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Films I Neglected To Review: The Summer Begins
by Peter Sobczynski

Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances this week, I was unable to go on at length about any of the films kicking off the summer 2011 movie derby. This is especially a bummer because, as you will see from the short takes below, this year's collection of titles has kicked off with a few good-to-great titles that will hopefully bode for a more exciting season than might have reasonably been expected from a period giving us a fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie as well as a third entry into the "Transformers" saga. (Then again, I haven't seen "Something Borrowed" or "Hobo with a Shotgun" yet--I needed something to take Mom to on Mother's Day--so I suppose things might change.)

Under normal circumstances, a film like "The Beaver" would seem to be a train wreck waiting to happen. After all, it contains a premise almost too outlandish to be believed--deeply depressed and suicidal businessman Walter Black (Mel Gibson) attempts to restore himself both personally and professionally by communicating exclusively through a tatty hand puppet of a beaver that he finds in a dumpster--a tone that veers wildly between dark comedy and earnest drama and a central performance from a star whose own personal demons are seemingly as pronounced as those of the character that he is portraying. And yet, despite the kind of obstacles that would cripple most films right out of the gate, "The Beaver" manages to work as a strong, funny and improbably moving work unlike anything that you have seen anytime recently for three very good reasons. For starters, the screenplay by first-timer Kyle Killen is a small marvel in the way that it takes such a potentially absurd premise and deals with it in a smart and straightforward manner without ever letting it become either too ridiculous or too melodramatic and even when it stumbles (such as in a awkward subplot involving Walter's alienated older son and a teen queen with her own set of problems that seems trucked in from an "American Beauty" knockoff), they are stumbles borne of ambition instead of laziness. Then there is the remarkably self-assured direction by Jodie Foster (who also appears as Gibson's long-suffering wife)--in her first job behind the cameras since 1995's "Home for the Holidays," she finds the right tone to deal with the complex and complicated material right from the start and the result is her finest work as a director to date.Finally, and perhaps most significantly, there is Mel Gibson's legitimately astonishing performance as Walter, easily the best and most nuanced of his entire career. Of course, it is impossible at first to watch him in the early scenes as he plunges into a deep and alcohol-fueled depression without thinking of his own offscreen problems but once that feeling has died down, what is left is a dazzling high-wire act that sees him taking the kind of enormous risks that most stars of his stature tend to avoid in order to play things as safe as possible and pulling them off with such success that even his most fervent opponents will find themselves grudgingly admitting that he has done something pretty extraordinary here. We are now more than a third of the way through 2011 and while the vast majority of the films released during that time have been forgettable at best, this is one that is destined to be remembered.

Throughout his long and distinguished career as one of the world's boldest filmmakers, Werner Herzog has gone to extraordinary lengths, ranging from filming in locations as varied as the lip of a live volcano to the jungles of the Amazon to the South Pole to his mercurial collaborations with the late, great and borderline crazy Klaus Kinski, to provide his viewers with the kind of unexpected sights and sounds that have become more and more in an increasingly homogenized society. With his latest documentary, "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," he adds on an additional challenge to his usual mandate--can he make a film in 3-D that justifies utilizing the increasingly hackneyed format in a way that works both aesthetically and artistically?--and as he has done before so many times in the past, he has come up with a fairly extraordinary piece of cinema and even manages to make the 3-D gimmick seem like a legitimate artistic medium when placed in the right hands. The subject of this film is the Chauvet cavern system of southern France that was uncovered by mountaineers in 1994 after being hidden away for centuries and which contain the remarkably well-preserved evidence of the oldest known cave paintings, estimated at being roughly 30,000 years old. Utilizing a tiny crew and adhering to the strict restrictions placed on those few individuals allowed into the cave in order to help preserve the find, Herzog manages to nevertheless hit upon a visual strategy that uncannily suggests what it might have been like to be in there thousands of years ago with nothing more than a couple of torches to light the way and uses the multi-dimensional aspect to further add to the effect by preserving the curves and protrusions of the surface that the paintings were made on. Some critics of the films have complained that it goes on a little too long for its own good and that it might have been more effective as a one-hour TV special than as a 90-minute movie but between the stunning views of the cave and the oddball portraits of those charged with exploring and analyzing its treasures (only in a Herzog film will you find an archaeologist who proudly admits that his previous career was that of a circus clown), I was mesmerized throughout and by the time it came to its typically idiosyncratic conclusion, combining a look at some mutant albino crocodiles (courtesy of a nuclear generator located not far from Chauvet) with Herzog musing in voiceover about the nature of man, I could have easily gone for another 90 minutes and more. Obviously, a film like "Cave of Forgotten Dreams" is of a specialized nature and will hardly play even a fraction of the theaters currently unspooling the likes of "Prom" or "Fast Five" but if you happen to be anywhere near one of the areas in which it is playing, you owe it to yourself to see this amazing work with your own two eyes (or four, if it is playing in 3-D).

Of all the jumbo-sized comic-book adaptations coming out this summer, the biggest question mark of the bunch has been "Thor," the big-screen version of the Marvel Comics series about the heroic Norse god, though this was less because of an overwhelming desire to see a brawny Nordic type pounding things with his giant magic hammer and more because it was directed by none other than Kenneth Branagh, a filmmaker who normally specializes in bringing the slightly more elevated works of William Shakespeare to cinematic life--would he deliver the kind of anonymous multiplex thrills and spills that one might expect from a typical journeyman filmmaker or would he instead provide the kind of offbeat entertainment that has occasionally resulted when genuine auteurs have turned to the comics for material along the lines of what Robert Altman and Ang Lee gave viewers with, respectively, "Popeye" and "Hulk." As it turns out, Branagh pretty much sticks to the middle of those two extremes throughout and while the results never quite soar to the degree that one might have hoped, it isn't the disaster that one might have feared. The plot--Thor (Chris Helmsworth, reasonably engaging in a role that would seem to be anything but to most people), the selfish headstrong future king of the distant world of Asgard is stripped of his powers by his father (Anthony Hopkins) and banished to New Mexico until he learns the kind of humility that will restore his strength in time to save both his home and adopted worlds from destruction at the hands of his treacherous brother (Tom Hiddleston)--is pretty much gibberish throughout and while the screenplay does offer a few nice touches here and there (such as not belaboring his origins, even though you might expect such an approach in regards to a hero who admittedly lacks the cultural cachet of a Superman or Batman), it never goes the extra mile that the best superhero films (such as the original "Superman" and the Christopher Nolan "Batman" films) have done. The stuff set on Earth is kind of a drag involving Helmsworth trying to make it as a mortal, Natalie Portman and Stellan Skarsgaard serving up exposition-heavy dialogue, Kat Dennings offering sassy snark and a giant robot blowing things up--none of it is especially bad (and Portman has gotten better at reciting clunky expository dialogue since her days in the "Star Wars" prequels) but it is stuff that has been seen many times before and lacks a certain freshness. On the other hand, the Asgard-related material is pretty impressive--Branagh manages to create a suitably gaudy visual style to those scenes that genuinely feel ripped from the pages of a comic book (though he overuses the Dutch angles to a degree not seen since the likes of "Battlefield Earth") and while the dialogue that he is given to recite often teeters between the ridiculous and the ponderous, Anthony Hopkins delivers it with enough Shakespearian flair to make it go down a lot smoother than if was being handled by the likes of Vin Diesel. "Thor" isn't great--it is often silly, the third act is a bit of a drag and the shout-outs to the hardcore comic book geeks (such as the ritual Stan Lee cameo and post-credit cookie) are getting increasingly tiresome--but I must admit that I had a better time watching it than I expected to have (this was perhaps aided by my viewing it in the glory of 2-D than in its dimmer, retrofitted 3-D incarnation) and if this proves to be part of a trend towards this summer's avalanche of comic book movies instead of a rare exception, the next few months might not be as painful as I once feared.

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originally posted: 05/07/11 08:06:09
last updated: 05/07/11 08:48:54
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