Spanish director Pedro Almodovar lives, breathes, and sleeps movies. He’s so movie-mad that he makes Martin Scorsese seem like a cinema piker. Almodovar believes that you can take anything that happens in life (both good and bad) and turn it into film art. His latest colorful canvas is Bad Education, and it’s an astonishing work that expertly blends sexual politics, the Catholic Church, film noir, and the power of movies in a young man’s life in a way that you might not think possible. Almodovar’s textured treat moves back and forth in time through a range of about 20 years and has characters hidden behind “masks” of truth and lies, reality and unreality. Complex, but fully accessible, the movie touches on Franco’s repressive political reign, abuse of young boys by a Catholic priest, a drag queen’s true identity, a mystery involving a successful filmmaker, an eager young man with a screenplay and a dream, and, for good measure, blackmail, family pride, fantasy, honor among thieves, and betrayal. There’s a touch of Hitchcock, a little bit of Audrey Hepburn, and a dash of Double Indemnity.

To tell you anymore about Bad Education would spoil the fun. Gael Garcia Bernal is the star of the movie and here’s an actor who has no qualms about nudity and man-on-man love. Almodovar understands how obsession over an utterly beautiful women can turn men’s heads. This is one of the best movies you’ll ever see because it comes from a director’s heart and mind with determination and style.

Another feature from Spain is also on tap. It’s The Sea Inside and at first hearing you might feel like running for the hills. It’s yet another movie about a quadriplegic fighting for the right to die. Here’s an order: don’t run, unless it’s to the theater showing the film. Directed by Alejandro Amenabar, The Sea Inside is the true story of Ramon Sampedro (brilliantly acted by Javier Bardem). Sampedro was a Spanish sailor who ruptured his spine in a diving accident at age 26 and spent the next thirty years being cared for on his family’s farm and fighting for the right to end his life if he wanted to. On its surface this might seem utterly predictable and you’re probably thinking you can write your own script. Maybe you can, but it wouldn’t be like the one on which the movie’s based. This is not a preachy picture. It’s actually quite poetic, especially when director Amenabar thrills the audience with touches of magical realism. Can a man fly like a bird? With magical realism he can.

The film creates a wonderful mood that envelopes the theater. Of course, we see the lawyer fighting for Sampedro’s rights, but it’s Sampedro’s life and Bardem’s eyes that pull the story to its conclusion. It’s a truism that good acting is all in the eyes. Bardem’s acting is light years beyond good.

More truth arrives in The Assassination Of Richard Nixon, which is drawn from the real-life incident of a downtrodden loser of a man who wanted to hijack a jetliner and crash it into the White House to kill President Richard M. Nixon. This, of course, opens up THAT can-of-worms…you know, the idea that everybody in President George W. Bush’s White House was shocked, shocked to discover that hijackers would crash jetliners into buildings. Anyway, Sean Penn plays the mope, a fellow named Samuel Bicke, and as always, Penn is terrific. As with The Day Of The Jackal, the superb movie about a plot to kill French President Charles DeGaulle, the audience knows the ending going in. DeGaulle wasn’t assassinated, and nobody killed Richard Nixon. The reason both movies work so well is in the storytelling. Director Niels Mueller, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kevin Kennedy, keeps the film’s focus on Bicke’s obsession. And with Penn at it, you’re along for a manic and meaningful ride.

It’s usually summer action movies that are compared to thrill rides, but – hey, it’s February – Constantine is a thrill ride for the winter doldrums. Keanu Reeves stars as a guy who tried and failed to commit suicide as a kid. Therefore, he’s doomed to being menaced by mental demons. He’s also an exorcist and just to make sure his life doesn’t have any down time, he’s a smoker who has lung cancer. Rock video director Francis Lawrence turns Constantine in a wild circus of devilish insanity. The movie is absolutely never believable, not for one second, but there are special effects that fascinate and subplots that keep everything grinding to what I considered a less than satisfactory ending. Anybody smell sequel? As usual, Reeves is laconic or stoic or whatever word you want to use. He meets up with a woman detective (Rachel Weisz) whose twin sister has killed herself, or maybe she’s been killed, or maybe she just wanted to get away from a Los Angeles swirling with demons of every stripe. Rock and roller Gavin Rossdale is the best-looking Satan ever. He’s as suave and handsome as James Bond but with a mean streak a mile long. Constantine is a hallucinogenic adventure, but on occasion it plays the same old song. Reeves is in Matrix mode and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Our next movie is Bride And Prejudice, and it’s Hollywood meets Bollywood in a breezy take on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride And Prejudice. The film is directed by Gurinder Chadha – she made Bend It Like Beckham. Her latest takes place in Amristar, India, but eventually soars all over the globe. The plot is simple: An Indian father and his ambitious wife are eager to marry off their four daughters. The first choice is some dolt of a guy who you immediately know, if you go to the movies enough, doesn’t stand a chance of walking down any aisle except in a supermarket. The eldest daughter (Lalita) is played by former Miss World Aishwarya Rai, and she is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful women on the planet. As the movie progresses, she is smitten with a dashing lad (Darcy, played by Martin Henderson), the son of a hotel-magnate woman played by Marsha Mason. Mother is a snob and isn’t pleased with sonny boy’s choice. And there you have it, classic movie romance fodder. Bride And Prejudice has silly jokes and boundless cliches and enough musical production numbers to satisfy even the most ardent of Bollywood fans. It seems that in India, if the plot starts to falter, toss in a song and dance. The movie is colorful and endearing, but hardly long-lasting. It’s a sweetly superficial trifle that works its magic for a couple of hours. Whether it does a disservice to Jane Austen is up to you to decide.

Hitch and The Wedding Date are two romantic comedies that depend on audience identification with the stars to succeed. If you like Will Smith (Hitch) or Debra Messing (The Wedding Date) then you might have fun at either or both of these movies. Now, I like both of these performers, but my fun quotient was low. In Hitch, Smith plays a self-help sophisticate who helps schlubby guys find dates. That he has his own trouble in the love department is an obvious cliche. In The Wedding Date, Messing pays $6000 to an escort (Dermot Mulroney) so she doesn’t have to go to her sister’s wedding dateless because her ex-fiance is the groom’s best man. She wants to show that she can survive a bitter break-up. Here’s the key question: if you’re paying $6000 for Dermot Mulroney (who’s a decent looking guy), you’ve got bigger problems. I can’t believe the movie’s production team couldn’t find a sexier, more handsome, more engaging actor for the role. I mean it’s $6000. Both movies lack the most important thing a romantic comedy needs: chemistry between the stars. Messing and Mulroney are spark-less or sparkle-less, whichever you want to choose. Smith spends most of his time with Kevin James, who is a chubby guy with no finesse – the character, that is. Anyway, this dynamic duo are together on-screen too often. That isn’t chemistry, it’s anthropology. By Michael Calleri ALT Movie Editor

Have you ever noticed how many holidays and near-holidays there are in February? February teases with frigid days and warming thaws, but it’s jammed with fun days. There’s Lincoln’s Birthday and Valentine’s Day and Washington’s Birthday and Groundhog Day and President’s Day and Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras, and of course, my birthday. And in addition to all that, the Motion Picture Academy (the folks who bring you the Oscars) has added to February’s luster. The last Sunday of the month will heretofore be when the Academy honors movies from the previous year. Look for The Aviator to battle Million Dollar Baby all night long.

Meanwhile, if you’re caught up on all the Oscar contenders, there’s a slew of new offerings for your movie-going pleasure, or, as the case maybe, displeasure.