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EW review: 'Skeleton Key' rises above C-level

By Scott Brown
Entertainment Weekly

Kate Hudson stars in "The Skeleton Key."



Entertainment (general)

(Entertainment Weekly) -- Zombies are, if anything, overrepresented in today's movie marketplace. Yet the spiritual tradition that invented them -- Afro-Caribbean voodoo -- rarely gets the spotlight, serving mostly as a genre backdrop for all-too-familiar stories about good-looking white people in over their heads (e.g., "Angel Heart").

Naive hospice caretaker Caroline (Kate Hudson) certainly falls into that category, but "The Skeleton Key," a basic bayou thriller distinguished by a very self-conscious subversive streak, rises nicely above C-level.

''Hoodoo,'' we're informed, is different than voodoo. (It's a la carte folk-magic, whereas voodoo is a bona fide religion.) All of this is news to Caroline, a caretaker who's taking a crash course in ''conjuration'' because she believes it's connected to the catatonia of her latest sickly charge, Ben (John Hurt).

Blocking her path is Ben's wife, a honey-tongued battle-ax named Violet (Gena Rowlands, having a blast), who complains, rightly, that this Yankee interloper doesn't ''understand the house.''

Because the house, of course, has a past. That's clear from one look at its rotting plantation colonnades. It comes as no surprise to learn it might be haunted. Ditto the revelation that, once upon a benighted time, a pair of black servants were terminated, shall we say, with prejudice.

But what comes next, depending on your point of view, is either a canny manipulation of racist movie tropes or an exercise in facile genre-flick reductivism. The distinction may not matter: For anyone zombified by creaky thriller cliches, Skeleton is a fine little shot in the head.

EW Grade: B

'The Great Raid'

Reviewed by Scott Brown

War often presents us with horrible choices: Fall asleep in the theater or fall asleep to the History Channel? That's the question posed by "The Great Raid," a WWII movie so parched, so Reader's Digest expository, so utterly expressionless, it confuses taciturn Greatest Generation nobility with paralysis.

"Raid," conceived in the wake of September 11 and shelved for two years, looks like a historical reenactment staged by animatronic Boy Scouts. It's the true tale of a daring mission to retrieve U.S. prisoners of war from a Japanese death camp in the Philippines, but director John Dahl, in his pacing, seems more intent on evoking the Bataan Death March. How did the nimble indie moralist of Red Rock West find himself in this quagmire?

"Raid," arcing brass fanfares aside, is no kin to "Saving Private Ryan," or even "The Big Red One." No, Dahl has decolorized "The Green Berets."

The main problem? "Raid" lacks a center. It's an exhausted sprawl with multiple story foci, none of them terribly compelling. There's the rescue unit of Army Rangers, headed by stolid Lieut. Col. Henry Mucci (Benjamin Bratt) and equally stolid Capt. Robert Prince (James Franco, whose main duty is to overwhelm the enemy with voice-over). They're attempting something brazen, but unless you're a military historian, you'd never guess.

There are the POWs, headed by stolid, malarial Major Gibson (the dependably cadaverous Joseph Fiennes). And there's Margaret ("Gladiator'"s Connie Nielsen), the stolid nurse Gibson loves from afar, who's running the resistance in Manila. Stolidly. Dahl chisels not a sliver of nuance from all this wood. The Japanese are mere villains, so don't hold your breath for a Colonel Saito. But Dahl does vividly re-create that least heralded burden of war: the boredom.

EW Grade: D+

'Grizzly Man'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

To call Timothy Treadwell a man madly in love with grizzly bears is a statement of adverbial precision. For 13 summers, the self-appointed advocate of Ursus horribilis chose to camp out on the Alaskan peninsula as an uninvited guardian and promoter of the species, obsessively documenting his experience on videotape to create his own personal nature movie with himself as heroic movie star.

Before he found his calling, Treadwell dreamed of becoming an actor, and even alone in the wilderness, he was vain about his surfer-boy good looks, his sun-bleached hair styled in a distinctive Prince Valiant shag.

''They're not that different from us,'' the home-grown naturalist said of his neighbors as the boundaries between man and beast became increasingly unstable. Treadwell's mission lasted until October of 2003, when he and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, were mauled to death by one of the creatures he considered his friends. He was 46 years old when he died, with a video camera running. The picture failed. The audio portion survived.

In a stunning application of nature's balance to art, Werner Herzog makes use of some of the 100-plus hours of video footage Treadwell left behind to create "Grizzly Man," a mesmerizing work of disturbing power and unease. The director of "Fitzcarraldo" and "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," famous for both his fiction and documentary studies of men teetering between omnipotence and insanity, has crystallized his reputation as a chronicler of metamorphosing personality.

Immersing himself in details, the filmmaker incorporates Treadwell's own footage (Treadwell sometimes indulged in multiple takes to achieve the look of spontaneity); interviews with a zoologist, a medical examiner, and the pilot who discovered the bodies when he flew into Treadwell's base camp; and narration, in his own hypnotically mild German accent.

We don't hear Treadwell's death, but we watch as Herzog listens to the audio evidence and then advises Treadwell's former girlfriend/business partner to destroy the tape without listening to it. We respond emotionally, nonetheless; in "Grizzly Man," Herzog has bushwhacked fearlessly into one man's thorny soul.

EW Grade: A-

'Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo'

Reviewed by Scott Brown

Ah, Deuce (Rob Schneider) -- remember him? Of course you do. Someone bought all those DVDs of the 1999 original and necessitated this sequel, "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo." He's the sweetly dumb ''he-bitch'' who, for $10, will date the undatable. He even married an amputee. (Wow!)

After his bride is eaten by a shark, Deuce gets back in the game -- this time in Amsterdam, where he must clear his pimp, T.J. (Eddie Griffin), of charges of murder and ''gayness.''

With Hollywood's gross-out wars fought and forgotten (and the comparatively brainy "Wedding Crashers" securely on the sex-comedy throne), it's nice to know Schneider is still out there in the jungle, shaking his French tickler defiantly at the sky.

His movie, while sloppier than the sloppiest of seconds, is laudable in one important regard: Its obsession with the male body (the only memorable female character has a priapic nose) provides a ''safe space'' for closeted frat brothers to come out, or at least make a ''joking'' grab for each other's genitals. In fact, this may be the most forthrightly bisexual movie ever made for the American mainstream. The world thanks you, Rob Schneider.

EW Grade: C+


Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Nothing wrecks the mood of a high-toned British period piece about erotic obsession quicker than an unintentional laugh. In which case, prepare for "Asylum" to be derailed by snorts in all the wrong places, despite the participation of Natasha Richardson as an unhappy 1950s housewife and Ian McKellen as her Machiavellian shrink.

In this adaptation of Patrick McGrath's novel, directed by David Mackenzie ("Young Adam"), Richardson plays Stella, living on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane, where her psychiatrist husband (Hugh Bonneville) has just taken a post.

One minute Stella is an aloof faculty spouse and the next she's in sexual thrall to an inmate, Edgar (Marton Csokas, the near-sighted woman's Clive Owen), who has been locked up for years on charges of murdering his wife in a fit of jealousy.

The upshot of this foolish choice by a smart woman is lots of R-rated sex with an emphasis on lingerie. (In the wings, McKellen looks skeptical.) On the grounds of an asylum, you see, these two voraciously self-destructive creatures find a very different kind of haven together. Don't laugh.

EW Grade: C

'Pretty Persuasion'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

"Pretty Persuasion" stars the intriguing, deceptively dewy-looking Evan Rachel Wood of "Thirteen" and "The Upside of Anger" as Kimberly, a vixenish 15-year-old who stirs up dangerous mischief at an affluent high school when she frames a teacher (Ron Livingston) for sexual harassment.

But it's not Wood who personifies the repellent tone of this childishly coarse little scorched-earth satire on a theme of high school imitates life. Rather it's Woods -- James Woods. As Kimberly's father, a limitlessly vulgar man obsessed with drugs, porn, and the pursuit of bigotry, Woods throws himself into the job of looking and acting disgusting with such excessive abandon that his every scene leaves stink marks.

Actually, each character is a lousy joke in this cynical, eager-to-shock Sundance indie (directed by music-video guy Marcos Siega from a script by Skander Halim). The movie wears its notion of incorrectness with a smirk, ignorant of how unearned that smugness is.

Among the easy targets -- the only kind the filmmakers can spot -- are a pea-brained student acolyte (Elisabeth Harnois) and her clueless Arab-American classmate (Adi Schnall), both of whom back Kimberly's accusation. And, naturally, the media comes in for cheap mockery, in the form of an ambitious local TV reporter (Jane Krakowski) who sees the scandalous sex-charge-in-a-high-school story as a ticket to career advancement.

But Woods' papa-don't-preach is the lousiest gag of all, symbolic of everything obnoxiously out of proportion and unpersuasive about "Pretty Persuasion." The movie wants so badly to be mentioned in the same breath as "Heathers" or "Election" that it's not even funny. Really, I mean it, this charred-black comedy is not even funny.

EW Grade: D-

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