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The Skeleton Key serves as a perfect bookend to the earlier summer release Dark Water. Here we have two thrillers that attempt to move away from the yawn-inducing norm by focusing as much on character and atmospherics as on the pre-packaged thrills; furthermore, both films have the audacity to sidestep bogus happy endings in favor of conclusions that conceivably might leave audiences unsettled. Not surprisingly, Dark Water failed to catch on, and there’s no reason to believe that The Skeleton Key won’t meet the same dismal fate. Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, a caretaker who’s hired to look after a stroke victim (John Hurt) who resides in a creaky mansion in the middle of the Louisiana swamps. The patient’s wife (Gena Rowlands) views Caroline with suspicion, though she quickly earns the trust of the elderly couple’s lawyer (Peter Sarsgaard); at any rate, it’s not long before it’s Caroline who has to keep her guard up, as mysterious events suggest that a paranormal presence might be living within the house.



With rare exception, the lead actors in Jim Jarmusch films tend to be low-key and laid-back: Think Johnny Depp in Dead Man, Forest Whitaker in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai or the principal cast of Stranger Than Paradise. Bill Murray is presently carrying on the tradition, first with his brief appearance in Jarmusch’s vignette-driven Coffee & Cigarettes and now with his starring role in Broken Flowers, a lovely little film that has emerged as one of the brightest -- and most atypical -- releases of the summer movie season. Here, Murray plays Don Johnston, whose seemingly catatonic existence receives a much-needed jolt -- not so much from the departure of his fed-up girlfriend (Julie Delpy) as from the arrival of an anonymous letter claiming that he has a son who’s been kept hidden from him for the past two decades. Don’s next-door neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright), an amateur sleuth, talks him into providing him with a list of long-ago girlfriends who could possibly be the mother of his child (and the writer of the letter). Armed with this info, Winston creates a itinerary and pushes Don out the door with the mission of visiting these women and solving the mystery. “I’m a stalker in a Taurus!” So what we have, in essence, is that most American of movie genres: the road picture, in which an inquisitive individual travels across this great land of ours not only seeking some sort of closure but also coming into contact with citizens who cover the social strata. Broken Flowers is a movie of wry humor and wry observations, yet it’s precisely because of Murray’s approach that the film works as well as it does: Rarely has an actor conveyed so much by doing so little. Yet Murray’s not working alone, thanks to the contributions of the women playing his former flames.


Say this for Spike Lee: Nobody can ever accuse the man of being a sellout. Even as his movies continue to draw tiny audiences and (presumably) lose money for their studios, he has steadfastly remained true to himself, making pictures that matter to him personally. The same, alas, cannot be said for fellow African-American filmmaker John Singleton, who went from the Oscar-nominated triumph of Boyz N The Hood to helming 2 Fast 2 Furious, the junky sequel to another director’s The Fast and the Furious. Four Brothers finds Singleton again slumming, this time in the service of a standard revenge flick that was a lot more fun when John Wayne and Dean Martin tackled the basic premise in The Sons of Katie Elder. The brothers of the title are Bobby (Mark Wahlberg), Angel (Tyrese Gibson), Jeremiah (Andre Benjamin) and Jack (Garrett Hedlund), who grew up in the care of a foster home provider (Fionnula Flanagan) who raised the boys after nobody else wanted them. Now grown up, the lads return to their Detroit home after they learn that their mom was killed during a convenience store holdup. But as the siblings snoop around, they realize that she wasn’t an innocent bystander but the target of a planned hit. The four lead actors establish an easygoing camaraderie, but that isn’t enough to overcome silly supporting characters, a hard-to-swallow plotline and a ludicrous climax set on a frozen lake. This is also the sort of movie where a villain’s ruthlessness is established in short-hand by the fact that (gasp!) he swipes a fat kid’s candy bar. Still, let’s not be too harsh on Singleton, who deserves credit for attaching himself as producer to the recent Hustle & Flow.


Red-Eye qualifies as the best movie that director Wes Craven has ever made, and if that sounds like damning him with faint praise, so be it. But unlike the junk that has come to define his inexplicably lengthy career (The Last House On the Left, The People Under the Stairs, Scream), this new film at least feels like an A-list project rather than the usual masturbatory exercises in misogyny that he usually foists upon a complacent public. Rachel McAdams, who in less than two years has proven herself worthy of being tagged The Next Big Thing, delivers a strong performance as Lisa Reisert, whose flight home to Miami turns into a terror trip once she discovers that the charming guy (Cillian Murphy) sitting next to her will manipulate her into helping him assassinate the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security (Jack Scalia). Knowing that her father (Brian Cox) will be slain if she doesn’t cooperate, Lisa, motivated by a tragedy in her own past that the movie only reveals gradually, will do everything in her power to save both Poppa and the politician. Like last year’s equally preposterous guilty pleasure Cellular, Red Eye may not expand the parameters of the thriller genre but it certainly knows how to make its way inside its well-established conventions.


Many of the elements that have made the contemporary romantic comedy such a grueling (and formulaic) experience are present in Must Love Dogs, and yet the movie nonetheless will work for those willing to surrender themselves to its dreamy passion. The film’s success begins and ends with its leading players, and yet it’s important not to under value director Gary David Goldberg’s script (adapted from Claire Cook’s novel), which adds some interesting quirks to a familiar framework. Diane Lane, so beautiful that it almost hurts to look at her, plays Sarah Nolan, a recent divorcee who takes a chance on meeting single men who contact her through an Internet dating service. John Cusack, so adorable that even heterosexual guys might feel inclined to give him a big bear hug, portrays Jake Anderson, one of her prospective suitors. Over the course of the film, they date and dally with other people, yet they find themselves repeatedly drawn to each other. Elizabeth Perkins (as Sarah’s sarcastic sister), Christopher Plummer (as their suave dad) and especially Stockard Channing (as the dad’s girlfriend) excel in key roles, yet the movie firmly belongs to its stars: Lane as a warm and empathic woman who’s generous to a fault and Cusack as a sensitive artist-type (he builds wooden boats by hand) who watches Dr. Zhivago incessantly. You either buy into this fantasy or you don’t -- me, I happily wallowed in it.


Airing from 1979 to 1985, the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard was created for people who had trouble following the plotlines featured on Three’s Company. Inspired by the glut of so-called “hick flicks” that dominated drive-ins throughout the 1970s, the hit show was primarily an excuse to showcase good ol’ boy shenanigans amidst plenty of car collisions. This film version follows suit, and the entire enterprise, appropriately enough, can be summed up in the sort of blurb found in TV Guide: “Bo (Johnny Knoxville) and Luke (Sean William Scott) try to prevent the corrupt Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) from seizing all the land in Hazzard County for his own devious purposes. Daisy: Jessica Simpson. Uncle Jesse: Willie Nelson. 97 minutes. (Repeat)” But let’s be honest: If you’re a fan of either the original series and/or Johnny Knoxville, you’ll probably get your money’s worth, so ignore the critics and zoom on over to the multiplex.


Better than Fantastic Four but nowhere near the league of The Incredibles, Sky High is yet another feature film that centers on a family of superheroes. Cribbing as much from X-Men and the Harry Potter series as from the aforementioned pair, this live-action Disney romp stars appealing Michael Angarano as Will Stronghold, the son of superhero legends The Commander (Kurt Russell) and Jetstream (Kelly Preston). As a freshman at Sky High, a high school populated exclusively by kids with special powers, Will is expected to emerge as a hero ahead of his time; instead, his lack of powers finds him relegated to the “Hero Support” classes, where he and other underachievers learn the basics to becoming a sidekick.