Sunday, July 31, 2005

Movie Review: "Hostage"

Starring Bruce Willis, Kevin Pollack, Jonathan Tucker, Ben Foster
Directed by Florent Siri

Playing another in a long line of hard-nosed cops, the tendency is to take Bruce Willis' portrayal of Jeff Talley in "Hostage" as a variation on John McClane from the "Die Hard" films. But clearly, Talley's a more tortured character and one who could probably stand to find a new line of work.
That's not to say he's a bad cop, but as the LAPD's lead negotiator in a hostage situation that goes terribly awry in the gripping, yet violent opening portion of the film, Talley shoulders much of the blame. Cut to a year later and Talley has sought refuge in a much quieter post as police chief in Bristo Camino, a small town in California. But happiness has not really come with the new surroundings, as he finds his marriage on the verge of collapse, while he battles depression over the previous year's failure.
However, leave it to a crisis to put the problems of his personal life on hold. That comes in the form of a group of young carjackers who decide to obtain a particularly expensive vehicle belonging to an accountant (Kevin Pollack) at his security-laden house. Complications initially occur when a police officer shows up on the scene and is shot, leading to more police involvement and a subsequent hostage situation involving the accountant and his two children.
Early on, Talley takes control of the scene, but gladly turns over the reins when the sheriff's department arrives. However, unbeknownst to him, the accountant has possession of incriminating evidence inside the house that leads a masked group of criminals to kidnap Talley's family. Their demand: Talley must reassume command and get in the house to retrieve said evidence or his family dies.
The shadowy group of criminals, while effective in a well acted initial face-to-face meeting with Talley, grow tiresome, as their identity or who they represent is never established. Plus, their demands on Talley seem more stretched machinations of the story, rather than the necessary means to achieve their objective. Later scenes inside the house only go to prove this point.
That's not to say that Willis isn't game for the demands of the role. He's always been effective at portraying characters seeking redemption and is in solid form in this film. His ability to play grounded characters is usually invaluable in helping to reign in movies that stretch plausibility (see any of the "Die Hard" films for examples).
He's aided by director Florent Siri, making his American movie debut, as the movie has a distinct visual style that is especially apparent in its opening third (including an appealing opening credit sequence, which is a rarity anymore in today's movies to even have one).
Just an observation – it would be nice to see more action movies find ways out of their stories beyond tons of gunfire where most of the characters die in overly violent ways. This film, unfortunately, isn't one of them.
Grade: C
(Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and some drug use.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Movie Review: "Wedding Crashers"

Starring Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams, Isla Fisher, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken
Directed by David Dobkin

Portraying a pair of divorce mediators who aren't related, but just appear to be, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn make the most of their likeable nature in "Wedding Crashers," a funny, yet inconsistent variation on the raunchy R-rated movies that were so prevalent in the 1980s.
John Beckwith (Wilson) and Jeremy Klein (Vaughn) are fun-loving, good-natured guys who have a desire to treat the summertime season of weddings as a kind of sport, where they show up uninvited to the events and proceed to enjoy themselves at the expense of others. Oh yeah, and they also use the occasions as a chance to sleep with as many horny bridesmaids as possible. A well edited montage in the movie displays the wide range of weddings the two are willing to crash in order to have a good time.
In the hands of lesser actors, these characters would be insufferable louts that you could scarcely stand to spend five minutes with, let alone two hours. But both Wilson and Vaughn have experience playing these kind of immature characters, who seem content to put off true adulthood as long as possible. They make John and Jeremy at least not quite as sleazy as they maybe read on the page.
But a wedding involving the daughter of U.S. Treasury Secretary Cleary (Christopher Walken) proves a turning point for both of the men, involving the pursuit of his two other daughters. John becomes smitten with Claire (Rachel McAdams), while Jeremy, after a sexual encounter on the beach with Gloria (Isla Fisher), finds himself desperate to get away from her.
"I've got a stage five clinger," Jeremy desperately tells John, who responds by having the two accept an invitation to the Cleary family summer home. John sees this as a chance to get to know Claire better, only to discover her testosterone-fueled boyfriend (Bradley Cooper) waiting for them at the house. Jeremy simply believes he's going to have to suffer a little to help out his friend. Just how much Jeremy has to go through at the home provides most of the laughs in the film's second act.
Scenes involving the boyfriend, written as a completely unlikeable jerk, tend to have an unnecessary cruelty behind them that don't add to the humor. That's not to say Cooper doesn't perform the part well. It's just that the script by Steve Faber and Bob Fisher wants us to believe that a seemingly sweet-natured person such as Claire would have actually been dating this guy for more than three years. A comedy such as this needs a villain who's more of a dolt than an aggressive, cruel character.
The movie also misses out on making better use of Walken and Jane Seymour as his wife, who has the hots for John. Walken, in particular, has proven with his many stints on "Saturday Night Live" that he's got a knack for comedy. But here he's left generally playing the straight man to Wilson and Vaughn.
"Wedding Crashers" is at its strongest when it throws Wilson and Vaughn into scenes together and lets the longtime friends cut loose. Vaughn has seemingly cornered the market on the fast-talking best friend role, starting back in 1996 with "Swingers." Here, he gets most of the big laughs, some of them seemingly the result of improvisation. The fact that he's used the line "I like where your head's at" in two different movies this year (the other being "Mr. and Mrs. Smith") leads me to that conclusion. Regardless, Vaughn is working the charm in this movie and is the best reason to see it.
Taking it in with tempered expectations, "Wedding Crashers" is good fun while it lasts – even managing to find a small part for Will Ferrell. It's good to see that guy get a role thrown his way every once in a while.
Grade: B-
(Rated R for sexual content/nudity and language.)

Monday, July 18, 2005

Movie Review: "Kung Fu Hustle"

Starring Stephen Chow, Yuen Wah, Yuen Qui, Leung Siu Lung, Shengyi Huang
Directed by Stephen Chow

For better or for worse, the recent "Matrix" trilogy has brought a veritable slew of martial arts movies to American cinema. Some Asian actors have made a very respectable career appearing in the genre, with Jackie Chan the most notable name to audiences in America. His movies have typically employed at least some element of comedy into its action scenes, as Chan has said in interviews that Buster Keaton is one of his main influences.
One relatively new name from the Far East that is emerging in America is Stephen Chow. Having received a poor distribution deal from Miramax for 2002's "Shaolin Soccer," Chow managed to earn a wide release earlier this year for "Kung Fu Hustle," an off-the-wall action comedy with energy to spare. If I were to guess one of Chow's influences, I would say Looney Tunes cartoons would have to be right up there.
Chow who co-wrote and directed the film, also stars as Sing, a petty thief who makes the mistake of impersonating a member of a much feared Hong Kong gang.
The Axe Gang, who as you might expect, use axes as their weapon of choice, are a well choreographed gang who break into dance when the mood strikes them. They have been terrorizing much of the city for quite some time, with the exception of Pig Sty Alley, an impoverished neighborhood they have no interest in – that is until Sing sullies their reputation there after getting beat up by the residents. The sequence leading up to it is quite amusing, as Sing challenges who he believes to be weak members of the neighborhood to a fight, only to be sorely disappointed in his choices.
As Sing and the Axe Gang quickly deduce, several kung fu masters are taking up residence in the neighborhood, forcing the bad guys to bring in reinforcements. In turn, it seems everyone in the neighborhood is capable of holding their own, including the foul-tempered landlady (Yuen Qiu), whose screaming is a weapon all its own.
Combining excellent choreography from Yuen Wo Ping and CGI, the action is simultaneously amazing and completely unbelievable. Chow seemingly holds nothing back, especially later in the movie when his character discovers his own inner kung fu master, as he and a powerful villain known as The Beast defy gravity, among other things, in their climatic showdown.
Nothing can really be taken too seriously in this film, and Chow and the rest of the cast seem to know it. Finding a right balance between action and comedy can be a tricky endeavor, and while some of the jokes fall flat, Chow keeps the pace so frenetic (some may say too frenetic), it becomes difficult to care. That said, this is definitely a style over substance affair.
Paying homage to a cornucopia of movies, such as "The Shining," "Gangs of New York" and "The Matrix," "Kung Fu Hustle" practically plays as a live-action cartoon. Characters such as Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner would feel right at home in this universe. In this case, that's probably a good thing.
Grade: B
(Rated R for sequences of strong stylized action and violence.)

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Movie Review: "The Woodsman"

Starring Kevin Bacon, Kyra Sedgwick, Eve, Mos Def, David Allan Grier and Benjamin Bratt
Directed by Nicole Kassell

Having been on the acting scene for nearly three decades, Kevin Bacon has been a seemingly constant presence in movies, even having a game (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon) tied to his long filmography. Having more than held his own against Oscar-winners Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in 2003's "Mystic River," Bacon's understated and complex portrayal of a convicted sex offender is the heart and soul of "The Woodsman."
Portraying a man just released from a 12-year jail sentence, Walter (Bacon) is looking to start a new life, but has no friends and only one family member, brother-in-law Carlos (Benjamin Bratt), who will have anything to do with him. He finds employment at a lumberyard, but keeps his distance from everyone there, with the exception of Vicki (Kyra Sedgwick), a forklift operator. She senses he has personal demons, but also believes he has a caring personality.
The two quickly bond, but Walter's dark past is a seemingly constant threat at crushing his delicately established present. Living in an apartment across from a school playground – the only landlord that would accept rent from him, he explains – certainly doesn't help matters. He also has to have counseling sessions and a local detective (Mos Def, in a solid performance) makes frequent unannounced visits, hoping and fully expecting Walter to go back to his old ways.
What the film makes abundantly clear, largely through the strength of Bacon's performance, is that Walter did not emerge from prison a rehabilitated man. Sure, he might have emerged as a different man, but the sexual urges that got him into trouble in the first place still exist. He recognizes that what landed him in jail was wrong, yet rationalizes that he never hurt his victims. We are left to believe that he is speaking of a physical kind of hurt, and it's only in a later scene at a park that he is faced with a decision that questions that rationale.
The aforementioned scene really serves as the pivotal moment in the entire movie and is an uncomfortable, yet wonderfully performed sequence. For that matter, the movie's material on the whole is a bit uncomfortable, as its central character is after all a pedophile. There is a lot to be said about the strength and conviction of Bacon and first-time director Nicole Kassell for tackling such a difficult and uncompromising project. Together, they have to walk a tightrope, crafting a character who has a horrible part of his past, yet is legitimately trying to carve out a normal life. One scene even has Walter asking his therapist, "When will I be normal?"
"The Woodsman" provides no easy answer to that question, as the definition of normal can vary wildly from one person to the other.
Made on a shoestring budget, with a strong cast working for next to nothing, the film will certainly have a polarizing effect on audiences, as some will simply have no desire to see a movie centered on a convicted pedophile. But the film makes efforts to not paint Walter as a character seeking sympathy or even understanding, just as someone who isn't a monster and will struggle with his demons every day of his life.
That said, there's probably only so far the film could go with the material to keep it watchable, yet maintain an emotional pull. Still, Walter is portrayed as a cold and distant person, keeping the viewer at bay, with little mentioned of his pre-prison life. Plus, the inclusion of a character that frequents the playground who Walter identifies as a predator feels undeveloped and tacked on.
Some may argue for the need to have such a movie exist, but with so many movies centering around and practically paying fetishistic tribute to serial killers, the brave performances and straightforward storytelling of "The Woodsman" feels necessary. The fact that it got made at all in these times in which we live would appear to be a true accomplishment.
Grade: B+
(Rated R for sexuality, disturbing behavior and language.)