Mel Gibson spends most of his new film with his hand up a beaver. Scandal-seekers following the trail of the Mel will sense another landmark. But stay your excitement: The Beaver is about a glove puppet. Salvaged from a skip, it becomes a depressed toy manufacturer’s best friend and alter ego. Think of Anthony Hopkins in Magic or Michael Redgrave in Dead of Night, then substitute Gibson’s crisis-assailed paterfamilias Walter using a snaggletoothed soft toy to re-bond with his life and wife (Jodie Foster), his kids and career.
It should have been the cinematic event of the week; instead it’s the frustrating curio of the week. Foster directs Kyle Killen’s script, once voted the best unproduced screenplay in Hollywood, with the gentility of a teledrama. A story that should be savagely funny and tauntingly surreal, at least for part of its arc, drifts into problem-of-the-week terrain. The wife suffers. The children uncomprehendingly resent. These are boring, “healthy” people who cannot understand a simple personality schism. I couldn’t understand anyone not understanding it. Faced with beloveds who won’t empathise or work colleagues who cannot comprehend, what does a man do except loudhail the world through a loaner-persona?
Gibson, out on his usual limb of self-destruction-risking zeal, is the film’s sole spellbinder. A manky cockney accent serves for both Walter and his dummy; Walter never disguises his own lip movements as the beaver blathers on; this is a vaudeville study in self-violence awesome in its energy and conviction. For all his sorry off-screen antics, it seems we still cannot do without Gibson if we want an American drama/entertainment cinema that is simultaneously adventurous and adult.
“Up to Vietnam, they used to send a telegram,” says Captain Woody Harrelson to Staff Sergeant Ben Foster, the new man on his “casualty notification” team. The Messenger, sensitively directed and co-written by Oren Moverman (himself an Israeli war vet), is set on the Iraq war’s New Jersey front. Home fires burn for the boys abroad or turn to grief-doused embers at the knock on the door. Starting as a standard machismo-movie duo — hardened veteran and wet-eared rookie (though Foster’s character was decorated in Iraq) — the two men meld into a common response to the vocation of bad-news bringing. A cynicism a day keeps despair at bay: “No such thing as a satisfied customer,” quips Harrelson after a wife’s hurricane of grief. But the battle with the unbearable finally cues catharsis, a confessional-memory scene swollen by home-front crises more personal. Harrelson nurses the wounds of a broken love affair. Foster falls for one of the young wives (Samantha Morton) newly notified of widowhood.
The Oscar-nominated script pursues a grimly honourable task into its grim and not always honourable byways. The stench of war infects the houses it bereaves. To a wife, a slain soldier’s shirt, unwashed, smells of fear and rage, of “the mess he had become over there”. For the two protagonists, the throat-drying ordeal of bringing tragedy to doorsteps, day after day, is an invitation to the solace of drink. This is the war we are not told about — or one of the many untold wars fought in the shadow of the one we see on the television screens.
Cameron Diaz eats the screen in Bad Teacher and the screen says “thank you”. It hasn’t been eaten like this since the gifted actress-comedienne starred in There’s Something About Mary. Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) is a shocking example to the young. She took to teaching “for all the right reasons”: short hours, long vacations. Now, to save money for breast enhancement, she is up for any scam from hijacking the pupils’ annual car-wash day to stealing unreleased exam papers so she can cram her students and win a “best results” teaching bonus.
The supporting casting adds to the contrarian fun. Justin Timberlake, no less, joins the teaching staff as a medium-rich dork with colour-co-ordinated hair and specs (ginger). Diaz aims at his money but misses, sliding into the predatory arms of gym-teaching fellow cynic Jason Segel. British actress Lucy Punch, her American accent searingly good, is a priggishly zealous work/love rival, her face all elastic, toothy smarm.
Diaz herself joins the comic skills of Carole Lombard to a body that still looks like a scenic railway. Her heroine’s indefatigable delinquency is put over with charm and gusto, spring cleaning an entire history of classroom movies that have put sentimental or sententious idealism before the iconoclastic knocks of reality.
François Ozon’s Potiche, based on a French boulevard stage comedy, comes close to being all curtain call and no play. Ooh look (we are invited to exclaim): see the stars. Cry “bravo” at Gérard Depardieu, playing a small-town mayor and Fabrice Luchini, playing a strike-hit factory boss. Aim a “brava” at Catherine Deneuve, the potiche or trophy wife who comes off her mantelpiece to run the umbrella factory for her crisis-paralysed hubby.
Add a gay son (Jérémie Renier), 1970s sets and wardrobe, and a campy introductory montage of springtime animals — winsomely pairing up as Deneuve enjoys a morning jog (the actress’s own surgically enhanced lips joining the cuddly pageant of strange organisms) — and this is the recognisable Ozon, kitschy and colourful, of 8 Women. The film is a proscenium confection that has somehow wandered into a projection beam: minor, but nice if you’re in the mood.
Truth, justice and the intergalactic way. Another superhero spawned from distant stardust arrives on screen in Green Lantern. Here’s a personal confession: this comic-strip wrong-righter was always my favourite. The green glow, the antiquated name (lantern, not laser) and the democratic sharing of the title — there were several Green Lanterns, who passed on their powers like a craft guild — made the whole thing seem a bit William Morris.
Ryan Reynolds, pin-up features atop mega-muscled body, is Hal Jordan. Hal grabs the G.L. job for the film’s duration, fighting villain Hector Hammond (Peter Saarsgard) who looks like the Elephant Man after a course of extra ugly supplements. The digital effects and scenery are good; some action sequences, including Lantern’s rescue of an out-of-control helicopter, blast the senses. The film comes to a halt only whenever heroine Carol, slumberous and anomic, drifts into view, played by the misnomered Blake Lively. Next time Green Lantern should find a damsel worth saving from distress.
Ms Lively might be more at home in Putty Hill. Youngsters drone and burble into the camera in a faux-documentary fiction about a family gathering for a funeral. Place: Baltimore. Style: mumblecore. This is the movie mode in which actors are encouraged to ad-lib with maximum hesitation and deviation, thereby reproducing “reality” as we know it. The technique can — sometimes — be hypnotic. Witness this shaggy-dog sequence of mumble-intensive scenes, spoken by everyone from the drug-overdosed dead boy’s ex-convict tattooist uncle via his sister’s grungy coven of teen girlfriends to the brother who rests from a paintball fight only to be asked by the unseen interviewer: “What happens to you when you die?” Everyday eschatology. Metaphysics meets mundanity in middle Maryland. The first-time filmmaker’s name — keep watching it — is Matthew Porterfield.