Europe remains in ‘Potter’s’ thrall

Local comedies blossom in summer

BERLIN — “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” will keep much of Europe under its spell over the weekend.

Yet local distribs are eagerly counterprogramming with alternative titles, such as local laffers and arthouse, fare before the arrival of more Hollywood tentpoles in coming weeks.

It’s summer and, following hallowed tradition, that means it’s comedy time in Spain.

This week’s launch is being regarded as a test case of just how much Spain has succeeded in shrugging off its past, when comedies — usually piquant sexual titles milking light social satire, drawing on Spain’s popular “sainete” farces — still has an audience in Spain.

The latest local laffer launching south of the Pyrenees is Josetxo San Mateo’s family romp “Atasco en la nacional” (literally, “Highway Tailback”), opening on a middling print run of 175 prints via AZ.

It’s already got the bird from critics. Newspaper El Pais welcomed this new comedy as “a socio-cinematographic nightmare taking place in a time tunnel that proves our country hasn’t changed as much as we thought, that perhaps we’re a land of halfwits which laughs at halfwits.”

That’s not likely to worry distrib AZ Cinema too much. El Pais predicted dire results for youth gross-out comedy “Cafe solo o con ellas,” describing it as a “rigor mortis of a youth comedy, a B.O. corpse.” With $2 million after three weekends, “Cafe” is poised to become the highest grossing Spanish release of the year.

“The Order of the Phoenix” still reigns in Spain, cuming $14.2 million after nine days.

Another Spanish laffer, wacky grossouter “O.F.N.I.,” helmed by Jose Semprun, a UFO geek spoof, goes out more modestly on 32 via Livestrong Films, while Cannes Directors Fortnight screener, psychodrama “La influencia,” a Mexican-Spanish co-pro produced by Carlos Reygadas and Jose Maria Lara, has commanded critical respect in Spain.

Sagrera releases “Septiembres,” about love in jail, directed by Carles Bosch, (who co-helmed docu “Balsreros,” Academy nommed in 2004) has enjoyed good buzz after sneak previews.

This weekend marks the calm before the storm at the U.K. box office before the twin onslaughts of “The Simpsons Movie” and “Transformers”

next week. The biggest release is Entertainment’s all singing and dancing “Hairspray,” which is being rolled out on 350 playdates.

The sight of John Travolta in drag has inspired generally positive reviews, if not quite as ecstatic a reception as pic is receiving Stateside. “This is a musical that never seems to stand still, and its twinkle-toed energy, if not quite infectious, is consistently pleasing to the eye,” wrote the Independent’s Anthony Quinn.

Aside from Fox’s “Firehouse Dog,” which bows on 202 prints, the rest of the releases are merely arthouse curios. Artificial Eye brings out Gallic helmer Alain Resnais’ “Private Fears in Public Places” on five screens, Dogwoof Pictures bow “Buy it Now,” Antonio Campus’ debut feature about a 16-year-old girl auctioning her virginity on eBay, on a solitary print, while Revolver has “Ghosts of Cite Soleil,” a powerful docu about gang life in a Haitian slum, on four prints.

Also released are two Bollywood pics: Eros’ “Partner” and Studio 18’s “Halla Bol.”

Relative lack of big hitters plus a mixed weather forecast and the long awaited release of the final “Harry Potter” book should see strong holdovers for sophomore weekend of “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” following its record breaking U.K. box office last week.

A slew of pics are hitting screens in Germany, most notably Quentin Tarantino’s “Death Proof.” Local distrib Senator is releasing the “Grindhouse” double feature as two separate films here in hopes of a better performance than was had Stateside.

While “Order of the Phoenix,” “Live Free or Die Hard” and “Shrek the Third” are sure to retain the top three spots, local exhibs are predicting “Death Proof” could well open in the top five.

Exhibs also expect good showings from Frank Oz’s black comedy “Death at a Funeral” (Concorde) and Nimrod Antal’s thriller “Vacancy” (Sony), both of which have impressed local critics. Trade magazine Treffpunkt Kino called the Oz film an “irresistibly funny death with the most ludicrous gags.”

Additional starts include Bernd Boehlich’s local comedy-drama “Du bist nicht allein,” an ensemble pic about Berlin tenants living in a low income apartment building, going out via Neue Visionen; Murali K. Thalluri’s Australian teen ensemble drama “2:37,” released by Central; and Pierre Jolivet’s French romantic comedy “Je crois que je l’aime” (“Could This Be Love?”) from Arsenal.

While Universal’s Nicolas Cage starrer “Next” from Lee Tamahori is unlikely to boast boffo numbers, it has received some surprisingly positive reviews after being largely panned in the U.S.

“With such a bold and radical twist ending, the film robs the viewer of any final certainty and transforms a conventional genre film into an avant-garde experimental work of art,” wrote Die Welt.

In Italy, “Potter” is set to dominate in its second frame, but counterprogramming outings are copious, unlike last weekend when “Phoenix” had a wide open playing field.

Sony is trying to scare up some biz with horror pic “Vacancy,” toplining Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson on 122, while 01 Distribuzione is serving up martial arts fare with “Fearless,” starring Jet Li, on 105, and Universal is hoping Ben Affleck and Andy Garcia will fly with “Smokin’ Aces,” on 100.

On the arthouse front, Istituto Luce is outing Italo comedy “SoloMetro” by first-timer Marco Cucurnia, starring local A-list thesp Michele Placido (“The Unknown”), a rare case of an Italian release this summer.

Still, despite a few more bottom feeders, exhibs expect “Phoenix” to account for about one third of the total take, the same slice of the pie it took in its first frame.

“Phoenix,” “Die Hard” and “Shrek” will also continue their domination of the French box office over the weekend, although it’s a mid-summer, twixt-blockbuster lull for new releases in Gaul.

“Hot Fuzz” seems set to repeat the success of “Shaun of the Dead” for helmer-scribe Edgar Wright and writing partner and star Simon Pegg. It bowed first day at over $128,000 for StudioCanal on 149. Some critics not without clout gave it maximum stars. “Between idiotic but precise gags and semi-subliminal jokes, the film bathes in a delicious absurdity,” chortled Les Inrockuptibles.

Even a videogame-based chopsocky pic could show O.K. numbers after last week’s Gallic launch limbo. “DOA: Dead or Alive,” toplining Holly Valance and Jaime Pressly, has pulled in nearly $60,000 on 143 for TFM.

While not overly kind, not all the critics had their blades out. “The sci-fi intrigue is lightweight to the point of evaporating on the screen,” found Paris Match, “but the one-on-one fights are erotic.”

Additional reporting by David Hayhurst (France), Ali Jaafar (U.K.), Emilio Mayorga (Spain) and Nick Vivarelli (Italy).

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