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Films I Neglected To Review: Husband On The Run

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/11/11 23:43:09

The latest efforts from Rachel Weisz and the directors of "Hoop Dreams" and "Zombieland" are among the titles covered in this latest round-up of short reviews of films currently in release.

The 1994 documentary “Hoop Dreams,” the epic look at two inner-city kids struggling against nearly insurmountable odds to play college basketball in the hopes of eventually landing in the NBA, was such a towering achievement that it would seem almost impossible that another such film could even come close to equaling it in terms of artistic or emotional impact. And yet, that film’s director, Steve James, has managed to do just that with his latest effort, the extraordinarily moving and powerful “The Interrupters.” Inspired by a New York Times Magazine article by Alex Kotlowitz, James takes his cameras to the streets of Chicago in order to follow the members of CeaseFire, a neighborhood group dedicated to keeping an eye on everything on the streets ranging from long-simmering gang feuds to stupid, impulsive arguments and try to quash things before any blood can be spilled. The difference between the street representatives of CeaseFire, known as the Interrupters, and other well-meaning community groups is that they are out there in the thick of things trying to calm tensions down, sometimes after weapons have already been brandished, and because the Interrupters themselves are people who are themselves the children of crime and violence (one is the daughter of infamous Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort) who have paid the price for their mistakes and know of what they speak when they try to convince others that there is another way besides bloodshed.

Sometimes their tactics work, sometimes they don’t but what makes them so heroic in the end is not their occasional triumphs but the fact that they continually get up day after day in order to do a job that could very well get them killed for no good reason. And what makes James’ film so extraordinary is that it never traffics in the cheap sentiment or cheaper liberal pieties that one might expect from a movie of this type. It is a fascinating and engrossing film but that is because he is dealing with fascinating and engrossing people and he allows their stories to play out in a straightforward and unaffected manner that never plays for cheap sentiment with on-the-nose soundtrack choices or questionable editing choices designed to slant the material. Yes, there are long stretches of gloom and doom and moments when even the most sympathetic viewers may despair of anything good happen but James does manage to uncover those brief glimmers of hope as well and when he does, they are all the more moving because both the film and the people we are watching have earned them. “The Interrupters” is gradually opening around the country and is scheduled to eventually play as a segment of PBS’s “Frontline” but no matter how you view it, this is a must-see and one of the best films of the year to date.

If you have ever walked out of one of Luc Besson’s slick and cheerfully cartoonish spectaculars feeling that they are too gritty and realistic for your tastes, then the new Gallic action extravaganza “Point Blank” is a film that is right up your alley. Having absolutely nothing to do with the 1967 Lee Marvin crime classic of the same name, the film stars Gilles Lellouche as Samuel, a nurse’s aide in a Paris hospital who, as the film opens, saves the life of a recent arrival when his respirator hose is mysteriously disconnected. Unfortunately for him, this good deed is severely punished the next day when he is knocked unconscious by an intruder and wakes up to discover that his extremely pregnant wife (Elena Anaya) has been kidnapped by someone threatening to kill her if he doesn’t bring that patient out of the hospital and turn him over immediately. Perhaps inevitably, Samuel and the patient (Roschdy Zem) find themselves racing against time to save the former’s wife while uncovering a massive cover-up involving murder, crooked, cops, shady business dealings and other fun stuff. The plot is, of course, absolutely preposterous--it makes the recent French hit “Tell No One” almost seem lucid by comparison--and if one stops to analyze it for even a second, the entire thing begins to collapse upon itself. However, director/co-writer Fred Cavaye does his damnedest to ensure that doesn’t happen by kicking things off at a breakneck pace and then continually upping the ante as things proceed to such a degree that most viewers will probably come away from the film feeling completely exhausted even though it only clocks in at a relatively brief 84 minutes. The film is deeply inconsequential and eminently forgettable, of course, but as mindless diversions go, it has been done with style and energy to burn and is certainly preferable to the lugubrious likes of “Cowboys & Aliens” or most of the homegrown blockbusters currently in release. Of course, if you do like those movies, then you almost owe it to yourself to see this one (and not the inevitable upcoming English-language remake) in order to see how such things should be done--yes, there are subtitles involved but I can assure you that you will not learn a single thing.

I don’t necessarily mind comedies in which virtually all of the characters are stupid, venal and self-centered twits as long as the filmmakers take the time to at least make their stupidity, venality and self-centeredness amusing and/or compelling. Alas, the new slob comedy “30 Minutes or Less” pretty much completely fails to pull that trick off and the result is an ungainly mess that would have been tedious had it clocked it in 30 minutes and which is borderline excruciating at its not-exactly-sprawling 83-minute running time. Loosely inspired by a real-life incident, though one that played out in real life with even fewer laughs than the version seen here, the film stars Jesse Eisenberg, playing the absolute antithesis of his character in the great “The Social Network,” as Nick, a slackwit eking out a sub-meager living making deliveries for a crappy pizza joint with the titular promise. Meanwhile, the equally oafish Dwayne and Travis (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson) are sponging off of the lottery winnings of the former’s father (Fred Ward) when a friendly stripper convinces Dwayne to bump off his old man in order to inherit the money quicker and wouldn’t you know it, she just happens to know a guy (Michael Pena) who will do the job for $100,000. (Word of advice to all future murder contractors: No matter how nice the breasts are, never trust any stripper who just “happens” to know a hit man. And remember, knowledge is power.) To raise the $100,000, the dopes lure Nick out on a pizza run, kidnap him, strap a bomb-laden vest to his chest and inform him that he has ten hours to rob a bank and get the money or he turns into a pile of goo even less appetizing than the pizzas he pushes.

The rest of the film follows Nick’s frantic race against time to get the money and save his life with the assistance of estranged pal Chet (Aziz Ansari), who is currently peeved at him for his generally lazy approach to life and the revelation that Nick deflowered his twin sister (Dilshad Vadsaria), a moment that does admittedly inspire the film’s single funniest line of dialogue. Unfortunately, those moments are few and far between and while director Ruben Fleischer (whose previous film was the hilarious “Zombieland, also with Eisenberg), tries to create a slacker-filled action-comedy along the lines of “Pineapple Express,” he never comes close to approaching that film’s peculiar genius here. For one thing, none of the characters are remotely interesting or likable (the closest is the twin sister but she essentially serves only as a walking plot device and nothing more) and the situations they become involved in, while wild and wacky in theory, are just noisy and ugly drags in practice. Speaking of noisy and ugly drags, whomever had the allegedly bright idea of teaming up Danny McBride (who is a personality best appreciated in small doses, as his star turn in the virtually unwatchable “Your Highness” proved) and Nick Swardson (who is better neither seen nor heard in any capacity) needs to be punished to the fullest extent of movie law for their crimes against both comedy and humanity. There are a few scattered laughs here and there and both Michael Pena and Fred Ward make an impact in their supporting turns (their scene together is one of the few genuine highlights) but for the most part, as Domino’s is to real pizza, so is “30 Minutes or Less” to a real comedy.

Inexplicably being tossed out in a few theaters during the dog days of August, a period usually reserved for junk along the lines of “Final Destination 5” and “30 Minutes or Less,” “The Whistleblower” is a harrowing drama that might have qualified for any number of year-end awards if it had been handled with more care than it has evidently been given. Inspired by real-life events, the film stars Rachel Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac, a police officer from Nebraska who, hoping to raise enough quick cash to be able to relocate nearer to her ex-husband in order to be closer to her beloved daughter, signs on to go to Bosnia as part of the U.N. effort to bring peace to a region all too familiar with war and inhumanity. Before long, she begins to uncover proof that underage girls are being brought into the country as part of an ever-expanding human trafficking operation and that the very people in authority meant to help those people--including politicians, policemen, businessmen and her fellow peacekeepers--are active participants who aren’t happy about this new arrival upsetting such a profitable enterprise and will do most anything to stop her and ensure that things go back to (ab)normal.

On the surface, this may sound like little more than an exceptionally dark version of a typical Lifetime Original Movie but this is anything but that for a number of reasons. As a docudrama exposing the horrors of white slavery, it casts an unsparing eye at the physical, mental and emotional torture that these unlucky women endure at the hands of people who only see dollar signs when they look at them without ever sinking to the level of cheap and scuzzy exploitation along the lines of the truly vile likes of “Trade.” As a thriller following one strong person ceaselessly trying to bring the truth to light despite overwhelming odds, debuting director/co-writer Larysa Kondracki does a stellar job of quietly building the tension until just the sight of Kathryn walking through the hallways of her workplace are nerve-wracking experiences to behold without ever letting matters get too slick or soulless for their own good. Finally, as a showcase for the talents of Rachel Weisz, a great actress who can elevate even the weakest material with her sheer talent and dedication to her craft, the film as a marvel as she comes forth with a quietly determined performance that is completely bereft of all the tear-shedding histrionics that one might expect from such a role and is all the better because of it--this is one of the best performances I have seen so far this year and one of the best of her entire career. (She is also ably assisted by Vanessa Redgrave and David Straithairn as high-ranking officials who try to help Kathryn in her quest for justice even while recognizing the potential futility of her efforts, Monica Bellucci as a narrow-minded bureaucrat more interested in doing things by the book instead of doing what is right and newcomer Roxana Condurache as a victim who Kathryn struggles to free from bondage. With its grim subject manner and grimmer resolve to not provide a cheerful denouement to the proceedings that would be completely at odds with all that had gone before it, “The Whistleblower” is no walk in the park--this is a grim and serious film about a grim and serious subject that pulls few punches in depicting the depths that some will willingly sink to in exchange for a chunk of money. However, for those willing and able to sit through something so resoundingly unsparing, it is a dark and powerful drama that is truly not to be missed, provided that you even get a chance to see it in the first place, of course.

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