'Babel' benefits from upbeat critical reception

BERLIN — With no major end-of-the year openers this holiday season, Europe’s box office will be relying largely on strong local pics, critical favorites like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Babel,” and holdover business from diehards “Casino Royale,” “Happy Feet” and “The Holiday.”

“Flags,” which hits German screens Dec. 28, opened this week in the U.K., but with last minute Christmas shopping in full swing and pic’s very American subject matter, it may face a difficult challenge at the box office despite strong reviews.

Prospects for Teutonic hit “Perfume: The Story of a Murderer,” opening in Blighty Dec. 26, remain murky due to mixed reviews, although pic could generate excitement among specialized auds. Hitting screens the same day, “Night at the Museum” is expected to benefit from its family appeal and the popularity of stars Ben Stiller and Ricky Gervais.

Brit comedy “It’s a Boy Girl Thing” from Elton John’s Rocket Pictures also opens Dec. 26 but its chances look limited after suffering a severe critical hammering.

Current releases “Eragon” and “Deja Vu” have under-performed, leaving the U.K. box office largely dependent on the continued success of “Happy Feet,” “The Holiday” and “Casino Royale.”

“Eragon” has found greater success among dragon-loving Teutonic auds.

Pic, along with “Casino Royale,” continues to top the German box office while a slew of new openers could excite niche auds and the arthouse crowd.

Opening Dec. 21, “Babel” has benefited from critical acclaim and loud buzz among high-brow cinephiles, but is unlikely to move mainstream auds. Opening the same day, Fox’s horse story “Flicka,” Swiss drama “Vitus” from local distrib Schwarz-Weiss, and Warners’ Danish toon “The Ugly Duckling and Me!” offer plenty of family fare, while Sony Pictures’ hunky teen thriller “The Covenant” may seduce young auds eager to escape family holiday get-togethers.

In theaters Dec. 27, “Deja Vu” looks unlikely to cause much of stir in Germany in view of its underwhelming performance in neighboring markets, while exhibs reckon “Night at the Museum” and Kinowelt’s “Hoodwinked!,” opening the same day, will attract sizeable family biz.

A day later, “Flags of Our Fathers” hits cinemas but exhibs reckon with a modest performance at best as World War II weary Germans are unlikely to jump at Clint Eastwood’s latest.

Similarly, the subject matter of Neue Visionen’s Cannes winner “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” will likely keep holiday revelers at bay, while “Black Christmas” is sure to die a quick death.

In France, Luc Besson’s animated fantasy “Arthur and the Invisibles” looks certain to continue its box office domination after pulling in $11.8 million in its first week.

The two French films of note bowing this week both got off to a slow start. Ensemble pic “Les Heros de la famille,” which tells the tale of a family fighting over control of an inherited cabaret, was released by distrib UGC on 460 screens. But the film, whose cast includes heavy-hitters Gerard Lanvin, Catherine Deneuve and Emmanuelle Beart, was panned by critics and failed to excite auds.

Ditto Patrice Leconte’s comedy “My Best Friend,” which also boasts a cast of French faves, including Daniel Auteuil and Dany Boon.

The film, distribbed by Wild Bunch, received a critical bashing and doesn’t appear to be gaining popularity among moviegoers.

Riding a December comeback, Italian distributors are optimistic that another strong weekend of premieres and reliable Christmas comedies will boost the resurgent box office another 3% to near $13 million, its highest level in two months.

Box office receipts jumped 8% last weekend on the strength of local laffers, Filmauro’s “Christmas in New York” and Medusa Film’s “Ole,” which finished, respectively, at numbers 1 and 2.

Distributors expect no change in the ranking this weekend, historically one of the strongest of the year.

“Christmas in New York” could exceed last week’s take of $4.8 million while “Ole” is expected to slip a bit to around $1.5 million, exhibitors said.

“The real battle will be for the third and fourth positions, between ‘Eragon’ and ‘Flushed Away,'” one Naples-based exhib said. He predicted the two films, which are making their Italo premiere this weekend, could bring in between $750,000 and $1 million this weekend.

Buena Vista Intl.’s “Deja Vu” is expected to round out the top five.

One promising European picture is Teodora Film’s “After the Wedding.” The Swedish/Danish drama, which has received mostly strong reviews, is pegged to take in roughly $250,000.

Additional reporting by Adam Dawtrey (U.K.), Liza Klaussmann (France) and Bernhard Warner (Italy).

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