THE ARYAN COUPLE (PG-13) As far as I'm aware there's no rule or law that says all Holocaust movies must be terrible, but that does seem all too often to be the case — and, you guessed it, here's yet another one. Director John Daly pulls out all the stops, unleashing a mother lode of narrative clichés and nonstop violin strings for this turgid, melodramatic tale of plucky German Jews nobly suffering and struggling to stay alive as World War II pings and pongs about everyone's ears. The film is so transparently manipulative and much of what happens is so easily predicted that even the movie's occasional moments of genuine power wind up feeling far less effective than they should be. Martin Landau diverts our attention for a while, showing up in a typically solid performance as a Jewish businessman trying to save his family from the Nazi death camps, but just about everything else here is very tough going indeed. Also stars Judy Parfitt, Danny Webb, Steven MacKintosh and Jake Wood. Opens May 26 at Sunrise Cinemas in Tampa. 2 stars


AKEELAH AND THE BEE (PG) Moviegoers who just couldn't get enough of Spellbound — you know who you are — might be more than a little curious about this tale of an 11-year-old girl who struggles against the odds and unites her community when she enters a national spelling bee. The studio's publicity flacks are throwing around the word "inspirational" a lot for this one, so be warned. Stars Laurence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Keke Palmer and Curtis Armstrong. (Not Reviewed)

ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL (R) Terry Zwigoff's second project with graphic novelist Daniel Clowes doesn't have quite the effortless swing of their first collaboration, Ghost World, nor the epic, car-crash poetry of Crumb, but there's still considerable, loopy fun to be had here. If you consider Zwigoff's movies so far as hit singles (a process culminating with Bad Santa), then you might think of Art School Confidential as a noble B-side. Our hapless hero here is Jerome (Max Minghella), a sweet but insecure college sophomore who's just trying to get laid or find true love (whichever comes first), all while navigating the bizarre corridors of art school and doing whatever it takes to become the greatest artist of the century. Zwigoff does a wonderful job spoofing the whole art school experience, and the movie's first half is a mostly hilarious collection of observations and vignettes, but the film eventually loses its focus. Things tip over the edge in ways both unexpected and unpleasant during the movie's last act, as Art School Confidential's satire transforms into a less than convincing thriller-cum-love story. It's all still well worth a look, but we feel Zwigoff straining at some sort of significance toward the end that blows the movie's cool. Also stars John Malkovich, Sophia Myles, Jim Broadbent and Matt Keeslar. 3.5 stars

BENCHWARMERS (PG-13) You know you're in trouble when Rob Schneider turns out to be the straight man in the movie you're watching. And that's only the beginning of the problems with Benchwarmers. Adam Sandler was the "brains" behind this project, donning a producer's cap and convincing several of his old SNL buddies to crawl out from under their respective rocks and come together for a predictable fusion of Revenge of the Nerds, Bad News Bears and every movie made over the past few decades featuring one or more former SNL players. The story involves geeky grown-ups Schneider, David Spade (sporting a really dumb Beatles do) and Jon Heder (basically reprising his Napoleon Dynamite shtick) clobbering teams of small children in baseball (although the kids are supposedly bullies, so there's a message here, sorta). Jon Lovitz gets in a few funny bits as the team's billionaire patron, but the bulk of the movie amounts to a string of fart jokes, gay jokes, booger-eating and product placements for Pizza Hut. The movie is mainly notable for a raunch factor that renders its PG-13 rating very nearly meaningless and what well may be the worst closing credit outtakes ever. Also stars Craig Kilborn, Tim Meadows (looking even more superfluous than he did on SNL) and Molly Sims. 2 stars

FRIENDS WITH MONEY (R) A Sundance film by way of its general plotlessness and obsessive urge to talk, but a chick flick in its undeniably female perspective, Friends with Money is full of a small, closely observed moments that never quite add up to much. It revolves around three affluent couples, with particular attention paid to their significantly less than wealthy friend Olivia (Jennifer Aniston) who works as a maid, smokes too much pot and can't manage to keep a boyfriend. The other, richer characters in the movie are involved in mostly unhappy relationships as well, and even the ones with less visible signs of relationship strain are going through nervous breakdowns of their own for other, essentially unexplained reasons. There are some nice little moments here and there, and the film is worth checking out if only for the natural way its ensemble cast play off one another, but the cumulative effect is a lot like watching a handful of mildly interesting women unloading with ninety minutes of therapy. Stars Jennifer Aniston, Frances McDormand, Joan Cusack, Catherine Keener, Simon McBurney, Jason Isaacs and Greg Germann. 3 stars

ICE AGE 2: THE MELTDOWN (PG) The further adventures of Sid the Sloth and his lovable pals from the original Ice Age movie — Manny the wooly mammoth, Diego the saber-toothed tiger and that weird little over-caffeinated squirrel-thingie who's always obsessing about his nuts. In this installment, the weather appears to finally be warming up, and our furry heroes are having to adjust. Features the voices of Ray Romano, John Leguizamo, Dennis Leary, Drea de Matteo and Queen Latifah. (Not Reviewed)

INSIDE MAN (R) The usual good guy/bad guy bank robbery is turned on its ear in Spike Lee's gritty dramatic thriller. With his knack for making typically-clichéd racial issues interesting and creating comedic moments at unexpected times, Lee's fast-paced movie keeps you guessing 'til the very end. Denzel Washington plays the cop who's brought in to handle a hostage situation that's been meticulously organized by Clive Owen's mysterious character. Jodie Foster is compelling as a power broker protecting the interests of the obscenely-wealthy bank owner (Christopher Plummer in a role just like every other he's ever had). Sure, Willem Dafoe deserves more camera time and there are enough product placements to make you wanna stick that iPod up the producer's arse, but Inside Man has a strong plotline and good acting. And Jodie Foster's legs ... well, they're nice, too. 3 stars Erin Rashbaum

JUST MY LUCK (PG-13) The luckiest girl in the world (Lindsay Lohan) exchanges a kiss with a handsome loser (Chris Pine) and their fortunes immediately shift. Also stars Samaire Armstrong, Bree Turner and Faizon Love. (Not Reviewed)

THE LOST CITY (R) Even the stray bits of litter drifting through the late '50s Havana of The Lost City seem somehow idealized and dripping with nostalgia — which makes sense when you take into account that the film's director/star, Andy Garcia, fled the country when he was 5 years old, and the Cuba he shows us is one he never really knew. The Lost City is a dream project for Garcia in just about every sense but, at a long, cluttered 143 minutes, the film is also one immensely laborious labor of love. Based on a fat novel by the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante, The Lost City crams a lot of story, some half-baked and some overcooked, into the tale of a tightly-knit Cuban family being torn apart by the revolution. The movie sets up its familial oppositions with fists of purest ham, then hops from one tangent to the next, leapfrogging from various revolutionary activities, to endless montages of couples strolling through the wonderland of late '50s Havana. Fidel and Che show up leering from the sidelines every now and then, the overwrought dialogue constantly seems to be sinking under the weight of its own florid metaphors, and Garcia seems clueless about how to shape any of this material. But what pushes the movie over the line from well-meaning curiosity to genuinely bad filmmaking is a turn by Bill Murray as an annoying apparition who speaks exclusively in pretentious non-sequiturs. It's unclear whether Murray's character is supposed to symbolize something significant or whether he's just there for comedic relief, but any way you look at it, the effect is disastrous. Also stars Ines Sastre, Tomas Milian, Dustin Hoffman, Nestor Carbonell and Enrique Murciano. 2 stasrs

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (R) It's nearly impossible to tell what's going on during much of Lucky Number Slevin and, curiously enough, that's when the movie is at its best. The film's thoroughly cryptic and convoluted first half is one long, self-consciously clever riddle. But once the puzzle starts coming together, and the movie morphs from quirky tease to numbing seriousness, Lucky Number Slevin reveals itself as another classic case of less than meets the eye. Director Paul McGuigen and screenwriter Jason Smilovic pile on the twists and turns in a case of mistaken identity that involves a pair of feuding gangsters (Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley), a hired assassin (Bruce Willis) and the poor slob who finds himself caught in the middle of it all (Josh Hartnett). Smilovic, clearly a graduate of the Quentin Tarantino School of Screenwriting, overloads the film with archly self-aware dialogue and pop culture references, then places his characters in a world where the sensationalistic becomes bizarrely mundane and the mundane is so exaggerated that it begins to feel almost surreal. Also stars Lucy Liu. 3 stars

MARILYN HOTCHKISS' BALLROOM DANCING AND CHARM SCHOOL (PG-13) A half-digested mix of dopey camp, coming-of-age treacle and weepie mid-life crisis flick, this strange misfire is bland to the bone, although some might be offended by its inept attempt at combining contradictory tones. The movie includes three different narratives set in three different times, and it's all framed by the story told by a dying man (an over-the-top John Goodman) to a forlorn baker (Robert Carlyle) still dealing with his wife's suicide. We suffer through endless flashbacks of Goodman's first love and his introduction into the world of social etiquette via the titular charm school, then plod along with Carlyle's character as he visits that same school many years later. Cameos by respected actors are sprinkled throughout (Danny DeVito and Mary Steenburgen among them), but overall the film is as amateurish as it is predictable. Also stars Marisa Tomei, Donnie Wahlberg and Sean Astin. 1.5 stars

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III (PG-13) There wasn't a whole lot of logic or intricacy of plot in this franchise's first two installments either, but at least they were fun. Like its predecessors, M:I3 is all about the thrill of the chase, but the director this time out is J.J. Abrams, a TV veteran who shoots the film's all-important action sequences as frenzied, faceless and not particularly appetizing blurs that make us long for the unique stylistic signature of De Palma or John Woo. Tom Cruise returns, fresh from his baby-making marketing tie-in with Katie Holmes, but the real (and nearly only) reason to see the film is Oscar-winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote), who chews the scenery in style as a villainous arms dealer. Also stars Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Michelle Monaghan, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Laurence Fishburne. 3 stars

THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (R) The "notorious" in the title is both significant and ironic, since this cleverly crafted and very entertaining biopic portrays its subject — 1950s pin-up queen Bettie Page — as a sweet, innocent lamb who literally has to have it explained to her why some self-appointed protectors of society find her nude posing disgusting. There's a sprinkling of solid social commentary here, but don't go expecting another wrenching attack on social mores and repressed sexuality along the lines of The People vs Larry Flynt. Director Mary Harron (I Shot Andy Warhol) and writer Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) mainly have a lot of fun detailing Page's life from her prim upbringing in Nashville to her rise to fame as a nudie icon in New York. Gretchen Mol is surprisingly effective in the lead role, the film's blending of black-and-white and saturated color photography beautifully captures the spirit its 50's setting, just as its playfully mocking tone nails Page's basic approach to sex and life. Also stars Lili Taylor. 3.5 stars

OVER THE HEDGE (PG-13) Bruce Willis has his most convincing action hero role in some time, supplying the voice for a wily raccoon on a mission. The raccoon hooks up with a community of woodland creatures, leads them to the promised land of suburbia, introduces them to the glories of junk food, and shows them how to snatch the stuff in a series of daring heists. The catch here is that the raccoon has a hidden agenda — to eventually snag all the food for himself (specifically, for a intimidating bear he owes big time) — but, this being DreamWorks' latest PG-rated animation, the proper life lessons kick in just in time to ensure happy endings all around. Over the Hedge won't change anyone's life — the movie lacks the rafters-raising wit of a Shrek or the emotional richness of Pixar's best stuff — but this is solid, second-tier kiddie fare, and an awful lot of fun. Features the voices of Bruce Willis, Garry Shandling, Steve Carell and Nick Nolte. 3.5 stars

POSEIDON (PG-13) Poseidon is a thrill machine in the worst sense of the phrase — its characters are merely fodder for the machine, and it churns out its would-be thrills with such grinding, formulaic precision that the film becomes anything but exciting. After a perfunctory introduction of its characters (rugged, attractive or plucky stock types, all), the movie's titular ship is knocked for a loop by a tsunami-sized rogue wave. There's not even much dialogue — a good thing really, considering the lameness of what comes out of people's mouths here — so what we get is basically 90 minutes of forgettable characters wandering from one chamber to the next, leaping across chasms, climbing up shafts and dealing with copious amounts of fire and water as they attempt to stay alive. Stars Josh Lucas, Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss, Jacinda Barrett and Emmy Rossum. 2 stars

SCARY MOVIE 4 (PG-13) Another round of random spoofing, David Zucker style, of the latest batch of horror flicks — Saw, The Grudge, The Village, and so on — with much hilarity involving bodily functions and obligatory doses of T & A no doubt abounding. Stars Anna Faris, Regina Hall, Criag Bierko, Carmen Electra and Andre Benjamin. (Not Reviewed)

SEE NO EVIL (R) What would summer be without at least one horror flick featuring attractive but terminally stupid teenagers having sex and then being slashed to bits? This one's for you, gore-hounds, and bon appetit. (Not Reviewed)

THE SENTINEL (PG-13) Kiefer Sutherland seems to be doing a variation of his 24 schtick here, racing around with fellow secret service agent Michael Douglas while the life of the President of the United States is in danger. The bankable cast also features Eva Longoria and, in a major assault to credulity, Kim Basinger as the First Lady. (Not Reviewed)

SILENT HILL (R) Yes, it's yet another scary movie based on a video game. But before you start rolling your eyes as visions of Resident Evil flood your weary brain, consider that the director here is Christophe Gans, whose Brotherhood of the Wolf infused a breath of originality and elegance into the horror genre a few years back. As for a plot, Silent Hill takes place in a town where the inhabitants are battling all sorts of freaky, evil thingies — a set-up that sounds a whole lot like, you guessed it, Resident Evil. Stars Radha Mitchell, Sean Bean, Laurie Holden and Deborah Unger. (Not Reviewed)

TAKE THE LEAD (PG-13) It's To Sir With Love meets Mad Hot Ballroom, hip-hop style, when a professional ballroom dancer (Antonio Banderas) lands a gig in a New York City high school and finds his old-school methods challenged by modern attitudes. Despite sounding like a fusion of way too many movies floating around in the pop culture ether, Take the Lead insists that it's actually based on a true story. Also stars Alfre Woodard, Ray Liotta, Rob Brown and Dante Basco. (Not Reviewed)

THANK YOU FOR SMOKING (R) A sensation at Sundance and at the Toronto Film Festival, Thank You For Smoking doesn't quite live up to the buzz but it's good, nasty fun nonetheless. Aaron Eckhart (The Company of Men) has his moment in the sun as the perfectly named Nick Naylor, a sliver-tongued shill for the tobacco industry who never met a piece of spin he didn't like. Morallly flexible to the max, Nick has made his deal with the devil, but he's also smart and curiously likeable — as is the movie — and both of them eventually have us eating out of their hands. First-time writer-director Jason Reitman (son of perennial Hollywood fixture Ivan) positions Nick at the center of a deliciously non-PC satire of modern-day life and a culture grounded in the notion that everything is for sale. The film fans out in too many directions as it unfolds, and by the end there are at least two or three irons too many in the fire — a kidnapping scheme, a scheming potential love interest (Katie Holmes) and Nick's impressionable son (Cameron Bright) all vie for screen time — but, Thank You For Smoking still gets its job done in style. So far, this is the funniest and smartest American comedy of the year. Also stars Robert Duvall, Adam Brody, Maria Bello and David Koechner. 4 stars

UNITED 93 (R) An unabashedly tough but brilliant film, United 93 is less about suspense and more about provoking something not unlike the debilitating, all-pervasive queasiness that an act of terror strives to instill in us. An account of the one plane hijacked on September 11 that failed to hit its target, United 93 shows us from its opening moments that the worst is in store; from then on, it's all about waiting for the other shoe to drop. Much of the first hour unfolds as a collection of small, seemingly inconsequential details that simply bring us into the reality of what we're observing. By the time the movie skillfully segues from everyday banalities into the chaos of September 11, cutting between events in the air and on the ground, the tension is excruciating. We see things as they actually appeared at the time, imperfectly, piecemeal, through the eyes of various air controllers and military personal struggling to make sense of the situation, with director Paul Greengrass orchestrating the confusion like a mysterious, terrible symphony. Greengrass strives for maximum authenticity here, casting mostly unknowns and capturing details on the fly with agile, highly attentive cameras more concerned with energy and emotion than with painterly compositions or a strict allegiance to focus. The film's final fifty minutes — from roughly the time the hijackers of United 93 start randomly slitting throats to the flight's fiery end — play out in real time, with a level of intensity that's not for the faint-hearted. It's miles from Bowie telling us we can all be heroes, but if every disaster film is ultimately a film about triumph — and the bigger the catastrophe the bigger the glory — then this one is off the scale. Stars David Alan Bashe, Richard Bekins, Ben Sliney, Trish Gates, Denny Dillon, Khalid Abdalla and Susan Blommaert. 4.5 stars

THE WILD (PG) Disney's refusal to screen this in time for critics' deadlines isn't exactly a good sign, but how bad could it be? Expensive, state-of-the-art computer animation, goofy talking animals, celebrity voice talent and some sort of Madagascar-esque shenanigans about urban zoo critters adjusting to life in the great outdoors — at the very least, it sounds right up the alleys of the film's target 10-and-under audience. Features the voices of Kiefer Sutherland, Janeane Garofalo, James Belushi, Eddie Izzard and William Shatner. (Not Reviewed)

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