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CL's capsule reviews are rated on a four-star rating system.

NEW RELEASES

CHARLOTTE FILM SOCIETY Movies begin this Friday at the Manor and continue the following Friday at Movies at Birkdale. Call 704-414-2355 for details.

* THIRTEEN CONVERSATIONS ABOUT ONE THING Earning a year-end mention here and there from a couple of the smaller critics' groups (particularly for Alan Arkin's strong performance), this is nevertheless only a semi-successful attempt at pulling off one of those multilayered, multistoried dramas that have been adeptly attempted by such filmmakers as Robert Altman, Lawrence Kasdan and Wayne Wang. Matthew McConaughey as a guilt-ridden lawyer, John Turturro as a cheating husband, and Arkin as a philosophical claims adjuster head the cast. 1/2

* Also: INVINCIBLE, the latest from Germany's Werner Herzog, stars Tim Roth as a club owner in Nazi Germany who dabbles in the occult; READ MY LIPS is a French thriller about a hearing-impaired secretary who gets involved with a handsome thief; and Iran's SECRET BALLOT centers on a stubborn woman who crosses an island desert to collect votes on election day. (Unscreened)

NARC The story goes that Tom Cruise caught this film at Sundance and was so impressed, he requested that Paramount Pictures (where he's made many a hit) purchase it for distribution. Given that the movie probably won't cause any ripples at the box office, the question looms: Will Paramount subtract any losses from Cruise's next paycheck? Narc isn't bad, but it's also nothing too far removed from the usual cops'n'robbers fare that passes through the multiplexes on a regular basis. Its primary strength is the intense performance by Ray Liotta; he's cast as a detective whose best friend, a fellow cop, was murdered while investigating drug-running on the streets of Detroit. Taken off the case for personal reasons, he's brought back on board to partner with the new man on the job, an undercover officer (Jason Patric) working through his own demons. Writer-director Joe Carnahan has made a fairly involving crime flick in the gritty French Connection tradition, but it's undermined by a protracted finale and a ludicrous last-minute twist. 1/2

PINOCCHIO Aside from Disney's 1940 masterpiece, Carlos Collodi's Pinocchio has been the source of many dubious film versions, from 1964's animated Pinocchio In Outer Space to the X-rated Erotic Adventures of Pinocchio (advertised with the tagline "It's Not His Nose That Grows") to the dismal 1996 adaptation with Martin Landau and Jonathan Taylor Thomas. In the annals of bad cinema, though, no version will ever approach Roberto Benigni's take on the tale, which, released at the end of December, just beat the buzzer to emerge as the worst film of 2002. This is a monumental achievement in practically every facet of inept filmmaking: joyless, idiotic, annoying, heavy-handed, visually atrocious, and often downright creepy. The 50-year-old Benigni has cast himself as the wooden puppet who longs to become a real boy, and his performance is both tiresome and terrifying; ditto for the Cricket who looks like Otto Preminger, and the Fox and the Cat whose mere presence might disturb impressionable young minds for years to come. Had this been released stateside with its original Italian soundtrack, it might have escaped as being merely awful on a mortal level; instead, the poor dubbing by English-speaking actors like Breckin Meyer (as Pinocchio), Glenn Close and Regis Philbin (their words match the lip movements about as well as in imported kung fu flicks from the 70s), renders it completely unwatchable.

CURRENT RELEASES

ABOUT SCHMIDT It's not exactly a product placement, but this unique, seriocomic film offers perhaps the most ingenious -- and most faultless -- example of company promotion ever put on screen. Writer-director Alexander Payne and co-scripter Jim Taylor, adapting Louis Begley's novel, have tackled the sad-sack saga of Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson), a just-retired insurance actuary whose remaining days look like nothing more than one long slumber, endless hours of doing nothing, seeing nothing, feeling nothing. Bored with his lot in life, Schmidt perks up when he sees an infomercial for Childreach. Perhaps responding because he's deeply touched, or, more likely, because it gives him something to do, Schmidt ends up sponsoring a 6-year-old African boy named Ndugu. The movie's use of Schmidt's sponsorship is brilliant, allowing the character's reams of voice-over narration to be deployed both as a floating, ethereal entity on the soundtrack and as the content of the letters that he writes to Ndugu. And it's all wrapped around a deeply felt story about one man's overwhelming, almost crushing desire to find meaning in his life and to ultimately make a difference. Nicholson's astute performance is one of his finest in recent times, and the film culminates in a scene of quiet devastation, centered on a picture that isn't just worth a thousand words but also a hundred emotions, all of them finely etched on Warren Schmidt's wrinkled, weary and wiser visage. 1/2

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