The Beaver

© 2011 Ray Wong

It's been more than 10 years since Jodie Foster directed a feature film. The Beaver, a serious drama about depression and mental illness, reunites Foster with her Maverick co-star and good friend Mel Gibson.

Walter (Mel Gibson) suffers from severe depression, especially since his father died and left him in charge of the family toy company. While business continues to decline, Walter is like a stranger in his own home: his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) is struggling to stay connected to the man she once loved; his son Porter (Anton Yelchin) tries everything he can to distance himself so he won't end up like his father; and the youngest son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) is withdrawn and timid, feeling invisible and helpless.

Soon Meredith's had enough and they agree to separate for the health of the children. Walter has hit bottom, and he grows strangely attached to a childhood stuffed beaver toy. After a failed suicide attempt, Walter realizes he can channel all his positive personality and energy through the Beaver, leaving the negative, broken Walter alone. His odd behavior is first met with scrutiny by his family and employees, but when they see that a more cheerful, productive Walter has indeed emerged from this "alternative therapy," they go along with it. Sales are up, and Walter's eccentricity makes him one of the most talked about personalities in the country. His relationship with Henry has improved, and he and Meredith seems to rekindle their past passion.

The only person who is not buying into the whole charade is Porter. He has a crush on cheerleader-valedictorian Norah (Jennifer Lawrence), who wants Porter to write her graduation speech for her. In the attempt to find out more about Norah, Porter discovers her secrets and infuriates her when he tries too hard to get close to her. His own world is crumbling before his eyes when his "side business" is discovered. Meanwhile, Meredith realizes that Walter has been lying to her, and he's no longer suffering from depression alone, but something more serious. Their trust is tested, and Meredith fears for her family's safety as Walter's mental illness worsens.

Mel Gibson (Edge of Darkness) has had his own real-life battle with depression, marital problems and alcoholism, so this role seems to be tailored for him. Despite what you think of Gibson as a person, you have to admit that he's a decent actor. With this role, he has the ability to display a wide range of emotions and character depth. His Walter is tortured, confused, conflicted, lost, crazy, elated, reborn, loving… And Gibson convinces us that this character is real, perhaps because it reflects so much of his own personal struggles.

Jodie Foster (Nim's Island) has a more supporting role as Meredith. Her performance is solid, if somewhat peripheral (except for a few key scenes with Gibson). Given Foster also directs, it's understandable that she would reduce her role in front of the camera. Instead, Anton Yelchin (Terminator Salvation) has the second lead role as Porter. The story draws parallels between father and son, and Gibson and Yelchin do an admirable job mirroring and complimenting each other in their respective roles.

Riley Thomas Stewart (You Don't Mess with the Zohan) is adorable and wonderful as Walter's youngest son. Usually young male actors tend to be obnoxious and overacting, but Stewart's performance is genuine and sweet. Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) follows her Oscar-nominated performance with a solid turn as the smart girl with a secret. She and Yelchin act well as a would-be couple. Cherry Jones (Amelia) is marvelous as Walter's amiable and supportive vice president.

TV scribe Kyle Killen's (Lone Star) first screenplay takes a quirky premise and turns it inward. It opens with Walter's voiceover describing his own depression, and you rather know everything is going to turn out okay. The characters are well-drawn and the dialogue seems genuine. However, the plot ranges from the absurd to the contrived. Much of it feels rather implausible. The biggest problem I have with the story is that Walter's condition is hardly explained -- we're expected to accept his severe depression and mental breakdown on face value.

Sure, there are hints about his family, his father, his sense of loss and failure. However, all that is superficial. Just as we're expected to accept his depression, we're also called to accept his "cure" and eventual breakdown (and the salvation in the end) as if mental illness and depression can be treated so easily. Anyone who has suffered from or lived with anyone with depression and mental illness would disregard this as ridiculous.

Foster's (Home for the Holidays) direction, however, is controlled, nuanced and relatable. It's probably one of her most accessible films. She succeeds in leaving all the clutter behind and focusing only on the main characters and their relationships. Seldom are there more than three characters in the same scene. Foster also trusts her actors. Her friendship with Gibson no doubt enables her to put her trust in his performance, but she also leaves plenty of room for her young actors to shine. Yelchin, in particular, manages to flex some of his dramatic muscles.

The Beaver is an interesting look at depression, mental illness, family and what is important in one's life. It's part hero's journey and part father-son drama, and it is a serious matter despite the seemingly whimsical premise (who wouldn't laugh at a stuffed toy named The Beaver?) reminding me a bit of American Beauty. Alas, even with solid performances and skillful direction, the movie is bogged down by sappy and contrived storytelling. Maybe the beaver can rebuild this one.

Stars: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Riley Thomas Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Cherry Jones
Director: Jodie Foster
Writer: Kyle Killen
Distributor: Summit
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, some disturbing content, sexuality, language, drug reference
Running Time: 91 minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 7
Production – 7

Total – 7.4 out of 10


© 2011 Ray Wong

Judd Apatow may not have directed Bridesmaids, but the producer's signature is everywhere. The gender of the protagonist may have changed, but the raunch and grossness are still there.

Annie (Kristen Wiig) thinks she's hit bottom after her business (as a baker) failed, and she's stuck at a dead-end job and a loveless sex-buddy relationship. But when her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is getting married, Annie can really feel the pain of her failures. As Lillian's maid of honor, she tries to focus her energy on making Lillian's wedding great.

But things don't go that well when Annie realizes how lavish Lillian's wedding is turning out to be. Worst of all, Lillian has a new best friend, Helen (Rose Byrne), who is beautiful, rich and successful, and is slowly taking over the wedding plans. Annie becomes increasingly jealous, while feeling sorry for herself.

She starts to act out her frustration and anger, thus further alienating Lillian. Then she meets a kind cop, and just when she thinks she may have a chance for happiness, she runs away. It's only when she loses her job, her friendship with Lillian, and her apartment does she know she's now really hit bottom.

Kristen Wiig (Paul) is one of the funniest ladies in Hollywood now, but alas! she's been having trouble finding her breakout role. With Bridesmaids, however, I think she's got it. She plays to her strength as a lanky, awkward, self-conscious girl-next-door "loser." Wiig has a very relatable presence and she is at her best when she plays someone we could all laugh at and with. However, Wiig also shows dramatic capability when delivering the more heartfelt scenes. Don't get me wrong, Wiig is hilarious all the way, but it's also nice to see her shine in the poignant moments.

Wiig's former SNL cast-mate Maya Rudolph (Grown Ups) is also funny as Lillian, the unfortunate bride. Rudolph has a great sense of comic timing and doesn't shy from acting silly and crazy. She and Wiig also has a great rapport. Rose Byrne (Insidious) is also perfectly cast as Annie's nemesis. She more or less plays the "straight" girl in this ensemble, which makes the other bridesmaids look even more hilarious.

The group of oddball bridesmaids are played by Melissa McCarthy (The Back-up Plan) as Lillian's sister-in-law, Wendi McLendon-Covey (Reno 911) as Annie and Lillian's high school pal, and Ellie Kemper (Get Him to the Greek) as Becca. They are all hilarious. The handful of men are pretty good also, most notably Chris O'Dowd (Gulliver's Travels) as the smitten cop, and Jon Hamm (Sucker Punch) as the douche-bag that is Annie's sex-buddy.

Kristen Wiig, together with Annie Mumolo (In the Motherhood), wrote the screenplay (they also have a funny airplane scene together). This is Wiig's first screenplay and it's comedy gold. Now, I don't know how much help Wiig and Mumolo got, but the screenplay is hilarious without sacrificing the heart and soul of the characters and story. The characters are well drawn and complicated and immensely flawed, but you root for them anyway. The situations are raunchy and, quite frankly, disgustingly outrageous.

Wiig and Mumolo manage to combine the female sensibilities, the most sacred female rituals, and gross-out comedies that would make a grown man cringe. Some of the situations and jokes (not to mention language) make me blush with embarrassment. Kudos for Wiig and the cast to act and say them with straight faces. However, what really impresses me isn't just the raunchiness and hilarity, but also the heart of the story. It's basically one about a depressed woman's downward spiral to a nervous breakdown. Also, the relationships are nicely drawn and beautifully acted.

Director Paul Feig (The Office) makes his big-budget movie debut with Bridesmaids, and he's done a rather good job. The production is adequate and mostly, he just turn on the camera and let the actors do their thing. Still, Feig paces the film just right and there's not a dull moment. Considering the last cast, he gives each actor the equal opportunity to deliver their materials and shine.

If you think the previews of Bridesmaids looked hilarious, then you must run to the theater to see it. Hilarious it is, but it also has a lot of heart. It shows that when it comes to comedies, gender doesn't matter. There is a market for gross-out comedies about women. And this one is definitely a bride, never a bridesmaid.

Stars: Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ellie Kemper, Chris O'Dowd, Jon Hamm
Director: Paul Feig
Writers: Kristen Wiig, Annie Mumolo
Distributor: Universal
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, language
Running Time: 125 minutes


Script – 8
Performance – 8
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 7
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 8

Total – 7.8 out of 10


© 2011 Ray Wong

When I first heard Kenneth Branagh was going to direct Thor, my first thought was a typical "What in the hell?" Branagh, of course, is often lauded for his Shakespearean dramas. After seeing Thor, however, I can see how he might just have been the perfect director.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is the son of King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) in the realm of Asgard. He's big, strong, powerful and charismatic. He's also arrogant. He's the apparent heir to the throne. When the enemy breaks a truce, however, Thor rages war against them despite his father's warning. To punish Thor, Odin strips him of his powers and exile him to Earth.

Once Earth-bound, Thor tries to find his way back to Asgard. Without his powers, however, Thor is just a normal man (but he's still super strong). Astrophysics scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) tries to figure out who Thor is and where he came from. Meanwhile, Thor's brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) stages a coup against his father and claims the throne. He sends a weapon to Earth to teach Thor and the humans a lesson.

Through it all, Thor must learn to change his way and realize even though he is a super being (humans have been worshiping the Asgardians as gods for centuries), every life is worth saving. He must redeem himself and find his way back to Asgard to defeat the enemy as well as Loki.

Chris Hemsworth (Star Trek) was on the verge of becoming a huge action star after his breakout role as James T. Kirk's father. Hemsworth packs on more than 30 pounds of muscles to play Thor. He looks the part. Best of all, he acts the part, too. His Thor is very much "in your face" arrogant and masculine, but Hemsworth portrays the Norse god with enough nuance and humor to win us over.

As his human love interest, Natalie Portman (Black Swan) is effective, but a bit underwhelming, especially compared to her tour de force performance in Black Swan. She is a good complement to Hemsworth's Thor, though. Tom Hiddleston (Wallander), on the other hand, owns the screen as Loki. His portrayal is more conflicted and nuanced than the comic book counterpart, and it adds depth and sympathy to the role. That's the way we love our villains! Anthony Hopkins (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), as usual, is in fine form as Odin.

Stellan Skarsgard (Angels & Demons) is great as Jane's befuddled boss Erik. Kat Dennings (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) is cute and has some of the best lines. Clark Gregg (Iron Man 2) reprises his role as SHIELD's Agent Coulson with droll humor. Idris Elba (The Losers) is impressive as gatekeeper Heimdall. Ray Stevenson (The Book of Eli), Tadanobu Asano (Walking Home), Josh Dallas (The Boxer) and Jaimie Alexander (Love and Other Drugs) are all great as Thor's loyal friends Volstagg, Hogun, Fandral and Sif respectively.

Written by a large group of writers, the screenplay manages to avoid the "write by committee" problem that plagues many big-budget Hollywood extravaganzas. The story has an epic, mythical quality to it. The scenes set in Asgard are especially out of this world. The writers are able to mix mythology with science and comic book fun. The characters are all larger than life. The dialogue, while rather comic-book cliched, fits the story and characters well.

The scenes set on Earth somewhat pales to those set on Asgard. I blame the location. The human characters, while interesting and amiable, are rather flat compared to the gods. It's understandable. However, the writers didn't spend enough time developing the plot while Thor is on Earth. The romance between Thor and Jane is rushed and underdeveloped, and Thor's transformation toward the end is unconvincing.

Kenneth Branagh (Sleuth) is, of course, an inspired choice to direct Thor. Known mostly for his Shakespearean work, Branagh seems like an odd choice to direct a comic book action-adventure. However, given the rich mythological and epic story, and the larger-than-life characters, it's apparent that Branagh is the right choice. And he does a great job piecing everything together. While the Earth scenes are good, Branagh's direction really shines when the story continues on Asgard. The production design is marvelous, and the epic action sequences are astounding. It's like watching King Lear on Mars.

With all its flaws, Thor is a fine piece of entertainment. It's epic; it's funny; it's exciting; it's big; it's unapologetically Hollywood. And yet Branagh gives it class, and the fine performances by skilled actors such as Portman and Hopkins give it substance. Hemsworth is a great choice to play Thor, and he delivers. So what's not to love? A thunderous applause from Thor himself.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgard, Kat Dennings, Clark Gregg, Idris Elba, Colm Feore, Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, Josh Dallas, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writers: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne (based on comic books by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby)
Distributor: Paramount
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence, mild language, thematic material
Running Time: 113 minutes


Script – 7
Performance – 8
Direction – 8
Cinematography – 8
Music/Sound– 7
Editing – 8
Production – 9

Total – 7.9 out of 10