Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area

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FRANK MILLER'S SIN CITY (R) Maybe the most extravagantly brutal live-action cartoon ever made, Robert Rodriguez's new movie boasts a ravishing look, an all-consuming attitude, and, most of all, a devotion to excess. This is the sort of movie where even the good guys are bad, where characters are shot dozens of times before they finally die, and where faces are beaten to a bloody pulp, all captured in loving close-up as if to demonstrate the true meaning of pulp fiction. Rodriguez is officially the director here (with pal Quentin Tarantino listed as "guest director"), but, as the movie's full title more than implies, this is Frank Miller's show all the way. Miller is the designer and guiding light of the graphic novels on which Sin City is based, and virtually every frame of the film is a stunning ode to the monochromatic artistic sensibility that permeates Miller's work. For all but the most insatiable gorehound, Sin City inevitably begs the question of why watching something so purely nasty should be so much fun, but with designer sensationalism this tasty, this fit-to-bursting with energy and imagination, it's nearly impossible to just say No. Sin City won't open up the doors of perception, but it takes no prisoners, generates one of the wildest rides in recent memory, and it doesn't apologize for anything. Stars Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Benicio Del Toro and Rosario Dawson.

GUNNER PALACE (PG-13) A rambling and pleasantly chaotic documentary whose very shapelessness seems nicely suited to its subject matter - the day-to-day life of American soldiers stationed in Iraq. In September 2003, four months after Bush's infamous "Mission Accomplished" speech, filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein hooked up with a U.S. Field Artillery Unit headquartered in one of Uday's bombed-out pleasure palaces, and then proceeded to document what they saw. Gunner Palace gives us a grunts'-eye view of life on the mean streets of Baghdad, as we follow the soldiers on what they mockingly refer to as "minor combat" missions ("major combat" having been officially declared over some months back). In between the scary night patrols, tussles with hostile natives and false alarms, Tucker and Epperlein turn the cameras on the G.I.s in more relaxed moments as they float around in Uday's pool or engage in a little frank talk about the blessing and curse of trying to save the Arab-Islamic World from its own follies. The movie lurches about in lots of different directions, resulting in numerous loose ends and a shifting central focus, but the nearly unmediated sense of authenticity alone makes Gunner Palace a valuable experience. There's a soundtrack of sorts, a homegrown blend of hip-hop and metal supplied by the soldiers themselves that makes the whole thing even more engaging. 1/2

IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL (NR) Jessica Yu's film begins by acknowledging the fundamental mystery being addressed - the life and work of outsider artist Henry Darger - and then steps back and luxuriates in its contradictions. The result is one of the most hypnotic and, in its way, most satisfying movies you may ever experience about that curious process by which human beings are compelled to create what we call art. In the Realms of the Unreal doesn't attempt to fill in the blanks by explaining the man or analyzing his art, but rather lets both speak for themselves. We get a handful of interviews with Henry's neighbors and his longtime landlady, but Yu's film mostly chooses to immerse us in Darger's world as seen through The Work - a brightly colored landscape populated by eerily perfect little girls (many of whom inexplicably sprout male genitalia), ferocious twisters with human faces, strange chimerical creatures who fly through the air or cavort in the fields, and horrifying apocalyptic battles flowing with the blood of child martyrs and the all-consuming Glory of God. It's a place both innocently beautiful and utterly terrifying, filled with ridiculous contradictions and, as the film seems to indicate, most likely a mirror reflection of Henry Darger's mind. Accompanying the images are excerpts from Henry's autobiographical notes that, thanks to Yu's skillful editing, hint at the rich connections between Darger's cloistered life and the fantastic mythology of The Work. The effect is both teasing and mesmerizing, providing a fascinating sort of connect-the-dots that allows us to piece together our very own personalized portrait of this most curious and private of artists. Featuring the voices of Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine. 1/2

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