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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.

* OSCAR SHORTS This compilation presents several of the nominees that were in contention for this year's gold statues: three live-action shorts, two animated shorts, and, as a bonus, the winner of the Student Academy Award. Three of the pictures are only so-so, including Harvie Krumpet, a weak Nick Park imitator that somehow took the Best Animated Short Oscar. The scribbly cartoon Nibbles (whose subject matter would have made it a natural to precede screenings of Super Size Me) is cute, as is the award-winning student film Perpetual Motion. But the best of the bunch is the live-action Squash, a half-hour French flick about two corporate co-workers engaged in a particularly brutal match. 1/2

* Also: The Canadian import THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS () is a sequel of sorts to 1986's The Decline of the American Empire, as writer-director Denys Arcand revisits the same characters decades later and finds them still mulling over life and death, love and war. Talky but worthwhile, it nabbed the Best Foreign-Language Oscar this past spring. The 1966 Italian production THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (1/2) established the template for subsequent political thrillers, mainly because of director Gillo Pontecorvo's decision to film his dramatization as if it were a real documentary. The movie focuses on Algeria's struggle for independence against France during the 1950s and early 60s, yet eerie parallels can be drawn to the current situation in Iraq -- indeed, spine chills might materialize upon hearing a French military officer defend his men's methods of torturing the prisoners. DISTANT (Unscreened), a major prize winner at last year's Cannes fest, centers on the strained relationship between a photographer and a factory worker.

KING ARTHUR Since seemingly every other film that gets released opens with "Based On A True Story" -- I think even Soul Plane used that line -- Disney elected to promote its epic as factual whereas all the previous Arthur flicks were taken from the myth. But while many scholars now believe there's a historical basis for the age-old legend, I doubt many of its components worked their way into this piece of pure Hollywood hokum. Yet as fictional filmmaking goes, King Arthur offers top-flight entertainment for about half its length before slipping into complete formula. Even with Armageddon / Bad Boys producer Jerry Bruckheimer breathing down his neck, director Antoine Fuqua avoids fetishistic vanity shots and macho preening (these characters are manly enough without requiring artificial enhancement), and the script by David Franzoni does a good job of not only setting up the principal players but also exploring the religious and political conflicts between the knights in Britain and their corrupt rulers back in Rome. But after a terrific battle sequence set on a frozen (but rapidly cracking) lake, the movie's vitality quickly drains away, and all that remains are some overblown speeches about freedom and valor and a climactic skirmish that plays out like dozens we've seen in other films. As Arthur, Clive Owen (Croupier) continues to radiate genuine star power, but Pirates of the Caribbean's Keira Knightley gets shortchanged by her limited screen time as a warrior Guinevere. 1/2

CURRENT RELEASES

AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS Less an adaptation of Jules Verne's novel than a quasi-installment in the Shanghai Noon / Knights franchise, this expensively priced but cheaply realized action yarn finds Jackie Chan playing a martial arts expert who takes on all villains in an effort to return a jade Buddha statue back to his remote Chinese village. Stranded in London, he passes himself off as a French valet named Passepartout and hitches an intercontinental ride with inventor Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan), who has bet that he can travel around -- well, you know this part. Everything about this production seems tired, from Chan's fight routines to the soggy humor to the cameo by Arnold Schwarzenegger, looking rather ghastly as a lecherous Turkish prince sporting skimpy duds, a hideous wig and a jaundiced complexion. 1/2

THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK The 2000 sleeper hit Pitch Black turned out to be one of the better Alien rip-offs to hatch over the years, but anyone expecting a repeat of that movie's high level of excitement and imagination will be sorely disappointed by this sequel, which places the character of Riddick (Vin Diesel) in a fantasy tale in the dour Dune/Stargate mold. Deadly dull at the outset -- here's one Diesel-fueled vehicle that's neither fast nor furious -- the picture improves as it progresses, though not enough to warrant two hours of invested time. Diesel's Riddick is part of the problem: An intriguing character when kept in the shadows for much of Pitch Black, he's become infinitely less interesting as an out-and-out action hero.

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