Saturday, November 24, 2007

What was the name of the lead character again?

Robert Zemeckis' take on the literary classic Beowulf far exceeded my expectations for it and may well turn out to be one of my favorites for the year. Much has been made of he film's motion-capture process that converted the film's actors into 3D analogues, but Beowulf is such a hale and sturdy film that the gimmick for all its impressiveness is quickly forgotten when pure enjoyment sets in. Beowulf manages to capture the thrill, spectacle and intensity that a lot of the franchise action films that arrived this summer failed to replicate. Director Zemeckis knows his way around a blockbuster and he packs the screen with enough spectacle and epic compositions that the film's 3D digital roll-out makes it required in-theatre viewing. What makes Beowulf especially gratifying is that in addition to containing barrels full of machismo it also contains a fairly cutting screenplay that makes some clever additions to the Beowulf mythos. Its the perfect film for every frat on campus, even the one with the highest GPA.

In interviews with screenwriters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman (such as the one found here) the dynamic quickly presents itself. Avary seems to be responsible for the heft and bombast and Gaiman waits till he's done pontificating to get in a sharp remark. This dynamic is evident again and again in the film. A scene of grand reveling gives way to two of the courtiers taking a piss and having a conversation about the new god that's quickly becoming popular "the Christ Jesus." It puts me in mindset of Gaiman's work far better than this year's own Gaiman adaptation Stardust.
Beowulf begins with the inhabitants of King Hrothgar's (a portly and pixilated Anthony Hopkins) new mead hall making too much of a racket and driving the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover) nuts. Grendel viciously (and rather frighteningly) attacks the hall leaving as bloody and vicious path of destruction PG-13 can allow in his wake. Hrothgar puts out the call for heroes

When we first meet our protagonist its like something out of 300. Beowulf (a 3D made-over Ray Winstone) is at sea with his men during a terrible tempest and is engaging in all manner of boasting. "My mother was the sea!" Beowulf exclaims in a way that would no doubt please Gerard Butler. Then his number two Wiglaf (ever dependable Brendan Gleeson) adds "Aye and me mother was a fishmonger who would rather her son die in battle than be drowned at sea." Its not the type of back-talk you'd ever hear in 300 and its what made me go from being impressed by the film to genuinely enjoying it. For one thing it undercuts Beowulf's line and makes one think, "this guy is full of it." Its a good tactic for a story that alternates between being about preserving and perverting legacy (whether is be through deeds or offspring). Both Beowulf and Beowulf SHOULD be bombastic. Gelping, or grand bragging, as my AP lit teacher memorably taught me lo these many years ago, was a common practice by storytellers and leaders at the time. It was a means of showing status. Its especially telling in a later scene where Beowulf essentially defeats an opponent by yelling at him about how great he is. Its helpful to know this going in cause Beowulf sure likes to yell his own name in the movie, a lot. Beowulf has a good sense of humor about itself, whether it be in Wiglaf's brief moments of cowardice, Beowulf's fortunate covering when he fights Grendel in the nude or the sheer impetuousness in the storytelling when Beowulf recounts why he lost a swimming match.

Of course no discussion of Beowulf would be complete without mentioning this lady:
Angelina Jolie is the one woman who is best served in the film by 3D rendering. Her face and body are distinct enough that she comes off more "real" than the other actresses in the film (Robin Wright Penn and Allison Lohman are not quite so fortunate). I put real in quotes because half the time she is a monster seen only piecemeal as an enormous, terrifying beast, then when in more human form her skin is coated in creamy-gold, she has a reptilian tail, spiked heel feet (which drew a chuckle from my audience) and is prone to flying. Still Angelina is a lot of fun in the film, even if she's using that wretched accent from Alexander again. Between this and A Mighty Heart I'm really enjoying her this year which is a nice change of pace. You can find a clever piece about how Grendel's mother is a worthy addition to Zemeckis' rather cartoon-y collection of femme fatale's here.

The film is not without its problems. The rendering still hasn't gotten to a point where every character looks amazing, basically if a character wasn't played by a "name" actor they could be mistaken for one of the humans in Shrek. There's also a brief chunk in the middle where one might get a bit squirmy in their seat ready for more action. Luckily act three doesn't disappoint in this regard as Beowulf fights probably the best dragon I've ever seen on film ever. Its incredibly exciting and again pushes the boundaries of the rating. The dragon's reveal still manages to be frightening even though I knew it was coming.

I could go on about how much fun John Malkovich's advisor Unferth is, or how well the 3D is used to convey depth of field as opposed to just gimmick shots where stuff flies at the audience but this is time better spent for my readers to actually go and see the film. Rarely does the opportunity crop up for a film that not only benefits from being seen on the big screen, but Beowulf absolutely demands it be seen in digital 3D in all its grandeur. The real Beowulf would do no less.

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