Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area.

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MONSTER (R) First-time director Patty Jenkin's movie is harrowing stuff, topped by Charlize Theron's astonishing turn as real-life female serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Monster is one long howl of pain, focusing on the relatively brief period when hate-wracked Aileen Wuornos made the leap from bargain basement hooker to insatiable serial killer. The movie manages to paint Wuornos as a victimizer and as a victim, eliciting both our horror and empathy (sometimes in the same breath), and the frame of mind we're put in is anything but a simple one. As for Theron's spine-tingling performance, it will make it difficult to ever look at this actress in the same way again. It's the sort of performance that starts in a very physical place and then extends outward in all directions, devastating everything in its path with its sheer intensity. Also stars Christina Ricci. 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

NASCAR 3-D: THE IMAX EXPERIENCE (PG) There are moments of thunderous sound and fury here (primarily the beginning and end), but the bulk of Nascar 3-D is a surprisingly sober, well-rounded and informative look at the history, science and even (gasp) philosophy behind high-speed racing. Likewise, the 3-D effects are less about in-your-face money shots and more, well, subtle and well-integrated throughout, pushing this documentary's all-important visuals to an even more pleasing level of vividness than many similar 3-D projects. Before you start thinking that this might be too sedate for your tastes, be aware that it all culminates in a super-intense race-day sequence that is all about speed and volume, and nothing but. Watch out for the tires flying off the wrecked cars and straight into your face. Narrated by Keifer Sutherland. 1/2

NEVER DIE ALONE (R) Rapper DMX stars as a badass big city criminal who returns to his hometown to settle scores. David Arquette plays the young journalist hanging on his every word. (Not Reviewed)

THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (R) Mel Gibson's controversial account of Jesus' last 12 hours is a visceral and deliberately punishing experience that goes to great lengths fetishizing its copious pain, suffering, gore and instruments of torture. Gibson seems to be striving for an epiphany of excess, hammering us with lurid, loving close-ups of wood and metal piercing flesh, chunks of human gore flying into people's faces, and buckets of blood gushing from each and every open wound. For all of its classy production values, in fact, The Passion often feels uncomfortably close to a basic, whips "n' chains exploitation flick, albeit one produced with God on its side. It's all quite beautiful, though, in a grim and grisly sort of way, and detractors of the film might even think of it as the most ravishing snuff film ever made. There's also the little matter of the movie's thinly veiled anti-Semitism, whereby the Romans are the ones doing the heavy lifting but the Jews are seen as the ones pulling the strings in this cosmic tragedy. The real problem here, however, is that all that endless, bloody excess eventually becomes redundant, then numbing, and finally just boring. Stars Jim Caviezel, Monica Bellucci, Maia Morgenstern, Mattia Sbragia and Hristo Shopov.

THE RECKONING (R) An ultimately unsatisfying mish-mash of genres, starring Paul Bettany as a conflicted priest in 14th-century England, who hooks up with a troupe of struggling actors. The troupe's leader (Willem Dafoe) gets the bright idea to put on a play based on an actual local crime, but complications arise, and the characters are drawn into the murder, even as the movie eventually transforms into a detective mystery. The period details of The Reckoning are worth a look, but the film's whodunnit aspects seem a lame attempt at recreating The Name of the Rose, while the production eventually bogs down even further with too many ponderous speeches about everything under the sun. Also stars Brian Cox. 1/2

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