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NEW RELEASES

BAADASSSSS! A movie about the making of 1971's Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song should in good faith boast a title equally as memorable, and writer-director-producer Mario Van Peebles did his part by naming this How to Get the Man's Foot Outta Your Ass. Predictably, the MPAA nixed the title, and Van Peebles complied by renaming it Baadasssss! in order to gain wider acceptance -- an ironic compromise, since the whole point of the 1971 picture was that its creator, Mario's dad Melvin Van Peebles, backed down from no one in his efforts to bring his groundbreaking film to the screen. With Mario playing his own father, the new Baadasssss! tells the fascinating back story of how Melvin turned down an offer to be the major studios' token black filmmaker in order to realize his goal of producing a raw, edgy work that spoke directly to Afro-American audiences tired of seeing themselves portrayed primarily as subservient buffoons. Sweetback turned out to be a monster moneymaker, the first of the "blaxploitation" flicks, and an important stepping stone in the development of independent cinema, but this new picture chronicles how the process of bringing it to the screen took a major toll on Melvin's health, family and finances. Shot in an appropriately rough'n'tumble style that occasionally gives this the illusion of a documentary, the movie is ultimately a son's affectionate tribute to his dad, an often difficult man who may have floundered as a regular father but established himself as a "founding father" of a different sort.

CONTROL ROOM It's easy (and understandable) to find folks taking potshots at Fahrenheit 9/11, but only the most rabid right-wingers will find comparable offenses in Control Room, an eye-opening documentary about Al-Jazeera, the Arab news network that's been tagged "Osama bin Laden's mouthpiece" by those in the Bush administration. Jehane Noujaim (co-director of startup.com) meticulously builds the case that the Arab station is no less jingoistic than our own Fox News Network in presenting its version of the Iraq war and that, in many instances, it's more honest and responsible in presenting what's really going on over there. By not editing its raw footage of the battles and the resultant American and Iraqi casualties (as opposed to the censorial policy of US news channels), the network serves as a frontline witness to the atrocities being committed in the name of democracy, and its employees are presented as conscientious journalists who understandably have a rooting interest in the future stability of the region. Noujaim's primary interview subjects -- US Press Officer Lt. Josh Rushing and Al-Jazeera reporter Hassan Ibrahim (formerly with the BBC) -- are both interesting and articulate, yet it's the words of one Al-Jazeera newsroom staffer that perhaps hint at the state of surrealism that prevents Bush from being unanimously denounced by this country as a war criminal: "The whole war actually is like an American movie. You know the end. You know who's the hero. You know the bad guys; they're going to die. But you still watch because you want to know how it's going to happen." 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.

DODGEBALL: A TRUE UNDERDOG STORY For devotees of dum-dum cinema, here's Dodgeball to placate the lowest common denominator while also allowing discerning filmgoers to slum in style. Oh, sure, writer-director Rawson Marshall Thurber didn't have to look further than his weather-beaten VHS copy of Animal House for inspiration, and some of the jokes not only thud to the ground but then spend a few uncomfortable seconds writhing in agony. But when it has its game face on, this offers a satisfying number of laughs, characters that we care to follow, and cameo appearances that (in contrast to those in Around the World In 80 Days) are positively inspired. At a time when many ambitious studio films are aiming high and falling short, here's one that delivers on its low-pressure promise.

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