Nominees seek to raise their game in Europe

LONDON — At the European box office this weekend, Tom Cruise starring military thriller “Valkyrie” marches into Germany and the U.K. amid upbeat expectations and Oscar hopefuls like “Milk,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Revolutionary Road” and “Changeling” expand, hoping to turn noms buzz into extra ducats.

The highest profile local opener is Italo comedy “Italians,” which gets a massive release via Filmauro and looks set to open top.

U.K. box office biz has been bouncy so far this year, and shows little sign of slowing down this weekend as a fleet of Oscar contenders join the marketplace.

Last weekend, a remarkable six pics topped £1 million ($1.45 million), and bookers wouldn’t bet against it happening again. Holdovers “Slumdog Millionaire” — which is entering its third weekend with the wind still fully in its sails — and “My Bloody Valentine 3-D” in its soph sesh are both expected to hold well.

Openers “Valkyrie,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Milk” and “Underworld 3: Rise of the Lycans,” which opens day-and-date, are all expected to make an impact.

“Valkyrie” is likely to prove the biggest opener. Out on 450 via Fox, Bryan Singer’s thriller about a plot to kill Hitler is boosted by the strong U.K. cast — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp and Eddie Izzard — and Cruise’s sterling tub-thumping efforts in Blighty.

The appearance of Cruise and wife Katie Holmes at the Jan. 21 U.K. premiere in London guaranteed the pic lots of publicity.

On Friday, Cruise appears on Jonathan Ross’ BBC chatshow, which returns after a three-month ban imposed to punish Ross for his part in the Andrew Sachs-Russell Brand controversy. (Variety, Oct. 28, 2008).

However, “Valkyrie” is not helped by reviews, which are weak: “It feels, ultimately, like a story that has been taken advantage of, and skillfully repackaged as mass entertainment,” sniped the Times.

“Milk” pours into cinemas, boosted by its eight Oscar noms. Momentum Pictures releases it on 131 screens, with plans to expand if it catches on fire. An opening of close to $700,000 would satisfy bookers.

Universal releases Michael Sheen/Frank Langella starrer “Frost/Nixon” on 300. The pic about Frost’s Nixon interviews has been much mulled in the U.K. press since it opened the Times London Film Festival. But bookers are not 100% convinced the subject matter is a big draw for multiplex auds. Therefore, a bow of $1.4 million is forecast. Working it its favor is the timely Oscar noms and gently swelling home turf B.O. appeal of Sheen (“The Queen”). Roundly positive reviews — “So tonight say hello, good evening and welcome to one of the greatest political movies ever,” raved the Sun tabloid — should also help goose biz.

Lowbrow sequel “Underworld 3” acts as counterprogramming to the upscale fare debuting this weekend. The Entertainment release should pull $1.6 million, according to tradesters. The franchise has been on the slide in Blighty. The original 2003 pic pulled $6 million and the second installment netted $4.3 million.

In Germany, Cruise has his hands full: not only is he taking on der Fuehrer, he’s also battling it out with teen vampires and a dog named Bolt.

“Valkyrie,” going out via Fox, is generating huge interest and is expected to enjoy a muscular opening with some exhibs predicting long legs for the pic, which is sure to become a must-see for school groups as well as curious moviegoers.

Cruise’s involvement in the project and his starring role as a beloved German hero triggered a huge debate in Germany, where many baulked at the prospect of Cruise playing Stauffenberg due to the actor’s ties to Scientology, which is viewed critically locally. Yet initial reviews have been positive, with many observers now hailing Cruise and predicting the pic will even improve the country’s image abroad. Calling for all kids to go see the pic, daily broadsheet Bild called the film “a cinematic monument to a German hero,” while Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote: “As a thriller, ‘Valkyrie’ is nearly perfect.”

With “Twilight” doing boffo biz and Disney’s “Bolt” also starting this weekend, “Valkyrie” does face tough competition. Also hitting Teuton theaters is Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” from Universal, Oskar Roehler’s interracial rock’n’roll love story “Lulu und Jimi,” about young star-crossed lovers in 1950s small-town Germany, which goes out via X Verleih; and Warner’s cop drama “Pride and Glory.”

In Italy, local laffer “Italians,” a satire of national bad behavior involving Ferrari thieves and Russian prostitutes, goes out on a massive 690 screens via Aurelio De Laurentiis’ Filmauro with a clear shot for the top spot. Starring local A-listers Carlo Verdone, Sergio Castellitto and Riccardo Scamarcio, the massively marketed “Italians,” which is helmed by Giovanni Veronesi, even boasts good reviews from highbrow crix. Corriere della Serra called it “blatantly commercial, but of respectable quality.”

Medusa is outing Edward Zwick’s Holocaust drama “Defiance” — which Corriere praised, particularly for Daniel Craig’s performance, while La Repubblica called it “simplistic” — on 200. BIM is bowing “Milk,” boosted by eight Oscar noms and unanimous raves, on 150 amid high expectations given Sean Penn’s strong star pull in Italy. Warner Bros. is launching Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon comedy “Four Christmases” on 126 playdates, surely a bit late for a Christmas-themed laffer. Eagle Pictures outs Josh Holloway horror pic “Whisper” on 75, in a counterprogramming move that could pay off.

In Spain, there are two key releases, awards season contender “Revolutionary Road” and actioner sequel “Transporter 3,” which both go out on 260 screens.

Crix reaction to Paramount’s “Revolutionary Road” has been mainly upbeat: “A first-rate tragedy,” declared El Pais, praising Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s perfs. Bookers’ expectations hover around $1.8 million for the first weekend. Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” cumed $21 million in Spain 10 years ago.

DeAPlaneta’s “Transporter 3″ is not setting Spanish bookers’ paces racing with excitement. “With a bit of luck it might reach $1.2 million,” said one booker, noting that “it’s a movie with a specific target audience and the previous pic in the franchise didn’t exactly set the heather alight.” “Transporter 2″ grossed $3.2 million four years ago.

Spanish-Franco-German co-production “The Anarchist’s Wife” opens on 110 via Alta. “Wife” is a Spanish Civil War set drama helmed by Maria Noelle and Peter Sehr, which stars Juan Diego Botto and Maria Valverde, both marketable local thesps. Despite local crix fatigue with the subject matter, two of the biggest grossing local pics recently — “13 Roses” and “The Blind Sunflowers” — were set during the civil war.

While the Gallic box office has been in ruddy health in recent months, the top of the crop of Wednesday’s new releases did good but not boffo biz. “Revolutionary Road” reaped rave reviews, but a fairly modest $349,750 on 300. “Hollywood has gotten out of the habit of producing cinema this ambitious and complex,” suggested Dvdrama.

“Envoyes tres speciaux” (Very Special Correspondents) — helmer Frederic Auburtin’s laffer about a radio journo and his technician faking their Baghdad dispatches from the confines of northern Paris — also perfed passably, earning EuropaCorp $264,000 on 493. The crix praised the comedic pairing of veteran thesps Gerard Lanvin and Gerard Jugnot.

Jim Carrey starrer “Yes Man” scored a decent $257,270 for Warners.

Less successful was “Diamant 13” (Diamond 13). The dodgy copper caper toplining Gerard Depardieu and Olivier Marchal took in just $88,365 on 297 for Mk2.

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

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