Short reviews of movies playing throughout the Tampa Bay area.

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)

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. There's even a blind ferret subbing for the little pooch in Mary. 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. Stiller plays the same character he always plays, and is usually much better when reacting to situations than when he's trying to drum up some laughs on his own. Also stars Debra Messing and Hank Azaria.

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (R) Anyone with an affection for Denys Arcand's 1986 The Decline of the American Empire — a Big Chill-ish account of self-possessed baby boomers, Euro-style — will want to check out this film, which is essentially a companion piece to the director's earlier work. Arcand revisits Remy (Remy Girard), the sophisticated sensualist of Decline, now bald, bed-ridden with terminal cancer and watched over by his estranged, uptight son Sebastien (Stephanie Rousseau), who uses his considerable wealth to make his father's final days as comfortable and interesting as possible. Sebastien keeps his father happily stoned and brings together many of Remy's old friends and lovers (virtually the entire cast of Decline), as the movie offers up a stream of stylishly witty observations, eventually taking the form of a bittersweet reverie to lives well lived. The movie's not nearly as profound as it seems to think it is, but as far as elegant odes to love, sex, youth and its passing, God and art, you could do worse. Don't come expecting Proust's Remembrance of Things Past in 99 minutes (as the movie sometimes seems to consider itself), and be prepared for loads of cyclical conversations, and you'll do just fine. Also stars Marie-Josee Croze. 1/2

BARBERSHOP 2: BACK IN BUSINESS (PG-13) Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer star in this sequel to last year's popular comedy about a group of folks frequenting a small barbershop on Chicago's South Side. This time out, the movie's got gentrification on its mind, as the mom and pop stores in the barbershop's neighborhood begin losing ground to an invasion of Starbucks-esque establishments. Also stars Sean Patrick Thomas and Eve. (Not Reviewed)

CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE DRAMA QUEEN (PG) Expect coming-of-age cuteness galore as big city gal Lindsay Lohan (Freaky Friday) is dragged kicking and screaming to suburban hell when her parents relocate to a small town in New Jersey. Also stars Adam Garcia, Alison Pill and Carol Kane. (Not Reviewed)

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. The whole thing is bolstered by a self-consciously ironic soundtrack of heavy metal and jazzy lounge tunes about "the sickness" that seems to think it might actually work as a stand-in for the original movie's wit. It's not. Stars Sarah Polley, Ving Rhames, Jake Weber, Mekhi Phifer and Ty Burrell.

DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS (PG-13) Not so much a sequel as a "re-imagining" of the 1987 hit, told from the perspective of an 18-year-old American girl in Cuba on the eve of the revolution. Diego Luna from Y Tu Mama Tambien plays the Yankee babe's sexy pool boy, who also just happens to be the island's best dirty dancer. Stars Romola Garai. (Not Reviewed)

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

HELLBOY (PG-13) The fine lines between hero and anti-hero are bound to be blurrier than ever in this big screen version of the Dark Horse action-fantasy comic about demons and other supernaturally powered types enlisted to combat threats to humanity. The star is Ron Perlman, at home again under a ton of bizarre makeup, and the director is the unusually reliable Guillermo Del Toro (Blade II, Cronos, The Devil's Backbone). The previews look promising, but the studio opted not to screen the movie in time for our full review. That might be a bad sign, but we're keeping our fingers crossed. Also stars Selma Blair. Opens April 2 at local theaters. (Not Reviewed)

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. Opens April 2 at local theaters.

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. The morbidly curious may feel compelled to see the film just to catch a glimpse of Affleck's ex, J Lo, but you'll have to look sharp: she dies in childbirth, less than 15 minutes into the movie. Also stars Stephen Root.

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 Ladykillers isn't a bad film, but it's nowhere near the Coens' funniest or most distinctive or even most endearing works (those would be Raising Arizona, Barton Fink and Fargo, respectively). 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. Opens April 2 at local theaters.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (PG-13) The grand finale of Peter Jackson's masterful adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's books is a 210-minute, total immersion experience that's apt to leave one feeling both exhilarated and emotionally exhausted. All in all, it's a deeply satisfying conclusion to a series that now seems all but assured of a place in cinema history as the War and Peace of fantasy-adventure movies. 1/2

MADE-UP (NR) Tony Shalhoub's directorial debut adapts Lynne Adams' play about an independent filmmaker (Adams) making a documentary about the beautification of her aging sister (Adams' real-life sister and Shalhoub's real-life wife, Brooke Adams). The film has an engagingly loose, improvised feel, and there are wonderful moments of insight and humor here and there, but Shalhoub's film is ultimately as unfocused as the one that Adams' character is supposed to be making. Made-Up seems to want to be all things to all people — romantic comedy, self-mocking mockumentary, and satire on our culture's obsession with image, aging and beauty in general — but it never sticks with one element long enough to let it sink in. For what it's worth, the movie's preoccupations with female self-imaging will probably make the film more appealing to women than to men, but only marginally. Also stars Gary Sinise, Eva Amurri and an actress with the best name since Ultra Violet — Light Eternity.

MASTER AND COMMANDER: THE FAR SIDE OF THE WORLD (PG-13) Director Peter Weir's latest film is every bit the rousing, testosterone-infused adventure you're probably expecting, but it's also an above-average character study, and a finely drawn portrait of seafaring days in the early 19th-century. Based on Patrick O'Brian's popular novels about Captain Jack Aubrey, Master and Commander follows Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and the crew of HMS Surprise as they travel the seven seas (well, two or three of them), playing cat-and-mouse with a bigger, faster, better-armed French vessel. Also stars Paul Bettany and Billy Boyd. 1/2

MIRACLE (PG) There are no real surprises in Disney's latest inspirational, based-on-fact sports story, but the actors are refreshingly natural, and the production is considerably less glossy and saccharine than what you'd expect. The movie's real strength, however, is Kurt Russell (sporting a Fargo-esque Minnesota accent, the world's worst haircut and an even more atrocious wardrobe) as the tough but fair coach of the United States ice hockey team, circa 1980. Miracle is basically an account of Russell whipping his boys into shape as an apprehensive America — demoralized by long gas lines, hostages in Iran and a candy-ass President — roots for their underdog home-team against the seemingly invincible Soviet players. As if the title weren't enough of a tip-off, the movie's arc and ending are absolutely predictable, but it does have its charms. Also stars Patricia Clarkson and Noah Emmerich.

MONSTER (R) First-time director Patty Jenkin's movie is harrowing stuff, topped by Charlize Theron's astonishing turn as real-life female serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Monster is one long howl of pain, focusing on the relatively brief period when hate-wracked Aileen Wuornos made the leap from bargain basement hooker to insatiable serial killer. The movie manages to paint Wuornos as a victimizer and as a victim, eliciting both our horror and empathy (sometimes in the same breath), and the frame of mind we're put in is anything but a simple one. As for Theron's spine-tingling performance, it will make it difficult to ever look at this actress in the same way again. It's the sort of performance that starts in a very physical place and then extends outward in all directions, devastating everything in its path with its sheer intensity. Also stars Christina Ricci. 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. Before you start thinking that this might be too sedate for your tastes, be aware that it all culminates in a super-intense race-day sequence that is all about speed and volume, and nothing but. Watch out for the tires flying off the wrecked cars and straight into your face. 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)

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. Gibson seems to be striving for an epiphany of excess, hammering us with lurid, loving close-ups of wood and metal piercing flesh, chunks of human gore flying into people's faces, and buckets of blood gushing from each and every open wound. 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, and detractors of the film might even think of it as the most ravishing snuff film ever made. 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 RECKONING (R) An ultimately unsatisfying mish-mash of genres, starring Paul Bettany as a conflicted priest in 14th-century England, who hooks up with a troupe of struggling actors. The troupe's leader (Willem Dafoe) gets the bright idea to put on a play based on an actual local crime, but complications arise, and the characters are drawn into the murder, even as the movie eventually transforms into a detective mystery. The period details of The Reckoning are worth a look, but the film's whodunnit aspects seem a lame attempt at recreating The Name of the Rose, while the production eventually bogs down even further with too many ponderous speeches about everything under the sun. Also stars Brian Cox. 1/2

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. For the grownups, there are some wonderfully tacky '70s fashions to snicker at, a few semi-clever throwaway gags involving dot-coms and the like, and the indelible image of Scooby in an enormous Afro-wig and purple thigh-high go-go boots. There are also no less than two major product placement plugs for Burger King within the movie's first 15 minutes. 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, and even Depp's performance can't save what boils down to a thinly derivative version of Cape Fear meets Psycho. Maybe Robert Mitchum in Turturro's role would have helped. 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-aged 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. It's all appealing enough until a disastrously predictable last act appears, demonstrating nothing less than the fact that the movie has simply run out of ideas. 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. Director D.J. Caruso (The Salton Sea) doesn't seem to realize it takes more than a luscious set of lips to make a good movie. Also stars Ethan Hawke and Keifer Sutherland. 1/2—Whitney Meers/Cooper Cruz

TWISTED (R) Ashley Judd is the only thing remotely worthwhile about this depressingly sub-generic thriller from once-reliable director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry and June). Judd stars as a newly promoted homicide detective investigating a series of murders in which she's the prime suspect. (It seems the gal's given to self-destructive one-night stands, slurping mass quantities of wine, then passing out and waking up with her bed-partner dead.) Then again, this is one of those idiotic movies where everyone acts guilty and where everyone's a potential killer, but none of it matters because nothing makes sense and no characters are developed enough for us to remotely care about them. Samuel L. Jackson's here too, walking through this mess of a movie just long enough to collect a paycheck. Also stars Andy Garcia.

TYCOON (NR) Part Citizen Kane, part Godfather and Scarface, but without much of the cohesive power of any of those, Tycoon tells of the rise and fall of a ruthless industrial giant in post-Communist Russia. The film is based on the real-life oligarch Boris Berezovsky and employs a Kane-like structure to flash back and forth in time as an investigation is mounted to reveal the truth behind the man. As is usually the case, the truth turns out to be a more slippery creature than anyone imagined, but the movie winds up providing some interesting insights into the Soviet rush to capitalism while telling the story of an empire builder brought low by corruption and scandal. The performances are solid and the material intriguing, but it's laid out in an overly convoluted manner that tends to become a bit alienating, while the film's flashback structure ultimately works against the natural momentum of the drama. Stars Vladimir Mashkov, Andei Kasko and Maria Mironova. Opens April 2 at Madstone Theaters. 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 attempting to craft an interesting, cohesive story. The movie has no qualms about spending a few extra minutes here and there dwelling on exotic dancers in wet T-shirts, but doesn't seem to think major plot developments are worth devoting screen time to. 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. Opens April 2 at local theaters

WHAT ALICE FOUND (R) There's undeniable promise but also missteps aplenty in this coming-of-age/road movie that inexplicably nabbed a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Emily Grace stars as 18-year-old Alice, who runs away from her dead-end life up North and hits the open road in search of sunny Florida beaches and whatever. What Alice finds, as the movie has it, is something altogether different, beginning with a kindly older couple who offer the girl a ride and turn out to be anything but what they initially seem. First-time director A. Dean Bell allows the film's relationships to play out in ways that often seem like something intriguing is on the verge of happening, but the movie ultimately just doesn't have too much to say about anything. There's a klutzy, amateurish quality about this shot-on-video project that's endearing at first, but soon overstays its welcome. Also stars Judith Ivey and Bill Raymond.

Reviewed entries by Lance Goldenberg unless otherwise noted.

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