Partly from choice, more because of preview timing, we leave Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides to cruise at sea until next week. But we hurry over to the pond for:
Jodie Foster has remained a loyal friend to Maverick costar Mel Gibson, despite the drunken, racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic rants that sank his popularity. Less a pillar than a pillager of taste — Bird on a Wire, Payback, The Patriot, Lethal Weapon 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. — Gibson once even tried his hand at Hamlet. He also favored us with The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, movies that employ sadistic carnage as if by divine sanction (Christian in one case, Aztec in the other). Shameless, thy name is Mel.
The Beaver, Foster’s third film as a feature director, stars Gibson in (predictably) lots of emotional upheaval. The story is the depression crisis of CEO Walter Black. You’d think that a movie about a toy executive falling into despair would be comical. True to past form, Foster has made an earnest family drama with a few, scattered laughs.
The back-up star is not Walter’s wife, played as a utility-appliance of sympathy by Foster, but a fuzzy, toothy hand-puppet of a beaver. It becomes Walter’s therapeutic alter ego. Wearing the critter on his left hand, silent Walter is suddenly capable of bold talk, in a gravelly Cockney voice. He stops sleeping compulsively, revives his faltering company, and reaches out to his often-astonished wife and two sons.
The older boy (Anton Yelchin, Chekov in 2009’s Star Trek) takes dad’s crisis hard, yet finds solace in a sharp, pretty classmate (Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone). The teen romance is filler, though Lawrence and Yelchin provide us with needed breaks from Walter and his beaver. A kid brother (Riley Thomas Stewart) is an extra hand-puppet for audience empathy.
In Disney terms, The Beaver would be what ol’ Walt might have called “a really wild, hippie idea” (would he have permitted the scene where the beaver comes to bed with Walter and his wife?). Despite some courage in hiring Gibson, Foster is a safe player, and writer Kyle Killen is no Gogol or Pynchon or Thomas Berger when it comes to playing a wild card. He doesn’t give us a reason for Walter’s despair, and the ending is entirely facile. Essentially, the puppet moves Walter from depressive torpor into whimsical schizophrenia, heading back to health (which means, finally, smiles).
What makes it weirdly involving is Gibson’s performance. Every line in his face looks earned, and the film’s one true depth is the pain that Gibson credibly injects into the role. When Walter calls depression “an ink that stains everything it touches,” how can we not believe that Gibson is lamenting his personal crisis? The famously smart Foster surely noticed the star’s history screaming from lines such as, “People seem to love a train wreck, when it isn’t happening to them.” Gibson is that wreck. Though not a confession, The Beaver has the pathos of a plea for mercy.
It was never all that glorious, even if you stood on Lenin’s tomb to watch the parades go by. But for Lyuba, now a weary teacher, it felt great to wear a cute uniform in Red Square as a Young Pioneer “completely satisfied by my beautiful Soviet life.” She and husband Borya now know better, as jaded survivors of Russia’s Brezhnev, Gorbachev, and Yeltsin eras. They are haunted by the old days, as are the other former classmates depicted in My Perestroika, Robin Hessman’s fine feature documentary.
The musician Ruslan — who plays blues in the Moscow subway — was a rock star in the anarchic ’90s and now feels like the afterglow of fading hopes. Andrei, who yearned to be a border guard for the motherland, is rich from importing fancy French shirts. He regards Putin’s regime as a necessary hangover — it’s okay because he can make money. The old net, the nanny side of tyranny, is often ambiguously missed, and “democracy” is, like Marxism before, a decorative façade for elite power games.
History fell hard on these people. Hessman, who spent years in Moscow producing a Russian variant of Sesame Street, gets inside the private complications. Those include kids such as Lyuba’s eager, frisky teen, Mark. He knows about the Soviets, sort of how American kids might know Peter and the Wolf. We hope that Mark, deep into computer games, will escape the most enduring shadows of the old order: rampant smoking and its vodka-soaked mistress, alcoholism.
Not to be confused with Friedrich Schiller’s first play, The Robbers (1781), the Austrian film The Robber can still buzz you with antecedents: a blurry touch of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), more driven touches of Run Lola Run (1998), and a woodland hideaway in Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt (1941). What it doesn’t do, for all of its momentum, is become more than a Teutonic exercise in emotionally distant thrill-pumping.
Benjamin Heisenberg directed from a novel by Martin Prinz, based on a real person. Bank-robber Johann (Andreas Lust) is released from prison. An excellent runner, he kept in shape while in the can. He returns to robbing banks and running, and wins a major race in Vienna. During heists, he wears a mask, which looks like himself aged about 30 years. The trouble for us, and his rather absurdly tolerant girlfriend (Franziska Weisz), is that Johann is just as inexpressive without the mask.
He is gripped by some existential wound of resentful, radical individualism. He is like one of Dostoevsky’s “possessed,” reworked for an Adidas ad. Money barely interests him. Sex is mere distraction. He takes crazy risks and seems to have a death wish. When Heisenberg isn’t adding fancy touches, such as a dash of Italian opera, he stares at Johann’s pensively morose face or stages another hit-and-run. Bank jobs and adrenalized chases have been done better, frequently. The Robber scratches the itch of a boring enigma.
Keanu Reeves is like a streamlined Gregory Peck from a quiet planet where people have slow thoughts. As Henry in Henry’s Crime, he rises from his dull life as a tollbooth attendant thanks to a bank robbery at which he is barely a bystander. Sent to prison, he meets a savvy, old lifer (James Caan) and comes to see that, “I did the time, I may as well have done the crime.” Once paroled, he heads back to the same bank in Buffalo, determined to rob it. The juicy slant in this comedy from director Malcolm Venville (44 Inch Chest) and writer Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) is that the vault is best entered through a theater.
There the star (Vera Farmiga) of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is a snarky spitfire, and the director (Peter Stormare) is so fiercely Slavic that he is like a hairy samovar. The star falls for Henry, who works on the heist while also acting Lopakhin, even though Reeves is often more wooden than the orchard’s fabled trees. The writing is not quirkily inspired enough to make the elements achieve absurd combustion, and the ending is like Chekhov held hostage. But doing time with this one is no crime.
Newsreel: After its first winter series, the Cinema Under the Stars venue, 4040 Goldfinch in Mission Hills, is offering its summer spread. The atmospheric patio site screens movies Thursday through Sunday, starting at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $14 or $15, and reservations can be made at 619-295-4221 or topspresents.com. Here are shows through June: The Seven Year Itch (May 19–21), The Big Lebowski (May 26–29), Chinatown (June 2–3), The Man Who Knew Too Much (June 4–5), American Beauty (June 9–10), Baby, the Rain Must Fall (June 11–12), The Woman in the Window (June 16–17), Never Say Never Again (June 18–19), The Big Sleep (June 23–24), How to Marry a Millionaire (June 25–26), The Princess Bride (June 30–July 3).
Newly reviewed in the movie listings: The Double Hour, The First Grader, Forks Over Knives, and Soul Surfer.