Sunday, 30 October 2011

The Beaver and All Good Things: Two Underrated 2011 Releases

Thanks to generally poor reviews, I missed these two films at the theatre, though my gut told me I might like them more than the average critic. My gut was right, just as my gut is usually right when I instinctively (on occasion) stay away from a film the critics think is great.

The Beaver stars Mel Gibson as Walter Black, a very depressed man who is saved by a beaver hand-puppet. By pretending to speak through the puppet, Walter is able to distance himself from his fears and anxieties. It is a remarkably successful therapy; too successful, as it turns out, leading Walter ever deeper into mental illness rather than out of it. Meanwhile, Walter’s oldest son, Porter, who hates his father (partly because he is so much like him) connects with Nora in high school. Both of them are struggling, alone, with issues they can’t work through.

The critics had me believing that a film about a hand-puppet doesn’t work, but I think they are wrong. Both of these stories worked very well for me (and I was not at all distracted by the story of the son, as some critics were). The acting of Anton Yelchin as Porter and Jennifer Lawrence (who was so fantastic in Winter’s Bone) as Nora was outstanding and that played a major role in how well that part of the film worked. Gibson was also outstanding, often playing two characters (one with a strong Cockney accent) at the same time. Jodie Foster starred, and performed well, as Walter’s wife, Meredith, and also directed The Beaver.

One of the reasons that the beaver hand-puppet worked for me is because I believe we all speak through masks almost all the time. This very morning I let my mask down in public for twenty seconds and spoke from my heart. It will be days (or even weeks) before I forgive myself for dropping my mask. As the beaver says, we are not encouraged to be passionate and say what’s really on our minds. Instead, we put on a mask to speak to all the other masks. I do this even with my closest friends, and frankly it makes me want to scream.

A key theme of The Beaver, made explicit at the end, is that we are not alone (or need never be alone). Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin was definitely alone, but I understand what the writer is trying to say and I couldn’t agree more. We all need someone to talk to, to share our deepest selves with, even if it’s a hand-puppet.

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of The Beaver. It’s original, it has great cinematography and music, the writing and direction are solid and the acting, like I said, is outstanding. If it hadn’t been for some underdeveloped characters and occasional lack of credibility, I would give The Beaver four stars. As it is, I will give it a solid ***+. My mug is up and its contents may even be good enough to get a top-ten nod.

Note of interest (or not): About thirteen years ago, long before Gibson's troubles, I was doing a getting-to-know-you exercise in which I was asked to name a male and female actor I would like as neigbours (one living on each side of me). I answered with Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster because they seemed like such interesting people (as well as great actors). It's good to see them together again (they starred in Maverick in 1994).

All Good Things is yet another Ryan Gosling film. It is a remarkably understated film (I’ve seen a lot of those lately and very much approve) about David Marks (played by Gosling), a man whose overbearing father (played well by Frank Langella) forces him to take on the family business in New York rather than follow his heart. The resulting personality change leads down a dark path involving his wife, Katie (played by Kirsten Dunst).

This low-key suspenser directed by Andrew Jarecki reminded me of Hitchcock from beginning to end, which is high praise. The unusual thing about All Good Things is that it is apparently based on real events and yet takes incredible liberties. Namely, it makes it clear that someone committed a serious crime for which they were never convicted. How the filmmakers can do that, I have no idea, but the result is fascinating to watch.

Gosling is very good and Dunst has one of her best roles. I felt almost like I was watching a classic from the forties and give All Good Things ***+. My mug is up again. At least on this one I had Roger Ebert on my side. He only gave The Beaver **+, which I simply do not understand.

1 comment:

  1. I also thought The Beaver was pretty good. I wish there had been some glimpses of pre-depression Walter to help us interpret the level of discontinuity (or not) with the puppet. I felt the sudden reaction to the memory box was not well set up - given that he had such a complete lack of that kind of reaction to being back in his home with everything familiar, I couldn't see how that made sense. And I wish the ending had given us something on which to see the gains made from the puppet transferring to Walter. I couldn't help but make associations to Lars and the Real Girl which did so much of a better job of making sense of the whole process (perhaps too neatly). I agree with the ***+ rating, though.