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SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK With Woody Allen's best filmmaking days behind him, it appears that fellow New Yorker Edward Burns has elected to pick up the slack when it comes to crafting romantic fables set in the Big Apple. Sidewalks of New York frequently plays like an homage to Allen's Annie Hall, right down to the direct lift of at least one gag, a framing device in which people speak directly toward the camera, and even a central character whose name is Annie. But with Annie Hall, Allen fashioned one of the all-time great comedies; with this sputtering tale, Burns has made a movie that can't even hold a candle to his own first effort, 1995's The Brothers McMullen. Wholly engaging but never particularly insightful, the film follows the fortunes of six characters: 29-year-old TV producer Tommy (Burns) is interested in dating 20something teacher Maria (Rosario Dawson), who's divorced from 20something doorman Benjamin (David Krumholtz), who's pursuing 19-year-old waitress Ashley (Brittany Murphy), who's having an affair with 39-year-old dentist Griffin (Stanley Tucci), who's married to 29-year-old Annie (Heather Graham), who suddenly becomes interested in -- yep -- Tommy. And standing outside of this game of musical chairs is Tommy's middle-aged friend Carpo (Dennis Farina in a laugh-out-loud performance), a self-satisfied sleazoid whose heartwarming advice to Tommy is to spray cologne on his balls before a big date ("Women love it," he insists). The cast is apt, but the character dynamics aren't always convincing. 1/2

SPY GAME Tony Scott has spent so much of his career directing mindless junk (Days of Thunder, Last Boy Scout, The Fan) that it's something of a shock to the system whenever he tackles anything with even half a brain. If you enjoyed the helmer's sleek but smart efforts Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State, then this one's a good bet as well, mixing hard-hitting thrills with a decidedly less than benevolent look at US government agencies (given the post-September 11 climate, it's a wonder this wasn't delayed until 2002). Robert Redford, who could barely keep himself or audiences awake with The Last Castle, here makes the most of his best role in years; he's cast as veteran CIA operative Nathan Muir, who, on the day of his retirement, learns that his former protegee Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) has been arrested in China on a charge of espionage and will be executed in 24 hours. Muir's status has long been downsized as "old-school" by younger CIA hotshots more interested in cutting profitable deals than maintaining law and order, but once he learns that the agency has no intention of helping Bishop, he uses every crusty trick in the book to thwart his employers and save Bishop's neck. Spy Game spends much of its time jetsetting around the world in flashback sequences that establish the Muir-Bishop relationship; these are essential to the story's arc, yet they don't compare to the less frantic (yet even more compelling) scenes in which Muir mentally outmaneuvers his shady CIA cohorts at every turn.


AMELIE After making his mark with the delightfully deranged films Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet made the ill-fated mistake of going Hollywood by overseeing the hapless Alien: Resurrection. Amelie finds Jeunet back in his element: as the creator of enchanting, quirky comedies that, like their central characters, march to their own beat (make that offbeat). Amelie, already a raging success in Europe, is his best work yet, an absolutely disarming piece about an eccentric young woman (irresistible Audrey Tautou) who takes it upon herself to improve the lives of those around her. Her methods are unorthodox but effective, yet in the midst of her busybody schedule, she slowly realizes that her own life could use some assistance when it comes to romance. On paper, Amelie doesn't sound much different than Emma, Hello, Dolly! or Chocolat (three other works about matchmakers unlocking their own passions), but Jeunet and co-writer Guillaume Laurant never run with the conventional, preferring instead to pack their movie with unexpected literalizations (when Amelie spots her intended, she actually dissolves in a puddle of water), wildly original comic set pieces (keep your eye on that garden gnome), and the sort of touching asides that will bring sighs of recognition from appreciative audience members. Amelie feels slightly longish as it winds down its heroine's quest for her own self-fulfillment, but this nevertheless emerges as one of the year's best films. 1/2

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  • On Saturday, Oct. 21, hundreds gathered at Camp North End on Statesville Avenue for Charlotte's first black alternative music festival. We captured some of the bands in action on stage, but mostly we surveyed the grounds as fans, families, vendors and more lounged around the sprawling, colorful Camp North End site. It was a great day of music, food, fun, and sweet, autumn sunshine. (Photos by Mark Kemp)
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