opening this week

Accepted (PG-13) When a high school burnout (Justin Long) discovers he’s been rejected from every college he’s applied to, he creates a fake university in order to fool his overzealous parents.

The Illusionist (PG-13) In turn-of-the-century Vienna, as magician Eisenheim (Edward Norton) gains a public following, Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell) yearns to debunk his “gift.” Leopold dispatches Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) to unveil Eisenheim as a fraud, though his target has in a mind a grand scheme that is rooted in his personal history and involves Leopold’s intended bride (Jessica Biel).

Little Miss Sunshine (R) Reviewed at left.

Material Girls (PG) Sisters Tanzie (Hilary Duff) and Persia Marchetta (Haylie Duff) are heiresses to their family’s cosmetics fortune. The girls are given a wake-up call when a scandal and ensuing investigation strip them of their wealth.

Snakes on a Plane (R) Have you heard of this film? Neither have we. Wonder what it’s about…

A Scanner Darkly (R) A societal capitulation to a drug culture that cannot be reined in and a simultaneous ramping-up of the war on drugs is part of what catapults A Scanner Darkly just barely into the realm of science fiction; it’s set seven years from now, but it could be tomorrow, anywhere. Can you blame Bob (Keanu Reeves) and his buddies (Robert Downey Jr., Woody Harrelson, and Rory Cochrane) for escaping into the synthetic dreams of mind-altering drugs when all around them is nothing but a dreary world of plastic strip malls under constant and total government surveillance? If you let yourself be taken over by this stubbornly unpindownable movie, you will find it’s not a film for those seeking escape, but for those seeking to examine escape from the outside. —MaryAnn Johanson

critical capsules

The Ant Bully (PG) Thoroughly unnecessary, extremely loud, and occasionally distasteful — the 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

The Descent (R) It’s this season’s overpraised low-budget horror film — you know, the one that’s going to be “the new the 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. —MJ

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. —MM

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

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. —Joshua Tyler

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) Pirates of the Caribbean returns 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

Pulse (R) This remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 Japanese film is a mixed bag that might have been great if co-screenwriter Wes Craven hadn’t bailed as director, handing the reins over to newcomer Jim Sonzero. Craven’s great at horror films with a strong subtext — and this wild tale of the dead taking over the world of the living through the internet has more subtext than you can shake a modem at. While the movie is almost too relentless in its over-the-top determination to be horrific, it’s also a surprisingly pointed critique of the perils of our communication-obsessed society, where the very tools that ought to bring us closer together are actually isolating us. This idea informs the entire film, but the style and direction are so overbearing that they often bury the theme in unentertaining scare scenes. —KH

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

Step Up (PG-13) There’s gotta be something right about a movie when half the audience dances up the theatre aisles when it’s over. Who cares that it’s a predictable, paint-by-number teen fairy tale. The dancing is fun, the soundtrack smokes, and the romantic co-stars are very, very hot. Even better, interracial friendships are solid, hard work pays off, and teenage girls, instead of killing one another over cute boys, are actually smart and sisterly. —MM

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

World Trade Center (PG-13) Oliver Stone’s insidiously godawful, ostensibly apolitical 9/11 exploitation picture requires its audience to retreat into a sort of amnesiac amber. Forget today’s bloody headlines, it urges us, or how neoconservatives repurposed the tragedy of 9/11 as the long-lusted-after excuse to attack a nation that had zippo to do with the atrocity itself. Nominally about the undeniable courage and endurance of two New York Port Authority cops trapped beneath the collapsed towers (the otherwise exemplary Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña), the film’s point of view is informed by equal parts inchoate self-righteousness, relentless Christian imagery, and impotent fist-shaking. Otherwise, World Trade Center accomplishes one amazing thing — it makes 9/11 boring. —Ian Grey

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

Zoom (PG) Badly written, badly directed, badly acted, badly edited, badly scored, and beyond badly overdubbed. On nearly every level, this is one of the worst movies I’ve seen this year. And yet it’s stangely watchable, something I’m hard-pressed to understand. Perhaps its sheer ineptitude generates sympathy — either that, or there’s a weird appeal to playing the “what did they think they were doing?” game. Tim Allen (in an apparently vile mood) stars as a washed-up superhero inveigled into training a new group of superkids. Chevy Chase — looking like he stopped at a mortuary for his makeup on the way to the studio — is on hand for no discernible reason, and Rip Torn gives the worst performance of his career. Almost mesmerizing in its awfulness. —KH

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