JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE The biggest problem with John Tucker Must Die is that it uses Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” to serve as its anthem for blissed-out teen love -- unfortunate, since the delightful high school comedy 10 Things I Hate About You already went that route, with a far greater return on its investment in Ye Olde Rock Catalogue. Tucker’s other mistake is that it never seems to be aiming very high: This is the type of film in which the token adult figure offering words of wisdom to wayward youth is a character played by, uh, Jenny McCarthy. John Tucker Must Die is the usual pandering claptrap, centering on the efforts of three high school beauties -- brainy Carrie (Arielle Kebbel), slutty Beth (Sophia Bush) and flippant Heather (Ashanti) -- to get revenge against the stud (Jesse Metcalfe) who’s been simultaneously dating all of them. After several failed attempts at meting out just desserts, they decide to break his heart by getting him to fall for wallflower Kate (Brittany Snow) and then having her dump him. Kate agrees to the plan, but matters become messy once she finds herself attracted to both the straight-laced John and his brother Scott (Penn Badgley), who establishes his rebel credentials by sporting long hair and listening to Elvis Costello. The cast of this painless but forgettable film is primarily populated by fledgling TV stars more adept at modeling than emoting.
THE ANT BULLY The Ant Bully has talent to burn: Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti. But as was the case with Bruce Willis in the recent (and inexplicably popular) Over the Hedge, this is yet another example of hiring big stars for the sole purpose of -- what exactly? Do 10-year-olds really care that acting legend Meryl Streep is voicing the role of the Ant Queen? Wouldn’t they rather hear Raven or Hilary or one of the other kids’ cable TV stars in the part? And why pay the bucks to snag Cage for the role of the Wizard Ant, when he’s vocally so flat that the role could have easily been handled by Charlie Sheen or Jim Belushi or somebody else less costly? Forget comparisons to Antz or A Bug’s Life (both superior to this): The Ant Bully, in which a little boy gets shrunk to ant size and learns all about friendship and teamwork from the busy little bugs, is indistinguishable from any other subpar toon flick that mixes bodily function gags with snooze-inducing “lessons” and believes it’s being profound and inspirational. Alas, the only thing it inspired in me was a sudden urge to spray the screen with Raid.
LADY IN THE WATER Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan gave us The Sixth Sense, the finely crafted spook tale that really wasn’t anything special until that whopper of a twist ending elevated it to blockbuster and Oscar nom status. But with each subsequent picture, Shyamalan has exposed himself as a filmmaker of limited means: The Sixth Sense was better than Unbreakable, which was better than Signs, which was better than The Village, which was better than his latest, Lady In the Water. Set in a Philadelphia apartment complex, the picture centers on superintendent Cleveland Heep (dependable Paul Giamatti) and the strange occurrences that take place after he discovers a sea nymph living in the building’s swimming pool. No, it’s not Darryl Hannah; instead, it’s Story (The Village’s Bryce Dallas Howard, required to do nothing but blink those saucer eyes in an attempt to look ethereal), who explains that she comes from The Blue World, a place full of mythical creatures who seek to reunite humankind with its more gentle side.
MONSTER HOUSE For many moviegoers (myself included), Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemecki will always be first and foremost remembered for their 1980s output -- Spielberg with E.T. and the Indiana Jones trilogy, Zemeckis with Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit -- so it makes sense that they’re attached as executive producers to the new animated adventure Monster House. At its best, this film harkens back to the fantasy flicks of that period, movies in which innocent children leading sheltered suburban existences often had to cope with the supernatural terrors that lurked around every corner and often even under the bed. Monster House’s protagonist, DJ (voiced by Mitchel Musso), is recognizable from just about any cinematic time period: a shy outcast who’s light on the brawn but heavy on the brains. He’s the only one in his neighborhood who realizes that something’s not right within the creepy house that’s directly across the street, a rotting mansion owned by a nasty old man named Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi). What initially appears to be a straightforward haunted house tale morphs into a haunting tale about love, retribution and acceptance, complete with a backstory that’s as affecting as it is unexpected.
MY SUPER EX-GIRLFRIEND Like those superheroes who hide their costumes under unassuming street clothes in order to protect their true identities, My Super Ex-Girlfriend likewise masks its intriguing subtext under the surface charms of a romantic comedy. Luke Wilson, whose film couldn’t help but be better than his brother Owen’s current stinkbomb (You, Me and Dupree), stars as Matt Saunders, a mild-mannered guy whose new girlfriend is art gallery employee Jenny Johnson (Uma Thurman). Jenny appears to be deeply insecure and hopelessly neurotic, but Matt digs her and the sex is great -- so great, in fact, that her violent gyrations end up breaking his bed. What Matt eventually discovers is that Jenny Johnson is also G-Girl, an admired superheroine who’s always on hand to capture fleeing bank robbers and reroute rogue missiles. Thurman locates the inner angst in this character, and while she’s effective in full-on comic mode, she’s even better in the scenes in which we see the madness peeking out from behind the super-facade.
CLERKS II The sequel to the 1994 film that placed Kevin Smith on the indie map, Clerks II is pretty much what you’d expect from this often crude, often insightful filmmaker, only with too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Twelve years down the road, wishy-washy Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and foul-mouthed Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still the clerks at the Quick Stop convenience store -- at least until it burns down at the start of this new film. The pair then take jobs flipping burgers for the Mooby’s fast food chain (first introduced in Dogma), and a year down the road finds Dante planning to marry his dominant girlfriend (Jennifer Schwalbach) and move to Florida to work for her dad running a carwash. That’s more than enough plot for a Kevin Smith feature, since with him, the wordplay’s the thing.
YOU, ME AND DUPREE There’s so much terribly wrong with the terrible You, Me and Dupree that we can afford to be charitable and look at its positive attributes -- uh, better make that attribute, singular. Roughly 60 seconds in this film rank as among the most charming and romantic ever committed to celluloid, moments so magical that one’s faith in the power of cinema is momentarily restored. Unfortunately, that minute consists of footage from the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck classic Roman Holiday, which slacker Dupree happens to be watching on TV. Owen Wilson plays Dupree, a man-child (Hollywood’s favorite character type of late, as evidenced by The Break-Up, Failure to Launch, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and any Will Ferrell vehicle) who, left without a home or a job, is invited to stay for a couple of days with his lifelong best friend Carl (Matt Dillon) and Carl’s new wife Molly (Kate Hudson). You, Me and Dupree will doubtless serve as the ultimate litmus test when it comes to one’s tolerance of Wilson’s patented hangdog slacker routine. Effective when used in the service of a likable character (Wedding Crashers, Meet the Parents), it’s endlessly irritating when attached to a role as obnoxious as Dupree.
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MAN’S CHEST At 145 minutes, Dead Man’s Chest ends up providing too much bang for the buck. The effects-driven action scenes are clearly the picture’s highlights, and they alone make Dead Man’s Chest worth the price of admission. Johnny Depp’s still a lot of fun as the scurrilous Jack Sparrow, but a headline-grabbing performance that seemed blazingly original the first time around no longer has the power to surprise. Orlando Bloom’s Will and Keira Knightley’s Elizabeth are even less developed, and except for a couple of quips (him) and tirades (her), it’s hard to remember anything of substance that they do during the course of the film.
LITTLE MAN The visual effects in Little Man won’t put the wizards at Industrial Light & Magic out of business, but it’s only fair to note that they’re surprisingly effective. That’s the good news. The bad news is that they’re in the service of a feeble comedy that’s nowhere near as outrageous as one might reasonably expect from the makers of Scary Movie and White Chicks.
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA As Miranda Priestley, the ice-cold and rock-hard editor of the fashion magazine Runway, Meryl Streep speaks volumes with a quick glare here or a terse quip there. But let’s not undervalue Anne Hathaway’s contribution to the film. Hathaway (last seen in Brokeback Mountain) has the largest role as Andy Sachs, a college grad whose cluelessness about the fashion industry proves to be a drawback in her stint as Miranda’s worked-to-the-bone assistant. Hathaway is to Streep what Tom Cruise was to Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man -- a young talent carrying the load while allowing a more established star to shine in smaller doses -- and she works around her character’s predictable arc to allow Andy to come alive on screen as her own person.
SUPERMAN RETURNS Director Bryan Singer, the X-Men and X2 helmer who jumped ship to steer this franchise, chose to take the road less traveled. His movie is neither a remake of the 1978 staple nor a direct repudiation of it; instead, he imagined Superman Returns as a continuation of the original saga. Learning that scientists had discovered the remains of his home planet of Krypton, Kal-El (Superman’s birth name) went to check it out for himself, only coming back to our planet after a five-year hiatus. He’s able to get his old job back at the Daily Planet, but other chapters of his life have been radically affected. Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has tried to suppress her love for Superman: Having moved forward, she now has a young son (Tristan Leabu) and a fiance (James Marsden). Meanwhile, Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) is back in play. Singer has some problems with pacing while Bosworth appears too young to be playing a tough, award-winning journalist. Yet in the central role, Routh commands our attention.
CLICK Spending more time sucking up to his unctuous boss (David Hasselhoff) than bonding with his wife (Kate Beckinsale) and kids, Michael Newman (Adam Sandler in familiar man-child mode) is so distracted that he can’t even keep track of the household remotes. Venturing into the “Beyond” section of Bed, Bath & Beyond, he stumbles upon eccentric employee Morty (Christopher Walken), who gives him a universal remote that allows him to program his life as well as his TV set. For the first half of the film, this clever concept yields some genuine laughs but more often gets buried under the sort of adolescent humor that long ago became the actor’s calling card. Then the movie shifts its course dramatically: Morphing into an update of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, it chronicles how the remainder of Michael’s life becomes a human tragedy.
THE LAKE HOUSE Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Kate Forester, whose new position convinces her to move into the city and leave behind the lake house she’s been renting. Before departing, she whips off a welcome note for the next tenant, who turns out to be an architect named Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves). But Kate’s comments in the letter, concerning the condition of the house, don’t jibe with what Alex sees, so he writes her back to clarify. As the missives keep flying back and forth, both parties come to the startling realization that they’re actually corresponding over the years -- she’s writing and receiving his letters in 2006, he’s doing likewise in 2004. The Lake House’s central idea could work under the right set of circumstances. But The Lake House doesn’t even begin to inspire that level of swoony romance on our parts.
DA VINCI CODE No instant classic and it won’t sweep next year’s Academy Awards. Conversely, also not a turkey for the ages. Steered by his Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, Tom Hanks plays the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist whose book-signing stint in Paris is cut short when he’s summoned to the Louvre to hopefully shed light on the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of an elderly curator.