Starring: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence
Writer: Kyle Killen
Director: Jodie Foster
I had pretty much no interest in seeing this one when it came out last year, and just watched it tonight on a whim. Mel Gibson has burned up whatever good will I had towards him, and I certainly wasn’t rooting for a comeback here, but I do like Jodie Foster and gave her the benefit of the doubt that just maybe she had a good reason for casting him, and for doing the movie itself.
We meet Walter Black (Gibson) when his mood is just like his name. He’s the CEO of a downward spiraling toy company and his wife, Meredith (Foster), kicks him out because he’s not there for her. Or something. The first time we see him, he’s already deep into the therapeutic practice of expressing his feelings through a beaver hand puppet he has on him at all times. Not just that, but he speaks with a Cockney accent for reasons unknown.
From the start, we’re not sure if this is supposed to be a comedy or drama. Well, that’s not quite true. The puppet is a ridiculous device, but there’s very little humor to the film. Walter’s son Porter (Yelchin) wants nothing to do with him, and is busy with his high school life as a straight A student who secretly sells his skills at writing papers for other students. He has a knack for writing in other people’s voices, but has trouble articulating his own feelings. It doesn’t take a film student to figure out that his situation is a mirror of Walter’s problem. But Walter finds success with his new mouthpiece, somehow inspiring his employees to do better work, and he even comes up with a hot toy idea on his own, a woodworking kit for kids that comes with a talking beaver instructional dvd. I think so, anyway; it wasn’t clear.
Meanwhile, Meredith lets him back into her life and bed too easily, putting up with the beaver until she’s had enough of it, resulting in Walter having a panic attack. Somehow by this point, I was sympathetic enough for Walter that Foster comes off as the bad guy here, not willing to wait as long as the process takes.
Porter is approached by the school valedictorian, Norah (Lawrence), to write her graduation speech. They start to become close, but the intense, in-his-head Porter blows their date by confronting her on her brother’s suicide, a subject she’s not ready to deal with yet. Yes, she’s the third character having trouble expressing their feelings.
While Porter and Norah have some of the best moments in the film, each supporting and drawing emotions and growth from the other, Walter’s story takes more bizarre and dark turns, first with uncomfortable talk show appearances promoting the toy through his puppet, then with a violent, bloody divorce from it. Oddly, Foster the actor is too passive for Foster the director, letting her character stay rather one-note, the supportive wife. Surely being married to Walter for 20 years and then being sucked into his mental breakdown should have yielded a powerful scene where she unloads on him, but perhaps she felt Walter’s character was too pathetic to withstand it. As such, Foster is the least compelling character in the film, aside from the cute younger son who’s there to give hugs and ask innocent questions about when Daddy’s coming home.
Obviously, this was on paper a career misstep for Lawrence between solid commercial choices like X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games, but she’s perfectly fine here, and she and Yelchin have a believable chemistry as photogenic but damaged young lovers. For his part, Gibson reminded me that whatever anger and self-loathing and craziness he has seething inside him, he at least is able to harness it for a strong performance. His deeply lined forehead, thinning, graying hair, and red-rimmed eyes tell a tale of hard living and hopefully some lessons learned. That’s not to say the performance is enough to carry the film, though. It’s not really Gibson’s fault, but as with the lack of a knockout scene for Foster, the scene where Porter comes to see Walter in the mental hospital is lukewarm. Maybe Foster wanted it underplayed, and certainly surging strings would have been out of place in a film that used an old Radiohead song for mood, but such an odd film needed all the manipulative tricks it could muster to get the audience on board by the end. It doesn’t quite work, but for a film that sounded like it was going to be an instant kitsch classic (“asshole Mel Gibson plays an asshole who tries to become a better man by talking through a beaver puppet and with the love of a woman everyone knows in real life has not the slightest romantic interest in him”), but it does work better than one might think.
Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones.
Director: Matthew Vaughn
I’m not sure why I didn’t see this earlier. I’ve always liked, though frequently stopped reading, the X-Men books, and enjoyed the original film trilogy and Wolverine film well enough, with qualifications. I guess I saw this quasi-prequel as kind of pointless. I’ve certainly read plenty of variations on the X-Men and Magneto origins, and the thought of pushing this one back closer to the original comics timeline of the early ’60s, and tying it to the Cuban Missile Crisis, seemed, again, pointless and sort of silly. And if I’m being honest, there was probably some dumb fanboy part of me concerned that there was no way they could make this work, continuity-wise, with the other films.
It so happens that the writers’ almost gleeful dispensing with continuity is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. Just to be clear, the basics are here: Erik Lensherr/Magneo (Fassbender), was a WWII concentration camp Jew whose anger at the Nazis triggered his power. Charles Xavier is a rich telepathic mutant who wants to help others like him, and eventually befriends Erik, their missions and worldviews differing but overlapping for most of the film. We also find typical X-Men story meat such as government fear and young mutant desires to either be normal or accepted for the special creatures they are. What makes all this work is sturdy craftsmanship in the writing, direction, editing, effects and music, but it’s the novelty in how all these things are played out that keeps this from being a rehash. Xavier (McAvoy) as a swinging London playboy using his mutant theories as pick-up lines? Groovy. Raven/Mystique (Lawrence) as his best friend, stifled by his disapproving big brother act and hurt by his failure to accept her true appearance? Works for me. Add to that some enjoyable ’60s settings, and a reasonably good cast of villains led by Sebastian Shaw (Bacon) and some powerful if anonymous soldiers, and the various plot threads, romantic entanglements, vengeance scenarios and shifting alliances play out very well over the course of an over two hour film that doesn’t feel like it has any real fat on it.
Hardcore fans will naturally question some things. Alex Summers/Havok is, in the comics, Cyclops’ younger brother, so what is he doing here in 1962 and where is Cyclops? Hank McCoy/Beast is also of a similar age. Angel (Zoe Kravitz) is now a hot African-American girl with insect-like, not birdlike, wings. But, you know, who cares? As long as one doesn’t worry about having to tie into a series of movies with other actors that aren’t all that classic to begin with, this is a lot of fun. My only concern with character choices was the Shaw sidekick Azazel, who is literally just a red Nightcrawler who kills people. It seems like there must have been an earlier draft with Nightcrawler in this role and then it was decided the murders just didn’t jibe with the character. There’s also a guy who makes whirlwinds who is never even named, which feels like a cheat for some reason. I also felt bad that one of the two black characters, Darwin, is killed very quickly. As far as real flaws, while it’s true that the actors playing Banshee and Havok aren’t given much to do (Banshee is more of a contemporary California duuuude and Havok is just a mean dick to Hank who can’t control his powers), the only actor who really comes up short here is January Jones, who seems mainly cast as eye candy. She doesn’t have that sexy swagger or sense that she’s capable of leadership that the character usually has, and her voice has no presence. For that matter, Bacon is very pro forma in the sneering villain role. Fortunately, McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence are all capable of giving dimension and individuality to their characters.