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Good Views (What’s New in Video): ‘The Beaver’

- - Sunday, August 28, 2011

New Releases

The Beaver

Summit Entertainment

★★1/2

The father and breadwinner of a shattered family tries to put his personal and professional lives together again - with the help of a hand puppet in the shape of a beaver. This is the plot of actress-director Jodie Foster's ("Silence of the Lambs," "Little Man Tate") first directing effort in several years and, despite some flaws, it has some powerful moments.

Walter Black (Mel Gibson) has lost his way. As the film begins, the toy business his father left him has lost its drive, his marriage to his caring, but confused wife, Meredith (Miss Foster), has dissolved to the point where Walter's no longer living at home and the two barely communicate. The couple's two sons have no idea how to deal with either of their parents or their own frustrations.

Just when it seems Walter has hit rock bottom, he discovers a way to communicate with the outside world in the only way he can. Finding a beat-up beaver hand puppet near his company's Dumpster, he finds his "voice" through the toy, as it begins to say the things to everyone around Walter that he's long needed to say.

However, Walter's insistence that everyone address themselves to the beaver while he remains silent, places new and unexpected strains on the ties Walter is trying to strengthen.

Miss Foster and screenwriter Kyle Killen have crafted an intriguing tale, one that takes an unorthodox approach to the familiar dysfunctional family drama. Having Mr. Gibson's Walter take on a roughhewn Australian accent as the puppet's speaking voice adds a certain touch of humor to the proceedings, despite the dark place Walter and his family find themselves in.

There are moments in the story that almost cry out for a slightly absurdist twist for the plot, since the obvious answer to what's happening on-screen would, frankly, stop the plot dead in its tracks. The lack of this offbeat touch robs "The Beaver" of an edge that would have made it a really special film.

What does work here are the performances. Mr. Gibson manages to make one forget, for a time at least, the muck he's made of his career in recent years to deliver a vivid portrait of a man desperate to find his way. Miss Foster is solid as his wife, though the script doesn't go far enough in shaping a whole character for her to inhabit.

Two very memorable turns are done by Anton Yelchin ("Fright Night," 2011) and Jennifer Lawrence ("Winter's Bone"), Walter and Meredith's oldest son and a young woman he becomes involved with, respectively. Miss Foster's skillful direction brings out the best in both of these talented young actors.

Extras on the Blu-ray edition of "The Beaver" include two deleted scenes and a making-of documentary.

Though it is not the kind of triumphant comeback effort its leading man would have hoped for, "The Beaver" has enough compelling moments to make it a fascinating, if flawed, effort.

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for profanity, violence, drug and sexual content.

Documentaries

An American Family: Anniversary Edition

PBS Video

★★★

In January 1973, the program that, for all intents and purposes, was television's first true "reality" series arrived on the airwaves of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). "An American Family" took viewers inside the lives of the upper-middle-class, seemingly happy, Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif.

The 12 hours of footage gathered by producer Craig Gilbert and shot and sound engineered by the husband-and-wife team of Alan and Sarah Raymond took viewers far deeper into the dynamics of the family than anyone, particularly the Louds, could have expected.

We saw evidence of father and husband Bill's infidelity, wife and mother Pat's decision to seek a divorce and demand he leave the family home. Oldest son Lance allowed filmmakers to give viewers a revealing look inside his often chaotic life as a young gay man in the early 1970s.

Before the 12 hours were over, the Louds were the most-talked-about family in the nation.

Earlier this year, their accomplishment was commemorated in two ways. First, Home Box Office premiered "Cinema Verite," a docudrama about the making of "An American Family." Also, PBS gathered the Louds and the production crew for "An American Family: Anniversary Edition."

The two-hour PBS show features clips and interviews with the principals in the original series. The original material has been digitally remastered and the sound has been upgraded.

"Cinema Verite," which is still available on HBO On Demand, has been nominated for a number of Emmys this year and, watched back-to-back with the PBS special, provides a fascinating contrast. Either way, watching "An American Family: Anniversary Edition" will certainly remind anyone of a more "innocent" time on television.

MPAA Rating: Not rated, but does contain frank discussions on drugs and sex.

• Joe Barber is the entertainment editor for WTOP-FM and a critic-panelist for WETA-TV's "Around Town."