Starring:Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence

Director: Jodie Foster

‘You’re nothing without me, Walter. Nothing. I’m the only part of you that works.

After two years of severe depression, toy executive Walter Black retreats completely and begins communicating with his long-suffering family through a glove puppet. Meanwhile, his estranged elder son fights to avoid becoming his father.

Having been trapped in limbo for over a year, waiting for the dust to settle on Mel Gibson’s public meltdown, The Beaver is finally released into the world. And it’s hard to imagine a more fitting role for Gibson to have chosen, even if it was chosen and performed before the event.

Walter Black, so lost in a black hole from which he feels there is no escape that he is forced to hide within an alternative persona, is such a perfect fit for Gibson that it’s hard to believe that he was second choice for the part and equally hard to believe that original choice Jim Carrey could have brought half the pathos that Gibson delivers to The Beaver. With every flicker of his eyes, every hunch of his shoulders, Gibson portrays a man trapped in his own personal Hell, while still managing to mine the ridiculous premise for nuggets of comedy. Foremost in this regard is the English cockney accent Gibson utilises for the beaver puppet itself. Apparently coached by Ray Winstone, you would swear in several places that Winstone was dubbing the puppet himself, so accurate is Gibson’s delivery. It’s the ideal voice for a puppet that becomes increasingly sinister as the movie progresses.

The always excellent Foster who, like Gibson, is no stranger to acting and directing in tandem, turns in a solid performance as Walter’s exasperated wife, torn between wanting to escape her husband’s destructive condition and wanting to save him from it. Anton Yelchin is not entirely sympathetic as Walter’s teenage son, who keeps a list of similarities between himself and his father with the intention of ridding himself of each one. It’s a sub-plot that, like The Beaver itself, is weakened by skipping over the depth, never quite fulfilling its potential.

Where the movie as a whole fails is in its rather half-hearted exploration of Walter’s underlying depression, or analysis of why he chooses to disengage from himself the way he does. That he creates a persona through a glove puppet for his own rehabilitation is a fascinating conceit. It deserves to have been explored with a little more depth, rather than simply rely solely on Gibson’s nonetheless accomplished performance.

I was going to make a gag about hands in beavers but this is a family site. Sort of.

The Beaver is by no means a bad movie. Foster has an assured touch behind the camera and the movie has real heart at its core. It is also anchored by one of Gibson’s best performances, without which it would certainly have been less of a success. By turns heart-breaking, sinister and funny, rarely has an actor seemed more at home in a part. However, the titular character itself never quite manages to become more than a puppet on the end of Walter’s arm, which seems like a failing given the importance it plays.

Ultimately, The Beaver gets caught up in trying not to be too much of any one thing. Torn between the tragic and the comedic aspects of Walter’s tale, it never quite reaches the heights of either.

Rating – 3 Stars

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Now on Celluloid Zombie! The 2010 Awards!

I’ve been participating in a wee game over at Anomalous Material called Hollywood Fantasy Draft. Simple rules; you pick your director, you pick your stars, and then you pitch your movie idea. It’s been fun! Here’s my rough pitch, written on the back of a napkin in some L.A. eatery. Sort of.

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Taking History

(Time Bandits 2)

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Written by Richard Lamb’s insane twin

Starring: John Cusack, Jodie Foster, Paul Giamatti, Angelina Jolie, Brian Cox, Audrey Tautou, Sir Ian McKellen

Logline: Who needs dwarves?

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Cast and Characters

John Cusack is Kevin, the boy who travelled with the dwarves in Time Bandits. Now a day away from turning 40, Kevin has moved on as best he can. He lives in New York and suffers only minor personality disorders as a result of his experiences. Mood swings, depression, the urge to check his closets every night, paranoia, nightmares involving the combustion of his parents, that sort of thing. No biggie.
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Jodie Foster is Sally, Kevin’s boss at the museum where he is curator. She is bookish, a little awkward, but clearly finds Kevin fascinating. They have had a connection for a while but never really pursued it. Sally is passionate about her museum but sometimes a little too reserved.
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Paul Giamatti is Leonardo da Vinci. Master painter, sculptor, inventor and all-round smart-ass. Da Vinci has forgotten more about everything than most people will ever know, but he still can’t get that damn smile right.
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Angelina Jolie is Cleopatra VII, last Pharaoh of Egypt. She is beautiful, smart and will kick your ass if you so much as look at her the wrong way. A little flattery will go a long way, though. Nice nose.
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Brian Cox is King Henry VIII. Big guy with a big appetite and a love for the ladies. Like the Tudor era’s Barry White, but without the singing voice and white suits. Just don’t flirt with his girl.
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Audrey Tautou is Joan of Arc. She’s angry for God, but she can get away with it because she’s angry in a cool accent. Not big into campfires, but give Joan an army and she’ll give you a crown.
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Sir Ian McKellen is Moses – God’s PR agent and go-to guy. Miracles not a problem. Oceanic crossings made easy. Just do as you’re told.
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The Plot

It’s been 29 years since Kevin’s adventures through time and space with a bunch of thieving little dwarves, which ultimately resulted in the explosion of both his parents after they touched the burnt Sunday roast which was, in fact, all that was left of the being known as ‘Evil’ ™.  Kevin never lost his fascination with history, and now works as a curator in a modest museum, a quiet and peaceful job where he has limited contact with the outside world, which is probably for the best.  His only real interaction is with the museum’s Director, Sally, a bookish woman who finds Kevin fascinating, if only in the way most people find tsunamis and earthquakes fascinating; that is, from a safe distance. Still, the two of them have an awkward connection and are both trying to find a way to pursue it.

Meanwhile, their museum is on the rocks and attendances are dropping. The artifacts are lame since all the best stuff ends up at the bigger museums. Kevin and Sally need to come up with a way to draw in the crowds. Preferably a plan that doesn’t involve spending money.

On the morning of his 40th birthday, Kevin wakes up to find a rolled up piece of paper next to him on the bed. Next to it is a badly scrawled note which reads ‘Happy Birthday brat, from Randall’. Kevin unrolls the paper and recognises it straight away; it’s the map of space and time that the dwarves used to pilfer their way through history. After running around his apartment to check all the cupboards and closets and finding nothing, Kevin determines that his old friend has left him a solution to his problem. Of course, Kevin uses the map. The problem is, no-one ever really told him how to use it properly. The apartment shakes as Kevin opens a hole into black space and leaps through, throwing the door to his apartment wide open.  The last thing we see is Sally, bottle of wine in hand, taking a tentative step into the apartment.

Florence, Italy, 1505

Kevin lands with a thump in the cluttered studio of Leonardo da Vinci. He hears voices and carefully peers from behind a table to see the master standing at a canvas. Before the canvas sits a familiar looking woman, hands crossed. Kevin notices some loose sketches on the table and grabs them, inspecting them more closely. They are preliminary sketches of the Mona Lisa, currently being painted in front of him. Something is very wrong, however. Her gappy, gormless smile is hideous. Kevin leans forward to get a better look at the subject of the painting. That’s her smile! She’s missing half her teeth! Da Vinci is cursing in Italian and Kevin can see that the mouth remains unpainted. What a find these sketches are! Kevin sticks them in his bag, rolls out the map, studies it for a second and opens a portal to his next destination, kicking over an easel as he goes. Da Vinci turns around to see the hole in the wall of his studio.

Egypt, 31 BC

Kevin finds himself appearing in Cleopatra’s bed chamber during the middle of the night. Unfortunately, the Queen wakes up to find Kevin helping himself to a few juicy artifacts and raises the alarm, expertly knocking him to the ground with a flying kick and then holding him in a headlock until the guards arrive. Kevin is arrested, the map and his bag confiscated, and he’s thrown in a cell. A few hours later, the cell begins shaking and Kevin is astonished to see Leonardo da Vinci land with a thump in his cell. Surprisingly unperturbed by his sudden journey through space and time (he claims it merely proves a theory he devised in the bath last Saturday), da Vinci immediately begins demanding Kevin return the stolen sketches. Kevin points out that a few stolen doodles of the ugliest smile in history are the least of their problems. A point confirmed when the guards arrive to bring them before the Pharaoh.

Cleopatra, who was expecting one prisoner rather than two, demands that da Vinci explain how he got into the cell. The grand master seems to be far more interested in Cleopatra’s face, framing it in his hands and exclaiming that he has finally found his answer. Da Vinci takes a pencil and scrap of paper from his pockets and begins sketching Cleopatra, offering her a stream of fawning adoration. Completely won over by the wily Italian, she smiles, enigmatically. Da Vinci claps his hands with joy, sketching away. Kevin, meanwhile, is using the distraction to retrieve the map and bag. And a few choice trinkets, too. Job done, he tells Cleopatra that he can show her how da Vinci got into the cell. They take her there, where the portal is still open, and make a dash for it, leaping through it.

Hampton Court, England, 1530

Arriving at the court of King Henry VIII, Kevin and Leonardo land in the middle of a huge banquet, being held to honour the Queen of Brooklynia. The fact that no-one has ever heard of Brooklynia doesn’t seem to be an issue for anyone, least of all the King, who is starry-eyed. Kevin learns to his dismay that the Queen of Brooklynia is actually Sally, who has been stuck here since going through the portal in Kevin’s apartment and doing the best she can to blend in. The King is enraged by Sally’s pleasure at seeing Kevin and flies into a jealous rage; a rage that even Leonardo’s sketching and flattery won’t temper. He challenges Kevin to a jousting match. Of course, Kevin cheats. He gets the girl, the trinkets, and the Italian Renaissance master.

Orléans, France, 1428

Not the best place for a holiday, but a great place if you want Joan of Arc’s sword. Kevin, Sally, and the Italian grand master (who simply refuses to go home), land in the middle of the siege of Orleans. After avoiding being trampled by horses, shot with arrows and drenched in burning oil, they finally manage to meet the Saint in the making.  After some desperate attempts to distract her and pinch the sword, Sally decides that negotiation is the best way forward. Joan, who has a bizarre passion for men’s clothes, agrees to swap her sword for Kevin’s Levi jeans. The priceless artifact is more than adequate compensation for having to continue his journey in his underpants.

Mount Sinai, 1440 BC (give or take)

That is, until he finds himself face-to-face with Moses in only his tighty whities. That’s Kevin, not Moses. Who is this guy, and what’s with the girl in a strange dress and the bearded guy drawing pictures? Not even God saw this one coming. Anyway, Moses has more important things on his mind than this weird guy hanging around the bottom of Mount Sinai, offering to help him with those heavy looking tablets.  He’s got laws to lay down to the naughty throng. Luckily, Kevin is there to help with the clean-up operation, after he’s tripped up Moses who then drops all the tablets. With his piece of stone commandment, the piece that says ‘…ou shalt not steal’, Kevin and his comrades make their escape before the shit really hits the fan.

New York, Present day

Having convinced Da Vinci to go home and finish his painting, Kevin and Sally return to present day New York. The Museum is saved and they finally admit their feelings for one another, albeit in a clumsy way, over a cabinet of roman coins. All they have to do is ignore the fact that the Mona Lisa, a poster of which is now hanging in their apartment, has an enigmatic smile. After all, it’s history.

Sometimes they are mini-movies in themselves, sometimes they are scene-setting primers for what is to come, and sometimes they are actually the best thing about the movie. Either way, the title sequence is an overlooked art form. Hitchcock would often bring in established artists, like Saul Bass, to create his titles, such importance he placed on them. They are the doorway into the movie, a taste of what is to come. They run, tragically ignored while the audience settles down, stops rustling the damn tubs of popcorn and chatting and generally getting up my nose…

Sorry, wrong blog.

Anyway, for your consideration, my top ten title sequences. Enjoy.

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10. Shaun of the Dead

A short one, this, but the opener for Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead is a little work of genius. It gives us an amusing perspective of everyday life in Britain, before most of the population are transformed into shambling zombies. The question it postulates is very simple; what’s the difference? The fact that Simon Pegg’s Shaun later nips to the Newsagent without noticing the walking dead around him, and you totally believe it, just reinforces the gag.

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9. Vertigo

Most people choose North by Northwest as their favourite Hitchcock title sequence, and while that one is certainly highly influential (see David Fincher’s Panic Room opener) I’ve always preferred Vertigo. Saul Bass created what could be the signature title sequence for all Hitchcock’s movies. The fixation on a woman’s frightened features, turning blood red as the title appears, mixed with Bernard Herrmann’s spooky score, tell you all you need to know about the big man’s favourite pastime; basically, torturing beautiful blondes. Naughty Alfred. The spirals signify James Stewart’s fear of heights, his uncontrollable compulsions, and are also reflected in the hair of Kim Novak.

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8. Contact

Not, strictly speaking, a title sequence at all, but still one of the most effective openers to a movie. Robert Zemeckis’ underrated adaptation of the novel by Carl Sagan immediately shares with us Ellie Arroway’s (Jodie Foster) awe at the expanse of the universe, and the unimaginable possibilities of what may exist out there. For me at least, the sequence truly inspires a sense of wonder, but also a feeling of the crushing loneliness and isolation of our tiny little planet. Is anyone out there listening? Brilliant.

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7. Alien

Ridley Scott ditches Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, keeps it simple, and it works a charm. This is the dark side of Contact’s sequence, in that it perfectly encapsulates the despair, foreboding and the unknown dangers of deep space. The skeletal score, nothing more than a series of strange noises and a random tune, does indeed seem alien. This is a frightening place, very far from home and you feel it. Rarely has a title sequence so perfectly suited its title.

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6. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Steven Spielberg had long wanted to shoot a Busby Berkely style showstopper, and with his second Indiana Jones movie he got the chance. Set on the stage of Club Obi-Wan (one of the series’ many in-jokes), Kate Capshaw’s small scale rendition of Anything Goes, in Cantonese, soon escalates into a massive, glittering dance routine. Yes, it’s a little ridiculous that the tiny stage can suddenly accommodate this huge production, but this is a director indulging himself a little. If Spielberg (all praise his name) wants to give his future wife a huge entrance (snigger), who are we to deny him?

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5. Zombieland

Zombies again, this time from the other side of the pond. It’s ridiculous, it’s gruesome, it’s fun! Yay! Ruben Fleischer’s Metallica backed title sequence couldn’t set you up better for the insanity to follow. The madness of zombie attacks, in ultra slow-motion, is somehow inherently funny and Fleischer milks it for all it’s worth. Add to this the movie’s continuing interaction between the real world and the words onscreen, and you have a good old, undead chuckle fest.

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4. Ed Wood

Tim Burton’s celebration of Hollywood’s worst ever director, Edward D. Wood Jr., had the perfect opening sequence. This is such an affectionate homage to the tacky, B-movie ethics of its subject, that there’s no doubt the man himself would have adored it. Howard Shore’s Theremin laced score is absolutely spot on, and the construction of a miniature Hollywood for the final tracking shot is breathtaking. Burton at his best.

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3. Watchmen

Zack Snyder’s adaptation of the graphic novel opens with this master class in condensing an entire back-story into a short sequence. Giving us the story of this alternative universe’s superheroes, right up until the main movie’s 1980’s setting, we see a history of the 20th century as it may have been with the addition of masked vigilantes and a superhuman. Bob Dylan’s classic folk song makes the perfect accompaniment to the beautiful, slow-motion scene-setting, and every frame looks like it was ripped straight from the pages of a comic book.

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2. Lord of War

Andrew Niccol’s study of a morally conflicted arms dealer (Nicholas Cage) was a fairly average movie, but what it did boast was this outstanding title sequence. Almost a mini-movie in itself, the POV journey of a single bullet from production to ultimate use is original, telling and ends with a depressing suddenness. The CGI already looks a little dated now, but that in no way detracts from the scene’s effectiveness. Very clever opening sequence.

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1. Seven

So many subsequent thrillers have imitated Seven’s dark, twisted title sequence that the power it held at the time may seem somewhat diminished. However, David Fincher’s opener to his second movie is still the Daddy of all title sequences. Unnerving, sinister and bleak, this left you in no doubt as to what you had in store. Part of its genius is that many aspects of what you are seeing are not revealed in their meaning until the second viewing, when you realise who it is you are watching. Coupled with a totally stripped down version of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer, this is the mind of a lunatic at work and play. Chilling.

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