opening this week

A Scanner Darkly (R) Reviewed at left.

Pulse (R) When their computer hacker friend accidentally channels a mysterious wireless signal, a group of co-eds rally to stop a terrifying evil from taking over the world.

Step Up (PG-13) A brush with the law earns Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) a community service sentence at Baltimore’s elite Maryland School of the Arts. As an outsider, he’s resistant to assert himself in any way, until a promising ballet dancer nurtures his unexplored talent.

World Trade Center (PG-13) Reviewed on page 40.

Zoom (PG) When a social outcast is ushered away by her mysterious father (Tim Allen) to a new school, she learns that her dad is secretly a superhero named Captain Zoom, and she’s been brought to the academy where she, along with other kids, can develop her special talents.

critical capsules

The Ant Bully (PG) Thoroughly unnecessary, extremely loud, and occasionally distasteful — that latest animated product of the summer, this one from Warner Bros. For those who care, it’s the story of Lucas Nickle (Zach Tyler), a lonely boy who is forever tormented by the neighborhood bully simply because the bully is bigger than he is. It follows that Lucas decides to torment ants on the same principle. However, one ant, Zoc (Nicolas Cage), who fancies himself a magician, has made a potion, which he pours into the sleeping boy’s ear (shades of Hamlet?). The potion shrinks Lucas to ant size and he’s forced to work in the colony to learn the value of teamwork and that it’s wrong to pick on those smaller than yourself, yada, yada, yada. Pretty thin stuff for anyone over 10. —Ken Hanke

Barnyard (PG) This anatomically incorrect tale of wild party animals in the barnyard may be the best animated CGI flick of the year. It stands out from the herd with clever action, witty dialogue, a fantastic string of musical numbers, and some good old-fashioned messages about heroism and taking care of others. Cover the eyes of sensitive kids during the scary coyote sequences. Otherwise, it’s great fun and little ones will love it. —Marcianne Miller

Cars (G) Though the big-eyed, childish looking characters of Cars might lead you to think otherwise, what the film really is, is a love letter to the heyday of the American road and the faded mystique of Route 66. What could have been Pixar’s most simplistic, pre-teen limited film turns out to be one of their biggest and most mature, as it tackles larger themes that’ll probably fly right over the heads of kids. It’s the characters that really sell Cars, but even so, there are moments in this film where you’ll forget you’re looking at a cartoon. It’s a stunning piece of work, a visual masterpiece, the kind of movie that would be a must-see even if the story weren’t any good. —Joshua Tyler

Clerks II (R) Writer-director Kevin Smith comes back to the mythos of his Jay and Silent Bob movies following the box-office disaster of Smith’s attempt at a “straight” film, Jersey Girl, and not a moment too soon. The resulting film is pretty darn good, utterly and honestly raunchy, a comedy with a heart like Minnie the Moocher’s -— as big as a whale. The film centers on the fates of convenience store workers Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson), who find themselves working at a Mooby’s fast food joint when the Quick Stop burns down. Not surprisingly, Jay (Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith) have taken their parking lot weed business up the street to Mooby’s as well. The level of humor is decidedly R-rated (a central gag is built around a donkey act), meaning the film is not for everyone, but fans of Smith’s lovable slackers will have no cause for complaint. —KH

The Descent (R) It’s this season’s overpraised low-budget horror film — you know, the one that’s going to be “the new face of horror” and will redefine the genre. They’ve come along like clockwork for the past 20 years, and horror’s new face always looks about the same as the old one. In this case, the genre seems to be redefined by what’s essentially a more sober version of last year’s The Cave — trapped spelunkers encounter nasty creatures with lunch on their minds — with an all-female cast. Better monsters and upping the gore quotient only go so far. An OK opening followed by a tedious middle section is somewhat redeemed by a really gory final act that manages to quote half the horror movies of the past three decades. —KH

The Devil Wears Prada (PG-13) The deliciously mean yet not totally heartless Prada makes an excellent show of demonstrating how even a cute preppie like Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) might get seduced into the shallow, selfish world of the stuck-up, anorexic fashionistas who work at a New York glamour magazine. And the predictable spiral Andy descends over the course of the film, selling herself out and alienating her charming boyfriend is, for all its inevitability, beautifully played and more than a tad touching. But the most wickedly entertaining thing about this flick is Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly, the legendary queen bitch editor in chief of Runway and obvious stand-in for legendary queen bitch Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue magazine: pure seduction and pure evil all wrapped up in a fabulous wardrobe. —MaryAnn Johanson

John Tucker Must Die (PG-13) The captain of the basketball team (Desperate Housewives‘ Jesse Metcalfe) is — surprise, surprise — an unfaithful cad. Using the new, ultra-innocent girl in school (Brittany Snow from Nip/Tuck) as their foil, three of his ex-girlfriends (Ashanti, Sophia Bush, Arielle Kebbel) hatch a clever plot to wreak revenge on him. She learns tried and true girlie techniques such as manipulation, sexual teasing, lies, and the power of red lace underwear. He learns his lesson. Girls become fast friends. No adults anywhere. Brainless but surprisingly enjoyable teen fluff. —Marcianne Miller

Lady in the Water (PG-13) Is it too much of a spoiler if I reveal that, refreshingly, M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water does not have anything like a twist at its ending, and that, even if it did, there would still have been stuff to enjoy on the journey to that ending? Not that there aren’t little twists along the way — though they are, alas, pretty foreseeable if you’re even a halfway serious moviegoer who’s familiar with the conventions of storytelling. That’s not so bad, because the peculiar and oddly cerebral beauty of Lady is that it is about the concepts and conventions of storytelling, forever spiraling self-referentially in on itself. Still, it’s easier to appreciate this film than it is to embrace it emotionally. I won’t presume to guess what Shyamalan was thinking, but I suspect he’s more concerned with telling an Important story than he is with merely telling a story. —MJ

Little Man (PG-13) Little Man isn’t the worst movie of the summer. That’s too generous. It may in fact be the worst movie ever made, though I’m hesitant to afford it that title because it’s the kind of accolade that glorifies this crap-filled atrocity. A rip-off of a seven-minute Bugs Bunny cartoon, the Wayans’ version casts Marlon Wayans as a midget gangster who passes himself off as a baby in order retrieve a stolen jewel he hid in a suburban woman’s (Kerry Washington) handbag. I suppose the reason no one thought of this genius-level concept before was that special effects had not yet attained the requisite level to pull it off. Even so, the effects are painfully bad. If moviemaking were a limbo contest, the Wayans brothers would be the hands-down winners. No one has ever gone lower. —KH

Miami Vice (R) There are no neon landscapes, girls prancing around in thong bikinis, sandy beaches, or South Beach in this Miami Vice, which is a dramatic upgrade from its glitzy, cheesy 1980s television show inspiration. Those expecting two hours of gunfights and car chases should know that this is a character-driven crime drama, not an action movie. What writer/director Michael Mann does give us is a film that strips the city of its glossy, superficial sheen and leaves a hot and stormy venue of espionage and intrigue, in which detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) find themselves immersed after going undercover to infiltrate an international drug cartel. A few speed boat sequences (not chases), explosions, and an electrifying shootout do keep the tempo high, but this movie is really about drugs, betrayals, passion, and making sense of a corrupt world that ostensibly deserves no forgiveness. —Dan Hudak

Monster House (PG) It’s 30 minutes in before Monster House wakes up and realizes it’s an animated film. That’s when the house first starts Hulking out, and it’s the first time the film does anything that couldn’t have been rather easily accomplished by a live-action movie with a capable preteen kid cast. There’s an instantly classic family movie buried just below the surface of this film. Unfortunately, this great script has been brought to the screen using trendy computer animation instead of more appropriate big-budget effects mixed with realism. This story is too good to be killed by animating. But while Monster House may not be the classic it could have been, as a family film it’s still pretty damn good. —JT

My Super Ex-Girlfriend (PG-13) An effort to turn stalking into rom-com fun. My Super Ex-Girlfriend is a flat-footed affair from director Ivan Reitman, who’s still trying to find another Ghostbusters. The movie attempts to milk laughs out of the singularly unfunny premise of watching poor shnook Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) being terrorized by psycho stalker ex-girlfriend Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman), who also happens to be a superhero known as G-Girl. Think Fatal Attraction played for laughs. One big problem is that Thurman’s character is written and played far too straight. She’s more creepy than funny. Wilson, meanwhile, is such a bland actor that it’s like watching a battle of wits between Gore Vidal and Larry the Cable guy. There’s not only no contest, it just seems cruel. —KH

The Night Listener (R) Flawed though it is, Patrick Stettner’s film version of Armistad Maupin’s The Night Listener is the most interesting film to open this week. Maupin friend Robin Williams (in subdued mode here) stars as radio personality Gabriel Noone (it’s no accident that name divides into “no one”) whose life comes apart when his longtime boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale) leaves him to explore life. This changes when his editor (Joe Morton) brings him a manuscript called by 14 year old named Pete Logand (Rory Culkin) — a work detailing his parents’ sexual abuse of him. A long-distance friendship springs up until Noone becomes suspicious that the boy doesn’t exist and that the whole thing is a fabrication of the woman (Toni Collette) claiming to be his guardian. As a mystery, the film cheats and is often illogical, but as an examination of loneliness it’s a deeply disturbing work that stays with you. —KH

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (PG-13) Disney’s pirates return to theaters for more summer swashbuckling, only they may have forgotten to buckle their swash. The sequel — the first of two — pits Johnny Depp’s incomparable Captain Jack Sparrow against the owner of that chest, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy). The film feels forced, as director Gore Verbinski struggles mightily to up the ante for his sequel, only to miss out on a lot of what made the original so fun in the first place. Where the last movie had piracy, fencing, gun battles, and drunken singing, Dead Man’s Chest has CGI beasties and lots of screaming. Though the movie falls a little too in love with its big effects budget, at least the effects are rather good. Despite its flaws, a lot of people are probably going to quite enjoy Dead Man’s Chest, and for those who don’t, the good news is that Disney still has one more movie to get it right. —JT

Scoop (PG-13) Woody Allen’s latest marks a return to typical — and top — form for the director-star, after a detour with 2005’s uncharacteristicly jet-black thriller Match Point. Allen plays a cheesy London stage magician, Splendini, who gets suckered into helping an American journalism student (Scarlett Johansson) get the goods on a possible serial killer (Hugh Jackman) — all based on a tip she gets from the ghost of a legendary reporter (Ian McShane). Slight and silly, but very funny. For those who pass up this little gem of a movie based on the naysayers, you’re cheating yourself out of one of the few adult pleasures of the summer. It might also be well to remember that Stardust Memories was greeted with hostility when it first appeared 26 years ago. —KH

Strangers With Candy (R) As films about high-schoolers go, Strangers with Candy is so far off the adolescent scale that it exists in its own demented parallel universe. No, scratch that: There’s demented, and then there’s the plain sick and twisted tastlessness and hilarious audacity of this afterschool special gone horribly, wonderfully wrong. Amy Sedaris’s 32-year-old ex-con Jerri Blank navigates a weird realm somewhere near the intersection of pathetic, poignant, and parolee, and her reeking desperation to be “normal” — and to let the world define for her what “normal” is — is as outrageous as it is more than a little sad. It’s all the awful nightmare of high school, shrink-wrapped and served back to us piping hot with snark and dripping with a secret sauce of extreme warpedness. —MJ

Superman Returns (IMAX 3D) (PG-13) In director Bryan Singer’s remake, the Man of Steel does indeed return, and he’s flying in with a tidal wave of promotional tie-ins. Singer directs a cast full of boring heroes — Kate Bosworth does a dismal impression of a journalist as Lois Lane, and Brandon Routh, the relative unknown squeezed into Superman’s tights, has all the expressiveness of a mannequin — and winning villains. Kevin Spacey crafts a far more malevolent Lex Luthor than Gene Hackman’s goofy genius, and Parker Posey vamps deliciously as his idiotic sidekick Kitty Kowalski. The CGI is well-done and highly believable, and the 3D parts of the IMAX version, including a segment about Superman’s adolescent discovery of his powers of flight, are stunning. It’s a fun bit of mindless entertainment, but it doesn’t hold a speeding bullet to either of Singer’s X-Men efforts. —Sara Miller

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (PG-13) It’s impossible to watch Talladega Nights without thinking of 2004’s Anchorman, because they’re essentially the same film. Both were directed and written by Adam McKay, with scripting help from star Will Ferrell. Talladega Nights may have cars instead of news reporting, but it uses the same scattershot approach to comedy: a random collection of semi-improvised sketches tied together by a loose plot. The only real difference between the two movies is that in Talladega the plot is even thinner, and Ferrell’s stock car racer Ricky Bobby doesn’t have a comedic punchline like Steve Carell. Ferrell is back in rare form, doing the things that made him a box office mega-star in the first place, and John C. Reilly is money as his best friend Cal. The cast’s comedic improvisation carries the film, but the script could have used a good detailing. —JT

You, Me and Dupree (PG-13) Owen Wilson’s Randy Dupree has a talent for turning loafing and mooching into something Zen. But only in the movies is that kind of thing adorable and charming. In reality, you’d kick him out of your life if you didn’t actually kill him first, especially if he pulled any of the truly thoughtless and inconsiderate crap Dupree dumps on Carl (Matt Dillon) and his new wife, Molly (Kate Hudson), when he crashes at their lovely new home. What first-time screenwriter Mike LeSieur and directors Anthony and Joe Russo have made is Click for grownups: no fart jokes, no potty-mouthed kids wiseassing their elders, no fat suits, no pratfalls, just great humor in a story that’s warm and natural and organic. —MJ

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