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Capsule reviews of films playing the week of March 18 

THE CLASS Don't be embarrassed if you start watching The Class and can't figure out if it's a documentary or a fictional piece; that's doubtless the effect that director Laurent Cantent was hoping to achieve. Winner of the top prize at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival as well as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this French import is based on Entre les Murs (Between the Walls), a novel penned by schoolteacher François Bégaudeau. Bégaudeau co-wrote the script and plays himself in the movie, which is shot in cinema verité style by Cantent – add up all these facts and we're left with a fictionalized presentation that walks and talks like a documentary. Set in a Paris high school, the movie follows Bégaudeau over the course of one year, sticking with him as he struggles to maintain his cool in the midst of so many openly hostile students. Certainly, there are plenty of good kids, but there are also some whose sole purpose on this planet seems to be to question authority. That's hardly a new concept – teens have been testing the patience of their elders ever since the first professor drew a mark on the cave wall and a pupil argued its purpose – but what's particularly interesting about The Class is that there aren't always clear-cut delineations between "right" and "wrong" behavior: The students' frustrations are sometimes justified, and while Bégaudeau seems to have his heart in the right place, his ability to communicate often gets hampered by the limitations of the curriculum, the limitations of the teaching environment, and even by his own limitations as an instructor. There's nothing particularly revelatory about the film – unless you happen to believe that the United States is the only country with an educational system in disarray – but it's a piercing look at a generation gap that only seems to be gaping ever more widely. ***

CORALINE Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas was actually Henry Selick's The Nightmare Before Christmas, given that it was the latter who actually directed the film. Here, he displays his mastery again, helming an eye-popping animated extravaganza he adapted from Neil Gaiman's best-selling book. Dakota Fanning provides the voice of Coraline, a lonely little girl who discovers an alternate world hidden behind a small door in her family's new house. Initially, life does seem more pleasant on the other side – her alternate parents are hipper, the food is tastier, the entertainment is more dazzling – but it's not long before things take a dark turn, and, with the help of a sage black cat, Coraline soon finds herself fighting for her very soul. The visual scheme – as with Nightmare, stop-motion animation is the order of the day – is remarkable enough in any dimension, but do make an effort to catch the film in one of its 3-D presentations. ***1/2

TAKEN Moral ambiguity seems to be the order of the day in most of modern cinema (recent examples include Body of Lies, Traitor, The Dark Knight, and even Gran Torino), but for purely cathartic purposes, there's still something to be said about films – competent ones, mind you – in which the line between Good and Evil is drawn oh-so-clearly in the sand. Take Taken, which operates on a very simple premise: Scumbags kidnap Liam Neeson's daughter; Liam Neeson fucks them up good. That's all the plot needed for this lightning-quick (91 minutes) action yarn in which Neeson stars as Bryan Mills, a former CIA operative who took early retirement in order to live close to his teenage daughter Kim (Maggie Grace). Bryan's frosty ex-wife (Famke Janssen) approves of their child traveling unsupervised with a friend (Katie Cassidy) to Paris for a vacation, but the overprotective Bryan doesn't like the idea and only reluctantly signs off on it for the sake of Kim's happiness. But it turns out that father knows best after all: Within hours of their arrival, the two American teens are kidnapped by an Albanian organization that turns young women into prostitutes and sex slaves. Bryan immediately springs into action, jetting off to Paris and employing his ample CIA training to locate his missing daughter. The film's PG-13 rating means that punches are pulled in more ways than one, and the script by Robert Mark Kamen and Luc Besson disappointingly turns Bryan from an ordinary man with highly specialized skills in the early going into a James Bond knockoff by the third act. But Pierre Morel directs crisply and efficiently, and Neeson delivers a typically compelling performance in (for him) an atypically muscle-bound role. ***

WATCHMEN Clunky football metaphors are never out of season, so think of director Zack Snyder as the cinematic equivalent of the quarterback who's clearly no MVP but is just good enough to get his team to the Super Bowl. In bringing (along with co-scripters David Hayter and Alex Tse) the sacred graphic novel by writer Alan Moore and illustrator Dave Gibbons to the big screen, Snyder makes almost all the right plays – the movie is visually resplendent and remarkably faithful to the source material – but too often fails to find the heart buried deep within the darkness. Worshipped by comic fans and tagged by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best novels of the past several decades, Watchmen debuted in 1986 as a 12-part series for DC Comics before being compressed into graphic novel form. Remarkable in its storytelling prowess – both narratively and visually – the comic has been lifted almost wholesale from the printed page, with many screen shots serving as mirror reflections of illustrated panels. The story begins in 1985 with the murder of a fascistic superhero named The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and from there moves back and forth in time to track the exploits of other members of the band known as the Watchmen: Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson), Silk Spectre (Malin Akerman), Rorschach (terrific Jackie Earle Haley), Ozymandias (Matthew Goode) and the godlike Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup). With its overlapping story lines of a world on the brink of annihilation, the deleterious effects of life as a superhero celebrity, and the vagarious manner in which time itself might operate, the graphic novel possessed no small measure of gravitas yet also found room in the margins for wit and warmth. The movie retains the seriousness but too often loses the sympathy. ***

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