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Critic, lecturer and TV commentator Maitland McDonagh is the author of Movie Lust, Filmmaking on the Fringe, The 50 Most Erotic Films of All Time and Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds: The Dark Dreams of Dario Argento. Formerly TV Guide's Senior Movies Editor, she writes for Time Out New York, Film Comment and other magazines, and has been interviewed for many film-related documentaries. She reviews new movie and DVD releases here, and blogs about movie-related news, views and issues at  Your Daily Maitland.

Reviews: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire HunterBeasts of the Southern Wild •  The Three Stooges •  X-Men Origins: Wolverine •  The Skeptic State of Play •   Alien Trespass •   12 Rounds •   The Haunting in Connecticut Duplicity •   Knowing •   The Last House on the Left •   Watchmen •  The International •  Madea Goes to Jail •  Coraline

   


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Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

(2012)
Directed by: Timur Bekmambetov.
Written by: Seth Grahame-Smith, based on his novel.
With:Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Anthony Mackie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rufus Sewell, Marton Csokas, Alan Tudyk and Jimmi Simpson.

You know slavery was the hot-button issue that drove the Civil War, but unless you’ve heard about the vampires, you don't know the half of it. Producer-director Timur Bekmambetov and screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith deliver a canny mix of action, horror and alternate history in what should by all rights be a bona-fide blockbuster.

1818: While working alongside his father at a riverside shipping depot owned by the cruel, ruthless Jack Barts (Marton Csokas), nine-year-old Abraham Lincoln sees a terrible sight: His friend Will's parents—both free people of color—shackled like slaves and herded onto a small boat while Barts flogs their weeping son. Young Abraham runs to Billy's defense; when the dust-up is over, his deeply indebted father is unemployed. And grim though that is, the worst is yet to come: That night, Abraham sees Barts creep into the family home and hover menacingly over his sleeping mother; within days she's dead of some ghastly fever.

Lincoln grows into a bitter, hard-drinking young man (Benjamin Walker, of Broadway's Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson), consumed with the need to avenge his mother's death, and it's in a bar that he meets the stranger, Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), who teaches him the skills he needs to be a killer. Henry also opens Lincoln's eyes to a monstrous truth…literally monstrous. Vampires aren't just the stuff of bogey tales for children: They prowl the still-New World, abetted by the willful blindness of Americans determined to put the past behind them, and by the rigors of life at a time when disease, accidents, Indian attacks and even childbirth made death a constant companion.

Once Lincoln has mastered the art of vampire slaying, Henry dispatches him to Springfield, Indiana, where he studies law and later begins to dabble in politics, finds a new friend in Joshua Speed (Jimmi Simpson), reconnects with an old one in William Johnson (Anthony Mackie) and shyly steals the heart of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) from his future political rival, Stephen Douglas (Alan Tudyk). Oh, and he starts killing vampires who, the odd pair of wraparound sunglasses aside, look just like everyone else until they transform into shark-toothed, blood-spattered fiends.

That Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is entertaining is no huge surprise: Seth Grahame-Smith's novel (the follow-up to his surprise bestseller Pride and Prejudice & Zombies) is an audacious blend of reality and fantasy, the same delicate mix that the Russian-Kazakh Bekmambatov pulled off brilliantly in Night Watch (2004) and Day Watch (2006)—though not in his unfortunate English-language debut, the 2008 Angelina Jolie vehicle Wanted. And the cast is exceptionally rich in theatre-trained actors with movie experience which, as the Harry Potter franchise demonstrated definitively, can give genre fiction just the right touch of gravity without spilling over into pretention.

The surprise is how respectful it is of Lincoln's legacy, preposterous though that sounds. In Graeme-Smith's novel and screenplay (which he stripped of its modern-day framing device, the better to get straight to the bloody heart of things), vampires aren't just a pulpy metaphor for slave owners, they're the supernatural expression of pure human wickedness. Again, casting presses the point home: U.K. actor Rufus Sewell isn't camping around as ancient bloodsucker Adam. Sure, it's clear at a glance that he'd eat Twilight's sparkle vampires for breakfast, but he's as driven as Lincoln by a larger purpose, a sense of responsibility to his people—why shouldn't they have their own nation too? The film is a remarkable balancing act, pure pleasure to watch with just enough tragedy to temper the adrenaline rush.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


Beasts of the Southern Wild

One of the most lavishly praised films of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and a Camera d'Or winner at Cannes, Beasts of the Southern Wild teeters on the edge of embracing the cliches of "lyrical poverty" movies, but is anchored in complex reality by the performance of non-actress Quvenzhané Wallis as a motherless six-year-old forced to rely increasingly on her own wits, common sense and childish optimism after a major hurricane devastates her bayou community and her beloved father gradually succumbs to chronic illness.

To an outsider's eye, the world of the bright, sensitive, unselfconsciously intuitive Hushpuppy (Wallis) is one of deprivation, ignorance and grinding poverty. Her mother is long gone—dead, divorced or decamped for parts unknown; who can say?—her father Wink (Dwight Henry) an underemployed drinker in declining health, and her friends are a passel of equally under-parented children and scruffy animals: chicks and chickens, a rheumy-eyed Chihuahua mix, the pot-bellied pig who's probably destined for a stew pot sooner rather than later.

But to Hushpuppy, the world is a miraculous place whose beating heart is echoed in the chests of all creatures great and small, even the giant prehistoric boars her schoolteacher describes to her motley charges. Wink loves the (literally) backwater community locals call "The Bathtub," a brutally beautiful but deceptively fragile ecosystem, and whatever his faults as a parent, he's teaching Hushpuppy to live in it too. But Wink's health is precarious—he doesn't talk about it, but from week to week getting a deep breath comes harder and he's less up to the day-to-day work of scratching a subsistence living from the water and dirt—and his decision to ride out a Katrina-level hurricane rather than evacuate proves disastrous. He and Hushpuppy aren't alone when the rains stop—a handful of equally addled, obstinate lifers hunkered down in their own shacks and lived to tell the tale—but the Bathtub is damaged, the water poisoned, and emergency crews are scouring the countryside in search of survivors they can rescue and place in clean, well-stocked shelters until such time as they can be relocated, a prospect the locals regard as a fate worse than death.

Benh Zeitlin's first feature, is a stunner: You may have reservations about its depiction of catch-as-catch-can bayou poverty as an improvement over, say, the institutional poverty of the best-run urban housing project, but Zeitlin's visuals make his case. Hunger is hunger, but a feast for the soul can offset the ache of an empty belly—not for everyone, perhaps, but for those connected to a community in which a year of bayou sunsets is infinitely more nourishing than a year of fast-food fries.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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The Three Stooges

A misbegotten attempt to revive the anarchic slapstick antics of the trio who scandalized generations of parents and update it for 21st-century audiences. Bottom line: However vulgar, corny and juvenile the real Stooges could be, they actually were funny.

We first meet the Stooges when a sack is rudely tossed onto the doorstep of an orphanage run by nuns. Inside are three babies whom the sisters find so adorable that they squabble—graciously, of course, as befits such pious ladies—over who gets to feed, bathe and cuddle them.

Cut to: Now ten, the boys are such hellions that the blessed brides of Jesus are reduced to squabbling rather less than decorously over who has to deal with them. After Mother Superior (Jane Lynch), whose belief in their fundamental goodness has survived a decade of challenges, discovers them preparing to perform surgery on Sister Mary-Mengele (Larry David), even she's up for getting rid of them. Enter the wealthy, childless Harters (Stephen Collins, Carly Craig), who are looking to adopt a child; with any luck the sisters can guilt them into taking the terrible trio. Of course, that means hiding all the other children, because no one in his or her right mind would choose Moe, Larry and Curly (Skyler Gisondo, Lance Chantiles-Wertz and Robert Capron) if they thought there were another option. In the end, the Harters choose Moe, only to return him when he decides he can't leave Larry and Curly and instead adopt the adorable Teddy (Jake Peck).

Cut to: Now adults, Moe (Chris Diamantopolos), Larry (Sean Hayes) and Curly (Will Sasso) still live at the orphanage, supposedly earning their keep as handymen and groundskeepers despite the fact that everything they touch sets off a chain reaction of escalating disaster: Send them up a bell tower to do repairs and you can be sure that the bell will come tumbling down and cold-cock someone. To be fair, though, they do love kids and kids love them—especially poor, sickly little Murph (Avalon Robbins)—and they're utterly devoted to the kindly sisters. So the boys are hit hard by the news that the orphanage will shut down in 30 days unless some miracle produces $830,000 to pay off its delinquent tax bill. How can they not try to raise the money?

Next thing you know, the boys immediately get themselves entangled in a murder-for-hire plot concocted by gold-digger Lydia (Sofia Vergara, of TV's American Family), who wants her much-older husband out of the way sooner rather than later. By the time their great adventure is over, they will have reconnected with the grown Teddy (Kirby Heyborne), donned drag to play nurses (apparently there are no male nurses in Stooge World), nearly killed a dolphin with a peanut, discovered the world of reality TV (Moe is tapped to join the cast of “Jersey Shore”), and exposed Lydia and her lover (Craig Bierko) for the very bad people they are.

The fact that writer-director brothers Bobby and Peter Farrelly have for years sung their devotion to The Three Stooges

to anyone who would listen makes the tone-deafness of this update just that little bit more perplexing. I'm no fan of the real Stooges—What woman is?—but could never deny that they had razor-sharp timing, all-in dedication to pushing a gag as far as it could be pushed and, above all, a chemistry that made their characters seem naively befuddled by the world's complexities rather than grotesque.

Diamantopoulos, Hayes and Sasso clearly did their homework and hit all the familiar notes, from n'yuk-n'yuk-n'yuk to wooo-wooo-wooo, but not one rings true; they come off as awkward imitations rather than organic reinterpretations. And that makes the brutal violence of their gags—from eye-pokes to bitch-slaps—all the more glaringly unpleasant: Any parent who wants to relive the fun of seeing the old Three Stooges shorts on TV with his kids (and yes, it would be his; moms looking to introduce their kids to such antics are thin on the ground) would do better to invest in a DVD of the real thing.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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X-Men Origins: Wolverine

(2009)
Directed by: Gavin Hood.
Written by: David Benioff and Skip Woods .
With: Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber, Danny Huston, will.i.am, Lynn Collins, Kevin Durand, Dominic Monaghan, Taylor Kitsch, Daniel Henney and Ryan Reynolds.

Wolverine made Hugh Jackman a star, but the actor's best efforts — which are very good indeed — can't compensate for the fact that the first story spun off from the X-Men franchise is little more than a formulaic fantasy-action movie aimed squarely at 12-year-olds. It's far from a disaster on the order of Ang Lee's Hulk, but it achieves neither the moody grace of The Dark Knight nor the sophisticated cynicism of Iron Man.

Canada, 1845: Sickly James, the young son of a wealthy landowner, lies in bed with a fever as the slightly older Victor Creed, the caretaker's boy, watches resentfully. Moments later, everything changes: One man kills another, a dark family secret is dragged into the light and James and Victor realize they're half brothers, bound by blood and mutant abilities of the fang-and-claw variety, abilities that will forever exile them to the sidelines of mainstream human society.

As adults, James (Jackman) — who eventually calls himself Logan — and Victor (Shreiber) have parlayed their formidable fighting skills and near indestructibility into careers as mercenaries, and the film's beautifully condensed credits sequence follows their relationship as it's forged and warped by the American Civil War, World Wars I and II and, finally, the mind-shattering mire of Vietnam, which thrusts the fundamental differences in their natures into a withering spotlight. Logan is at war with himself, perpetually trying to cage the beast within, while Victor (easily recognizable as Sabretooth, though never referred to by name) increasingly embraces his animal nature, wallowing in the voluptuous bloodlust his half-brother is determined to keep at bay. Victor's berserking eventually lands them in front of a firing squad, but after the failure of all efforts to execute them they're rescued — perhaps "shanghaied" is the more appropriate term — by uber-patriot Major William Stryker (Huston), who's assembling a super-squad of mutants charged with doing things no human squad would or could. Logan soon quits Stryker's "Team X" in disgust, abandoning the feral Victor to his own worst impulses.

Six years later, Logan is ensconced in Canada's back of beyond, lumberjacking by day and playing blissful off-the-grid-house with schoolteacher Kayla Silverfox (Collins) by night. But the past comes roaring back, first via Stryker,now a colonel who attempts to re-recruit Logan by confiding that a rogue mutant is killing former members of Team X, then in the form of Victor, who slinks out of the woods to kill Kayla, forcing a battle royale that leaves Logan crippled and vulnerable to Stryker's sly blandishments.

Dogged by credible rumors of on-set conflict between South African art-house director Hood (Tsotsi) and pop-panderers Richard and Lauren Shuler Donner, the film's producers, Wolverine is a film divided against itself, a disposable popcorn movie wrestling with a moody psychological drama: Look no farther than mismatched screenwriters David Benioff (The Kite Runner, The 25th Hour) and Skip Woods (Hitman, Swordfish) for proof. To their credit, Woods and Benioff distill Wolverine's complicated and sometimes contradictory back story into a coherent narrative, but the generic and eminently forgettable action sequences consistantly undermine the character-driven drama.

Upscale casting goes a long way towards elevating the pulpy material, and Jackman, Huston and Schreiber all lend respectable depth and nuance to what could easily have been two-dimensional roles. But they're swimming upstream all the way: Wolverine tries hard but never transcends its origins.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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The Skeptic

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Tennyson Bardwell.
With:Tim Daly, Tom Arnold, Zoe Saldana, Ed Herrmann, Andrea Roth, Robert Prosky, Bruce Altman, Lea Coco and Sarah Weaver.

A fiercely rational lawyer's resistance to anything that smacks of the supernatural is put to the test when he moves into his late aunt's house and is faced with evidence that the place is seriously haunted.

Bryan Becket (Daly) practices law in a small, picturesque New England town and lives his life by one simple principle: If he can't prove it, he wants nothing to do with it. Bryan's artistic wife, Robin (Roth), has tried to soften his "just the facts, ma'am" attitude, but he won't budge and their marriage is increasingly strained. Bryan's heartless response to the death of his only surviving relative, an elderly aunt, sparks a brief, late-night fight with long-lasting repercussions.

. Bryan uses the fact that he's the presumptive heir to his aunt's rambling, antique-filled mansion to "take a break" from family life and its messy emotional demands; his rationale, that he doesn't want the house looted while it stands empty, fools no one. But the day after Bryan moves in, his law partner, Sully (Arnold), discovers a recent handwritten will bequeathing the property to one Dr. Koven (Altman), who runs a paranormal research facility. Bryan is furious: How dare some charlatan take advantage of an old woman and, incidentally, rob him of his inheritance! That Koven proves a reasonable, diligent researcher who dismisses supernatural hocus pocus in favor of looking for scientific explanations for phenomena like ESP only stokes the flames of Bryan's fury. More determined than ever to remain in the house, Bryan blames persistent insomnia for the whispers he hears in the dark and the fleeting glimpses he catches of a strange woman; he won't so much as entertain the idea that repressed memories of his mother's death might have something to do with it.

Dr. Shepard (Herrmann), the psychiatrist who treated 5-year-old Bryan after Mrs. Becket took a fatal tumble down some stairs, suggests that therapy might help resolve the problem at its source, but Bryan prefers to treat the symptoms. Father Wymond (Prosky), another lifelong acquaintance, gently warns Bryan to be on his guard around the house, advice Bryan dismisses with thinly disguised contempt. Even Robin breaks the chilly silence between them to tell Bryan he's been talking in his sleep for years, always about his mother. Ironically, by the time Bryan is rattled enough to listen, the only person interested in talking to him is a high-strung psychic named Cassie (Saldana).

Credit where credit is due: Writer-director Tennyson Bardwell is defiantly bucking contemporary horror trends by making an old-fashioned psychological ghost story. He gets excellent production value from his locations, notably the 19th-century Batchellor Mansion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and shows no small flair for creating suspense from shadows and suggestion. His script scrupulously proposes equal and opposite explanations for Bryan's increasingly creepy experiences, and frankly, if he'd been half as careful about his characters, The Skeptic could have been the kind of small gem horror fans live to discover. But he wasn't, repeatedly compelling supposedly mature and intelligent people to do preposterous things in order to keep the plot moving. I can believe, for example, that a 20-year-old frat boy would be dumb enough to respond to a close friend's increasing mental agitation by pranking him, but substitute a pair of sober, middle-aged lawyers and the same scenario seems false and forced. It's painful to see such a promising premise run aground on its own ambitions.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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State of Play

(2009)
Directed by: Kevin MacDonald.
Written by: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray, based on the six-part teleplay by Paul Abbott.
With: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Michael Berresse, Harry Lennix, Josh Mostel, Michael Weston, Maria Thayer, Katy Mixon, Barry Shabaka Henley and Viola Davis.

When the newspaper thriller's obituary is written, State of Play may well be cited as the genre's last gasp. Adapted from the 2003 UK miniseries written by Paul Abbot and directed by David Yates, State of Play acknowledges the grim state of traditional print journalism while remaining firm in its faith that ink-stained wretches are steadfast foot soldiers in the war against political corruption, institutional malfeasance, spin control and all forms of business as usual.

Sleek, mediagenic congressman Stephen Collins (Affleck), who's chairing a high-profile committee investigating defense-department outsourcing to private companies, arrives at the office to the grim news that his head researcher, Sonia Baker (Thayer), is dead, apparently the victim of a subway accident. Collins' palpable shock triggers rumors of an affair, which happen to be true. Veteran Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey (Crowe) has a personal interest in the story, courtesy of his long personal history with Collins and his wife, Anne (Wright Penn), who was unhappy with her marriage long before Collins' reckless infidelity became beltway water-cooler chat. McCaffrey and Collins have barely spoken since Collins' star began to rise, and the fact that Anne and McAffrey had a fleeting affair further complicates matters.

McAffrey's hard-nosed editor, Cameron Lynne (Mirren), is juggling old-school dedication to investigative reporting and intense pressure to attract younger readers, which has intensified since the Globe was acquired by the MediaCorp conglomerate. Her heart is with rumpled newshounds like McCaffrey, but her head tells her the future of journalism is skewed towards shiny, new-media personalities like the ]Globe's own Della Frye (McAdams), who blogs about politics from an intensely personal perspective. Lynne covers all bases by assigning both to the story: Maybe they'll even learn something from each other.

What Frye and McCaffrey learn, of course, is that there's more to the story than meets the eye. But can they put together the puzzle pieces — which include a double shooting within hours of Baker's death; PointCorps' far-reaching military and political connections; sleazy spin doctor Dominic Foy (Bateman); Collins' mentor, venerable West Virginia Senator George Fergus; Baker's trashy former roommate (Mixon); and the mystery man (Berresse) glimpsed on subway security tapes — before the official story buries the truth?

For all its noble intentions, State of Play pales beside such genre high-water marks as Billy Wilder's scorching Ace in the Hole (1951), which virtually coined the term "media circus"; His Girl Friday, whose witty patter lies lightly over a bitter dissection of media morals; sadly cynical Defense of the Realm (1985); underrated Humphrey Bogart vehicle Deadline USA (1952); tabloid-expose The Sweet Smell of Success (1957); and All the President's Men (1976), which briefly made superstars of beat reporters — it's surely no coincidence that PointCorps has offices at the Watergate. And like the Oscar-winning Traffic (2000), based on the 1989 miniseries Traffik, State of Play suffers from the constraints of cramming a miniseries' worth of intertwined storylines into a theatrical running time: Subplots are jettisoned, characters excised and combined, complications simplified. That said, director Kevin MacDonald (grandson of legendary writer-producer Emeric Pressburger, and director of The Last King of Scotland) and writers Matthew Michael Carnahan (Lions for Lambs), Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) deserve credit for recognizing producing aa thinking-man's thriller rather than a glossy roller-coaster ride like Eagle Eye (2008).


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Alien Trespass

(2009)
Directed by: R.W. Goodwin.
Written by: Steven P. Fisher, based on a story by Fisher and James Swift.
With: Eric McCormack, Jenni Baird, Robert Patrick, Jody Thompson, Dan Lauria, Aaron Brooks, Sarah Smyth, Andrew Dunbar, Sage Brocklebank, Jonathan Young, Tom McBeath and Michael Roberds.

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the comfortably middle-aged It Came From Outer Space should be blushing like a schoolgirl: R.W. Goodwin and Steven P. Fisher's meticulously crafted, deadpan recreation of 1950s sci-fi movies is first and foremost a tribute to its low-budget, high minded charms.

Beyond that, though, I'm not sure what to make of Alien Trespass, which is neither a spoof nor an homage… more like a reverential ritual designed to keep the movie memories of yesteryear alive. But since the films it evokes are still around and, if anything, more available than ever with us (you can see in its entirety It Came From Outer Space on YouTube, albeit broken into pieces: start here), the past's flame doesn't seem in desperate need of fanning.

1957: As a meteor shower lights up the sky over the Mojave desert, residents of a small desert town — including hormonal-but-decent teens Dick and Penny (Dunbar, Smyth), aspiring artist Tammy (Baird), drunken saucer-buff Wilson (McBeath), egghead Ted Lewis (McCormack) and his va-va-va-voom wife (Thompson) — see a puzzling object streak through the sky and crashes near a popular make-out spot at the edge of town. Dick and Penny, who are, naturally, in the middle of a steamy (but chaste) makeout session, hotfoot it out of there. Wilson stumbles out of his shack to great the visitors, but his close encounter scares the bejabbers out of him — maybe it was that head-to-toe silver jumpsuit. And Dr. Lewis — who, as an astronomer, owes it to science to investigate, slips out of the sleeping Lana's arms and winds up possessed by silver-suit guy, an intergalactic "Federal Marshall" named Urp, who accidentally lost a space monster — the ravenous, tentacled Ghota, which can reduce a human being to a puddle of slime without batting its gigantic single eye — and is desperate to get it back .

Lana immediately notices that her husband is acting, well, kind of crazy, speaking in the uniquely stilted cadences of '50s aliens and marvelling at stupid stuff like table salt. Urp/Dr. Lewis contrives to escape Lana's tender mercies: The Ghota is the cane toad of aliens, and must be stopped before it begins to reproduce!

Meanwhile, cops Vernon and Barnes (Patrick, Brocklebank) are besieged by reports of monsters on the loose; Dick and Penny's juvenile delinquent pal, Cody (Brooks), persuades them to revisit the crash site so he can take pictures with his dad's fancy new polaroid; and Tammy has an odd encounter with Dr. Lewis and Chief Dawson (Lauria) curses fate for visiting this nonsense on his town two days before he was due to retire.

Alien Trespass doesn't have a mean bone in its body: Fisher and X-Files veteran Goodwin are fans of vintage science fiction movies whose reach exceeds their threadbare grasp. The love is palpable. Goodwin and Fisher wrap their affectionate pastiche in a tongue-in-cheek back story told through pitch-perfect faux newsreels — scuttled by poverty-row mogul Lewis B. Goldstone after a feud with b-movie idol "M. Eric McCormack" (the grandfather of Will & Grace star Eric McCormack, wink, wink), Alien Trespass was believed lost until a print resurfaced five decades later &mdash and scrupulously reproduce the not-quite-perfect matte shots, theramin-goosed scores and endearingly unconvincing rear-projection of films like The Day the Earth Sood Still, This Island Earth and, of course, It Came From Outer Space.

The result is clever without being particularly engrossing; even as I was admiring its flawlessly, I kept thinking of The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2004), which treads the same ground while managing to to be weirdly funny.


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12 Rounds

(2009)
Directed by: Renny Harlin.
Written by: Daniel Kunka.
With: John Cena, Aidan Gillen, Ashley Scott, Steve Harris, Brian White, Gonzalo Menendez and Taylor Cole.

Bottom Line: Wrestling star John Cena is the dead weight that drags down this brainless but energetic action picture.

NEW YORK -- A fortuitous confluence of luck and pluck allows lowly New Orleans beat cop Danny Fisher (Cena) to arrest infernally clever Irish arms dealer Miles Jackson (Gillen), who's been leading the FBI a merry chase for three years. It's a shame Miles' daredevil girlfriend died in the process, but it was more Miles' fault than Danny's: If Miles hadn't told her to run, she wouldn't have been pasted by that oncoming car.

That is not, of course, how Miles sees it. By the time he breaks out of a jail a year later, he's masterminded a diabolical plan to make Danny, now a detective, pay ... and pay and pay some more.

Miles blows up Danny's house and car, kidnaps his lovely girlfriend, Molly (Scott), and orchestrates an escalating series of tests and puzzles via taunting cell phone calls. If Danny can survive 12 rounds of the game, Miles promises to let Molly live. If Danny fails, it's an "eye for an eye" time and Molly dies.

Danny has the enthusiastic support of his partner and best friend (White) and the self-serving assistance of an FBI team led by arrogant agent George Aiken (Steve Harris), who's still steamed over having lost the opportunity to collar Miles himself.

Daniel Kunka's script delivers plot twists galore, but the film's adrenaline-injected action set pieces trump narrative logic every time. Director Renny Harlin, who once presided over such major studio event-pictures as "Die Hard 2" and "Cliffhanger," knows how to wrangle screaming fire engines, cop cars and helicopters, so any scene involving criminally reckless driving on crowded city streets or theft and destruction of private and public property crackles. Character development, however, has never been Harlin's strong suit, so the cast is left to fend for itself.

Irish actor Gillen, who suggests a curious mix of Richard Gere and Gary Oldman, brings a devious sparkle to smirking sociopath Miles, who seems on the verge of breaking into a wee jig every time he sets Danny another apparently impossible task. If Cena were half as charismatic, Danny and Miles' turbo-charged cat-and-mouse game would be a real blast. But Cena is no Jason Statham. His stolid seriousness sucks the life right out of any scene in which he's required to speak. It's a bad sign when you repeatedly wish a runaway trolley would silence the hero.

This review originally appeared in The Hollywood Reporter.


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The Haunting in Connecticut

(2009)
Directed by: Peter Cornwell.
Written by: Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe.
With: Virginia Madsen, Martin Donovan, Kyle Gallner, Elias Koteas and Amanda Crew.

"Some things cannot be explained," warn the posters. Well, amen to that: I'm at a total loss to explain why the claim "based on a true story" is supposed to make a movie scary, or why people persist in believing tales of supernatural hijinks long after they've been thoroughly debunked. Inspired by the supposedly well-documented account of a family's ordeal with unquiet spirits, The Haunting in Connecticut is this generation's Amityville Horror.

This review originally appeared on AMCtv's Horror Hacker site.


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Duplicity

(2009)
Written and directed by: Michael Gilroy.
With: Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Tom Wilkinson, Paul Giamatti, Rick Worthy, Tom McCarthy, Denis O’Hare, Kathleen Chalfant and Carrie Preston.

That most frustrating thing about writer-director Michael (Michael Clayton) Gilroy's dryly jaunty, globe-trotting spy-vs.-spy romp is that it's just good enough to make you wish it were better.

It opens brilliantly. A pair of sleekly dressed executives and their entourages converge on a private airport in the shadow of their respective corporate jets. In slow motion and without sound, the rival captains of industry hard looks, warning snarls and, finally, body blows, as their stunned minions work up the courage to separate the lions of Burkett & Randle and Equikrom. Operatic, witty and brilliantly efficient, the sequence establish the no-holds-barred war of egos against which a fiendishly complicated scam will unfold.

Dubai, 2003: MI5 hound dog Ray Koval (Owen) and steely CIA cutie Claire Stenwick (Roberts) meet at a Fourth of July shindig at the US Embassy and fall into bed like the beautiful creatures they are. Sadly, cock-of-the-walk Ray fails to realize that Claire is just after some top-secret documents, and awakes 18 hours later humiliated, outraged and suffering a major Mickey Finn hangover.

Four years later, Ray and Claire have left their respective government gigs and taken up corporate espionage: He's a last-minute addition to the team of high-tech spies assembled by ferrety CEO Dick Garsik (Giamatti) to steal the formula for a revolutionary product — it's so secret he doesn't even know what it is, beyond that it must be something to do with health and/or hygiene — developed by his sworn enemy, marketplace Darwinist Howard Tully (Wilkinson). She's the mole buried deep in Tully's security department, Whoever brings the miracle invention to market first will rule the kingdom of health and beauty aids, at least until the next big things comes along. That Ray was brought in as Claire's handler is a delicious irony neither particularly appreciates. Or do they?

Gilroy's twisty tale unfolds in a series of achronological flashbacks, each of which reveals another facet of Claire and Ray's exquisitely complicated relationship — a thing of larceny, lust and the total absence of trust. Each knows the other is a reflexive liar, constantly calculating the odds of getting away with something illegal, immoral, seductively lucrative or some combination thereof. The bitter battle of wits between Equikrom and Burkett & Randle offers the opportunity to work the long con of a lifetime: While the fat cats are busy trying to screw each other, there's room for a pair of sly mice to slip in and snatch the multimillion dollar cheese out from under their noses. The trick is figuring out where the various players' loyalties lie.

All of which promises cruel, sexy, brain-teasing fun in the tradition of The Sting, Nine Queens, The Grifters or House of Games. And it delivers, at least until the story is dragged down by the weight of Ray and Claire's oddly lifeless romance, the very thing that's supposed to add sizzle to the ice-cold mechanics of the dizzyingly complicated caper.

Pairing Owen and Roberts must have looked great on paper: Rugged animal magnetism (what a James Bond Owen could have been!) and girl-next-door sparkle spiced up with a hint of, yes, duplicity. But Roberts looks shockingly wan and haggard, while Owens oozes glumness rather than dangerous performance seems glum rather than sexual danger. There was more electricity to their pairing in the grim anti-romance Closer, where every scene they shared seethed with the potential for sex, violence or both. A romantic comedy is in trouble when there's less chemistry between the lovers than a pair of middle-aged money grubbers who have exactly one scene together.


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Knowing

(2009)
Directed by: Alex Proyas.
Written by: Ryne Douglas Pearson, Juliet Snowden and Stiles White, from a story by Ryne Douglas Pearson. Adaptation by Alex Proyas.
With: Nicolas Cage, Rose Byrne, Chandler Canterbury, Ben Mendelsohn, Lara Robinson, Nadia Townsend, Danielle Carter, Alethea McGrath, Alan Hopgood and D.G. Maloney.

Were you to combine the new-age wonder of Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the apocalyptic revelations of the Left Behind books and films and the brilliantly nutty historical revisionism of Swiss provocateur Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? the result might approximate this big-budget action thriller in which both faith and science are put to the test and found wanting.

A year after his wife's horribly random death, MIT astrophysicist John Koestler (Cage) is a shadow man, estranged from his deeply religious family and grimly convinced that life is a sad, pointless march towards eternal nothingness. Koestler's precocious, hearing-impaired son, Caleb (Canterbury), is the only reason he gets out of bed in the morning. And even with Caleb to keep him tethered to the land of the living, Koestler is teetering on the edge of the black pit of despair, unable to forgive, forget or move forward.

Until the 50th-anniversary celebration at Caleb's school, a tediously well-intentioned event featuring sanctimonious speeches, beatifically singing children and a guest appearance by Miss Taylor (Carter), who taught the school's very first class. She supervises the opening of a time capsule containing drawings of the far-away future of 2009 as drawn by the long-ago tykes. But while Caleb's classmates tear open long-sealed envelopes stuffed with sweetly childish drawings of rocket ships and flying cars, his contains a sheet of paper dense with numbers, painstakingly arranged in tidy but apparently meaningless rows. Creepy.

And creepier still once Professor Koestler, whiskey-fueled and sleep deprived, discerns a pattern, sets of digits that resolve themselves into dates and death tolls. The whole thing is crazy: How could high-strung schoolgirl Lucinda Embry (Robinson) have predicted every major disaster of the latter half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st? Who are the duster-clad suicide blondes lurking in the woods outside Koestler's home and what does the neurotic Diana (Byrne, of TV's Damages), loony Lucinda's daughter, know or suspect about her mother's encounters with the "whisper people" who are now murmuring blandishments in the ears of both Caleb and her own little girl (Robinson again)? And most important, why do the numbers end in October 2009?

No one will remember Knowing for its performances (wooden), plotting (careless) or underlying cosmology (bughouse crazy). But its disaster set pieces are nothing short of stunning: The plane that comes screaming out of a rain-smudged sky, one wing sparking on the asphalt as it slices through a traffic jam and explodes in a hellish fireball; the New York City subway train that goes off the rails and pulverizes steel, cement and human flesh before coming to a rubble- and dust-shrouded halt; and… well, the last is so intimately intertwined with the film's late, great twist that it's better left undescribed. Suffice it to say that the screenplay's flaws don't include failure of nerve.

To Proyas' credit, Knowing, from a story by co-writer Ryne Douglas Pearson (whose Simon Says became the 1998 Bruce Willis film Mercury Rising), is frontloaded with a pervasive sense of unease so miasmic that even Cage's mannered posturing can't entirely undermine it. But once the plot's wheels start grinding in earnest, the film follows that runaway subway train off the rails. Knowing manages to be simultaneously ham-fisted and naïve in the same way as Cloverfield, consciously toying with emotionally loaded images associated with 9/11 in the service of a b-movie plot that would have seemed hokey half a century ago.


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Last House on the Left (2009)

(2009)
Directed by: Dennis Iliades.
Written by: Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven.
With: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Sara Paxton, Garret Dillahunt, Spencer Treat Clark, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul and Martha MacIsaac.

Given the success of Alexandre Aja's 2006 remake of Wes Craven's seminal shocker, a new version of his Last House on the Left (1972), arguably the most reviled film of an era filled with cinematic outrages, was inevitable. But this new House is softer than the old House, a cautionary revenge tale in which the avengers are forced to confront the fact that they're as tainted by the outrageous cruelty of which they're capable as those they seek to punish.

Overall, Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth's screenplay follows Craven's closely: Pampered, slightly naive Mari Collingwood (Paxton), who's spending the summer with her parents, Jack and Emma (Goldwyn and Potter), at the family's isolated lake house, hooks up with her pal Paige (MacIsaac) at the general store where Paige works. City girl Mari is a straight arrow who channels her energy into competitive swimming, while the small-town Paige is a little wilder and less goal oriented; when scruffy, baby-faced stranger Justin (Clark) offers to sell them some good weed, it's Paige who leaps at the offer. Mari tags along in the spirit of being a good sport, and frets when she realizes the rundown motel where Justin and his family are staying is out of cell phone range — she's the kind of kid who actually checks in with her mom when she says she will.

A storm gathers, Paige and Justin party and Mari hangs out gamely, but the fun screeches to a halt when Justin's family comes home early. Justin's fugitive dad is a sadistic sociopath named Krug (Dillahunt, of TV's Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles), who was en route to a maximum security prison when his brother, Frank (Paul, of TV's Breaking Bad), and girlfriend, Sadie (Lindhome), engineered his escape, cold-bloodedly killing two police officers in the process. The fugitives are big news and their pictures are everywhere: They need to get out of town fast and need Mari's SUV, but the girls have to go.

Krug and company (the title under which Craven's version was shot) take off with the teenagers in tow, taunting and abusing them as they drive. Though terrified, Mari keeps a cool head and, after steering her abductors onto a road tantalizingly close to the sanctuary of her parents' house, makes a bold attempt to escape. It fails dismally: Frank and Sadie catch Paige just before she makes it to a busy construction site, and her desperate show of bravado so enrages Krug that he stabs her and rapes the virginal Mari; Justin watches in mute horror. As Krug and his minions regroup, Mari makes one last break for freedom, diving into the nearby lake and attempting to swim to safety. Krug shoots her in the back and leaves her to die in the water.

With the SUV damaged and the storm intensifying, Krug and his bleeding, bedraggled crew make their way to the nearest shelter, which just happens to be the Collingwood house. Jack and Emma welcome them with food, drink and medical attention — Jack is a doctor — but it's only a matter of time before they realize they're sheltering the beasts who brutalized their beloved daughter. What will they do? Well, the fact is pretty much everyone knows what they do, either because they're familiar with the original film or because they've seen the trailers for the remake, which give away the whole plot, right down to the last gruesome fillip that's tacked on to the end like a roadshow square-up reel. So it's no spoiler to reveal that Jack and Emma wreak bloody vengeance, torturing Frank, Sadie and Krug as cruelly as they did Paige and Mari.

You can see why Craven got solidly behind a Last House remake: His brutal reimagining of Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring was a cri de coeur born of late 1960s disillusionment, when the Rolling Stones' concert at Altamont, the Manson family murders and the attenuated carnage of the Vietnam War came together to stain cherished American ideals with blood and cynicism. Fast forward to the Iraq War's grisly fallout, the abuses of Abu Ghraib and the cynical erosion of values wrought by the war on terror: Last House's underlying concerns, particularly the psychic toll exacted by tit-for-tat retribution, are as relevant as ever. And it's hard to imagine that 2005's Chaos, a totally unauthorized, virtually scene for scene remake of Last House, wasn't a contributing factor.

The trouble is that the tweaks and tucks made by the new Last House team — director Iliades and screenwriters Alleca and Ellsworth — all undermine the brutal directness of the original. They include the totally extraneous invention of Mari's late brother, Ben (presumably to raise the stakes on the Collingwoods' investment in their surviving child); the fact that Mari has sworn off smoking dope (read: she's an unambiguous good girl) and lives to make her way home (not a spoiler, by the way &mdash it's in the trailer); and the recasting of Justin as an innocent and fundamentally decent kid helpless to resist his domineering dad. Put it all together and you have a film designed to make audiences root for the Collingwoods to give Krug, Frank and Sadie exactly what they deserve, a satisfying thrill ride rather than a downbeat examination of the ways in which violence — even when morally sanctioned — eats away at the souls of the perpetrators. None of which will have much to do with the success or failure of the new Last House: If it can bring in both genre buffs familiar with the original film's reputation but unwilling to watch old movies (which is to say anything made before Jaws and/or Star Wars) and thrill seekers whose curiosity is piqued by the atrocities promised by the tell-all trailers, it should do just fine.

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.


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Watchmen

(2009)
Directed by: Zack Snyder.
Written by: David Hayter and Alex Tse, based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore (uncredited) and Dave Gibbons.
With: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Billy Crudup, Matthew Goode, Malin Akerman, Carla Gugino, Stephen McHattie, Matt Frewer, Laura Mennell Rob LaBelle, Danny Woodburn (uncredited)

Zack Snyder's Watchmen isn't perfect. It will not change the world as we know it. And it is not a word-for-word, image-for-image adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' insanely ambitious deconstruction of the costumed crime-fighter mythos; it isn't the movie that played in my head when I first read it, nor is it yours. But Zack Snyder's Watchmen is a first-rate adaptation of Moore and Gibbons' densely imagined, alternate pop-culture history of the world, a dazzling, Dystopian fable with a deeply dark heart.

New York, 1985: Richard Nixon is in the fifth term of his imperial presidency, the United States and Soviet Union are on the brink of nuclear war and someone has just murdered Edward Morgan Blake (Morgan), a.k.a. to some as the Comedian. To the world at large, the Comedian was an uber-patriot, a true-blue defender of truth, justice and the American way. His fellow costumed heroes know otherwise: Although a founding member of the 1940s' Minutemen, a coalition of gung-ho, first-generation "masks," the Comedian was little better than a thug with an excuse to act on his every ugly impulse. Amoral thugs with big guns being the useful tools they are, the Comedian was recruited by Uncle Sam's department of dirty deeds, who kept his image polished to a high shine. And when the 1977 Keene Act outlawing costumed vigilantes was passed, he was exempted, while fellow masks Nite Owl (Wilson), Silk Spectre (Akerman) and Ozymandias (Goode) were forced into retirement. Ozymandias subsequently went public with his true identity — self-made millionaire Adrian Veidt — and joined Dr. Manhattan (Crudup), the only true superman in the group, on a high-profile mission to promote world peace through technology. Bona fide sociopath Rorschach (Haley), whose misanthropy is matched only by his paranoia, never cared much about laws and continued to pursue his morally uncompromising crusade against the wicked.

Rorschach's quest to find the Comedian's killer is the thread on which Moore strung his intricate, non-linear dissection of five decades' worth of superhero mythology. With the exception of its opening sequence, a documentary style montage that brilliantly distills the history of costumed crime-fighters in America to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'," Snyder and screenwriters David Hayter and Alex Tse hew faithfully to the original's text and structure, a series of interlocking flashbacks and digressions that culminate in a scorched-earth climax that leaves no cliché behind. Not surprising, the film looks great; that it works dramatically is a tribute to its cast, Crudup in particular. Playing a costumed hero is tough enough — playing a naked, opaque-eyed, blue-skinned ubermensch dogged by existential angst and the gradual loss of his humanity is tougher, especially when your performance is filtered through layers of CGI. The unfortunate exception to the generally pitch-perfect casting is vapid hottie Akerman, whose Silk Spectre is the sum total of sleekly swinging hair and a pin-up girl costume.

It's a shame that Moore, who was conspicuously unhappy with the movie versions of his From Hell, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and V for Vendetta, had his name removed from Watchmen's credits at the outset. It's hard to imagine a better adaptation, and it just might steer some new readers to the original.


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The International

(2009)
Directed by: Tom Tykwer.
Written by: Eric Singer.
With: Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ulrich Thomsen, Brian F. O'Byrne, Michel Voletti, Patrick Baladi, Jay Villiers, Fabrice Scott, Haluk Bilginer, Luca Giorgio Barbareschi, Ian Burfield, Alessandro Fabrizi, Felix Solis, Jack McGee and Nilaja Sun.

Not since the nuclear-nightmare thriller The China Syndrome (1979) opened less than two weeks before an accident shut down Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island plant has a movie lucked into such eerily serendipitous timing as Tom Tykwer's icily cynical film about devious doings in the international banking industry.

Interpol agent Lou Salinger (Owen) and Manhattan Assistant DA Eleanor Whitman (Watts) have been trying to get the dirt on the Luxembourg-based International Bank of Business and Credit, a vast financial institution involved in money laundering, arms dealing and God only knows what else. The trouble is proving it, which boils down to finding an IBBC (the initials pointedly invoke a real company that went down in scandalous flames in 1991) insider whose conscience has overcome his avarice, and it looks as though they've finally caught a break. One of Whitman's colleagues, Tom Schumer (Burfield), has made contact with a high-level executive who appears ready to give up his employers. Is it coincidence that immediately after their first face-to-face meeting, a clandestine rendezvous in a Berlin parking lot, Schumer succumbs to a fatal heart attack? Salinger doesn't think so, especially after he finds a fresh needle puncture on Schumer's back, but the Berlin police refuse to investigate. Salinger's suspicions are confirmed when he finds that police reports concerning the death of an IBBC executive — in a one-car accident mere hours after Schumer's death — have been tampered with.

Salinger and Whitman finagle an interview with Italian businessman Umberto Calvini (Luca Giorgio Barbareschi), who recently pulled out of a huge arms deal with IBBC, perhaps concerned that the association might derail his political ambitions. It falls to Calvini to lay out the players and the game: IBBC's excursion into direct arms dealing has nothing to do with the profit in selling pistols and everything to do with debt. Waging war costs money, IBBC is famous for lending it to warlords, dictators and guerrilla rebels, and debt is better than a chain around the neck for manipulating and controlling nations. Not surprisingly, Calvini is assassinated shortly after, the upside being that his assassin left a footprint behind — if Whitman and Salinger can find the shooter (O'Byrne), maybe he'll lead them to the puppet master. The complications continue to multiply well into the third act, as Whitman and Salinger are constantly challenged to reassess how far they're willing to go to bring down IBBC.

Despite the fact that The International opened as the world economy was spiraling into free fall as a direct (if not necessarily deliberate) result of debt manipulation by global financial institutions, its cool reception probably had more to do with the fact that thrillers in which the bad guy is a system rather than an individual are hard put to deliver a satisfying resolution. It's easier to take out a rogue CIA agent than, say, the IMF, and even in the dyspeptic '70s the average moviegoer preferred a James Bond movie to the bleak paranoia of The Parallax View.

Tykwer's mise en scene makes it clear from the outset that Whitman and Salinger are raging against a machine of inhuman proportions: Bird's-eye views of crowds dispersing like bugs, low-angle shots of sleekly impersonal glass-and-steel office towers, panoramic images of coldly angular buildings squatting in the magnificent isolation of otherwise pristine natural beauty. The globetrotting locations change — Lyon, Milan, Berlin, Istanbul — but the proportions remain the same. Even the bravura shootout at New York's sensuously curved Guggenheim Museum, a beautifully choreographed exercise in ever-escalating mayhem, emphasizes the contrast between small, scurrying people and the building's symmetrical white ramps, as serenely curved as the ribs of a vast, indifferent ship.

Tykwer and first-time screenwriter Eric Singer take a cynical view of the world's workings, but The International isn't a hipster's oh-so-ironic riff on the establishment's nefarious wheels within wheels: Salinger and Whitmen are establishment too. There's a sadness beneath the glossy surface, the kind you hear in Leonard Cohen's whiskey-and-cigarettes growl; it's so underplayed you hardly notice it until after the movie's over, around the time you think to wonder about those incongruously literary monikers.


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Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail

(2009)
Written and Directed by: Tyler Perry, based on his play.
With: Tyler Perry, Derek Luke, Keshia Knight Pulliam, David Mann, Tamela Mann, RonReaco Lee, Vanessa Ferlito, Viola Davis, Ion Overman, Sofia Vergara, Robin Coleman and Greg Mathis.

King of all media Tyler Perry gives fans what they want: irreverent, pistol-packin' big momma Madea, who's going to make those confused, disrespectful young people see sense if she has to slap it into them. The film won't win any new converts, but Perry knows the box-office value of preaching to the choir.

Miss Mabel "Madea" Simmons (Tyler Perry) is—as always—in a mess of trouble, because she just doesn't know how to suffer fools. Not gladly, mind you, just without making the kind of scene that winds up on the local news. This time she's ordered to undergo anger-management therapy, and if she doesn't go, her next stop is the big house.

Meanwhile, bright young assistant D.A. Josh Hardaway (Derek Luke) is shocked to find childhood friend Candace (former Cosby kid Keshia Knight Pulliam) under arrest on prostitution charges. He hasn't seen her in five years, when she dropped out of college, and there's something in their shared past that compels him to bail her out, buy her lunch and make her swear that if she needs any kind of help she'll call. None of this sits well with Josh's snooty fiancée, fellow assistant D.A. Linda Davis (Ion Overman), and the resulting tension puts a severe strain on the wedding plans, especially when Josh lets Candy sleep on his couch after she's been beaten and raped by a sadistic pimp.

As all this heavy drama is unfolding, Madea reluctantly reports for anger-management counseling and so infuriates her therapist (Dr. Phil, in one of the film's many celebrity cameos) that he refuses to see her for a second session. She then gets into a parking-space dispute with a skinny rich bitch outside Kmart, and settles the matter by taking a forklift to the woman's sports car. Madea is hauled into court again, but this time it's Judge Greg Mathis (as himself) presiding, and it's off to the DeKalb County lockup for her. And that's where all the plot strands come together: Candy is there, along with her hooker friend Donna (Vanessa Ferlito), who's actually cleaning up her act, and pavement preacher Ellen (Viola Davis), who ministers to prisoners and, at Josh's request, tried to help Candy before Candy was ready to help herself. Let's just say that Madea's special form of tough love wins over fellow inmates as diverse as cheerfully nutty serial killer T.T. (Sofia Vergara) and butch Big Sal (American Gladiator Robin Coleman), allowing her to talk some much-needed, no-bull sense into the lot of them.

Madea Goes to Jail raked in the biggest opening-weekend gross of any Perry film since his first, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, proving that it's hard to go wrong giving the people what they want. Madea is the spoonful of sugar (okay, maybe more like the 10-gallon bucket) that makes the melodrama go down, and where else are you going to see Whoopi Goldberg (with “View” co-hosts Joy Behar and Elizabeth Hasselbeck) and Rev. Al Sharpton gamely contributing fake sound bites about the gross miscarriage of justice that landed a man in a fat suit and housedress in a ladies' slammer?

This review originally appeared in Film Journal International.)


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Coraline

(2009)
Directed by: Henry Selick.
Written by: Henry Selick, based on Neil Gaiman's book.
With the Voices of: Dakota Fanning, Teri Hatcher, Keith David, Robert Bailey Jr., John Hodgman, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ian McShane, Aankha Neal, George Selick and Hannah Kaiser.

Henry Selick never got the recognition he deserved for directing the sweetly macabre Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) — given that full title, small wonder — but his 3-D adaptation of Neil Gaiman's delightfully dark children's novel should make him a household name.

Eleven-year-old Coraline Jones (voiced by Fanning) doesn't see why her parents (Hatcher, Hodgman) had to pull up stakes and move from Michigan to Oregon. She hates their new home, a gloomily undistinguished house in the middle of nowhere, with a neglected garden and an incongruously precious name: "The Pink Palace." She misses her old friends, and Wybie (Bailey, Jr.), whose grandmother owns the Palace, is no substitute, though he's better than the eccentric neighbors — twittery former music-hall actresses Miss Spink and Miss Forcible (Saunders, French), with their Scotties (whose ages range from superannuated to stuffed) and bowls full of ossified toffy — and peculiar Mr. Bobinsky (McShane), a Russian acrobat claims to be training a mouse circus in the attic. Coraline wishes her parents were more, well, parental: They sit around the house all day writing about seeds — her mother doesn't even like gardening — and never make anything nice for dinner or buy her fun clothes. And everyone outside her family calls her Caroline, no matter how many times she corrects them.

And then Coraline finds the door. Her mother says it doesn't go anywhere — there's nothing behind it but a brick wall. But Coraline knows there must be, and indeed, she finds the key and opens it. And there it is: a slinky sort of tunnel, luridly lit in the style of Dario Argento's Suspiria, that leads back into her own home… her home the way it ought to be. Everything is new and bright and beautiful, including her parents: Coraline's Other Mother cooks her favorite foods, wears pretty clothes and never tells her to be quiet and stay out of the way. Her Other Father is fun and playful and takes her on a tour of the garden he's into a vividly colored botanical wonderland, full of pitcher plants and bleeding hearts and snap dragons that really snap. Even her toys caper and romp for her amusement. If only the other parents didn't have blank, black-button eyes… they're a little creepy, frankly. But aside from that, everything is perfect.

Coraline falls asleep in her marvelous other bedroom and wakes up in her shabby old one, but knows she wasn't dreaming. The other world is as real as this one, and she returns every night, even after the talking doppelganger of the scrawny feral cat (David) who haunts the grounds outside the Pink Palace warns that things are not as they seem. But how can she resist a world where Wybie doesn't chatter all the time — in fact, doesn't talk at all — and Mr. Bobinsky's jerboa mice perform marvelous tricks and routines, then twist and balance their furry little bodies into a living sculpture of her name? Where Miss Forcible and Miss Spink mount a theatrical spectacular just for her, complete with Victorian stagecraft and death-defying stunts? It's a little weird, two fat old ladies in scanty costumes cavorting on the flying trapeze, but it's a command performance for Coraline. By the time she realizes how right the cat is, her real world is in danger and she must be braver and smarter than she ever imagined if things are to be put right.

Like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Tim Burton's The Corpse Bride, Coraline was created using old-fashioned stop-motion animation, the painstaking frame-by-frame manipulation of puppets and props within a meticulously constructed world. Stop-motion breathed life into Willis O'Brien's soulful King Kong and the much-loved monsters of Ray Harryhausen; fans (of whom I'm one), love its unrepentant physicality. It produces a palpable sensation that you're seeing something real that neither classical cel animation nor CGI can; every time I hear someone marveling at how real computer-generated images look, I think of the many times I've been pulled out of live-action movies by a flock of CGI birds flapping across a real sky. And 3-D makes Coraline's meticulously imagined world look even more eerily inviting; Selick refrains from throwing things at the lens in favor of filling up the background with the kind of intricate, delightful details that make repeat viewings as fresh as the first.

Like virtually all mainstream American animation, Coraline is meant for children. But it's neither infantile nor condescending. It has a moral — the same moral as The Wizard of Oz and Through the Looking Glass &mdash without being preachy or sanctimonious, and bypasses the cynical formulas that makes so many animated features so headache-inducing. It assumes that a good, multilayered story will hook kids as surely as garish visuals, antic pacing and coarse jokes about bodily functions, and adults without recourse to pop-culture gags and nudge-nudge, wink-wink double entendres. And Coraline is scary, like the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and E.T.A. Hoffmann: Actions have consequences, enchanted worlds are filled with hidden danger and lessons are learned at a price. Magical kingdoms are rooted in the fantasies children invent to correct reality's incomprehensible complications and unfairness; as soon as they begin to understand the delicate reckonings that make adult life so frustratingly complicated, the feckless fledglings are on their way back from never-never land, tougher and better equipped to weather life's storms. The door in the wall is half-sized, just right for a child, but the Coraline who eventually emerges is halfway to adulthood, ready to work with the reality of flawed parents and imperfect friends. And in the end, Coraline's Other Mother is no more frightening than the witch in Snow White and Peter Pan's Captain Hook; she's just scary enough that her comeuppance is truly, righteously satisfying.


 


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