Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area.

ABOUT SCHMIDT (R) Jack Nicholson is resplendently bland in this skewed character study of an ordinary retired insurance salesman with penchant for crankiness and a bad comb-over (is there such a thing as a good comb-over?). After his wife suddenly dies, Nicholson's Schmidt hops in his 30-foot Winnebago and embarks on a mini-road trip revisiting his past — only to find he doesn't really seem to have a past, or a future. Also stars Hope Davis, Dermot Mulroney, Kathy Bates and Howard Hesseman. 1/2

ADAPTATION (PG) Like their previous film, Being John Malkovich, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and director Spike Jonze's latest is a nearly indescribable meta-adventure that grabs real life by the short-and-curlies and uses it as a jumping-off point for some of the most fiercely imaginative filmmaking around. Kaufman makes himself the movie's central character and gets Nicolas Cage to play him, turning the bulk of the film into Cage/Kaufman obsessing about himself, about his constantly morphing new script (also called Adaptation), and about the creative process in general. Also stars Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Brian Cox.

BIKER BOYZ (PG-13) Laurence Fishburne and Derek Luke star in a father-and-son tale that revolves around drag race and a mythic motorcycle club made up of African-American men. Also stars Kid Rock. (Not Reviewed)

THE BREAD, MY SWEET (PG) Director Melissa Martin's low-budget romantic comedy about Italian-Americans has all the depth, originality and ethnic authenticity of a commercial for canned spaghetti sauce. Scott Baio stars as a corporate ax man with a heart of gold (he really just wants to bake bread), who decides to marry the wildcat daughter of his terminally ill surrogate mother. Baio is surprisingly good, but most of the other performances are amateurish (complete with bad Old Country accents), the direction is pedestrian and the script hopelessly lame. The movie features just about every cultural cliche in the book — its Italian-Americans are almost always either singing, squabbling, screaming, kissing or crying — and it's fairly bursting with quaint old curmudgeons, big sweet dimwits and an entire stable of recycled food-as-life metaphors. The indisputable highlight of the film is actress Rosemary Prinz, who, though not given much to work with, lights up the screen like Giulietta Masina every time she smiles. Also stars Kristin Minter and John Seitz Opens Feb. 28 at Channelside Cinemas. Call theater to confirm. 1/2

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (PG) Steven Spielberg's movie about the world's most successful con man is glossy Fun with a Capital F, a snappy old-school caper that never takes itself too seriously. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Frank Abagnale, a high school dropout who in the 1960s successfully impersonated a doctor, a lawyer and an airline pilot, and who passed some 4-million worth of forged checks, all before his 21st birthday. Also stars Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, Martin Sheen and Nathalie Baye. 1/2

CHICAGO (PG-13) Rob Marshall pulls out all the stops in this lavish, big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical about a 1920s chorus girl who shoots her lover, goes to jail and becomes a big celebrity. Taking place simultaneously in gritty reality and in the projected fantasies of its characters, the movie cleverly folds its story into a series of show-stopping musical numbers. Stars Rene Zelwegger, Richard Gere, Catherine Zeta-Jones, John C. Reilly and Taye Diggs.

CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND (R) The latest script from Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) is based on the "unauthorized autobiography" of gonzo Gong Show host Chuck Barris. That's only a jumping-off place, however, for a feature-length fever dream as personal, edgy and just plain odd as anything we've seen from Kaufman, and directed in surprisingly surefooted style by hunk-turned-auteur George Clooney. There's an actual life-story skittering about somewhere within the decidedly nonlinear narrative of Clooney's movie, but this darkly comic vision is far closer to metafiction than it is to anything remotely resembling a standard bio-pic. Also stars Drew Barrymore, Julia Roberts, George Clooney and Rutger Hauer. 1/2

CORAL REEF ADVENTURE (G) Another quality IMAX production from the acclaimed team of MacGillivray Freeman (who seem to be able to do this IMAX thing in their sleep), Coral Reef Adventure is a fascinating and somewhat frightening look at an exotic and rapidly disappearing underwater world. Music by flag-waving hippie diehards Crosby, Stills and Nash brings home the environmental message concerning the destruction of the reefs (from a deadly combo of over-fishing and global warming), but the movie has its moments of fun as well. The effect of spending 45 minutes gazing at sensuously shaped, multicolor corals might sound a little like spending quality time with a lava lamp, but the film's also full of important information for any child or adult. Beyond that, we get yet another nicely crafted variation on the tried and true IMAX mantra extolling the diversity and interdependency of all species in our living world. Playing at MOSI's IMAX Dome Theater in Tampa. Call to confirm. 1/2

CRADLE 2 THE GRAVE (R) A slick, stylish but basically silly and sub-generic heist/kidnap movie that teams up rapper-turned-"actor" DMX with Asian action icon Jet Li. The chemistry of the pairing is less than zero (which also sums up DMX's screen presence), but Li — when he's in motion, kicking out the kung fu jams — continues to be a thing of super-cool beauty, never breaking a sweat and hardly ever cracking a smile. A problematic command of the English language is still the main reason Li's not a bigger star, though, not that anything he says in this forgettable effort is remotely important. You know a movie's in trouble when Tom Arnold shows up and all but steals the show. Also stars Mark Dacascos and Gabrielle Union. Opens Feb. 28 at local theaters. 1/2

DAREDEVIL (PG-13) The latest Marvel superhero to hit the big screen is by far the most dour and exquisitely tormented of them all. "I'm not the bad guy," Daredevil tells us (and himself), but that's debatable, considering how much he obviously relishes inflicting pain upon the scummy law-breakers scurrying through the city. A blind lawyer by day, a costumed, super-power vigilante by night, Daredevil has a thirst for justice that borders on the pathological, so that our vicious, crime-fighting hero often seems to have crossed the line from self-doubting neurotic (a la Spider-Man) to full-blown nutcase. Daredevil is a violent, relentlessly downbeat and dark movie on almost every level (amazingly, it wasn't rated "R"), often coming across like Death Wish crossed with vintage film noir, with just a bit of extreme sports thrown in the mix. Ben Affleck is surprisingly effective as the tortured title character, and he's surrounded by a well-cast ensemble including Jon Favreau, Michael Clarke Duncan and Colin Farrell. Only a handful of overly cartoon-y moments and a generic soundtrack mar the final effect. Also stars Jennifer Garner. 1/2

DARK BLUE (R) Ron Shelton sets his new thriller at the time of the Rodney King trial, and the movie's tale of police corruption and racial divisions dovetails neatly (a little too neatly) with that very public event. Kurt Russell stars as a hardboiled Los Angeles cop battling his inner demons while tracking down some killers and getting sucked deeper and deeper into the messy politics of the LAPD. The movie gets the details right, painting the various black, white, Korean and Mexican L.A. subcultures in vivid colors, but fails to supply a script that offers much in the way of surprises or originality. The overly broad strokes used to depict the shady process by which cops, judges and lawyers do things may well be accurate, but the lack of narrative subtlety drags the movie down. Also stars Ving Rhames, Scott Speedman and Brendan Gleeson.

DARKNESS FALLS (PG-13) As a child, Kyle (Cheney Kley) has a brush with the curse of Darkness Falls, a creature that kills anyone who sees its face and that can only attack in the dark. He returns to the town years later when his childhood friend Caitlin (Emma Caulfield) asks him to help her brother Michael (Lee Cormie), who has suddenly become deathly afraid of the dark. The story is fast-paced, creepy and original, and the special effects, mainly brief glimpses of the creature and the sounds of its sighs and wails, round out a well-crafted movie. Darkness Falls is enough to make anyone at least a teensy bit scared of the dark. —Ana Lopez

DELIVER US FROM EVA (R) LL Cool J stars as a ladies' man hired by three frustrated brothers to romance their domineering, bad-tempered sister-in-law (Gabrielle Union). The movie is not unlike one of those dumb, contemporary romantic comedies for white teenagers, reconfigured for a somewhat older, African-American target audience. Most of Deliver Us From Eva happens on one note — loud, predictable and shallow — so that it's actually shocking in those rare moments when the movie calms down and shows us its characters' sensitive sides. Also stars Essence Atkins, Robinne Lee and Meagan Good.

DIE ANOTHER DAY (PG-13) It's a long way from Once Were Warriors for director Lee Tamahori, who helms this latest Bond blowout in which 007 tracks traitors and terrorists from North Korea to Cuba to Iceland. The plot's pretty convoluted (as all the recent Bonds have been), some of the CGI effects are awfully cheesy, and the movie overstays its welcome by a good 20 minutes. Stars Pierce Brosnan, Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike and Stephen Yune. 1/2

FAR FROM HEAVEN (PG-13) Todd Haynes' loving and exquisitely crafted homage to the 1950s melodramas of Douglas Sirk is set in white suburban American circa 1957, an easy target if ever there was one. The heroine of this remarkable neo-tearjerker is Cathy Whitaker (beautifully played by Julianne Moore), a model housewife whose world crumbles when her marriage to local businessman Frank (Dennis Quaid) turns out to be not nearly as perfect as she imagined. Style reigns supreme in this drop-dead gorgeous, designer's dream of a movie, which emulates the Technicolor look of 1950s films so perfectly that its saturated hues take on an intensity bordering on the psychedelic. Haynes' movie is clearly a film buff's dream, but it's no mere exercise in style. There's a real story here, and Haynes uses the movie's formidable style to make connections between what was going on in America in the middle of the last century (but couldn't always be talked about) and what's happening here and now. Haynes isn't interested in poking fun at the classic form of melodrama so much as he wants to honor it and then massage it into some extended version of itself, one capable of addressing uniquely modern concerns. Also stars Dennis Haysbert. 1/2

FINAL DESTINATION 2 (R) In this sequel to the psychological thriller that attempts to dispel the myth of accidental death, the premise remains the same. Death, shrouded in mystique, determines everyone's expiration date. When the timeline of fate is disrupted, reverberations of wanton tragedy follow. The plot flows well but obviously cannot be taken too seriously. The film relies on death's cruel and gory manifestations to yield cheap thrills. Stars Ali Larter, A.J. Cook, Michael Landes. 1/2 —Corey Myers

FRIDA (R) A long-gestating dream project of many (including its star, Salma Hayek), Frida is a competently made but not particularly remarkable film that falls victim to many of the problems commonly associated with bio-pics. The film is true to its life of its subject — the great mono-browed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo — and director Julie Taymor (Titus) makes herself subservient to the material, often to the point of invisibility. The result isn't bad so much as it's an overly restrained and disappointingly conventional affair. The main focus is on Frida's long, passionate and extremely complicated relationship with the painter Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Both were fascinating people, but the script's handling of their relationship becomes predictable. Also stars Geoffrey Rush, Ashley Judd and Ed Norton. Now playing at Burns Court Cinema, Sarasota. Call theater to confirm.

GANGS OF NEW YORK (R) Martin Scorsese's enormously ambitious new film about mid-1800s blood feuds and power struggles is a huge, magnificently sprawling thing that manifests all the power and resonance of classical myth. The movie's focus is the love-hate relationship between the characters played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo DiCaprio, but Scorsese constantly layers his cinematic mural with additional characters, historical nuances and stories-within-stories. Gangs of New York is certainly History Writ Large, but the bulk of it is as accessible as anything this director's ever done. The movie is big, bloody, ornate, passionate and full of over-the-top emotions, like a grand opera reimagined as a really cool comic book. Also stars Cameron Diaz.

THE GURU (R) Party Girl director Daisy Von Scherler Mayer has removed any sliver of her previous offbeat charm from this trite story of trendy New Yorkers who glom onto a struggling Indian actor (Jimi Mistry) masquerading as a spiritual leader and "Guru of Sex." Heather Graham returns to familiar territory as a sweet porn star who advises the New Age swami in this fluffy romantic comedy with a rank center. —Felicia Feaster

A GUY THING (PG-13) Paul (Jason Lee) is slated to get married in a week when he wakes up after his bachelor party to find a strange girl named Becky (Julia Stiles) in his bed. Desperate to make sure that his fiancee, Karen, played by Selma Blair, doesn't find out, Paul begins telling fib upon fib to save his impending nuptials. The film's main problem is that it's difficult to see Jason Lee as anyone other than himself on screen. Blair, on the other hand, slips easily into the role of the perfect if dispassionate bride-to-be, while Stiles plays the cool and quirky Becky well enough. Also stars James Brolin. —Ana Lopez

HOW TO LOSE A GUY IN 10 DAYS (PG-13) Julia Roberts had her Pretty Woman. Sandra Bullock had her While You Were Sleeping. If her film becomes a box office hit, Kate Hudson will have her How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days to turn her into America's latest A-list sweetheart. Yes, she received an Oscar nomination for Almost Famous, but there's always been something a little unformed about Hudson, who has repeatedly failed to locate the same sort of sparkle that propelled mom Goldie Hawn to stardom back in the late '60s. But this one marks the first time that Hudson has been able to truly command the screen: She's utterly winning as a women's magazine columnist who, for the sake of a story on what females shouldn't do when dating, hooks up with a guy with the intent of driving him away within ... well, check the film's title. She settles on a slick ad man (Matthew McConaughey, easier to take than usual), unaware that he's made a bet that he can get any woman to fall in love with him within the same time period. For a film that wallows in the usual male-female stereotypes, this one's surprisingly light on its feet, thanks in no small part to its well-matched leads. Alas, the third act follows the exact pattern as almost every other romantic comedy made today (most recently Two Weeks Notice and Maid In Manhattan): The deceptions become unearthed, the pair break up, some soul searching takes place, and bliss arrives after a madcap chase. Leave before this excruciating finale and you should have an OK time. 1/2

GODS AND GENERALS (PG-13) Ted Turner Pictures offers a would-be epic of the first two years of the Civil War, and it feels like it was shot in real time. Gettysburg writer-director Ronald Maxwell does a fine job at battlefield reenactment, especially for the extended sequence of Fredericksburg, but has no clue how to make such figures as Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson (Stephen Lang) into intriguing characters. The film's tedium is easier to forgive, though, than its whitewashing of the institution of slavery, which here merely seems like a bad career choice. —Curt Holman

THE HOURS (PG-13) The film interweaves moments from the lives of three women living in three separate times and places, straining to establish unifying themes involving feminine strength (or lack thereof), motherhood, lesbianism and suicide. In the best segment, the writer Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) skulks about in 1923, chain-smoking and mulling over ideas for a new book. In the worst segment, a contemporary New York publisher (Meryl Streep), nicknamed for a character in Woolf's book, prepares a party for Harris' dying writer. In between, there's Julianne Moore as a 1950s housewife who reads Woolf's book, quietly cracks up, and checks into a hotel with a year's supply of sleeping pills. Also stars Toni Collette and Claire Danes.

THE JUNGLE BOOK 2 (G) Following pretty much the same pattern as Disney's recent direct-to-video sequels, this "2" basically just reprises the same characters, songs and settings from the original Jungle Book, and then pits hero against villain in an ever-so-slightly revamped context. The animation is a few notches above the sequel norm (which is probably why the movie rated an actual theatrical release), but there's even less of an attempt at going through the motions of a story. Clocking in at just over an hour, Jungle Book 2 is little more than its characters dancing around to a string of forgettable songs, bolstered by the venerable "Bare Necessities" (which we're forced to hear no less than three times). Featuring the voices of Haley Joel Osment, John Goodman and Tony Jay.

JUST MARRIED (PG-13) Nauseatingly camera-friendly Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy star as newlyweds who insult and electrocute each other around Europe in a surprisingly clever comedy from director Shawn Levy. Kutcher (Dude, Where's My Car? and That 70s Show) does as little as possible to dispel his typecast as a sweet-at-heart moron, and Murphy, fresh from bumping uglies with Eminem in 8 Mile, lands yet another dubious onscreen catch. Just Married is formulaic but nonetheless makes a valiant bid to win over even the toughest anti-chick-flick critic. The problem, though, is its predictable and tedious ending. By the time the credits roll, Kutcher and Murphy have conspired to produce a cliched ending which entirely undermines the first two-thirds of the movie, leaving Hollywood's record of generic romantic-comedy conclusions unthreatened. —Dave Stevenson

THE LIFE OF DAVID GALE (R) "There is no truth," announces one of the characters in this disastrous misfire from normally clear-headed director Alan Parker, "only perspectives." It's a horribly misleading statement, setting us up for a delicately nuanced, Rashomon-esque meditation on shades of gray, only to deposit us smack dab in the middle of a heavy-handed message movie that's as simplistic and clunky as they come. Kevin Spacey is uncharacteristically smug and sanctimonious as a former professor and dedicated death-penalty opponent about to be executed for the murder of a former colleague. Kate Winslet (in a rare, non-breast-baring performance and sporting a serviceable Yankee accent) is the ambitious journalist to whom Spacey relates his sad tale in a series of clumsily integrated flashbacks. The movie telegraphs every plot point, dutifully trotting out subplots involving all manner of made-for-TV-luridness in the process (rapes, conspiracy theories, alcoholism, life-threatening diseases). It's all a bit of a slog. Charles Randolph's script is dull, sloppy and thoroughly unconvincing, and a mildly engaging last-minute plot twist only succeeds in making the whole thing feel like a bad, two-hour and 10-minute O. Henry story. Also stars Laura Linney.

MERCI POUR LE CHOCOLAT (NR) Aside from the coming-of-age stories the French continually portray on the silver screen, they also hanker for the cinematic concoction of food, sex and death. French director Claude Chabrol satiates this craving with his latest film Merci Pour Le Chocolat. The exquisite actress Isabelle Huppert, last seen as a sexually repressed piano teacher in The Pianist now plays naughty waif Marie-Claire, who delights in spiking guests' hot chocolate with poison. Now playing at Burns Court, Sarasota. (Not Reviewed)

NATIONAL SECURITY (PG-13) Ex L.A. cop Hank Rafferty (Steve Zahn) and police academy reject Earl Montgomery (Martin Lawrence), form an unlikely duo as security guards on a hunt to find the bad guys who killed Hank's partner. The plot isn't anything spectacular, but it provides an occasionally effective platform for the comic pairing of competent and determined Hank with thrill-seeking Earl. The story drags a little at times, and some characters' motivations seem weak, but Earl's smart mouth and his chemistry with Hank minimize the movie's flaws. Also stars Bill Duke and Eric Roberts. 1/2 —Ana Lopez

OLD SCHOOL (R) Returning to his distinguished oeuvre of college comedies, director Todd Phillips (Frat House, Road Trip) takes a promising gimmick, of three thirtysomething friends (Luke Wilson, Will Ferrell, Vince Vaughn) who decide to start their own fraternity. Phillips unfortunately forms that tasty notion into a bland soy retread inspired by films like Animal House, but without the brains to retool the collegiate comedy genre. Vaughn and Ferrell, however, make an honorable effort to inject some much-needed goofiness into their parcel of the film. 1/2 —Felicia Feaster

THE PIANIST (R) Roman Polanski's film is based on the memoirs of Polish-Jewish classical pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman, who continued to be devoted to his art, even as he watched his world crumble and suffered an endless series of horrors and humiliations designed to rob him and others like him of dignity, humanity and, ultimately, life. The film's cool, reserved and utterly unsentimental style might sound at odds with the extremity of the subject matter, but it's all the more haunting for it. Stars Adrien Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Ed Stoppard and Frank Finlay.

THE QUIET AMERICAN (R) In a stunning one-two punch that began with Rabbit-Proof Fence, director Phillip Noyce follows through with this evocative Graham Greene adaptation, filled with the writer's trademark intrigue and sophisticated, world-weary wit. On the surface, the movie's a romantic triangle, set in early 1950s Indochina, with titular quiet American Brendan Fraser moving in on Brit journalist Michael Caine's young Vietnamese mistress (the lovely Do Thi Hai Yen from Vertical Ray of the Sun). The woman's a not-so subtle stand-in for the country of Vietnam, of course (mistress to a variety of Westerners, colonized by the world), and the film plays out as an intimate account of the battle for her soul. The movie's elegantly mysterious atmosphere is due in large part to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the Caucasian master of Asian imagery. Also stars Rade Serbedzija. 1/2

RABBIT-PROOF FENCE (PG) Director Phillip Noyce's quietly moving tale exposes one of the Western world's dirtiest little secrets. Rabbit-Proof Fence focuses on the execrable racial laws in effect in Australia for much of the 20th century, when countless children of mixed aboriginal and white parentage were kidnapped by government employees and imprisoned in "re-education" centers. The film takes place in 1931 and is based on the true story of three young Aboriginal girls who escaped from one of these centers and trekked some 1,500 miles across the Outback to get back home.

THE RECRUIT (PG-13) Slick, briskly paced but ultimately forgettable thriller starring Colin Farrell as a MIT whiz kid tapped by veteran spook Al Pacino to work for the CIA. The movie's first half is fairly interesting as it depicts Farrell's basic training, awkwardly folding in a romantic interest subplot, while the latter sections are a strictly by-the-numbers account of Farrell routing out a mole. The movie feels too small and cramped to generate much excitement, and it's too glossy to communicate the sort of paranoia and quiet menace it clearly wants us to feel. Also stars Bridget Moynahan.

SHANGHAI KNIGHTS If you're gonna insist on making a distressingly formulaic sequel to a distressingly formulaic comedy, then this might be the way to go, by overstuffing it with so much nonsensical material that some of it is bound to charm through sheer willpower. Its 2000 predecessor, Shanghai Noon, ranked as one of the weaker "odd couple" comedies of late, with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson going through the paces in a dull action romp set in the Old West. Knights is clearly an improvement, with Chan and Wilson (both more animated than in the previous picture) heading to London to solve the murder of Chan's character's father. The villains are uninteresting and the central plot thread (involving the massacre of the royal family) is dopey, but it's what's around the edges that makes this painless entertainment. Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar find clever ways to incorporate historical figures into their storyline (best of all is the use of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, winningly played here by Thomas Fisher), and they also pay tribute to practically every notable screen comedian this side of Cheech and Chong (Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and the Hope-Crosby team are among those honored). The anachronisms make Oliver Stone's dramas seem like cinema verite documentaries by comparison, yet it's perversely pleasurable to hear The Who's "My Generation" and "Magic Bus" in a film that's set in 1887. 1/2

TALK TO HER (NR) The "new" Almodovar all the way, a natural evolution of the more relaxed and emotionally direct approach that the director's been steadily honing over the past several years. It's a curiously restrained film for Almodovar, almost fragile in its way, but still bursting with life and fully informed by the juicy, overwrought passions and fabulous theatricality. In Talk to Her, Almodovar gives the male perspective for a change as two men express their love for women in comas. Almodovar skillfully zigzags through time, offering up strange little narrative detours and flashbacks within flashbacks but never allowing anything to get in the way of the movie's forward momentum. Stars Javier Camara, Dario Grandinetti, Leonar Watling and Rosario Flores. Held over at Beach Theatre, St. Pete Beach, and Burns Court Cinema, Sarasota. Call theaters to confirm. 1/2

—Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted

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