'Grace' skillfully preys on motherhood pangs

Also: 'Heart of Stone,' 'I Sell the Dead,' 'Second Skin,' 'Taxidermia,' 'The Way We Get By'

August 14, 2009|Michael Ordona; Kevin Thomas; Gary Goldstein;

Much of "Grace" plays as a family drama about a mother desperate to save her baby. It's that low-key, realistic framing that takes the movie's macabre events to a whole new level of freaky. The nightmarish film preys on the pain that strikes all parents to the core: How far can one go for a child's life? Madeline (Jordan Ladd), who has struggled to have kids, gets pregnant -- then survives an accident that apparently kills her fetus. She wills herself to give birth anyway, only to find that the newborn has an unusual appetite.

It's a horror movie but not a simple genre widget. That it's rooted in reality gives its strange images the power to disturb. Even its environment is unusual, informed by women's studies and alternative medicine. Writer-director Paul Solet's meta-humor allows Madeline to watch a nature show depicting animal violence and call it "a vegan horror movie."

The filmmaker conveys information in interesting ways. A brief, wordless opening depicting a purely functional sex scene between Madeline and her husband tells us about their relationship and that she has been trying to get pregnant for some time.

There are no cheap genre tricks, no jumping out of cupboards. Solet trusts his actors, story and atmosphere to hold audiences. "Grace" doesn't need a high body count to frighten, although its gore is stomach-turning. It's a horrifying meditation on the unbreakable union of mother and child.

-- Michael Ordona

"Grace." MPAA rating: R for bloody images, violence and some sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Laemmle's Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

A principal's class act in New Jersey

The title of Beth Toni Kruvant's probing documentary "Heart of Stone" refers to Ronald Stone, the remarkable principal of Newark's Weequahic High School, whose heart is anything but. A rugged 6-foot-3-inch athlete, Stone in 2001 arrived at a school that had once been rated as among the best in the nation but had become one of the worst schools in the 12th most dangerous U.S. city.

"Heart of Stone" is a portrait of a dedicated man -- smart, articulate, strong and tough-minded yet warm and compassionate, willing and able to reach out and communicate with his students on an individual basis. It is also the story of the city. Between 1930 and 1960, the Weequahic neighborhood was an idyllic, secure, solidly middle-class Jewish neighborhood, but shifting demographics and brewing racial tensions, which exploded in a landmark 1967 riot, drove Newark's whites to the suburbs, and Weequahic became a black neighborhood increasingly terrorized by gang warfare. The film also calls attention to the school's formidable alumni association co-founded by Hal Braff, class of 1952 -- and the father of the film's executive producer, actor Zach Braff.

The group, composed of both older Jews and younger blacks, has been key in supporting Stone's effort to transform Weequahic, raising impressive sums for college scholarships, supporting the football team and providing skiing outings for students -- even a trip to Paris. Deftly structured, incisive and revealing, uplifting without ever glossing over grim realities, "Heart of Stone" offers a hard-won sense of hope and possibilities.

-- Kevin Thomas

"Heart of Stone." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At the Town Center 5 in Encino through Thursday.

Not much life to this tale of death

It's called "I Sell the Dead," and you get what you pay for.

In 19th century England, an imprisoned grave robber (Dominic Monaghan) awaiting execution tells his sordid story to a priest (the suspiciously cast Ron Perlman). In flashback, the boy ghoul and his grubby mentor sift through dirt seeded with bodies, dead and undead.

One feels for shoestring-budget filmmakers cobbling together period pieces, aiming for Dickensian England but hitting community-theater "Oliver!" instead. It's meant to be a horror comedy though, so a light, absurd touch could excuse much. Unfortunately, the movie suffers from chronic pacing problems that writer-director-editor Glenn McQuaid tries to solve with hyperactive editing and constantly reminding us we're watching a comedy via overzealous use of music. There are no scares, so the movie lives and dies by its ability to generate laughs. Dies, mostly. The cast is game but spotty. The worst fault visually, probably intended as a charm against the spell of low-budget-itis, is relentless darkness. Pervasive shadows in most shots do not evoke atmosphere, but eye strain.

The movie's not without charm -- the creature effects are fun and the mix of vampires, zombies (et al) is amusing. That's not enough to save it from the Curse of the Predictable Plot Twist and the Blight of the Creeping Shadows. Given the filmmaker's obvious enthusiasm, however, one imagines McQuaid will rise again.

-- Michael Ordona

"I Sell The Dead." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood. Also available on demand via IFC in Theaters.

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