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Films I Neglected To Review: Don't Luc Now
by Peter Sobczynski

I have spent the last hour or so struggling to write a review of "Insidious Chapter 2" but it is so dull, perfunctory and useless that I can barely remember any of it less than a day after seeing it, let alone think of pithy ways to describe its sheer crumminess. Instead, please enjoy short reviews of "The Family," "Sample This," "Short Term 12" and "A Teacher."

Being a semi-accidental auteurist can lead a critic down some pretty odd pathways in order to justify some of the more questionable works of favorite filmmakers but not even the most ardent followers of the seemingly inexhaustible Luc Besson--and faithful readers will know that I include myself among their ranks--will have the nerve to put themselves through the analytical gyrations required to consider his latest effort, "The Family," to be anything other than a near-total disaster. In this messed-up mob comedy, Robert De Niro plays a former top-ranking gangster who, for reasons that are never made especially clear, betrays his former colleagues to the government and enters the Witness Relocation Program along with his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) and children (Dianna Agron and John D'Leo). As the story opens, the family has barely been relocated once again, this time to Normandy, when they begin causing more problems for beleaguered fed Tommy Lee Jones--De Niro contemplates writing his memoirs, Pfeiffer blows up local grocery stores for committing the offense of not stocking peanut butter, Agron makes a play for her high-school math teacher and D'Leo inadvertently reveals their whereabouts to the former associates that have put a $20 million bounty on De Niro's head.

Granted, Besson's films have never exactly been known for their tightly constructed screenplays but this one is put together in such a sloppy and haphazard manner that it makes the plots of "Taken 2" and "Transporter 3" seem like "Chinatown" by comparison. In the past, Besson has been able to overcome the occasional slack storylines and logical lapses with a cheerfully exuberant filmmaking style emphasizing slick visuals, intricate action choreography and weirdo humor but none of those qualities are on display here--this may be the fifth feature that he has directed since terminating his brief retirement but his efforts are so painfully lacking in anything resembling genuine artistic commitment that he may as well still be sitting on a beach somewhere. For their part, the actors coast through the proceedings serene in the knowledge that they are being paid to spend time in France making a crappy movie that they don't have to worry about anyone actually watching. There is, to be fair, one absolutely inspired bit in which De Niro, who has claimed to his neighbors that he is a writer, is asked to appear at a local film club to discuss "Some Came Running"--he agrees but due to a mix-up, he winds up talking about another film whose title I will not reveal except to note that it is somewhat closer to his heart and it also explains Martin Scorsese's presence in the credits as an executive producer. Other than that, "The Family" is such a massive waste of time and talent that everyone involved may need to go into Witness Relocation themselves for a while until everyone just forgets that it ever existed, which presumably shouldn't take too long.

No doubt hitting theaters at last in the hopes of following in the footsteps of last year's surprise hit "Searching for Sugar Man," the new documentary "Sample This" uncovers yet another hidden corner of musical history and how it continues to reverberate in popular culture. The one follows the story of the Incredible Bongo Band, a group of studio musicians assembled by music executive Michael Viner, that first appeared on a couple of filler cuts on the soundtrack to the immortal "The Thing With Two Heads" and then went on to record their own 1973 album "Bongo Room." The L.P went nowhere but a couple of years later, it would be discovered in a used record store by DJ Kool Herc, who sampled its impressive percussive beats--especially on a cover of the Brit-pop classic "Apache"--as part of the then-emerging rap music movement, riffs that would become later popularized by Grandmaster Flash and become one of the essential foundations of the hip-hop revolution.

The story of how the album was put together, forgotten and later rediscovered is an interesting one and as long as director Dan Forrer sticks to it, the results are mildly intriguing but, in an ill-advised effort to either make the story seem more universal or (more likely) to boost the running time up to a feature length, he allows the film to drift off onto long tangents involving the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the musical aspirations of Charles Manson that are profoundly irrelevant to the story at had. Genially, if unnecessarily, hosted by the increasingly grisly-looking Gene Simmons, "Sample This" is not without interest but if it had been whittled down to under an hour and screened as an episode of "Behind the Music," it might have actually been an improvement.

The new indie drama "Short Term 12" has been receiving rave reviews from virtually everyone who has encountered it but despite the ecstatic reaction it has been getting, I must admit to being a little leery about the idea of seeing it myself for reasons that may strike some as petty and arbitrary. For one, the press materials describe it in such blandly unappetizing terms that it almost seems to be daring people to come out and see it all. For another, the praise has been so wildly extravagant that it almost seems like too much for any one film to support and the tone has been so reverent that it has almost bordered on the oppressive. As it turns out, the film, which chronicles a few days in the life of Grace (Brie Larson), a fiercely protective counsellor at a facility for troubled and abused children, actually does deserve most of the hype and praise that it has received, largely due to the knockout lead performance by Larson, whom you will recall as the girl in the "21 Jump Street" movie and will never forget after seeing her here.

Watching as she goes to extraordinary lengths to reach out to her charges--particularly a boy (Keith Stanfield) who is about to turn 18 and leave the system but is afraid of what is out there and a girl (Kaitlyn Dever) whose problems force Grace to confront the hard truths about her own life--she is never less than likable, compelling and deeply moving and if there is any justice in the world, this film will do for her what "Winter's Bone" did for the equally gifted Jennifer Lawrence. Unlike "Winter's Bone," however, "Short Term 12" is not simply a one-woman show. Debuting writer-director Destin Cretton used to work in a facility like the one depicted in the film and as a result, there is a realistic, live-in feel to the proceedings that makes it far more compelling that it might have been in more professionally-minded hands. There are a couple of moments when one can feel the mechanics of the screenplay groaning a little too loudly for their own good but they never wind up overwhelming the proceedings. I realize that spending 90 minutes watching someone trying to reach out to troubled kids may not sound like the ideal way to spend a Saturday night but trust me, "Short Term 12" is an above-average drama that features what will surely go down as one of the best and most deeply-felt performances of the year.

"A Teacher" tells the story of a female high school teacher who becomes involved in a sexual relationship with one of her male students, a situation that has been exploited in the past in whimsies of questionable taste ranging from Van Halen's "Hot for Teacher" video to the Adam Sandler monstrosity "That's My Boy." This one treats the concept in a far more serious-minded manner than those examples but the end result is just as dubious from a narrative standpoint. The chief problem with writer-director Hannah Fidell's Texas-set drama is that she seems curiously uninterested in any of the ethical or emotional hurdles in the story that she is telling. All of the key moments that one might expect to see in order to help gain some understanding as to how such a situation might develop and devolve have been deliberately left out of the proceedings. As a result, viewers are left without any reason to understand how these two could have ever come together or any sort of believable dramatic payoff when things go sour. Another problem is that while the performances by Lindsay Burdge and Will Brittain in the two lead roles are technically fine, their characters are so opaque--she is a vague emotional mess and he is a largely uninteresting dope--that they wind up going through the motions as though they are slaves to a slack screenplay instead of a grand and unspeakable passion. Dull, dramatically inert and overlong even at a piddling 77 minutes, "A Teacher" is a film that conveys all the raw power of study hall and all the palpable erotic tension of a health class taught by your gym teacher.

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originally posted: 09/14/13 02:06:51
last updated: 09/14/13 02:26:13
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