The Butterfly Effect (15)<br></br> Hidalgo (12A)<br></br> The Girl Next Door (15)<br></br> The Twilight Samurai (12A)<br></br> Barbershop 2: Back in Business (12A)<br></br> The Agronomist (PG)<br></br> At Five in the Afternoon (U)

Time-travelling twerps, crocked cowboys and a girlfriend with a past
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Once you untangle the The Butterfly Effect (15), it's really just Back to the Future 2 remade as a melodrama. But untangling it takes quite some effort, both from the audience and from the writer-directors, J Mackye Gruber and Eric Bress. It stars Ashton Kutcher - aka Mr Demi Moore - as a student who has the power to rewind time. By whizzing back to key moments of his traumatic childhood, he can remodel his own history, but whenever he does he finds that the new reality is even worse than the one he was trying to fix.

The concept shouldn't be too hard to establish, but before we get to the adult Kutcher, we have to sit through a prologue that's a full half-hour of black-outs, murders and psychiatric examinations, plus the barbaric slaying of an innocent family pet. And even when we reach the present day, the complications keep coming. As Kutcher zaps into more and yet more alternate realities, he and his loved ones become prisoners, amputees, junkie prostitutes, and/or terminal cancer patients, until the film has steamrollered through every boundary of taste and logic, and ended up at self-parody. Rarely has a film been in such severe need of editing.

Still, its loopy ambition could well make it a cult favourite. Gruber and Bress were obviously trying to create something darker and more challenging than the average Hollywood potboiler, and their script is so barmy it could have been written by Charlie (Adaptation) Kaufman. Sci-fi fans may relish it for what it was aiming at, even if it got lost en route.

You wait ages for one film about a late 19th-century American who is sickened by the cavalry's massacre of the Indians, who winds up as an alcoholic sideshow attraction, and who regains his sense of purpose by travelling to the East - and then two come along, one after the other. All that distinguishes the opening scenes of Hidalgo (12A) from those of The Last Samurai is the leading man. In place of Tom Cruise, Viggo (Aragorn) Mortensen plays Frank Hopkins, a retired despatch rider who is all set to drink his days away in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show until he's invited to compete in The Ocean of Fire, a 3000-mile horse race across the Arabian desert. The film has the makings of an epic adventure, with sand and scimitars and Omar Sharif back in his Lawrence of Arabia robes. Instead, Hidalgo is just a decent way to pass a wet afternoon.

The Americans-are-better-than-Arabs mentality doesn't help, and nor does the presence of a horse that's brainier than Lassie. But the film's highest hurdle is the Frank Hopkins character, encapsulated as he is by his nickname, Cowboy. His spurs jangle, he plays the harmonica by the camp fire, and the word "pardner" accounts for a fifth of his dialogue. No wonder it's his horse that gets the title role. Its rider is two-dimensional, which means he has one dimension more than any of his competitors.

The Girl Next Door (15) is a teen romance that keeps forgetting about the romance. The idea is that a school swot (Emile Hirsch) gets a gorgeous new girlfriend (Elisha Cuthbert, the one who was always being kidnapped on 24) only to discover that she used to star in porn films. But rather than probing the effects this development might have on the budding relationship, the writers get sidetracked: they consign Cuthbert to the background, and they send Hirsch off on an increasingly wearisome and hypocritical plot involving burglary and bank robbery.

Timothy Olyphant's smooth, psychotic porn producer rescues some of these scenes, but by neglecting to give Cuthbert's character any personality whatsoever, The Girl Next Door contradicts itself. She's supposed to be realising that she doesn't need to have sex on camera all her life, but the film never once suggests what else she might want to do.

The Twilight Samurai (12A) cleaned up at last year's Japanese Oscars in true Lord of the Rings fashion, although as award-winning films go, it's got more in common with the Merchant Ivory canon. A genteel period drama of class differences and repressed emotions, it stars Hiroyuki Sanada as a widowed, low-ranking samurai who must risk his life to be worthy of the woman he loves. It seems awfully mild and muted after the limb-lopping mayhem of Kill Bill and Zatoichi, but it's a nice change to see sword fights that rely on the skill of the actors: the cuts take place onscreen, not in the editing suite.

Barbershop 2: Back in Business (12A) is the sequel to 2002's sleeper hit comedy, a chatty ensemble set in a hairdresser's in Chicago's South Side. Just as affable and forgettable as its predecessor, the new film is also slicker, starrier, and more expensive - ironically, considering the anti-gentrification storyline.

Jonathan Demme's new documentary, The Agronomist (PG), is a biography of Jean Dominique, the campaigning journalist who made Radio Haiti a thorn in the side of the country's successive corrupt regimes. It's an impassioned paean to tenacity and courage, although not a very cinematic one. Strange Gardens (15) is like a sentimental episode of 'Allo 'Allo, as two bumbling French resistance fighters learn a lesson in humanity and self-sacrifice from a Nazi soldier. At Five in the Afternoon (U) is the tale of a 20-year-old who dreams of becoming Afghanistan's first female president. It won the Prix du Jury at Cannes last year, but it's arduous going.

n.barber@independent.co.uk

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