How could any gangster movie starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones that is directed by Luc Besson and has Martin Scorsese as an executive producer be worth missing? Even with its R rating and its uber-violent environment from beginning to end, it is a work of malignant art.
It seems that the Manzoni family is in its sixth year of being protected by the FBI as a result of daddy Giovani’s testimony against the mob. Forced to move repeatedly given the underworld’s continual attempts to kill them, they are now living in Normandy under the name of Blake.
Please understand that the parents, played by De Niro and Pfeiffer, were not fans of June and Ward Cleaver from the “Leave It to Beaver” TV series (1957-63). De Niro is a former hitman who has not lost his taste for blood. Writing his life’s story on an old typewriter to occupy his time, he dispatches anyone who makes the mistake of insulting him. God forbid if you sell him a bad batch of lobsters or try to con him just because you think you are a smug house plumber.
Pfeiffer is back on top of her game as De Niro’s wife, Maggie. There is nothing remotely weak about her, as a French grocery store learns to its detriment when customers try to ridicule her for being an American. And watch for her as she crawls across the floor with a knife to save her beloved husband, in the process looking like a lioness closing on the kill.
What also adds surprising strength to the film are the performances of Dianna Agron and John D’Leo, playing the teenage children whose hunted parents stay one step ahead of doom. As they enter their first day of high school in France, you quickly learn that both of them are capable of kicking the living crap out of any idiot who demeans them.
Ms. Agron, the spitting image of Emma Roberts in her role in “We’re the Millers,” reveals her hidden Medusa Syndrome when she demolishes a high school student with a tennis racket when he makes unwanted sexual advances. If she could hit a tennis ball as accurately as she did this goofball’s head, even Serena Williams couldn’t defeat her at Wimbledon.
Finally, Jones plays Agent Stansfield, a withered old coot simply trying to keep De Niro’s besieged family alive. Though all of his wards drive him crazy when they continually violate simple house rules, he has an obvious affection for them despite their tarnished souls. Simply stated, if they are going to die, then the mob will have to take them out over his dead body.
For all of its violence and De Niro’s love of the “F” word, “The Family” has such immense charm and edgy humor that you can’t help but tag along to see what happens. Yes, the mob is destined to find them and people will die, but death waits for us all, doesn’t it?
“Short Term 12”
As you follow the travails of young staff members working in a teenage foster care facility, you are frequently left more emotional than the kids on the screen. All in their 20s, at least one of the counselors is as psychologically damaged as the kids who they care for, while the others are left trying to make sense out of a job that frequently doesn’t make sense.
Brie Larson is phenomenal as Grace, and her performance reminds me of Jennifer Lawrence in her Oscar-nominated breakthrough “Winter’s Bone” (2010). While I know this is always wishful thinking, she deserves her own Oscar nomination. Her simple, delicate innocence is breathtaking.
Here, she is a dedicated young woman trying to help her wards attain some balance and self-respect before they are forced to leave for the real world when they turn 18. On top of that, she discovers that she is pregnant and is forced to reveal to her loving live-in boyfriend/co-worker, Mason, a hidden past that profoundly haunts her.
John Gallagher Jr. is as good as Ms. Larson as he plays Mason, a young man who has a heart of gold both at home and at work. He embraces all of the children, as he knows what it is like to be a foster child.
Though the movie is seen through the eyes of Grace and Mason, the kids will burn a hole in your heart. Keith Stanfield plays Marcus, a fledgling gangsta rap lyricist who dreads turning 18 and being thrown out into the real world. Your eyes will fill with tears repeatedly during this film, particularly when Marcus describes his lost world in captivating rap lyrics.
In addition, Kaitlyn Dever is unforgettable as Jayden, a psychologically damaged 14-year old holding horrid secrets about a father seeking to visit her. She dislikes everyone, including herself, and the film centers around Grace’s desperate attempt to save Jayden from the dark side. If your heart hasn’t broken by this point, wait until you hear Jayden’s fictional short story of the tragic friendship between a shark and a small octopus.
This film reminded me of when I taught the 5th grade at an all-black public school in Indianapolis in 1969-70. Several of my male students had to use a rope to hold up their pants, and I quickly realized that my job exceeded teaching math and science.
“Short Term 12” has a spirit that captures Ms. Larson’s name, Grace. Despite the noblest efforts of the “Graces” of this country, the film reminds us why government has to play a role in helping those in need due to no fault of their own.
Brilliantly acted and a composite of all that is decent and good in life, it is the best film that I have seen this year.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.