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Accepted

But while Pink gets the requisite comic vibe down cool, the disappointment with "Accepted" is that, after a very funny start, there just isn't enough content to fill the feature-length curriculum.

Granted, the same could have been said about "Old School," but without the gonzo presence of a Will Ferrell, this under-achieving Universal release will probably have to settle for strictly average boxoffice grades.

Justin Long, whose star has been on the rise thanks to his TV appearances as the Mac guy in those Apple commercials, definitely has a laid-back, smart-aleck Cusack thing going on as Bartleby Gaines, a graduating high school senior who has been systematically rejected by all eight universities to which he applied.

Afraid to share that news with his judgmental parents, Bartleby cooks up a little scheme that guarantees his admission to the ninth.

With the help of his best buddy, the neurotic Schrader (certified scene-stealer Jonah Hill), along with fellow college rejects, Bartleby simply invents a college of his own, set-dressing the site of an abandoned psychiatric facility sufficiently so as to distract his folks from the South Harmon Institute of Technology's acronymic subtext.

Alas, the ploy proves a little too convincing when applicants by the hundreds begin showing up with tuition in hand, much to the irritation of Dean Van Horne (Anthony Heald) of the neighboring, snooty Harmon University.

Assorted plot impossibilities aside, it's certainly a workable setup, and Pink, working from a script credited to Adam Cooper & Bill Collage ("New York Minute") and Mark Perez ("Herbie: Fully Loaded"), gets things off to a neatly subversive start.

But once Bartleby and company decide to play things for keeps, turning S.H.I.T. into a fully functioning free-for-all, the picture's comic energy begins to wane and never quite gets back up to speed before some heavy third-act speechifying kicks in.

While Long's savvy slacker provides a sturdy backbone, it's Hill who makes off with the best lines, giving them a loopy verbal spin all his own. Also amusing is "The Daily Show's" Lewis Black as Long's outspoken, socially impaired Uncle Ben, who has been initially recruited to pose as South Harmon's dean but ends up staying to become its most popular lecturer.

Production values are lively enough thanks to cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti's bright exteriors and production designer Rusty Smith's offbeat campus touches, while David Schommer's spirited score helps set the gently absurdist tone.

Director: Steve Pink
Screenwriters: Adam Cooper & Bill Collage and Mark Perez
Story: Mark Perez
Producers: Tom Shadyac, Michael Bostick
Executive producers: Louis G. Friedman, Mark Perez, Brian Lutz
Director of photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
Production designer: Rusty Smith
Editor: Scott Hill
Costume designer: Genevieve Tyrrell
Music: David Schommer
Cast:
 Bartleby Gaines: Justin Long
 Sherman Schrader: Jonah Hill
 Monica: Blake Lively
 Rory: Maria Thayer
 Dean Van Horne: Anthony Heald
 Glen: Adam Herschman
 Hands: Columbus Short
 Uncle Ben: Lewis Black

Pulse

This despite the starring presence of Kristen Bell, arguably the television successor to Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy the Vampire Slayer when it comes to fighting bad guys. Unfortunately, the talented young actress has far less interesting material to work with here than she does as "Veronica Mars."

This remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's 2001 Japanese original ("Kairo") is fairly faithful in terms of its plot, which revolves around a group of teens traumatized by the suicide of one of their friends. It isn't long before he starts communicating with them from beyond the grave via their computers, as part of an increasingly malevolent virus that somehow manages to unleash ghosts from their spectral confines. The various characters, despite their efforts to protect themselves with such means as red masking tape, soon find themselves succumbing to a plague that produces black, ink-like stains all over their body before they finally disintegrate.

Predictably, director Jim Sonzero adopts a far more visceral style than the original, with loud noises and flashy visual effects taking over for Kurosawa's subtle creepiness. It is, as might also be expected, much faster paced, coming in at a brief, albeit seemingly interminable, 87 minutes.

The film has a distinctive if ultimately wearisome visual look, utilizing grainy images in a largely blue/gray color palette. The youthful cast, which also includes Ian Somerholder ("Lost") and music star Christina Milian, go through their paces with the requisite seriousness, and Ron Rifkin lends his usual gravitas as a helpful shrink. But by far the most entertaining performance comes from Brad Dourif, in a brief cameo as a doom-spouting crackpot.

Director: Jim Sonzero
Screenwriters: Wes Craven, Ray Wright
Producers: Anant Singh, Brian Cox, Michael Leahy, Joel Soisson
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein
Cinematographer: Mark Plummer
Editors: Bob Mori, Robert K. Lambert, Kirk Morri
Production designer: Gary Matteson
Music: Elia Cmiral
Cast:
Mattie: Kristin Bell
Dexter: Ian Somerhalder
Isabell: Christina Milian
Stone: Rick Gonzalez
Tim: Samm Levine
Dr. Waterson: Ron Rifkin

Step Up

The formulaic plot centers on the cultural and romantic fireworks that occur between rough-hewn Tyler (Channing Tatum), a street-savvy kid from the rough side of Baltimore, and Nora (Jenna Dewan), a refined, upper-class young woman studying dance at a tony school of the arts.

The pair comes into contact when Tyler, whose street credentials are established in an opening scene in which he is the only white kid at a black party, breaks into the school with his best friends Mac (Damaine Radcliff) and Mac's younger brother, Skinny (De'Shawn Washington), to commit petty vandalism. Naturally, Tyler is sentenced to perform 200 hours of community service at the school.

Going about his janitorial duties with a surly efficiency under the watchful eye of the stern school director (Rachel Griffiths), he finds himself besotted with the gorgeous Nora, whose boyfriend/dance partner has injured himself just as she was preparing her senior showcase. In steps the naturally talented Tyler, who promptly sexes up her modern dance routines with his hip-hop-fueled energy.

The couple finds themselves increasingly attracted to each other, even while their burgeoning relationship becomes threatened by their class differences. The suspense mounts, or not, as the big showcase looms closer.

Duane Adler and Melissa Rosenberg's screenplay doesn't miss a beat in its approximation of familiar elements, including the melodramatic fate of one of the principal characters. Predictable in every respect, the story line mainly serves as an excuse for a series of exuberant dance routines, thankfully choreographed by Fletcher to show off the dancers' entire forms rather than just flashing body parts.

Tatum, channeling Eminem in "8 Mile," is a reasonably charismatic and highly physical young lead, though his underplaying proves monotonous at times. He's well matched by the beautiful Dewan, who reveals her extensive music video experience with her skillful dancing. R&B star Mario and Drew Sidora are appealing as fellow students, and Heavy D lends the proceedings some gravitas in a brief supporting role. Griffiths, so wonderful in "Six Feet Under," is wasted here as the school head, providing further evidence of the disparity in the quality of roles for talented actresses between television and studio features.

Tech credits are fine, and if the film's gritty look seems familiar, it's because director of photography Michael Seresin also lensed the standard bearer of the genre, "Fame." The hip-hop-heavy musical score consists of cuts from the likes of Yung Joc, Ciara, Chris Brown, Youngloodz and Sean Paul, among others.

Director: Anne Fletcher
Screenwriters: Duane Adler, Melissa Rosenberg
Story: Duane Adler
Producers: Patrick Wachsberger, Erik Feig, Adam Shankman, Jennifer Gibgot
Executive Producers: Bob Hayward, David Garrett, John H. Starke
Director of Photography: Michael Seresin
Production designer: Shepherd Frankel
Editor: Nancy Richardson
Costume designer: Alix Hester
Music: Aaron Zigman
Cast:
 Tyler Gage: Channing Tatum
 Nora Clark: Jenna Dewan
 Mac Carter: Damaine Radcliff
 Skinny Carter: De'Shawn Washington
 Miles Darby: Mario
 Lucy Avila: Drew Sidora
 Director Gordon: Rachel Griffiths
 Omar: Heavy D

Barnyard

Unlike the Oscar-nominated "Jimmy Neutron," though, "Barnyard" (which Oedekerk wrote, directed and produced with Paul Marshal) faces a rash of animation competition this year and, quality-wise, it's not at the top of the haystack. While youngsters might enjoy the movie, more discerning tweens, teens and adults will not be as easily amused, and boxoffice prospects look modest, albeit followed by a long DVD shelf life.

The story is simple enough: When the farmer turns in for the night, the animals go wild. They walk on their hind legs, talk and party (the barn becomes a rockin' nightclub). Otis the Cow (voiced by Kevin James) is in a stalled adolescence to the consternation of his father, Ben (Sam Elliott). Ben is the animals' stern but caring leader and protector (keeping watch for preying coyotes over the barnyard each night from a hilltop). Otis is supposed to spell his dad's shifts but often makes excuses or shows up late after goofing off. When Ben gets severely injured protecting the henhouse from an attack, will Otis change his ways and be cow enough to fill his dad's hooves?

The computer-generated animation is painstakingly achieved, but it's hard to match the level set by Disney/Pixar. The coyotes, looking a lot like foxes, certainly succeed in terrifying sensitive viewers (especially, one would imagine, toddlers). Oddly, the many songs heard in the film often feel like snippets or are barely intelligible over the music track. The exception is Elliott's performance of Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne's "I Won't Back Down."

The few humans in the film are extraneous. The farmer's (Fred Tatasciore) screen time is negligible; there's a middle-aged neighbor couple (Maria Bamford and Oedekerk), whose shtick consists of a babbling wife and her tuned-out, TV-watching spouse; and there's a predictable sequence in which a kid (Oedekerk) gets paid back by the animals for a cow-tipping incident.

The animals' voices include Danny Glover (Miles the Mule), Andie MacDowell (Etta the Hen), Jeff Garcia (Pip the Mouse), Cam Clarke (Freddy the Ferret) and, as two barnyard newcomers, Courteney Cox (sweet, pregnant Daisy the Cow) and Wanda Sykes (her wisecracking pal Bessy the Cow). Special mention goes to Dom Irrera, who voices Duke the Dog and steals every scene he's in.

One nice touch is the sensitive handling of parenting for young viewers. As Otis and Daisy gradually grow closer, Otis (eventually) matures into a father figure, both for the barnyard and for Daisy's calf. Earlier, Ben had told his son that he is Otis' adopted dad and that he had found him as a baby and taken him in. In a similar vein, no mention is made of barnyard stranger Daisy's past or any romantic partner. She just shows up pregnant, allowing Otis, at the climactic birth of her calf, to very naturally slip into a paternal role for her (now their) gurgling newborn.

Screenwriter-director: Steve Oedekerk
Producers: Steve Oedekerk, Paul Marshal
Executive producers: Julia Pistor, Aaron Parry
Animation production: Omation Animation Studios
Music: John Debney
CG supervisors: Graham Clark, Tom Capizzi
Production designer: Philip A. Cruden
Editors: Billy Weber, Paul D. Calder
Cast:
 Otis the Cow: Kevin James
 Daisy the Cow: Courteney Cox
 Ben the Cow: Sam Elliott
 Miles the Mule: Danny Glover
 Bessy the Cow: Wanda Sykes
 Etta the Hen: Andie MacDowell
 Dag the Coyote: David Koechner
 Pip the Mouse: Jeff Garcia
 Freddy the Ferret: Cam Clarke
 Duke the Dog: Dom Irrera

The Descent

Definitely one of the year's most satisfying genre pieces, the British import should have jumpy audiences squealing like a pig, just like they did when "The Descent" was released overseas -- it opened in the U.K. 13 months ago -- to considerable critical and financial success.

The picture, which hits North American shores with a slightly different ending, should pull in some decent coin for Lionsgate, building nicely on the horror cred established by the likes of the "Hostel" and "Saw" franchises.

Both versions waste little time in bringing on the shock value when a rafting trip undertaken by a group of girlfriends ends with a terrible car accident.

Still recovering a year later from the deaths of her husband and daughter, a shaky Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) nevertheless agrees to join her friends on another extreme expedition -- spelunking in a decidedly remote portion of the Appalachian Mountains.

Unbeknownst to the others, the trek's fearless leader and Sarah's best friend, Juno (Natalie Mendoza), has deliberately chosen a cave system that's not in the guide books, ostensibly so that they can claim it as their own.

But after falling rocks block their only known way out, they also discover that not only are they not alone in the complete darkness, but they're being stalked as prey by a clan of subterranean humanoid creatures with healthy appetites.

In short order, the initial descent undertaken by Sarah, Juno, Beth (Alex Reid), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder), punky Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) and Sam (MyAnna Buring) spirals into one of madness as the body count begins.

Writer-director Marshall, who earned a cult following with his 2002 first feature, "Dog Soldiers," expertly maps out those raw nerve endings while creating credible characters who speak and act like real people rather than the usual horror archetypes.

With the feverish claustrophobia well established, he then lets special makeup and effects designer Paul Hyett loose with those savage, slimy, blind, translucent "crawlers" that somehow bring to mind the late Klaus Kinski in a particularly unpleasant mood.

Further boosting that nightmarish feeling of dread are production designer Simon Bowles' dank, spray resin caves erected at Pinewood Studios and director of photography Sam McCurdy, who industriously works his way around those limited light sources.


Director-screenwriter: Neil Marshall
Producer: Christian Colson
Executive producer: Paul Smith
Director of photography: Sam McCurdy
Production designer: Simon Bowles
Editor: Jon Harris
Costume designer: Nancy Thompson
Special make-up and effects designer: Paul Hyett
Music: David Julyan
Cast:
 Sarah: Shauna Macdonald
 Juno: Natalie Mendoza
 Beth: Alex Reid
 Rebecca: Saskia Mulder
 Sam: MyAnna Buring
 Holly: Nora-Jane Noone
 Paul: Oliver Milburn

Boynton Beach Club

Coming from director Susan Seidelman, it is certainly a distinct change of pace from the woman who forged a reputation two decades ago with the restless youth movies "Desperately Seeking Susan" and "Smithereens," but she successfully serves a romantic comedy with a little more meat on its bones than the standard "Grumpy Old Men"-type offerings.

Hitting it home is a crack cast of seasoned pros, including Len Cariou, Sally Kellerman, Dyan Cannon, Joe Bologna, Renee Taylor, Michael Nouri and a particularly effective Brenda Vaccaro, who could teach the kids a thing or two about finely tuned, understated performances.

Already a proven hit with the Boynton Beach crowd (where it was filmed), the Roadside Attractions/Samuel Goldwyn release is initially being targeted to retirement communities like Palm Springs, where it should live long and healthy.

The film actually has Seidelman's mother, Florence, to thank for its genesis, who found inspiration in the stories told to her by her late friend's husband about his fellow bereavement class members who were suddenly finding themselves back on the dating scene after a very long absence.

Among those desperately seeking solace in the fictionalized version is the recently widowed Jack (Cariou) who is shown the ropes by resident player Harry (Bologna).

Although instantly catching the eye of decidedly forward Sandy (Kellerman), Jack prefers to go things a bit slower, as does Marilyn (Vaccaro), whose late husband Marty (Mal Z. Lawrence) was run over by the brassy Anita (Taylor) while gabbing on her cell phone.

Moving decidedly faster is Lois (Cannon) who feels like a kid again after striking up a relationship with younger man Donald (Michael Nouri), who has passed himself off as a successful developer.

As their lives and experiences intersect, the screenplay (penned by Seidelman and Shelly Gitlow) forgoes the temptation to shtick it to its audience in favor of some knowing truths, particularly when dealing with the usually verboten mainstream movie topic of sex between seniors.

She also has no trouble coaxing uniformly strong performances out of her game ensemble, but Vaccaro has the slight edge here in a funny and tender turn that is equal parts no-nonsense authority and aching vulnerability.

And though some of the obligatory "reveals" aren't as effective as others -- a plot development between Cariou and Kellerman's characters feels less than convincing -- the occasional downtime affords an ideal opportunity for viewers to survey all those well-preserved physical specimens and weigh in on the old who's-had-what-done game.

Director: Susan Seidelman, Screenwriters: Susan Seidelman, Shelly Gitlow
Executive producers: Deborah Shantz van Eck, Blair Treisman Rosenfeld
Producers: Florence Seidelman, Susan Seidelman
Director of photography: Eric Moynier
Production designer: Kevin Kropp
Editor: Keiko Deguchi
Costume designer: Sarah Beers
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Cast:
 Harry: Joe Bologna
 Lois: Dyan Cannon
 Jack: Len Cariou
 Sandy: Sally Kellerman
 Donald: Michael Nouri
 Anita Stern
 Renee Taylor
 Marilyn: Brenda Vaccaro

World Trade Center

This is a film of terrific selectivity. By focusing on two of the few who did survive the collapse, the film achieves emotional power and an uplifting ending. To focus anywhere else would probably result in a virtually unwatchable, gut-wrenching film. Thus, "WTC" could provide a mass catharsis for American audiences much as "United 93" did for those who saw that earlier film.

In choosing to throw images on the nation's screen of one of our darkest hours, the film lets people sort out their feelings about the horror, tragedy, heroism and sacrifice experienced in the name of freedom. "WTC" aims to speak to our collective emotions about the historical event we suffered as a people.

And in choosing to tell the fact-based story of Sgt. John McLoughlin (Cage), a 21-year veteran of the Port Authority Police Department, and Colombian immigrant Will Jimeno (Pena), who graduated from the police academy that January, Stone, writer Andrea Berloff and the producers choose to view that day's events as one of survival for America as a nation. We received a staggering body blow but found the moral, spiritual and mental courage to carry on.

You can't make up a story such as the one lived by these two men, even down to such absurd details as a service revolver belonging to one buried cop that suddenly goes off, discharging round after round until it's empty.

In the early moments of the attack, McLoughlin, who knows every inch of the twin towers, commandeers a city bus to race his men downtown to do whatever they can to rescue as many people as possible. Under his breath though, he admits, "There is no plan." In all the emergency scenarios, no one imagined such an attack.

When the first building collapses, McLoughlin directs his guys to race for a service elevator, the building's strongest point. After terrifying blasts, collapsing ceilings and showers of lethal debris, the rescuers are reduced to three. Will and Dominick Pezzulo (Jay Hernandez) occupy a level above John, who lies pinned on a lower section. The only one able to move is Dominick, who stays with his buddies to try to free them.

The second collapse injures Dominick badly. In an ambiguous scene, possibly owning to the fact none of the survivors saw what actually happened, Dominick takes his gun and fires upward, dying moments later. This leaves Will and John, who cannot see each other, in semi-darkness, stifling, dust-choked air and continual explosions. They struggle to talk, to keep one another from drifting into sleep and certain death. Will has visions of his wife and Jesus, while John recalls his past with his wife. The two find the will to survive, not so much for themselves as for their families.

In one breathtaking camera trick, Stone pulls back and up from 20 feet below the heap of concrete and metal to the smoky outdoors, then above Manhattan and finally above Earth, where communication satellites relay news of the tragedy to distant corners of the planet. Thus, he signals that the film will tell the story of what happened over the next day from below and above ground.

The wives are tough cookies. Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) fights to keep her family calm as fear threatens to tear them apart. A pregnant Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal) nearly succumbs to her emotions as anger, anxiety and nausea fight to take control of her body.

Then there is the improbable story of ex-Marine Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon), a deeply religious man, who dons his old uniform and makes his way to Ground Zero, where he and another mysterious Marine actually locate the two men. This triggers a massive rescue effort headed by emergency officers Scott Strauss (Stephen Dorff) and Paddy McGee (Stoney Westmoreland) and paramedic Chuck Sereika (Frank Whaley).

In his active moments, Cage plays McLoughlin as a weary man of action. Natural instincts and years of service carry him into battle. He clearly believes in his mission and his career but perhaps not with the passion of Pena's rookie, who cannot believe his luck that he is a cop. When the two men cling to life and to each other, the acting is all with the voice and eyes. Each hits every psychological beat with a beautiful sense of the situation and his character -- Cage, barely conscious, questioning everything about himself, and Pena, almost perversely upbeat, willing himself to survive.

The filmmakers do acknowledge the thousands who did not return and torment suffered by their families in a highly charged hospital scene between a distraught mother (Viola Davis) and Donna, who initially direct their anger at confused officials who can't give them enough information. They then collapse into each other's arms.

Behind the camera, Stone oversees a crew at the top of their game: Jan Roelfs' harshly realistic set represents the dark, smoky space beneath the collapsed building. Seamus McGarvey's clear camera angles let you know where everyone is in the darkened nightmare. And Craig Armstrong's somber music never overplays its hand.

Director: Oliver Stone
Screenwriter: Andrea Berloff
Producers: Michael Shamberg, Stacey Sher, Moritz Borman, Debra Hill
Executive producers: Donald J. Lee Jr., Norm Golightly
Director of photography: Seamus McGarvey
Production designer: Jan Roelfs
Music: Craig Armstrong
Costume designer: Michael Dennison
Editors: David Brenner, Julie Monroe
Cast:
 John McLoughlin: Nicolas Cage
 Will Jimeno: Michael Pena
 Allison Jimeno: Maggie Gyllenhaal
 Donna McLoughlin: Maria Bello
 Scott Strauss: Stephen Dorff
 Dominick Pezzulo: Jay Hernandez
 Dave Karnes: Michael Shannon

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Like many self-respecting making-of-a-legend biopics, the film begins with the mythic birth of its subject. North Carolinian Ricky Bobby comes into this world in the back seat of a speeding car, and thus begins a lifelong obsession with going fast. He gets his shot behind the wheel when he steps up from the pit crew to fill in for an indifferent driver (played by director Adam McKay). From there it's a straight shot into the NASCAR stratosphere. But all great and reckless men are destined to fall -- or, in Ricky Bobby's case, to take a car airborne and land on the wrong side of sane.

Trying in vain to get him over a case of hysterical paralysis are Ricky's crew chief (a very funny Michael Clarke Duncan) and his lifelong friend and fellow driver, Cal (Reilly). When Cal and Ricky look each other in the eyes or trade their nonsensical motto, "Shake and Bake," you can almost hear the sputtering sparks of their slow-dawning semi-self-awareness and yearning to be just a little bit more clued in. Cal can't quite understand why Ricky doesn't want to be his friend after Mrs. Bobby (Leslie Bibb) dumps her husband for the still-employed Cal.

Retreating from his waterside mansion to his hometown, Ricky gets some lessons in hillbilly Zen from his incorrigible absentee dad (an excellent Gary Cole), while his mom (Jane Lynch) sets out to tame his two ornery sons (Houston Tumlin and Grayson Russell). If he returns to the track, Ricky will have to face competition not only from Cal but also from formidable Formula One driver Jean Girard (the loopy Sacha Baron Cohen, aka Ali G). Not since Peter Sellers' Clouseau has Gallic-accented English been so tortured.

Baron Cohen and scripters Ferrell and McKay have some fun with the French-bashing and homophobia associated with America's NASCAR-loving breadbasket. The whippet-thin Jean has a taste for jazz, macchiato and the novels of Camus -- the latter two enjoyed while behind the wheel. Oh, and did we mention that he's got a devoted husband (Andy Richter)? Such uber-cool people as Elvis Costello and Mos Def hang out with him. And yet, he's really just a Continental version of Ricky and Cal: a Euro-idiot.

The rise-and-fall-and-rise saga of "Talladega" has the conviction to undercut every one of its potentially sappy moments. Reilly, an actor of proven dramatic intensity, makes a great comic foil for the gifted Ferrell, and they find ace support from the rest of the cast, which includes Greg Germann, Molly Shannon and Amy Adams ("Junebug"). After seeing in "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" what Lynch is capable of, her relatively restrained turn here is a bit of a letdown.

Helmer/co-scripter McKay, reteaming with Ferrell after "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," has a sure feel for the vulnerable points in genre conventions and for the speed of the track. DP Oliver Wood capitalizes on fine stunt work and NASCAR involvement, including shoots at North Carolina's Lowe's Motor Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Director: Adam McKay
Screenwriters: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay
Producers: Jimmy Miller, Judd Apatow
Executive producers: Will Ferrell, Adam McKay, David Householter, Ryan Kavanaugh, Richard Glover, Sarah Nettinga
Director of photography: Oliver Wood
Production designer: Clayton R. Hartley
Music: Alex Wurman
Costume designer: Susan Matheson
Editor: Brent White
Cast:
 Ricky Bobby: Will Ferrell
 Cal Naughton Jr.: John C. Reilly
 Jean Girard: Sacha Baron Cohen
 Reese Bobby: Gary Cole
 Lucius Washington: Michael Clarke Duncan
 Carley: Leslie Bibb
 Lucy Bobby: Jane Lynch
 Susan: Amy Adams
 Gregory: Andy Richter
 Mrs. Dennit: Molly Shannon
 Larry Dennit Jr.: Greg Germann
 Dennit Senior: Pat Hingle
 Walker: Houston Tumlin
 Texas Ranger: Grayson Russell

John Tucker Must Die

Young females are the clear target audience. With an attractive though underutilized cast, "John Tucker" should open with average or above-average numbers as counterprogramming to "Miami Vice" and "The Ant Bully."

The film begins with two seemingly unrelated situations. In one, Kate (Brittany Snow) suffers from "invisibility." Her single mom (Jenny McCarthy) moves to a new town every time a man dumps her -- which apparently is often -- so that Kate is the perennial anonymous newcomer at every school. She comes and goes without a ripple.

The other situation revolves around the amorous exploits of one John Tucker (Jesse Metcalfe, Eva Longoria's boy toy on "Desperate Housewives"). Rich, handsome and smooth-talking, the basketball star has his pick of the hottest girls in school. And he usually picks them in threes. Because he is careful to select his girlfriends from different school cliques, no one is any the wiser to his serial dating.

Then his current trio -- head cheerleader Heather (recording star Ashanti), school reporter Carrie (Arielle Kebbel) and vegan fast girl Beth (Sophia Bush) -- all wind up in detention with our Kate. A subsequent exchange of information among these three results in the declaration that is the movie's title. But they only want John Tucker to die of humiliation.

This is where Kate comes in. Having watched her mom date one John Tucker after another, she knows his type backward and forward. The trouble is, all her schemes to bring John down backfire.

Now desperate, the trio persuades Kate to let them turn her into John Tucker's dream girl. They certainly know enough about his tastes and moves to do so. Their plan is for Kate to get John to fall for her, then kick him off her love boat with a concrete life jacket.

Here the movie turns into standard-issue teen romance, albeit one in which the girl has a tiny camera clipped to a bra strap so her advisers can monitor and record every stage of the romance. And here, too, the blandness of the characters is telling. John is so obvious and almost innocent in his serial dating that you wonder why anyone cares. You get what you buy into. And Kate is essentially too nice, never really that determined to crush this guy despite all her mother's disappointments in love. You never believe her capable of going through with the scheme.

The film's timidity is best expressed in a shot of two girls kissing in a car that is being exploited in the trailer. In the context of the movie, the scene is a hit-and-run, over so fast you may miss it. If you're going to go there, then go there.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers seem far too removed from the world of high school and social cliques to draw a convincing portrait of either. The twentysomething actors, besides not looking right, don't really have roles based in any reality. About as close as anyone comes is Penn Badgley, who plays John's younger brother Scott, who takes a fumbling, hesitant liking to Kate.

Director: Betty Thomas
Screenwriter: Jeff Lowell
Producers: Bob Cooper, Michael Birnbaum
Executive producers: Karen Lunder, Marc S. Fischer
Director of photography: Anthony B. Richmond
Production designer: Marcia Hinds
Music: Richard Gibbs
Costumes: Alexandra Welker
Editor: Matt Friedman
Cast:
 John Tucker: Jesse Metcalfe
 Kate: Brittany Snow
 Heather: Ashanti
 Beth: Sophia Bush
 Carrie: Arielle Kebbel
 Scott: Penn Badgley
 Lori: Jenny McCarthy

The Ant Bully

But despite the Hanks seal of approval and the lure of a stellar voice cast including Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin, the animated version feels anonymously generic and charmlessly mechanical.

Failing to adequately flesh out the characters and the story, the movie is all exoskeleton.

Situated tightly between Columbia's "Monster House" and Paramount's "Barnyard" in this season's fairly crowded animation market, the Warner Bros. Pictures release might find a few extra crumbs in its 3-D version screening simultaneously in select Imax theaters, but it likely will have to settle for minor boxoffice infestation.

Tired of finding themselves at the mercy of young Lucas Nickle, aka "Lucas the Destroyer" (Zach Tyler Eisen), the ants show who's boss with a magic potion developed by Wizard Ant Zoc (Cage), which, when dropped into the boy's ear, shrinks him down to their level.

Lucas is taken down into the colony to stand trial for his crimes against antdom, and while there are those who would prefer to eat him, the wise Ant Queen (Streep) sentences him to live among them and to learn their customs.

Befriended by Zoc's kind girlfriend, Nurse Ant Hova (Roberts), Lucas gets a valuable lesson in the spirit of cooperation while dodging the predatory advances of wasps and frogs.

Basically, the biggest problem with "Ant Bully" is that if you're planning on invading "A Bug's Life" and "Antz" turf, you'd be wise to bring something fresh to the picnic table. But writer-director Davis, who created Jimmy Neutron, keeps coming up short on the inventiveness front.

That lack of inspiration also extends to those providing the voices, many of whom seem to struggle to find just the right pitch, overplaying or underplaying their assigned characters.

While Davis' visuals clearly reveal an affection for legendary stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, there's a clinical coldness to the computer animation that cries out for a more stylized, more inviting look and feel.

The often brash results receive little in the way of a counterpoint from John Debney's decidedly unsubtle score, which has a habit of making a mountain out of an anthill.

Director-screenwriter: John A. Davis
Producers: Tom Hanks, Gary Goetzman, John A. Davis
Based on the book by: John Nickle
Executive producers: Keith Alcorn, Diana Choi Sachs, Steven Shareshian, Thomas Tull, William Fay
Editor: Jon Price
Muisc: John Debney
Voices:
 Hova: Julia Roberts
 Zoc: Nicolas Cage
 the Ant Queen: Meryl Streep
 Stan Beals: Paul Giamatti
 Kreela: Regina King
 Fugax: Bruce Campbell
 Mommo: Lily Tomlin
 Lucas Nickle: Zach Tyler Eisen
 Head of Council: Ricardo Montalban
 Doreen Nickle: Cheri Oteri
 Fred Nickle: Larry Miller
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