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March 2011

A House Is Not a Host

Insidious (2011)


With “Saw,” Australian director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell created arguably the most successful horror franchise of the last decade. Although the two brilliantly plotted all the twists and turns in that film, they evidently made a huge miscalculation by distancing themselves from five out of its six sequels. Instead of being branded as one-trick ponies, they now run the risk of being known as one-hit wonders.

Four years after the embarrassing double whammy of “Dead Silence” and “Death Sentence” (the latter Mr. Whannell did not pen and only starred in), the two finally redeem themselves with the respectable “Insidious.” And they have done so in spite of many obstacles, not the least of which is that the film’s first major twist is now an open secret. “It’s not the house that is haunted,” the trailers and posters explain. Thanks a lot, marketing geniuses.

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Something Is Rotten in Denmark

In a Better World (2010)

Morten Søborg/Sony Pictures Classics

Bullying sucks. And with so many young people around the country and possibly around the world having taken their own lives because they could no longer endure it, the subject is most certainly ripe for cinematic exploration. So the newly minted Oscar Best Foreign Language Film “In a Better World” looks at the phenomenon and all its manifestations: your classic schoolyard tormentor, the redneck fight-picker and an African tyrant who does unspeakably heinous things to young women.

Although this being a film by Susanne Bier, there is unfortunately a good measure of unneeded melodrama stirred in to trivialize the very important thematic concerns. Just as she took post-traumatic stress syndrome into daytime soap territory with the original “Brothers,” Ms. Bier peppers the multiple threads of bullying in “In a Better World” with various domestic dysfunctions involving widowers, divorcees and absent parents.

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Big Sky Country Mile

Sweetgrass (2009)

Cinema Guild

“Sweetgrass” may be the most unusual movie you’ve never seen. It is a documentary with no narration, no soundtrack, minimal dialogue and a lot of sheep. Here, we have extreme avant-garde filmmaking: creative partners Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor have created a 101-minute work of art stripped of all common technique and polish. What remains is a slim and imperfect examination of sheepherders in the American Northwest.

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Can't Fight the Twilight

Red Riding Hood (2011)

Kimberly French/Warner Bros. Pictures

Movies are often sold to studios on the promise of combining flick A and flick B to produce, well, flick A-plus-B or something. For example, “ ‘Dumb & Deader’ will totally be similar to ‘Dumb & Dumber’-meets-‘Sudden Death’.” It’s the age-old explanation for why Hollywood plagiarizes itself with such fervor.

In formulating “Red Riding Hood,” her ridiculous teenybopper-geared retooling of the fairy tale, director Catherine Hardwicke (“Twilight”) clearly couldn’t be bothered to restrict the formula to two movies, or TV shows, or popular trends. Instead, the medieval village-set picture is “Gossip Girl”-meets-“Spring Awakening”-and-a-Renaissance Faire with a dash of “Twilight,” a sprinkling of MTV, a touch of Baz Luhrmann-style anachronisms and all the sweeping helicopter shots you’ll ever need.

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Tell It to the Marines

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

Columbia Pictures

“Battle: Los Angeles” zeroes in on the least interesting aspect of a hostile, militaristic alien invasion: the frontline combat. The specter and mystery of a sudden and fierce extraterrestrial colonization attempt is wiped away by filmmaker Jonathan Liebesman. In its stead is a full-length version of one of those ubiquitous “Be all you can be” ads, an excuse for a band of one-dimensional United States Marines to flex its collective muscle.

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