Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area.

click to enlarge Elf - New Line Productions
New Line Productions

ALIEN (R) There's virtually nothing in this "director's cut" of Scott's sci-fi/horror classic that you won't see in the DVD version, but the movie is still a scream. It's worth the price of admission just to experience the movie on the big screen, digitally restored with a brand new, six-track stereo mix. Scott's mix of science fiction and Gothic trapped-in-a-haunted-house horror story is quarter of a century old, but still scary after all these years. Stars Sigourney Weaver, Tom Kerrit, John Hurt and Ian Holm.

BEYOND BORDERS (R) Although it spews political messages like so much projectile vomit, and spans several decades and a slew of exotic locations, Angelina Jolie's latest project feels about as much like a serious epic as one of her Lara Croft: Tomb Raider romps. Jolie stars as a socialite with a social consciousness, torn between her marriage and a brash but charismatic doctor/political activist (Clive Owen). Despite a handful of powerful (albeit seriously exploitative) moments, the movie is a terribly clumsy mix of sloganeering and soap opera, clumsily comprised of three loosely connected acts, each taking place in an international trouble spot more awful than the last. Time passes, marriages dissolve (hers), deals with the devil (his) are struck and then largely forgotten, and Jolie and Owen's love appears to be the only saving grace in a world populated by very bad people with even worse teeth. The opening sequence in famine-ridden Ethiopia (complete with digitally generated starving infants) is particularly disturbing, and Jolie, who ages nary a day over the movie's 20 year span, gets a chance to wear some really cute outfits along the way. Also stars Noah Emmerich.

BROTHER BEAR (G) There's nothing particularly bad about Disney's latest animated feature, but not much really stands out either. Joaquin Phoenix provides the voice for Kenai, a brash young warrior who learns about humility and love when he's magically transformed into a bear and forced to walk a mile in the shoes — er, paws — of the very critters he's blithely killed. The lush animation is mostly of the old-fashioned 2-D variety, the obligatory, ultra-cute talking animal sidekick is on hand (a little cub called Koda), and the moral instruction offered by the movie, while well-meaning and potentially valuable, is a bit too preachy for both tykes and their parental units. It's all several notches up from straight-to-video, but there's a blandly familiar, weirdly generic feel to the story and characters (sort of Lion King meets Pochahantas' Native American mysticism). And while it's a treat to see Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas reprising their classic Mackenzie Brothers routine in the form of a pair of hop-loving Canadian moose, even that can't compensate for Phil Collins' pompous, New Agey muzak. Also features the voices of D.B. Sweeney, Jeremy Suarez and Michael Clarke.

ELF (PG) A good bit more than just another forgettable project for some former SNL cast member, Elf benefits from some very funny gags, smart direction, and a solid cast — beginning with its star, Will Farrell. Farrell plays Buddy, an overgrown Gump-ian man-child raised by elves (don't ask), who now finds himself in the urban jungle of the human world in search of his biological father (James Caan). Ferrell remains one of the funniest and most underrated performers ever to pass through the SNL factory, and director Jon Favreau gives him plenty of room to display the fearless, manic comedy he does so well. The humor veers between gleefully lowbrow slapstick and over-the-top oddness verging on performance art, but most of it works surprisingly well. The supporting cast is appealing as well, beginning with Caan, who makes a great straight man to Ferrell's ball of absurdist energy. Also stars Zooey Deschanel, Mary Steenburgen and Ed Asner. 1/2

GIRLS WILL BE GIRLS (R) Despite its enormous debt to the early, ultra-raunchy cartoon-comedies of John Waters, Girls Will Be Girls is an absolute treat for connoisseurs of exquisitely bad taste. This deliriously colorful, deliciously over-the-top comedy takes place in an L.A. bungalow inhabited by three bitchy women who sit around all day plotting against each other and devising schemes to find true love, or at least a quick roll in the hay. There's a chunky small-town gal who dreams of fame, an absurdly romantic, perennial victim who spends most of her time on the abortion table, and, best of all, a withered, alcoholic hag who functions as the group's den mother from hell. The plot is full of overheated flash points and ridiculous coincidences, like a Hollywood 1950s melodrama on acid, and all of the women are played to perfection by men. It's all terribly funny, in its own disgusting way, with something guaranteed to offend everyone. Stars Jack Plotnick, Jeffery Roberson and Clinton Leupp.

GOOD BOY! (PG) Kiddie comedy about a boy and his dog, who turns out to be an alien from the dog star Sirius. The movie's pretty much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get affair, which mostly means lots of precocious, talking animals wreaking havoc in the neighborhood, in between bonding with their humans. The movie has its heart firmly in the right place, and young Liam Aiken is quite good in the lead human role, but don't expect much beyond that. Production values are so-so at best, fart jokes abound, and, with one or two exceptions, the dogs featured in the film aren't exactly the cutest critters on the planet. Worst of all, the actors providing the pooches' voices, beginning with Matthew Broderick, don't provide much personality. Also stars Kevin Nealon and Molly Shannon. 1/2

THE GOSPEL OF JOHN (PG-13) Epic (and reportedly nearly word-for-word), three-hour telling of the Gospel of John, in which the adult Jesus meets opposition as he attempts to bring his ministry to the people. Stars Henry Ian Cusick, Richard Lintern and Stephen Russell. (Not Reviewed)

THE HUMAN STAIN (R) Nicole Kidman stars as a troubled bit of white trash having a fling with an older man (Anthony Hopkins) who's got troubles and secrets of his own. None of these secrets are all that surprising, though, and the movie never really establishes a voice or even a coherent narrative, rambling back and forth between clumsy flashbacks and scattershot tidbits about various characters. Kidman and Hopkins are woefully miscast, the movie's rife with hackneyed symbolism, and the Big Secret upon which the whole thing hinges (not divulged until over midway through) is so ludicrous that I'm tempted to give it away, simply because I can. In the end, it's that scariest of all movies you'll see this Halloween — something that's simply horribly, horribly boring. Also stars Gary Sinise. 1/2

IN THE CUT (R) Jane Campion's latest movie is either a thriller passing itself off as an art film, or vice versa, but either way you look at it, it fails. Meg Ryan, trademark perkiness all but obliterated, stars as a seriously neurotic woman hanging out with a variety of creepy men, almost any one of whom might be the serial killer menacing the city. The camera flits about as if suffering from ADD, relentlessly sucking up all the urban garbage in sight, and every frame of the film looks like it's been smeared with Vaseline. There's some major heavy breathing going on here too, but none of it's designed for comfort or pleasure, and director Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady) never manages to make any sort of meaningful or interesting connections between the sex and violence. All that finally surfaces here is a view of human nature that's simply grubby for the sake of being grubby. Generic thriller or faux-art film, In the Cut is the sort of movie that makes you feel dirty watching it, as if you'd accidentally walked in on someone in the bathroom and then stayed a moment too long. Also stars Mark Ruffalo and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

INTOLERABLE CRUELTY (PG-13) A slick divorce lawyer (George Clooney) butts heads with a sexy gold digger (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in the Coen Brothers' attempt at blending their quirky sensibilities with what sounds very much like a mainstream romantic comedy. Also stars Geoffrey Rush. (Not Reviewed)

KILL BILL — VOL. 1 (R) In Tarantino's long-anticipated new movie, the cool influences are no longer merely influences; they're the whole show. Kill Bill is a shrine to movies — a high-octane blend of mostly Japanese and Hong Kong chopsocky, with a little spaghetti western thrown in for good measure — with Uma Thurman as a pissed-off super-assassin killing everyone who's done her wrong. Gone even are the elaborately clever monologues that made Tarantino's reputation. Kill Bill might have been designed with fan boys in mind, but the bulk of this unabashedly bloody, beautifully made film should prove equally eye-popping and/or offensive to everyone. Also stars Lucy Liu, David Carradine and Vivica A. Fox.

LOONEY TUNES: BACK IN ACTION (PG) A blend of live action and cartoon craziness that, while not up to Who Framed Roger Rabbit standards, is certainly several steps up from Space Jam. The basic scenario here is simply a series of predictably frenetic chases — Brendan Fraser and Jenna Elfman join Daffy and Bugs in a mad race to locate a valuable diamond — but director Joe Dante infuses the project with more than enough clever pop culture references to keep the boomers happy. The mood wavers between tribute and subversion, and there are nods to everything from cartoon characters past and present, '50s sci-fi monsters, and even a shot-for-shot spoof of the famous shower scene from Psycho. Legendary B-movie king Roger Corman shows up at one point (directing a Batman movie, of all things), and the scene where Elmer Fudd chases Bugs and Daffy through the paintings of the Louvre is a simply glorious display of imagination. The scene only lasts a few minutes, but it's every bit the equal of those classic Looney Tunes of yore. Also stars Steve Martin, Timothy Dalton and Joan Cusak. Opens Nov 14 at local theaters.

LOST IN TRANSLATION (PG-13) Sofia Coppola's playful and elegantly deadpan film is a cinematic poem for people who don't think they like poetry. Half comedy, half something else entirely, the film is about two people, of very different ages and circumstances, who meet in a strange, faraway place and make a connection. The movie's not-so-secret weapon is Bill Murray, who plays a burned-out movie star a decade or two past his prime and reduced to hawking whiskey for Japanese television. Murray's character hooks up with another American stranger in a strange land, (Ghost World's Scarlett Johansson), and the movie follows the two jet-lagged and utterly disoriented Yanks running wild through the sensory overload of downtown Tokyo and, in their down time, back at the hotel. Coppola's eccentric little wisp of a film is a pure beauty, achieving a seemingly effortless balance of understated wit, lyricism, and off-the-wall absurdity. Also stars Giovanni Ribisi. 1/2

LOVE ACTUALLY (PG-13) From Four Weddings and a Funeral to Notting Hill, Richard Curtis' scripts have proven consistently funny, energetic, romantic, and just smart and quirky enough to compensate for stray moments of unruly sappiness. Love Actually, Curtis' first self-directed project, breaks absolutely no new ground, but it showcases most of the things the writer-director does best. Curtis interweaves nearly a dozen tales here, showing us all kinds of love, from the puppy and unrequited varieties, to office romances to power worship that might or might not be love, actually. None of it ultimately matters much, since Love Actually awards happy endings to all, urging its characters along to the fulfillment of their romantic daydreams, like lemmings to the sea. But, like those lemmings, it's hard for those of us in the audience not to get caught up in the movie's glib, carefully orchestrated enthusiasm. Ironically, the movie's weakest element is its biggest selling point — Hugh Grant, absurdly miscast as the eminently eligible Prime Minister of England (!), and a sweetly stammering, eye-fluttering parody of himself. Also stars Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Bill Nighy, Martine McCutcheon, Andrew Lincoln and Laura Linney.

MAMBO ITALIANO (R) A nice Italian boy horrifies his parents when he tells them he's gay. The story is predictable, the characters are annoying stereotypes, the performances broad or bland, and the humor strictly the stuff of sit-coms. Still, Mambo Italiano at least has the good sense not to take itself too seriously, making for a breezy but ultimately forgettable experience rather than a simply painful one. Stars Luke Kirby, Paul Sorvino and Ginette Reno. Opens Nov. 14 at local theaters. 1/2

THE MATRIX REVOLUTIONS (R) The religious symbolism, mirrors-within-mirrors mysticism and Philosophy 101 navel-gazing are still here, but they take a backseat to straightforward, special effects-driven action in this somewhat formulaic but still effective wind-up to the Matrix trilogy. Revolutions begins with a series of elegant set pieces, leading to a CGI-generated machines-versus-humans battle of numbingly epic proportions (with visuals ripped from Aliens via Robocop), and concludes with Keanu Reeves' savage messiah dishing up some obligatory cosmic comeuppance. There are few surprises this time out, but the movie feels more cohesive than the last installment, and it's so well made that we can't help but get caught up in all the fireworks. Several of the more intriguing (and complicated) ideas from Matrix Reloaded are left hanging, but the over-tidy simplification actually helps us get involved with the movie on an emotional level, rather than just in a visceral or cerebral way. The Gregorian chant soundtrack, on the other hand, makes the movie seem even more pretentious than it is, and the hints of yet another sequel may leave you whimpering, "Enough." Also stars Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, Hugo Weaving and Jada Pinkett Smith. 1/2

MYSTIC RIVER (R) Clint Eastwood's latest directorial offering dives into somewhat unfamiliar waters, with mostly successful results. Mystic River is an epic tragedy about how two devastating events, a quarter-century apart, change a handful of lives in a Boston working class neighborhood. Eastwood's film is uncharacteristically filled with charged symbols and nakedly emotional Big Speeches, but the top-notch ensemble cast is good enough to pull it off and leave us wanting more. Tim Robbins is particularly effective as the damaged man-child who never quite recovered from being molested as a child, and Sean Penn burns up the screen as a man with a dead daughter and one too many secrets. Also stars Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, Laurence Fishburne and Marcia Gay Harden. 1/2

OUT OF TIME (PG-13) Carl Franklin's slick, moderately engaging thriller stars Denzel Washington as a small-town police chief racing against the clock to vindicate himself when he becomes the primary suspect in a murder investigation. The convoluted plot twists fall thick and fast, beginning with the fact that the female detective hot on Washington's trail is none other than his soon-to-be ex-wife. Everything falls into place a little too neatly, though, and most of the characters don't exactly display much depth, but the whole thing's entertaining enough, in its way, and the Florida locations are nicely photographed. Also stars Eva Mendes and Dean Cain.

PIECES OF APRIL (PG-13) The setup is simple and oft-told — black sheep daughter invites the family over for Thanksgiving dinner, mayhem ensues — but the specialized indie treatment allows the movie to transcend (or at least sidestep) the more obvious trappings of formula. The film's DV-shot look is intimate, and its humor is gently effective, mostly revolving around the absurdity of people trying to be what they aren't or doing what doesn't come naturally. Punkette April (Katie Holmes) tries to be domestic, her crackpot family tries to act "normal," and the potential for disaster is immense and frequently very funny. Writer-director Peter Hedges displays much of the same quirky charm he did in his scripts for About a Boy and What's Eating Gilbert Grape, resulting in a small story that manages to find something sweetly amusing in what might otherwise have been predictable or cloying. Also stars Patricia Clarkson, Derek Luke, and Oliver Platt. 1/2

PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN (PG-13) The story here isn't much more than you'd expect from a theme park ride turned big screen blockbuster, but so what? The real reason to see Pirates of the Caribbean is Johnny Depp, who's a total gas-gas-gas as the Keith Richards-inspired rock "n' roll pirate Jack Sparrow. Geoffrey Rush is no slouch either as the scenery-chewing leader of a pack of zombie pirates straight out of an old Scooby Doo cartoon. The rest of the movie basically amounts to a skillful and modestly engaging blend of battle scenes and comedy (with just a sprinkling of romance and horror thrown in), all given a nice spit-and-polish thanks to director Gore Verbinski's usual high production values. Also stars Keira Knightley. 1/2

RADIO (PG) Apparently pitched very much in the same territory as The Rookie, this feel-good tale combines sports, soap opera and nostalgia for the kinder, gentler ways of small-town America, circa anytime but now. The same guy who wrote The Rookie supplied the story, in fact, which is based on the actual life of a mentally challenged man whose eternal optimism inspires the local high school football team. Stars Cuba Gooding, Ed Harris and Debra Winger. (Not Reviewed)

RUNAWAY JURY (PG-13) If Runaway Jury is remembered at all, it will be as the movie where longtime screen icons Gene Hackman and Dustin Hoffman finally appeared on screen together for the first time. Other than that, the film is competent and reasonably entertaining fare, but a far cry from remarkable. Hackman is the movie's heavy, an all-seeing but utterly amoral analyst (polite code for jury tamperer), for hire to the highest bidder — which in the case of the high-profile trial he's currently trying to sway, happens to be the gun industry. Hackman's counterpart is Dustin Hoffman, who plays a highly principled and incorruptible (no laughing now) lawyer trying to make the gun industry pay for years of getting away with murder. Hoffman must really believe in the movie's anti-gun message or must have received a truly staggering paycheck for his performance here (possibly both), because it's hard to fathom otherwise why he took on such a bland, underwritten role. The story — a series of trial-related double and triple crosses — is engaging enough and sometimes even modestly exciting, but almost never particularly memorable. Another classic empty-calorie thriller based on a John Grisham book. Also stars John Cusack and Rachel Weisz.

THE RUNDOWN (PG-13) A mission to rescue a wacky rich kid plops a "retrieval expert" (celebrity beefcake The Rock) in the middle of a mess involving a jungle dictator (Christopher Walken), a nefarious master plan, a bunch of sex-crazed monkeys and a very hot local (Rosario Dawson). Also stars Sean William Scott. (Not Reviewed)

SCARY MOVIE 3 (PG-13) The third installment of David Zucker's popular horror-spoof franchise arrives complete with obligatory raunchy-silly nods to Hollywood's latest crop of fright flicks. Expect the jokes to take on The Ring and Signs, among others. Stars Anna Faris, Charlie Sheen and Anthony Anderson. (Not Reviewed)

THE SCHOOL OF ROCK (PG-13) Rocker Jack Black (Tenacious D), in this new Richard Linklater film, is a harmless but not terribly talented slacker who wants to rock so hard it's practically heartbreaking, and pulls off a scam that allows him to get paid for secretly teaching "Smoke on the Water" to nerdy students at an elite prep school. In lesser hands this could have been Kindergarten Cop, but Linklater makes most of it work, albeit not in a laugh-out-loud Dazed and Confused sort of way. Also stars Joan Cusack, Sarah Silverman and Mike White (Chuck & Buck), who also wrote the script.

SEABISCUIT (PG-13) Seabiscuit chronicles the over achieving stallion that captured America's fancy during the height of the Great Depression. This sentimental drama focuses on the three diverse people in Seabiscuit's life, who team up to conquer long odds. Fire-blooded jockey Red Pollard (Tobey Maguire), eccentric trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper) and nice-guy owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges) work together to take the horse all the way to the top. The film's relatable characters and attention-grabbing race scenes prove that a historical sports drama can gallop ahead of other summer blockbusters. 1/2—Chris Berger

SECONDHAND LIONS (PG) This instant family classic stars Haley Joel Osment as young Walter, who learns how to be a man as his eccentric and wealthy uncles (Michael Caine and Robert Duvall) learn how to care for a child. Abandoned at the old men's farm by his mother (Kyra Sedgwick), Walter develops a relationship with his uncles through their endless storytelling and encourages them to buy items from door-to-door salesmen, including a yacht, a lion and a plane. Caine and Duvall give unique performances, while Osment is a bit clueless and stiff in this humorous and definitely appropriate movie the entire family can appreciate. 1/2—Emily Anderson

THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (R) Although it's nowhere near as radical as Tobe Hooper's relentlessly rude, crude and frenetically formless cannibal-killers clasick, this contemporary remake is pretty effective in its own way. There's an obsessive attention paid to grotesque details, blood and fetid slime ooze from every nook and cranny, and streams of moody light seep through trees and slates of walls like outtakes from Alien or David Fincher's Seven. There's ultimately not all that much you can do with this material to "re-invent" it, but director Marcus Nispel displays enough imagination and passion to keep us involved. Quick cuts and some slickly imagined camerawork tip us off to Nispel's music video roots, but the basic approach here is refreshingly straightforward and all but free of postmodern nudges (outside of a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo by aint-it-cool-news.com's Harry Knowles). There are plenty of good, strong scares, some hot babes in distress, lots of creepy atmosphere and an appropriately mean-spirited, nasty streak that makes the movie exactly the love-it-or-hate-it proposition it should be. Stars Jessica Biel, Jonathan Tucker and Eric Balfour. 1/2

TUPAC RESURRECTION (R) MTV-produced documentary using archival footage and interviews to tell the life story of iconic dead rapper Tupac Shakur. Opens Nov. 14 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (PG-13) Diane Lane (Unfaithful) stars in this trite but scenic film about a writer who, after a messy divorce, impulsively buys a rundown Italian villa in an attempt to find herself. Between the painfully predictable plot and the freshman-English-caliber foreshadowing and symbolism, Under the Tuscan Sun seems like a made-for-TV movie with a big budget. There are enjoyable moments but you have to wait out a lot of cheese to see them. Also stars Sandra Oh (Waking the Dead). —Laurie Stark

— Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.

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