Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area

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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.

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