For all her success as an actress, Jodie Foster has had one of the more strangely cursed modern-day careers as a director. She’s made some good movies (“Little Man Tate” remains underrated), but she’s also had countless projects fall apart, including a wonderfully scripted period piece circus tale which Russell Crowe was attached to for quite some time, before a shoulder injury finally scuttled production for good at the last moment. “The Beaver” represents Foster’s latest Waterloo, through no particular fault of her own. A unique and well regarded debut script from writer Kyle Killen made the rounds in Hollywood, and for a while had Steve Carell attached to star. When he dropped out and Foster came on board as director, she tapped her friend and old “Maverick” costar, Mel Gibson, to headline the movie.
What happened from after that, of course, everyone knows. Gibson’s off-screen life… imploded? exploded? outstripped even “South Park”‘s caricaturization of him in its sheer insanity? However one wants to phrase it, Gibson — already on probation with the public for comments stemming from a drunk driving arrest — became toxic, at least as an onscreen box office commodity. Which is a shame, because “The Beaver,” a $21 million production that grossed under $975,000 in the United States after never getting a wider release than 22 theaters from distributor Summit Entertainment, is a very good film, and features what is inarguably Gibson’s strongest performance in years. In some parallel universe, de-coupled from all of his off-screen baggage, awards prognosticators would be talking about the likelihood of a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Instead, what audiences will be left with forevermore is this little curio.
The story itself is certainly quirky and odd — businessman Walter Black (Gibson), beset with an unshakable depression, hits rock bottom and tries to kill himself. He fails, and when he comes to he finds a strange sort of salvation in the form of a beaver hand puppet. Slipping it on his hand (and refusing to remove it), he returns home and tries to patch things up with his estranged family, including wife Meredith (Foster) and their two kids, by speaking to them all through the Beaver persona, in a cockney accent. Already fed up with his father, older son Porter (Anton Yelchin) wants no part of this nonsense, but his mom and little brother are intrigued, in piecemeal fashion. Walter’s professional fortunes enjoy an upswing, but patience has its limits, and turbulence resumes when Meredith is told in no uncertain terms that what she thought was perhaps just a phase is, according to the Beaver, permanent.
“The Beaver” isn’t some cutesy riff on its outrageous premise; it’s sincerely about depression, and it doesn’t pull punches in this regard. The misery and dark, bad-place illness (however broadly you wish to define it) of Gibson off-screen shades and feeds his characterization of Walter in a very interesting way, reinforcing the adage that people love a trainwreck when it’s not them. For all his considerable talent, it’s hard to imagine someone like Carell being able to summon the same starkly defined valleys of despair that Gibson wrings out of his portrayal. Porter’s budding romance with the equally troubled Nora (Jennifer Lawrence) actually works quite well — a credit to both the young actors — but feels a bit like it’s from another movie, or at least a way to while away time and stall the forcing of any action or change upon Walter. And the movie’s tweaks of media and celebrity culture (Walter goes on a national morning show to tout his toy company’s new product) come across as somewhat diversionary, and off the drumbeat of the main narrative. Still, this is a wrenching, engaging work, and with an ending that perfectly suits the material. Just try to check your preconceptions and judgments about Gibson the man, and enjoy the work of Gibson the actor — a memory that has unfortunately been almost all but eclipsed.
On Blu-ray, “The Beaver” is presented in 1080p in a 2.40:1 aspect ratio, with an English language DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track and a Spanish language Dolby digital 5.1 track, plus optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. Bonus features consist of an audio commentary track from Foster, who, truth be told, isn’t the world’s most comfortable or candid interview. She’s whipsmart, so her thematic analysis of the film is spot-on, and she offers up a couple anecdotes, but one expecting any sort of dishy, from-the-hip offerings will be disappointed. There are also two deleted scenes, and a brief making-of featurette which runs a little over 10 minutes and intercuts film clips with thoughts on the material and the directorial touch of Foster from the cast.
If a talking beaver hand-puppet is wacky, “Super Hybrid” is even more bonkers. A liberal-minded, call-to-action documentary of social uplift? Nope… more like a Heritage Foundation horror flick, actually. A sort of cross between “Christine,” “The Hidden” and “Predator,” the movie unfolds in an underground Chicago police impound garage, where bossy jackass Raymond (Oded Fehr) runs roughshod over a group of mechanics and his secretary Maria (Melanie Papalia). Things change one night when a murderous car with a mind of its own and an instinct for hunting starts running over the lot’s trapped inhabitants. As Tilda, Shannon Beckner takes on the Ripley role, taking the fight to the adaptable killing machine with an alien beastie under its hood.
Eric Valette pulls a lot of stuff out of his directorial bag of tricks to give the movie some visual pop, but Neal Marshall Stevens’ screenplay is awkward in its, umm, embrace of its many inspirations. (It even rather wanly rips off, err, pays homage to one of the most famous lines from “Predator,” having Tilda announce, “If it can bleed, it can die.”) “Super Hybrid” works OK for a while as a stalking thriller of containment, but its makers overplay their collective hand when they start showing the tentacled alien that lives in the shape-shifting automobile’s engine mount space. Much better to preserve some suspense without CGI than to roll out terrible effects work that immediately saps a movie of its core intrigue. “Super Hybrid” comes to DVD in a regular plastic Amaray case, in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound track. Its sole bonus feature is a surprisingly robust, 34-minute making-of featurette, which details the movie’s March 2008 shoot and the exact number of cars destroyed during production (that would be 135).
Outlandishness might as well have been the middle name of comedian Andy Kaufman, a provocateur who blended stand-up, general absurdity and deep-cover character work long before Sacha Baron Cohen arrived on the scene. Directed by Christopher Maloney, the documentary “The Death of Andy Kaufman” would seemingly promise ripe entertainment value in focusing, as it does, on the claims by some that in 1984 Kaufman faked his own death. Unfortunately, this low-fi offering — though inclusive of some nice performance footage — dawdles and twiddles its thumbs for far too long before getting around to its one gem, and the spine around which the rest of the film should be based. After a chronological career recap of Kaufman’s peaks and valleys, plus some speculation about his checking in under an assumed name at Cedar Sinai Medical Center (all narrated by Maloney in lame, droopy-dog fashion), the film finally, in its last 15 minutes or so, comes alive, spotlighting an interview with Kaufman’s brother, and actually asking him what he thinks of both his brother’s life and these conspiracy theories. Someone do other Kaufman fans a favor and put that up on YouTube; that’s the only segment of this otherwise navel-gaving trifle worth a watch.
Housed on a region-free disc in a regular plastic Amaray case, “The Death of Andy Kaufman” is presented in 1.33:1 full screen, with six motion-enabled chapter stops. The feature itself runs under 80 minutes, but bonus features include a clutch of trailers and a 12-minute making-of featurette in which director Maloney sits for an interview and answers questions about the genesis of the project, which was (unsurprisingly) his first right out of film school.
Cable television stations need product to fill their airwaves, and so the world therefore needs Jason Statham, who has made a career out of scowling, growling and looking great bald. “Blitz,” though, is a bit smarter than the average fare. Well… “smarter” might be a word to which it would object, actually. Flashier, let’s say? More engaging? A cop-verus-cop-killer thriller set in Southeast London, the movie is, in its set-up, all paint-by-numbers: Statham’s Sergeant Brant drinks on duty, smokes where he’s not supposed to, and tosses around un-politically correct language like “pillow-biter.” Yep, he plays by his own rules, and his lieutenant can’t just go on defending him to his superiors, don’t you know. But a funny thing happens on the way to Retreadville. “Blitz,” amidst all the blood and action, stops taking itself seriously, even as it delivers a few mini-tweaks on a formula mostly tried and true.
The bodies of cops start piling up, courtesy of a criminal scumbag, Barry Weiss (Aidan Gillen), who tips off a reporter (David Morrissey) about his actions. Porter Nash (Paddy Considine) is transferred in from the West London branch, giving Brant (on the surface) a stuffy, level-headed partner against whom he can play bad(der) cop. Together Brant and Nash (not Tango and Cash) close in on Barry, but they struggle with what can be proven in a court of law. It’s not a reinvention of the wheel, but the greater contextual mooring of the film’s source material (it’s based on a novel by Ken Bruen) comes through, giving “Blitz” some definite rental value. Unfortunately, the movie’s 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen DVD presentation comes with no supplemental bonus features, leaving the riddle of how to glare as professionally as Statham beyond reach for mere mortals.
On the kids front, Disney’s “Prom” is the perfect little movie for those who have never yet attended prom, and regard real-life 17-year-olds as impossibly mature and sophisticated. This is an integral part of the Disney brand, of course — projecting a super-fashionable and somewhat chaste version of adolescence, in which the riptide undercurrents of hormonal acting out are always channeled in the most, like, totally amusing and mock-outrageous ways. Scripted by Katie Welch and directed by Joe Nussbaum, “Prom” is a classic sort of opposites-attract tale, minus MC Skat Kat and plus lots of kids wearing hipster hats. Against a backdrop of seemingly steady relationships unraveling, overachiever Nova Prescott (Aimee Teegarden) finds herself falling for troublemaker Jesse Richter (Thomas McDonell) while simultaneously in charge of overseeing a mad-dash rush to replace and complete her school’s prom decorations. The characterizations here are thin, and the acting somewhat pitched at a lowest common-denominator, sure, but the pacing is zippy, the production design colorful and the attempted imparted lessons sincere, so “Prom” generally gets a pass, at least for its target demographic.
Arriving to home video in a nice DVD/Blu-ray combo pack with a complementary cardboard slipcover, “Prom” benefits from a small but decent selection of bonus material. Three minutes of bloopers spotlight all sorts of flubbed lines, while four deleted scenes — introduced by Nussbaum and producer Justin Springer — showcase a few more character moments. Seven high-def music videos — inclusive of tracks from Neon Trees, Moon, Allstar Weekend and Girl in a Coma, among others — will buy parents of tweens about 25 minutes of quiet time, and there’s also a 10-minute short spotlighting the creative ways that supporting character Lloyd (Nicholas Braun) asks various girls to prom. A six-minute EPK-style making-of featurette rounds things out, along with a few trailers.
The Disney Channel has also had much success with “Phineas and Ferb,” and on the animated film front, “Phineas and Ferb: The Movie” (aka “Across the 2nd Dimension”) delivers solid entertainment that cuts across adolescent and tween-demographic gender lines to an impressive degree. The series follows chatty Phineas Flynn and his docile stepbrother Ferb, who engage in all sorts of zany adventures and yet always seem to escape revelation or punishment, much to the consternation of their controlling sister Candace. Created by “Rocko’s Modern Life” co-creators Jeff Marsh and Dan Povenmire, the show exhibits the anarchic, madcap sensibility of that aforementioned series (as well as other credits the duo share, like “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Family Guy”), and the movie is no different; it’s a spirited romp throughout. Running just under 80 minutes, it finds Phineas, Ferb and pal Perry the Platypus following Dr. Doofenshmirtz into an alternate dimension, where they tangle with an army of iron-fisted robots.
Packaged on two discs in an Amaray case with a snap-in tray and complementary cardboard slipcover, “Phineas and Ferb: The Movie” comes to DVD spread out over two discs — one containing the DVD of the film, and the other a digital copy, plus eight music tracks set for download to iTunes or any other portable music player. The movie is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, enhanced for 16×9 televisions, and comes with French, English and Spanish audio tracks, all in Dolby digital 5.1 mixes. Bonus features include eight exclusive deleted scenes, an amusing behind-the-scenes music video performance by Marsh and Povenmire, a sing-along feature that tosses the lyrics to tunes up on the screen, and a bonus episode (“Attack of the 50-Foot Sister”) with character and creator commentary.
Written by: Brent Simon