‘Solace’ still holds sway in Europe

'Escape 2 Africa' reaches U.K., Spain

LONDON — With no major pic opening across the continent, gritty holdover “Quantum of Solace” has a license to print more greenbacks at the European box office this weekend.

But it is not all plain sailing for suave Brit superspy 007. The gradual rollout of “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa” reaches the U.K. and Spain this frame amid upbeat expectations.

In the U.K., “Solace” at last faces some meaningful competition for the top spot after a month in pole position. Local bookers are predicting a close finish between the Bond actioner and “Escape 2 Africa,” which previews on Saturday and Sunday. Both pics are projected to score around $3 million over the weekend.

Overall, U.K. biz needs a bit more muscle besides 007, after neither “Body of Lies” nor “My Best Friend’s Girl” drummed up much interest at plexes last weekend.

“Four Christmases” goes into its first weekend with more than $600,000 already in the bank from Wednesday and Thursday preview biz. The holiday laffer toplining Vince Vaughn and Reece Witherspoon is expected to nab third spot in the charts. Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” also goes into the weekend with two days’ worth of preview biz in the locker. The Angelina Jolie starrer has taken almost $400,000 via Universal.

Demi Moore was in London this week for the premiere of her heist movie “Flawless,” but bookers don’t think it will have massive commercial appeal. An opening of $100,000 tops is expected for the limited release via Metrodome.

In Italy, Disney’s “Bolt” is bowing big on 540 screens, 31 of which are 3-D equipped, in a crowded frame which also sees “Max Payne” making its Italo outing. But neither “Bolt” nor “Payne” are expected to oust “Twilight,” in its sophomore sesh, from the top Italo spot.

Disney’s dog hero pic has drawn rave reviews with Corriere della Sera praising “Bolt” for its “originality” and “tight editing,” while comparing its mix of fantasy and reality worlds with that of “Pinocchio.” Italo press reaction to “Payne” instead is tepid, but the vidgame adaptation, going out on 240 via Fox, is still expected to click with teen auds.

A heavy Hollywood contingent also sees Yank teen martial arts title “Never Back Down” out on 160 via Medusa, and drag race actioner “Death Race,” starring Jason Stratham, out on 100 via Universal.

Warner Bros. is outing well-received local single-dad drama “Solo un padre” (Just a Father) on 210, by Italo helmer Luca Lucini, based on Aussie writer Nick Earls’ novel “Perfect Skin.”

The Italo arthouse arena sees the bow of Wim Wenders drama “Palermo Shooting,” in a radically re-edited cut following its critical drubbing in Cannes. But the new cut got the thumbs down from local crix, with La Repubblica noting that it would have taken a miracle to salvage “Palermo,” suggesting that “the new film remains an absurd ramble about overly heavy themes.”

In Germany, “Solace” looks set to hold on to the top spot due primarily to the lack of major competition. Bondpic is set to meet or beat “Mamma Mia!” as year biggest B.O. performer later this week.

With Bond approaching saturation, action freaks as well as gaming geeks could rally round to give Universal’s “Death Race” a good mid-level opening.

Appreciative press described the remake as a “constant ultrasonic breathless speed rush” (Blicktpunkt Film), with the Berliner Morgenpost giving it four stars for its mix of “action, emotion, politics and montage.”

Brit romantic comedy “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People” (Concorde) could connect with German auds, despite its misfire in the U.S. Press has been very positive with Tip Magazine finding it “refreshing and pleasurable” and the Berliner Zeitung calling it “funny without being stupid.”

Recent decent perf by “Accidental Husband” suggests the date-night crowd is active.

French retro tuner “Paris 36″ (Constantine) has the makings of a low top 10 entry. Though press has been mixed, the strong arthouse performance of director Christophe Barratier’s 2004 film “The Choir,” which attracted more than 1 million admissions, should provide recognition factor.

In Spain, Bond will have to fend off the arrival of much awaited tuner “Escape 2 Africa,” which bows on a powerful 580 via Paramount. Original pic “Madagascar” opened in Spanish theaters on June 2005 and grossed $16.3 million. The sequel has aroused pretty good expectations amongst bookers. “It’s the first strong kids movie of the December pack. The Christmas lights are on and it’s really cold out there. It will definitely get off to a good start,” forecast one booker. Local crix have been mixed with some reviewers comparing it unfavorably with earlier 2008 animated releases “Kung Fu Panda” and “Wall-E.”

Elsewhere, Wide Pictures releases spoofer “Superhero Movie” on 287. “You can always expect good returns on this kind of picture” said a tradester. “Nevertheless, ‘Superhero Movie’ opens too close to ‘Disaster Movie’,” warned a distrib.

In France, “Transporter 3” was a leviathan among minnows for new bows in Gaul this Wednesday. The Luc Besson-scripted shoot ‘em up toplining Jason Statham opened at a cool $830,905 on 525 for EuropaCorp — an uptick of more than 3,000 admissions on the day one showing of the second installment in the franchise in 2005.

Helmer Francois Dupeyron’s “Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera” (With a Little Help from Myself) took in $50,160 on 143 for its producer and distrib ARP Selection. The topical story of the struggles of an African woman in the Parisian suburbs bowled over the scribes. “Both the director and the actors have hit the right tone: natural and serious,” said L’Humanite.

There was a lot less love for laffer “Hello Goodbye,” toplining Fanny Ardant and Gerard Depardieu, which could only manage $49,760 on 193 for SND. The two leads “flounce about without ever managing to be funny,” snubbed La Croix.

This year’s Camera d’Or winner at Cannes, “Hunger,” netted only $39,775 on 64 for MK2 Diffusion. Brit helmer Steve McQueen’s harrowing account of the early 80s IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands did at least score with Gallic crix. “It hits you in the heart and in the guts,” felt Figaroscope.

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

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