Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area

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DEAD ALIVE (R) Probably the best horror-splatter comedy ever, Shaun of the Dead not excluded, this early effort from Peter Jackson gleefully piles on the gore and has a grand old time flinging body parts and all manner of outrageousness at every square inch of the screen. The movie is a low budget wonder, utterly free of pretense, genuinely funny (when it wants to be), genuinely scary (when it needs to be), and filled with jaw-dropping moments involving flesh-eating mothers and lawnmowers. As guilty pleasures go, consider this one a must-see. Stars Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver and Elizabeth Moody. Plays Oct. 21, one night only, at Tampa Theatre. Call to confirm.

THE GRUDGE (PG-13) The latest example of Hollywood's current obsession with remaking Japanese horror films, The Grudge gives us Sarah Michelle Gellar wandering through a haunted house that puts its inhabitants in a state of rage so all-consuming they die from it. Also stars Jason Behr and Clea Duvall. Opens Oct. 22 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

PROTEUS (NR) Directed by the always intriguing John Greyson (Lilies, Zero Patience), this complex and visually elegant work blends powerful realism, blatant artifice and historical anachronisms a la Derek Jarman to tell the politically charged love story of a Dutch sailor and an African herdsman imprisoned in South Africa in the 1730s. Proteus is a strange, challenging film that recalls the glory days of queer cinema when the artsy, anything-goes spirit of early Todd Haynes, Greg Araki and Christopher Munch ruled the roost. Stars Neil Sandilands, Rouxnet Brown, Shaun Smyth and Kristen Thomson. Opens Oct. 22 at Sunrise Cinemas.

ROSENSTRASSE (R) More atrocities of the Holocaust are brought to light in this film about a daughter's discovery of what her mother went through during WWII. German with English subtitles. Opens Oct. 22 at Burns Court Cinemas. Call to confirm. (Not Reviewed)

WHAT THE #$*! DO WE KNOW? (NR) An unsatisfying and unintentionally bizarre mish-mash of talking heads, animated sequences and a more-or-less straight narrative about a grumpy photographer (Marlee Matlin) who gets her world view kicked in the ass, What the Bleep... offers up a veritable Dummy's Guide to The Universe. The movie distills the principles of quantum physics into a basic message, endlessly repeated, that we make our reality, hence our own happiness, and frames that message as fuzzy-headed mystical claptrap that begins to seem like a New Age recruitment film or maybe even a classic Kurt Vonnegut parody. The talking heads — a mix of scientists and spiritualists (including famous psychic J Z Knight channeling the 35,000-year-old sage Ramtha) offer up their psychobabbling soundbites and quasi-mystical wisdom as Matlin's character acts out their theories in a series of curious little vignettes that culminate with her transformation from angst-ridden sourpuss to smiling child of the universe. Despite a sprinking of intriguing concepts, the film gives metaphysics a bad name. Also stars Barry Newman and Elaine Hendrix. Opens Oct. 22 at Tampa Theatre. Call to confirm. 1/2


BRIGHT YOUNG THINGS (R) Adapted from Evelyn Waugh's 1930 novel Vile Bodies, this feature-film debut for British writer/actor Stephen Fry follows an ensemble cast of witty, literate partygoers through 1930s London. Stars Stephen Campbell Moore, Emily Mortimer and Peter O'Toole, with cameos by Dan Aykroyd, Stockard Channing and others. Now playing at Sunrise Cinemas. Call to confirm. (Not Reviewed)

CELLULAR (PG-13) A woman's panicky distress call randomly appearing on a man's cell phone jump-starts a feature-length cat-and-mouse chase. Stars Kim Basinger, Chris Evans, William H. Macy, Jason Statham and Noah Emmerich. (Not Reviewed)

CODE 46 (R) Director Michael Winterbottom's future-noir places Tim Robbins and Samantha Morton in an Orwellian world where their love is doomed not only by "genetic incompatibility," but also by law. Held over at Sunrise Cinemas. Call to confirm. (Not Reviewed)

A DIRTY SHAME (NC-17) John Waters' new movie takes his old set-up of normal types vs. perverts (with the pervs getting all the glory), and reformats it as some sort of ode to sexual excess, with a Baltimore filled with adamantly old-fashioned townsfolk terrorized by bands of hyperactive sex fiends. Waters does his best to shock us, but what might have seemed fresh, crude and astonishingly odd in one of the director's films from 30 years ago, seems a bit pointless now. The real problem here, however, is that, despite some choice moments, A Dirty Shame simply isn't all that funny, and that lack of comedy translates into the one thing a John Waters film should never be: boring. Stars Tracey Ullman, Johnny Knoxville, Selma Blair and Chris Isaak.

THE FINAL CUT (PG-13) Robin Williams stars in a vaguely metaphysical-sounding sci-fi drama about a man who edits the memory chips placed in human beings at birth. Also stars Mira Sorvino, Jim Caviezel, Mimi Kuzyk and Thom Bishops. (Not Reviewed)

FIRST DAUGHTER (PG-13) The president's little girl is all grown up and spending her first year away from the first family as a college freshman. Katie Holmes stars in this romantic comedy, with Marc Blucas as the love interest. (Not Reviewed)

THE FORGOTTEN (PG-13) In The Forgotten, the latest Julianne Moore vehicle, the question posed is: "Could there be a function of the brain that causes someone to invent a fictional life for themselves? If so, is this function compelling enough to build a decent movie around? No? Oh hell, we'll just do it anyway." This laughably contrived psychological thriller opens on a distraught Telly Paretta (Moore) agonizing over the loss of her 5-year-old son, Sam. Although Sam's disappearance was surrounded by questionable circumstances and it was never determined whether the kid was dead or simply missing, mom-of-the-year Telly only decides to investigate after she is told that Sam never existed at all. The already shaky plot worsens in execution, with the Sam-napping attributed simultaneously to Telly's faltering sanity, clandestine government agencies, shape-shifting pilots, and what appears to be a giant, human-sucking vacuum cleaner in the sky.

—Casey Clague

FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS (PG-13) Thoughtful and well-acted, Friday Night Lights gets what high school football in small-town America is all about. Odessa, Texas, the small town in question, has a history of state championships and nothing less than perfection will do. These people are serious. Walk down Main Street on game night and you'll find "Gone to Game" signs in all the shop windows. Visit the local Wal-Mart and you might catch the head coach (Billy Bob Thorton) being accosted by alumni boosters making veiled threats about winning or else. This is a film so focused on football, it contains only one scene involving girls and no scenes set in a classroom. Varisty Blues it's not. Instead, Director Peter Berg looks for realism in the relationships of the characters and in the brutality of the sport. Even though the plot spins in some predictable sports movie ways, the results are well above-average for the genre. 1/2

Joe Bardi

GARDEN STATE (R) A flawed but extremely promising debut from writer-director-star Zach Braff that blends darkly surreal comedy with some genuinely and oddly touching moments. Aspiring L.A. actor Andrew Largeman (Braff) returns to his New Jersey hometown for the funeral of his mother, only to find that life in the hinterlands is crazier than ever. The dialogue is clever — sometimes a little too clever, perhaps, in a showy, self-satisfied way — but the film tempers its precociousness with a successful blend of the appealingly sweet and the just plain weird. Also stars Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Ian Holm and Ron Liebman. 1/2

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE (PG-13) Director Mamoru Oshii's much-anticipated sequel to his brilliant and very successful 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell is openly (even proudly) indebted to Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Like Scott's classic film, Ghost in the Shell 2 is a sci-fi noir, a mystery that takes place in a beautifully grimy retro-future where constant rain splatters on darkly glistening allies and where the line between man and machine is so fine as to be non-existent. The plot here is so convoluted it's nearly incomprehensible — something to do with a tough-talking cyborg and his human partner trying to figure out why sex androids are beginning to freak out and kill their human masters — but the blend of 2-D and 3-D animation is stunning, and the film is filled with an abundance of intriguing philosophical concepts that, for the truly adventurous, fairly demand a second or even a third viewing to really be appreciated.

LADDER 49 (PG-13) Well made and horribly depressing, Ladder 49 leaves the viewer with an admiration for the craft that went into the film and a desire to somehow purge it from memory. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a Baltimore firefighter injured and trapped in a burning high-rise. As he drifts in and out of consciousness and the other members of his crew desperately try to find and rescue him (much yelling over saws and fire), the film presents us with an overview of his life. The standard "rookies' first day," firehouse-hazing and love-interest scenes are all present and accounted for, and the structure will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a movie. However, the acting and direction rise well above the material, and therein lies the dilemma. While it is easy to admire Ladder 49 for its technical prowess, it's also tempting to leave the theater in search of a stiff drink — or a noose.

—Joe Bardi

MEAN CREEK (NR) Mean Creek tells of a prank gone wrong, a trip down river with a canoe full of kids plotting revenge on a bully for beating up one of their circle. Everyone reveals a bit more of themselves than expected during the trip — most of all the bully, who turns out to be spoiled, obnoxious and annoying but not nearly the monster everyone was expecting — but, in the tradition of all good noir tragedies, a plan once put into motion is too late to stop. The movie generally avoids heavy-handed moralizing of the After School Special sort, but there's no mistaking it as a morality tale, with the weight of the characters' actions taking on a terrible mass that eventually colors and crushes everything in its path. Writer-director Jacob Estes has cobbled together what is basically a very promising first feature, reassembling some tried and true elements into an interesting new shape. Stars Rory Culkin, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan, Josh Peck and Carly Schroeder. Now playing at Burns Court Cinemas. Call theater to confirm. 1/2

THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (R) A beautifully observed road movie/buddy pic that gains considerable resonance from the fact that one of its central travelers is a young Che Guevara, sowing a few wild oats before becoming the revolutionary poster-boy who went on to famously fight in Cuba and die in Bolivia. The movie follows 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara (Gael Garcia Bernal as a sweetly sincere pre-Che Che), and his slightly older friend Alberto (Rodrigo de la Serna), as they embark on an epic journey across Latin America on a rickety motorbike dubbed "The Mighty One." The early portions of the film are loose and lively and not in a particular hurry to get anywhere fast, unfolding as a vibrantly colored On the Road, with our heroes revealing themselves as less interested in earth-shaking self-discovery than in the simple pleasures of having a good time. The movie becomes more downbeat but no less engrossing as it progresses, with Director Walter Salles (Central Station) tracing with admirable subtlety the young Guevara's changing connection to the world and his budding political consciousness. Also stars Gustavo Bueno, Mia Maestro and Jorge Chiarella.

MR. 3000 (PG-13) A winning baseball comedy from director Charles Stone III (Drumline), Mr. 3000 stars Bernie Mac as retired baseball great Stan Ross, a man who displayed excellence on the field and extreme arrogance everywhere else. Nine years removed from the game and campaigning heavily for induction into the Hall of Fame, Ross is confronted with the reality that three of his 3,000 hits were statistical errors. Seeing that he has built his entire life around his hit total, Ross returns to an attendance-challenged Brewers club that is happy to let the fan-favorite chase his lost record. The film's success hinges on Mac's every move, and he never disappoints. Angela Bassett, Brian J. White, Michael Rispoli, and a (mostly) silent Paul Sorvino round out the excellent ensemble cast. 1/2

—Joe Bardi

RAISE YOUR VOICE (PG) Not much surprising about this saccharine-sweet "girl-triumphs-over-inner-turmoil" blockbuster. Hilary Duff, now one of the genre's repeat offenders, stars as Terri Fletcher, a small-town girl whose livelihood depends on getting into a prestigious summer program at a music conservatory in L.A. Tragedy strikes when her brother is killed in a car accident after the two of them deviously attend a rock concert; racked with guilt, Terri almost can't find the urge to sing. Almost. Of course, she must strive for her brother's sake, even if it means overcoming contrived dialogue; unconvincing, shamefully stereotypical characters; plot seams that feel more like speedbumps; and an utter lack of artistic vision. Undoubtedly, any truly prestigious art school would be expected to produce more than a few songs of substandard MTV-ified drivel — but the musicians in the film just can't deliver. Sometimes a spoonful of saccharine won't help the medicine go down.

—Casey Clague

RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE (R) More of that ol' video game slice-and-dice featuring cartoonish human warriors pitted against swarms of yucky, flesh-eating zombies. Stars Milla Jovovich, Sienna Guillory and Jared Harris. (Not Reviewed)

SHALL WE DANCE? (PG-13) This is the one with manly man's man Richard Gere making goo-goo eyes at sultry Jennifer Lopez, although there's little indication that anyone's heart is remotely in what they're supposed to be doing. Gere plays a successful, middle-aged lawyer, seeking refuge from the drudgery of wife and kids by escaping into the arms of the black-eyed beauty (Lopez) who works at the local dance studio. Since Gere's character ultimately can't bring himself to even make a decent pass at JLo, he settles for taking dance lessons from her, turning all that fancy dancing into some sort of symbol for personal freedom, self-expression or whatever. Shall We Dance? is a movie about passion that feels like it's been systematically drained of passion, typical Hollywood twaddle defanged and de-sexed to the point of self-obliteration. Also stars Susan Sarandon and Stanley Tucci. 1/2

SHARK TALE (PG) Shark Tale takes the familiar fable of the brave little tailor and sets it in an underwater realm, with Will Smith giving voice to a poor little fish who becomes a celebrity when he's mistaken as a fearless shark slayer. There's also a big, scary-looking shark who just wants to cuddle, and a typical array of uplifting messages about the value of family, tolerance and being true to yourself. The computer-generated animation is as dazzling as we've come to expect in these big-budget CGI projects, but the movie's humor and incessant pop culture references seem to consist largely of leftovers from Shrek. Featuring the voices of Jack Black, James Gandolfini, Angelina Jolie, Renee Zellweger and Martin Scorsese. 1/2

SHAUN OF THE DEAD (R) Poor Shaun. He's 29, stuck in a dead-end job, has an obnoxious slob for a roommate, his girlfriend's just dumped him, he's hung-over, and everyone around him is turning into rampaging, flesh-munching zombies. Don't be fooled by the buckets of blood and unrepentant gore in Shaun of the Dead; a wittier, funnier horror spoof you're unlikely to find, at least for the film's first 45 minutes or so. The movie loses some steam in its second half, struggling a bit to sustain the energy and the joke, but the cumulative effect might just be the most monstrously funny and splendiferously gross homage to genre flicks since Peter Jackson's Brain-Dead. Stars Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Kate Ashfield, Dylan Moran and Bill Nighy. 1/2

SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW (PG) A large-scale achievement that manages to simultaneously seem retro and futuristic, Sky Captain features cutting-edge technology in the service of a storyline that harkens back to the days of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. While the actors are flesh-and-blood — or, in the case of Angelina Jolie, fleshy-and-bloody-hot — practically everything around them was created on computers by debuting writer-director Kerry Conran and his team. Conran's script is serviceable enough, with heroic aviator Sky Captain (Jude Law) and spunky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) trying to unravel a mystery whose ingredients include the disappearance of prominent scientists, the destruction of New York City by gigantic robots, and the emergence of a mysterious figure known as Dr. Totenkopf.

—Matt Brunson

TAXI (PG-13) Speed demon cabbie Queen Latifah teams up with bumbling undercover cop Jimmy Fallon in pursuit of sexy female bank robbers in this astonishingly lame remake of Luc Besson's 1999 action comedy. Fallon, who has done some very funny things on Saturday Night Live, seems noticeably uncomfortable in this very badly written role, and barely warrants a single laugh throughout the movie's entire running time. The film lacks the high style and crisp editing associated with a Besson project, the performances are phoned-in, and there's really no story here to speak of, hence very little reason at all to see Taxi. Also stars Jennifer Esposito

TEAM AMERICA:WORLD POLICE (R) South Park bad boys Trey Parker and Matt Stone dish up an all-puppet raunch-fest that more than lives up to its claim of being "the most outrageous movie of the year," complete with copious amounts of puppet gore, puppet sex and virtually non-stop, gleefully foul puppet profanity. Team America also happens to be one of the funniest movies of the year (if you can suspend your more sensitive, politically correct instincts), at least until the energy level begins to flag when some of the jokes start repeating themselves after the first hour or so. Still, the crude, Thunderbirds-style marionette animation (with no attempt to even hide the strings) is a perfect vehicle for Parker and Stone's spoof of big, dumb action movies, the musical numbers are as clever as they are hummable, and the movie has the dubious distinction of featuring what has to be the funniest vomiting scene ever (Monty Python included). 1/2

A TOUCH OF PINK (R) Tired retread of a coming-out tale filtered through a blandly inoffensive romantic comedy stocked with gay and ethnic stereotypes who wear their quirkiness on their sleeves. Alim (Jimi Mistry) is a nice South Asian Muslim boy living in London with his cute English boyfriend. Things go predictably haywire when Alim's mother comes calling with dreams of finding him a proper Muslim girlfriend, prompting an elaborate ruse where pretty much everyone winds up pretending to be something they're not. The script tries hard to charm but mostly succeeds in being cloying or formulaic, with the only real saving grace being an appearance by Kyle MacLachlan as the spirit of Cary Grant. Also stars Kristen Holden-Ried and Suleka Mathew.

WIMBLEDON Kirsten Dunst (Lizzie Bradbury) stars opposite Paul Bettany (Peter Colt) in a mushy, melodramatic romance peppered with clever comedy. Sound familiar? Colt and Bradbury meet at Wimbledon where Colt's luck seems to have run out. By "fooling around" with Bradbury, however, he gets his mojo back and becomes one of the top-seeded players in the tournament. The best thing about Wimbledon is the comedy, which is laugh-out-loud funny. John McEnroe's witty guest appearance as a commentator and James McAvoy in the role of the brother who bets against Colt rejuvenate the otherwise flat-lined plot, but the humor is too infrequent to overcome the overamped action and love scenes.

—Meredith Yeomans

WOMAN THOU ART LOOSED (NR) The production values scream Lifetime Movie of the Week, but that only adds to the non-polished, no-frills power of this heartfelt drama about a young African-American woman fighting an uphill battle with the ongoing effects of child abuse, prison, drugs and assorted other problems. Kimberly Elise (The Manchurian Candidate) delivers a tough and thoroughly believable performance as Michelle, a woman struggling to deal with an all-consuming desire for revenge as she comes to grips with a stepfather who raped her as a child, and a mother who seems deep in denial. There are some stagey and overwritten scenes here, but the project blazes with honesty and the numerous scenes shot at an actual revival meeting provide an interesting and effective framework for the film's narrative and messages. Also stars Clifton Powell and Loretta Devine. 1/2

Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.

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