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That's Amore?

Five films explore different facets of love

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HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS
1/2
DIRECTED BY
Donald Petrie
STARS
Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey

DELIVER US FROM EVA
1/2
DIRECTED BY
Gary Hardwick
STARS
LL Cool J, Gabrielle Union

THE QUIET AMERICAN

DIRECTED BY
Phillip Noyce
STARS
Michael Caine, Brendan Fraser

THE LAST KISS

DIRECTED BY
Gabriele Muccino
STARS
Stefano Accorsi, Giovanna Mezzogiorno

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
1/2
DIRECTED BY
Jean Cocteau
STARS
Jean Marais, Josette Day

Aside from the occasional "event" picture (Hannibal in 2001, Daredevil this year), the month of February usually continues the January tradition of serving as a dumping ground for studios' lesser efforts. However, the one mode of motion picture that can escape this designation is the romantic comedy, since, hey, it's not the fault of the studios that Valentine's Day -- a perfect breeding ground for this sort of fare -- happens to fall in this off-season month. This year, two pictures concerning matters of the heart are premiering nationally in time for Valentine's Day; couple those with three new Manor titles (two courtesy of the Charlotte Film Society), and there are plenty of opportunities for audiences to gauge whether love is indeed a many splendored thing.Julia Roberts had her Pretty Woman, Sandra Bullock had her While You Were Sleeping, and, if it becomes a box office hit, Kate Hudson will have her How To Lose a Guy In 10 Days to turn her into America's latest A-list sweetheart. Yes, she received an Oscar nomination for Almost Famous, but there's always been something a little unformed about Hudson, who has repeatedly failed to locate the same sort of sparkle that propelled mom Goldie Hawn to stardom back in the late 60s. But this one marks the first time that Hudson has been able to truly command the screen: She's utterly winning as a women's magazine columnist who, for the sake of a story on what females shouldn't do when dating, hooks up with a guy with the intent of driving him away within... well, check the film's title. She settles on a slick ad man (Matthew McConaughey, easier to take than usual), unaware that he's made a bet that he can get any woman to fall in love with him within the same time period. For a film that wallows in the usual male-female stereotypes, this one's surprisingly light on its feet, thanks in no small part to its well-matched leads. Alas, the third act follows the exact pattern as almost every other romantic comedy made today (most recently Two Weeks Notice and Maid In Manhattan): The deceptions become unearthed, the pair breaks up, some soul searching takes place, and bliss arrives after a madcap chase. Leave before this excruciating finale and you should have an OK time.When constructing a romantic comedy, it's usually not a good idea to make your central character so odious that audience members won't care whether he or she finds romance or not. Yet that's the case with Deliver Us From Eva, a clumsy effort in which an intelligent, beautiful woman named Eva (Gabrielle Union) rules over her three younger sisters with an iron fist, much to the consternation of the siblings' male companions. In an effort to get Eva's nose out of their daily affairs, the three guys decide to hire a smooth-talking ladies' man (LL Cool J) to woo her, but matters become complicated once the player falls in love with his mark. Clearly, we're meant to thaw toward Eva as she thaws toward the idea of romance, but as harshly written by writer-director Gary Hardwick and his co-scripters -- and as broadly played by Union -- the character doesn't smack of The Taming of the Shrew's Katherine (the obvious inspiration) as much as such unrepentant characters as Alice In Wonderland's wicked Queen or one of Bette Davis' ice queens. Not that any of the other characters present humanity at its finest: The sisters can't think for themselves, their men are ineffectual weaklings, and the women's local hangout, a beauty salon, is run by a foul-mouthed, sex-crazed manhunter ("I can't keep my legs together!" she declares after ogling a hunk). Only LL Cool J's considerable charisma keeps this from completely sinking.By the time this prose sees print, we'll know whether or not Michael Caine received an Oscar nomination for his leading role in The Quiet American. It seemed to be a foregone conclusion at the beginning of awards season, but the British veteran largely faded once Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis began scooping up awards left and right. That's a real shame, because it's Caine who deserves the Best Actor trophy, delivering not only the finest male performance of 2002 but also one of the best of his entire career. In this adaptation of a Graham Greene novel whose ideas seem perpetually topical, Caine stars as Thomas Fowler, a London Times journalist stationed in Saigon in the 1950s. His strong relationship with a gorgeous Vietnamese woman (Do Thi Hai Yen) encounters some unexpected turbulence with the arrival of Alden Pyle (Brendan Fraser), an idealistic American who makes no bones about the fact that he's fallen instantly in love with Fowler's woman. Director Phillip Noyce, who was two-for-two in 2002 (having also helmed Rabbit-Proof Fence), has crafted a smart piece of entertainment that works equally well on both the personal and political fronts, placing a complex love triangle at the center of a sobering dissertation that boldly questions the US's continuous policy of meddling in foreign affairs. Fraser provides his character with a superficial sheen that pays off as the movie progresses, yet it's Caine's towering work, as a man who might not be as cynical as he thinks, that gives this movie its booming voice.A major award winner both at Sundance and in its Italian homeland, The Last Kiss (L'ultimo Bacio) tackles the topic of relationships in such a straightforward, emotionally honest manner that by the end, it's impossible to ascertain whether the film is, at its core, deeply pessimistic or quietly hopeful. It centers on various friends and family members as they all attempt to determine whether they'll be more content (or, at the very least, comfortably numb) making their way through life with their present mate by their side. In the central storyline, a 30-ish man (Stefano Muccino), set to marry his pregnant girlfriend (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), finds himself infatuated with an 18-year-old high school student (Martina Stella); other plot strands concern themselves with a middle-aged mother contemplating a divorce from her inattentive husband, a bickering married couple whose frustrations are accentuated by the presence of their wailing baby, and a bachelor who's content to bed a steady succession of women. A fine example of "life as lived" cinema, The Last Kiss challenges us not to find something in common with at least one of its protagonists, and it wraps up with a nicely ambiguous coda that drolly illustrates the dilemma of keeping any given relationship perennially fresh.

Perhaps anticipating the proximity to Valentine's Day, the members of the Charlotte Film Society were clearly in a romantic mood when picking this month's offerings last fall: In addition to the aforementioned The Last Kiss, they're also presenting three other titles dealing with love and/or sex: Spain's Mad Love, Tunisia's Satin Rouge and the reissue of Jean Cocteau's 1946 classic Beauty and the Beast (La Belle et la Bete). This version of the familiar fairy tale has long been revered for its dreamlike state, which continues to mesmerize even in this age of $100 million computer-generated effects. Cocteau, a French poet who made a handful of films over the years, took the basic tale of the lovely woman (played here by Josette Day) who comes to see the hirsute creature (Jean Marais) for his soulful interior rather than his frightful exterior and embellished it with his own brand of visual reverie: In this film, the candelabrums on the castle wall are held by living human arms, the doors open and close by themselves, and an enchanted glove allows Beauty to magically move from one locale to another, appearing on a luxurious bed with her dress billowing around her as if she were a flower in full bloom. This B&B isn't a children's film per se (don't look for Cogsworth or Mrs. Potts), but it might be an apt way to go ahead and provide the kids with an early lesson about the vagaries of love.

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