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Column Fri Aug 12 2011

30 Minutes Or Less, The Help, The Whistleblower, The Interrupters, Final Destination 5, Point Blank & Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

Hey everyone. A busy week and some much-needed prep time for this weekend's big Flashback Weekend Horror Convention out in Rosemont, which I emcee, haven't given me much time to get my column together this weekend, so I've had to do something I haven't done in years -- a roundup of films coming out this week. Two or three (maybe more) paragraphs on each film, and hopefully that'll do the trick. Lots of good stuff this week, so pay attention...

30 Minutes or Less

This is a funny fucking movie and one that flies in the face of polite society in all the right ways by giving us four main characters who are largely difficult to like, which of course made me like them even more. Jesse Eisenberg is stoner-slacker pizza delivery guy Nick, who is best friends with Dwayne (Aziz Ansari), a school teacher who really hates kids. On the other side of town, low-life thugs played by Danny McBride and Nick Swardson devise a plan to hire a hitman to kill McBride's overbearing father (Fred Ward) and inherit a tidy sum of money so he can build his dream business -- a tanning salon/brothel. To make this happen, they kidnap Nick, strap a very real bomb to his chest, and force him to rob a bank to get the money.

Naturally, everything goes wrong once the robbery is done and hilarity ensues. I was especially happy to see "Parks and Recreation" star Ansari get this much room to finally create a character. He and Eisenberg make an especially strong comedy team that I would love to see in another story. McBride and Swardson are maybe not quite so richly drawn, but McBride (in his familiar asshole mode) sells a lot of the scenes and jokes that would not have worked in lesser hands. I've never been a big fan of Swardson, but he plays his character fairly low key, so at least he doesn't tank the film. The secret weapon of 30 Minutes or Less is Michael Peña as Chango, the hitman, who is just smart enough to know how play the game and just stupid enough to not know when he's being played. With a high-pitched voice and gangsta look, he's a riot.

I was genuinely surprised by how violent the film gets and how great the action sequences are in the hands of Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer, who sometimes is more of a wrangler than a director of this movie. There are a lot of different comedy styles going on in this film, and he manages to make them all come together nicely. Above and beyond all else, the movie is damn funny but without going too over the top as to pass into the realm of unbelievability. 30 Minutes or Less marks another in a long line of great 2011 R-rated comedies to hit theaters this summer, and I've already seen Our Idiot Brother, so I know there's more to come before August is done.

To read my exclusive interview with 30 Minutes or Less stars Jesse Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari, go to ( Ain't It Cool News.

The Help

I don't have any issue with an author or filmmaker of one race creating a novel/movie about another. But what I don't get are people who are against the idea without having seen or read the finished product. Are they afraid that the creator won't get it right because they're the wrong color? Or are the really afraid they will get it right, disproving the theory that you have to have lived something to write or create a work about it? This seems to be the case with Kathryn Stockett's novel The Help, which serves as the basis for the film by writer-director Tate Taylor, a film that isn't exactly told from the point of view of southern maids circa the early years of the Civil Rights movement, but it certainly sees the world more from their point of view than most films before it.

The issue I had with The Help was that, despite some award-worthy performances, the story isn't all that new or interesting. Plus, I don't see the need for it to be told through the eyes of a young, white, 20-something woman named Skeeter (the great Emma Stone), when it easily could have been almost entirely been about these wonderful women who sacrificed raising their own children to look after other people's kids. I'm not questioning Skeeter's motives in wanting to collect stories from the maids during a turbulent time in Mississpi and the nation, I just don't think the middle-man storyteller is necessary.

I was especially impressed with the performance by Viola Davis as Aibileen Clark and Octavia Spencer as Minny Jackson, two of Skeeter's first interviews for her book. I also really liked the story of Celia Foote (played by Tree of Life's Jessica Chastain), a curvaceous beauty accused of stealing another woman's fiancé. I'm actually a fan of Bryce Dallas Howard in most films, but her portrayal of the sadistic Hilly Holbrook is too cartoonishly racist to be taken seriously. That's more a fault of the writing than the acting, but her character comes across as ridiculous too often. There's too much to like in The Help to dismiss it on principle, but the idea that this fictional white woman is such a huge motivating factor in maids standing up to ill treatment by their employers seems to short change the courage these women had all on their own.

Fortunately for the film, Stone has so much innate kindness emanating from every cell of her being that she actually sells Skeeter's kindness. But by the final third of the film, it become just a waiting game to see which white person will be the meanest to which maid. Not only have we seen moments like that in countless other films, but director Taylor doesn't even try to give us an interesting twist on these scenes. The Help is beautifully shot, perfectly acted, and has the beginnings of a great story told from the least interesting perspective. That's a mild recommendation from someone unfamiliar with the novel, but I'd be interested to see how those who did read it respond.

The Whistleblower

Kind of a surprising movie to come out in the summer, The Whistleblower is a gripping, sometimes nasty, real-life thriller about former police officer Kathy (Rachel Weisz, in one of the finest performances of her career) who takes a job as a contracted United Nations peacekeeper in Bosnia specializing in crimes against women only to discover that many of her co-workers are part of a sex-trafficking ring. The setting is actually post-war Bosnia, so the UN's job is to help heal and rebuild. Instead, what Kathy finds is a world of kidnapping, brutality and rape.

I was especially impressed with the script by director Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan, which points to Kathy's status as a twice-divorced mother, who is forced to leave her children temporarily to make money. Her strained maternal instincts kick in to help these young girls forced to be prostitutes in Bosnia, often for the UN workers. The Whistleblower is punctuated by some great smaller performances from the likes of Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, Danish superstar Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and especially an almost-unrecognizable Monica Bellucci as a soulless aide worker who is so dedicated to clogging the system with red tape that her actions result in protecting the criminals more than the women.

There are a couple of scenes in this movie that are just painful to watch, especially one involving one woman getting punished for leaving her captors to take refuge with the UN peacekeepers. She isn't killed, but what happens to her is simply awful and not for the weak of heart or mind. Kondracki wisely does not go overboard with the violence and torture, but she doesn't exactly soft-pedal the material either. Perhaps what's most interesting is that she tells a parallel story to Kathy's about two Romanian women, Raya and Luba (Roxana Condurache and Paula Schramm), who are lured into this nightmare by people they trusted, and are manipulated by people promising to return them home eventually. This is a lie of course, but false home is perhaps better than no hope at all. The Whistleblower is tough stuff, but if you're in the mood for some counter-programming and a handful of devastatingly strong performances, this is absolutely the film you need to see. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with The Whistleblower director and co-writer Larysa Kondracki, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Interrupters

Winning awards wherever it has played, the latest from producer-director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, Prefontaine, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson), along with his producer partner Alex Kotlowitz is a work of documentary perfection that not only spells out the problem of violence in the economically devastated neighborhoods of Chicago but also does the best job I've seen of offering solutions.

The Interrupters refers to a group of civic-minded people in the community known collectively as CeaseFire, who attempt to "interrupt" violence before it breaks out. They show up at funerals of gang-related shooting victims to ensure that no retaliatory actions take place. They offers services where people can call if they themselves are feeling overpowered by the need for revenge violence. Most of those running the program came off of the very streets they are no protecting, the most fascinating of those being Ameena Matthews, daughter to Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort. Ameena takes an interest in helping a particularly unruly young woman who continues to get kicked out of school or into prison, usually for fighting.

The film follows several members of the CeaseFire group, as well as some of their more regular clients, including one man who calls them on the verge of killing people he believes turned in his mother and brother to the police. His story arc is without question the most shocking and inspiring. It's incredible how much gets accomplished when one of these interrupters comes to a school with brewing tension and defuses the situation by simply allowing the students to voice their frustrations and anger at someone else's behavior. It was genuinely shocking to be how small some of the offenses are that start guns blazing.

The Interrupters is a powerful work that shows this subject from every possible angle. The only element noticeably absent from the film is a police showing. One of the only times a police vehicle shows up, we see it turn around and leave immediately because the situation looks too dangerous. But this isn't really a film about police shortcomings. The folks in this community are trying to take control of a bad situation and make it better. I can't imagine this movie won't impact you on a noticeably deep level. I wanted to shake the hands of every person in this film when it was done. This is a movie about individuals, each with their own dramatic backstory, who have used the drama in their lives to make something good. And I'll smack anyone who sees something bad about that...or maybe I won't.

The Interrupters opens today for a two-week engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center with many special guests, including James, Kotlowitz, and various CeaseFire members. See the Film Center's web site for a complete list of showtimes and guest appearances.

Final Destination 5

I actually find the Final Destination films one of the stronger franchises across the board (with the exception of the fourth film, which I thought was kind of awful). But let's face it, good or bad, these movies are a waiting game. We've learned not to care if the characters are fully developed, because almost without exception, they will die. The success of all the films is solely dependent on the quality and extremely kooky nature of the deaths and the initial event from which some of the characters avoid death's icy grip and all that shit. And for the most part, these movies have delivered wild kills in a short amount of time.

Final Destination 5 is an interesting work, whose biggest moment I can't reveal, but that's OK because the slightly less big moments leading up to it are fantastic and richly gory. The catalytic event is a suspension bridge collapse, which looks like it cost a metric shit ton of money to realize. Nicholas D'Agosto ("Heroes," Fired Up!) plays Sam, who is a passenger on a bus filled with his co-workers going on a work retreat. Sam has the vision of the colleagues dying and manages to get a handful of them off the bus to safety. His actions draw the attention of FBI Agent Block (Courtney B. Vance), who is thinking the bridge incident might be a terrorist attack. He begins to wonder a great deal more about Sam's involvement once his friends start dropping dead.

Among the survivors are Emma Bell (Frozen, "The Walking Dead") as Sam's girlfriend Molly, and company boss David Koechner, who supplies a few more laughs than these movies usually have. Also floating around the action is coroner William Bludworth (the franchise's staple Tony Todd). I laughed as much as I screamed in Final Destination 5, and I think that's the point. These movies are actually fun; they mostly take place in the daylight hours, which makes the 3D actually appear pretty crisp; and, as I mentioned, the deaths on glorious. My favorite involves a gymnast; you'll know it when you see it. The film's director is Steven Quale (this is his first feature), a second-unit director on Avatar and Titanic, who shows a playful flare for storytelling and keeping things at a brisk pace. All of this being said, I think the franchise is at a place where they can stop and not go miles beyond its welcome. (Hello, Saw movies. How are you?) There's a kind of closure at the end of this film that seems appropriately clever and a nice way to wrap up the cycle. It's nice to see the fifth movie in any series stand up so well. Don't be afraid to check this one out.

Point Blank

Cut from the same cloth as Taken, French director Fred Cavaye (who wrote and directed Anything for Her, which got turned into The Next Three Days stateside) has crafted a relentless story of Samuel (Gilles Lellouche), an everyman hospital worker who inadvertently gets involved with some nasty characters and whose pregnant wife (Elena Anaya) is kidnapped unless he helps undo what he has done.

Samuel saved the life of a hospitalized Sartet (the great Roschdy Zem of Days of Glory), a criminal wanted by both the police and gangsters, both of whom seem to want the guy dead. Sartet and Samuel work together to retrieve the wife and get away safe, but nothing in this movie is in any way simple. This movie burns across the screen with jet propulsion-like force. Every type of chase, weapon and gruesome death has a place in Point Blank. I also liked that no one can be trusted in this film, so deception and betrayal become almost commonplace; it's almost more shocking when someone acts honorably.

The plot might be a tad more complicated than it needed to be, but it's never confusing. I loved one particular scene where Sartet and Samuel break into a police station by simply calling up the city's criminal element to start breaking out into spontaneous illegal acts on the street so as to clear out and then crowd the station house. Point Blank is a whole lot of fun, punctuated with some graphic violence and a swerving plot that keeps you on edge, always guessing. This one is for those of you that dig French films and don't want to give up on action movies just yet. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Glee: The 3D Concert Movie

Whose idea was it to unleash this travesty on the public? Who was it that thought interviewing the cast members IN CHARACTER(!) backstage before a concert was a good idea? And for the love of God, who thought between-song interviews with "real-life" high school outcasts/fans whose lives were touched by the show was the right way to go? (Actually, the dwarf cheerleader would make a great character on "Glee.") Anytime this concert film strays from simply allowing the cast to sing and dance the tunes that have made the show so popular, this movie is a certified train wreck.

I don't have much to say about the film beyond that. The song choices are a mixed bag of new and old popular songs and showtunes. I was a little surprise how little series favorite Chris Colfer gets to showcase his strong voice. I was also disappointed that clearly the best dancer of the bunch, Heather Morris, who plays Brittany, only got one real stand-out number. I've got no qualms with the song choices. My toe was tapping during most of the routines, all of which seemed about as intricately choreographed as a grade school play. And there were times where it really seems that people were lip-synching; I won't say who, but not everyone on the show is strong singer. *cough* Gwenyth Paltrow *cough*

As a casual watcher of the show ("fan" seems like such a strong word at this juncture), I found this entire experience really irritating and ill conceived. I'm sure there were more songs to pick from, so why bother with the whole "fan experience" nonsense? It feels like filler because it is. And the 3D doesn't add anything to the enjoyment factor, but that's not really a surprise to anyone. The movie is so mind-numbingly bad that it actually will take away from my enjoyment of the show in the coming season, unless the opening lines of the season premiere are: "What did you do over your summer break?" "Starred in a shitty concert film. How about you?" "Same." Spare yourself the pain, I beg of you.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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