THE ANT BULLY
This is based upon a very short children's book by John Nickle, a beautifully drawn if crudely told tale of a boy named Lucas, who sports Coke-bottle glasses and a propeller skull cap and is picked on by a buzz-cut bully named Sid. Lucas, prone to tantrums and crying jags, decides he too will become a tormentor of those smaller than he—in this case, the ants living in the pile in his front yard. John Davis, the director of Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius, has made small alterations to Nickle's tale in order to render it a feature; he's also cast it with the requisite big names, among them Nic Cage, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti. And though it lacks the Pixar razzle-dazzle of A Bug's Life or the neurotic charm of Antz, The Ant Bully isn't meant to play grown-up; it's a kids' movie for kids, and Davis approaches it as though he and his cast are merely storytellers trying to reach kids rather than show-offs trying to impress their parents. The Ant Bully's just a little movie about a little guy who turns into a little bug for a while, and learns some big things along the way. And a little can, sometimes, go a very long way. (Robert Wilonsky) (Countywide)
See Film feature. (Countywide)
Have we gotten over being depressed by the dilutive impact flawless CGIs have had on the martial arts universe, a movie realm that had been uniquely ruled by physical capability, gravity, athletic grace, and sleight of hand? Like card tricks and sex acts, there's hardly a point to this internationally beloved genre if the action they display only happened on someone's hard drive. But the Crouching Tiger demon is loose, and popular—even genre pope Tsui Hark, with his unwatchably gumdroppy Zu Warriors (2001), has gone the way of all pixels. Ryuhei Kitamura's Azumi, released in 2003, is a prime sample, a kind of Buffy the Warlord Slayer in which a petite, mini-skirted assassin (Japanese pop starlet Aya Ueto) and her friends are commanded by the master to venture out into the CGI world to prevent war by taking down the warmongers. Blood flies like water-park spray (or hangs in the air as animated bloblets), pubescent thighs flash, and the characters weep sugar tears. If it wasn't for the gore, it could've been an ad for Claritin. (Michael Atkinson) (Edwards University, Irvine)
JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE
If only. No one buys the farm in this Heathers-wannabe teen "satire," a term used so loosely it'll fly off in a stiff breeze. But the title's difficult to argue with, unless it's to maintain that we'd all be better off if the film's entire roster characters had been shot in the head at the dump, greyhound-style. But enough about me: John Tucker (the plasticine Jesse Metcalf) is a rich-boy high school demigod boffing three princesses (Arielle Kebbel, Ashanti, Sophia Bush), to the revulsion of shy unpopular kid Kate (Brittany Snow). The trio discover his supa-player scheme, and plot revenge—which quickly devolves from dreams of violence (my dream, too), to spiking his sports drink with estrogen and, eventually, setting Kate up as his new honey with the intent to crush his inviolable heart. The script-performance synergy is pure Disney Channel sitcom with moderate relief provided by Bush, the only hireling here who seems to have actually watched a comedy once in her short little life. Whatever the target demographic was in the pre-production phase, now it's limited to sexually active 14-year-olds still retaking the sixth grade. (Michael Atkinson) (Countywide)
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Hardly a native flowering of extra-mainstream vision these days, American indies are trapped in a ghetto of second-class homogenization, less pandering than Hollywood but just as conservative. The little-people semi-stories, colorless dialogue, stiff-legged acting, sniffly amused middle-class soundtracks, deficit of visual intelligence: It's a cinema its own lower-middle-class characters would find dull and patronizing, not due to narrative asceticism but for the lack of ambition or imagination. The Motel, Michael Kang's modest Sundance applause reaper, doesn't deserve to be shotgunned for the sins of 30 other movies. But the underwhelming syncopation of make-nice clichs is too familiar. Based on a novel by Ed Lin, Kang's film is a pubertal dramedy centered on Ernest (Jeffrey Chyau), a Chinese American 13-year-old junk-foodie who works as a maid at his mother's backwater motel. There he impassively finds discarded porn, hangs with a 16-year-old waitress (Samantha Futerman), puts up with bullies, argues with his regally ferocious mother (Jade Wu) about a writing contest he entered, and learns about irresponsible loitering from a lonely Korean American whoremonger (Sung Kang) who leaves only to pick up booty and booze. Kang shot his film in Poughkeepsie, but the locale has been anonymized, and the blind tumble into banality is easy and inevitable. ("I hate you!" Ernest eventually hollers at his hard-case mom; "You need me!" Ernest is told by his new hooker-loving pal; "I don't need anyone!" is the reply.) If The Motel circles around to a single effective moment of generational confrontation amid the sulking, credit should perhaps go to Wu, expertly limning out the script's most interesting character by far, a fearless immigrant woman we first see busting down a goldbricker's door with a baseball bat. She radiates experience, which is more than can be said about the filmmakers. (Michael Atkinson) (Edwards University, Irvine)
MYSTERIES OF EGYPT
In its first film to be shot in the IMAX format, National Geographic offers a 40-minute crash course in 3,000 years of ancient Egyptian history, beginning with magnificent footage of the Nile River and ending inside the tomb of everyone's favorite pharaoh, King Tut. Unlike other IMAX subjects, the pyramids of Egypt just sit there, indifferent to the demands of restless movie audiences. To create a little forward motion, director Bruce Neibaur has devised a slightly awkward structure that features a dapper, still-handsome Omar Sharif as a grandfather giving his curious granddaughter (Kate Maberly) a tour. Although Maberly is stuck with a lot of golly-gee dialogue, one can't help feeling a stab of envy when she gets to perch on the side of one of the Pyramids of Giza. More useful is a black-and-white dramatization of archaeologist Howard Carter's six-year search for Tut's tomb in the 1920s. Although re-enactments are usually a sign of a story-starved documentary, this one provides crucial information not only on Carter's amazing expedition, but also on the question of how mummification takes place. A tour of Egypt, after all, just isn't complete without a good mummy sighting. (Chuck Wilson) (Galaxy Cinemas, Anaheim Hills)
See Film feature. (Countywide)
See Film feature. (Century Stadium, Orange; Mann Rancho Niguel, Laguna Niguel; AMC Pine Square, Long Beach)