The Beaver, Jodie Foster, 90 mins (12A)
The Messenger, Oren Moverman, 112 mins (15)
Life in a Day, Kevin Macdonald, 95 mins (12A)

Destroy your career if you want to, Mel – just leave the puppet out of it

Admittedly, when you hear about a Mel Gibson film in which he appears to be possessed by a glove puppet, you assume it's going to be a rum old business, but you wouldn't expect it to be quite as embarrassing as The Beaver.

The idea is that Gibson, right, runs his family's toy company, and comes home every night to a loving wife (Jodie Foster, also the director) and two healthy sons, and yet he's still suicidally depressed. What brought on the depression? And what was Gibson like in happier days? Maybe if we'd had an answer to either question, we might have had some sympathy for him, but by the time we're introduced to the character, he's already hit rock bottom.

Still, help is, literally, at hand. Gibson turns his life around by putting on a fluffy beaver puppet and doing a Michael Caine impersonation while claiming that it's the beaver who's talking, not him. He even keeps the puppet on while he's jogging, showering, and, yuck, having sex with his wife. At no point does this preposterous concept make a sliver of sense.

It might just have worked in a Jim Carrey farce, but in Foster's hands The Beaver starts as twee indie dramedy about a dysfunctional family and becomes a gloomy drama about clinical depression, with digressions into celebrity satire and full-on gothic horror. "People seem to love a train wreck," says the narrator. Films don't come much train-wreckier than this.

The Messenger could be the best of the recent dramas concerning American soldiers in the Middle East, and yet it's all set on US soil. Its two heroes are casualty notification officers who have to inform the next of kin when a soldier is killed on duty. Woody Harrelson (deservedly Oscar-nominated) is the hardened and possibly unhinged captain who knows the tricks of the trade: always knock on a door rather than ringing the bell, he counsels, because you never know when it might play an inappropriately cheerful tune. His new sidekick, Ben Foster, bristles with the energy and resentment of someone just returned from a traumatic combat tour.

When Foster is drawn to Samantha Morton, one of the widows he "notifies", it looks as if the film is going to follow their forbidden relationship, but the screenplay (also Oscar-nominated) is more subtle than that, never reaching for obvious crises when it can examine the two men's characters and the details of their job. Every house call is a short story in itself, and each feels so authentic that you feel it must have come from real life. Of course, the subject matter is heart-rending, but the film is also remarkably funny, sparkling with gallows humour without ever being disrespectful to the soldiers or their families.

Most films require months of shooting, but Life in a Day was shot in its entirety on 24 July 2010. At the behest of Ridley and Tony Scott, thousands of people in 192 countries videoed their lives on that day, and sent in the footage via YouTube. The Scotts then turned the material over to Kevin Macdonald (Touching the Void, The Last King of Scotland), and he and his editing team fashioned an inspiring, international montage of proposals, weddings and births (both human and giraffe), meals, monologues and parachute jumps.

Some sequences would stand up as mini-documentaries if you watched them on YouTube. Others are spoilt by the music's insistence on how cosmic it all is. But the pomposity is usually undercut by Macdonald's down-to-earth sense of humour.

Next Week:

Nicholas Barber whets his appetite for Gordon Ramsay's movie debut (alongside Dougray Scott) in Love's Kitchen

Also Showing: 19/06/2011

Green Lantern (114 mins, 12A)

This boilerplate superhero movie stars Ryan Reynolds as a cocky test pilot who's drafted into an intergalactic police force. It has all the usual life lessons and the standard surfeit of minor characters, plus the familiar over-reliance on cartoonish special effects, including an alien villain who looks like a sewage spill with a face.

Bad Teacher (92 mins, 15)

Imagine Cameron Diaz as a gold digger who drinks, takes drugs and swears when she's supposed to be teaching a class of children, and you've got Bad Teacher, a sub-School of Rock comedy with a title and a poster where its story should be. Despite this, it's quite funny, even if it does repeat the same one joke over and over.

The Round-Up (115 mins, 15)

Jean Reno and Melanie Laurent star in this sturdy drama about the deportation of thousands of Jews from Paris, all carried out by the French authorities without any German assistance.

Swinging with the Finkels (85 mins, 15)

Martin Freeman and Mandy Moore play a married couple who are getting bored with each other – probably because there's no chemistry between them – so decide to try partner-swapping. Set in an alternate universe where a Londoner who looks like Martin Freeman can be named "Alvin Finkel", this is as pat as any by-the-numbers romantic comedy but as tasteless as any gross-out teen movie. That sound you can hear is Freeman breathing a sigh of relief that he's got the title role in The Hobbit.

Stake Land (98 mins, 15)

Zombieland without the jokes, this post-apocalyptic road movie has a pasty youngster and a grizzled tough guy dispatching feral vampires who seem to have escaped from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. A B-movie.

Film Choice

Cria Cuervos, Carlos Saura's legendary dark parable of family life in Spain at the dog-end of the Franco era, enjoys a welcome re-release, featuring an incandescent performance from Ana Torrent, then only 10. US indie tearaway Gregg Araki returns, older but hardly wiser, with surreal, lurid and decidedly horny comedy Kaboom.

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