Saturday, August 27, 2011

On DVD/Blu-ray: "The Beaver," "Prom," "Priest"

The Beaver (2011)
91 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Mel Gibson talking to a beaver hand-puppet doesn't sound like such a tough sell, now that we know his train wreck of an unprofessional life. It also sounds like the spitball idea for a wacky comedy. Far from it. 

In "The Beaver," Gibson's life-imitating-art comeback, he plays Walter Black, the heir to a toy company and family man in the darkest hours of his life. He's crippled by clinical depression, left to sleep his days away. Once his wife Meredith (Jodie Foster) and eldest son Porter (Anton Yelchin) have had enough, Walter moves out. He finds a beaver hand-puppet in a dumpster, and after a failed series of suicide attempts, the man wakes up with the bucktoothed furball on his hand. Speaking in a Cockney accent that of a gangster Michael Caine, while moving the beaver's mouth, Walter communicates with the outside world through the beaver as a means to cope. Pretending the puppet is part of a doctor-prescribed therapy program, the father tries to fix his company and personal life. Of course the younger son Henry (Riley Thomas Stewart) likes the talking beaver, but eventually, everything will come to a head. 

Walter and his beaver is only half the story. Ghost-writing his classmates' papers for money, Porter fears he will end up like his father. Then once a high school cheerleader named Norah (Jennifer Lawrence) reaches out to him to write her valedictorian speech, Porter and her form a bond. 

What an unusual, outlandish premise for a drama—director Jodie Foster had us at "beaver"! But she brings a gentle touch to this risky material. Written by first-timer Kyle Killen, "The Beaver" lacks the emotional groundwork on the page to make such a story ring true (What was Walter like before his depression?). Despite the outlandish hook, the film insists we believe the beaver acts as such a crutch that Walter would wear the puppet while having sex with Meredith in bed and in the shower (!), and that the wife would just go with it. The subplot involving Porter and Norah distracts our attention from the focus of Walter, but oddly, it's the more compelling of the two. 

Gibson proves his true worth as an actor, giving his most stirring performance to date in an almost unplayable part, but he pulls it off, daring to go to dark places. Walter is afraid to be in his own skin, but with the help of the beaver, he finds himself again. Foster is lovely as a long-suffering woman in her marriage. Yelchin and Lawrence both impress as honest young actors. They have an intelligence and vulnerability, and share nice chemistry together. 

While the film itself is flawed by heavy-handedness and unconvincing plotting, Gibson's performance hits home and is unmatched by the rest of "The Beaver."

Prom (2011)
103 min., rated PG. 
Grade: B

As you'd expect in Disney's "Prom," there's no "pregaming" the formal dance (or sneaking in a flask), no booking a hotel to lose his and her V-card afterwards, and no smoking under the bleachers. And absolutely no pig's blood is dumped on the class outcast. 

It's too sanitized and idealized into wholesomeness for that, but that's beside the point. "Prom" is all about that one unforgettable night that all high school cliques share together. 

The girls grow tense until they're asked, and the boys ask them to prom with the most elaborate invitations, whether "PROM?" are being spelled out on rose petals or across the girl's locker. And yet, "Prom" isn't that shallow, realizing the vaguely special spring fling is less important than it seems. Promising young lovely Aimee Teegarden ("Scream 4") plays Nova, a type-A supernova of class presidency who's even head of the prom committee for her senior class at Brookside High School. When the shed with the prom decorations gets burned down (all that hard work), Nova gets teamed with rebellious, motorcycle-riding bad boy Jesse (Thomas McDonell, looking like a young Johnny Depp in his Gilbert Grape days) as a kind of detention. With only three weeks 'til the big prom (no time!) and her date bailing on her, Nova and Jesse's after-school paper-mache-making stars and pretty fountains draw them closer to one another. Will Nova become Molly Ringwald to Jesse's Judd Nelson? 

There's also the star jock who takes for granted that he and his girlfriend are shoo-ins for being crowned King and Queen, even though he's been cheating on her in PG-rated ways; a girl can't tell her since-middle-school boyfriend that she's been accepted to design school; a gawky sophomore too shy to ask out the girl of his dreams but does, losing sight of his best buddy; an offbeat John Cusack type who has no luck asking any girl to prom; and a spacey kid named Rolo, like the candy, who might surprise his classmates in having a date. In the end, the overall niceness pays off. 

As chaste and innocuous as "Prom" is, it's also uncynical and sweetly likable. Newbie Katie Wech's script has all the familiar tropes and connects-the-dots story points of high school movies, but they feel more real than most. Only does the dull, washed-out cinematography ring false of this otherwise sunny trifle. Under the direction of Joe Nussbaum (2004's "Sleepover"), the earnest, fresh-faced cast plays out the squeaky-clean group of types with charisma and conviction that thankfully don't resemble Disney Channel divas or thirtysomethings playing teenagers. 

"Prom" may not be the teen movie to remember, but it has a good head on its shoulders, and for its intended 'tween audience, that's just peachy. 

Priest (2011) 
87 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: D +

Based on a Korean comic book, "Priest" is the kind of religious horror western that tries so hard to be dead-serious and horrifying at the fate of sounding ridiculous, and not the fun kind but the boringly PG-13 kind. 

Take the plot for instance, and try not to step aboard The Giggle Train: In a war-torn dystopian future between humans and vampires, priests were the secret weapon. When his brother's house is invaded by the vamps and his niece (Lily Collins) kidnapped, a renegade priest (Paul Bettany), with a cross tattoo on his forehead down the bridge of his nose, betrays his coven to rescue her, assisted by the niece's sheriff boyfriend (Cam Gigandet) and Priest's former associate (Maggie Q). But remember, to go against the church means going against God. 

Like the empty, forgettable genre hodgepodge that it is, "Priest" fades from memory as you watch it and will soon fade into obscurity after it gets chased out of theaters. Director Scott Stewart has only had one feature previous to this, and that was last year's "Legion." Completely silly and nonsensical as it was, "Legion" at least made time for some enjoyably stupid camp moments. Some of the violent action with the fangy albinos and salivating CGI bloodsuckers is kind of fun, but so are a lot of things, like sex and other, better movies. We've seen enough of this in "The Matrix" and "Resident Devil" movies. 

Forgive it father, for "Priest" has sinned. The story is too convoluted to care, and it all sounds way more interesting than it really is. First-time writer Cory Goodman's script can't help much, from the limp, cheeseball dialogue to the pointless, shrug-worthy plot revelations. The movie is stylish, even if it's all soot during the day and all darkness at night. 

Bettany instills some intensity into the titular role to keep us awake. Gigandet is tan and good-looking as Sheriff Hicks, but he delivers his lines with as much conviction as a high school theater student. And what in God's name did Maggie Q even see in this movie or her "character" of Priestess? 

At least "Priest" is the most expensive production from Screen Gems, right? Anyone? Hello?

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