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FOUR BROTHERS 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 steadfastly remains true to himself, making pictures that matter to him personally. The same, alas, can't 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), raised by a foster home provider (Fionnula Flanagan) 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 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. HH

THE SKELETON KEY 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; moreover, both films have the audacity to sidestep bogus happy endings in favor of conclusions that might leave audiences unsettled. Not surprisingly, Dark Water failed to catch on, and there's no reason to believe The Skeleton Key won't meet the same dismal fate. Admittedly, this new release isn't quite as successful as its predecessor, simply because British director Iain Softley, who made the exquisite period melodrama The Wings of the Dove before upchucking the nauseating K-PAX, has a hard time maintaining the proper degree of Gothic mood required of a supernatural thriller of this nature. Kate Hudson stars as Caroline Ellis, a caregiver who's hired to look after a stroke victim (John Hurt) living 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. The supernatural element extends beyond what's taking place on the screen, as it appears that Rowlands, delivering a performance of high camp, has been possessed by What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?-era Bette Davis. While enjoyable, her overripe turn dilutes the story's potency, though the movie rights itself in time for a satisfying twist ending. HH 1/2

Current Releases

CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY Tim Burton helms the second screen version of Roald Dahl's 41-year-old novel about an eccentric candymaker (Johnny Depp) who takes five children on a tour through his gargantuan factory. In most respects, this surpasses the previous screen incarnation, 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory: It's funnier, faster and more visually stimulating. But Burton, who tends to fluctuate between enfant terrible and rank sentimentalist, allows his maudlin streak to get the best of him via a needless back story that explains Wonka's affinity for candy, and this plot strand leads to a soggy finale that's easily bested by the final act of the '71 model. Depp delivers an engaging surface performance, though I prefer the more measured madness of Gene Wilder's interpretation. HHH

THE DUKES OF HAZZARD Airing from 1979 to 1985, the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard was created for people who had trouble following the plotlines of Three's Company. Inspired by the glut of so-called "hick flicks" that dominated drive-ins throughout the 1970s, the program was primarily an excuse to showcase good ol' boy shenanigans and plenty of car collisions. This film version follows suit, with cousins Bo, Luke and Daisy Duke (Johnny Knoxville, Sean William Scott and Jessica Simpson) trying to prevent corrupt Boss Hogg (Burt Reynolds) from running Hazzard County into the ground. A sequence in which Bo and Luke drive through Atlanta suggests that the film could have worked as a clever reimagining in which the coarseness of the Old South repeatedly bumps up against the sensibilities of the New South, but this promise quickly dissipates to allow more room for the usual mix of lame slapstick and smash'n'crash auto theatrics. H 1/2

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