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Monday, November 19, 2007

Beowulf

Who’d have thunk it? The best movie of the Fall is based on a sixteen hundred year old poem! That’s like discovering that the now-on-display body of King Tutankhamen is actually Joan Rivers’ illegitimate son. It’s not unbelievable, but it’s just a surprise. I always thought he looked more like Joan Collins sans moisturizer. As for Beowulf, well, I’m just amazed it ever got made, but I’m sure glad it did.

When I was in college, my first husband, the Anti-Christ, and I were two of only a handful of nerds who were willing to take Old English, which was a class devoted almost entirely to individual, and then shared, translations of the epic poem Beowulf from its’ original text to modern English. Easier said than done, trust me.

Despite my naiveté, I swiftly learned that Old English, the language of Beowulf, was not like Shakespearean English, with a lot of “thee”s and “thou”s thrown about, My Liege. If only. Old English sounded more like when my constipated Uncle Harold came to visit and spent a good hour-and-a-half grunting out a gift for the porcelain god right across the hall from the dining room just as the family was settling in for second helpings at our Thanksgiving feast. Worse yet, the sentence structure of Old English seemed to be akin to a word version of “Pick-Up Sticks.” Nouns and verbs were as random as Britney’s use of underpants. The truth is, I was only in the class because I was young and foolishly in love. Even though the Anti-Christ was really into the whole thing, I was just there because I was really into his whole thing. Thank God I eventually grew a brain, but in the meantime, I filled my empty head with bad choices in love and way more information about this ancient tale than even I realized.


So when I first heard that Hollywood was making my favorite Viking (sorry, Leif) into a film I thought someone at the studio must have snorted a white line bigger than anything you’d find in the middle of traffic because this saga had been around forever and it was about as in demand as nude photos of Richard Simmons slathered in peanut sauce. Amazingly enough though, Stardust novelist Neal Gaiman and Silent Hill screenwriter Roger Avary were in partnership with veteran director and producer Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express), which meant there was considerable muscle involved. The question, though, was would audiences care?

Apparently so. As I write this I have just checked the weekend grosses and it looks like there are either a lot more Old English nerds out there or American audiences in general have been
chomping at the bit for something new because Beowulf is number one at the box office. Please don’t let it be because people are dumb enough to think it is a remake of Jack Nicholson’s old stinker Wolf starring Scott Baio. Hey, you never know. After all, this is the same country that kept “Happy Days” on the air for ten years. Ten! Anyway, I’m thrilled because this movie rocks!

Zemeckis, who first merged live action actors with animation way back in 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, takes a cue from last year’s 300 to create a magnificent new world for his actors as they become part of the animation process themselves in a startling yet effective way. And Zemeckis has assembled one heck of a cast.
It’s almost astonishing to believe Zemeckis could coax the caliber of actors he did to “cartoon up” but leading the call is Anthony Hopkins (Fracture) as King Hrothgar, of the seemingly cursed Danish kingdom plagued by a grotesque man-eating monster called Grendel (Crispin Glover; Epic Movie).

Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone; The Departed), a Thane hero who comes from across the sea with his band of men to answer Hrothgar’s far-flung call for help in slaying the beast. Despite initial skepticism from the King’s spiritual advisor Unferth (John Malkovich; Eragon), but with earnest interest from the Queen, Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn; Hounddog), Beowulf dispatches the critter fairly easily and soon becomes King himself, thanks to Hrothgar’s decision to pass his crown on to the brave warrior.

Like his predecessor, however,
Beowulf soon holds a secret. After he killed Grendel, he went in search of the beast’s mother, and he quickly found her, but she was not at all the dragon or monster he had expected. Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie; The Good Shepherd) was a beautiful seductress and she had her way with him as she had with Hrothgar. Now, really, who wouldn’t give it up to Angelina Jolie, even a semi-animated version? If the truth be told, if Jennifer Aniston got her hands on Ang before Brad Pitt, that marriage would have a whole different “L Word” kind of ending, you know? Anyway, just to add to the soap opera element of it all, Grendel, of course, was Hrothgar’s misshapen son, the product of his dangerous liaison with Grendel’s Mother, and apparently the only form of birth control Ms. Dragon/Shapeshifter practiced involved her having possession of a gold “dragon caller”, which Beowulf gladly surrenders so he won’t end up with his own Gollum child.

This being a film with Vikings, dragons (well, one-and-a-half anyway), and a bunch of over-meaded
warriors, blood will be shed. It’s not 300 levels of gore, but there’s plenty of bone-crunching action, eye-popping (literally) effects and a multi-layered story that does not waste a second of its time on filler. The actors are uniformly top-notch and the fact that the writers even went so far as to have Grendel speak to his mother in his native old English in parts adds so much to the atmosphere of the piece. If you don’t happen to understand Old English, then his rambling will probably sound like lisping agony, but for aficionados of the long-dead tongue, it is a heart-wrenching reminder of a time long lost.

Gaiman and Avary do a terrific job with what could be awkward dialogue, but, more importantly, they manage to take Grendel, who history has turned into a savage blood-thirsty animal and change him back into a sad and tragic figure. Glover’s voice work is more obviously impressive than any other actor’s as his face is completely obscured by a visage that looks nothing like the artist, so he has to infer by voice alone the suffering, loneliness, anguish, and shame that fuels his rage at the villagers who see him as nothing more than a monster.

By the end of the movie’s 113 minutes, I found myself already grieving that the story was coming to an end. It cried out for a sequel even though I knew that none was ever written, at least not by the original author. If it had, I’m sure the Anti-Christ would surely have told me about it way back when, probably reciting it to me by memory as he had me pop the zits on his back. Damn, young love is a romantic and beautiful thing. I think if I had it to do over again, I'd take my chances with Grendel.

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