Tuesday, November 13, 2007

BEOWULF: A Seat-Gripping Ride

BEOWULF (fantasy adventure)
Cast: Ray Winstone, Crispin Glover, Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie and John Malkovich
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Time: 115 mins
Rating: * * * ½ (out of 4)

(Pic: Winstone & Hopkins)
There is no doubt in my mind that “Beowulf” is going to rock moviegoers the way “300” and “Transformers” did recently. Director Robert Zemeckis not only combines his performance-capture techniques with the latest computer technology to turn the AD 700-era poem into a vibrant, seat-gripping piece of pop culture, he also manages to make sense of the legend of "Beowulf."

Those who had struggled with the poem, written in quaint ‘Old English’, would know how difficult it was to read, let alone understand, its Scandinavia-based story about kings, trolls and dragons. Even scholars could not comprehend the connections among its characters, dragons and damsels. Here, however, screen-writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary ‘connect the literary dots’ and come up with their own ‘translation’ of the tale. In this version, we get an intriguing look at the hero as a flawed human being, and delve into a story about how the sins of the father return to haunt him...

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? Beowulf (Ray Winstone) is a young warrior who emerges from a raging storm in a Viking ship to come to the rescue of Danish King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) and his beautiful queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn). Hrothgar’s court is being terrorised by a monster named Grendel (voice of Crispin Glover) who often gatecrashes their drinking parties and kills the revellers. Beowulf promises to get rid of Grendel – and he does that in the most eye-popping way: fighting the Gollum-like monster stark naked! (Yes, while sequences like this would have been censored in live-action, they can get away with it in computer graphics imagery or CGI).

The death of Grendel incurs the wrath of Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) who, after wreaking revenge on Beowulf’s men, entices our hero to her watery den where he sexually seduces him and promises him untold power and wealth. Years later, when Beowulf is an aging king, a dragon arrives to terrorise his kingdom. Now, can Beowulf play the hero again and save his people?

HITS & MISSES: One of the problems of Zemeckis’ ‘performance-capture’ device is that the facial expressions of the actors cannot be properly rendered. However, there is a neat trade-off in that the characters can be reshaped and resized to suit the action and the story. Grendel’s grotesque features, for instance, are possible because of CGI. However, the most significant ‘benefit’ is that we get to see Jolie prancing around semi-nude and with feet shaped like high-heeled stilettos. Also, the battle sequences between Beowulf and the flying dragon are so realistic and spectacular that they take our breath away.

Zemeckis offers a fine balance between style and substance (or form and function) – and even throws dollops of scandal and humour into the fray. In an encounter between the cynical courtier Unferth (John Malkovich) and Beowulf, our hero taunts Unferth with “I heard you killed your brothers because you saw them gaining knowledge of your mother!” – suggesting that he has done his ‘homework’ among the gossip-mongering circles of the Middle Ages!

And if you ever need traces of “Beowulf” to take home with you, there is the beautiful ballad called ‘A Hero Comes Home’ (written by Alanis Morrisette’s former songwriter Glen Ballard) at the closing credits. The song was sung earlier in the movie by Robin Wright.

THE LOWDOWN: Word of mouth is sure gonna propel this movie. Zemeckis has also made “Beowulf” in Imax 3D – providing another excuse to watch the movie again.


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