'Borat' surprise winner at weekend boxoffice

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Less proved to be more this past weekend as 20th Century Fox's controlled release of "Borat" in just 837 theaters nationwide resulted in a stampede at the North American boxoffice. By the time the dust had settled, even though eager fans of Kazakhstan journalist Borat Sagdiyev, the blithely obtuse alter-ego of comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, encountered sold-out screenings at many cinemas, the definitely politically incorrect comedy had grossed a resounding $26.5 million.

Easily claiming No. 1 status for the weekend, the movie, directed by Larry Charles, racked up a formidable $31,607 per theater. Critics were nearly unanimous in their praise of the movie: On the review compilation Web site rottentomatoes.com, the film earned a 96% approval rating. According to CinemaScore, fans -- who tilted male, with slightly more of them over 25 than under 25 -- awarded the movie a B+.

In the second and third spots, two movies aimed at the family audience divided up the pie. Buena Vista's G-rated "The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause," starring Tim Allen as the man in red, pulled into second place with $19.5 million. Setting up shop in 3,458 theaters, it reached a per-theater average of $5,640.

Nipping at its heels, Paramount Pictures' PG-rated animated film "Flushed Away," from DreamWorks Pictures and Aardman Animations, rang up $18.8 million. That was a slightly better opening number than the $16 million that the last DreamWorks/Aardman collaboration, "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," took in when it debuted last year. Playing in 3,707 theaters, "Flushed," a tale of rats exploring the sewers of London, registered a per-theater average of $5,075.

Both movies earned overall grades of B+ in the CinemaScore polling. "Flushed Away," attracting more females than males by 57% to 43%, drew the younger audience: 59% of its audience was under 25. In the case of "Clause 3," the audience was even more female (60%) but slightly older, with 52% being over 25.

With Halloween disappearing into history, Lionsgate's seasonal horror movie "Saw III," which bowed the previous weekend at No. 1, saw its audience decline by 56% as is typical of horror films. In its second weekend, it occupied the fourth slot as it grossed an additional $14.8 million to bring its cumulative tally to $59.4 million.

Warner Bros. Pictures' "The Departed," which pulled into fifth place, and Buena Vista's "The Prestige," which occupied the sixth spot, demonstrated continuing staying power. Both films fell by just 22%.

Director Martin Scorsese's crime tale "The Departed" took in $7.7 million as it crested the $100 million mark, hitting $102 million during its fifth weekend of release. "The Prestige," a period tale of dueling magicians, conjured $7.5 million to bring its cume to $39.1 million during its third weekend.

Also in its third weekend, Clint Eastwood's meditation on men at war, "Flags of Our Fathers," lost some steam as it dropped by 30%. Its weekend take of $4.4 million brings its current cume to $26.6 million.

Entering the top 10 for the first time, Miramax Films' "The Queen," Stephen Frears' study of Queen Elizabeth II's response to the death of Princess Diana, added 235 theaters to bring its count to 387. It has picked up $2.9 million -- along with a strong per-theater average of $7,519 -- as its grosses hovered just below the $10 million mark.

Also on the specialty film scene, Sony Pictures Classics' debut of Pedro Almodovar's latest film, "Volver," starring Penelope Cruz, showed promising signs of life. Playing in just five theaters in New York and Los Angeles, it collected $197,703 for a buoyant per-screen average of $39,541.
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