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The horror of baby pangs

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.

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-- 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.

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“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.

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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.

It’s not always fun and games

Did you know that one in three female computer gamers dates someone they met in a virtual world? Did you also know that there’s a halfway house in Harrisburg, Pa., for excessive online gamers? These and many other intriguing, sometimes troubling, questions are examined in “Second Skin,” Juan Carlos Pineiro-Escoriaza’s deft documentary about the phenomenon of online gaming and the lure of virtual fantasy life for its often socially challenged enthusiasts.

You don’t need to be a gamer to appreciate this involving and well-paced character study, even if the uninitiated won’t walk away with much insight as to how such wildly popular, simultaneously interactive MMO (massively multiplayer online) games such as “World of Warcraft” or “Everquest” are played. Instead, Pineiro-Escoriaza smartly focuses on three sets of hard-core gamers: a couple who move in together after “falling in love” as avatars in a virtual world; four Fort Wayne, Ind., buddies whose incessant gaming takes a hit when one becomes a father and another gets married; and, most riveting, a Philadelphia gaming addict in “recovery” who inadvertently passes along his life-altering compulsion to his nephew.

Briefer interviews with gaming industry experts, other couples who first hooked up online and a mother haunted by her son’s gaming-related demise, round out this entertaining portrait.

-- Gary Goldstein

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“Second Skin.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes. At the Downtown Independent, Los Angeles.

Family life veers into the surreal

Gyorgy Palfi’s “Taxidermia” is a brilliant, often grotesquely bizarre allegory on life in Hungary from World War II to the present, a surrealist fantasy exploring the limits of the body and its desires and altogether a darkly funny comedy on the human condition in extremis. It is permeated with that highly developed Eastern European sense of absurd but is not for the faint of heart: There’s much that is exuberantly gross, including some sexual imagery, but there are also images of startling beauty -- and horror. (In the film’s most poignant sequence, Palfi evokes the eternal cycle of life with only an old wooden bathtub as a prop -- a place for lovemaking, baptism, the laying out of a corpse, etc.)

Palfi focuses on three generations. A grandfather (Csaba Czene), an orderly at a remote World War II military outpost, is consumed with sexual frustration and a longing for love. The orderly’s son (Gergely Trocsanyi) -- the product of the orderly’s tryst with his nitpicking lieutenant’s fat wife -- grows up to be a bulky speed-eating contestant at the height of the Communist era. The grandson (Marc Bischoff) is a scrawny, unhandsome taxidermist who cares for his now immobile father (Gabor Mate) who has proudly become surely the fattest man in the world.

With a horrific power that goes beyond Italian horrormeister Dario Argento at his most inspired -- and perhaps even David Cronenberg -- Palfi gradually reveals the grandson’s inexorable passion to create the most perfect work of art ever, an act that is as grotesque as it is oddly redemptive. Indeed, Palfi leaves us with the sense that he strikes the right note in regard to Hungary’s past decades of hardship and oppression, yet he also suggests that the artist’s essence is ultimately elusive, literally buried deep within himself.

-- Kevin Thomas

“Taxidermia.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. In Magyar and Russian, with English subtitles. At the Nuart in West L.A. through Thursday.

A selfless salute to the troops

“The Way We Get By,” writer-director Aron Gaudet’s deeply felt look at three selfless elderly Maine residents who serve as troop greeters at the Bangor International Airport (a gateway point of U.S. departure and entry), is filled with a rare honesty and intimacy that makes for a rewarding, if largely heartbreaking, film experience.

Gaudet respectfully profiles the waning lives of his mother, Joan Gaudet, 75, and her co-volunteers Jerry Mundy, 74, and Bill Knight, 87, who trek to the airport at all hours to welcome returning troops and bid goodbye to those leaving for Iraq and Afghanistan. These three widowed seniors’ civic duties give their days a much-needed structure and purpose, along with a diversion from their financial, health and emotional setbacks. For the matriarchal Joan, these troubles include bad knees and worry over two grandchildren’s imminent deployments to Iraq; for chatty Jerry, it’s heart disease and the aging of his beloved dog; eccentric World War II veteran Bill must deal with cancer, massive debt and depression.

These everyday heroes, who never pass judgment on our nation’s current war efforts, compellingly bare their souls here, facing their mortality as profoundly as do any of the soldiers they meet on a daily basis. Bring your handkerchiefs.

-- Gary Goldstein

“The Way We Get By.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. At Laemmle’s Music Hall, Beverly Hills.

calendar@latimes.com


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