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Friday, Nov. 30, 2007
Epic poem turned to monster mash
'Beowulf" is the epic poem dating from the 8th or 9th century that every high-school English Literature student has learned to dread. With good reason too — try getting your head 'round lines like "I ween with good he will well requite offspring of ours, when all he minds that for him we did in his helpless days of gift and grace to give him honor." Yet while it's considered lofty literature today, back in the day when it was still a recited poem, "Beowulf" was pop culture, its story of a battle between warrior and monster essentially an overblown bar brawl.
So it isn't really fair for anyone to cry "sacrilege!" over director Robert Zemeckis' cranked-up version of the tale in his film, "Beowulf." His screenwriters, Neil Gaiman (of the abysmal "Stardust") and Roger Avary ("Pulp Fiction"), sure take some liberties with their source, but not as many as you might suspect. The story arc is quite similar, and actually deeper on one level. The dialogue sometimes strays a bit too close to "Monty Python" territory for its own good, but some B-movie laughs are here for those who are looking.
"A B-movie version of 'Beowulf?'," I hear you groan. But really, with human-eating trolls and dragons, what other version would there be? Well, yes, there was Scandinavian director Sturla Gunnarsson's "Beowulf & Grendel" just a mere two years ago, and people looking for the dark, twisted, disturbingly violent version should go there. Zemeckis, known for milder fare such as "Forrest Gump" and "The Polar Express," gives us a popcorn movie, with some pretensions to seriousness in its themes.
The tale begins a long time ago in a Nordic kingdom far, far away, where aged king Hrothgar (voiced by Anthony Hopkins) has built a new mead hall, and is getting down to some serious debauchery with the swains and wenches when trouble strikes. Far across the icy plains, a malformed creature known as Grendel (Crispin Glover, an inspired choice) is disturbed by the king's merrymaking and goes to silence them. The revelers never knew what hit them, when this giant, raw-meat-like ogre bursts into the mead hall and starts tossing Hrothgar's knights around like rag dolls.
The film received a PG-13 rating in the United States, which may make it seem more innocuous than it is. Grendel rips one man in half, impales a few, and chews one guy's head apart with rather excessive drooling and gnashing. Though not for the younger viewers, the over-the-top gnarliness here is clearly a byproduct of what's standard in so many video-games these days.
Fortunately for Hrothgar, a hero named Beowulf (Ray Winstone) arrives from afar to take on the monster. Hrothgar offers him riches, but Beowulf vows, "If we die, it will be for glory, not for gold." I was half expecting him to say "It will be for freedom and democracy," but to its credit, "Beowulf" does not feel the need to be a wartime propaganda film such as "300."
Beowulf and his men make merry and await Grendel in the hall. After some thought, Beowulf takes off his armor and everything else too, deciding to take on Grendel in the buff "as equals." This leads to an absolutely riotous 10-minute fight sequence, where Beowulf runs, jumps, rolls, and wrestles with the monster while somehow the filmmakers keep us from seeing his pecker. It's quite an achievement and clearly the filmmakers have studied ye olde Nikkatsu roman poruno (porn) art of clever foreground obscuration.
After Grendel, Beowulf has to take on Grendel's mom, some kind of water spirit who turns out to be Angelina Jolie in the nude. It's here that the film's CG-animation techniques reveal their limitations, and I don't mean just the shimmering patches of golden water that somehow cling to Jolie's breasts and thighs.
Jolie is a strikingly beautiful woman, but the plastic, mannequin-like look she's given here is strikingly bizarre.
If you've seen "Final Fantasy" or "The Polar Express," then you will be familiar with this form of "realist" CG animation that tries so damn hard to render humans accurately but winds up looking rather naff. This begs the question: Why not use actual actors and a blue-screen? In an age where models and celebrities are constantly being buffed up by Photoshop, perhaps it's no wonder that some will come to prefer the impossible perfection of digital flesh over human. Which reminds me: Has anyone seen the real Ayu Hamasaki recently?