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''Ratatouille'' heats up the box office

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Finally, some great news at the box office! The freshness of Pixar’s Ratatouille and the nostalgia of having John McClane back in action in Live Free or Die Hard were just the right ingredients to bring the box office back to life. With a high-profile sequel hitting the multiplex in eight of the last nine weeks, audiences were aching for something original, and not even a rat in a kitchen could change that.

Ratatouille, directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), bowed at No. 1 this weekend, taking in $47.2 million — not a record-breaker for the beloved animation studio, but good enough to keep Pixar’s perfect streak alive, now at eight consecutive hits in 12 years of existence. (Yes, Pixar only releases a movie every 18 months to two years, but it’s definitely worth the long wait when charming characters like Remy, the Parisian rat with a flair for cooking, are what they deliver in the end.) Even so, Ratatouille does stand as one of Pixar’s lowest box-office openers. Only A Bug’s Life in 1998 and Toy Story (the first Pixar film released in 1995) were lower. But with universally positive reviews and little in the way of animated competition, Ratatouille has all the potential to play well throughout the summer and could top out in the $200 million range, like most of Pixar’s other hits.

It’s got to be heartening for all the Bruce Willis fans that his iconic character John McClane still kicks ass, even as he enters his 50s. Live Free or Die Hard finished in second place for the weekend. For the three-day period, the fourth movie in the Die Hard franchise took in $33 million. But to get a few extra days in theatres without the hefty competition of Transformers, which bows Tuesday night, 20th Century Fox opened Die Hard 4 last Wednesday, and the film’s five-day total stands at a healthy $48 million.

Live Free or Die Hard is the highest grossing opener of the four Die Hard pictures — then again, the last one, Die Hard with a Vengeance, opened 12 years ago on a thousand fewer screens than the new McClane adventure. Still, for a franchise that was considered all but dead, no one will complain about these numbers. Directed by Len Wiseman and co-starring the affable ”Mac,” Justin Long, Die Hard received overall positive reviews — a surprise considering all the franchise’s baggage and its long absence.

Below the top two, say a prayer for poor Evan Almighty. While the Steve Carell-starring comedy dropped the requisite 50 percent for its second weekend to $15 million and No. 3, it had to do better considering its less-than-spectacular debut. The very expensive comedy has now grossed $60 million — not enough to make back its reported $150 million in production costs. This film needs some help from a higher power.

The John Cusack vehicle 1408 did well its second weekend in theaters. It also dropped 48 percent, to $10 million — and fourth place — but that’s above average for a horror film. From the Weinstein Co., this hotel-based thriller from director Mikael Hafstrom (Derailed) has now earned $40 million.

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer completes the top 5. Generating an additional $9 million, the sequel starring Jessica Alba and Michael Chiklis has now grossed $115 million. The movie should be able to live up to its predecessor: 2005’s Fantastic Four, which topped out domestically at $154 million.

Of the other new releases, Michael Moore’s Sicko is looking like another hit for the controversial documentary filmmaker. Sicko, which takes a scorching look at the flailing U.S. healthcare system, grossed $4.5 million in only 441 theaters for a strong per-theater average of $10,204.

That’s a whole lot better then the well-pedigreed Evening, which earned only $3.5 million in 977 theaters. Some of the finest actresses on the big screen today (Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave, Claire Danes, Glenn Close) could do little to offset the terrible reviews the PG-13 rated drama received.

So what’s the takeaway from another dramatic weekend at the box office? John McClane is good. Rats are better. Audiences want to know just how broken our healthcare system is. They’re not interested in a poorly reviewed melodrama. And it’s a good thing Steve Carell is so damn funny in The Office, because Evan Almighty isn’t going to make him a movie star.

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