IT'S A BOND WEEKEND

If the reaction of British moviegoers is any measure, Casino Royale could break the bank in its opening over the weekend. In its first day of release in the U.K. the movie raked in more than any of the previous 20 Bond films -- an estimated total of $3.3 million in ticket sales, according to Sony's Columbia Pictures, which is distributing the MGM film. The figure amounts to twice the first-day total of the last Bond film, 2002's Die Another Day.Casino's primary competition this weekend will come from the third week of 20th Century Fox's Borat, which continued to outdistance its competition during midweek, and the new animated feature Happy Feet.

MOVIE REVIEWS: CASINO ROYALE

Like their British counterparts, American film critics are bestowing high praise on Daniel Craig for his performance as James Bond in Casino Royale. "Daniel Craig is just right in the role," Michael Phillips writes in the Chicago Tribune. "Craig is definitely the Real Thing," comments Eleanor Ringel Gillespie in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Amy Biancolli enthuses in the Houston Chronicle. "Craig's performance categorically silences the naysayers, igniting the film with a combustible, half-cocked virility that the series hasn't seen since the Sean Connery era." "Daniel Craig is the best Bond since Sean [Connery]," applauds Jack Mathews in the New York Daily News. But Peter Howell in the Toronto Star puts it this way: "The debate will continue as to who constitutes the best Bond, but there's no question that he is the right Bond for these times." Critics also seem generally pleased with the "reimagining" of the Bond franchise. Chris Vognar observes in the Dallas Morning News: "Casino doesn't reinvent the wheel, but it does spin the franchise in some gritty new directions. The characters seem less like props in an ongoing adolescent fantasy. The tone isn't as cute or vapid as most installments; it's actually a little sinister compared with any recent Bond. ... The movie feels both old and new. It is quietly, casually revisionist in its reinvention." Manohla Dargis in the New York Times underlines the difference: "Here what pops off the screen aren't the exploding orange fireballs that have long been a staple of the Bond films and have been taken to new pyrotechnic levels by Hollywood producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, but some sensational stunt work and a core seriousness. Successful franchises are always serious business, yet this is the first Bond film in a long while that feels as if it were made by people who realize they have to fight for audiences' attention, not just bank on it." The critics do have a number of reservations with the film. Nearly all conclude that it is too long. Several remark that it lacks the humor of its predecessors. Several remark that they don't miss Q or Miss Moneypenny. But Joel Siegel on Good Morning America suggested that what he missed most was the Bond theme music. "At first I thought....there was some kind of rights problem, they couldn't use the music. Turns out they were saving it until the movie's over."

MOVIE REVIEWS: HAPPY FEET

George Miller's animated Happy Feet is garnering reviews that, if possible, are even more ecstatic than those being dished out for Casino Royale. "A marvelous example of state-of-the art computer animation, Happy Feet is part family film, part Antarctic travelogue, part inspired musical," writes Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. Lou Lumenick in the New York Post calls it "the best feature-length cartoon since The Incredibles." Gene Seymour in Newsday observes that it might even be better: "This isn't some overreaching Pixar wanna-be, but a rich, absorbing story that isn't content to dazzle you with effects, but rouse your spirits," he writes. Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune also has high regard for it: "Its craftsmanship and ambition put it a continent ahead of nearly every other animated feature of the last couple of years," he writes. But several critics warn that there is a dark side to Happy Feet that parents should be warned about. Concludes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times: "As politically pointed as it is disturbing, it is a view of hell as seen through the eyes and ears of creatures we foolishly, tragically call dumb."

TARGET TAKES AIM AT DISNEY

Angered by Disney's decision to sell movies for downloading from Apple's iTunes Music Store for less than the retail price of the same movies on DVD, Target on Thursday pulled down signs promoting Disney DVDs as well as other Disney consumer products, the Wall Street Journal reported today (Friday). In response, Disney's Buena Vista Home Video fired off a letter to Target warning that it will not ship copies of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest or Cars to its stores. Target declined to comment, saying it "does not talk about its relationship with vendors." Disney is the only film studio that is selling movies for downloading on Apple's store; other studios have reportedly been reluctant to sign similar deals with the company fearing a backlash from retailers like Target.

WARNER BROS. MOVES UP RELEASE OF EASTWOOD FLICK

Warner Bros. and Paramount have decided to move up the release of Clint Eastwood's Letters From Iwo Jima to December 20 from February 9 in order to qualify it for Oscar consideration. The film, which presents the World War II Iwo Jima battle from the viewpoint of Japanese soldiers, is regarded as a companion piece to Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, which opened last month, and which depicts the battle from the American side. That film, which received critical praise, failed at the box office.

Brian B.