AGENT CODY BANKS 2: DESTINATION LONDON (PG) Frankie Muniz (Fox TV's Malcolm in the Middle) reprises his role as the plucky young spy saving the world from whatever. This time the action takes place in London, where Muniz's character is chasing down a rogue agent in possession of a stolen mind-control device. Also stars Hannah Spearritt and Anthony Anderson. (Not Reviewed)
THE ALAMO (PG-13) The new version of Alamo doesn't seem overly interested in glorifying American legends or in debunking them. Instead, it merely plods along from scene to scene, ambivalent toward its characters, and barely glued together in a way that indicates nothing so much as being the product of too many cooks. There are too many characters vying for our attention, and most of them come off so badly or blandly that's it hard to much care about any of them. At first glance, the film even seems a little reactionary, as if the main reason it exists is to chip away at everything about the original movie it's supposedly remaking. Ultimately The Alamo just doesn't seem to have a handle on what sort of movie it wants to be, wavering between traditional period adventure, cynical, revisionist history and meandering, multi-character mini-series. The action scenes aren't very good either. Stars Billy Bob Thornton, Jason Patrick, Dennis Quaid, Emilio Echevarria and Patrick Wilson.
ALONG CAME POLLY (PG-13) As its title more than suggests, what we have here is a romantic comedy that feels like a series of slapped-together outtakes from There's Something About Mary. The relationship at the center of the movie is a by-the-numbers case of opposites attracting (Ben Stiller's uptight insurance analyst falls for Jennifer Aniston's free-spirited eccentric), with semi-funny physical humor and Farrelly Brothers-ish toilet jokes abounding. On the plus side, Aniston makes her underwritten character feel surprisingly real, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Alec Baldwin deliver a few solid chuckles on the sidelines. Also stars Debra Messing and Hank Azaria.
THE AMERICAN ASTRONAUT (R) Madstone's excellent new series Premiere Pics — an ongoing series of film festival favorites never seen before in the Bay area — continues with this delightfully bizarre sci-fi/western/musical/metaphysical murder mystery. The obvious reference point here is David Lynch, but The American Astronaut spins a crazy orbit in other directions as well. The nearly indescribable narrative takes us from a seedy bar on some godforsaken asteroid to an all-male industrial planet, where a 16-year-old boy is taken as a gift to the dainty Southern belles inhabiting the planet Venus. The movie evokes other worlds and the future as simply and effectively as Godard did in Alphaville, and the nut-job surrealism mixes nicely with magnificently proportioned set pieces that resemble mutated versions of rallies from Leni Riefenstahl productions. The movie is built around a series of songs composed and performed by the Billy Nayer Show (whose frontman Cory McAbee directed and stars in American Astronaut), and the band will perform locally this week in conjunction with the film's screening (see Music Menu). Also stars Rocco Sisto and Gregory Russell Cook. Opens April 16 at Madstone Theaters. 1/2
THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS (NR) As if further proof of the continuing importance of Gillo Pontecorvo's 1966 masterpiece were required, it's worth noting that this is the film screened for bigwigs at the Pentagon in the aftermath of the last Gulf War. Employing a documentary-like approach that was nothing less than revolutionary at the time and still looks fresh and convincing, The Battle of Algiers depicts Algerian "freedom fighters" (Terrorists? Militants?) struggling to liberate their Muslim nation from the occupying Western (French) forces. Anyone who misses the parallels to the present situation in Iraq would have to be blind, and the film's ability to draw attention to a multitude of political and moral ambiguities is simply remarkable. In addition to everything else, Pontecorvo's film succeeds beautifully as both full-fleshed drama and thriller. A must-see. Stars Yacef Saadi, Jean Martin and Brahiim Haqqiaq. Opens April 16 at Madstone Theaters. 1/2
CONNIE AND CARLA (PG-13) Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) channels Some Like It Hot and comes up with the story of a pair of dinner theater performers (Vardalos and Toni Collette) on the lam from the mob and forced to disguise their true genders. The, uh, "twist" here is that the performers are women masquerading as men masquerading as women — which is to say, drag queens. Also stars David Duchovny. Opens April 16 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)
CRIMSON GOLD (NR) Uncompromising, emotionally and artistically electrifying, this latest film from Jafar Panahi eschews the children's world of the Iranian director's previous White Balloon for the heartbreakingly adult tragedy of an ordinary man. The film takes a universal tale — that of a lower-class man with no power and no prospects, caught in a relentless downward spiral — and infuses it with a distinctly Iranian perspective. The result is a richly textured, artifice-free slice of life from a world most of us have never seen. If you missed the Tampa International Film Festival's recent screening of this exotic yet minimalist take on lives of quiet desperation, this is your chance. Grab it. Stars Hussein Emadeddin, Kamyar Sheissi and Azita Rayeji.
DAWN OF THE DEAD (R) One might ponder the reasons for remaking George Romero's nearly perfect horror classic, but, hey — the bottom line is that you can never have too many zombie movies. Actually, the word "zombie" is never even uttered in the 2004 version, and the creatures themselves more closely resemble the shrieking sprinters of 28 Days than the lumbering icons from Romero's original. Also missing in action are the original's famous images of the living dead strolling about the shopping mall where our heroes are trapped, or any other swipes at our happily zombified consumer culture. What we get instead is a competent but much more conventional thrill machine, filled with a steady stream of decent scares and even more flying hunks of bloody flesh than you'll see in Mel's Passion. It's an adequate fright flick but not much more, with a final 20 minutes that degenerates into just another extended and overly chaotic chase scene. Stars Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer and Ty Burrell.
ELLA ENCHANTED (PG) A muddled Miramax fantasy that can't decide whether it's a sweet fairy tale for the kiddies or a grown-up social critique, Ella Enchanted attempts to be all things to all people, and fails pretty miserably across the board. The Cinderella-by-way-of-Shrek story takes place in a magical kingdom where Ella (Anne Hathaway of The Princess Diaries) is wooed by a Prince (Cary Elwes), and finds her life complicated by her scheming, evil stepsisters. As far as the grown-up stuff, there's some anything-but-subtle feminist subtext involving Hathaway's character being put under a magical spell that makes her "obedient," some jokes about Pottery Barn, and some half-hearted material about the "repression" of elves, ogres, giants and other species. The attempts at political and cultural relevance are shallow and, worse yet, the comedy is basically lame. Also stars Joanna Lumley, Vivica A. Fox and Eric Idle.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (R) The new movie from screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation) is a wistful tale about the end of a love affair. It's also a wicked black comedy/sci-fi yarn that deconstructs its own narrative through an almost maddeningly complex structure that inevitably mirrors the workings of the human mind itself. Two lovers, Joel (Jim Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslett), end their relationship and, through some strange (but, in accordance with the movie's own wacko logic, totally mundane) procedure, have each other wiped from their memories. It's here that the bulk of Eternal Sunshine unfolds, within Joel's brain during the erasing process, as his memories play out, mutating into ever more wildly exaggerated forms before finally folding in on themselves, then withering and disappearing. Director Michel Gondry pulls out all the stops depicting what goes on inside Joel's brain, assaulting the viewer with a relentless barrage of audacious effects, ultra-rapid edits and all other manner of edgy, convoluted flourishes. Not all of it works, of course, but there are moments of considerable beauty and insight, not to mention a couple of awfully funny bits. Also stars Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkinson and Elijah Wood. 1/2
THE GIRL NEXT DOOR (R) Careful kids, the title of this teen comedy shouldn't be taken at face value (wink, wink). A straight-arrow boy's dream comes true when he and his new, seemingly innocent neighbor fall in love. Then he discovers she's an ex-porn star! Stars Emile Hirsch and Elisha Cuthbert. (Not Reviewed)
HELLBOY (PG-13) As Michael Mann can tell you from his experience directing The Keep, nothing quite beats the combination of Nazis and the supernatural. Hellboy does Mann one better, throwing lots of slimy, Lovecraftian monsters and undying super-assassins into the mix. Based on the Dark Horse action-fantasy comic about crime-fighting demons, Hellboy may remind some of X-Men or Men in Black and others of Ghostbusters with very sharp teeth. Director Guillermo Del Toro (Blade II, Cronos, The Devil's Backbone) brings his own distinctive vision to the project, however, creating a world rich in atmosphere, humor, humanity and an imagination that occasionally borders on the nightmarish (although things also often veer in the other direction, toward unabashed silliness). The nominal star is Ron Perlman, at home again under a ton of bright red makeup that makes him look like a big surly monkey with horns. The real star, though, is Del Toro, who is increasingly beginning to look like one of contemporary cinema's few genuine poets of the fantastic. The movie's rated PG-13 but it's a hard PG-13, by the way, so parents of small kiddies be warned. Also stars Selma Blair, John Hurt, Jeffrey Tambor and Rupert Evans.
HIDALGO (PG-13) Viggo Mortensen is Frank Hopkins, a moral man in the morality challenged America of the 19th century (not unlike Cruise's Last Samurai). Hopkins also loves his horse, Hidalgo, a scrappy mixed breed that all too clearly represents the melting pot ideal of all that's best in America. And so when pesky foreigners start bad-mouthing the horse and challenge its master to participate in a grueling 3,000-mile race across the Arabian desert, Hopkins jumps at the chance. The big race takes up most of Hidalgo's running time, and there's much talk about how impossibly difficult and awful it all is, but we almost never get a sense of that being true. There's a big digital effect of a sandstorm midway through the movie, and Arab bandits skulk about calling Hopkins an infidel, but most of the movie has all the suspense and dramatic gravity of an overly sanitized Disney cartoon. Also stars Omar Sharif, Zuleikha Robinson and Louise Lombard. 1/2
HOME ON THE RANGE (PG) If you've been waiting your whole life for a movie where Roseanne Barr tells us right up front, "I'm a cow" — well, the wait is over. The thing about the Disney animated feature Home on the Range is that Barr really is a cow — or at least she's lending her voice to one — although she's in good company, with Dame Judi Dench supplying another bovine voice. Together with cow No. 3 (Jennifer Tilly as a psycho-babbling new-agey heifer) and an assortment of other plucky barnyard animals, the trio become bovine bounty hunters in order to collect the reward money needed to save their farm. There's some nice retro hand-drawn animation here (just to prove it's not quite dead yet), and some amusing gags involving animals who seem to think they're in spaghetti westerns or kung-fu movies. Other than that, Home on the Range is a pleasant enough diversion but not really memorable in the manner of so many of Disney's very best films. Also features the voices of Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Randy Quaid.
INTERMISSION (R) Violent, visceral, frantic and very funny, this Irish comedy-drama introduces us to a sprawling ensemble of Dublin deadbeats and all-out nasties, and actually manages to make them seem endearing in the process. Director John Crowley weaves a narrative collage that hits all the right notes — romance, crime and comedy — interlocking lives and stories in a way that's frequently hilarious, sometimes poignant, and rarely less than engaging. The cast is excellent as well, including a particularly passionate Colin Farrell, back on home turf, who dives into the material and comes up bloody and smiling. Also stars Shirley Henderson, Colm Meaney, Cillian Murphy and Kelly MacDonald. Opens April 16 at Channelside Cinemas. 1/2
JAPANESE STORY (R) Toni Collette stars as an Australian geologist enlisted to serve as a guide and escort for a Japanese businessman who wants to see the Outback. The brash westerner and reserved Asian form an instant dislike for one another, so we know it's only a matter of time before the golden rule of opposites attracting kicks in — and so it does. Director Sue Brooks is overly reliant on the film's impressive Australian landscape shots to convey a story her dull, underdeveloped script isn't quite up to, but that's almost a moot point. The real reason to see Japanese Story is for Collette, whose amazing performance almost completely overshadows all the culture clash cliches on display here. Also stars Gotaro Tsunashima and Lynette Curran. Opens April 16 at Channelside, Tampa, and Burns Court, Sarasota. Call theaters to confirm.
JERSEY GIRL (PG-13) Lord knows what was going on in Kevin Smith's mind to cause him to make this stinker, but the movie's sheer awfulness almost renders the question moot. Ben Affleck stars as a single dad living at home with his widower dad (George Carlin) and raising an impossibly cute 7-year-old daughter (Raquel Castro). Whether you love or hate Smith's previous films, it's impossible not to see Jersey Girl as the exact opposite of everything he's ever done. Smith's new movie is as sentimental, as by-the-numbers and, frankly, as brain-dead as any conventional romantic comedy you've ever seen, with most the big drama involving Affleck's character getting together with a cute video store clerk (Liv Tyler) or trying to get his former job back. Also stars Stephen Root.
JOHNSON FAMILY VACATION (PG-13) This is an African-American National Lampoon's Vacation, which raises the question: Why would Cedric the Entertainer want to be Chevy Chase when he has the potential to be much funnier, without the premature burnout? The incidents on the road prove too stupid for words, and while Cedric has some good one-liners, you can hear most of them in the trailer. —Steve Warren
THE LADYKILLERS (PG-13) The latest oddball odyssey from those wacky Coen Brothers remakes the beloved British comedy about a gang of crooks and con men using the home of an elderly widow as a base from which to pull off a heist. The movie's edges have been dutifully smoothed out and its characters, while colorful and eccentric, are never memorably odd in the best Coen tradition. Despite the occasional signature touch — a cat with a human finger in its mouth, a running gag involving Irritable Bowel Syndrome, a man giving mouth-to-mouth to a bulldog — the movie feels like another exploration of the mainstream vein recently opened up, to similarly mixed results, in Intolerable Cruelty. Most frustrating of all is the film's finale, a reduction of the original's elaborate last act to what feels like a rushed, 10-minute afterthought. Stars Tom Hanks, Irma P. Hall, Marlon Wayans and J.K. Simmons.
LATTER DAYS (NR) Can a hunky L.A. party boy and a sexually conflicted Mormon missionary find true love and happiness together? You might just discover an answer to that question in this by-the-numbers gay romantic comedy, but you won't find much else. A virtual textbook on formulaic filmmaking, Latter Days is filled with stereotypical characters, contrived coincidences and insipid romantic cliches. The filmmakers would have been well served to remember that a cliche doesn't cease being a cliche merely because of the presence of a gay character or two. Stars Wes Ramsey, Steve Sandvoss and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
MONSIEUR IBRAHIM (R) A sweet, breezy, coming-of-age film with just a dash of exotic flavoring, this French import stars Omar Sharif as a kindly Arab grocer who befriends a lonely Jewish boy (Pierre Boulanger) and plies him with nuggets of quasi-mystical wisdom. It's hard to dislike much about the film, but there isn't much that sticks with you either, outside of the ultra-cool locale of '60s Paris and the undying star power of the 72-year-old Sharif. The film becomes less interesting as its focus gradually shifts from the story of the young boy, eventually transforming into an all-too-conventional buddy flick and then a road movie. Also stars Gilbert Melki. Opens April 16 at Burns Court, Sarasota. 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. It all culminates in a super-intense race-day sequence that is all about speed and volume, and nothing but. 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)
OSAMA (NR) The Osama of the title is not the one you might imagine, but the main character in a Yentl reconfigured as a sort of ethnographic science fiction. Osama takes place in the war-ravaged Afghanistan of the Taliban, where a little girl gets her hair cut short and disguises herself as a boy in order to be able to work and support her starving family. The film paints a blistering, documentary-like portrait of a terrified and terrifying society where any signs of independent thought are routed out and destroyed and women are rendered blind and mute. Our little hero, the girl who becomes a boy in order to be perceived as human, navigates through this culture, showing us a dark place devoid of humor and consumed with little other than the urge to memorize and to hate. The film's moments of warmth are rare but essential. What we see is so extreme it calls to mind the book-burning mentality of Fahrenheit 451 and, in fact, barely feels possible — the absurd ultimate in male stupidity and cruelty, Islamic fundamentalism at its most pure and worst. Stars Marina Golbahari, Arif Herati and Zubaida Sahar. Opens April 16 at Madstone Theaters.
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. 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. 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 PRINCE & ME (PG) A pampered Danish prince (Luke Mably) falls for a no-nonsense pre-med student (Julia Stiles) in this rom-com that derives equally from The Prince and the Pauper and Cinderella. Stiles shows more charm than usual, and her discomfort in the Danish court makes up a bit for the sluggish, prince-out-of-water scenes in America. The film almost challenges the storybook princess fantasy fetishized in recent teen films, but chickens out at the last minute. —Curt Holman
SCOOBY DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED (PG) This sequel to last year's big screen Doo isn't much more than you might expect, but it does beat the original on several counts. The CGI effects are more interesting and better integrated with the live action, beginning with the computer generated title pooch, who doesn't look nearly as grotesque this time around. Even more importantly, Scooby Doo 2 gets the crucial mix of scares to laughs down pat, with an array of monsters that, while spooky, rarely come off as too intense for the movie's core audience of 6- to 8-year-olds. Beyond that, it's business as usual, with Matthew Lillard giving us more of his spot-on Shaggy routine, Freddie Prinze Jr. looking right at home sporting Freddie's ascot, Sara Michelle Gellar busting out some prime Buffy moves, and a thoroughly un-mysterious mystery for the gang to solve. Also stars Seth Green and Peter Boyle.
SECRET WINDOW (PG-13) As with so many recent Johnny Depp projects, it often seems like Depp is pretty much the whole show in Secret Window. The plot itself is nothing special — a distraught writer (Depp) is menaced by an ominous redneck (John Turturro) who accuses him of plagiarism — but the movie is filled with pleasantly eccentric touches that you wouldn't expect with routine thriller material like this. Chief among those pleasant eccentricities is Depp himself, who spends much of the movie in a ratty bathrobe and perennially mussed, fright-wig hair, ranting and mumbling to himself. Likewise, there's a lushly mysterious musical score by Philip Glass that makes us feel that there's more going on here than there really is. Unfortunately with Secret Window, what you see is what you get. The film is based on a very minor short story by Stephen King. Also stars Maria Bello and Timothy Hutton.
SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE (PG-13) Diane Keaton delivers a memorable performance, both touching and very funny, as a middle-age woman who finds herself all shook up in love for the first time in ages. Jack Nicholson is also in fine form as the aging playboy playing romantic head games with our heroine, and Frances McDormand and Amanda Peet work wonders with small roles as Keaton's sister and daughter, respectively. Other than some very engaging performances, however, there's not all that much going on in Something's Gotta Give, a romantic comedy that breezes along on a handful of cute jokes and the sort of star power that transcends a so-so script. Also stars Keanu Reeves.
STARSKY AND HUTCH (PG-13) The jokes are hit-or-miss and the action is routine in this shizoid and scattershot adaptation of the late '70s television series about buddy cops. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson display more of that easygoing chemistry that made Zoolander so enjoyable, but that's about all Starsky and Hutch has going for it. The movie can't decide if it wants to be a spoof, an homage or some sort of quirky but more-or-less serious crime caper, and it's not particular adept at any of those. Even the whole '70s nostalgia thing feels disappointingly bland and joyless here. Also stars Vince Vaughn, Snoop Dogg, Fred Williamson and Jason Bateman.
TAKING LIVES (R) Nothing sets Taking Lives apart from countless other crime thrillers (except Academy Award-winner Angelina Jolie's bare breasts). Jolie plays the foxy, fearless Illeana Scott, a top FBI profiler hired to track down a serial, chameleon-like killer who steals the identities of his victims. The movie takes a twist when Jolie's character finds herself the victim of deception. Certain aspects of the story are confusing and irrelevant, which is sort of a hallmark of this genre, as is the predictable ending and the inhospitable local police team threatened by a talented, methodological agent helping to solve a case. As holes gape in the plot, the movie's appeal fades. Also stars Ethan Hawke and Keifer Sutherland. 1/2—Whitney Meers/Cooper Cruz
THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND (R) Another one of those high-minded but empty-headed examinations of suburban angst that have given the Sundance Film Festival such a bad name. Ryan Gosling stars as a bright but alienated young man who has committed a horrible and apparently motiveless, senseless crime. The film is filled with long, poetic speeches and pregnant pauses, but the insights yielded are puny at best. It's a classic case of much ado about nothing, in a movie that ultimately seems as random and senseless as the act of violence it's supposedly investigating. Also stars Don Cheadle, Jena Malone and Kevin Spacey. Opens April 16 at Channelside Cinemas. 1/2
WALKING TALL (PG-13) With a running time of barely 75 minutes, Walking Tall feels like a movie whittled down to the essentials, and just barely going through the motions. Sadly, those essentials don't include character development or attempts to craft an interesting, cohesive story. This is all you need to know: Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stars as a tough, ex-soldier who finds that his nice little hometown has turned into a den of iniquity and vows to single-handedly clean it up. The action scenes are energetic and bloody, and Johnny Knoxville provides some pleasant comic relief as the hero's sidekick, but this wisp of a movie is mostly just a reason for audiences to squeal at The Rock's pecs and scream "Kill him!" when his character corners the bad guys. Also stars Neal McDonaugh and Ashley Scott. Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.