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THE ANT BULLY It used to be Oscar-bait productions that had no trouble snagging the A-listers. Now it's the kiddie flicks that have them lining up to sign on the dotted line. But the problem with the high-powered lineup on view here -- Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep and Paul Giamatti -- is that it promises a viewing experience that never materializes. Writer-director John A. Davis' slender screenplay might have well been produced by a committee well-versed in mining the usual kid-friendly clichés. 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.

*1/2

THE DESCENT With rare exception, Hollywood has lost its ability to create memorable or meaningful horror flicks, which makes this British import all the more welcome. One of the finest terror tales in many a full moon, writer-director Neil Marshall's gory gem follows six outdoor enthusiasts -- all female -- as they embark on a spelunking expedition deep in the Appalachian mountains. The competitive Juno (Natalie Mendoza) leads the outfit while Sarah (Shauna Macdonald) tries to overcome a recent tragedy in her life; along with the others, they descend deep into a cavern that's frightening even before its cannibalistic occupants (who all look like Gollum's cousins) show up and start tearing into human flesh. The Descent is so expertly made that it more than holds its own as a full-throttle horror flick, yet it's Marshall's decision to provide it with a psychological bent that puts it firmly over the top. The film addresses guilt -- specifically, survivor's guilt -- in a welcome manner and imbues its protagonists with messy moral dilemmas that allow them to alternate between heroine and villain, survivor and victim, wallflower and warrior. It's just a shame they didn't keep the original British ending, which will doubtless turn up on the DVD as an extra feature.

***1/2

LADY IN THE WATER With each subsequent picture, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs) has exposed himself as a filmmaker of limited means; if this pattern of diminishing returns continues, he may soon be reduced to trying to revive the long dormant Police Academy series. For now, though, we're stuck with this dud about an apartment complex superintendent (Paul Giamatti) who tries to protect a Narf (sea nymph) from a Scrunt (wolf) until she can make contact with the Great Eatlon (eagle), all the while keeping one eye peeled for the Tartutic (killer monkeys). This was originally conceived by the auteur as a bedtime story for his daughters, and in that context, it probably worked fine. But as a motion picture aimed at adult audiences, it's a mess, at once ridiculous and risible. Requiring characters to behave in illogical ways and making up the rules of the game as it goes along, this eventually reaches such high levels of absurdity that by the end you can't help but wonder if it was all a put-on, Shyamalan's "screw you" to the critics, studio suits and audience members who abandoned him with The Village.

*1/2

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE In the rocker "We're a Happy Family," The Ramones present a dysfunctional family in which "Daddy's telling lies, Baby's eating flies, Mommy's on pills, Baby's got the chills." The clan at the center of this Sundance hit isn't much better off. But one thing brings the members together: the chance to support sweet, 7-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), who's been selected to compete in the "Little Miss Sunshine" beauty pageant in California. Essentially, this is yet another road picture about bickering family members, and if that sounds a bit too prefab (or at least a bit too RV), screenwriter Michael Arndt, his dialogue backed by an excellent ensemble cast (including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell), manages to adroitly mix up the expected comic shtick with moments of great clarity and insight. The movie climaxes as it surely must -- at the competition -- and Arndt and the husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris sharpen their claws for this portion, allowing the characters to engage in a final act of flagrant punk defiance. Joey Ramone would have been proud.

***1/2

MIAMI VICE One of the damnedest movies I've seen this summer, Miami Vice is successful only part of the time and confounding all the way through. Since his days as a guiding light on the trendsetting TV series from the 1980s, Michael Mann has revealed himself as a sober, serious filmmaker (Heat, The Insider), so it's no surprise that his big-screen version bears little resemblance to its TV counterpart. There's very little in the way of fashion sense or MTV visuals, surface elements that made the show stand apart from the pack. Mann has instead elected to turn his Vice into something altogether leaner and meaner -- if not necessarily tighter. The movie runs approximately 2-1/4 hours, and audiences expecting a zippy action flick will find this bo-o-o-ring indeed. Yet those who can tune into its wavelength will frequently find themselves fascinated by its beautifully composed shots, its startling bursts of violence and its baffling narrative segues. As Crockett and Tubbs, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx bring the requisite attitude but little else.

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