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BIG TROUBLE Scheduled for release 10 days after the 9/11 tragedy but instantly pulled due to a climax involving a bomb aboard a hijacked plane, this new comedy from director Barry Sonnenfeld (Men In Black, Get Shorty) is finally being released with the hope that audiences will now be more forgiving toward its more unfortunate plot points. It's possible, but what moviegoers won't be as quick to forgive is the simple fact that this is a spectacularly unfunny film, a dismal attempt by Sonnenfeld to recreate the rat-tat-tat patter and inspired casting that made Get Shorty such a smashing success. Alas, Sonnenfeld's instincts seem to have deserted him for this insufferable adaptation of Dave Barry's novel about how a mysterious suitcase ends up impacting the lives of roughly a dozen characters, including a mild-mannered single dad (Tim Allen), a miserable housewife (Rene Russo), and a hippie (Jason Lee) who lives in a tree. With screwball antics that are annoying rather than amusing, Big Trouble wears on the nerves as thoroughly as a hyperactive 5-year-old with a new drum set. Dennis Farina as a sarcastic hit man and Janeane Garofalo as a cool-centered police officer arguably come off best; Stanley Tucci as a seedy businessman and Tom Sizemore as a bumbling crook inarguably come off worst. 1/2

DEATH TO SMOOCHY Director Danny DeVito's delightful 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Matilda was a sweet-and-sour affair that ladled on the black humor without ever diminishing the essential sweetness of the material. DeVito is less successful with Death to Smoochy, an acrimonious satire that eventually compromises its own welcome venality by insisting on inserting sentimental components where none are needed. Top-billed Robin Williams is actually a supporting player: He's cast as Rainbow Randolph, a corrupt TV star whose kid show is cancelled after his wicked ways are made public. He's quickly replaced by Sheldon Mopes (Edward Norton), a sincere do-gooder whose character, a purple rhino named Smoochy, becomes a hit with the nation's pre-schoolers. Sheldon tries to keep his integrity intact, but the machinations of a materialistic network executive (Catherine Keener), a duplicitous agent (DeVito), and an apparently insane Randolph threaten to undermine his best efforts. As long as DeVito and scripter Adam Resnick are content to wallow in the mire of human folly, this well-acted comedy serves its purpose as a scathing indictment of American avarice, but once the film turns soft in its final act (the instant redemption of one major character is simply absurd), it limps toward an ending that undermines the outrageousness of the material. 1/2

KISSING JESSICA STEIN With a storyline that's equal parts Woody Allen in his prime and Nora Ephron in a tailspin, Kissing Jessica Stein is an indie sleeper wanna-be that's content being merely OK even though greatness was seemingly within its grasp. Jennifer Westfeldt stars as Jessica, a New York journalist who's always had rotten luck with men, much to the dismay of her often overbearing mother (Tovah Feldshuh, doing her best to temper the broad Jewish gestures of her familiar character). Looking like Lisa Kudrow but sounding like Annie Hall, Jessica can never find a guy who meets her lofty expectations, so she ends up answering a personal ad posted by an art gallery manager (Heather Juergensen) in the Village Voice's "Women Seeking Women" section. The two ladies hit it off fabulously as friends, but it takes Jessica a while longer to determine whether she's ready to plunge into a lesbian relationship. Good performances by Westfeldt and especially Juergensen (both women also co-wrote the screenplay) and some refreshingly frank and insightful dialogue are often curtailed by trite plot developments as conventional as any found in such standard Hollywood fare as You've Got Mail. Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy grappled with similar material far more effectively -- and imaginatively. 1/2

PANIC ROOM Just as Meryl Streep made The River Wild to satisfy the part of her that required one uncomplicated popcorn picture on her resume, we now have Jodie Foster taking part in a commonplace thriller by accepting a role that's less complicated than usual. But Foster's participation isn't as puzzling as that of director David Fincher, who, after the jigsaw puzzle plots and moral messiness of Seven, The Game and Fight Club, seems only to be serving as a hack-for-hire. Still, his yen for technical trickery -- the opening credits alone are worth the price of admission -- suits the picture's primary setting, a spacious New York brownstone occupied by a divorcee (Foster) and her daughter (Kristen Stewart). When the two women find their home invaded by crooks (Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam) searching for hidden loot, they confine themselves to the building's panic room, an impenetrable space with a steel door and a wall of surveillance monitors. A couple of plot twists might have made all the difference in this watchable but routine thriller, though production designer Arthur Max (Gladiator) should be commended for his imaginative and accessible set. As a burglar with a heart of gold, Whitaker delivers the best performance but also provides the most problematic character, inadvertently turning the film's creed that "Crime Does Not Pay" into "Doing Good Deeds May Be Hazardous To Your Health." 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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