Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area

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OFF THE MAP (PG-13) Off the Map is one of those movies that critics like to describe as a "small gem," and that's exactly what it is. The film takes the shape of a memory piece, a reeling-in of the years by a grown woman inviting us along as she revisits her childhood in the wilds of New Mexico, circa 1974. In the most broadly described sense, this is a coming-of-age tale - almost inevitably so, since our 12-year-old guide, Bo Groden (Valentina de Angelis), is at an age when new discoveries wait around every corner - but Off the Map is also much more: a grown-up romance, a mystical adventure, a cheerfully dysfunctional comedy, a wistful family drama. There's not a story per se so much as a series of anecdotes, an accumulation of tiny but telling details that gradually flesh out the characters and allow us to enter their world to a degree not commonly allowed for in most motion pictures. Joan Allen delivers yet another astonishing performance as the eccentric earth mama holding the Groden family together, and the character of Bo is as memorably self-possessed and old-beyond-her-years as the young protagonist of To Kill a Mockingbird, another movie that filtered its world to fine effect through the eyes of childhood. Off the Map makes us genuinely happy to spend time with its characters and that's something worth celebrating. Also stars Sam Elliot, J.K. Simmons and Jim True-Frost.

SAHARA (PG-13) A bland, by-the-numbers action-adventure project mostly notable for being the directorial debut of someone named Breck Eisner, who just happens to be the son of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Sahara is based on one of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt books, with an artificially tanned and carefully rumpled Matthew McConaughey playing Pitt as a cocky, carefree Indiana Jones-lite. The plot is a mishmash that brings together a search for a lost civil war battleship, a deadly virus, corrupt Euro-industrialists and African warlords, with some faux-007 music slapped on the ostensibly suspenseful parts, and classic rock chestnuts by Lynyrd Skynyrd and Steppenwolf liberally and gratuitously applied elsewhere. On the upside, there's nothing too terribly awful or pretentious here, but everyone seems to be sleepwalking through their non-demanding roles, from Steve Zahn as the obligatory comic relief sidekick to Penelope Cruz as the love interest. You might just find yourself dosing off, too. Also stars William H. Macy. 1/2

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER (R) Another take on middle-aged romance and the gender wars, among other things, that tackles territory previously staked out by As Good as It Gets and, more often than not, gets it right. As the title suggests, this is a movie that's ostensibly about angry or otherwise disappointed people, two of whom are aging alcoholics - but against all odds, The Upside of Anger turns that daunting subject matter into what is sometimes very funny material. This movie is far from perfect, but it's still a must-see, if only to see Joan Allen in a career-topping performance as a suburban housewife dealing with four grown (and nearly-grown) children, as well as a washed-up baseball player (Kevin Costner) who comes sniffing around and winds up staying for the long run. Costner's no slouch either as the boozing, aging good-time boy getting by on the fumes of fame and fortune. All the expected bases are covered here, but the film manages to take us to a few unexpected places, too. Also stars Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Mike Binder (who also directs). Currently at Beach Theatre Cinemas in St. Pete Beach. 1/2

Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.

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