tone-deaf reconfiguration of domestic policy will matter even less - nobody will care how bizarre it sounds to have a California & Texas alliance fighting against a President holding on to power for a third presidential period. Abroad, the action-movie and war-drama trappings take center stage, with the dissonance with real-life American politics receding into the background. It will be interesting to see if the success makes writer-director Alex Garland back down from his self-imposed retirement—nothing like a top movie to bring artists back in the game. Just last week, Quentin Tarantino killed the project known as “The Critic,” his purported tenth and final film, opening the door to more flicks down the line. And Canadian enfant terrible Xavier Dolan Comes back to Cannes as president of the Un Certain Regard jury, barely a year after announcing his retirement.

2. Abigail: $10.2 million

“Abigail” scared up enough business to take the second spot. It’s a letdown that it did not dethrone “Civil War.” Co-directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett scored rebooting the “Scream” franchise. Even if casting woes marred their run - letting go star Melissa Barrera for her Pro-Palestine opinions was a bad idea and led to Jenna Ortega dropping out -they have managed to gain enough clout for a dream project, that is, an original piece of work free of a stifling mythology and overzealous fans.  

It’s not a spoiler to make you privy to “Abigail”’s plot line. The trailer is a case study in promotional material that pretty much reveals everything about the movie. A gang of criminals kidnaps the adorable daughter of a rich and powerful man just as the girl exits her ballet school. The catch is that the tutu-clad princess of privilege is a vampire, and she turns the tables on the hapless morons.

I have not seen “Abigail,” but I’d venture that the movie would have fared better if the twist had been hidden from view, letting it become a word-of-mouth phenomenon. Imagine if, say, “The Crying Game” (Neil Jordan, 1992) had led its advertising campaign with the money shot that turned into a “don’t reveal the twist” phenomenon in the pre-social media days? Or if the actors from “The Blair Witch Project” (Daniel Myrick & Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) had done public appearances downright torpedoing the faux-documentary nature of the project? We’ll never know if “Abigail” would have been more successful not tipping its hand so early in the game. As it is, it is somewhat dispiriting that the creative team and its marketers take the easy way out, trafficking in the gratuitously shocking image of killer kids splashed by the blood of their prey.

3. Godzilla x Kong: The New Empire: $9.8 million

Legendary Pictures’ latest installment in their MonsterVerse franchise reunited their colossal for a new adventure, with Rebecca Hall and Bryan Tyree Henry returning to their disposable human characters. We all know the real stars are the creatures. The movie is a hit. After almost a month, it remains in the top five and has amassed over $171 million. Still, with the marvelous “Godzilla Minus One” (Takasi Yamazki, 2023) fresh in our memories, it pales compared to the compelling Japanese movie.

4. The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare: $9 million

The Guy Ritchie entertainment complex is on a roll these days. With other directors taking the easy money off Disney’s Franken-remakes - how could you, Barry Jenkins? -the author of Laddie Cinema is free to concentrate his attention on what he does best: letting stylish knuckleheads go loose. I’m guessing even he knows doing a live-action “Aladdin” was a mercenary move. But then again, mercenaries are his thing. Henry Cavill, so fantastic in “The Man from Uncle” (2015) - Ritchie’s best work to date - returns for “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” following a group of soldiers recruited to form a secret squad out to wreak havoc on Nazi forces during WWII. Think “Inglorious Basterds” for bros. “Jack Reacher” himself, Alan Ritchson, hits the big screen with a role capitalizing on his newfound fame, fed by Prime Video’s cult hit series. The movie managed to scoop $9 million. It is not exactly a home run, but it is not a washout, either.

In fact, Ritchie seems to have hit the jackpot for top “content creators:” his brand is now a cottage industry. Just as “The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare” takes on the big screen, the Add up the Netflix series “The Gentlemen” - based on his 2019 film - occupies the berth of one of the most watched series on Netflix. Ritchie directed the first two episodes, handling the camera for the other six new filmmakers. If they prove reliable, one can imagine the elder statesman of action overseeing their movies. In a way, Ritchie seems to gravitate towards being the Luc Besson of the XXI Century. Once the French director set the basis of his Hollywood on the Seine school with his hit movies - "La Femme Nikita" (1990) and "Leon" (1994) -he developed new opportunities for colleagues like Louis Leterrier.

5. Kung Fu Panda 4: $4.6 million

“Kung Fu Panda 4” closes the top five in fifth place. This movie is a big surprise. Are they still making “Kung Fu Panda” movies? Apparently, yes. The kids who caught the first adventure of the martial arts expert ursine for the first time in 2008 can now take their own kids to the latest entry. Even without kids, one can recognize the hustle of animation studios. 

Six weeks after its American premiere, it amassed over $180 million in domestic ticket sales and more than $300 million in foreign sales. Nobody ever lost money serving the kiddie market. 

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