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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.

* 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.


DON'T SAY A WORD Gary Fleder directed the 1997 Morgan Freeman thriller Kiss the Girls, but for whatever reason, he wasn't involved with last spring's follow-up Along Came a Spider, about the search for a kidnapped girl. Perhaps suffering from franchise envy, Fleder opted to put his name on Don't Say a Word, which, oddly enough, also involves the kidnapping of a little girl. In short, Fleder was screwed from either direction with this particular plotline, making one wonder if he should have tried for a generic Disney comedy instead. Word doesn't have quite as many plotholes as Spider, but it also doesn't have Freeman's stabilizing presence; instead, its marquee draw is Michael Douglas, who seems utterly bored with this particular project. He plays Dr. Nathan Conrad, a New York psychiatrist whose daughter is snatched by crooks whose defining trait is that they don't have a single defining trait between them. The good doctor learns that the only way he'll get his daughter back is by extracting valuable information from the mind of one of his patients (Brittany Murphy), a catatonic woman with a murky past. Murphy's disturbed character is the most interesting one in the film, and this might have worked had it bothered to treat her as more than just an occasional plot device. As it stands, this boils down to routine police procedurals (stretch), cars speeding through city streets (yawn), and Douglas trading climactic blows with the baddies (zzzzz).

GHOST WORLD Terry Zwigoff, whose movie about cartoonist R. Crumb (Crumb) stands as one of the best documentaries of modern times, makes his fictional film debut with this adaptation of Daniel Clowes' underground comic book; although the picture is probably destined for cult status, its art-house encapsulation may prevent it from achieving its proper due as a new generational touchstone for disaffected teens and young adults everywhere. Certainly, the character that Zwigoff and Clowes place at the center of this razor-sharp satire is a familiar one to anyone who's ever set foot in a high school hallway. Enid (Thora Birch), an outsider and damn proud of it, wears her disdain for the civilized world on her sleeve, and she and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson) spend most of their time not experiencing their own lives as much as wryly commenting on everyone else's. Whether you love or loathe this type of person in real life doesn't really matter, since it's Enid's universal vulnerability that ultimately wins us to her cause. In many respects, she's no different than James Dean's Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause or Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate -- good kids who want to move forward but whose failure to communicate perpetually keeps their lives in idle. Ghost World is very funny but also very perceptive, and it offers Steve Buscemi one of the defining roles of his career as a lonely guy whose very cluelessness makes him cool in Enid's eyes. 1/2

THE GLASS HOUSE The press material for The Glass House plugs the film as a "psychological thriller," a designation more likely to apply to a Tweety & Sylvester cartoon than to this simpleminded melodrama. Leelee Sobieski, whose physical resemblance to Helen Hunt suggests that cloning may already be underway in Hollywood, is cast as Ruby Baker, a teenager who, along with her younger brother Rhett (Trevor Morgan), finds herself orphaned after her parents are killed in an automobile accident. With nowhere to go, the kids are adopted by their parents' former best friends, a couple who now live in one of those shiny Malibu homes that look more like desk ornaments than places of residence. Right from the start, there's tension between Ruby and her keepers, Terry and Erin Glass (Stellan Skarsgard and Diane Lane), and it's not long before Ruby suspects the Glasses are only interested in the children's sizable inheritance. After a shaky beginning that utterly fails to provide any sort of comprehensive character dynamics (this section is so underwritten, even the actors cast as family members appear as if they're meeting each other for the very first time), the film picks up once it focuses on Ruby's efforts to piece the puzzle together. But as the plot thickens (or, in this case, becomes more thickheaded), credibility flies out the window and eventually elects to leave the country altogether. There's no shortage of good actors on board -- even Bruce Dern turns up -- but they spend most of their time stumbling into the script's gaping plotholes.

GLITTER Or, A Star Is Stillborn. If there's one positive thing to say about Glitter (and believe me, there really is only one), it's that, unlike their overreacting peers, its makers elected to keep the fleeting shots of the World Trade Center in the picture. The current rush to erase the buildings' presence in all modes of entertainment is just plain wrong: Besides chalking one up for the terrorists, it dishonors the memory of not only the victims but also of the architectural wonders themselves. Glitter made me glad to see there were some folks who didn't go along with this questionable edict (my belief that people want to see the twin towers was validated by New York Times critic Lawrence Van Gelder, who, in his Glitter review, wrote that "the only sight that aroused the [audience] to applause was the World Trade Center"). But aside from offering shots of the WTC, there's absolutely nothing of interest in a vanity piece so self-absorbed, it makes Prince's Under the Cherry Moon look like a model of modesty and restraint. Mariah Carey, displaying all the acting ability of a Chia pet, stars as Billie Frank, who goes from being a struggling back-up singer to landing a major label contract, putting out a hit album, recording music videos and attending awards shows -- all within a span of about six months! Drained of all vitality and refusing to embrace a single original notion, Glitter does offer several unintentionally funny moments -- enough, anyway, to make it a future camp classic.

GREENFINGERS By all appearances, Greenfingers appears to be veddy, veddy British, coming from the same well that sprung forth The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and other quirky, uplifting comedy-dramas from the other side of the pond. Go figure, then: The movie's writer-director, Joel Hershman, hails from Brooklyn and LA, and he based his picture on a New York Times article. All this really proves, however, is that this undemanding sub-genre has been ironed out to the point that anyone can join the party. Like most recent films of this sort, this one's the equivalent of a Sunday afternoon stroll through the park: pleasant, cheery, and forgotten by the following Sunday. Clive Owen, whose terrific performance in last year's Croupier should have won him an award or two, has such an incredible screen presence, it's a wonder he isn't already a star (many scribes, myself included, have noted that he should be the one playing James Bond). He brings that smoldering intensity to this otherwise featherweight feature about a group of prisoners who find a form of freedom through their newly gained interest in gardening. While serving time, the five men (including Owen's character) are encouraged to cultivate the compound's first garden, and it's not long before their achievement comes to the attention of noted horticulturist Georgina Woodhouse (Helen Mirren). In true Hollywood style, the convicts are about as threatening as the Backstreet Boys, but the movie's charms nearly outweigh its narrative complacency.

HEARTS IN ATLANTIS With the passing of John Gielgud last year, the greatest voice in cinema now belongs to Anthony Hopkins, whose dulcet tones lend a degree of reassurance to his heroes and a sense of seductive menace to his villains. Above all, his voice suggests a world-weary intelligence (it's questionable whether this excellent actor could effectively play an imbecile), and it's this quality that juices his character in the latest screen adaptation of a Stephen King bestseller. Set in 1960, the film casts Hopkins as Ted Brautigan, a mysterious figure who moves into a boarding house also occupied by struggling single mom Liz Garfield (Hope Davis) and her young son Bobby (Anton Yelchin). Liz is suspicious of Ted, but Bobby develops a friendship with the soft-spoken man, who, in between providing valuable life lessons pertaining to compassion and self-esteem, asks the lad to keep an eye out for shady characters he insists are after him. Hearts In Atlantis isn't the smoothest King adaptation out there -- scripter William Goldman has minimized the supernatural aspects of the tale so that their erratic appearances feel jarring and intrusive. But in addition to providing Hopkins with a formfitting role, the movie does an exquisite job of conveying the flush'n'blush of that first childhood romance: The scenes between Bobby and his sweetheart Carol (Mika Boorem) are beautifully handled, thanks in no small measure to the late Piotr Sobocinski's luminous cinematography and the wonderful performances by the two young actors.

ZOOLANDER After scoring big as part of the comic ensembles of There's Something About Mary and Meet the Parents, it seemed like a natural progression for Ben Stiller's first solo starring role to thrust him into the stratosphere. Instead, Zoolander, which finds Stiller serving as actor, director, co-writer and co-producer, turns out to be the most ragged comedy of the bunch, a frequently timid spoof that's surprisingly arid in between the handful of genuinely splendid gags. Based on a skit created for the 1996 VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards, this casts Stiller as Derek Zoolander, an imbecilic male model who becomes involved in a conspiracy plot that explains why there are no male models over the age of 30 (Logan's Runway?). Zoolander himself becomes the biggest patsy in this nefarious scheme, and it's up a fellow model (Owen Wilson) and a Time reporter (Christine Taylor, Stiller's wife) to help him bring down the villains. Throw your popcorn bag at the screen and chances are you'll hit a major star making a cameo appearance -- David Bowie, Winona Ryder, Jon Voight, Fabio, the list goes on -- but all the glad-handing between celebrities can't disguise the fact that there's not enough here to sustain an entire movie (even one that clocks in at 90 minutes). Still, there are some terrific bits scattered around (the gasoline scene is a riot), and Stiller and Wilson are perfectly cast as supermodels so idiotic, they think a bulimic is someone with the ability to read minds.


APOCALYPSE NOW REDUX Francis Coppola's 1979 masterpiece, about one man's dangerous mission deep in the heart of the Vietnam War, returns to theaters with 48 minutes of extra footage. The new material is a mixed bag, but it can't dilute the power of this must-see movie event, which, blessed with a new print, looks and sounds better than ever.

JEEPERS CREEPERS A cannibalistic winged demon goes on a murderous rampage whenever he hears the title tune in this sorry excuse for a horror film. Lapses in plotting and logic are tossed out at such a breakneck speed, you wonder if writer-director Victor Salva was going for some sort of world record. The sick ending, by the way, exists only to justify the title and sets things up for a sequel I'll be sure to avoid.

THE OTHERS A British woman (Nicole Kidman) suspects her house might be haunted in this exceptional thriller from writer-director Alejandro Amenabar. This is the sort of muted terror tale that rarely gets made anymore: Creepy rather than scary, it builds upon an overriding sense of hopelessness and dread that's made tangible through the shadowy cinematography, a wonderful music score (by Amenabar himself), and a strong performance by Kidman.