Drive-in Delights: Skeletons and virgins are even better outdoors.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
Aug. 29 2005 3:14 PM

Drive-in Delights

Skeletons and virgins are even better outdoors.

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The key to creepiness

Truro, Mass.—It's hard to ignore the siren song of one of the last great drive-ins, down the road from us in Wellfleet. We're off to see a double-bill of Skeleton Key (Universal) and The 40-Year-Old Virgin (Universal)—a delightful evening among our fellow gas-guzzlers, even allowing for the soggy, artificial-tasting popcorn (some of the worst I've ever wolfed down—I could actually feel the trans-fats congealing in my valves).

Only my colleagues Stephanie Zacharek and Charlie Taylor had kind words to say about Skeleton, and they turn out to be spot-on. It's a prodigiously creepy black-magic spook show, set in a New Orleans and Iberia that I hope is not, as I write this, consigned by Katrina to the briny depths. The New Jersey-bred heroine, played by Kate Hudson, takes a job caring for an elderly stroke victim (John Hurt) in an old manse amid the swamps. A woman with boiled-egg eyes at the local gas station ought to be a tip-off that no good can come of this enterprise. Further evidence is provided by the lack of mirrors in the house, the preserved fetuses and shrunken heads in the attic, and the supposed stroke victim who intermittently crawls through storm-drenched gutters and rasps, "Get out!"

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The director, Ian Softely, has a masterly touch with Gothic horror tropes (skeleton-key-holes, squeaky doors, gloomy passageways) the sheer density of which are enough break down one's well-fortified defenses. Gena Rowlands, in a performance that brilliantly teeters on the threshold between neurosis and malevolence, seals the deal. And Kate Hudson anchors it all. She is every inch a movie star—soft-faced yet shrewdly intelligent, her body—and flesh tones—conforming to her character's escalating dread.

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More painful than it looks, evidently

The hate mail I've gotten for my "eh" review of Virgin impelled me to remain parked for the second feature. OK, I'm a big enough man to say I was too hard on it. The many gags that clunk are offset by the movie's sweetness and emotional complexity. What's distinctive about this male sex comedy is that it's sort of a woman's picture. It might even have been written and directed by women—or at least by girly-men, and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It maintains a marvelous satirical distance on what men talk about in the company of other men, from their kinkiest sexual experiences to their fears of turning gay. ("You're so gay that ...") Even the movie's big gross-out set piece seems informed by a woman's experiences of having her legs waxed. (The very-male ejaculatory expletives of Steve Carell's Andy are not quite as amusing as they're meant to be.) More important, this is a woman's fantasy of meeting a cute but nonaggressive guy—a guy with a richly developed interior life who still needs emotional breaking-in, a guy who can save a gal as she saves him.

How am I a sensitive enough male to discern all this? Well, my wife provided a running commentary as we watched—another benefit of the drive-in experience, at least if you've already seen the picture and don't mind the irritating female chatter.

The bad stuff: The Indian characters who are supposed to get big laughs by talking dirty. My hunch is that the director and cowriter, Judd Apatow, shot these bits, realized how bad they were, but didn't have the heart to cut the actors' big scenes. Also, the movie is overlong and has one of those moronic climaxes that seem to befall all multiplex romantic comedies these days. (One of my smartest readers cites Wedding Crashers as another example of a good movie loused up in the last 20 minutes by the demands of the genre.)

Catherine Keener was the cat's pajamas on first viewing, but a secondconfirms that she's also the bee's knees. Her combination of womanly earthiness and ethereal loopiness is unique in modern American cinema--and super-sexy. As far as I'm concerned, she could break in every soulful cinematic virgin for years to come ... 12:13 P.M. PT 

TRURO, Mass.—One of the advantages (and, for that matter, one of the huge problems) with our modern digital/video/Internet culture—with our 24/seven-office culture in general—is that you can haul your work along to the beach.

If you're a movie critic, you can spend a day frolicking in the surf, kiss the wife and kids good night, and retire to watch videos supplied by obliging publicists in your own private screening room—in my case, a glorified broom closet with a TV, DVD player, and VCR. Then you can post your reviews right to the Web, nod off over a lonely drink on the deck in the moonlight, and wake up covered in insect bites. Paradise.

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Reel simple

First in the Box o' Movies, appropriately, is Reel Paradise (Wellspring), a diverting, shot-on-video documentary by Steve James about a guy who brings his family to the remotest island in Fiji to show free films (commercial Hollywood ones) to the North-American-popular-culture-starved indigenous population.

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