MONSTERS VS. ALIENS is strictly playbook material for Dreamworks, makers of kidult-friendly pop-culture mash-ups: alien-invasion camp commingled with Dr. Strangelove paranoia parody. But it has one thing going for it that its predecessors did not: It will heretofore be known as the first 3-D movie to render all previous comers headache-inducing charlatans, rinky-dink pretenders. for the first time in the medium’s history, you are there — from the president’s war room (yet more shades of Strangelove) to a prison facility, where the government’s been storing assorted mutants and monsters collected since the 1950s. Children who see the movie on DVD in a few months will wonder what happened to their roller coaster as it morphs into little more than a bumper-car ride, because the chasm between the movie’s technical accomplishment and its artistic achievement is vast: The story’s familiar, and as good as the performers are — from Seth Rogen as a blue blob to Reese Witherspoon as a 50-foot woman — they’re still doing their trademark shtick (though Stephen Colbert as the president is a stroke of casting brilliance). But the grandeur of the effects — the honest-to-god spectacle of the thing — elevates Monsters vs. Aliens to something approaching art. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s most certainly a milestone. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
THE CROSS The Arthur Blessitt Story Imagine what an inquisitive filmmaker like Errol Morris or Werner Herzog could have done with the peculiar true-life story of Los Angeles evangelist Arthur Blessitt, the self-proclaimed “Minister of the Sunset Strip,” who on Christmas Day 1969 decided to walk around the world carrying a 12-foot wooden cross to spread the word of Jesus. As the focus of director Matthew Crouch’s documentary, Blessitt is a fascinating character — a deeply religious man with an engaging storytelling style and a bountiful sense of humor, who didn’t let ideological differences stop him from reaching out to people in war zones or impenetrable jungles. At a time when popular entertainment often stigmatizes those of faith as bigots or imbeciles, Blessitt’s advocacy of compassionate, unconditional love is a meaningful corrective. But where Morris or Herzog might have turned Blessitt’s highly improbable 40-year journey into a thoughtful exploration of humanity’s quixotic desire to find meaning in an existence devoid of any such reassurances, The Cross opts to be a wan inspirational film that rams its Christian message down your throat — which is, ironically, the exact opposite of Blessitt’s soft sell. (AMC Burbank, AMC Citywalk 19, Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15, UA Marina Del Rey 6) (Tim Grierson)
THE EDUCATION OF CHARLIE BANKS While Fred Durst’s name triggers automatic sniggering, it turns out he’s not a godawful director. His second film — the doggedly uninspiring sports movie The Longshots — died a quick death; meanwhile, his debut, The Education of Charlie Banks, is just hitting theaters. If it’s a failure, at least it’s a laudable one rather than cynically by-the-numbers. In early-’70s New York, young Charlie (Jesse Eisenberg) watches acquaintance Mick (Jason Ritter) nearly beat two guys to death over nothing. Charlie decides to testify against Mick, then changes his mind for fear of alienating mutual friend Danny (Chris Marquette). At college, Danny and Charlie’s tranquil paradise — books and girls, with Charlie coming into his gawky, charming own — is interrupted when Mick shows up, ostensibly just to visit. Thankfully, Peter Elkoff’s script isn’t interested in Charlie and Mick playing cat and mouse; instead, Mick’s adopted by local prep Leo (Sebastian Stan, doing a fantastic if chronologically misplaced Bret Easton Ellis drunken preppie) and has a second chance at turning his life around. Durst and Elkoff deliver a nuanced scenario of class assimilation and resentment, then flub the ending, leaning too heavily on conspicuous evocations of The Great Gatsby and Raging Bull. (Sunset 5; Monica 4-Plex) (Vadim Rizov)
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THE HAUNTING IN CONNECTICUT There’s no rest for the dead — or the living — in this laughably hokey haunted-house hand-wringer based on yet another Amityville-style “true story” peddled by an enterprising family eager to turn a bum real estate deal into a pop-culture goldmine. The trouble begins when the Campbell clan — mom (Virginia Madsen, battling her own terrifying post–Oscar nom curse), dad (erstwhile Hal Hartley muse Martin Donovan) and cancer-stricken teenage son (paler-than-thou Robert Pattinson doppelganger Kyle Gallner) — move into one of those rickety fixer-uppers with “a bit of history” that looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since the last Depression, only to discover (spoiler alert!) that it’s a former funeral home, where once upon a time something very, very bad happened. From there, you can set your watch by the phantom apparitions, shock-edited sepia flashbacks and eruptions of projectile ectoplasm, until a mysterious man of the cloth (Elias Koteas, sporting the House of Father Merrin’s spring line) shows up to invoke the power of the Almighty. In the realm of domestic horror, The Haunting in Connecticut is about as scary as a shower that suddenly changes temperature when someone flushes the toilet, but its stolid, unironic flat-footedness may prove an asset in a box-office climate where everything ’80s (Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, Paul Blart: Mall Cop a.k.a. Police Academy 10) is new again. (Citywide) (Scott Foundas)
SPINNING INTO BUTTER At an elite Vermont college, a self-identifying Nuyorican student (Victor Rasuk) fumes over having to identify himself as Hispanic to receive his minority scholarship, a compromise advised by dean of students and general purveyor of liberal guilt Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker). Meanwhile, when an undergrad receives racist threats (the story of Little Black Sambo, giving the film its title), the hate crime brings excessive attention to the school via local TV reporter Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson). Director Mark Brokaw’s flat, overdollied adaptation of Rebecca Gilman’s sanctimonious play (co-scripted by Gilman and Doug Atchison) approaches its ideas of reverse racism and the hypocrisies of tolerance with a heavy hand and odious moralizing. “You want me to solve racism with a bulleted list?” asks Sarah of a member of her out-of-touch administration, then admits in a heated moment that she left her post at a predominantly African-American university because black people were loud and scary. Every line of dialogue sounds contrived, right up to the phony-baloney twist ending and Aaron’s sincere rejoinder to Sarah that, “Most people are racist. They just don’t know that they’re racist.” (Sunset 5) (Aaron Hillis)
GO THREE MONKEYS From its modest apartment, the lower-middle-class Turkish family in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s new film has a splendid view of the ocean. But it lives — if that’s the word for its members’ spiritless shuffling around a cramped and graceless space — mostly in shadow both physical and existential. The prior sorrow that has cut them off from each other is soon compounded by several cruel blows from the father’s boss (Ercan Kesal), an aspiring politician who not only pins his own crime on his driver Eyüp (Yavuz Bingöl) but takes advantage of his incarceration to begin an affair with Eyüp’s wife, Hacer (Hatice Aslan), that will inflict further damage on the couple’s already-fragile teenage son (the excellent Ahmet Rifat Sungar). Ceylan’s departure from his moody sonatas Distant and Climates into more plotted film noir is equal parts Bresson and Buñuel, a merciless etching of the indiscreet charmlessness of the Turkish bourgeoisie, which sharply raises the stakes on that class’s petty hypocrisy and serial betrayals. If Ceylan works the clichés of the genre a touch too hard — a gathering thunderstorm, the cry of gulls and the clatter of passing trains function as a plaintive soundtrack that speaks more eloquently than the spare dialogue — that’s a small price to pay for the beauty of Three Monkeys, whose hauntingly slow rhythms underscore the immanent violence and impotent rage that cripple already attenuated lives. It takes a strong stomach, though, to follow the pitiless gaze the director casts on this benighted crew for whom, bourgeois or not, moral discrimination may be a luxury it can’t afford. Life itself couldn’t punish them as harshly as their creator does. (Nuart) (Ella Taylor)
12 ROUNDS Renny Harlin has an unjustly terrible reputation, but with the right material (Deep Blue Sea, Mindhunters), he’s very good at delivering stylish, knowingly ludicrous entertainment — that is, if he goes for hard R material, like the lurid deaths that fuel his best films. 12 Rounds is a wan PG-13 vehicle. WWE stalwart John Cena is pleasingly stolid as New Orleans cop Danny Fisher, facing off against crazed Miles Jackson (Aidan Gillen, The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti). Jackson — an international criminal with a broad résumé that covers everything from planting dirty bombs to shooting down international flights — is mad that a chase with Fisher inadvertently resulted in his girlfriend’s death, so he kidnaps Fisher’s girlfriend (Ashley Scott) and sends Fisher around the city to complete 12 games to win her back. Mayhem ensues, but at a flattened roar: This is the kind of amiable time-killer that belongs on a basic-cable weekend afternoon. (Only a brief death-by-elevator sequence gets Harlin’s juices going.) The New Orleans location shooting lends a little atmosphere, but not as much as in Dejá Vu; the main image that sticks with you is Cena’s Nike firmly depressing the gas pedal on whatever vehicle he’s commandeered now. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)