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CHARLOTTE FILM SOCIETY SECOND WEEK SERIES This month's offerings begin this Friday at the Manor and continue the following Friday at Movies at Birkdale. Call 704-414-2355 for more info.

* FAITHLESS If there's an antithesis to the "feel-good film," it's this absorbing yet utterly depressing drama directed by Liv Ullmann from a screenplay by Ingmar Bergman. Character development is all that really matters in this minimalist experience in which a man's wife and his best friend elect to have an affair, with tragic results for all.

* THE LUZHIN DEFENCE John Turturro and Emily Watson deliver solid performances in this tale (based on Vladimir Nabokov's novel) about an eccentric chess player who finds romance with a society lady while competing in a tournament in Italy. This is a pleasant diversion for most of its running time, although a cardboard villain (Stuart Wilson as Turturro's former mentor) and an absurd ending damage its overall impact.
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* BREAD AND ROSES Britain's Ken Loach, whose dramas commonly center on the plight of the working man, came stateside for this film that's loosely based on last year's janitor strike in LA. Elpidia Carrillo stars as an immigrant who struggles to improve conditions for her fellow laborers. (Unscreened)

* ME YOU THEM A peasant woman strives to find happiness while juggling relationships with three different men in this Brazilian import. (Unscreened)

IRON MONKEY Miramax Films head Harvey Weinstein, reportedly upset that his studio didn't land Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has been busy dusting off older martial arts flicks from Asia and releasing them theatrically in the US. The latest revival is Iron Monkey, a 1993 yarn whose director (Yuen Wo Ping) was responsible for the action choreography in Crouching Tiger and The Matrix. While lacking the epic grandeur of Tiger, this one equals it in terms of its martial arts wizardry, showcasing some of the most exhilarating action sequences I've seen this year. Iron Monkey is the alias of a kindly doctor in a 19th century Chinese village who periodically dons a mask and takes on the corrupt governor (James Wong) and his men. His chief ally is his pretty assistant (Jean Wang), but he also receives unexpected help from a travelling physician (Donnie Yen) and his young son (played by a girl, Tsang Sze-Man). Iron Monkey has been repeatedly compared to the story of Robin Hood, but if anything, it reminded me of Disney's Zorro series from the 50s, right down to the comic relief provided by the town's bumbling police chief. Of course, the film's true origins rest in the legend of Wong Fei-hong (seen here as the little boy), a real-life hero whose (fictionalized) exploits also fuel the plots of Once Upon a Time In China and The Legend of Drunken Master. You haven't lived until you've seen this film's final battle, in which combatants scuffle while perched on burning wood posts.

JOY RIDE Transcending its own limitations, Joy Ride, the sort of film that would normally pop up as a routine TNT or USA cable thriller, instead emerges as a satisfying, hardcore thriller. Highly reminiscent of Steven Spielberg's Duel, this finds The Fast and the Furious's Paul Walker racking up more miles behind the wheel as a college kid who's travelling cross-country with his potential sweetheart (Leelee Sobieki) and his ne'er-do-well brother (Steve Zahn). The siblings decide to use their newly purchased CB radio (described as "a prehistoric Internet") to pull a prank on a trucker who goes by the handle "Rusty Nail"; what they soon discover is that Rusty Nail is a psychopath who'll resort to anything -- even murder -- to pay back their practical joke. With a smart script by Clay Tarver and J.J. Abrams, this is the rare genre film to feature believable (and likable) kids as its protagonists rather than the usual imbecilic youths who end up as slasher fodder. Certainly, the screenplay contains a scattered number of plot inconsistencies, but the masterful direction by John Dahl (The Last Seduction) builds the suspense so effectively (the final half-hour may have you chewing your nails down to the cuticles) that the movie largely bulldozes through its shortcomings. But couldn't they have come up with a better ending? It's hard to imagine anyone will be satisfied with this film's final twist.

SERENDIPITY It's the Christmas shopping season in New York, and Jonathan (John Cusack) and Sara (Kate Beckinsale) accidentally meet when they both reach for the same pair of gloves. They're instantly attracted to each other, but rather than follow through on their feelings (as Jonathan wants), Sara decides to leave it to fate: If they're meant to be together, they'll eventually discover the phone numbers they write down for each other and send out into the world (he, on a five dollar bill; she, in a used book). Cut to several years later: Although they're both set to marry other people, they each decide to take one last crack at finding the love that got away. The key question in any romantic comedy is this: Do we want to see this pair together? Sadly, it didn't matter to me as far as this film was concerned. Jonathan is a real find -- what woman wouldn't want a guy this witty and romantic? -- but it was all but impossible to take Sara seriously after she concocts the dopey scheme that sets the plot in motion (just give him your phone number already!). And while the audience's attention is supposed to be on the happiness of the principals, my mind kept drifting toward Jonathan's fiancee (Bridget Moynahan), a likable woman who, if Jonathan and Sara's search proves successful, will end up humiliated on her wedding day (no Happily Ever After for her, I suppose). It's a shame the picture's very premise seems forced, because the performances are engaging (Eugene Levy steals it as a terse salesman) and the dialogue extremely sharp.
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