Smith pic has few serious challengers

LONDON — In the absence of big studio openers, Will Smith pic “I Am Legend” looks set to continue to hold well at the European box office this weekend, where Spanish serial-killer thriller “The Oxford Murders” is the most significant local release.

The English-language and English set “Oxford Murders,” which is helmed by Spanish helmer Alex de la Iglesia, is released in Spain by Warner on a tentative 250 prints. Produced by Telecinco Cinema and Tornasol, pic’s $13 million budget and superior cast — Elijah Wood, John Hurt and Spain’s Leonor Watling — makes this one of most ambitious Spanish films of the year.

Critics have responded cautiously. “It’s the least recognizable of de la Iglesia’s movie,” said daily El Publico.

Exhibitors are more upbeat. “This is one of the only Spanish films that can make money,” said one. Another predicts a first weekend $2.7 million. “Critics don’t forgive change. But ‘Murders’ will perform nicely, probably surpassing ‘Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem’,” he added.

Crix have been nearly unanimously positive about Paul Haggis’ “In the Valley of Elah,” which bows on 125 via DeAPlaneta.

“It’s the most perceptive, spine-chilling and complex movie ever made” about the Iraq war, said El Pais. La Razon said that Haggis gets “to the bottom of all wars, and human beings.”

Lebanese beauty salon set drama “Caramel” opens on 50 via Alta. Having swept the TCM Audience Award and Youth Award at September’s San Sebastian fest, it has specialty sleeper potential.

In the U.K., the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” goes out on 160 prints via Paramount, hoping to cash in on building awards season buzz and mostly positive reviews from local crix.

“Old Men” received nine BAFTA nominations on Jan. 16, behind local fave “Atonement,” on 14 noms, so it goes into the weekend on something of a roll.

After the Golden Globes washout, the Brit press is making much of the perceived added significance of the BAFTAs in the awards season calendar and “Old Men” could benefit from the increased exposure given to the awards.

“The Coens are back with a vengeance, showing their various imitators and detractors what great American filmmaking looks like,” declared Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian.

“Old Men” has already previewed successfully on Jan. 12 and 16, and bookers project an opening, including previews, of more than $1.2 million.

Fellow opener “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” — out on 300 via Sony — is not generating much industry excitement and has been dubbed a disappointment by the Brit crix. “Apatow and co. may have walked on water in 2007, but here I’m afraid they’re just treading it,” sniped Sukhdev Sandhu in the Daily Telegraph.

Another new release falling foul of the British reviewers is “Alien Vs. Predator — Requiem,” which Fox releases on 398. “ ‘Alien vs. Predator: Requiem’ is a wrist-slittingly awful addition to the ‘Alien and Predator’ franchises. Surely it can’t fall much farther,” wrote Christopher.

But exhibs predict a decent opening of $3 million. “The market hasn’t had a popcorn movie since ‘I Am Legend’ and ‘AVP’ is a reasonably bankable franchise,” said one booker, who predicts it will “open with a bang and fall away quickly.”

Into the arthouse arena steps Gallic helmer Nicolas Philibert with doc “Back to Normandy.” His previous effort “Etre et Avoir” was a B.O. hit in the U.K. but industryites do not feel this follow-up has the same commercial potential. Critical reaction has been positive.

In Italy, the top opener is “American Gangster,” which should do gangbusters biz thanks to strong reviews and a clear playing field.

Universal is outing the Denzel Washington pic on 470 with Italo crix praising Washington’s perf — Corriere della Sera called it a “bravura” turn — while the only other substantial Italo outing is “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”

The Fox live-action/animation title is going out in Italy on 260 amid expectations it will play molto bene with the family crowd.

Meanwhile, Eagle Pictures is hoping to scare up some biz with chiller “The Return,” starring Sarah Michelle Gellar and Sam Shepard, while 01 Distribution has 1970s-set political drama “Signorina Effe,” by Wilma Labate, out on 70 following its preem at the Turin fest in November to a mixed response.

In a week of mostly arthouse openers, the Will Smith starrer “I Am Legend,” which alone accounted for 45% of last weekend’s gross, looks certain to hold onto the top spot in Germany.

The question this weekend is how close “P.S. I Love You” from Tobis will come to unseating the date-night primacy of German blockbuster “Keinohrhasen.”

While some reviewers criticized “Love” for multi-hanky manipulation, mainstream press such as the Suddeusche Zeitung said, “When weepiness and unbelievability threaten, the film is ably defended by Hilary Swank, with Lisa Kudrow and Gina Gershon at her side.”

The trades called it “grown-up entertainment in the best Hollywood tradition,” while glossy woman’s magazine Brigitte praised Swank’s performance.

For the less mainstream oriented date-nighters, the one to watch will be the Irish sleeper hit, “Once.” Trade mag Filmstart called it “a low-budget production with big budget heart,” and city magazine Tip praised its “anti-romantic romanticism.” With good word of mouth and a little muscle from German distrib Kinowelt, the film could pull off a “Billy Elliot” in the multiplexes.

On the arthouse side, indy thriller “Joshua,” released by Fox, will get help from some good reviews, as will kooky romantic South Korean pic, “I’m a Cyborg and I’m OK” from Rapid Eye Movies.

Additional releases include the Austrian film, “Fallen” (Falling), a woman’s drama from Novapool and the German/Polish blackmail thriller “Hope” from Pandora.

Set to show good traction is last week’s opener “Control.” The Brit pic about the rise and fall of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis is expected to build on its promising limited-release bow.

In France, B.O. biz looks to be picking up.

After weeks in which many bizzers felt they were treading water at best, the first-day figures for a few new releases have at least some smiling again.

Gaumont managed a very strong bow for laffer “A Widow at Last” — the follow-up for local helmer Isabelle Mergault’s 2005 hit “You Are So Beautiful” — with a first-day take of $598,560 on 480.

Also bowing strongly was Tom Hanks starrer “Charlie Wilson’s War” with $296,776 on 296 for Par. Reviews have been good to glowing. “A political comedy with beautifully crafted dialogue worthy of Hollywood’s Golden Age,” trumpeted TeleCineObs.

Spine-tingler “1408” also started quite well for TFM, launching at $163,242 on 195.

Local helmer Vera Belmont’s “Survivre avec les loups,” based on a harrowing true tale of a young Jewish girl in search of her parents during WWII, had a decent opening for BAC with a first-day take of $114,426 on 195.

Helmer Ang Lee’s much anticipated “Lust, Caution” had a reasonably good bow of $88,286 for UGC on 153. James Wan’s “Death Sentence,” however, opened limply at $47,372 on 104 for Metropolitan.

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

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