Jodie Foster’s “The Beaver” – Everyone loves a trainwreck – but there are limits

Poster for "The Beaver"

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) is a severely depressed, self-hating individual who pulls himself back from the brink of suicide and starts talking through a stuffed beaver puppet he finds in a dumpster. This performance may be hard to write about, but it was even harder to watch. The beaver persona strikes a comedic note at first, but these beats seem increasingly out of place as the film descends further and further into Walter’s insanity. Whenever Walter is forced to speak in his own voice (without the jaunty British accent), Gibson conveys such intractable discomfort and crippling hopelessness with every syllable that you wonder how Walter has managed to stave off suicide thusfar. His mere existence is a punishing chore. At the beginning of the film, I wondered if I would be able to judge this film without pondering Gibson’s real-life persona. By the end, I forgot Gibson entirely and found myself nearly weeping for the increasingly pitiful creature that is Walter Black. This performance may be unpleasant to watch, but it is certainly one of Gibson’s finest.

Did I mention Walter has a teenage son? When Porter Black (Anton Yelchin) isn’t selling term papers to his high school classmates or romancing one of his clients (Jennifer Lawrence), he spends his time writing down Post-Its of every one of his similarities to his father, no matter how minute (“Rubs eyebrows”), in staunch determination to eliminate every last one of them before he heads off to college. To this end, he is also planning a contrived roadtrip worthy of Elizabethtown, wherein he will visit locations around the country where “everything changed forever” (such as the balcony where Martin Luther King was shot), in a desperate effort to find himself.

I’ll be blunt – I hated this character. He felt like the worst sort of indie cliché, and I found every moment of his screentime excruciating. By the end of the film, we’re seemingly meant to draw parallels between Porter and his father, but they never quite landed. Apart from some apparent OCD, Porter seems a great deal more high-functioning, intelligent, and capable than Walter. While it’s certainly possible that he might slip into a depressed and self-destructive state, the film never really shakes the feeling that no matter what happens, this kid will be just fine. Yelchin’s performance is acceptable, but the character just feels sloppily and unbelievably written.

Still from "The Beaver"

In fact, suspension of disbelief is one of the hardest things about watching The Beaver – this story never quite feels like it could take place in the real world. Porter’s subplot took up nearly half of the film and felt like a complete distraction, and Walter’s story also felt unfocused. While I could accept the absurd degree to which Walter’s family and colleagues accepted his newfound puppetry, his rapid ascendence to fame over a nationwide craze of…children’s woodchopping kits (?) was just too much of a stretch, and felt completely out of place amid the dark family drama that was brewing.

Jodie Foster (also the film’s director) gives a heartbreaking performance as Walter’s wife Meredith – she and Gibson have always had impressive chemistry together, and this film tests it to destruction. In one of the film’s best scenes, the couple goes out to dinner for their 20th anniversary – without spoiling how it ends, I will say that it was physically uncomfortable to watch, and that it was an impressive showcase of both acting and direction.

Porter’s love interest, Norah (Lawrence) gives a rather unsettling speech near the end of the film, ostensibly spelling out its message – maybe everything’s not going to be okay, but at least we’ve got each other. The tone of this speech was as dark as the rest of the film, but as a moral of this somber tale, it somehow works. The Beaver is a deeply flawed, but profoundly affecting film. I can’t say I especially welcomed its effects, but it may be a fascinating character piece for those who have suffered from depression (or their loved ones) – those who know the loneliness that can engulf these individuals even when they’re surrounded by people who desperately want to help.

The Beaver may strain credulity, but its raw sentiment feels real and tragic. That said, it’s not a film I would comfortably recommend to anyone.

FilmWonk rating: 4 out of 10

Week in Brief: “Whip It”, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”

whip-it_poster-690x1024

Drew Barrymore’s directorial debut, Whip It, is the story of Bliss (Ellen Page), a 17-year-old girl who takes a shine to roller derby – the sport in which ladies both lovely and terrifying skate around a banked oval track throwing elbows and attempting to collapse each other’s lungs while passing their opponents’ crumpled bodies to score points. The title refers to a technique whereby one or two skaters act as an anchor to in order to “whip” a teammate past them – a slingshot maneuver designed to greatly increase the teammate’s speed around the track. When I saw this and similar maneuvers put forth in the later matches of the film, I couldn’t help but think of the “Flying V” of The Mighty Ducks. Indeed, Whip It ends up falling somewhere between a Disney sports film and a Texas football tale, and even without the other story trappings, it would be an admirable entry in the sporting genre.

Bliss’ mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden) puts constant pressure on her daughter to stay pretty and compete in events that are equal parts beauty pageant and debutante ball, and is naturally appalled to find out what her daughter is doing with her spare time. The parallels to overeager Texas football dads aren’t exactly subtle, but this subplot worked well for me, owing largely to Page and Harden’s performances, as well as that of Daniel Stern as Bliss’ father.

When confessing her secret sporting life to her parents, Bliss proclaims, “I am in love with this!”. This line was in the trailer, and Page delivered it with such earnestness that it was almost solely responsible for my interest in this film. The story of a teenager in love who doesn’t need to wallow in brooding, misunderstood angst was strangely appealing to me, and Page’s performance delivered on every bit of promise from this line.

And yet, Bliss is not an unrealistic or idealized teen. She acts bratty and selfish at times, and is ultimately put in her place a bit for it. She partakes in a romance with a local guitarist, for no clear reason other than because he’s (omg) super-hot. This storyline initially seems pointless, but pays off rather well in the end, and treats us to a bizarre, but entertaining underwater makeout scene.

The supporting cast is solid, with great performances from Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”), Zoe Bell (the Kiwi stuntwoman from Death Proof), Andrew Wilson (Idiocracy), and Kristen Wiig (“SNL”) – who proves her acting chops even without her signature comedic deadpan. The great Juliette Lewis is also effective as a rival derby player.

The only real weak link in the acting – with the exception of Jimmy Fallon as an absolutely repellent announcer – is director Drew Barrymore. I was conflicted about her presence as an actress in this film; at times, it seems self-indulgent. Barrymore plays a member of the derby team – basically a non-character, lacking any defining characteristics beyond her nom de guerre (Smashley Simpson). I can’t comment much on her performance, since she doesn’t really do much acting, but she does bring the same convincing physicality to the derby sequences as the ladies above (granted, I have no idea how many of the stunts were actually done by the actresses). There’s seems to be no reason for her to be in this film except to join the fun, but I can’t fault her too much for it.

As a freshman filmmaker, Barrymore’s direction is not mindblowing, but she has done a fine job. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman brings the same sort of semi-grainy look that he’s used in every one of Wes Anderson’s films, but it works fine here. The camera starts off tight and claustrophobic – focusing on a one or two players at a time, intermixed with POV shots (seemingly from a camera on skates), but as the film goes on, the shots get wider, and we see more and more. The direction kept the action coherent, built the matches’ interest as the film went on, and brought an adequate measure of intimacy and earnestness to the character moments.

The empowering message of “Be Your Own Hero” is ever-present, but not overwrought. If there’s one message the film conveys best, it’s that roller derby looks brutal and immensely fun, and it’s wrapped in enough solid character work to make this a memorable film.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10
_______________________________________________________________________________________

Poster for "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

Every once in a while, a film comes along that challenges Pixar’s well-earned dominance of the animation market. A film with a solid story, compelling characters, and gorgeous animation. Last year, it was about a panda that wants to learn kung fu. This year, it’s about a scientist who builds a machine that turns rain…into food.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) is a crackpot inventor who has built a myriad of bizarre inventions since childhood, from spray-on shoes to a monkey thought translator. His latest invention is a machine that can “mutate the genetic formula of water to turn it into food”. And that’s about as detailed as the science gets in this film. Lockwood’s lab is designed very much in the Calvin and Hobbes aesthetic, complete with a set of blast doors painted onto a curtain. And just like Calvin, all of the science he develops is immensely fun and borderline magical.

Lockwood lives on a drab island town in the North Atlantic called Swallow Falls, which had previously survived solely on its sardine industry. This industry collapsed when it was discovered – and announced in newspapers the world over – that “Sardines Are Super Gross”. While the town makes an ill-conceived attempt to revitalize through “sardine tourism”, Lockwood’s invention accidentally blasts into the sky (as crackpot inventions are wont to do), and he discovers that it can be programmed remotely to make the skies rain down any food the townspeople want like manna from heaven.

Also in the mix is the power (and food) hungry mayor (Bruce Campbell), a beautiful weather intern (Anna Faris), Lockwood’s disapproving father (James Caan), an aging former sardine mascot (Andy Samberg), and an alarmingly speedy cop (Mr. T). The casting is one of the film’s greatest strengths. Sony appears to have learned a lesson from Dreamworks’ failures. You can’t just pack a film with movie stars and expect them to do well as voice actors. These actors (even Mr. T) feel very much at home in their parts.

As for the character design, it seems quite deliberately cartoonish. Flint Lockwood looks more or less like Jon Arbuckle, with a nose easily half the size of his head. His father’s eyes aren’t even visible under a huge bushy brow and above an equally monstrous mustache, and Mr. T’s cop sports an inverted mohawk (a line shaved down the center). This is in stark contrast to the rest of the animation, which looks gorgeous and practically photorealistic. The film takes place in a sort of heightened reality, and yet the island of Swallow Falls feels every bit like a real place, from its initial shroud of gloomy gray mist to its eventual golden glow amid a shower of falling cheeseburgers. The weather and atmospheric effects are incredible, and the food looks delicious.

Still from "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs".

The film could have stopped there, but it goes on to showcase some remarkable visual wonders and absurdities. There are depictions of food and food-related wonder and peril that I never could’ve imagined before this film. What does a sunrise look like through the shimmering golden walls of a palace made of jello? How do the children play in a town covered in giant scoops of ice cream? What does it look like when huge animate gummy bears hop onto the wing of a plane and start ripping out wires like a pack of gremlins? I could go on. By the end of this film, you will know all of this, and more.

The film is written for the screen and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, two of the writers of CBS’ brilliantly funny sitcom, “How I Met Your Mother”, and this film has many similarities to that show. In addition to the rapid-fire jokes delivered throughout the film, it also showcases several well-conceived running gags, each of which has a hilarious payoff by the end. It also balances the humor, which is unrelenting and hilarious, with some solid character work. There’s Sam Sparks, the weather girl, afraid to show how smart she really is, and ‘Baby’ Brent, the former sardine mascot, unsure of what to do with his life in adulthood…

There is also a very well-conceived relationship between Flint Lockwood and his father. Tim Lockwood is a simple fisherman, afraid of new technology, who can only communicate meaningfully with his son in the form of fish-related metaphors. As Flint unveils his fantastical machine to the townspeople, this relationship becomes imbued with subtle shades of the creative destruction wrought by new technology on old industry. The relationship keeps these shades while confronting one of the most basic questions between father and son: Is Tim proud or appalled by what Flint has accomplished?

It is largely through this relationship that the film tackles the implications and consequences of a society steeped in overconsumption, but it keeps this to a very basic level. This treatment of the film’s message seemed well-suited for such a lighthearted romp of a film, but it may feel to some like a missed opportunity. To such individuals, I would simply say this: not every film needs to be WALL-E. This film deftly acknowledges the implications of its grand premise, and then leaves its audience to ponder them further if they desire. This, along with the myriad of smart running gags, will ensure that this film rewards repeat viewings. This is a gorgeous, intelligent, and family-friendly piece of animation, sure to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. It respects its audience and will leave them begging for more.

FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10

Special thanks to Devindra Hardawar from the /Filmcast for recommending this film, which I would probably have overlooked otherwise.

Week in Brief: “G.I. Joe”, “Gamer”

Poster for "G.I. Joe".
Check out the trailer here.

This film almost made me reconsider my love for Team America: World Police. There are no lengthy musical numbers to speak of, nor are there any wooden puppets (with the exception of Dennis Quaid), but the premises feel very much the same. IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, an uber-patriotic team of American heroes (well, they’re actually a multi-national NATO force based under the sands of the Sahara, but who’s counting) utilize high-tech weapons and a complete disregard for national sovereignty to fight the forces of evil. In this case, the forces of evil include a rogue weapons manufacturer with a plot to “steal” some high-tech nanobot warheads – which he also manufactured – and use them to destroy three major cities, which will allow him to take over the world. Somehow.

Why he can’t skip the pretense of stealing the warheads is unclear, since he does have an underwater base and an entire army of fearless, mind-controlled super-soldiers at his disposal – a base which, according to the Joes, is “the perfect location – difficult to locate, and easily defensible”, and yet becomes the perfect deathtrap as soon as someone cracks one of the windows. What it becomes is a climactic set-piece for an underwater version of a Star Wars battle, and the result is cheesy, but satisfying.

Conversely, the Joes’ base was one of the worst setpieces in the film. At no point does the base feel like it could be a real place on this planet. It makes Team America flying out of Mt. Rushmore seem plausible. The CG design of this place was laughable, and indeed, a lot of complaints have been made about the “bad CG” in this film.

But I must speak to one sequence of “bad CG”, in which the two lead Joes (played with great gusto by Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans) don “Delta-6 Accelerator Suits,” which allow them to run and jump at superhuman strength and speed through the streets of Paris. The movement of these entirely CG characters does indeed look cheesy and artificial, but I must question whether any such CG could ever truly look realistic. Even the best uses of CG involving humans will inevitably break the illusion as soon as the characters engage in impossible stunts. And while this particular sequence could certainly have looked better, I don’t think it could possibly have looked real.

They’re chasing a Humvee with a spiked snowplow on its front – a vehicle with the uncanny ability to hurtle skyward any car that it smashes through. It’s as if Stephen Sommers’ saw the legendary car-tossing sequence from Bad Boys 2, and thought to himself, “Needs more cars.” The sequence is absurd, plays freely with the laws of physics, but is nonetheless quite fun. The only drawback was the complete lack of tension over whether or not the Eiffel Tower would be destroyed, thanks to the film’s trailer. The only real surprise is the sheer amount of collateral damage inflicted upon the population of Paris by both sides in the process.

I won’t speak too much about the acting, since the only actor that seems to be straining his craft is Channing Tatum… Dennis Quaid swaggers maniacally as General Hawk, with a voice somewhere between John Wayne and George C. Scott. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (“Lost”, “Oz”) reverts to his native, but nonetheless uncharacteristic British accent, and Jonathan Pryce dons a half-assed American accent as the completely useless American President. I was pleased to see the return of Brandon Soo Hoo (Tropic Thunder) for one of the film’s many brazen flashback sequences (in a scene that was shockingly brutal and effective for one involving child actors).

I’ll say very little about Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character, except that I thoroughly enjoyed his performance, and his comical (and digitally-enhanced) voice reminded me a great deal of gay porn star Brandon St. Randy* (Justin Long) from Kevin Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno (clip is likely NSFW, due to language and brief Seth Rogen ass):

*An observation I first heard from IFC.com’s Matt Singer on a recent episode of the /Filmcast, but the resemblance of the voices was uncanny nonetheless.

Laremy Legel of Film.com, in a recent article, makes a pretty convincing case against lowering one’s expectations for any film. The point applies quite broadly, but really didn’t apply to this film for me. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra delivered on most of my expectations, and to say that I lowered them would be an oversimplification.

I’ve had a great affection for director Stephen Sommers ever since the Mummy films. He’s an earnest Michael Bay – a purveyor of CG diarrhea who seems to genuinely believe that he’s creating artful cinema, and the results are generally pretty satisfying. And despite my nitpicks about this film (of which there were many more than I included in this review), I actually had a very good time with it.

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10

Poster for "Gamer".
Check out the trailer here.

IN THE VERY NEAR FUTURE, the top spectator sport in the country is “Slayers”, a first-person shooter in which gamers take mental control of a real human being in full-scale combat. The top competitor in this game is Kable (Gerard Butler), who is controlled by Simon (Logan Lerman), an overprivileged teenager. From the trailer, this film looked like a second-rate knockoff of a third-rate remake, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Death Race, and indeed, the backdrops are very similar. In both films, the participants are ostensibly volunteers – death row inmates (of which there seems to be an ample supply) playing in exchange for a slim chance of freedom. And in both films, society revels in the violence inflicted by the inmates upon each other.

Unlike in Death Race, the viewers aren’t just casual observers of a gladiator-like spectacle; they’re active participants. In addition to “Slayers”, there is a game called “Society”, an X-rated mind-control version of “The Sims”, in which blubbery leviathans take control of attractive people and force them to engage in every kind of debauchery. While the gamers who play “Slayers” use full-body controls and appear to be in good shape, we are shown a typical “Society” player who is depicted, to put it mildly, as a fat, self-deluding, sexually deviant waste of life.

I probably wouldn’t have bothered with this film, if not for the fact that it is written and directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, the same team of manic guerilla filmmakers behind the thoroughly entertaining Crank series. Neveldine and Taylor bring their usual frantic handheld style to this film, along with their particular flavor of over-the-top action.

But unlike in the Crank series, this film starts out taking itself completely seriously. And the result is a rather boring first half. The gaming sequences, which make up the majority of the first hour, exist in the same generic grey/brown ruined city and shaky-cam style that all boilerplate first-person shooters include at some point. These sequences are jarring, frenetic, and subject to constant interruption by fake static and video cutting out, which made them almost impossible to comprehend.

Nonetheless, there’s still some pretty compelling imagery in the first act. The prison where these men are held (when they’re not playing) appears to be set down inside a canyon, and is shot in such a way that the desaturated blue sky feels huge and all-encompassing. The resulting setpiece feels bizarre and otherworldly – an almost Limbo-like place for these men to await their doom.

The film really hits its stride in the third act, when we’re subjected to the most hilarious scenery-chewing from the Southern dulcet tones of Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”) as Ken Castle, the inventor of “Slayers” and “Society”. Castle is basically Dr. Evil – a parody of a James Bond villain, and Hall is immensely fun to watch in this role.

This film’s most significant improvement over Death Race is that it effectively depicts just how backward, complacent, and violent a society would have to be in order to support this kind of system. And this may also be its most significant disadvantage. Gerard Butler plays his part completely straight, given that Kable has real stakes (wife and child), but the film just doesn’t make enough sense to be taken seriously. And while the ending is immensely satisfying, I can scarcely say the journey was worth it.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Week in Brief: “World’s Greatest Dad”, “A Perfect Getaway”

“Is that not the perfect visual image of life and death? A fish flapping on the carpet, and a fish not flapping on the carpet.”
-David Carradine, Kill Bill

Bobcat Goldthwait is not exactly known for conventional comedy. His last film, Sleeping Dogs Lie, told the tail tale of a girl whose subsequent relationships are ruined when she reveals that she once had a minor indiscretion with engaged in an inappropriate relationship with blew her dog.

While that film explored the nature of truth and honesty by way of dark comedy, World’s Greatest Dad is even more ambitious. It explores the nature and rise of celebrity, the nonsensical side of public grief, and the ways in which fathers view their children, and it does so in a way that is almost certain to offend everyone who sees it.

The film tells the story of Lance Clayton (Robin Williams), a struggling [read: failed] writer who works as a high school poetry teacher. The story centers around Lance, in his struggles as a writer, father, and boyfriend. His sociopathically ribald son Kyle (Daryl Sabara, of Spy Kids fame) also attends the school, which complicates their already-strained relationship.

I can’t say much more without revealing major spoilers, but suffice to say, certain events occur that complicate Lance’s experience as a father, and cause his writing career to take an unexpectedly positive turn.

Robin Williams gives a noteworthy performance, and really hits his stride in the second act as he starts to see the direction his writing career is going. The image of Williams standing at a newsstand on a Seattle street corner and openly weeping into the adult magazines is certainly one for the ages, and this will unquestionably be remembered as one of his best performances. Daryl Sabara performs ably as the son, although in truth, he’s not fleshed out too much as a character. The same goes for most of the secondary characters, who degenerate a bit as the film goes on.

But this film accomplishes something remarkable. It takes some of the darkest material ever put to screen and manages to present it in a sympathetic way. This is a jet-black comedy, and I can’t count on both hands the number of times I twisted uncomfortably in my chair while watching it. But it has heart. And while it veers off the rails a bit in the third act, particularly with regard to the secondary characters, this is definitely a film worth checking out for those with flexible standards of decency.

But this is not a film for everyone. World’s Greatest Dad is out in limited release now, and be prepared to walk out horrified, whether at the end of the film or somewhere in the middle.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

a_perfect_getaway_poster

Click to check out the trailer.

A Perfect Getaway was not a film I was terribly interested in seeing. Despite the presence of my perennial guilty pleasure, the lovely Milla Jovovich, this looked like a generic thriller with some impressive scenery.

The film is set on the island of Kauai, along the gorgeous Kalalau Trail, a strenuous 11-mile hike past Hanakāpīʻai Beach, one of the most beautiful and treacherous beaches in the world. While normally, the danger of this beach is due to the high surf and strong rip tides, in this film, there’s the added complication of a pair of murderers who’ve just escaped capture after butchering a pair of newlyweds in Honolulu. Are they here? Who could they be? What are they up to? These are the film’s central questions, and the end result is a very competent thriller. Steve Zahn and Timothy Olyphant clearly had a wonderful time chewing the scenery, and they give easily the most entertaining performances. Milla Jovovich also does a fine job, although I must admit I almost didn’t recognize her with the goth haircut and Valley Girl accent. Nonetheless, she does plenty to justify her presence before the film’s end.

The mere presence of the above actors would not have been sufficient to rope me into this film; it was ultimately the presence of writer/director David Twohy that made me curious. Twohy had previously impressed me with the Chronicles of Riddick films, which proved his expert hand at thoroughly cheesy sci-fi with a darkly comedic twinge. I saw this film in the hopes that he would prove as adept with a more conventional thriller, and by and large, I was not disappointed. There are far worse ways to spend an evening, and you would do well to catch this film before it disappears from theaters (as it likely will very soon).

FilmWonk rating: 6.5 out of 10