Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area.

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BAD SANTA (R) Billy Bob Thornton stars as the world's most horrible department store Santa in this wonderfully disgusting new comedy from Terry Zwigoff (Crumb, Ghost World). The closest modern equivalent to the movie's brand of sick-sick-sick humor might be There's Something about Mary, but Bad Santa turns wallowing in ugliness into something not only very funny but also very sad and real in a way that the Farrelly Brothers rarely manage. Things get a little gooey at the end (when Thornton's relationship with a weird little kid blossoms) and chirpy Lauren Graham of The Gilmore Girls seems a bit out of place here, but the rest is solid gold, dipped in blood, booze and puke. Also stars Bernie Mac, Tony Cox and John Ritter.

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.

DR. SEUSS' THE CAT IN THE HAT (PG) The sets are as crazily colorful as you'd expect from a movie directed by a former production designer, but that's about all The Cat in the Hat has going for it. The jokes are weak, the musical numbers and special effects decidedly un-special, and Mike Meyers' titular character is neither particularly funny nor endearing. Meyers looks lumpy and uncomfortable in his oversized cat suit, playing the character as an unappealing cross between Regis Philbin, Oz's Cowardly Lion and his own New Yawk Coffee Talk Lady. The movie never really gets going, and seems to be overcompensating for its tepidness by practically screaming in our ear "Are we having fun yet?!" every 15 seconds. An even worse Seuss adaptation than the recent The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Also stars Alec Baldwin, Kelly Preston, Dakota Fanning and Spencer Breslin. 1/2

ELEPHANT (R) Gus Van Sant's very personal reaction to Columbine, and high school violence generally, features an ensemble of ordinary teenagers with no previous acting experience, almost all of whom seem to be more or less playing versions of their real-life selves. The bulk of the film unfolds as a series of seemingly inconsequential and random moments, as the camera follows various high school students through the events of their day. It becomes clear that what we're watching are moments inexplicably frozen in time, and that the film itself is nothing less than an elegy for lives lived in ways large and (mostly) small, and about to be lost. When the bloody apocalypse we're expecting does finally materialize, our accumulated intimacy with the victims and victimizers alike makes it all the more horrifying. Stars Alex Frost, Eric Deulen, John Robinson and Elias McConnell. Held over at Madstone Theatres. 1/2

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 Ferrell. Ferrell 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

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)

GOTHIKA (R) In her first post-Oscar role, Halle Berry plays a psychotherapist who begins seeing nasty visions and winds up in the damaged souls section of a prison that more closely resembles a haunted house than a penitentiary. The story teases us with some Is she actually nuts or is there really something supernatural afoot? mind games, but that's only window dressing for what is essentially just your basic freaky horror flick. Neon lights flicker at predictable intervals, the wind howls incessantly, and director Mathieu Kassovitz's camera twirls about to the point of distraction, sort of a 21st-century equivalent of those irritating zoom shots of the '70s. The movie is stylish, and Berry holds her own, but Gothika's script is a plodding, convoluted mishmash of horror cliches (complete with eleventh-hour revelations). Even worse, everybody but Berry and Robert Downey often gives the impression that they're being directed by someone with a less-than-perfect grasp of the nuances of the English language. Also stars Penelope Cruz and Charles S. Dutton.

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