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

Saw VI


Saw VI

Tanedra Howard tries a new cure for migraines.

(2009) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Peter Outerbridge, Shawnee Smith, Samantha Lemole, Caroline Cave, George Newbern, Devon Bostick, Darius McCrary, Shauna McDonald, Tanedra Howard. Directed by Kevin Greutert

It is nearly impossible to give you a plot summary of Saw VI without giving you spoilers on the previous films, so therefore my description of the action is going to be necessarily vague in the odd chance that you might be thinking of seeing any of the previous films in the series first.

Saw VI picks up directly after the events of Saw V. The police continue to search for Jigsaw’s (Bell) remaining apprentice who is disturbingly close to home. A health insurance executive (Outerbridge) who has denied treatment to individuals who died for its lack (including Jigsaw himself) is forced to play out four twisted traps. We see in flashbacks more detail on the relationship between Jigsaw and Amanda (Smith) and how Jigsaw’s wife Jill (Russell) is dealing with the contents of the mysterious box left to her in Jigsaw’s will. As the traps begin to unfold, the noose begins to tighten around the apprentice, including from an unexpected direction. Is the game over finally?

Well, no not yet. There is one film yet to go in the series and after the disappointment that was the fifth film in the series, the franchise seems to have regained a bit of momentum heading for its conclusion. Greutert, an editor in the series, makes his feature film directing debut and does a nice job, keeping the tension and action running at high levels.

The secondary story line with the insurance executive keeps the interest up. One of the big complaints about the series and the last couple of movies in particular is that the portion of the movie that deals with Jigsaw and his apprentices seems to have shrunk, leaving the backstory (and side story if you will) to take up less than half of the movie – and the portion with the traps to be the far more interesting portion of the movie than that which explains how the principles got there. That’s not really a good sign, but the traps are so fiendishly clever here that it does make up for that lack somewhat.

I’ve said it before, but relegating Jigsaw to flashbacks was a tactical error. Mandylor is a decent actor but his character has none of the charisma of Jigsaw; consequently his sequences seem to be the ones most likely that you’ll want to fast forward through, although there’s a terrific scene at a crime lab that involves him that is actually worth waiting for.

Perhaps the most important accomplishment the movie is going to have is to make viewers want to watch the final installment; certainly this is a flawed movie and by no means the best in the series but at least it doesn’t make you turn off the DVD player in disgust with a cry of “Never again!” Two trilogies down the road and the series has at least kept our interest and displayed a certain amount of cleverness and invention throughout. That’s something worth respecting.

WHY RENT THIS: Clever traps and a decent secondary story line.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Mandylor’s Hoffman is still not nearly as interesting as Bell’s Jigsaw..

FAMILY VALUES: Violence and torture and gore, oh my!

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tanedra Howard was the winner of the SyFy reality show “Scream Queens” and won a role in Saw VI.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an unrated DVD edition which contains both the theatrical release and an unrated version of the film. This edition also includes four music videos and a featurette on the building of a Saw-themed haunted house attraction at the Universal Studios theme park. The Blu-Ray edition has these features and the first Saw film as an extra added attraction.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $68.2M on an $11M production budget; the movie was a modest blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Whistleblower

Saw V


Saw V

This being a Saw movie, you know things are going to end badly for this gentleman.

(2008) Horror (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Mark Rolston, Carlo Rota, Julie Benz, Greg Bryk, Laura Gordon, Meagan Good, Joris Jarsky, Mike Butters, Samantha Lemole, Niamh Wilson.  Directed by David Hackl

As we continue to plumb the depths of human depravity in the Saw series, the question is not how low will human beings sink to. No, the more prevalent question is whether or not the Saw series has enough steam to continue.

A serial killer meets a gruesome end, observed by a mysterious figure. A hero cop turns out to be not so heroic after all. A real estate deal turned deadly finds the principals locked together in a deadly game of elimination. A horribly injured detective looks to clear his name and find out who the accomplice of a serial killer is. The wife of that serial killer discovers something game-changing in her safety deposit box.

What do all these things have in common? They’re part of the plot elements of the fifth installation of the Saw series. Former director Darren Lynn Bousman is out and art director of the past three movies David Hackl is in, making his feature directing debut. While most of the rest of the behind-the-scenes crew are back (including writers Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton, as well as series creators James Wan and Leigh Whannell in production roles), the familiar faces of the series in front of the character are seen mainly in flashback.

The whole point of the film is essentially to establish how Detective Mark Hoffman (Mandylor) became the apprentice for Jigsaw (Bell). Much of the movie is done in flashback (as is Bell’s participation) and therein lies the issue. Jigsaw is one of the most memorable villains of the 21st century and certainly right up there with Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees in terms of all time horror film serial killers.

Killing him off has robbed the series of much of its vitality. While Bell is a presence when onscreen, he is not an active one. Jigsaw’s participation is essentially that of a memory, motivating the actions of Hoffman who is far less interesting and far less charismatic than his mentor.

The result is a movie that while still possessed of the clever traps the series is noted for, possesses less impact than the others. I will say that going back to group traps as the series did in the first and second films was a smart move – that nets the movie much of the goodwill I’m willing to give it.

Both Mandylor and Patterson (as Detective Strahm, who barely escapes by giving himself a tracheotomy in one of the more gruesome scenes) are pretty decent actors, but their characters are so loosely drawn with so little personality that they wind up disappointing as leads. The supporting characters generally wander around and those who are in traps look terrified and scream a lot, while those who aren’t look befuddled and frown a lot.

There are hints at a larger story that this is all a part of, and hopefully that will be the case. For the most part, this feels like a redo of things in the saga they’ve already done and better. Maybe this is meant to be a more transitional movie as they build up to a climax. I hope so – I’d rather see this series go out with a bang rather than a whimper.

WHY RENT THIS: There are some pretty delicious traps here.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The first four movies of the series are way better. The story doesn’t have any Oomph.

FAMILY VALUES: All the gore and blood that anyone could ask for and some brief nudity as well. The language is coarse which is understandable given the situation.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the scene where Detective Hoffman meets Jigsaw for the first time on an elevator, screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton are both briefly glimpsed as passengers on the same elevator.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $113.9M on a $10.8M production budget; the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Arlington Road

Saw IV


Saw IV

Betsy Russell finds out she's been cast in a Saw film.

(2007) Horror/Torture Porn (Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Costas Mandylor, Scott Patterson, Betsy Russell, Lyriq Bent, Athena Karkanis, Justin Louis, Simon Reynolds, Donnie Wahlberg, Angus Macfadyen, Shawnee Smith, Dina Meyer, Bahar Soomekh. Directed by Darren Lynn Bousman

There are storms in life that are particularly vicious, doing damage to property, life and limb. We can only hope to ride out those storms and hope to escape if not unscathed, at least mostly unscathed. There are storms however that when we think they’re over, we come to the sick realization that they may only be beginning.

John Kramer a.k.a. Jigsaw (Bell), the notorious serial killer, is dead. His reign of terror is at an end. At least, that’s what everybody thinks. During his autopsy, a micro-cassette player is found in his stomach, the contents of which are heard by Det. Mark Hoffman (Mandylor). You just know what’s on the tape isn’t going to be Perry Como. It’s just not going to be a very good thing at all.

When a missing detective (Meyer) is located, Hoffman cautions Lt. Rigg (Bent) from entering an unsecured door but he does anyway and the girl is killed. Rigg is hoping that he’d find information about his missing partner, Matthews (Wahlberg) whom Rigg is convinced is still alive. The murder brings FBI agents Strahm (Patterson) and Perez (Karkanis) into the picture. They quickly discover that the late Jigsaw and his apprentice (Smith) couldn’t have been responsible for the death of the detective since neither one of them was strong enough to load her into the machine she’d been left in. It becomes increasingly likely that Jigsaw has another apprentice.

It isn’t until Rigg is attacked at home that he discovers that Matthews is still alive, but held by the new apprentice of Jigsaw. Rigg has 90 minutes to find Matthews or he will die horribly. Rigg must make terrible decisions that will cost people their lives in order to save the innocent Matthews…but can he negotiate the tricky moral currents of a Jigsaw puzzle?

Bousman, who helmed the second and third installment of the series, was reportedly ready to turn down directing this film but the end twist really grabbed his attention. He brings to the table a solid understanding of who Jigsaw is and what the man is all about.

Which makes this movie all the more mystifying. Throughout the series to date, Jigsaw was about having people confront their own sins but there is much less of that here. We do get much more of Jigsaw’s backstory – what drove him to psychosis (the death of his unborn son at the hands of a junkie, leading to his wife divorcing him) and what kept him there.

Still, the series is written into a corner. With its most iconic and compelling character dead and available only in flashbacks, what we are left with are the lethal traps and while they are fun and interesting, they aren’t enough to carry a movie. For the most part, you know that nobody is going to escape – why would any competent Hollywood horror director give you that kind of building only to have nothing happen – and after awhile it becomes just torture porn. I don’t have a problem with that per se, but I’m finding myself getting more and more jaded when it comes to the genre.

That isn’t to say the movie is without its merits. The traps are clever and Jigsaw’s backstory does help fill in the blanks. The next movie in the cycle is set up nicely and while we know the series ended with a total of seven films in it (although I wouldn’t be surprised if the series got resurrected in a few years), the fourth one gave the series enough impetus to continue on course for awhile, both creatively and at the box office. This isn’t the best film in the series, but it isn’t the worst either – it’s just a solid horror movie to liven up your next Halloween.

WHY RENT THIS: If you like the first three films, you’re gonna adore this – much the same as the other three with a nice twist here and there.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: There really isn’t much here you won’t find in the first three movies. There’s only so many ways to be shocking. The plot is a bit convoluted and you’re going to have a hard time if you haven’t seen the first three films, particularly Saw III.

FAMILY VALUES: Ummm, its Saw IV…just what kind of family values are you expecting exactly?

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first film in the series not to be written or co-written by franchise creator Leigh Whannell.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a music video and a video diary from director Bousman that’s pretty amusing.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $139.4M on a $10M production budget (unconfirmed); the movie was a blockbuster.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Letters to Juliet

The Miracle Match (The Game of Their Lives)


The Miracle Match

Zachery Bryan and Wes Bentley are chagrinned to discover that nobody wants to see a movie about soccer.

(2005) True Life Sports (IFC) Gerard Butler, Wes Bentley, Patrick Stewart, John Rhys-Davies, Jay Rodan, Costas Mandylor, Louis Mandylor, Zachery Bryan, Jimmy Jean-Louis, Gavin Rossdale, Terry Kinney, Craig Hawksley, Nelson Vargas, Richard Jenik. Directed by David Anspaugh

The most popular sport in the world is what we call soccer and every other civilized nation on the globe calls football. For some reason, it just doesn’t resonate with the American psyche and for the most part, the popularity of soccer in this country has resided in the immigrant communities, particularly European and Latin American immigrants who grew up with the game in their blood.

In 1950, soccer barely registered at all to the American public but in St. Louis – particularly in the Italian enclave known as “The Hill” – it was more than a passion, it was a pastime. There were many who felt that the best soccer in the nation was being played there, especially to St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Dent McSkimming (Kinney) who covered the soccer beat for the paper. When the U.S. wangled their way into the World Cup (back then, it didn’t have the long and involved qualifying tournament), most Americans reacted with a “what’s that?” – if they reacted at all. However, McSkimming and some of the St. Louis soccer players were excited when Walter Geisling (Hawksley), one of the great promoters of soccer in this country during that era, came to town to announce try-outs for America’s first World Cup team. 

Because it had been pulled together at the last minute, the team would have little time to develop. Laconic coach Bill Jeffrey (Rhys-Davies) has two completely separate schools of play to choose from; the extremely disciplined style of the East Coast, led by Walter Bahr (Bentley) and the freewheeling style of the St. Louis Italian clubs, whose best player is goalie Frank Borghi (Butler). Somehow, the players had to figure out a way to blend their styles into something new, something stronger if they had a chance of competing. Winning a game? Not possible. They would be going up against national teams that had lived together and played together for months, with the best players in the world playing on them. When they went to Brazil, the team was hoping merely not to embarrass themselves.

As luck would have it, they were scheduled to play against the English team, the clear favorites to win the cup and a team led by the greatest player of the time, Stanley Mortensen (Rossdale). They would have to play the game of their lives to pull off the greatest upset in World Cup history, but somehow, you know what the outcome will be.

This movie was released initially as The Game of Their Lives  but when Disney released this on home video, they changed the title to The Miracle Match, possibly to distance themselves from the disastrous theatrical box office numbers. American soccer continues to be in its adolescent stages, but the American sports movie certainly has a bit more maturity to it. Ultimate underdog movies like this have been done before, in Miracle and Hoosiers (which Anspaugh also directed). One of the problems I have with a sports movie like this is that you have to get invested in the players and their off-field dramas in order to gain that rooting interest. Sadly, that never happens here. These are a bunch of cardboard cutout character types that are so blandly played that you can barely tell one from the other. Butler and Bentley gamely try their best, but they are ultimately submarined by a sub-par script. For example, the man who coaches the team, Bill Jeffrey, comes off as someone who essentially just shows up at the games. He has no insight into the game that we’re privvy to, and never seems to make any decisions regarding the team – the players do that. 

Just as bad, the soccer sequences are uniformly bad. It’s obvious the actors can’t play the game very well, and the Bend It Like Beckham sequences – which are performed by adolescent girls – come off far more realistically. While Anspaugh captures the era nicely, in the end, this is an emotionless movie that does not do well by a group of men who deserve better for one of the crowning achievements in all of sports history.

WHY RENT THIS: Captures a little known moment in U.S. Soccer history. Bentley and Butler do fine jobs in their roles.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lack of character depth and the feeling of “Haven’t we seen this before” pervades the entire film. Soccer sequences are atrocious.

FAMILY VALUES: Some mild language and thematic issues.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: In the scene of Gino and Janet’s wedding reception, the guests are played by members of the St. Louis contingent of the team, their children and grandchildren.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $388,998 on a $20m production budget; the film was a major flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Unknown

New Releases for the Week of October 29, 2010


October 29, 2010
In Saw 3D the traps just grow more alluring.

SAW 3D

(Lionsgate) Tobin Bell, Cary Elwes, Costas Mandylor, Betsy Russell, Sean Patrick Flannery, Dean Armstrong, Tanedra Howard, Gabrielle D. West. Directed by Kevin Greutert

With Jigsaw finally laid to rest, a struggle breaks out over his legacy. A group of survivors of his fiendish traps gather to seek the support of a self-help guru who himself is a survivor of Jigsaw’s machinations, only to discover that the therapist has a dark agenda of his own that threatens to bring Jigsaw’s work to a massive culmination. State of the art technology was used to film this, the final film in the series and the first (and apparently, only) one to be featured in 3D.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: 3D

Genre: Horror/Torture Porn

Rating: R (for scenes of grisly bloody violence and torture, and language)

Conviction

(Fox Searchlight) Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo. The amazing true story of Betty Ann Waters, who determined to see her brother freed after being unjustly convicted of murder. Despairing that she could not find a lawyer to adequately represent him, she got her GED, graduated college, got a law degree and passed the bar in order to take on his case and get him the fair trial he never received.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: True-Life Drama

Rating: R (for language and some violent images)

Nowhere Boy

(Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff. Before he was a Beatle, John Lennon was a troubled kid living on the mean streets of Liverpool, being raised by his aunt. This is an account of his adolescence that would influence the man he would become, a man who would change the world through his music.

See the trailer, interviews and clips here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Biopic

Rating: R (for language and a scene of sexuality)