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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.

* LITTLE OTIK Every movie season needs at least one totally gonzo picture to shake up even the jaded cinephiles, and this outrageous effort from Czech writer-director Jan Svankmajer nicely fits the bill. Alice, Svankmajer's deliriously deranged Alice In Wonderland adaptation from 1988, was a nightmarish, animated oddity that stirred the uneasiness in viewers' collective souls. The live-action Little Otik isn't quite that disturbing, though any movie that manages to work in the skeletal remains of a cat after it's been devoured by a tree trunk with teeth is bound to unnerve a patron here or there. The plot centers on a married couple who are unable to have children; desperate to keep his wife from descending further into depression, the husband dresses up a tree trunk as a baby and presents it to her as an affectionate gesture. But much to his horror, his wife starts treating the wood as a real infant; this in turn allows the trunk to come to life -- unfortunately, with a monstrous appetite that won't be satisfied with a bottle or two of formula. The refreshingly coarse effects that bring Otik to life contribute to the creepiness, but what makes the picture truly special is its attention to its entertaining characters, most notably a neighbor girl who, when she's not busy shooing away the elderly pedophile who lives in the same building, is frantically playing detective in an effort to determine why the new parents won't let anyone see their child. 1/2

* THE BUSINESS OF STRANGERS Just as writer-director Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty) made a startling debut with In the Company of Men, so too does Patrick Stettner arrive on the scene with a like-minded drama that presents the players of corporate America as insignificant goldfish emotionally numbing themselves to the point that their entire universe resembles nothing so much as a self-contained plastic bubble. In Strangers, Stockard Channing plays Julie Styron, the lifelong ladder climber who, after learning that she's finally landed her company's top spot, seeks out and befriends the young assistant (Julia Stiles) she had fired earlier in the day. Stranded in an airport hotel, the two women spend the hours drinking, collaborating and fighting, a situation that becomes even more intense when Julie's acquaintance, a company headhunter (Frederick Weller), joins their party. A mid-movie plot contrivance (and the obvious twist ending that spawns from it) isn't especially convincing, but the movie's real pleasures rest in the impeccable performances by all three leads as well as in the give-and-take power plays orchestrated between the two female protagonists, assertive women who each draw their strength from completely different sources.

* Also: 101 REYKJAVIK, in which the capital of Iceland is presented as a land of perpetual ennui, and WHAT TIME IS IT THERE?, about a street vendor in Taipei whose fleeting encounter with a girl headed to Paris has a profound impact on his life. (Unscreened)

HIGH CRIMES Presumably, most screenwriters begin their drafts at the beginning of the story, but with this adaptation of Joseph Finder's novel about a lawyer who defends her husband on murder charges brought on by the military, it's obvious that scripters Yuri Zeltser and Cary Bickley headed straight for what they believed was a doozy of a twist ending and worked their way backwards. The problem, though, is that the climactic surprise doesn't even merit a raised eyebrow -- heck, the curve ball presented here is so transparent that I (and I suspect numerous others) pegged it by merely watching the film's trailer. In short, don't expect this to place on any year-end "10 Best" lists, though if anybody gave out Truth In Advertising awards for movie titles, this one would be a lock. It's a high crime, for instance, that Ashley Judd, who burst out of the gate delivering formidable performances in indie gems like Ruby In Paradise and Smoke, is now content delivering the same spunky-woman-in- peril job in studio-sanctioned programmers like Kiss the Girls, Double Jeopardy and now this. It's a shame that Morgan Freeman, who's now routinely described as a genuine acting treasure, isn't finding more roles better suited to his awesome abilities. And it's a shame that, in the age of true mind-benders like Memento and The Usual Suspects, we're still force-fed heaping mounds of reheated pulp more adept at creating massive plotholes than at creating any semblance of suspense.


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

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