Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

December Capsule Reviews (Matt)

In Film, Reviews on December 23, 2011 at 10:25 am

by Matt Smith

Hey guys, I’ve been spending the past couple of months playing catch-up to 2011 before our year end “Best of” lists come out, and have seen a TON of films in that small span. Here is a smattering of things I either enjoyed in full or in part, but nothing that I didn’t find in any way appealing. More on those in the near-ish future.

Beautiful Boy
Michael Sheen and Maria Bello turn in some powerful and emotional performances as a pair of parents whose kid shoots up his school and then kills himself. The movie is pretty jarring, and the actual situation of the son’s murder-suicide takes place in the first five minutes, off screen. We are plunged in with the parents, who find out when the audience does what their son did. Never sensationalized or overly sentimentalized. It’s capably directed and the performances are top-notch, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been there, done that. After Gus van Sant’s emotionally scarring Elephant, and a similar exploration of the pain of the loss of one’s child in last year’s Rabbit Hole, the whole thing just seems like an exercise for the cast and crew, albeit it a very good one. I like Maria Bello a whole lot, and it’s a shame she doesn’t get more high profile work. Hopefully this performance will get her some big offers.

The Debt
The latest film from John Madden, the director of Shakespeare in Love, is a thriller about a team of Mossad agents sent to extract the Butcher of Birkenau in East Germany when he is discovered working under a false identity as a clinician and bring him to trial in Israel. What I like about the film is that its story is largely told in an extended flashback, during which we get to know the characters and begin to understand the complicated relationships which play out during the “contemporary” sequences (these take place in 1997, making the characters the correct age and thus the story’s events plausible). Jessica Chastain and Helen Mirren are reliably fantastic, and there’s a nice turn from Sam Worthington that seems to be channeling a real performance for once. I don’t want to get into the details of the story, but as with any decent thriller there is always a point where the plan gets mucked up and has to be corrected. That is the same here. I really enjoyed this one.

A movie that has so much going for it until its final shot. A mixed up kid lives in his grandmother’s house with his father (Rainn Wilson), who is deep in a depression and refusing to come to terms with the loss of his wife. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays the eponymous Hesher, a force of nature who does whatever he wants and gets his aggression out through destruction. In his initial appearance, Hesher appears out the doorway of a house undergoing renovation and snatches the kid up and pulls him inside, out of the sight of a police officer, before throwing a makeshift bomb out the window at the cop and fleeing the scene in his black panel van with heavy metal music wailing out the windows. Natalie Portman shows up as a potential love interest for the much younger kid (those pangs of first love!) and a one-time slam-partner for Hesher, but doesn’t really have much else to do. Funny, crude, somewhat violent and vulgar, and a whole lot of fun, but the end kind of ruins the mood. And I hate that last shot.

Page One: Inside the New York Times
This is a pretty terrific documentary about how the New York Times, one of America’s premiere newspapers (as if you didn’t know), has been coping with the so-called death of print media for the last decade. One of my favorite films of the year, it is a truly amazing film that compels us to consider the role of media in all of our lives, and focuses for an extended period on David Carr, their media reporter, and a damned interesting figure in his own right. It’s a fairly straightforward film, but it goes about its subject with great intent and amazing execution.

The Mechanic
Simon West makes a good action movie again. Thank god. Jason Statham fans will already be all over this, but aside from his standard shtick he doesn’t do a whole lot that’s new. What made me finally sit down and give this some time (other than the fact I picked up the Blu Ray for cheap a while back) is that Ben Foster is one of the best working actors in Hollywood right now, sharing the same space in my “must-see” list with the likes of Michael Shannon and Garrett Dillahunt. Foster is great as an assassin learning the ropes from Statham, and the ending is quite good in its own right. It’s a fairly standard action film, but fans of the genre or the stars should be in good spirits at the end, and Foster is worth checking out all by his lonesome.

The Muppets
I’ve been looking forward to this iteration of Jim Henson’s beloved creations since it was announced Jason Segel was writing the script after his run-in with the company making Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I’m happy to report that, while it’s nothing revolutionary, it does take the initial series and feature film and make a striking addition to the characters’ legacy. The music is quite good, and the few nostalgia pieces they do take out and dust off are utilized for something other than just “hey, remember this?” moments. Segel’s brother is obsessed with the Muppets, and they journey to Muppet studios in Hollywood so he can meet them (during Segel’s romantic vacation with his girlfriend). Along the way there are song-and-dance numbers, the rekindling of old flames, and plenty of cheesy, corn-filled Muppet humor. I had a big fat smile on my face the whole time, and it was nice to see the gang back in their original semblance of glory instead of tacked into a version of some famous story once more (The Muppet Wizard of Oz anyone?).

Jane Eyre
A picturesque, realistic, and thoroughly exquisite adaptation of the Charlotte Bronté novel. Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender as Jane and Rochester are very, very good. I know it’s another stuffy chamber piece based on a classic of the English drawing room school, but it’s really not. Jane Eyre is a tortuous love affair and a tragedy of human existence, gorgeously photographed and well directed. I’ve been a fan of this book since I was forced to read it in high school (a recent voluntary revisitation has confirmed this fandom), and this is probably my favorite adaptation of it. Sensual, moving, and–have I mentioned gorgeous yet? In all seriousness, this take on the story works on many levels, and as Eric mentioned in his essay on female heroism earlier in the year, the return to Rochester at the end at long last seems to stem from the “complex moral vision” that Jane has and follows in her life, and the film is all the more rich for it.

Friends With Benefits
The second of the no emotional attachments we’re just going to have sex rom-coms this year (I’ve still not seen Ivan Reitman’s No Strings Attached, due in large part to my distaste for Ashton Kutcher), Friends With Benefits is actually a pretty charming and fairly funny film. Justin Timberlake plays fairly broad comedy much better than I’d anticipated. Fresh off of some horrible relationships, Dylan and Jamie meet professionally and decide that it would be great to sleep with one another and not let all of the emotional gobbledygook get in the way. Predictably, their plan doesn’t exactly work, and they fall for each other. Still, the film does some nice things with its well-worn premise and formulaic plotting, and despite a couple of scenes that contain those detestable modern fads known as flash mobs, it works. There’s also a nice supporting turn from Woody Harrelson, who I genuinely love, as a gay sports writer at GQ. I don’t have much to say about this movie, actually, other than I liked it very generally, and it definitely has its moments. Get it from Netflix, settle in with a beer with your special lady (or guy) friend, and enjoy. Pretty good time.


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