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EW review: 'Hostage' fights cliches

Euro aesthetic helps action film work

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Entertainment Weekly

Willis
Bruce Willis takes aim in "Hostage."
YOUR E-MAIL ALERTS
Joan Allen
Bruce Willis
Samuel L. Jackson
Kevin Costner

(Entertainment Weekly) -- Some years ago at the Cannes film festival, I watched Bruce Willis toss Planet Hollywood T-shirts to a crowd and bad-mouth France. Turns out he was backing the wrong horse.

In "Hostage," an interesting French action pic fights gallantly for dominance over a bulging, American-style shoot-'em-up. And while the Hollywood machinery eventually overpowers the sensibility of French-born director Florent Siri (The Nest) in his first English-language production, the film's vaguely haunted, melancholic European sense of displacement does our Bruno good.

My new theory is that Willis' own aesthetic soul is more old-world than he knows, and that he works best with directors who either are (Luc Besson) or might as well be (M. Night Shyamalan) European. In "Hostage," Willis plays Jeff Talley, a former LAPD negotiator whose desire for work in a sleepier county is blown by a trio of teens who break into a fancy house on the way to stealing a fancy car.

From a case of Escalade envy, the doo-doo gets exponentially deeper: The owner (Kevin Pollak), who lives with his teenage daughter (Michelle Horn) and younger son (Jimmy Bennett), is a corrupt accountant who cooks the books for bad guys so shadowy, we never know what their exact brand of evil is.

And so while the three high-strung intruders, with their individual cases of dangerous psychological instability, hold the family hostage, Talley's grimace is tightened a notch when he hears from the shadowy bad guys themselves: They're holding his own family at gunpoint until Talley retrieves a certain CD containing bank-account information more valuable to them than the life of the schlub who manages their portfolio.

That Talley finds a way to do all of this believably enough, playing all sides against a constantly shifting middle, is the secret of Willis' longevity even after interest in Planet Hollywood has waned. (A different segment of the audience may be interested to see "Six Feet Under's" Ben Foster as the creepiest of the intruders, and the star's own kid, Rumer Willis, as Talley's daughter.)

The movie, with its climax of boggling, bloody too-muchness, is adapted from Robert Crais' page-turner by Doug Richardson ("Die Hard 2") with a businesslike sense of Willis' strengths. The cinematic tone, though, as well as the creation of an alluring, menacing, wealthy, and amoral California, is all Siri's. While the Hitchcock-loving cineast admires L.A., the wised-up middle-aged American movie star ought to mutter, "Vive la France."

EW Grade: B

More from Entertainment Weekly: Bruce Willisexternal link

'Millions'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Millions
Alex Etel and Lewis McGibbon in "Millions."

"Millions" could eventually become a perennial DVD holiday favorite -- a major factor, I'd like to think, in the contrarian plan to premiere director Danny Boyle's sparkling new family movie now, in this drab, uncelebrated, nonsectarian, late-winter season, when we need it more.

Consider: The twinkly hubbub of Christmas comes but once a year, but the call to do the right thing in the face of material temptation is a daily appointment. Plus: Although "Millions" culminates in December on a patch of northern English suburbia where a kiddie Nativity pageant derails with fantastic consequences, the bright star that appears in the night sky to guide a little boy barely gets a nod.

Come to think of it, evocations of everyday boyhood, with its blur of the ordinary and the magical, are where Boyle has always excelled. I think a similar feel for the cinematic possibilities of laddie gusto links the raving, toilet-diving junkies of "Trainspotting" with the foaming, flesh-devouring zombies of "28 Days Later."

And while the selected Catholic saints who make appearances in "Millions" neither rave nor foam -- on the contrary, shot with matter-of-fact radiance by "Dogville" cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, they are the gentlest and most inspirational of fellows -- Boyle treats them with similar receptiveness, curiosity, and good humor.

Indeed, Boyle's unflappable enthusiasm gives this blithe original story by Frank Cottrell Boyce (a frequent collaborator with Michael Winterbottom and, by the way, a father of seven) its extra bounce of Mad Hatter charm.

Following the death of their mother, spiritually receptive 7-year-old Damian (impish newcomer Alex Etel) and his more hardheaded 9-year-old brother, Anthony (Lewis McGibbon), move to a new home with their father ("Bloody Sunday's" James Nesbitt), where each adapts to loss and sadness in his own way. The consumer-oriented Anthony experiments with milking pity from strangers (telling any woman of his orphan status always pays off); Damian works on elevating his mum to the rank of the saints he loves reading about.

Then temptation falls from the sky, literally, when a bag crammed with cash shows up, as if by a miracle, at the hideaway in the wild reeds that Damian has built out of discarded packing boxes. The cash is in British pound notes, by the way. The country is about to convert to Euros.

The money that fell from the sky in Sam Raimi's bleak corker "A Simple Plan" warped the lives of grown men. That the burden of responsibility -- and possibility -- falls to kids in "Millions" is just one of the great twists put to such satisfying use, while Dad (a good parent, managing his own sorrow) does the best he can by offering a new beginning for the boys in a new home.

Make no mistake, "Millions" is still a Danny Boyle film, where absurdity is an everyday occurrence and what takes places inside a guy's head fights for shelf space with what's happening in the outside world. But this sincere, delicate, and intrinsically religious comedy may also become that most unexpected of blessings -- Danny Boyle's first family classic.

EW Grade: A-

More from Entertainment Weekly: Danny Boyleexternal link

'The Upside of Anger'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Most actors treat aging as something to be ashamed of. Either they work overtime to look rugged and fit beyond their years (not that there's anything wrong with that), or they turn into wax-dummy versions of their former selves, like John Travolta in "Be Cool."

Kevin Costner, though, was playing past his prime when he was still a matinee idol (notably in "Bull Durham"), and a certain grizzled, gone-to-seed dishevelment has always looked good on him. It's part of his unforced masculine grace -- his willingness, more than that of most stars, to undercut his own vanity.

In Mike Binder's "The Upside of Anger," Costner plays yet another over-the-hill sports paragon, a retired Detroit Tigers star named Denny Davies who coasts through his days in a genial haze of booze and faded celebrity. Denny, who hosts a talk-radio show in which he likes to ramble on about everything but his glory days, keeps the money flowing in by signing baseballs and showing up to open the occasional mall.

It's a living, of sorts, but not quite a life, and no one knows that better than Denny. That's why he's eager to hook up with Terry (Joan Allen), a battle-scarred suburban housewife with a big woodsy colonial home, four beautiful daughters (and I do mean beautiful -- they're played by Erika Christensen, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt, and Evan Rachel Wood), and a husband who has apparently run off with his secretary.

Gulping Grey Goose cocktails before noon, Terry is as big a lush as Denny, but more than that, the two fit together. They're drinking buddies and dissolute soul mates; it's up to Denny to show her that they could be more.

To do that, he's got to break down the wall of her stubborn rage. Joan Allen, with her gift for tensile hostility, makes Terry a forceful, at times ripely comic, creation: a woman who has had her blinders, and manners, ripped away by despair. Now she says whatever comes into her head, strangely liberated by her ordeal.

The film's tone, however, remains gentle and affectionate, a shade too evenhanded. Since everyone around Terry knows that she's "acting out" her pain, they all cut her the appropriate slack. I kept thinking, How did four daughters this non-neurotic emerge from a mother this high-strung? "The Upside of Anger" is overly therapized, yet Costner and Allen show you what it means not just to play a role but to inhabit it.

EW Grade: B

More from Entertainment Weekly: Kevin Costnerexternal link | Joan Allenexternal link

'In My Country'

Reviewed by Owen Gleiberman

Just when you thought "Hotel Rwanda" had rendered obsolete the sort of neocolonial uplift that investigates black trauma through a white person's eyes, along comes "In My Country." It's set in South Africa in 1996, and, as directed by John Boorman, it's like a Richard Attenborough film made for the Lifetime channel.

Boorman dramatizes the actions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was formed by Nelson Mandela to investigate human rights abuses under apartheid. Its mission wasn't to mete out punishment; it was to create a public setting in which victims of the Afrikaner regime could confront the officers who'd tortured and killed their relatives.

Boorman creates affecting and tense moments in the commission room. As stories of atrocity unfold -- a boy's hands cut off, a man's genitals tied with wire before he is given electroshock -- the victims' relatives howl in agony, and the men who committed the crimes stare and say, "I was just following orders."

After a while, though, you notice that none of the relatives are allowed to become characters. Instead, "In My Country" hinges on the friendship, and rather starchy romance, of Anna Malan (Juliette Binoche), an Afrikaans poet and journalist, and Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson), a testy Washington Post reporter. The movie is the story of Anna's enlightenment -- how she confronts her denial of any connection to the brutal government under which she prospered.

"In My Country," in other words, doesn't so much explore as use the tragedy of black South Africa to give its heroine a righteous slap of nobility.

EW Grade: C+

More from Entertainment Weekly: Samuel L. Jacksonexternal link

'Dear Frankie'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

"Dear Frankie" is a Scottish weepie of such bathos and balderdash that it deserves a drinking game in its rotten honor: Bend an elbow every time you've underestimated how low screenwriter Andrea Gibb and director Shona Auerbach will go to wring a tear.

The kid in the title (Jack McElhone) is deaf (gulp!), and he lives with his mother, Lizzie (Emily Mortimer, so pretty, glug!), and his chain-smoking granny (Mary Riggans) in a drab Glasgow flat (cheers!). He doesn't remember his absent da as the abusive bastard he was (chug!), and Lizzie encourages false memory by inventing a loving father who's a merchant seaman on a ship with a fake name, sending Frankie letters that are actually written by Lizzie (double glug!).

Only it turns out that a real ship with the same name is coming into port (hic!), which means Lizzie needs to hire a guy (played by handsome Gerard Butler, chin-chin!) who will pass as Frankie's da (slurp!). Whatever you imagine the ending will be, it's more shameless than that.

EW Grade: D-

'The Best of Youth'

Reviewed by Lisa Schwarzbaum

Were "The Best of Youth" to air on national television, as it did in its original incarnation in Italy two years ago, I can assure you that everyone would be talking about it for weeks.

As it is, I can promise you this: Every lucky moviegoer who commits to the six hours this magnificent Italian drama requires -- ingestible in two discrete three-hour installments -- won't be able to stop thinking about gentle, empathetic Nicola Carati (Luigi Lo Cascio) and his broodier, more tempestuous sibling, Matteo (Alessio Boni), the two brothers whose lives come to embody nearly four decades of modern Italian history in one grandly engrossing experience.

Have I convinced you yet to invest the time? "La Meglio Giovent," as director Marco Tullio Giordana calls his prizewinning narrative masterpiece, begins in Rome, in 1966, when the Carati boys -- two of four children born into a middle-class family -- are just launching their adult lives. Nicola wants to become a doctor (to which end a kindly professor urges the young man to move away because "Italy is a dying, useless country"); Matteo has more longings -- he's a passionate reader of books -- and fewer plans.

Nicola identifies with liberalism and enlightenment; Matteo becomes a soldier, then a cop. And as the lives and fortunes of the Carati clan wax and wane, expand and intertwine, their intimate struggles, joys, and accommodations reflect the rhythms of societal life on a larger scale: The 1966 Florence floods, Italy's 1982 World Cup championship, the terrorism of the Red Brigades, and the violence of Mafia murders share equal, gracefully apportioned weight with personal history. (The geography shifts too, from Rome to Florence to Turin to Palermo to the Tuscan countryside, with a magical stop in Norway.)

Like a great novel from a more expansive bygone age, "The Best of Youth" is full of big thoughts; like a great soap opera, it's also full of sharp plot turns, vibrant characters, and great talk. It is, in short, the best of cinema.

EW Grade: A

More from Entertainment Weekly: Moviesexternal link


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