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New Kid In Town 

Theater debuts with art-house aspirations

Each time a new movie theater opens in Charlotte, its owners plug it as a state-of-the-art facility featuring amenities never before seen in the Queen City. In most cases, that's true: On the local moviehouse timeline, it really wasn't all that long ago (the 1990s, to be exact) that stadium seating and armrests with cup holders were first introduced to local filmgoers.

Similarly, the Ballantyne Village Theatre, which opens this Friday, promises to feature sights presently unseen in area movie theaters. For starters, the theater will showcase VIP and reserved seating in leather reclining chairs; an art-deco lobby; beer, wine and coffee selections; gourmet pizza; sushi; a 27-seat private screening room for special events; and the usual popcorn and soft-drink offerings.

This sounds great, yet what really sets the place apart is that it's been conceived as an art-house theater. Without doubt, Charlotte is starved for alternative fare -- two screens at the Manor Theatre simply don't cut it in a town this size -- and the suits at Ballantyne Village and Consolidated Theatres (which will operate the venue) believe that there are enough Charlotteans interested in foreign and independent cinema to make the theater a success. It's a big question mark -- for one thing, attempts over the years by theaters beside the Manor to establish alternative film programs have met with disaster; for another, movies that often celebrate alternate viewpoints and lifestyles may not exactly fly in Bush-lovin' Ballantyne, the most conservative area of the city.

But for now, discerning film fans have every reason to be excited over the most important development on the Charlotte movie scene in years. Here's hoping the line-ups catch fire immediately; otherwise, the site may well be showing Mission: Impossible III in all five of its auditoriums come Memorial Day Weekend.

Four of the five opening-weekend titles have already been booked. Picturehouse Films wasn't able to get it together in time to offer an early showing of the comedy Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, but here's a look at the other three offerings:

CSA: CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA -- Ingeniously presented as a Ken Burns-style TV documentary produced by the BBC, CSA offers a what-if? scenario by imagining the parallel course of history had the South won the Civil War. Talking heads, historical reenactments and clips from faux-movies like D.W. Griffith's The Hunt for Dishonest Abe and the 50s paranoia thriller I Married an Abolitionist help paint a picture of an America that not only still allows slavery but also supported Hitler's desire for Aryan supremacy during World War II, went on to conquer Latin America and South America, and initiated a Cold War with Canada (home for abolitionists, suffragettes and rock & rollers like Elvis Presley). Breaking up the documentary are mock TV commercials for, among other things, Darky Toothpaste ("For A Shine That's Jigaboo Bright!") and an eatery called Coon Chicken Inn. Writer-director Kevin Willmott methodically lays out the requisite groundwork so that none of the developments in the movie seem unbelievable or out of place -- it makes for a razor-sharp satire that only flags at the end. Yet for all its wit, the overwhelming feeling is one of sadness, as the CSA history and our actual USA history really aren't that far removed: Just witness our continuous attempts to conquer -- excuse me, democratize -- foreign lands and our penchant for romanticizing our spotty past (what was Gone With the Wind if not an attempt to make slavery palatable to Northern audiences?). And those ads for Darky Toothpaste and Coon Chicken Inn? As a final footnote reveals, these were among real products and places that existed in the USA, not just the CSA. ***1/2

TSOTSI -- Winner of this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, the South African import Tsotsi takes a sentimental view of what can largely be construed as unsentimental circumstances. Yet the movie's selling point is the subtlety with which it spreads around its empathy. Tsotsi has the potential to be viewed as button-pushing melodrama, yet writer-director Gavin Hood, adapting a novel by playwright Athol Fugard, steadfastly ignores the urge to overplay his hand -- this is most apparent in the affecting final scene, which offers guarded hope rather than the gun-blazing fury that would be found in most other similar climaxes. Tsotsi is the South African word for "thug"; here, it's also the name used by a Johannesburg punk (Presley Chweneyagae), who leads a street gang skilled in robberies, beatings and even murder. Operating solo one night, Tsotsi shoots an upper-class woman and steals her car, failing to realize that an infant boy is resting in the back seat. Tsotsi decides to keep the child, but once he runs out of food, he forces a single mom named Miriam (Terry Pheto) to breastfeed the stolen baby. His contact with both Miriam and the toddler stir unfamiliar feelings within Tsotsi, ones that just might provide an escape from the brutal mind-set that had guided his actions for too long. The sturdy performances by Chweneyagae and Pheto are as understated and matter-of-fact as the rest of the picture, signaling that Hood made sure everyone was on the same page right from the start. ***

WHY WE FIGHT -- In his farewell address to the nation, Republican president (and WWII hero) Dwight D. Eisenhower urged Americans to be wary of the "military-industrial complex," that chummy relationship between the armed forces and big business that could conceivably lead to "misplaced power." As I again watched footage of this speech, this time interspersed throughout the documentary Why We Fight, I was suddenly struck by the irony that in today's rabid climate, this Republican icon would be denounced by the Bush administration as a "coward" inclined to "side with the terrorists." Of course, it's hardly a revelation that today's Republican party has largely abandoned GOP platforms of the past, meaning that what we're left with is yet another well-intentioned documentary that will preach to the choir but no one else. Eugene Jarecki's movie is never less than watchable, and at times it boils the blood, particularly in its heart-rending shots of innocent Iraqi children "accidentally" injured (or killed) by America's so-called smart missiles. Yet Jarecki seems to have two movies in mind and clumsily squashes the pair together into one scattershot 98-minute feature. The more interesting part is an examination of why our country always feels compelled to engage in warfare, but this broad topic eventually gets narrowed down into the same familiar rant about how this administration lied to the American people to gain support for a senseless war. The latter fact is still required info ignored by roughly 36 percent of the population, but chances are you won't find them anywhere near an auditorium showing this film. **1/2

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