CHARLOTTE FILM SOCIETY Movies begin this Friday at the Manor and continue the following Friday at Movies at Birkdale. Call 704-414-2355 for details.
* THE BELIEVER The winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival (beating out, among others, Memento, In the Bedroom and Hedwig and the Angry Inch), this absorbing drama quickly found itself swept under the carpet after no studio proved brave enough to release it. Acquired by Showtime, the film finally premiered on cable before being screened in a smattering of cities here and there -- kudos, then, to the Charlotte Film Society for bringing this cinematic hot potato to town. Like Edward Norton in American History X, Ryan Gosling (Murder By Numbers) delivers a magnetic performance -- too magnetic, some might argue -- as a self-loathing Jew who becomes a persuasive speaker for the Neo-Nazi movement even as he still finds himself struggling against his upbringing. Loosely based on a true story, The Believer isn't about the banality of evil as much as the personality of evil, and how it merely takes one measured (if misguided) voice to sway mindless multitudes. 1/2
* HAPPY TIMES Even legends like Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston occasionally directed trifles such as (respectively) I Confess and Victory, so it's no surprise to see a world-class filmmaker like Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern) behind the camera for a yarn that's ultimately rather inconsequential. A middle-aged screw-up (Zhao Benshan) proposes marriage to an obnoxious woman (Dong Lihua) who insists he take over the care of her adopted -- and blind -- daughter (Dong Jie), leading to a seriocomic situation in which he develops a genuine interest in the girl's welfare. The director's penchant for irony and tragedy feels more forced than flowing in this erratic flick.
* Also: Jean Luc Godard's 1964 BAND OF OUTSIDERS, about a woman who teams up with two crooks to pull off a robbery, reemerges in a polished new print; the surreal Swedish import SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR has been described as "a Fellini film in slow motion, or a David Lynch film drained of color, or an abstract Monty Python comedy." (Unscreened)
AUTO FOCUS Director Paul Schrader moves from Affliction to addiction with Auto Focus, a distant, even sterile, yet compulsively watchable look at the sordid life of Hogan's Heroes star Bob Crane. Played by Greg Kinnear with the right mixture of frat-boy exuberance and lounge lizard unctuousness, Crane, in his early days as a radio show host, emerges as an affable chap with a yen for "skin" magazines. The success of the WWII sit-com doesn't exactly change his personality ("I'm a nice guy," he repeatedly insists), but the exposure allows him to stray from his wife (Rita Wilson) and get a taste of the women lining up to bed a bonafide celebrity. Working in tandem with a video production geek named John Carpenter (Willem Dafoe), Crane eventually gets hooked on the easy sex; what follows is an expected divorce, a post-Hogan career in dinner theater, endless hours of taped sexual marathons, and the actor's unsolved murder in 1978. Despite the intense focus on Crane, calling Auto Focus a character study wouldn't exactly be accurate, since the movie doesn't get inside his head as much as it watches his increasingly self-destructive actions from a detached distance. This approach mutes the film's emotional pull and makes the climactic killing seem almost like an afterthought, yet it also allows viewers to better study the signs that eventually lead Crane to his doom. The sex itself isn't the problem, Schrader seems to suggest; rather, it's any obsession that reduces a man to an unfeeling automaton merely going through the motions. Auto Focus centers on a sad sack whose life is eventually reduced to one endless bout of intercourse without intimacy, a marathon bang that lends new meaning to the term "artificial insemination."
BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE God bless America. And God bless Michael Moore for caring so much about America. The scruffy guerilla filmmaker who's made a career out of sticking it to the nation's corporate guard on behalf of the little people this time sets his sights on the country's thorny firearm issue. The result is a hard-hitting treatise that offers almost as many laughs as his previous pictures Roger & Me and The Big One but also (and here's the telling detail) emerges as a much sadder, wiser piece of filmmaking than its predecessors. Detractors will claim that this film, so skewed that Marilyn Manson ends up coming across as the most logical of all the interviewees, is nothing more than a typical liberal diatribe taking pot shots at easy targets, and they'd probably be right except for one thing. Sure, it's easy for Moore to note that those countries without easy access to firearms don't have our absurdly high murder rate, yet this film muddies the waters by pointing out that Canada, a country also swimming in firearms, has an enviably low murder rate despite the prevalence of weapons, thereby leading Moore (and us) to question whether gun control isn't the issue as much as an arrogant American mindset that feels everything is for the taking for anyone with the means to do so. That's not to say that Moore lets the satanic NRA off the hook: He allows goober members to ramble on until they hang themselves, and the picture concludes with him landing an interview with rabid NRA spokesman Charlton Heston, an enjoyable actor but a somewhat reprehensible human being. Bowling for Columbine isn't a subtle film; instead, it makes its case with Magnum force. 1/2