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Christmas with the Kranks, Skeleton Key

CHRISTMAS WITH THE KRANKS (2004). Not since Arnold Schwarzenegger's Jingle All the Way has there been a Yuletide film as fascistic -- or as odious -- as Christmas with the Kranks. Based on John Grisham's book Skipping Christmas, this stars Jamie Lee Curtis (who generally deserves better) and Tim Allen (who never does) as a suburban couple who elect to bypass Christmas altogether and use the money to treat themselves to a 10-day Caribbean vacation over the holiday season. It's a decision that draws instant revulsion from their friends and neighbors, as everyone unites to make the couple's lives miserable in an attempt to force them to renounce their decision and again embrace the commercialism of the period. Simply on a comedic level, the movie would earn one star for failing to deliver a single, solitary laugh (the slapstick sequences are especially painful to endure), but dig a little deeper and what you'll find is a repugnant yarn whose idea of morality wouldn't be out of place at the Nuremberg rallies. The Kranks aren't allowed to think or act for themselves lest they upset their upper-middle-class burg's status quo, and the intrusive, overbearing, conformist neighbors are ultimately depicted as heroes for "converting" the pair to their narrow-minded way of thinking. Even though this is a Christmas flick that hypocritically refuses to mention Jesus or any other aspect of Christianity, it was very telling that, during its theatrical run, the nation's evangelists were boasting in the media about how they urged their constituents to see this film. On the other hand, thoughtful citizens who believe in freedom of choice without persecution will see right through this turkey and reject its unsettling -- and decidedly un-American -- overtures. Even against stiff competition like Van Helsing and Alexander, this was clearly the worst picture of 2004. There are no extra features on the DVD, presumably because no cast or crew member could keep a straight face while being interviewed about the film's merits.

Movie: 1 star

Extras: 1 star

RAN (1985). Director Akira Kurosawa's late-career achievement ranks as one of the all-time greats, a foreign-language production that deserves mention in the same breath with Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief and Kurosawa's own The Seven Samurai. Arriving 35 years after Rashomon, the movie that catapulted Kurosawa into the international spotlight, this extravagant work -- at the time the most expensive film in Japanese history -- demonstrated that, even at the age of 75, the grand old master had lost none of his ability to spin a deeply absorbing tale. Using Shakespeare's King Lear as a starting point, Ran (which translates as "chaos") tells the story of Hidetora (Tatsuya Nadakai), a 70-year-old warlord whose decision to divide his kingdom between his three sons leads to tragic consequences for all concerned. Even upon its original release 20 years ago, critics compared the picture to seminal works by D.W. Griffith and Sergei Eisenstein, profuse reverence which was merely Ran's rightful claim. This is moviemaking on a grand scale, and the battle scene that arrives at exactly the one-hour mark of this 160-minute picture remains the greatest ever committed to celluloid (the impressive opening of Saving Private Ryan immediately had to settle for second place). Yet for all the spectacle, the personal implications of the story prove to be equally haunting, with rich performances driving the proceedings (as the villainous wife of one of the sons, Mieko Harada delivers a frightening, formidable performance that can make a grown man shudder). Drawing from both Shakespeare's text and his own country's rich history -- but passing both through his own sensibilities -- Kurosawa therefore managed to fashion a movie that embodies that most overriding of cinematic oxymorons: an intimate epic. DVD extras in the Criterion two-disc edition include audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince, an appreciation of the film by director Sidney Lumet, and two documentaries (running 74 minutes and 30 minutes) offering behind-the-scenes glimpses into the making of the film.

Movie: 4 stars

Extras: 3 stars

THE SKELETON KEY (2005). This past summer, The Skeleton Key served as a perfect bookend to the Jennifer Connelly 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, though this one at least broke even at the box office. Admittedly, it isn't quite as successful as its predecessor, mainly because director Iain Softley has a hard time maintaining the proper degree of Gothic mood that a spook story of this nature requires. 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. The supernatural element extends beyond what's talking 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. DVD extras include audio commentary by Softley, deleted scenes, a making-of feature, and discussions of both voodoo and hoodoo.

Movie: 2.5 stars

Extras: 3 stars

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