Film (with rating): Coraline (PG)

Studio: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Summary: Crabby, bratty and friendless Coraline Jones (voiced by Dakota Fanning), who just moved with her distracted parents to a dumpy apartment in Oregon, uncovers a secret door which leads to a parallel life much like her own, yet seemingly better. But soon, Coraline sees that the Other World is not be what she once thought, and instead might prove to be dangerous.

Review: Just because “Coraline” is a stop-motion animated film, don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s kid-friendly. The film, while beautifully created by director Henry Selick,
(“The Nightmare Before Christmas”), is dark, deep and disturbing. It looks like a children’s film, but it’s not. It’s more like a child’s nightmare. I very much enjoyed this movie, but I wouldn’t let my two-year-old near the TV with it on. Heck, I wouldn’t let her watch if she was eight. The gorgeous animation actually makes the film creepier than I expected it would have, serving the movie’s plot beautifully. I loved that Coraline wasn’t a sugary-sweet heroine who must do what is right to save the day. She’s bossy and unpleasant, and real. The parents are disturbing, especially because many watching the film may see shadows of themselves there. And that’s depressing. The mom and dad are both checked-out, neglectful adults in the eyes of Coraline, but seen on a grown-up level, they could also be viewed as desperate and struggling just to make life keep moving forward. Either point of view is sad.

The Other Mother and Other Father in Coraline’s Other World are downright chill-inducing, even in the beginning. I think it has something to do with those nasty button eyes. I may have to rip all the buttons off every single article of clothing I own now and sew on snaps or something. Buttons really are starting to creep me out. At first, These Other Parents seem to be everything Coraline wants in her family: good cooks, attention givers, etc. But that’s only at first blush.  Even before “Coraline” takes on a nightmarish flavor, viewers sense the danger lurking, even if it’s hiding back in some closed-off closet in our imaginations.

The voice acting was perfect and not at all overdone, making the characters engaging and real.  Selick created a visual masterpiece even more gorgeous than “Nightmare,” if that’s possible. “Coraline” feels bipolar in a sense–one minute, the Other World seems comforting and loving, the next, it’s dangerous and scary. Sort of like life sometimes, huh?

Extra highlight: “Voicing the Characters”

What to serve for dinner: Chicken Marbella (     

4 chickens, 2 1/2 lb. each, quartered
1 head garlic, peeled and finely pureed
1/4 c. dried oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/2 c. red wine vinegar
1/2 c. olive oil
1 c. pitted prunes
1/2 c. pitted Spanish green olives
1/2 c. capers with a bit of juice
6 bay leaves
1 c. brown sugar
1 c. white wine
1/4 c. Italian parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

In a large bowl, combine chicken quarters, garlic, oregano, pepper and coarse salt to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight. (Marinating overnight ensures the moistness of the chicken and enhances the flavor.)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Arrange chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken with brown sugar and pour white wine around them. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices. Chicken is done when thigh pieces, pricked with a fork at their thickest, yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice.

With a slotted spoon, transfer chicken, prunes, olives, and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juices and sprinkle generously with parsley or cilantro. Pass remaining pan juices in a sauceboat.

What to talk about over dinner:  What was your “ideal life” in childhood? Your ideal parents? Your ideal life now? Did you see flavors of yourself in Coraline’s parents? What does this film say about our modern-day families? Compare this to “Alice in Wonderland.” Did you like this film or “Nightmare” better? Why or why not? Contemplate the buttons. What do you think is in the stars for Dakota Fanning? Is she the next Jodie Foster? What was the saddest part about “Coraline?” The scariest?

The Haunting in Connecticut

Film (with rating): The Haunting in Connecticut (PG-13)

Studio: Lionsgate

Summary: Inspired by a true story. When a family moves to upstate Connecticut, they learn that their Victorian home was once a funeral parlor where unspeakable acts occurred.

Review:  I love haunted house stories. I saw ” Amityville Horror” when I was eight or something, and I’ve been hooked ever since. Good people crossing paths with evil supernatural beings. Good stuff. Sure, they can be hokey at times, but a good ghost story taking place in some old house with a tragic past is always a bestseller for me. “The Haunting in Connecticut” isn’t very original in its concept, but that doesn’t seem to harm the film too much. The acting, especially by Virginia Madsen as the family mother, is surprisingly well done for a horror film, and is not overdone.

One thing I really liked about “Haunting” is that it centered around a flawed and stressed-out family full of problems (alcoholism, cancer, etc.). It wasn’t about this happy-go-lucky family, whistling joyfully as they moved out to the country before getting struck by a supernatural fist to the face. The reality of the character’s situations made the film’s entire pretense seem a bit more believable. “Haunting” is billed as a true story, but I’m thinking it’s loosely inspired by something that happened. We’re not talking documentary here, folks. Supposedly, the story comes from the real-life drama of Allen and Carmen Snedeker who moved to Connecticut to be closer to a treatment center for their sick son. Like so many of these “based-on” Hollywood adaptations, creative license most likely took precedence.

Director Peter Cornwell throws in many, many scream moments; some are truly worthy, others are  overdone. That latter note is the biggest drawback to the film. What at first seemed like a scary scene or effect loses its thrill the fourth or fifth time around. In other words, the film tries too hard too many times. Despite that, prepare to physically jump at least once or twice while watching this flick. Don’t expect any new twists on the genre, but “Haunting” won’t leave you throwing your dinner at the TV, either. Most likely.

Extra highlight: “The Fear is Real”

What to serve for dinner: A taste of New England: clam chowder (

    *   1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of celery soup
    * 1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of potato soup
    * 1 (10.75 ounce) can New England clam chowder
    * 2 (6.5 ounce) cans minced clams, one drained and one undrained
    * 1 quart half-and-half cream
    * 1 pint heavy whipping cream

Mix cream of celery soup, cream of potato soup, clam chowder, one can undrained clams, one can drained clams, half-and-half cream, and whipping cream into a slow cooker. Cover, and cook on low for 6 to 8 hours. Serve with crusty sourdough bread, a green salad and white wine.

What to talk about over dinner: Do you believe in ghosts? Why or why not? What was one time you’ve been scared silly? Have you ever seen a ghost? Do you believe “Haunting” was based on a true story, or mostly embellished? What are you afraid of? What would you do if your house was haunted? Would you stick around, or hightail it out of there? What was the scariest part of this movie for you? How could it have been better? Would you ever buy a home with “history?” Would you want to know your home’s history in the first place?


Barney: Lunchbox Gift Set

While “Haunting” isn’t much of a kids’ movie at all, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good family night this weekend. Before watching Virginia Madsen break out her ghostbuster moves, sit down with the kids and watch one of HIT Entertainment’s new releases. My favorite (well, I should say my daughter’s favorite) was the Barney Lunch Box Gift Set, a cute lunch pail containing three Barney DVDs: “Adventure Bus,” “Imagination Island” and “Everyone is Special.” Others in the collection include Thomas & Friends, Bob the Builder and the Care Bears (remember them?? I think I still have one of those dolls in a box at my parents’ house.) While they might have been better timed to be released right before school started, the lunch pails and the enriching children’s entertainment is too good to pass up, any time of the year. And they proved to be a good talking point about the upcoming school year, too. (“What are you looking forward to most when school starts up?” “What things do you want to learn this year?” “Who do you hope to have for a teacher? Why?”)

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Film (with rating): Confessions of a Shopaholic (PG)

Studio: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

Summary: A flat-broke shopaholic dreams of penning fashion articles for hip magazines to support her habit, but instead is hired to write a financial advice column for a struggling publication.

Review: Well, to start, the timing of this movie is unbelievably horrid. How in the world did the studio think a movie about compulsive and irresponsible shopping would appeal to the masses now when most of us are trying to pay our bills while still affording food and toothpaste? Add to that the lame premise, the insulting female stereotypes, the belittling slant on journalism (“I guess I’ll write about finances. What, like it’s hard or something?”) and the brainlessly shallow novels by Sophie Kinsella on which this film is based, and you’ve got “Shopaholic.” It also offers absolutely no insight into being financially responsible, but with a name like “Confessions of a Shopaholic,” what did I expect? On the flip side, Isla Fisher in the starring role is actually delightful to watch. Her brilliant turn in “Wedding Crashers” proved she is a comedic force to be noticed. She wastes her talent here, but at least it adds to the film considerably and saves it from flopping. Plus, the couture is pretty fabulous. This is no “Devil Wears Prada” (also based on one of THE worst books I’ve ever read) nor is it as smart as “Mad Money.” But it is glorified silliness. “Shopaholic” does offer a bit of comedy and some much-needed escapism into fantasy. Even if we all don’t have bulging purses right now, we can pretend, for about two hours, that we do.

Extra highlight: Bloopers.

What to serve for dinner: We may not be able to shop rich, but we can eat rich. Try
Chateaubriand with portobello-bacon sauce, from New York Magazine (2002).

8 and 1/4 cups beef broth (low-salt if using canned)
1 bottle Merlot (or other red wine with mellow tannins)
1/2 cup canola oil
4 ounces sliced double-smoked bacon, cut in half lengthwise and julienned
5 shallots, finely diced
8 to 10 portobello-mushroom caps, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch dice
1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
3 tablespoons cornstarch or arrowroot
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 to 4 and 1/2 pounds beef tenderloin, trimmed (with the thin tail end folded to equalize the thickness) and tied at 1 and 1/2-inch intervals

Portobello-bacon sauce:
Place eight cups of the broth in a saucepan over medium heat and reduce to about two cups. Reduce the red wine to about one cup in a separate saucepan.

Heat 1/4 cup oil in a large pan, then add the bacon and cook until it’s crisp but not burned; remove and set aside. Add the shallots to the pan, cook till translucent, and stir in the diced mushrooms. When the mushrooms have released all their liquid, return the bacon to the pan, add the reduced wine, and bring to a simmer. Add the reduced beef broth and thyme and simmer for 30 minutes. Mix the cornstarch or arrowroot with the remaining 1/4 cup beef broth and add to the sauce after the first 15 minutes of cooking. When ready to serve, whisk in the butter and season with salt and pepper. If the sauce becomes too thick, thin it out with a little water.


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Season the meat generously with salt and pepper. Heat the remaining oil in a large ovenproof saut pan, and when the oil begins to smoke, add the tenderloin and sear on all sides. Place the pan in the oven and roast for 20 to 30 minutes, to desired doneness (115 to 118 degrees for rare, 120 degrees for medium rare). Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil, and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Cut into 2-inch-thick slices and serve two per person with the portobello-bacon sauce. Hearts of celery, organic carrots, leeks, and Bintje potatoes–all braised–make great accompaniments.

What to talk about over dinner: How do you save money? What is the stupidest thing you’ve ever splurged on? The best thing? Are you a shopaholic? If so, on what? Clothes, games, DVDs, electronics? What messages does “Shopaholic” send viewers, especially young ones? How do you talk to your kids about money? How did your parents talk to you about it? What would you splurge on if you could?  How can our society heal from this recession? What are things you do to tighten your belt?

Two Lovers

Film (with rating): Two Lovers (R)

Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment

Summary: A young man dealing with emotional issues moves back into his parents’ house following a breakup and meets two, very different women who tear at his heart and mind.  

Review: This may sound like a romance, or even a romantic comedy, but “Two Lovers” is anything but. It’s real, hauntingly so, and unforgettable.

Directed by James Gray (“We Own the Night”), this film received very little attention at the box office, which is a crying shame. “Two Lovers” definitely deserves a viewing on DVD. Perhaps multiple viewings. It’s extremely rare to see such a perfectly cast film. Joaquin Phoenix is nothing shy of brilliant as the lead character of Leonard,  executing the role with enormous vulnerability and intensity. Gwyneth Paltrow and Vinessa Shaw are exceptional as the two women in Leonard’s life. Paltrow’s Michelle came across as beautiful, superficially flawless and just as messed up and lost emotionally as is Leonard. Those two together, despite their chemistry, would result in an explosion of darkness that nearly killed Leonard once before. But therein lies part of the magic, and attraction.

Then there’s Shaw’s Sandra, who cloaks Leonard with stability and love and a sane future. Which desire will he choose? Safety and comfort? Excitement and danger? And yet the dilemma, just as do the film’s characters, runs so much deeper than that. The movie itself isn’t filled with action or suspense, but instead focuses completely on the characters and the ebbs and flows of a quasi-dysfunctional life. This in turn helps carve a hauntingly beautiful, and wrenchingly sad, story that moves effortlessly. The stars’ performances are so amazingly perfect, I actually forgot there was any acting happening at all. It’s a grown-up tale, a movie that uses the beauty of words and body language to get the point across, instead of fart jokes and physical comedy. It’s a movie that sometimes verbalizes little, and yet screams in meaning.

Extra highlight: Behind the scenes

What to serve for dinner: There’s a lot of food in this movie, so let’s go with a popular choice: brisket. In honor of summer, serve up some oven-barbecued brisket (

9 lbs. flat-cut beef brisket, in two pieces, most fat removed
1 tsp minced garlic (good quality from a jar is fine)
1 tsp celery seeds
3 tbsp freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp ground ginger
4 large bay leaves, crumbled
12 oz tomato paste
1 cup dark soy sauce
1/2 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 cup tightly packed dark brown sugar
2 medium onion thinly sliced
1 bottle beer

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Trim brisket and rub all over with the garlic. Combine celery seeds, pepper, ginger and bay leaves, then rub into all sides of the brisket. Mix the tomato paste, soy, Worcestershire and sugar, and smear this all over the meat. Score the fat side of the brisket and place the onions on top, and place the meat in a heavy, nonstick, high-sided roasting pan. Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Cook for four hours.

Then open the foil to expose the onion-covered top, and cook for another hour. Remove meat to a heated plate and keep warm. Place the roasting pan on the stovetop over medium-high heat, and degrease sauce with the bottle of beer until the sauce has reduced to a pleasant consistency. You can serve this right out of the oven, or cook it a day ahead and refrigerate to improve the flavor. You can reheat, serve at room temperature, or even eat it cold.

What to talk about over dinner: Joaquin Phoenix reported that “Two Lovers” would be his last film. What do you think about that? Is this a great swan song? Should he continue acting, or embark on his new career path of singing? What do you think of his latest personal style (including the Grizzly Adams beard)? What is your favorite Phoenix movie? What other character-driven movies do you like? What are the key elements that made “Two Lovers” so fantastic? Would it have worked with anyone else in the key roles? What did you think of Isabella Rossellini as Leonard’s mother?  Why didn’t people see this movie in the theaters despite the hard-core headlining names? Is America only interested in “Transformers”-like fare? Big explosions, special effects and no depth? Do “smart” movies scare the viewing public away? Why?