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CHARLOTTE FILM SOCIETY Movies begin this Friday at the Manor and continue the following Friday at Movies at Birkdale. Call 414-2355 for details.

FOLLOWING What Darren Aronofsky's Pi was to his Requiem for a Dream is what Christopher Nolan's Following is to his Memento: a micro-budget debut that served as a fascinating springboard for a fantastic follow-up. Made three years before Memento, Following follows a sad sack whose odd habit of randomly trailing people on the street eventually gets him mixed up with a dapper burglar. The twists keep comin' in this clever neo-noir.

THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, whose attempt at a Hollywood horror yarn (Mimic) was actually noteworthy, returned to his native language to helm this Mexican-Spanish co-production (filmed in Madrid) about an orphanage that's haunted by the spirit of a murdered child. Reviewers who claimed this improved on The Others were merely grandstanding, but del Toro has nevertheless crafted a sturdy chiller.

Also: VA SAVOIR, a French comedy about the behind-the-scenes dalliances during the mounting of a stage production, and WAKING LIFE, director Richard Linklater's experimental animated feature presented as a series of philosophical musings. (Unscreened)

40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS That ultimate genre of ill repute, the teen-oriented sex comedy, takes a sideways step with 40 Days and 40 Nights, a mildly tolerable romp that at least offers a sweet center to counterbalance its smarmy surroundings. Josh Hartnett, that stiffest of Next Big Things, delivers a surprisingly adept comic turn as Matt Sullivan, a web page designer who decides that the best way to forget about the icy girlfriend (Vinessa Shaw) who dumped him is to abstain from all sexual pleasures, including masturbation, under the Lenten timeline of 40 days (yeah, it makes no sense, but work with me here). At first, things go well for our celibate hero, but once he meets his perfect match (Shannyn Sossamon), he finds it exceedingly difficult to keep his vow. A few modest laughs and an imaginative sex scene can be found amid the usual condom/Viagra/erection gags, but the film goes limp (no pun intended) during the disappointing climax (ditto), not least because it involves a rape that never really gets addressed.


DARK BLUE WORLD It's a simple equation, really: Pearl Harbor minus dopey dialogue plus interesting characters divided by a fraction of a gargantuan budget equals Dark Blue World, the latest feature from Czech director Jan Sverak (the Oscar-winning Kolya). Like that bloated Hollywood epic, this one also focuses on a love triangle set against the backdrop of World War II; in this case, the players are two Czech pilots (Ondrej Vetchy and Krystof Hadek) who escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, join England's Royal Air Force and fall in love with the same British lass (Tara Fitzgerald). The romantic dilemma is familiar material played out in a fairly satisfying manner, yet it's the subtext involving the men's separation from their country (both during the war and, as we see in scenes interspersed throughout the picture, during the post-war Communist rule) that makes this film stand out.

DRAGONFLY Say you're a studio head, and you have this sensitive, soulful, supernatural love story that, if nurtured properly, could turn out to be a commercial bonanza on the order of Ghost or The Sixth Sense. Would you then turn around and hand the project to the guy responsible for such inconsequential, ham-fisted works as Patch Adams and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective? That's the kamikaze approach taken here, as a potentially moving tale about a doctor (Kevin Costner) who believes his recently deceased wife may be trying to communicate with him is torpedoed by the oblivious efforts of director Tom Shadyac. That's not to say the script by David Seltzer, Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson is flawless ­ for one thing, it's not too difficult to figure out the twist ending that the picture has in store for us. But for a movie that's supposed to be about airy, ethereal elements, Shadyac moves this along at a torpid pace and frequently undermines any notions of everlasting love by tossing in the sort of cheap scares more suitable to a horror yarn.

HART'S WAR Certainly one of the more ambitious projects of the new year, this WWII drama falls just shy of qualifying as an out-and-out hit. The problem rests with the pontification, as an initially absorbing storyline eventually gets railroaded by a final half-hour in which everyone boasts about the sacrifices they'll make before actually getting around to making them. Despite top billing and prominence in all the trailers, Bruce Willis is actually a supporting character, portraying the top dog among the Americans being held at a German POW camp. The Hart of the title is played by Colin Farrell, who's cast as a greenhorn lieutenant ordered to defend a fellow officer ­ a black flyer (Terrence Howard) accused of murdering a racist GI (Cole Hauser) ­ in a kangaroo court set up within the confines of the camp. This extremely well-made drama has its share of high-minded themes to push ­ for starters, the divisiveness of racism is not only inherently evil but also detrimental to a necessary spirit of camaraderie and self-sacrifice ­ but such notions of nobility work far more effectively when subtly woven into the fabric of the piece rather than written large across a billboard that's then toppled onto audience members' heads. 1/2

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