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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007

For the week of Thanksgiving (at least for those of us here, in America), SE&L will look back at some of the stories from earlier in the year which suddenly have renewed relevance.

In the case of the J.J. Abrams-produced mystery project, there’s an official title and a new trailer. Oddly enough, very little about the project has changed.


The big buzz building around the Internet the last two days has centered on a striking new trailer. It features people partying, having fun, all viewed through the various handheld recording devices that have swept across the post-millennial landscape (PDAs, cellphones, camcorders). Suddenly, an Earth-shaking noise is heard. The fun stops. Another massive thud. And then a horrific, otherworldly wail. People start to panic. Before long, we are tossed into a chaotic, first person POV destruction of New York City, including mandatory symbolic obliteration (poor Statue of Liberty) and some very familiar movie monster noises (Toho, anyone?). The unusual clip – no narration, no major marketing tag lines – suddenly cuts to black. On the screen, the following title cards appear: “From J.J. Abrams” and “1/18/08”.


Fans of the Alias/Lost creator, fortunate enough to see (and in some cases, unlawfully capture) the teaser as part of the Transformers theatrical preview package, immediately rushed home and searched the Internet Movie Database for some clue as to what this proposed film, code named “Cloverfield”, was really all about. Many speculated that it would be the long dormant Godzilla sequel, which made sense since Abrams was the creative force behind the Mission Impossible franchise reboot and is currently developing a Star Trek reimagining as well. So why not give the big green radioactive lizard another shot, right? Well, that rumor was quickly nixed when studious fans recognized that Paramount (the company behind the new film) does not own the rights to the character.


Others have guessed that, based on the movie it was attached to, it may be another ‘80s cartoon title (the prime suspect: a proposed live action version of Voltron). Of course, that was also immediately negated when a World Wide Web search found readily available information on said project – and Abrams name was nowhere to be seen. From another alien invasion ala Independence Day to something called The Parasite that the producer/director has been working on, the fascinating footage – and its eventual bootlegging on the ‘Net – has caused quite a stir. It’s the kind of ‘viral’ world of mouth that marketers are mad about, especially in this interconnected age when a well placed site, a MySpace page, and constant conversation on the numerous movie and fan messageboards can keep an unreleased product viable for months.


Naturally, Paramount has been playing pirate killer, removing the various incarnations of the trailer from all known potential playback portals (YouTube, etc.), though if you look hard enough, you may still be able to find the horrible, hack quality video. Their aggressiveness has lead some to argue that the studio is really behind all the ‘illegal’ activity and is using the whole controversy as a means of generating press (and it’s worked – after all, we’re talking about it here). Through all the denials and determined PR statements, one thing’s for certain – Cloverfield is no longer a non-entity. Among the many 2008 titles generating incredibly early interest (Indiana Jones 4, Speed Racer, The Happening), this still unknown effort has moved right up to the top.


Of course, this isn’t the first time that mysterious images meshed with online elements have generated major movie curiosity. As far back as 1989, when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton would play the lead role in his version of Batman, the technically savvy have spent endless amounts of time in stern speculation over movies in production and decisions (both artistic and practical) by filmmakers helming their works in progress. It’s the foundation for immensely popular websites like Ain’t It Cool News and Coming Attractions. Indeed, the fanboy and the obsessive have long known the inherent value of futile flame wars over casting, concept, and characterization. While it may not change the actual movie being made, it sure helps keep the profile high and mighty. Perhaps the best example of such a strategy remains the infamous Blair Witch Project. For almost the entire year prior to its Summer 1999 release, this minor mock documentary became the most celebrated unseen horror film of the decade. 


It all began with some secretly distributed videotapes. Filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez wanted a little publicity for their $22,000 experiment, and knew that the growing influence of the Internet could help. As a highly believable webpage was being built centering around the movie’s mythos, the guys sent out copies to various sites. One influential individual who received a copy was AICN honcho Harry Knowles. For all his obvious self promotion, this life long film dork adored the film. In fact, it was he who started much of the “is it real, or is it fake” conjecture. His reaction was so visceral, so perfectly aligned with the response Myrick and Sanchez were looking for, that they built their entire campaign around it. It was a strategy they took to Sundance and Cannes.


Thanks to the website, and similar praise from other sources, The Blair Witch Project soon became the talk of the techs. Most of the conversation centered on the “missing” kids who supposedly starred in the film (the actors were asked to keep a very low profile until the movie was released) and how, though many claimed there was no such thing, the town of Burkittsville was indeed home to a vengeful demonic spirit. There was even an uproar over accusations of copycatting and outright plagiarism. Filmmakers Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler were livid when they learned of the Blair Witch plot and format. It seemed sneakily similar to their effort The Last Broadcast, centering on a group of public access show producers who enter the New Jersey Pine Barrens – and never return.


Naturally, all the buildup, all the exposure both good and bad, all the preview screenings (and eventual leaked reviews) and SciFi Channel specials (one supposedly offering the true story of the child killer at the center of Witch’s narrative) lead to unbelievably high audience recognition, and when it finally found its way into theaters at the end of July 1999, it was a monster hit. Everyone, from the most avid horror fan to the mere curious onlooker, just had to see what this mysterious movie was all about. Hailed as some manner of masterwork, The Blair Witch Project has since become a unique, if nominal, genre fluke. It’s a hard film to watch in light of all that we now know about the production, and it no longer carries the ethereal impact it once had.


Yet studios saw how a carefully created package involving both online and standard tactics of marketing and awareness could generated immense interest (and larger than usual box office dollars). Warner Brothers jumped on board early, using the incredibly evocative tagline “What is the Matrix?” and a similarly named Internet address to begin the build-up for it’s proposed virtual reality thriller. The company followed suit by lobbing various rumors about the casting and storyline for their proposed late ‘90s Superman update (it backfired, more or less killing the project until Bryan Singer came along and jumpstarted it). Of course, the most recent example remains Snakes on a Plane. From the decision to dump the far more mundane Pacific Air 121 title, to the last minute reshoots that upped the film’s previously pegged PG-13 language and violence, New Line went all out catering to the WWW crowd. Some still believe it eventually cost the company (the film was only a moderate hit).


So whatever Cloverfield ends up being (our money is on a gimmicky, one note effort that will be low on spectacle and high on Witch like slacker confrontations), here’s hoping Abrams and Paramount play it smart. It is one thing to involve the rich vein of human curiosity that floods through the various dial-up, DSL, and cable connections across this country. When properly tapped into, said pipeline can produce dynamic dividends. But just like the flawed concepts of focus groups, and advanced screenings geared toward constantly remaking a movie to fit an elusive utilitarian entertainment ideal (the greatest good for the greatest number), you can pay too much attention to the untrained audience and end up killing whatever made your movie distinctive in the first place. The teaser certainly succeeded in its named capacity. It has us interested. It will be five more months before we know if there’s more to this story than hope – and hype.


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Sunday, Nov 18, 2007


It remains the single most significant debate in the series’ otherwise stable history. While many consider it to be a minor, or even moot point, messageboards and fan sites still sizzle with its personality based paradox. On the one hand there are fervent admirers of stand-up legend and show creator Joel Hodgson. His sleepy eyed sense of whimsy matched by a non-threatening satiric irony made him the perfect post-modern kiddie show host. But when he finally left Mystery Science Theater 3000, the movie mocking comedy cavalcade that he had shepparded through growing pains and cable channel cultdom, he was replaced by the soon to be celebrated Mike Nelson. Longtime collaborator and head writer, the Midwestern mook took his confused Everyman shtick and launched it into the stratosphere. Before long, he was the most recognizable face the show ever had, far more mainstream than the previous personality.


Thus, the ultimate standoff was established. On one side are the faithful, the ones who believe Joel represents everything MST3K stands for. He’s the cornerstone of the classic, the reason the show exists and why it still resonates some two decades later. And yet those who support Mike argue that his substitution actually saved the series. He sat at the center of Mystery Science’s commercial renaissance, the shift from unknown quantity to noted example of the medium’s multifaceted excellence. Oh course, the question boils down to this – who is better? Is Hodgson’s culturally astute ramblings, laced with enough pop life references to strangle a steer, the true tenet of MST, or does Nelson’s nice guy numbskullery, the buffoonish set within a pure distillation of homespun humor, best exemplify the show’s entertainment essence?


While a definitive consensus may never be reached, Rhino’s latest volume of forgotten funny business, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection Volume 12, sets up an interesting dichotomy. Featuring Joel circa Season 4 (The Rebel Set) and toward the end of his run (Season 5’s Secret Agent Super Dragon) vs. Mike during his introductory phase (Season 6’s The Starfighters) and his Season 8 Sci-Fi Channel finery (the classic Parts: The Clonus Horror), this brilliant box set creates the conflict perfectly. How you respond to and revere each episode traces your wit proclivity to its point of personal origin. By the end of the unquestionably hilarious six hour slog through some of the worst movies ever made, you’ll have a better handle on your cow town puppet show preferences.


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or with the human equivalent of same, Mystery Science Theater 3000 offers a rather surrealistic premise. Hodgson plays a former worker for the fictional Deep 13 Laboratories shot into space by disgruntled mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. With the help of henchman TV’s Frank, the fey super villain subjects his orbital guinea pig to the lousiest, lamest films ever conceived. He then monitors Hodgson’s mind to see how the ‘experiment’ affects him. Of course, our hero combats the sniveling psycho by creating a collection of robot friends. Gypsy runs the higher functions on the spaceship. Crow and Tom Servo act as buffers to the bad movie mania, sitting in the Satellite of Love’s screening room and riffing away to combat the crap. When Joel escaped his fate during the mid-section of Season 5, Nelson simply replaced him as the newest test case.


With 1959’s The Rebel Set, we have one of the best examples of this premise in play. The staid little heist flick substitutes stupidity for suspense, and offers the most unlikely set of criminals this side of an episode of Dragnet. Working angles both unbelievable (a struggling actor agreeing to a between trains snatch) and beatnik (the ‘oh so uncool’ coffeehouse setting gives poets an even worse rep) it’s a stagnant, unstoppable mess. Naturally, it makes for flawless MST fodder. One of the show’s signatures remains its host segment/sketch material. Instead of quipping throughout the entire film, the picture occasionally pauses so that Joel, his tormentors, and his automaton pals can comment on what they’ve seen and extend the comedy beyond the actual meaning of the movie. Here, we get suggestions for what someone could do on a four hour layover in Chicago, how to hone one’s acting chops the “Scott Baio” way, and a discussion of unknown character actor Merritt Stone. Throw in a sensational short subject (the Canadian National Exhibition exercise, Johnny at the Fair) and you’ve got a pristine illustration of Joel-era bemusement.


For exemplary Mike, on the other hand, it’s hard to beat the diabolically dull Starfighters. Clearly crafted as a recruitment tool for the US Air Force, we watch as new pilot recruits (including one rather spineless daddy’s boy) take their multimillion dollar fighting machines up, up, and away. Endless footage of mid-air refueling commences. Deconstructing such blatant propaganda is not hard for the gang – especially when the last act revolves around something called a “poopie” suit – but the lack of anything remotely amusing or engaging does give the jokesters a run for their riffing. Again, the midpoint material is sensational, Crow and Tom taking the notion of a ‘de-briefing’ to sensational slapstick heights, while the United Servo Men’s Choir provides an acappela medley of flight-oriented catchphrases. Any film featuring future former Congressman Bob Dornan as a wussified jet trainee has its own unique entertainment inertness. But Mike proves that all facets of humor, from commercial parodies (a BBQ sauce setpiece) to old school tech tweaks (Crow tries, unsuccessfully, to merge onto the information superhighway) are ripe for rediscovery.


Of course, the movies themselves manufacture much of the mirth – especially when they play like an inadvertent spoof of the genre they’re shameless imitating. Joel’s second offering, the espionage ipecac Secret Agent Super Dragon is verifiable evidence of such poorly planned production misfires. This ersatz Bond, bumbling around like Matt Helm and Derek Flint’s bastard offspring, is about as intriguing as a bureaucratic seminar in triplicate. This typical Italian rip-off starts out sloppy, and only gets more inexplicable along the way. Centering on an international dealer smuggling drugs via auctioned artworks, there’s plenty of ripe ridicule material present. And Joel’s jesters make the most of it. Even better, we get another sensational sketch segment where Crow writes a politically correct script for his own take on the misogynistic, chauvinistic spy thriller. One of the best amalgamations of type with treatment the series ever established, it’s sad to think that there were only eight more episodes featuring Hodgson after this.


Luckily, Nelson was able to carry the comic mantle expertly. Even after cancellation, renewal, and constant fretting over the Sci-Fi Channel mandates regarding content (this is a network that now considers professional wrestling as acceptable genre subject matter), MST3K still managed to deliver undeniable comic genius. Nowhere is this truer than in the now classic take on the clone organ harvesting extravaganza Parts: The Clonus Horror. Remember Michael Bay’s The Island from a couple of years back. Same plagiarized story. Dopey duplicates kept in a utopian resort learn they are actually body part banks for influential individuals. One rebellious replicant decides to fight the system. Boredom ensues. Unlike the other three installments of the series offered herein, Parts has problems that have very little to do with the quality of what’s going on and everything to do with unclear context and continuity. Unless you followed the show from Season 7 on, you’ll have no idea who Pearl Forrester, Professor Bobo, or Brain Guy actually are. You’ll hear Crow’s new voice and wonder why the switch was made. Granted, the PBS pledge drive segments are wonderful, but the lack of perspective and place may confuse the uninitiated.


In fact, the only fault found in any of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 material is the latter versions need to maintain season-long story arcs. Sci-Fi’s suits must have slipped a substantial gasket requiring a show built around a different movie every week to develop some manner of character/narrative continuity. It’s unnecessary, and makes future syndication seem scattered – or impossible. In any case, these delightful DVDs give us an opportunity to revisit the series without having to worry about messy torrents, Nth generation bootlegs, or DVD-R scams. They look amazing, and Rhino fleshes out the films with trailers, interviews (Rebel Set star Don Sullivan) and another installment of the MST3K Video Jukebox. Many forget just how many amazing songs and music based skits the comedians created, and this third go round collects some of the best.


Yet none of this really addresses the opening concern – who, indeed, was a better show host? Joel was a jolly if slightly cynical sort who let his razor sharp observations slowly stumble and creep up on you. He wasn’t the hit you over the head type that Mike masterfully manipulated. Hodgson often played as if he knew this was all a joke, retrofitting a lifetime exposed to WGN family fare as a means of making a grander, neo-nostalgic point. Nelson gave the premise all he could, frequently letting the robots redesign his reputation into slacker, stooge, cheesehead, and chump. You could call it a perfect example of humor yin and yang, the intellectual and the inbred blissfully blundering away together – and frankly, you’d be right. One of the main reasons Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains a TV classic is this combination of heart and head, the brainiac and the balderdash. It suggests no one is better and both are best. Indeed, to argue between Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson is rather pointless. When something as brilliant as the episodes included in Volume 12 stands as validation, there’s no need to choose sides.


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Saturday, Nov 17, 2007


Since it first became popular in the early ‘80s (at least to previously uninformed Western eyes), anime has functioned as a reminder of how imaginative 2D cartooning can be – and how derivative. Thanks to the influence of the Internet, the ease of access via new technology, and an absolute glut of product, what once seemed odd and special has been slightly marginalized due to overexposure. Even worse, purists have complained about the influence of CG elements sneaking into the process, the use of bitmaps and other shortcuts to create what used to take dedicated artisans months to accomplish. For them, and everyone who feels the genre has reached an aesthetic breaking point, there is the brilliant Paprika. Part mindf**k, part homage heavy hallucination, it’s everything devotees champion – and everything the traditionalists despise.


When an experimental device known as the DC Mini goes missing from a secret psychological research lab, the scientists in charge panic. The small machine is capable of recording, influencing, and even controlling an individual’s dreams. If it fell into the wrong hands, the untested tool can be linked to any mental monitoring system, resulting in a blur between reality and the subconscious. Doctors Chiba and Shima decide to employ “Paprika”, a digital alter ego that easily maneuvers through the nonsensical dangers of the dream realm. In fact, it’s been working with a dejected policeman who has been unable to catch an elusive murderer. His shame, along with the ambitions of others in the think tank, collide to create a carnival of corrupt, frequently horrifying delusions. As the real world and fantasy continue to merge, it will take the influence and imagination of everyone involved to stop the hideous evil that wants to save dreams by destroying reality.


While it will probably look amazing once Sony gets around to releasing a Blu-ray version of the title (due on 27 November), the standard DVD release of director Satoshi Kon’s epic Paprika is still a stunner. As the force behind such well loved efforts as Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, the animation maverick once again proves his undeniable gifts. Appropriating a classic 1993 novel by avant-garde author Yasutaka Tsutsui and twisting the premise on its head, Kon forges a reference laden tribute to the magic of movies. The narrative crashes into noir, musicals, fantasy, and sci-fi, with lush, unrelenting visuals like a compendium of Asian cultural iconography come to life. In fact, Paprika is one of the more Eastern oriented efforts in anime. Everything about it, from the allusions to the artwork, is reminiscent of the very fabric of Japan.


Thematically, the battle between modernity and myth, the customary attacking technology for supremacy, sits at the center of the tale. It’s a brilliant metaphor for contemporary existence and one that Kon employs optically to instill a sense of wonder mixed with danger. The central image in the film - the mad parade of religious and recreational symbols - suggests a wealth of history and heritage rallying against the sterile social framework. Whenever it arrives onscreen, its emblematic power is undeniable. Even more intriguing is the juxtaposition of syrupy J-Pop anthems with horrific, almost evil vistas. Kon constantly tweaks the horror film facets of the story, using the policeman’s nightmares as a means of creating suspense and dread. This mixing of styles, along with the reliance of pen and ink poetry will be the movie’s main force.


There will be some who don’t understand the motives or the meaning of the narrative. Paprika‘s elusiveness is obvious and is centered in a desire to keep questions unanswered and thoughts incomplete. We never really get a full handle on the DC Mini and how it will help psychotherapy. One just has to assume that, because it uncovers the subconscious, Freudians locked into interpreting such visions would find it viable. But then our villain argues over the purity of dreams, as if infiltrating their ethereal space is a crime against nature. The confusion collects, but luckily never adds up to very much. Thanks to Kon’s novel way with the artform, we excuse the occasional cloudiness.


And then there will be the art-oriented arguments. Many pedants may recoil at the dependence on the computer and other technical tweaks to deliver the traditional hand drawn style. Luckily, Kon never lets it overpower the everpresent human touch. Others will scoff at the script, wondering if the screenwriters were drunk or just reverting to juvenile ramblings for the sense of subconscious surrealism. Yet even with all the questions and concerns Paprika paints a nearly flawless model of sound married to vision. Providing a wealth of continuing pleasures that only expand upon additional viewings, it represents the highest order of the frequently overdone genre. It’s a movie that’s as impressive in its little moments as when it’s exploiting spectacle for the sake of nonstop action.


As for the digital presentation, the technical specifications are near reference quality. Sony Pictures Classic provides a wonderful 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, colors cascading off the detail-rich transfer with terrific clarity. Sonically, there is a stellar Japanese Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and an equally effective English version. Anything beyond the original language track is rather pointless. And when it comes to extras, much of the material feels ported over from an original Japanese release (much of it has the appearance of made for TV EPKs). One of the best featurettes focuses on a conversation between Kon and author Tsutsui. Discussing the differences in approach between the novel and the film, it’s a fascinating look at the interpretation process. Equally compelling is a full length audio commentary in which the director (with the help of two other crew members) outlines the pitfalls and problems they had in realizing this unusual vision.


In contrast to the typical American animation, where anthropomorphized animals trade lame pop culture references within a message-heavy happenstance, Paprika is like 2001 without Kubrick’s obsessive ambiguity. It’s a big picture premise folded into a dozen personal tales, harvesting significant from the strange and wonderment from the well-honed. As he has done before, Kon continues to impress with his desire to bend the rules in order to fashion a whole new animated language. By introducing concepts that confuse as well as endear, that construct as much internal angst as they fuel entertainment bliss, he produces a kind of multidimensional drug. Like the DC Mini at the center of the story, Paprika doesn’t fully explain its purpose or potential. It leaves it up to us, the viewers, to figure it all out. And that’s half the fun of this fabulous film. The rest is what anime does best – amaze.


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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


For the weekend of 16 November, here are the films in focus:


No Country for Old Men [rating: 9]


Shockingly effective and incomprehensibly great, No Country for Old Men proves that the Coen Brothers are America’s reigning motion picture Gods.

Somehow, you get the impression they are doing it on purpose. After a pair of underperforming efforts (the tame Intolerable Cruelty and the way too reverent remake of The Ladykillers) Joel and Ethan Coen are back – and they’re trading on their unmitigated masterpieces from the past to achieve something quite startling. As with any great artist, the threads of their genius are laced throughout all facets of their work. And in the case of the majestic No Country for Old Men, the brothers have fashioned a clever combination of everything they’ve tackled before – the Southwestern dread of Blood Simple, the cruel criminality of Miller’s Crossing, etc. – and wound it up into a tight little ball of cinematic razor wire. And as viewers, we are lucky enough to traipse through the stealthy steel death trappings of what is instantly 2007’s best film.read full review…


I’m Not There [rating: 8]


This is not Walk the Line, or even Ray. It’s more like Lisztomania, and other outrageous biographical freak shows created by that cinematic savant Ken Russell.

When it was first announced that Todd Haynes, the idiosyncratic mind behind the deconstructionist dramas Safe and Far from Heaven, was tackling the life and times of one Bob “Zimmerman” Dylan, few balked. Sure the protest poet laureate and last legitimate link to the more idealistic and inventive elements of the ‘60s seemed like an unusual choice for the filmmaker, but this was a man who had previously tackled the days and death of Karen Carpenter, and a revisionist view of Iggy/Bowie glam rock. So a musician, even one of his import, wasn’t out of the question. No, what raised many eyebrows was Haynes’ decision to cast five different actors as Dylan, including a young black boy and a woman (actress Cate Blanchett). Again, few should have stirred. This is the man, after all, who used Barbie dolls to tell the tragic story of the anorexic AOR star. A little invention should have been anticipated.read full review…


Beowulf [rating: 8]


Beowulf brays and boasts, it overwhelms and it soars. Like the tendency to exaggerate inherent in its hero, it’s a majestic movie that doesn’t quite add up to the epic we anticipate.

The reason we respond to myth is simple. The epic paints the plainest of universal pronouncements – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – in images so stunning that we can’t help but embrace the message. It simultaneously taps into our philosophical and faith-based pleasure centers while manipulating our impressions along massive moralistic lines. Still, this doesn’t mean that all legend makes great cinema. For every Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of preachy period pieces. Indeed, one of the main reason the classics avoid motion picture manipulation is that what sounded good as spoken history frequently plays as stodgy and almost inert on screen. Such is the case with Beowulf. Like a Woody Allen joke gone awry, anyone attempting to bring the story to life has had to overcome a litany of high school literature lessons. Luckily Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis was up to the challenge.  read full review…


Mr.Magorium’s Wonder Emporium [rating: 6]


Featuring one of those Method actor turns that gives the post-modern movement a ridiculous, rose-colored bruise and just enough imagination to keep the protests at bay, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a lighthearted and less noxious Night at the Museum.

Whimsy is a tenuous cinematic element. Apply it too thickly, and audiences recoil under its treaclely tenets. Not enough, and viewers will wonder what the puff and stuff is about. Few filmmakers have actually managed the shaky aesthetic quality – and all of them are named Tim Burton. For all others, the quixotic or idealized becomes a motion picture burden that they are ill-prepared to bear. It takes the skills of a surgeon and the metal acuity of a genius to avoid the sappy, the sentimental, the predictable or the ditzy. Manage everything well and you have a lasting work of visionary art. Mess it up, however, and you’re stuck scrambling for significance. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium suffers from some of whimsy’s generic blight. When it’s good, it glows. When it fails, it’s almost fatal.  read full review…


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Thursday, Nov 15, 2007


The reason we respond to myth is simple. The epic paints the plainest of universal pronouncements – good vs. evil, right vs. wrong – in images so stunning that we can’t help but embrace the message. It simultaneously taps into our philosophical and faith-based pleasure centers while manipulating our impressions along massive moralistic lines. Still, this doesn’t mean that all legend makes great cinema. For every Lord of the Rings, there are dozens of preachy period pieces. Indeed, one of the main reason the classics avoid motion picture manipulation is that what sounded good as spoken history frequently plays as stodgy and almost inert on screen. Such is the case with Beowulf. Like a Woody Allen joke gone awry, anyone attempting to bring the story to life has had to overcome a litany of high school literature lessons. Luckily Oscar winner Robert Zemeckis was up to the challenge.


After his kingdom is continuously attacked by a wicked mountain troll named Grendel, King Hrothgar puts out a call to any hero who will slay the beast. For them, a solid gold mead horn and the honor of the royal bed is the reward. Into the fray walks Beowulf, legendary conqueror, slayer of all sorts of vile monsters. After being warned of the demon’s foul temper, our champion tempts fate and lures it to the Great Hall. There, they battle to the death. With victory in hand, Beowulf then heads into the caves to kill the wicked witch who begat such demonic despair. Instead of slaughter, however, he’s seduced. Decades pass, and with it, the infallibility of Beowulf’s rule. When a new creature arrives to destroy the realm, the longtime leader must face the mistakes he made in his arrogance, a chance to save his legacy once and for all.


Beowulf brays and boasts, it overwhelms and it soars. Like the tendency to exaggerate inherent in its hero, it’s a majestic movie that doesn’t quite add up to the epic we anticipate. But by pushing the very edges of the CG’s technological tolerances, and introducing the third dimension as a way to heighten the histrionics, director Roger Zemeckis has fashioned one of the most satisfying popcorn flicks of the year. No other film in what is rapidly becoming an impressive mainstream movie going season is as awe-inspiring, as totally given over to the visual splendor of the artform as this warhorse telling of the classic poem. Sure, the storyline has been retrofitted to encompass more modern ideals, and animation tends to dull what are usually overripe human posturing, but when it looks this good, and entertains this well, who cares if its cartoons doing the job.


Granted, these are some remarkable looking bitmaps, the realism missing from most of the medium’s stylized renderings in full effect here. Ray Winstone’s title character will make the maidens swoon, especially during his infamous nude battle with key monster Grendel. And Angelina Jolie is on hand to keep the lads lathered up, though her gold gilding and high heeled demon is a tad too modern for the era she exists in. From Anthony Hopkins portly king to John Malkovich’s conniving court advisor, the closeness to true human performance is absolutely astounding. Miles away from Zemeckis’ previous experiment in motion capture (the cool but quite plastic Polar Express) there is a roughness and a texture here that is hard to escape. When we see Beowulf in close-up, his chin stubble and wispy blond hair respond to every movement. Equally impressive are sequences where physical endurance and acumen must be recreated. Instead of robotic and limited, we see actual stuntwork and spectacle.


This is an eyepopping experience, especially given the fact that it is only being shown in either IMAX or standard 3D. Yes, you have to wear the goofy glasses (polarized, not the never quite effective two color kind) but it’s well worth it. The stereoscopic image is truly breathtaking. When we travel across the sea, watching Beowulf’s boat battle a series of Perfect Storm style waves, the terror and triumph of the sequence are unmatched. Similarly, the celebrated mead hall where much of the action takes place has the proper balance of video game perspective and backdrop believability. From the last act dragon attack that sees our hero literally hanging by a thread as the beast lunges and leaps from the bottom of the ocean to the top of the highest tower, to the introduction of Grendel with an amazing tracking shot that ends up on the creature’s throbbing eardrum and profusely bleeding head, Zemeckis and his artisans have amplified the aesthetic range of this kind of creativity.


That goes for the aforementioned fiend in particular. Voiced by the godlike Crispin Glover (who should be in every movie by cinematic mandate) and rendered rotting and repugnant, there is a true soul buried inside this crude collection of cartilage and pain. At first, one is unsure of the design being utilized. Zemeckis goes a tad overboard in turning Grendel into something all together otherworldly. His misshapen misery is so pronounced, it’s virtually intolerable. Add in the agonizing vocalizations by Glover and the tortured nature of the character is sickening. But when given over to quieter moments, when we see an injured Grendel speaking to his mother, the interaction is intriguing – and then enlightening. We grow in our appreciation of this fiend, and find ourselves missing him once the movie dispenses with his importance.


Indeed, once Beowulf moves into Act Two, it tends to lag a little. Hopkins’ boorish ruler does enliven things, but Robin Wright Penn is not the most compelling love/lust object. Her queen is too clued in, to post-modern manipulative to warrant a conqueror’s ardor. It’s a similar situation with Jolie. Unless we are to believe that every 6th Century Dane was incapable of refusing a vixen’s charms, her come hither slink smacks of Hollywood, not the hinterland. Indeed, the women are the weak link throughout Beowulf, and if there’s one lesson to be learned from the monster success of 300, it’s to keep the ladies as far in the background as possible. They need only be brought out as plot catalysts, not narrative foundations.


Similarly, the film fumbles its pacing. The first half, dealing almost exclusively with Grendel, is so adrenaline pumping and kinetic that whatever comes after is bound to disappoint. Even more telling, the next section more or less repeats what we’ve seen before. While not completely faithful to the original epic, the plot points from said literary hallmark are all in place. This means there’s a marginal predictability, a familiarity that may soften your initial enthusiasm. But when eye candy is this sumptuous, when we can literally watch a rat travel from great hall rafter to falcon’s claw, when our hero’s post-conflict sweat glistens with a real sense of exertion and effort, you know you’re in the hands of cinematic masters.


Beowulf will probably not be a hit, unfortunately. The storytelling is too fractured and the initial majesty muted by one too many maudlin heart-to-hearts. In an era when action typically means nonstop ballistics, where scene longevity trumps logic every time, Zemeckis’ recast myth is just too abjectly old school. It wants to luxuriate in its visuals and crush with the unbridled power of cinematic imagination. And for the most part, it does. Audiences may not appreciate the over the top tendencies and cheeky chest-thumping, but there is something delightfully appealing about such 3D bravado. CGI or not, this Beowulf demands attention. So what if it has to move a few outsized mountains to do it.



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