France welcomes 'Happening'

LONDON — Ed Norton starrer “The Incredible Hulk” smashes into U.K. cinemas this weekend hoping to gobble up bigger green than Ang Lee’s 2003 effort managed.

Euro cinema biz is locked in a battle for eyes with the televised European Championship soccer tournament but interest in soccer-mad Blighty is less frenzied than it would have been had any of the home nations managed to qualify.

M. Night Shyamalan’s eco-thriller “The Happening” bows in all five major Euro territories. Shyamalan is looking to shake of his previous critical and commercial disaster “Lady in the Water” and early signs of life in France are good where “Happening” got off to a fast start on Wednesday.

In the U.K., Louis Leterrier’s “The Incredible Hulk” goes into the weekend with an okay $1 million (at 460 locations) in the tank from Thursday previews. The comicbook actioner has mostly fallen foul of the Brit crix. But it does have its supporters: “The new film is so much better than director Ang Lee’s dour recent bash at the serial mutant — named by some ‘The Incredible Sulk’ — that it may kick-start another Marvel Comics screen franchise,” wrote Nigel Andrews in the Financial Times.

Lee’s “The Hulk” was not a hit at the U.K. box office. Hurt by savage reviews, it limped to a disappointing final total of $13.9 million. It opened in July 2003 to $5.6 million (including $2.1 million taken in previews).

The next biggest release is M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” which Fox sends out on a bullish 389 locations hoping poor reviews will not dissuade auds from a trip to the local multiplex.

There is plenty of new, promising fare for U.K. arthouse auds this weekend.

Alex Holdridge’s L.A.-set romantic comedy “In Search of a Midnight Kiss” goes out on 30 prints via Vertigo boosted by excellent reviews — “rude, raucous, touchy and very funny,” wrote Marc Lee in the Daily Telegraph. Also bowing at upmarket sites are Audrey Tautou starrer “Priceless” (Icon), Marianne Faithfull topliner “Irina Palm” and Alex Gibney’s hard-hitting Iraq doc “Taxi to the Dark Side” (Revolver Entertainment), which won the best docu feature Oscar.

In Italy, “The Happening” is going against romantic comedy “Made of Honor” in what is expected to be a measly frame due to Euro 2008 soccer fever.

Shyamalan’s Mark Wahlberg starrer launches on 370 via Fox amid tepid reviews. “It does not manage to be convincing,” said Corriere della Sera. Still, Shyamalan’s big Italo fan base is expected to make some biz happen for “The Happening.”

Sony’s “Made of Honor” bows in Italy on 300, also suffering critical drubbings. “Mediocre except for one detail: a small cameo by Sydney Pollack,” said La Stampa.

Reggaeton-infused drama “Feel the Noise” is launching on 123 via local distribbery Mediafilm, hoping to lure Italo teen auds, especially females.

Fittingly for a soccer-heavy weekend, Italy’s arthouse arena is teeming with new entries. Susanne Bier’s “Things We Lost in the Fire” goes out on 97 via Teodora Film, boosted by raves for the Benicio del Toro and Halle Berry starrer, whose performances La Repubblica called “excellent.” Italo helmer Francesco Munzi’s Cannes Directors’ Fortnight entry “The Rest of the Night” launches on 60 via 01 Distribution in a key test of how well small local titles can fare these days. Spanish helmer Jorge Sanchez-Cabezudo’s chiller “The Night of the Sunflowers” bows on 10 via Istituto Luce.

In Germany, Universal’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” takes on “Sex and the City” and “Crystal Skull” as cooling temperatures and rain clouds signal a blessing for the German box office. But popularity of Euro 2008 still makes going tough for cinema operators.

“Sarah Marshall’s” prospects in Germany look solid in view of Teutons’ love of bawdy comedies, although it still faces tough competition from “Sex” and “Skull.”

Concorde is taking aim at teen auds with U.K. post-apocalyptic thriller “Doomsday,” while Fox releases “The Happening,” facing an uphill struggle after a drubbing from local critics. “The world may not go under with ‘The Happening,’ but M. Night Shyamalan’s career certainly might,” sniped Munich broadsheet Abendzeitung.

Salzgeber looks likely to generate arthouse interest with Cam Archer’s critically acclaimed Sundance screener “Wild Tigers I Have Known, ” while Koch Media/Neue Visionen release hitman comedy “You Kill Me,” starring Ben Kingsley. Also hitting screens is Burt Reynolds starrer “Deal,” about an aging poker ace who mentors a young cardshark, which goes out via Seven Arts Pictures/imFilm.

“The Happening” got off to a stonking start in Gaul for Fox. A first-day take of $970,000 on 550 represented the 10th top bow of the year so far in France.

“Sagan,” helmer Diane Kurys’ biopic on the often tempestuous life of author Francoise Sagan, had an adequate opening for EuropaCorp — $282,000 on 247. Local scribes were generally impressed with Sylvie Testud’s portrayal of the often star-crossed novelist but overall reviews were mixed. For example, aVoir-aLire felt it “suffered from a TV movie-style direction, without style or any actual personality.”

Gritty cop thriller “Les Insoumis” (Crossfire), toplining Richard Berry, looks like a dud for SND. A first-day take of $67,050 on 199 “wasn’t very good, but we’re not really that surprised about it. I just don’t think it’s the kind of story the French public is looking for right now,” said sales exec Henry Hamelle.

Other new releases also made only minor contributions to distrib coffers. “Skate or Die” had a piffling perf for Pathe at $62,710 on 223. Helmer Roger Spottiswoode’s tale of wartime China “The Children of Huang Shi” opened at $24,815 on 94 for Metropolitan.

In Spain, “The Happening” is expected to open in top as “Crystal Skull” loses momentum. Fox bows pic on 384 boosted by very strong reviews. “I guess it will take no more than $2.3 million but it could show good legs,” predicted a booker. Shyamalan’s “Lady in the Water” nabbed $6.9 million in 2006 in Spain and “Signs” banked $10.9 million in 2001.

Overall Spanish biz is fairly flat, partly due to the popularity of the soccer, but expected to perk up significantly when “Hulk” and “Sex and the City” bow June 20.

Other small bows include Nikita Mikhalkov’s “12,” released by Flins & Piniculas on 46, Tommy O’Haver’s “An American Crime,” released by Filmax on 52, and Silvia Munt’s “Pretextos,” opening on 50 via Golem.

Additional reporting by Ed Meza (Germany), David Hayhurst (France), Nick Vivarelli (Italy) and Emilio Mayorga (Spain).

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