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.