In 25 years of watching movies — and a decade of watching them with an eye toward what makes them tick — it has only happened to me once or twice: A film that I absolutely loathed in the first 10 minutes won me over by the time the credits rolled. The other way around — a movie I start off liking, but which falls flat — happens all the time for me. That first one, though, is the rarest of rare birds in my book.
Such was the case with “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” While the first 15 minutes are a mess, full of cardboard victims and villains that sucked the air out of the theater and had me squinting at my watch in the dark, by the end I found myself cheering for this little film. A smart and funny ensemble piece about letting go of the past before you can get on with the future, it’s one of those movies that has to teach you its language before you can converse with it.
Here, Kimberly Elise plays Helen, the wife of an uber-successful attorney, Charles (Steve Harris). What starts in bliss — with Charles thanking his wife for 18 years of marriage while accepting an award for lawyer of the year — soon turns out to be a sham. Charles is a one-dimensional bastard: the kind of guy who, when questioned about his mistress, tells his wife, “When you start paying some of the bills, you can ask me questions.”
Then, Helen comes home to find a U-Haul truck in the driveway of their megalomansion, and a mover loading up her stuff. Charles tells her that he is putting her out and installing his chippee and their two kids (we soon learn Helen signed a prenuptial agreement). This leads to one of the most cringe-inducing scenes I’ve seen in awhile: Charles dragging Helen out the door by her ankle as she begs him to let her stay. Yikes!
A funny thing happens on the way to “Waiting to Exhale,” however. Once Helen climbs into the moving truck, the crappiness ends. Mostly, this is because, of all her alienated relatives to ask for help, she picks her grandmother, Madea.
Madea turns out to be playwright and actor Tyler Perry in drag (Perry developed the gregarious black grandmother in a series of successful stage plays). Cursing, chain smoking, gun-toting, a woman who would go to Charles’ house with Helen and proceed to hack his piano in two with a chainsaw for revenge, Madea grates on the nerves for the first few minutes she is onscreen. Then — once you realize that Madea isn’t really a person, but a kind of cartoon version of everyone’s crazy relative, the one who dispenses wisdom with their craziness — she wins you over.
With Madea’s help, Helen gets a job and begins to move on with her life. She soon meets Orlando (Shemar Moore), a steelworker, and begins a tenuous romance. Then, just as Orlando proposes and just before her divorce is final, Helen’s husband is shot by a disgruntled client.
In a Hollywood movie, this would be the end: Ding, dong, the witch is dead. Helen collects both the insurance and Charles’ millions, and lives happily ever after with her new hubby. To the film’s credit, however, it goes in a dark and totally unexpected direction from there, one that ends up complicating and finally redeeming everyone involved. This leads to an ending that is more — and I hate to use this word — honorable than I’ve seen in a long time.
Though I saw “Diary” with a mostly black audience, this is a film that can speak to anyone who has ever been unlucky in love, which is damned near everyone, right? Though there are a few missteps, stick with this one. It’ll pay off in the end.
— By David Koon

Howlingly bad
You should be ‘Cursed’ for watching this tripe.
Just when you though her turn in last year’s “Monster” had finally and forever exorcised Christina Ricci’s recurring role as the Typhoid Mary of cinema (OK, I liked her in 1999’s “Sleepy Hollow,” too), along comes “Cursed.”
Hackneyed, cheesy, alternately cringe and chuckle inducing, “Cursed” ends up being a would-be “Scream” whose hairline has receded too much for its teen-something audience. It might just be the worse werewolf movie ever made (and yes, I’m including “Teen Wolf Too” in that equation.)
How can this be? With Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven — the writer and director, respectively, of the mega-profitable “Scream” franchise — on board, it’s got to be a slam-dunk, right? Well, it might have been, if Dimension Films had left its original R-rated cut alone.
Instead (and against the wishes of Williamson and Craven, who soon distanced themselves from the project), the Hollywood powers-that-be followed the current trend toward the kiddification of horror and put the PG-13 chop-socky on “Cursed,” trimming out the gore and violence until it was fit for the lollipop set. What’s a werewolf film without gore and violence? For that matter, what’s any horror film tame enough that an 8-year-old can stroll in the door sans parent? Answer: About as scary as that “peeled grapes as vampires’ eyeballs” gag they pulled on you at summer camp.
Here, Ricci plays Ellie, a young television producer in L.A. One moonlit night, motoring along Mulholland Drive with her brother, Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg), Ellie runs over a large, hairy creature, which causes her to lose control and hit another car. The other car goes off the road. Rushing to help the injured motorist, Ellie and Jimmy are stunned to see her dragged into the bush and killed by a monster, which attacks and bites them both. Call the cops? Fuggedaboudit. By the time they get home, both are feeling the effects of the werewolf’s bite.
Over the next few days, the changes become even more pronounced. Normally nerdy Jimmy bulks up and gets more aggressive. Luckless-in-love Ellie begins attracting men like the beer tent at a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. On the down side, they both begin lusting for blood under the light of the full moon. With the help of maybe the cheesiest fortune teller/mystic ever put to screen (Portia de Rossi), they soon learn that to get rid of the curse, they have to track down the “Head Werewolf” and decapitate him (I thought that only worked on vampires). Their quest leads to a lot of hokey lines, and a lot of fresh-faced stars ending up — albeit bloodlessly — as werewolf poo.
Not only is “Cursed” a film that has been radically altered from the director’s original vision, it’s a film that looks like it’s been radically altered. Some of the cuts don’t make sense. We simply fade to black a few times rather than see the PG-13-destroying violence. In other places, it feels like we’re looking at the characters’ world through a moth-eaten sweater, with barely enough of the plot left to hold things together. Even in what is left, writer Williamson seems to have outgrown his audience, and his witty banter and pop-culture references don’t come off as hip-and-with-it as they did in “Scream.” Mostly, he just ends up sounding like the too-old guy at the sweet-16 party, trying desperately to seem up-to-the-second but coming off as a little creepy for trying.
The verdict: Bad, bad, bad. But, if nothing else, maybe the great, steaming wolf dropping that is “Cursed” will finally drive a stake through the heart of Hollywood’s idea that “horror” and “PG-13” are compatible terms. Or would that be “shoot a silver bullet through”? Oh, never mind.
— By David Koon