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Monday, July 22

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Four Brothers
Every so often, filmmakers forget how to be politically correct and simply make a revenge film that is relentless. In the new movie by John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, the Shaft remake), four men, adopted as boys by the same woman, seek out anyone and everyone who had anything to do with her murder and eliminate their sorry souls from the face of the earth. And even the police are helpless to stop this vengeance juggernaut.

The dead woman in question is Evelyn Mercer (the gifted Fionnula Flanagan), and if Four Brothers has any faults it's that we don't get any time to get to know her the way the boys do. Yes, there are the prerequisite flashbacks tapping into specific life lessons Evelyn taught each of her boys. But Flanagan is such a presence, she deserves more screen time for us to actually care that she's dead.

The title characters reunite in Detroit at Evelyn's funeral, and despite her being a saintly figure in their lives, most of them are living on the fringe and hiding from the law. Bobby (Mark Wahlberg) and Angel (Tyrese Gibson) emerge as the natural leaders of the four, who also include struggling musician Jack (Garrett Hedlund) and local community leader and family man Jeremiah (Outkast's Andre Benjamin). With very little discussion and despite the warnings of local police detectives (Terrence Howard and Josh Charles), the Mercer boys become a four-man killing squad roaming the streets looking for people with information on what appears to be a deliberate hit disguised as a convenience store heist.

Their language is rough and their behavior is pure brutality, but the interaction between the four is entertaining. I could have done without Bobby's constant gay jokes aimed at Jack (who is apparently not gay), but the taunting seems right in line with their brotherly relationship. Wahlberg's live-wire Bobby is still more proof that the guy is a for-real actor. He seems so comfortable in this rough environment that you wonder why he hasn't starred in a film like this before. And Benjamin finally proves he's got some potential as a thespian (something his mirco-role in Be Cool did not show us). Model-singer Gibson (working with Singleton for the third time after the vastly underrated Baby Boy and the worthless 2 Fast 2 Furious) is also quite good here with his slow-burn delivery and explosive bursts of violent behavior.

There isn't much of a plot to Four Brothers, but there really doesn't need to be. Like such works as Point Blank, there is but one objective: work your way through the peons to get to the man in charge and deliver upon him a glorious death. Along the way there are clues that maybe one of their own is a traitor, and a few allies take a fall, but really what this film is about is brutal action and a high body count. On that modest level, Four Brothers is a success.


The Skeleton Key
Two weekends ago, I spent some time with a large group of hard-core horror film fans who spent a lot of time complaining about the way Hollywood is mass producing PG-13-rated horror films, nearly all of which suck. The truth is Hollywood is maybe the most reactionary collection of weasels outside of Washington, D.C., and the reason the studios are churning out these watered-down scare films is that they're cheap to make and many of them are bringing in the cash. Japanese horror (or J-Horror) remakes like The Ring and The Grudge are the culprits, and whether they're good (The Ring) or not (The Grudge), they seem like safe investments, especially with a PG-13 rating attached--since horror plus teenagers equals $$.

I don't have an inherent bias against PG-13 horror films (If The Ring remake taught us anything, it's that you can be scary while playing it safe.), but when I see what Wes Craven had to endure when editing the god-awful Cursed, I can see why enthusiasts might shy away from them.

From massively busy screenwriter Ehren Kruger comes The Skeleton Key, a PG-13-rated film that relies more on thrills than pure scares and manages to tell a mildly compelling story in the process. For the record, Kruger wrote the screenplays for Scream 3, Arlington Road and the American Ring films, as well as upcoming adaptations of The Brothers Grimm, Stephen King's The Talisman and the 2006 sci-fi film John Carter of Mars. Not purely a ghost story, The Skeleton Key is set in the Louisiana bayou, where hoodoo (a kind of supposedly harmless magic) has been practiced by some of the locals for decades. In an admirable change of pace, Kate Hudson plays Caroline Ellis, a hospice nurse who decides to leave her thankless job at an assisted living facility in New Orleans and take a job as a private live-in nurse for an old couple living in a mansion in the swamps. The patient is Ben Devereaux (John Hurt), a stroke victim who cannot speak and can barely move on his own without help. His caring wife, Violet (Gena Rowlands), agrees to hire city girl Caroline with much prompting from her estate lawyer, Luke (Peter Sarsgaard).

After being in the house only a short time, Caroline discovers strange hidden rooms holding all manner of creepy hoodoo paraphernalia: candles, mysterious powders, animal bones and old records featuring genuinely creepy incantations. When she confronts her employer, Caroline is told the story of the original owners of the house and their two married servants, who also happened to be renowned hoodoo practitioners. The film does an interesting job of making it clear that if you don't believe in this magic, it can't really have any effect on you. Supposedly the spirits of the two servants, who were horribly murdered on the property, still haunt the house, and Caroline suspects Ben's condition is a result of believing all of these stories, and in this magic.

The Skeleton Key is about manipulation. Caroline manipulates Ben in an effort to cure him. Violet manipulates Caroline to ends I won't reveal here. And director Iain Softley (Wings of the Dove, K-PAX) manipulates us by showing us flashbacks of events involving the previous occupants of the house but not quite showing us all we need to know certain secrets. And if a film can pull a bit of hoodoo on my head, I'm all for it. Strangely enough, the way screenwriter Kruger weaves his story reminds me a bit of how he structured Arlington Heights. In an effort to do what the lead character believes is the greatest good, the character ends up putting him or herself in even greater danger. The resulting sinking feeling in your stomach when you realize the truth is one I look forward to.

As great as the set up and surprises in The Skeleton Key are, the film isn't a complete success. The rain-drenched conclusion as Caroline attempts to do her good deed will elicit laughter at times. I don't want to ruin anything, but if the greatest threat you can think of is Gena Rowlands holding a shotgun, you need to invest in better nightmares (or at least take better drugs). Also, Peter Sarsgaard is fine in his role as the kindly lawyer for Caroline to unload her troubles on (which of course means we can't trust him), but he's largely wasted here if only because he's not in the movie enough. And what about Hudson? As the cynical young whipper-snapper, she fares well. As a terrified victim, she wasn't as convincing as she needed to be. I'll give her points for never once giving us one of her classic Kate Hudson million-dollar smiles in this film, but I just don't believe a character this strong for most of the film would turn into a screaming little girl by the end, and I don't think Hudson bought it either.

Still, The Skeleton Key is high on the creep factor and has enough credible (within the context of the film, at least) twists to keep me interested in what screenwriter Kruger is up to for the next couple of years. The debate about PG-13 scare movies is not won or lost with The Skeleton Key, however.


The Great Raid
For those of you who actually bother to pay attention to what studio is releasing which films in a given year, you may have noticed that an unprecedented number of films have come out in the last couple of months from Miramax. Two weeks ago, it was the Himalayan adventure The Warrior. Last week, we got the Spanish-language, Tarantino-esque hostage thriller Secuestro Express, and this week it's The Great Raid. Now that the Disney/Weinstein Brothers divorce is nearing its finale and all of the films that have been in limbo for months and even years are finally divided among all interested parties, Miramax is dumping many of its fringe releases to effectively clear the decks for the two separate companies. In the next few months, look for easily a half-dozen more releases from the once-great distributor. For those who keep track of DVD releases, the recent special edition reissues of Miramax films like My Left Foot and Sling Blade are further evidence that money is being divided up.

My message to you is not to be fooled into thinking these films—most hitting the marketplace as limited releases in just a handful of theatres nationwide with next-to-no marketing budgets behind them—are no good. While the quality of these orphaned films varies, The Great Raid is a superb war drama that deserves a much better promotional push than it's getting.

The setting is the tail end of the conflict in the Pacific during World War II. The Japanese are all but defeated, but in order to keep the details of their war atrocities from the rest of the world, the Japanese government has sanctioned the systematic killing of all of its prisoners of war, some of whom have been held for three years and survived such events as the Bataan Death March of 1942. In advance of the final push into Japan by American forces, a group of U.S. Army Rangers has been instructed to rescue about 500 POWs from a camp in the occupied Philippines before the enemy murders them. The mission remains the single largest rescue attempt in U.S. military history.

By simply letting the story unfold more or less as it happened and populating the cast with largely unknown actors, The Great Raid is a major accomplishment from director John Dahl. During the 1990s, Dahl almost single-handedly revived film noir with such films as Kill Me Again, Red Rock West and The Last Seduction. And with The Great Raid, he taps into the vibe of classic war films of the '40s and '50s. The good guys are a little too good, and the Japanese are all universally evil (without resorting to caricatures, thankfully). Still, the by-the-numbers approach works wonderfully as the Rangers (led by Benjamin Bratt's Lt. Col. Mucci and James Franco's Capt. Prince) plot out their attack on the camp, make plenty of adjustments to account for the growing number of Japanese troops in the area, and carry out the impossible mission.

The film spends an equal amount of time getting to know both the Rangers and the POWs, led by highest ranking officer Maj. Gibson (Joseph Fiennes), who attempts to keep the spirits of his men high while fighting off the early effects of malaria. We also learn a bit about the underground movement in the Philippines, which smuggled in medicine, supplies and information to the camp at great risk to themselves and the prisoners. Connie Neilsen plays Margaret Utinsky, one of the leaders of the movement and love interest to Gibson.

The Great Raid does not hide its blood and guts, make no mistake. There is an abundance of gore, broken and missing limbs, and more than a few dead bodies. But Dahl and company do an outstanding job of moving us through the strategy and the final extraction attempt. His detailed attention to geography as the plan is carried out leaves no questions about where various groups of men are positioned when the firefight begins. The results of this effort (especially in terms of the U.S. casualty count) are extraordinary, and The Great Raid is a note-perfect account of five important days that fortified the morale of U.S. troops in the Pacific. I find it a bit strange that the film is being released so close to the anniversary of the atomic bomb dropping on Hiroshima, but perhaps Disney is trying to counter the negative press America might get as a result of that day in history. Either way, the film is a solid piece of historical filmmaking.

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About the Author(s)

A Windy City resident for nearly 20 years, Steve writes about everything but movies at his day job for a trade journal publishing company. Using the alias Capone, he has been the Chicago Editor for Ain't It Cool News since 1998, and has been writing film reviews since he was a wee lad of 14, growing up in Maryland. Direct your questions or comments to .

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