SCOOBY-DOO 2: MONSTERS UNLEASHED The 2002 summer hit Scooby-Doo was cheesy, redundant and juvenile, which of course means it was fairly successful at recreating the spirit of the original animated series. While not entirely lacking in charm, Scooby-Doo 2 isn't as sure-footed, even though the same director (Raja Gosnell) and writer (James Gunn) are involved. Instead, the worst elements of the first film -- the characters' tedious soul-searching, their obsession with the media spotlight, all those flatulence gags (I don't recall Casey Kasem ever breaking wind on the TV show) -- have been placed front and center, resulting in an exhausting effort that feels twice as long as its 90-minute running time. In this outing, those meddling kids -- Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.), Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar), Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard) -- and their CGI mutt find their reputation tarnished by a busybody reporter (Alicia Silverstone) even as they're preoccupied with fighting a whole army of misshapen creatures. The big surprise of the first film was Lillard's dead-on Shaggy imitation; here, it's a subplot in which Velma gets a beauty makeover -- trust Hollywood to take the homeliest cartoon character this side of Olive Oyl, cast a real looker in the part, and then play up her hubba-hubba qualities. You also get Peter Boyle making a welcome appearance, American Idol's Ruben Studdard in a negligible cameo, and, funkiest of all, Scooby-Doo in a towering 'fro. "Atomic Dog," anyone?
BARBERSHOP 2: BACK IN BUSINESS This doesn't feel like a sequel to the 2002 hit as much as a continuation, with the entire primary cast returning to protect the establishment from yet another outside threat. In the first film, it was a loan shark who wanted to turn it into a strip joint; here, it's a slick businessman (Harry Lennix) whose ambition to "upgrade" the neighborhood includes opening a chain salon (Nappy Cutz) directly across the street from the venerable family shop owned by Calvin (series star Ice Cube). No better and no worse than its predecessor, this likable, lackadaisical comedy proves more focused than the first film yet lacks much of its comic bite, with even Cedric the Entertainer (as opinionated Eddie) forced to marginally tone down his act. 1/2
DAWN OF THE DEAD George Romero's 1978 Dawn of the Dead has long been hailed by both critics and cultists as one of the few great "splatter" flicks ever made, so expecting anything but harsh words for a rehash would be nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of its creators. But hold on. This new version is that rare bird: a remake that actually succeeds on its own terms. Director Zack Snyder and writer James Gunn clearly knew that simply offering a lumbering retread of the original would be a fatal mistake; instead, it wisely presses forward in its own direction, retaining the mall location but offering different characters, different situations and a different outcome. The result is a crisp horror flick, a fast-paced picture that's exciting, icky and often quite funny.
DIRTY DANCING: HAVANA NIGHTS Just as Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey infused the 1987 hit Dirty Dancing with their vibrant personalities and swift moves, so do Diego Luna and Romola Garai provide some lift to this otherwise forgettable "re-imagining." Set in 1958 Cuba, on the eve of Castro's revolution, the film centers on an American student (Garai) who strikes up a friendship with a local lad (Luna) who shares her passion for dancing. The storyline is trivial in the extreme, and the film never establishes its explosive era in any believable sense -- despite some tacked-on moments of chaos, this might as well be set in 1986 Miami as 1958 Havana. Yet Luna and Garai make an appealing couple, while fans of the original Dirty Dancing will be rewarded with an extended cameo by Swayze as a dance instructor.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND Scripter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) has come up with another mindbender of a movie, an existential drama in which two people (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) meet and are instantly attracted to each other, not realizing that they were once lovers who underwent a scientific procedure to have the entire relationship wiped from their memories. For all its smart-aleck shenanigans and dense plotting, this delightfully different movie is no mere parlor trick. It takes a serious look at the value of remembrance and the dangers of monkeying with the mind (in a world ravished by Alzheimer's, a willful desecration of our memories seems downright insane), and its laughs are tempered by a sorrowfulness that dogs every scene. Eternal Sunshine is ultimately an odd sort of love story, a melancholy rumination that's as much about the head as the heart. 1/2