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Santa's Got A Brand New Bag, Part II 

Unwrapping the next round of Xmas flicks

Last week saw the release of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, and for many moviegoers, that's all that matters this holiday season. But for the remaining minority, rest assured that not every single screen at every single theater will be showing the Tolkien epic; it just seems that way. Here, then, are six other year-end titles that can be enjoyed -- or not -- in local movie houses.

Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain places a sweeping romance against the backdrop of a major feud that tore a nation apart. Yet this is one of those few times when even pacifists might prefer that the characters refrain from making love, not war. That's because this major Oscar bait is least compelling when it focuses on the fluttering hearts of its protagonists, a Confederate soldier and the woman he left behind.

For those fine-tuned to its swoony rhythms, Minghella's The English Patient was a gorgeous, all-encompassing love story, so the fault here may not rest with his efforts as writer-director as much as on the chemistry between the picture's perfectly sculpted leads. Individually, the performances by Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are fine (though I still prefer her atypical turn in the recent flop The Human Stain), yet their mutual scenes deliver little kick -- physically, they seem as compatible as matching His and Her towels, yet the only heat generated during their sequences together comes from candles lighting up the background.

Fortunately, most of the movie keeps the two characters apart, with wounded soldier Inman (Law) electing to ditch the war altogether and make his way back to his North Carolina hometown, where he can be reunited with prim and proper Ada (Kidman). Yet Inman's trek back to the Blue Ridge Mountains (filmed in Romania rather than NC) is slowed by his encounters with various colorful characters -- a randy preacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a lonely widow (Natalie Portman) -- and these entertaining interludes spark the picture.

So, too, do the sequences back home, as naive, sheltered Ada receives valuable lessons in survival from a human firecracker named Rudy, a down-to-earth pioneer woman who's no shrinking violet when it comes to plowing fields or snapping roosters' necks. Renee Zellweger plays Rudy like a person strung out on eight pots of coffee and two hours of sleep, and it's her tremendous performance -- forceful, passionate, funny -- that cuts through the movie's occasional sheen of stuffy self-importance. She keeps this Mountain from deteriorating into a molehill of unrelenting melancholy.

There may have been better individual performances delivered during 2003 (though not many), but as far as tag-team efforts are concerned, there's no touching Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley in House of Sand and Fog. Even though the pair don't share that many scenes together, the psychological give-and-take dynamic that binds their characters is so potent, their combined presence is felt even when one or both of them are off the screen.

Based on the best-selling novel by Andre Dubus III, this gripping drama from debuting director Vadim Perelman (a name to watch) casts Connelly as Kathy Nicolo, a recovering drug addict who, because she doesn't regularly check her mail (thereby missing a bill for a $500 property tax), ends up losing her house. Placed on the market for public auction, it's immediately snatched up by Massoud Behrani (Kingsley), an Iranian refugee trying to make a better life for himself, his wife (Shohreh Aghdashloo) and their teenage son (Jonathan Ahdout). Kathy wants her house back, Behrani refuses to relinquish it, and the movie's chess game is set.

But House of Sand and Fog has more on its mind than standard thrills. Among other issues, the movie offers a scathing indictment of an American bureaucratic system that's become so rigid that it encourages its citizens to trample all over each other in an effort to make their own lives more palatable. Racism rears its head in different forms, and the ideal of the American Dream is bastardized beyond recognition.

The picture's greatest strength, however, is the way it shifts our loyalties from one character to the next, never allowing us to view either Kathy or Behrani as a villain (or hero) for too long. It's a brave stance to take, and one that wouldn't have worked without the magnetic turns by its two shining stars.

An unlikely cross between Dead Poets Society and The Stepford Wives, Mona Lisa Smile belongs to what I like to call the Monday Morning Quarterback class of film. Wielding its knowledge of developing history like a baseball bat, this sort of movie takes the slogan about hindsight being 20/20 to the extreme, using present-day sensibilities to smugly tsk-tsk the attitudes of past eras.

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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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