Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Beaver Blu-ray Review

The Beaver tells the emotional story of a once successful man named Walter Black(Mel Gibson) so plagued by his own demons that he resorts to the use of a beaver hand puppet in order turn his life around and reconnect with his family. Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone), and Anton Yelchin(Star Trek)also co-star in the film which is both a darkly comic journey of self-discovery and the importance of family and the strength they can provide.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

The Beaver is a high concept movie that could have gone many different ways.  At one point both Jim Carrey and Steve Carrell were interested in it and it could have been a surreal or outrageous comedy but director Jodie Foster decided to take a more dramatic path.  There’s still some dark humor present but the film straddles the line between comedy and a serious drama for the entire running time.  I can imagine the most difficult aspect of making this film for both Foster and Gibson was maintaining that balance and the tone of the movie.  Despite the laughs that are there, this is also a very serious film about a man suffering from depression and how it negatively affects the rest of his family.

Mel Gibson is Walter Black, a man suffering from a deep depression that a variety of medication can’t help.  The medication just makes him numb and he floats through life cut off from his family.  Walter spends his days in either a daze or asleep and his condition has ruined his toy company, alienated his older son while made his younger son feel invisible, and pushed his long suffering wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) away.  It’s not that Walter wants all of these things to happen but he feels trapped since he can’t seem to beat the depression and he doesn’t want to be drugged any longer.  After being told to move out, Walter buys a lot of alcohol to drown his sorrow but to make room for it in his trunk, he has to throw away some other items. When he throws his stuff in a dumpster, he sees a ratty looking beaver puppet in the trash, which he impulsively takes with him.  Alone in his dilapidated motel room, Walter finally hits rock bottom and after drinking far too much, attempts to kill himself a couple of different ways but is foiled each time.  The first time, the shower bar he tries to hang himself on breaks and the second time he is about to jump off the balcony when he is interrupted by the beaver puppet on his hand .

It’s at this point, the movie begins its risky tightrope walking as Walter  insults and chastises himself as the beaver. Walter is so desperate at this point that his mind sees the beaver as his only salvation since nothing else has worked. The aspect of Walter’s psyche that the beaver represents is disgusted with Walter and the mess he’s made of his life and isn’t afraid of telling him so.  After being verbally harassed by the beaver, Walter accepts the beaver’s advice and starts to rebuild his life with the beaver as his spokesman.  Needless to say, Walter’s wife Meredith is bewildered by this new development but is convinced to go along with it after Walter tells her that it’s a radical new psychiatric tool given to him by his therapist.  Their older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) is furious that his mother is giving Walter and his beaver a second chance while the youngest boy (Riley Thomas Stewart) is just happy to have his Dad back.

Walter and the beaver don’t limit their efforts at home alone, as they return to his work to enact some changes including a focus on creating a new woodworking toyline focused on the beaver.  While his employees and his second in command (Cherry Jones) are skeptical at first at being ordered around by a beaver, they soon embrace it when their profits go through the roof once the beaver kit becomes a blockbuster success.  Back at home, Walter’s relationship with his wife and younger son have also improved and Meredith begins to believe that Walter may fully recover from his depression.  It’s not until their 20th anniversary date when she tells Walter that she just wants him and not the beaver that she finds out just how damaged Walter really is.

The oldest son Porter keeps his distance from his father and his puppet but can’t help but still have feelings for his father despite his fears that he will end up like him.  Porter has a collection of observations on post it notes that feature the qualities that he shares with his father and there’s a lot of them but he misses one crucial one that is a main subtext of the movie.  While his father uses the beaver to communicate in ways that he can’t do himself, Porter is just as lost in his own fashion as he’s so determined not become his father that he’s sublimated his own identity to the point that he makes a good living writing papers for others in their own voice.  Since Porter has buried his own personality he finds it easy to read others and say what they can’t say for themselves.  It’s obvious that unless circumstances change for Porter, he too will follow his father’s path much like Walter is following his father’s.  The opportunity for change appears in the form of  a pretty cheerleader named Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) who hires him to write her valedictorian speech for her.  Norah has her own family issues and needs a positive change as much as Porter.

After awhile, Meredith realized that Walter isn’t going to recover any further than the beaver has brought him and she decides that she can’t take it anym.  After losing Meredith and his kids a second time and seeing Porter suffering like him, Walter is forced to take a look at his life and decide what’s important to him.  On one hand, (no pun intended) the beaver resuscitated his life in many ways but Walter begins to understand that while the beaver is helpful to him personally, it’s driving a permanent wedge between him and his family.  Once he realizes that, the question is: does Walter have the inner strength to move on without the beaver to win his life back?

The Beaver is a very original film and it’s powered by Mel Gibson’s incredible performance.  It’s impossible to view the story of a man trying to overcome his personal demons to become  a better person without thinking about the actor’s real life struggles.  In a way, I believe that his past mistakes and actions fuel this performance to a great extent.  Gibson has always been good at portraying men on the edge whether it’s as Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapon movies or as Hamlet, and he’s equally good here but instead of his usual manic energy, he plays Walter as a morose individual who wanders through life aimless and haunted.  It’s a fantastic performance and it shows why he became a huge star in the first place.  I really can’t imagine another actor playing this role any better because it seems tailor made for Gibson.

Jodie Foster, Gibson’s co-star and director, has worked with him in the past on Maverick and has been friends with him since then, also does good work as his wife Meredith.  Meredith is at her wit’s end since she loves Walter but doesn’t know how to reach him or help him.  It’s bad enough that she’s losing Walter, but when she sees her family start to implode because of his depression, it forces her to choose between her children and Walter.  Foster directed this movie well, but I really don’t think that the Porter/Norah subplot was needed.  I would have preferred the story to remain on the immediate family and their trials to get Walter back.  There’s also a rather dark turn towards the end that a lot of people may not be expecting but then again, the plot doesn’t leave too many options for Walter to take by then so I wasn’t surprised at all.  It may be a somewhat dark turn but it makes sense to the story and by Walter’s logic necessary.  I really liked The Beaver and its cast and the original story of a damaged family trying to survive life’s challenges together.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

The film’s 1080p (2.40:1) transfer is a pretty strong one with some excellent clarity evident throughout.  This is a very clean transfer and looks good despite some occasional white specks and soft shots.  Colors are mostly natural and consistent but intermittently fall on the warm side of the spectrum.  Black levels are suitably dark and inky and the contrast is spot on.  Summit Entertainment has done a nice job on this transfer and there’s a nice amount of detail offered although overall it could have been a little better.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

The Beaver’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is also very good and sounds much better than most other movies of this kind.  This is primarily a dialogue driven movie and it’s crystal clear which is a good thing since the beaver as performed by Gibson sounds like a mix of Michael Caine and Ray Winstone.  The music (both the score and the soundtrack) are also well presented across all of the channels.  This mix is primarily a front channel affair but the rear speakers do get some subtle cues as well.  This mix provides more than enough for this type of film and most fans will be happy with it.

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars)

I have to admit that I’m disappointed with the extras on this disc.  It would have been very interesting to hear Gibson’s thoughts during the commentary or even in a lengthly documentary.  I also thought they would cover more of Walter’s depression and possibly a real life look into that and it’s treatment but that wasn’t included either.
  • Audio Commentary with Jodie Foster - This is a fairly dry and deliberate commentary by the director/star Foster that covers why she was interested in making the movie, casting Mel Gibson and the others, and the film’s production.  Foster is friendly and collegial during the track, but she doesn’t really offer any new perspectives on the film that you couldn’t figure out yourself from watching it.  Be prepared for many silent gaps as well.

  • Deleted Scenes – There are two deleted scenes including: Role Play and Puppet Pull with optional commentary by Jodie Foster.  None of the scenes really add a lot and were wisely cut.

  • Everything is Going to Be OK – This is the sole behind the scenes look at the making of the movie and it’s very brief and plays as traditional EPK fluff.  We hear from the cast and Foster and how they tried to maintain the tone of the movie. This is better than nothing but there should have been more.

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

The Beaver is original and offers a brilliant performance from Mel Gibson who clearly identifies at some level with Walter.  The supporting cast are also all very good even though I believe the teenage romance subplot should have been jettisoned.  This is a darkly comic drama so don’t watch it thinking that it’s a zany comedy about a man who talks to a puppet.  Instead, it’s a look at the psyche of a damaged man and how his inner demons are inadvertently destroying his family and any future he might have.  It’s different and I really liked it and recommend it but if you aren’t sure then go ahead a rent it as it won’t be suitable for everyone.

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