Thursday, November 29, 2007
Film Reviews: "Beowulf"
By Roger Ebert
November 15, 2007
Cast & Credits
Beowulf: Ray Winstone
Hrothgar: Anthony Hopkins
Unferth: John Malkovich
Wiglaf: Brendan Gleeson
Grendel: Crispin Glover
Grendel's mother: Angelina Jolie
Paramount presents a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. Written by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary. Running time: 114 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity).
In the name of the mighty Odin, what this movie needs is an audience that knows how to laugh. Laugh, I tell you, laugh! Has the spirit of irony been lost in the land? By all the gods, if it were not for this blasted infirmity that the Fates have dealt me, you would have heard from me such thunderous roars as to shake the very Navy Pier itself down to its pillars in the clay.
To be sure, when I saw "Beowulf" in 3-D at the giant-screen IMAX theater, there were eruptions of snickers here and there, but for the most part, the audience sat and watched the movie, not cheering, booing, hooting, recoiling, erupting or doing anything else unmannerly. You expect complete silence and rapt attention when a nude Angelina Jolie emerges from the waters of an underground lagoon. But am I the only one who suspects that the intention of director Robert Zemeckis and writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary was satirical?
Truth in criticism: I am not sure Angelina Jolie was nude. Oh, her character was nude, all right, except for the shimmering gold plating that obscured certain crucial areas, but was she Angelina Jolie? Zemeckis, who directed the wonderful "Polar Express," has employed a much more realistic version of the same animation technology in "Beowulf." We are not looking at flesh-and-blood actors but special effects that look uncannily convincing, even though I am reasonably certain that Angelina Jolie does not have spike-heeled feet. That's right: feet, not shoes.
Angelina Jolie -- or a reasonable facsimile thereof -- in "Beowulf."
The movie uses the English epic poem, circa 700 A.D., as its starting point, and resembles the original in that it uses a lot of the same names. It takes us to the Danish kingdom of King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), where the king and his court have gathered to inaugurate a new mead hall, built for the purpose of drinking gallons of mead. The old hall was destroyed by the monster Grendel, whose wretched life consists of being the ugliest creature on earth, and destroying mead halls.
To this court comes the heroic Geatsman named Beowulf (Ray Winstone), who in the manner of a Gilbert & Sullivan hero is forever making boasts about himself. He is the very model of a medieval monster slaughterer. (A Geatsman comes from an area of today's Sweden named Gotaland, which translates, Wikipedia helpfully explains, as "land of the Geats.") When the king offers his comely queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) as a prize if Beowulf slays Grendel, the hero immediately strips naked, because if Grendel wears no clothes, then he won't, either. This leads to a great deal of well-timed Austinpowerism, which translates (Wikipedia does not explain) as "putting things in the foreground to keep us from seeing the family jewels." Grendel arrives on schedule to tear down the mead hall, and there is a mighty battle which is rendered in gory and gruesome detail, right down to cleaved skulls and severed limbs.
Now when I say, for example, that Sir Anthony plays Hrothgar, or John Malkovich plays Beowulf's rival Unferth, you are to understand that they supply voices and the physical performances for animated characters who look more or less like they do. (Crispin Glover, however, does not look a thing like Grendel, and if you are familiar with the great British character actor Ray Winstone you will suspect he doesn't have six-pack abs.) Variety reports that Paramount has entered "Beowulf" in the Academy's best animated film category, which means nothing is really there, realistic as it may occasionally appear. I saw the movie in IMAX 3-D, as I said, and like all 3-D movies it spends a lot of time throwing things at the audience: Spears, blood, arms, legs, bodies, tables, heads, mead, and so forth. The movie is also showing in non-IMAX 3-D, and in the usual 2-D. Not bad for a one-dimensional story.
But I'm not complaining. I'm serious when I say the movie is funny. Some of the dialog sounds like Monty Python. No, most of the dialog does. "I didn't hear him coming," a wench tells a warrior. "You'll hear me," he promises. Grendel is ugly beyond all meaning. His battles are violent beyond all possibility. His mother (Jolie) is like a beauty queen in centerfold heaven. Her own final confrontation with Beowulf beggars description. To say the movie is over the top assumes you can see the top from here.
Now about the PG-13 rating. How can a movie be rated PG-13 when it has female nudity? I'll tell you how. Because Angelina Jolie is not really there. And because there are no four-letter words. Even Jolie has said she's surprised by the rating; the British gave it a 12A certificate, which means you can be a year younger and see it over there. But no, Jolie won't be taking her children, she told the BBC: "It's remarkable it has the rating it has. It's quite an extraordinary film, and some of it shocked me."
Here's the exact wording from the MPAA's Code people: "Classified PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity)." How does that compare with a PG rating? Here's the MPAA's wording on "Bee Movie": "Classified PG (for mild suggestive humor and a brief depiction of smoking)." I have news for them. If I were 13, Angelina Jolie would be plenty nude enough for me in this movie, animated or not. If I were 12 and British, who knows?
By Ty Burr
You're probably going into "Beowulf" expecting another "300" - a chest-beating paean to digitized historic machismo. A return to a time when men were men, women poured the mead, and pixels knew their place.
What you get, though, is something unexpected: an hour of violent, subversive near-parody followed by a meditation on the seductions of power, all wrapped up in a thrillingly vulgar blood-and-thunder 3-D comic book. Not all of it works - and not all of it works the way the target audience of jacked-up young males might want it to - but the movie is hugely provocative fun, and I'm pretty sure that's on purpose.
First things first: This is not the eighth-century epic poem you read in high school. Grendel's mum, that "monster of women," wasn't played by a purring Angelina Jolie even in the best-selling Seamus Heaney translation, nor were the human's and beasties' family trees entwined in ways worthy of a nighttime soap. Anonymous is doubtless rolling in his/her unmarked grave, but, hey, what's oral tradition if you can't improvise a little? Or a lot.
Second things second: "Beowulf" is director Robert Zemeckis's latest attempt to make a feature-length movie using digital motion-capture, a process in which actors' movements are tracked on film via sensors attached to their bodies, then "drawn over" using expensive computer-animation technology.
In "The Polar Express," the result was a cast of zombie children and a creepy, soulless Tom Hanks. The good news is that the technology has improved and that the cast of "Beowulf" merely looks like they have the squints. Occasionally they lumber about woodenly, like Weebles with Actors' Equity cards, and the character of Queen Wealthow (voiced by Robin Wright Penn) does seem to be on loan from the DreamWorks Animation stable. At its worst, the movie suggests "Shrek" on steroids.
At its best, though, "Beowulf" dares to be absurd in ways that open the whole heroic-quest genre to weird, playful scrutiny, and it occasionally takes flight into the plain amazing. The screenwriters are the cult novelist/comics author Neil Gaiman and "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary, neither the sort of man to do what he's told. This is good for the movie, if not for college Comp Lit courses.
The setting, at least, is still Denmark in the early sixth century, and Herot, the hall of aging King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) is still plagued by a rampaging monster named Grendel. Already you sense Zemeckis and his writers are up to something: Hrothgar is a fat, deluded Dionysus with Hopkins's face plastered on, and Grendel, who resembles the Frankenstein monster with his innards on the outside, is voiced with piteous homicidal sympathy by Crispin Glover.
It's a bad-neighbor issue, I guess, since the deafening revels in Herot have driven the noise-sensitive Grendel mad with rage. The first assault is terrifying, with the monster rending Danes limb from digitized limb, and eyeballs and other body parts regularly tossed at the screen (since many theaters are showing "Beowulf" in 3-D, this falls under the heading of contractual requirement). Whoever rated the movie PG-13 should have their MPAA card revoked; I wouldn't let a child near the thing.
Then comes Beowulf, he of brawny demeanor, with a cadre of rough, tough Geats in his wake. The hero is voiced by Ray Winstone but drawn more or less like Sean Bean in "The Lord of the Rings," with additional blond highlights. He's a braggart but the real deal, even if Hrothgar's sniveling second-in-command Unferth (John Malkovich) doesn't trust him, and he quickly drops trou and prepares to battle Grendel in the nude.
Why? Well, it's in the story - "Cast off then his corselet of iron, helmet from head" and all that - but it also gives Zemeckis a way to goof on the posturings of sword-and-sandal movies. As Beowulf fights Grendel, scampering this way and that over the great hall, his private parts always obscured by a convenient sword (!) or piece of furniture, the audience I saw the movie with started snickering, then hooting. Is this "Austin Powers" gone medieval? Are we supposed to be laughing at the movie or with it?
"Beowulf" intriguingly splits the difference - it works as a ripsnorting yarn and as sardonic commentary on same - and if you can't handle dueling agendas, too bad for you. In its second hour, the movie brings on Jolie as a seductive water-nymphomaniac - Grendel's mom has got it going on - and the tale takes a darker turn. In its kitschy, pulp-epic way, "Beowulf" asks us to think about what happens to heroes the day after, and about what monstrous bargains are necessary to take and keep power. It suggests the beasts we battle are of our own making.
Actually, it comes right out and says it - subtlety isn't the movie's strong suit. But there's pleasure to be had in such popcorn philosophizing, and there's sheer wonderment in the aging Beowulf's climactic battle with a dragon, a rocketing action set-piece that soars over cliff and sea at the speed of massive, leathery wings.
"Beowulf" ends on a quiet note of stalemate, though, as if to give the action crowd something to think about as they file out. The movie's a genuine curiosity: an empty-headed techno-blockbuster of ideas. Like all sagas of valor and bloodletting, it asks the question put forth in "Gladiator": "Are you not entertained?" Then it has the nerve to ask "Why?"
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Owen Gleiberman
In the beginning, there were those 1950s 3-D glasses with the blue-and-red lenses, the ones that brought you such cheesy fun-house miracles as the Creature from the Black Lagoon swooping his claw out at the audience. Alfred Hitchcock enhanced the technology, using it to greater human effect in Dial M for Murder, but after the early '60s, the 3-D craze more or less faded away until the age of IMAX, when we all put on sci-fi headset goggles to gawk at larger-than-life images of dinosaurs, sharks, and Siegfried & Roy.
So you know that you've entered a new era when you go to one of the 650 theaters where Beowulf, Robert Zemeckis' soulfully spectacular medieval monster movie, is playing in 3-D (it's showing in good old two dimensions at other theaters), and you're handed a pair of glasses that look like something out of a Tom Cruise nostalgia convention. The lightweight specs never have to be adjusted (for once!), and they don't give you a headache. The best news is that the film makes good on the promise of its technology. In Beowulf, the images are built to pop, and not just because swords, spears, tentacles, blood, and monster drool keep bursting out at the audience. Every shot — of castles and midnight woods, of treasure-filled caves — is built for maximum sculptural luster.
Zemeckis also upgrades the ''performance capture'' technique (animation wedded to actors' facial movements) he employed two years ago in The Polar Express. There, the characters looked like dead-eyed rubber dolls shot full of Botox. They're now closer to being expressive humans, whether it's the dissolute Danish king Hrothgar — a dead ringer for Anthony Hopkins, who plays him — or Beowulf, the warrior legend voiced with blokey gruffness by Ray Winstone, his feral stare morphed into that of a squinty-eyed Viking hunk. Beowulf is summoned to kill the marauding creature Grendel, who is one grotesquely amazing beast — a big, misshapen humanoid glob who looks like he's been roasted on a spit and half-eaten. (He's like Gollum painted by Francis Bacon.) His face-off with a naked Beowulf has the wonder of a Ray Harryhausen creature feature.
According to the ancient poem, which the script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary follows very loosely, Beowulf must then confront Grendel's mother, a mystic siren who rises out of her cave in the person of a nude Angelina Jolie (are you sensing a theme here?), dripping water off her body like golden chocolate. (I thought: They just added $30 million to the gross.) It's here that Beowulf acquires an honest touch of intrigue, as our hero is revealed to be less than noble. Yet I won't overstate the drama. Beowulf is a solemnly gorgeous, at times borderline stolid piece of Tolkien-with-a-joystick mythology. It dares to be quiet, which is worthy of respect, but there would be little to it without the battles, like the hypnotic fight with a dive-bombing dragon, in which the aging Beowulf uses an ax to attach himself to the creature's hide and, in a thrilling sacrifice, does everything in his power to squelch its heart. Now that's fun in three dimensions.
Posted Nov 14, 2007