Beowulf (2007)


If I saw Angelina Jolie rising naked out of a cave pool, I'd draw my sword too - but it would likely be a different sword.

If I saw Angelina Jolie rising naked out of a cave pool, I’d draw my sword too – but it would likely be a different sword.

(2007) Animated Feature (Paramount) Starring the voices of Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Robin Wright Penn, Brendan Gleeson, Dominic Keating, Alison Lohman, Crispin Glover, Costas Mandylor, Chris Coppola, Charlotte Salt, Julene Renee, Sebastian Roche, Chris Coppola, Sonja Fortag, Jacquie Barnbrook. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

We are in the midst of a cinematic superhero golden age. However, even before comic books there were heroes. Gilgamesh, Hercules, Theseus – all names that were spoken of with honor in ancient days. The legend of Beowulf is one of the oldest examples of heroic literature but today, few know his story – and it is a mighty one.

King Hrothgar (Hopkins) of Denmark and his much younger queen Wealthow (Penn) are celebrating their grand new meadhall in fine drunken fashion. The aging king may lament the lack of a son and heir but he has a full life of heroic deeds to sing of. He is drunk to the disgust of his queen, but to the praise of his warriors. The noise reaches the ears of the monster Grendel (Glover). Being a monster, he reacts predictably. None of the drunken Danes can stand up to the misshapen creature, as the smarmy adviser Unferth (Malkovich) cowers in a cistern. The carnage is considerable.

Fully aware that none of his people have the strength or courage to defeat the monster, Hrothgar sends word to all the nations of the earth that a hero is required. His desperate cry is answered by Beowulf (Winstone) of the Geats, a vain swaggering man who can thankfully back up his boasts. Although his trusted right hand man Wiglaf (Gleason) has reservations about the whole situation, he has his friend’s back.

Beowulf is greeted less than enthusiastically by the suspicious Danes, who find his stories a tad tall. Wealthow, for her part, finds the studly Geat intriguing, while Beowulf does the same. Hrothgar, who was friends with Beowulf’s father, is grateful to have him there to rid him of his curse. He orders a great celebration in the Meadhall, which is sure to attract Grendel’s notice.

True to form, Grendel arrives and again wreaks great havoc. The cocky Beowulf, who is fully naked since Grendel wears no armor nor carries any sword, watches his men get bounced around the room like ping pong balls, but soon sees Grendel’s weakness and exploits it. At length, he manages to chain the creature up so that it is half in, half out of the doorway and uses the chain to rip the arm off of the beast, which limps home to mama (Jolie). His killer’s name is the last word on his lips.

 

The grieving and furious mom (she has no name either in the movie nor the story it is based on) takes out her fury on Beowulf’s men. Only Wiglaf escapes the slaughter being down by the boat preparing it for the trip home. Beowulf is also spared by the demon, but only because she has plans for him. Beowulf has been given a beautiful dragon horn as a gift by Hrothgar, who has also promised Beowulf the throne of Denmark when Hrothgar dies, but with the demon still loose in the land, Beowulf knows he must kill the mother of the monster before he can truly call himself a hero, but he will face his greatest challenge; his own vanity and pride. Will he be hero enough to overcome them?

Yes, this is the same motion capture animation Zemeckis utilized in The Polar Express, but this is far more than the one-man show that movie was. Zemeckis hired a very impressive group of actors, led by Winstone – one of the finest character actors of his generation – and Hopkins, one of the finest actors period. They roar with the best of them here. Although you get a sense of the faces of the actors, they are altered enough so that they don’t quite look the same. Still, how can you go wrong with a cast that includes Gleason, Penn, Malkovich, Jolie and Lohman?

The animation here was stunning in its day – seven years ago While they are going for an almost photo-realistic style, it is still obviously animation and the characters have that lifeless expression that came with 3D photorealism in its earliest stages. Still, there are times when you forget that it isn’t live action, and that’s saying something. I saw this in a 2-D version which spared me the headaches of 3-D animation, but judging from what I saw, the 3-D version would probably be terrifying. The music is suitably heroic and martial. Not many are familiar with Beowulf’s story, one of the oldest heroic epics we are aware of.

As I said earlier, the cast is first-rate. There is quite a bit of entertainment to be had here. Winstone’s take on Beowulf makes him a big-time blowhard, but noble nonetheless – a tough trick to pull off.

There’s quite a bit of shouting and chest-beating here. The testosterone levels are abundant to say the least, even among the women in the cast. However, Neil Gaiman wrote the script which should tell you all you need to know about the quality of the writing.

Da Queen was not interested at all in catching this, so I didn’t see it until it hit On Demand. I would have liked to see this on a big screen – the visuals are worth it. Even on a small screen, it’s impressive. I wouldn’t say it’s up with Polar Express or the Back to the Future series in Zemeckis’ resume, but this is solid nonetheless.

WHY RENT THIS: Impressive visuals. Even in motion capture Winstone, Gleeson and Hopkins are terrific actors.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Curiously lifeless. An over-abundance of testosterone.

FAMILY MATTERS: There is some animated nudity and quite a bit of carnage. The monsters can be awfully frightening, This PG-13 could easily have wound up being R-rated without too much of a stretch.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Glover previously worked with Zemeckis on Back to the Future.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There are featurettes on the history of the story of Beowulf, and how it made it from story to screen. The making-of featurettes are also unusually interesting given the demands of motion capture and the larger-than-life nature of the actors involved.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $196.4M on a $150M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Arthur

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Wish I Was Here

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Things We Lost in the Fire


Halle Berry sleeps one off.

Halle Berry sleeps one off.

(2007) Drama (DreamWorks) Halle Berry, Benicio del Toro, David Duchovny, Alexis Llewellyn, Micah Berry, John Carroll Lynch, Alison Lohman, Robin Weigert, Omar Benson Miller, Paula Newsome, Sarah Dubrovsky, Maureen Thomas, VJ Foster, Patricia Harras. Directed by Susanne Bier

Loss is something we all deal with in our own way. Some of us turn inward and shut the world out. Some of us throw ourselves into work or family. Still others lash out in anger, frustration and/or grief. It’s a powerful emotion that all of us must face in one form or another sooner or later.

For Audrey Burke (Berry) that time is now. Her husband Brian (Duchovny) is dead, killed trying to get an abused woman from being beaten up. The day of the funeral she sends for Jerry Sunborne (del Toro), one of Brian’s closest friends. He had gone from being a promising lawyer to a junkie and the source of much contention between Audrey and Brian. Brian had continued to visit Jerry and support him – in many ways he was Jerry’s sole connection to the world. Audrey thought he was a hopeless cause who she wanted as far away from her family as possible.

Getting Jerry to the funeral proves to take some doing. He is homeless now, having lost everything to his addiction. However, once Jerry gets there Audrey impulsively and not without some reservations invites Jerry to stay in the family home. She realizes that Brian would have wanted that and convinces herself that’s why she’s doing it but truth be told she wants someone around the house; their son Dory (Berry) needs a strong father figure around the house, their daughter Harper (Llewellyn) needs some guidance and to be honest she herself needs someone to lean on.

Audrey isn’t an easy person to be around. Her grief makes her touchy and sometimes she lashes out for no real good reason. In the meantime, Jerry is flowering in this environment. He is finding a new sense of purpose and the drugs are, for the moment, receding. A family friend (Lynch) is even helping Jerry get a real estate license and back to being a productive member of society. However both grief and drugs can be mercurial and unpredictable and both Jerry and Audrey have yet to face a very dark night indeed in both of their souls.

This started life as a screenplay by Allan Loeb, appearing on the inaugural “Black List” of unproduced screenplays (the Black List is a survey of 250 producers of the best screenplays they’d seen that year that were as yet unproduced). It was picked up by DreamWorks and acclaimed Danish director Bier (who had directed the acclaimed Open Hearts up to that point and later won an Oscar for In a Better World since) was attached to it.

They also put together a pretty powerful cast in Oscar winner Berry who once again gives a powerful performance as a woman who is lost and hurting. Audrey isn’t always likable and she doesn’t always act the way we’d like her to act. That’s a credit to Loeb who creates a character who is flesh and blood rather than an ideal. She has good days but she also has some bad ones. Berry fleshes Audrey out, turns her into a person you’d find walking around the mall or sitting in the movie theater next to you. Of course, if someone who looked as good as Halle Berry were sitting in the theater next to me I’d notice it pretty quickly.

Del Toro is no less impressive. Jerry is as wounded in his own way as Audrey is and like Audrey, Jerry doesn’t always act the way we’d like him to. He is trying, however and is basically a good man deep down – he’s just also a weak man when it comes to narcotics. These two performances drive the movie and are the main reason to see it.

Bier has a thing about eyes and there are a lot of close-ups of the eyes throughout the movie which can be disconcerting. While I agree that the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also kind of boring when you keep seeing them over and over again. As an old-time Hollywood producer might have put it, Susanne baby, lose the eyes.

The movie has a European sensibility to it so the pacing might not be to the liking of an American audience; that is to say, it takes it’s time and gets to where it’s going at its own pace. There are some moments when the movie veers into soap opera territory but thankfully those moments are few and far between.

This is a movie that didn’t get a whole lot of fanfare when it was released and the general attitude of critics and moviegoers alike was a resounding “who cares” but the truth is that you should. This is a very strong and powerful film on taking control of your own life and learning to deal with pain. The performances of Berry and del Toro are worthy of your time alone, but for my money this is one of those gems that didn’t get the love it should have.

WHY RENT THIS: Marvelous performances from del Toro and Berry; Duchovny, Lynch and Lohman excellent in supporting roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Too many extreme close-ups. Maudlin in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a good deal of drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Bier’s sole English-language film to date.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $8.6M on a $16M production budget; the movie is considered a financial failure.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Monster’s Ball

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Chasing Ice

Matchstick Men


Matchstick Men

Allison Lohman has always been a swinger.

(2003) Crime (Warner Brothers) Nicolas Cage, Sam Rockwell, Alison Lohman, Bruce McGill, Jenny O’Hara, Steve Eastin, Bruce Altman, Beth Grant, Sheila Kelley, Fran Kranz, Tim Kelleher, Nigel Gibbs, Bill Salto, Tim Maculan, Kim Cassidy. Directed by Ridley Scott

 

A good con movie is one of the finest cinematic experiences a filmgoer can have. Trying to keep up with the twists and turns, the backstabbing and the betrayals can leave one wondering from what direction the next twist is coming. Sometimes they’re easy to spot; it’s when you get blindsided that you leave the theater feeling invigorated. But does Matchstick Men bring The Sting to mind?

Roy Waller (Cage) is a veteran con artist (emphasis on the artist) who has a number of neuroses, chief among them agoraphobia. He has difficulty leaving the safe environs of his comfortable home, but rarely needs to – he has pulled off enough cons to be able to live comfortably the rest of his life. However, he has a partner (Rockwell) with whom he conspires to take a lowlife criminal named Frechette (McGill) for a big score that will allow Roy to retire and partner Frank to establish himself.

Into this mix comes the daughter Roy never knew he had; Angela (Lohman), who lives with Roy’s estranged wife, is a troubled teen who needs direction. She latches onto Roy, who can barely function. She finds out what his profession is and talks him into teaching her how to con. She turns out to be quite good at it. However, as Roy and Frank’s con begins to go south, the issue becomes not only protecting himself, but perhaps protecting the family he now can’t do without.

Director Ridley Scott went for a change of pace after his previous two movies (Gladiator and Hannibal) to make a quirky comedy. I’m not sure that was a great move; his comedies haven’t been his strongest films throughout his career although he has shown a few moments. Frankly, this one is a bit uneven as well, although after re-watching it recently I found it better than I remembered it to be.

Cage can be one of my favorite actors when he’s not overacting; this isn’t one of those occasions so he doesn’t disappoint here. Nobody does quirky quite like Nicolas Cage and Scott is a strong enough director to reign in Cage’s more over-the-top tendencies. Of late Cage has been something of a joke because of his really out-of-control scene chewing, but this is one of the movies that reminds you that he’s a very talented actor as well.

Rockwell has put his name on my list of actors whom I will go and see no matter what kind of turkey they are starring in – although to be honest he hasn’t done many of those. He’s evolved into an “A” list guy, although he hasn’t gotten that career-defining role yet that I think is in him. It’s only a matter of time though.

Lohman is absolutely sensational as Angela. She nearly takes this movie away from Cage, which can be a difficult task in and of itself. She hasn’t had the career I thought she would, although she was outstanding in Drag Me to Hell and unforgettable in Big Fish. Still, in all her films she’s always solid at the very least. This is one of her brighter moments.

The problem with con-game films is that they often have to take the same road; good-hearted con artist cons bad villain. The reality of the business is that these people prey on the vulnerable and generally have enough sense to stay away from guys who might go after them. Real con artists are generally despicable individuals.

Still, it is part of human nature to want to pull one over on someone who deserves it, and that’s what makes The Sting so dang satisfying and why it’s the gold standard when it comes to con movies. The twist here is not too obvious, but it’s not terribly original either and to be honest, that’s what most caper films are judged by at the end of the day. Still, it is sufficient to make the movie a winner in my book and hopefully one that will keep you entertained should you choose to seek this movie out.

WHY RENT THIS: Fine performances by Lohman, Cage and Rockwell. Fun caper flick throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Twist is merely adequate. Film is fairly uneven. Comedy not Ridley Scott’s forte.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some of the subject matter is on the adult side. There are some bad words, a bit of violence and a bit less sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Although Lohman played a 14-year-old girl (and went to the audition dressed to look as one), she was 22 at the time she made this movie.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $65.6M on an unreported production budget; I’m thinking the movie broke even or was marginally profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Paper Moon

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: ParaNorman

Drag Me to Hell


Drag Me to Hell

This isn't exactly the girl-on-girl action I had in mind.

(Universal) Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Jessica Lucas, David Paymer, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee. Directed by Sam Raimi

Director Sam Raimi made his bones, so to speak, in the horror genre. His Evil Dead trilogy still remains today a classic of the genre, hallmarks of Raimi’s patented horror-with-laughs style. After doing Army of Darkness, the last of the trilogy, Raimi moved on to doing the Spider-Man movies as well as a couple of other non-horror movies, but the genre has never been far from his heart – his Ghost House Pictures production shingle has been responsible for such fare as The Messengers, 30 Days of Night and The Grudge trilogy.

Now he makes his return to the genre as a director with this nifty little film. Christine Brown (Lohman), a sweet, mousy blonde, is gunning for a promotion at the bank where she works. If it were given on competence alone, she’d be a lock but the slimy, smarmy Stu Rubin (Lee) is undercutting her and looks to have the promotion sewn up. Her boss, Mr. Jacks (Paymer) tells her that she needs to be making tougher decisions.

She puts this into practice when Mrs. Ganush (Raver) comes to her desk, begging for an extension on the third mortgage for her house. Christine is inclined to give it to her – she doesn’t have the stomach for throwing an old woman out into the street – but she reeeally wants that promotion so she turns her down, even when Mrs. Ganush gets down on her knees.

Christine has forgotten one of the basic rules of horror movies – never humiliate a gypsy. Has she learned nothing from Stephen King? Apparently not, so she reaps the consequences and hideous they are. Mrs. Ganush levels a curse on her that gives her three days before a demon drags her soul straight to H-E-double hockey sticks.

Before she gets there, however, she will go through all manner of being terrorized and grossed out, having all sorts of bodily fluids vomited onto her by the demonic Mrs. Ganush and her minions. Her incredulous boyfriend Clay Dalton (Long) thinks she’s out of her mind at first, but is supportive nonetheless – and as unexplainable things begin to pile up he too becomes a believer, sorta kinda.

She’s not alone in her fight, however; Indian spiritualist Rham Jas (Rao) helps her figure out what’s going on, and takes her to see legitimate psychic Shaun San Dena (Barraza) who fought one of these curses once before and lost, so is eager to redeem herself. It won’t be easy though, and with every possibility exhausted, there remains one last desperate hope for Christine, one that involves doing something terrible.

Most horror movies these days are either remakes of iconic franchises from the ‘70s and ‘80s, remakes of far superior Asian films, or the kind of torture porn of the Saw and Hostel series. It’s refreshing to see a good horror movie that has some great scares to it, a reasonably original premise and is a great ride to boot. Raimi hasn’t forgotten his skills as a genre director and has added to it the experience of making big-budget mega-effects driven movies, which help him increase the scope of his vision here.

Lohman has had something of a checkered career as an actress, but here she nails it. Her character doesn’t necessarily lack a moral compass in that she knows the right thing to do; she just doesn’t have the backbone to follow it. That makes her far more human than either a complete saint or an utter bitch might in that role.

Raver makes this a career highlight reel; she is astonishing as the old woman and after a career of soap operas and TV show guest appearances, she gets the kind of role finally that really lets her cut loose, even if you can barely recognize her under all the make-up. She takes a standard gypsy character and turns her into one of the most frightening movie characters of the last decade; it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if they bring her back to curse other people in sequels to this if Raimi decides to make one.

While the rest of the cast is solid, kudos should be directed at Rao who turns his charlatan psychic which was meant to serve as a plot explainer into an integral part of the movie’s success. It’s not strictly comic relief, but suffice to work that he works similarly to what the Suresh character does in the “Heroes” TV show.

There are plenty of scares here and not all of them are the artificially manufactured kind, either – you know, the ones with the jumpy soundtrack, loud crashing noises and cats jumping out of dark spaces. Nope, this is a movie where the scares are earned, and the laughs that follow them legitimate. While the movie didn’t do gangbusters at the box office (only raking in $40 million domestically), it was so cheaply produced that it turned a tidy profit so the powers that be at Universal may be amenable to sequels, even though the movie doesn’t really seem to promise one.

For my part, I’ve found the American horror movie in something of a rut in the 21st century for all the reasons outlined above. While some terrific horror movies have come from places like Japan, South Korea, New Zealand and England, there have been very few to come from the States and there is something galling about that. Fortunately here comes Sam Raimi to deliver a movie that shows you why few movies can scare the bejeezus from you like an American horror movie can.

WHY RENT THIS: This might just be the best horror movie so far of the 21st century. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Christine is so ditzy and spineless at times it’s hard to really feel sympathy for her. The ending was a bit of a disappointment.

FAMILY VALUES: This is plenty scary, gang. Seriously, unless your kids don’t ever have nightmares, think twice about letting them see this – some of the imagery is really, really intense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie directed by Sam Raimi in which actor Bruce Campbell didn’t appear (he was busy with his television show “Burn Notice”).  

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While the DVD and Blu-Ray covers trumpet that this is an unrated version, the difference between this and the theatrical release is a single scene; the unrated version is actually nine seconds shorter in total than the theatrical version. 

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Charlie St. Cloud

Gamer


No matter how mad Terry Crews gets, Gerard Butler won't share his candy.

No matter how mad Terry Crews gets, Gerard Butler just won't share his candy.

(Lionsgate) Gerard Butler, Amber Valetta, Michael C. Hall, Logan Lerman, Alison Lohman, Kyra Sedgwick, Ludacris, John Leguizamo, Zoe Bell, Terry Crews, Ramsey Moore, Aaron Yoo, Jonathan Chase, Brighid Fleming. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

Almost since the advent of Pong, certain parental groups have decried the violence in videogames. Once you’ve fragged enough aliens, monsters or opposing soldiers, what’s left to do?

In the near future, gaming has evolved to the next level. Instead of controlling pixels on a television or computer screen, technology developed by techno-genius Ken Castle (Hall) enables gamers to control actual human beings. At first, it’s fairly benign in the social networking game “Society,” in which paid actors act out the fantasy of their controllers, thanks to a nanochip embedded in the brains of the actors that allow the gamers to broadcast instructions directly into the brains of the actors, who then perform any action the gamers wish like a marionette on a string. Apparently what most gamers wish in this dystopian future is softcore porn and raves.

The next step in this process is Slayers, a game featuring death row convicts who battle it out in a gritty urban arena with automatic weapons and grenades. Should the convict survive 30 battles, they are given their release, inspiring a wealth of potential slayers.

The best slayer is Kable (Butler), who has come as close as anyone to achieving freedom. However, he knows a little bit too much about the nanotech developed by Castle, so the multi-billionaire has set Kable up to fall, using a very angry avatar named Hackman (Crews) who has no player, which allows Hackman to act independently without any lag time, a huge advantage over the other slayers who have a several second lag between gamer command and slayer action. Fortunately, Kable’s gamer Simon (Lerman) is very, very good at what he does.

Not everyone thinks this is a perfect world. A group of techno-terrorists who call themselves Humanz are led by Brother (Ludacris), who hack into the game feed, much to the annoyance of Castle and cause all sorts of havoc. A popular interviewer/journalist named Gina Parker Smith (Sedgwick) is also suspicious of what Castle is doing and wants to know more about the Humanz.

Kable doesn’t care about any of this. He’s more concerned about getting back to his wife Angie (Valletta) and daughter (Fleming). Angie is working as one of the actresses in the Society milieu, controlled by an astoundingly obese gamer named Gorge (Moore). Kable soon begins to understand that there is no winning the game, only escaping – and once he escapes, can he save his family from the slavery that Castle intends to unleash upon the world?

Neveldine and Taylor are best known for their movie Crank which was like a videogame on steroids, and was one of the most entertaining action movies of the past few years. They do have the action thing in the bag, as the Slayer action sequences are plenty cool. What happens in between is a little bit less copacetic. I can see where they’re going with this – a commentary on the desensitizing of society and the gaming culture in general. Still, it’s hard to believe that anyone would ever allow another human being complete control of their body, no matter how desperate they were.

Butler is becoming one of my favorite actors working, but this won’t be remembered as a role he nailed. Kable has pretty much no personality whatsoever and while you’re ostensibly rooting for him, the fact of the matter is that you don’t really have much reason to care for him. Hall is actually kind of entertaining as the nerdy but arrogant tech whiz who performs a lip-synch dance to the Sammy Davis Jr. chestnut “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with his lackeys (every good villain’s gotta have lackeys) doing a dance number along with him. That’s one of the better moments in the movie and shows the kind of flair, humor and imagination that the Neveldine/Taylor duo has at their best.

Unfortunately, this isn’t their best. A good videogame has a storyline that you want to follow through to its conclusion; at the very least, you can’t wait to experience what comes next. In this case, what comes next is predictable to the point where you’re checking your watch to see if its time to go yet. It isn’t the worst movie that will be released this year, but there aren’t many compelling reasons to go out of your way to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Some decent action sequences, and that’s about it.

REASONS TO STAY: Butler sleepwalks through his poorly written part. Neveldine/Taylor make movies for adrenaline junkies and this won’t sate even the most hardcore of fans.

FAMILY VALUES: Violence, a whole bunch of it and nudity, as well as sexual situations plus lots of bad language; not for the kiddies.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rather than using graphics that say “The End” at the conclusion of a film, directors Neveldine and Taylor use “GAME OVER INSERT COIN,” bringing to mind videogames from the ‘80s.

HOME OR THEATER: Skip it altogether, but if you must see it, you can wait for the home video release.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Hunting Party