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Beowulf (2007)

Taking note of director Robert Zemeckis’ new motion-captured animated version of Beowulf, I began to wonder what other classic works of literature could use a good CGI sprucing up. Dusty old tomes would have greater relevancy to the youth of today if they were coated in animation and presented in a 3-D format. Just think of the works of Jane Austin with a flying, zooming camera and the aristocratic families repeatedly jutting marriage contracts toward an audience. This might be the only way to make The Great Gatsby tolerable.

The 1000-year old story begins in the dining hall for King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins). Their loud and drunken reverie is interrupted by the monstrous creature Grendel (Crispin Glover). The creatures rips men apart, lays waste to the hall, and munches on a few heads for the long journey back to his cave. The King offers a reward for anyone who can slay the monster and bring peace to the Danish lands. Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone), a determined warrior and competitor who seeks eternal glory. He brags that he will kill their monster and then kill Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie) next. However, the slinky lass offers a tempting promise that she can make Beowulf the greatest story in all the world.

This is not the same Beowulf you were forced to read in high school English. I confess never having read the 3,183-line ye olde English poem, but I don’t think it had scenes of burping, public urination, a “coming” sexual joke, and some unexpected man-on-monster action (not the kind you’d readily think). This is a bloody and often exhilarating retelling intent on jazzing up a classic work for a younger generation. The action sequences have tremendous scope and can be relentless, and when witnessed in 3-D they are even more immersive and breathtaking. Stepping aside from the thrills and chills, Beowulf also works as a cautionary tale about the dangers of lust and particularly pride. Beowulf is a boastful and arrogant fellow, enough that he chooses to fight Grendel in the buff so that it will be even more challenging and thus ego stroking (as they battle, objects conveniently obscure the audience from seeing Beowulf’s manhood). The main deviation from the poem, connecting the various characters on a much more personal level, works with he context of the story and the overarching theme about the costs of vanity.

I encourage all potential Beowulf ticket-buyers to seek out where their nearest 3-D screening resides and to plan and, if needed, carpool to that theater immediately. This thing is meant to be seen in three dimensions, and in that environment Beowulf is amazing to behold. This is my first encounter with the next generation of 3-D and it is a giant leap beyond the funny glasses with blue and red lenses. Hollywood has hopes that this technology will be the next great invention that drives people to the movies and turn it into a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in the quiet privacy of your own home. I must say I was thoroughly impressed with how immersive the process becomes. Beware, though, because of the deep focus your eyes will dart around the screen resting from object to object, marveling at the different planes of depth; you may feel some strain and a headache after awhile. Objects keep sneaking into your peripheral vision and the movie takes many opportunities to hurl things at the screen, and thus the audience, be they coins, swords, arrows, limbs, heads, pots, and blood splatters. The CGI animation coupled with the 3-D technology makes for a compulsively stunning first-rate spectacle.

The visual look is a great step forward from 2004’s The Polar Express, the first time Zemeckis used his newfangled motion-capture toys. I really disliked the look of Polar Express, and the kids and their dead, glassy eyes creeped me the hell out. I’m still not entirely sold on what motion-capture even brings to the world of animation; to me, it seems like animators can dictate movement just as well as copying from an actor. Where the animators do make strides is in their depictions of real people. It’s not photo-realism, in fact sometimes the characters look like plastic dolls, but you can see all the pores in the skin and follicles of hair in bristling detail. The look of the movie reminded me a lot of the video game God of War, especially when Beowulf is slicing and dicing one-eyed sea monsters. I think that’s a pretty fair assessment ultimately, that the film better resembled a slickly produced video game cut scene than reality.

In the end credits, I noticed that someone is specifically singled out and credited for the design of Grendel’s mother. I’m all for credit where it’s due, but Grendel’s mother was simply designed as Angelina Jolie with a tail coming out of her head. The character design looks remarkably like its big name actress and she struts around mostly naked, though her body drips with a melting gold finish that stops the nudity from having any real definition (it’s kind of like she’s in a melty candy shell). This may be enough for frisky moviegoers that must have missed out on the other movies Jolie bares her flesh for, or perhaps the head-tail fetish folk will finally have their day. It makes a lot of sense for Zemeckis to choose Jolie for the seductress role. It seems that mortal men just can’t help themselves around her and they end up doing the nasty, which produces little nasty creatures. If there were anyone in today’s world that could make men weak with overwhelming lust, it would be Jolie. Just ask Brad Pitt.

The character work on Grendel, however, is fascinating and startlingly grotesque. He resembles a cross between Frankenstein, Dobby the elf, and a coffee pot, all covered in rotting, patchy skin. The amount of detail is amazing and simultaneously stomach-churning. Glover offers a magnificently eccentric frame to build from. Grendel comes across less like a monster and more like a misunderstood wretch that just wants some peace and quiet by any means necessary. The screenplay gives Grendel some deeper backstory and a motivation for his murderous rampages (the poor guy is hyper sensitive to music, which blares in his head and causes agony).

Beowulf does have some slow moments and a noticeable lag in the middle before it sets up a climactic dragon battle. I was actually starting to nod off somewhere along the middle. The screenplay, adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, squanders a load of underwritten characters, like a queen, a young concubine, and a religious advisor that asks if they should also pray to this new Roman God, Jesus something or other. Zemeckis is too enamored with the 3-D technology at his fingertips and clutters his screen too often to play around with the depth of field. I cannot fathom how this movie would play out in a regular 2-D environment, but needless to say, I’m sure the constant barrage of things pointing at the screen would get old quick.

Beowulf is a rousing and thrilling experience when seen in its intended 3-D format, otherwise it might get a tad tiresome and the visuals would come across as less accomplished. Zemeckis is getting better acquainted with the limitless freedom his motion-capture technology afford him and his imagination, however, I mourn the loss of Zemeckis ever directing another live-action film again. He seems to be completely taken with his technology and while it will improve with age I just wish the man who gave me so many wonderful movies like Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would just go back to basics.

Nate’s Grade: Movie itself: B
3-D presentation of film: A-

Silent Hill (2006)

Video games will never be translated into a good movie. There, I said it. I caught some grief before by this opinion. Think about it. Unlike say comic books, video games are dependent on user interactivity, on game involvement, and not necessarily story or character. A video game requires an audience to be interactive, whereas movies require an audience to be passive, letting a story envelope around them and take them some place. Video games just aren’t structured in a way that lends itself to storytelling. Just look at some recent results: House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Doom, Bloodrayne, Double Dragon (remember that movie?), Mortal Kombat 1 & 2, Street Fighter, etc. Granted three of those are Uwe Boll films, but what does it say when the best video game adaptation yet was Super Mario Brothers?

Now comes Silent Hill based on the very popular horror video game series. The screenplay is written by Roger Avary, who used to be Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner and wrote and directed one of my all-time guilty pleasures 2002’s Rules of Attraction. I guess I foolishly expected more, but with Silent Hill what I got was further fuel to my theory that no video game will make a good movie.

Rose (Radha Mitchell) and her husband Christopher (Sean Bean) are very troubled about their adopted girl, Sharon (Jodelle Ferland). She has the habit of sleepwalking and uttering “Silent Hill” repeatedly. So what’s a 21st century mother to do? Look up Silent Hill online, put her tyke in the car, and drive to the ghost town herself, much to the dismay of her husband left behind. It seems that Silent Hill was a town in West Virginia that had a horrible coal mining accident in the early 70s, killing many and condemning the town. We’re told the fires are still burning underground to this day. Along the way, a roadside motorcycle cop (Laurie Holden) gets suspicious of Rose and chases her. They crash their vehicles along the road and wake up to falling ash. Rose’s daughter is missing and she looks inside the nearby Silent Hill, a presumably deserted town. Then there are routine air sirens warning of an approaching darkness. The world changes form and nasty creatures come to life, like disjointed bodies, charcoal-skinned children, and malevolent evil spirits. It’s about here where I’d just say, “Oh well. I can adopt again.”

The movie is paced and structured like a video game, which means it’s just as tedious to sit through. The first two acts of Silent Hill center on Rose going from Point A to Point B, finding clue that leads her to a new point, and repeating this tiresome exercise. There?s a scene where there’s a giant hole in the floor and Rose has to navigate across scattered beams to get to the other side. It’s portrayed exactly like a video game level, as are most of her encounters. Worst of all, the movie follows a code of logic that dares to only exist in video games. Why does Rose instinctively know she needs to reach inside the mouth of a corpse to find a sign? How does she know a hidden room lay behind a portrait? Why does Rose know that light attracts the “Thriller” dance team/nurses with potato sacks on their heads? How come the evil presence that basically created this limbo world of the undead cannot penetrate a church? The plot is mostly incoherent and intentionally surreal, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that the story is just plain awful.

Silent Hill completely collapses once the third act begins. It was plodding up until that point, but now the film becomes downright ridiculous and painful. We’re amongst a crazy group of fundamentalist witch burners that, for whatever reason, dress in hazmat suits to venture outside their grounds. It’s at this point that the surreal nature stops and we find the answer to our questions: another vengeful spirit from beyond the grave. Ho hum. The protracted climax goes overboard and practically rapes the stellar ending of Carrie. Also, Silent Hill expects its Big Reveal to be shocking or surprising, but it cannot be anything except redundant because the film spelled it out an hour ago.

The dialogue is howl-inducing. There’s a moment that Rose says, “Don’t worry honey, everything’s going to be okay. You’re going to be alright.” And this immediately precedes the little girl watching the religious cult burn someone’s face off. There’s another moment, more than an hour in, where Rose says, “Something bad happened here.” You think? All of the dialogue can be fitted into two categories: either expository or instructional. It’s like to be true to a video game they also decided to lift the terrible dialogue as well. The plot meanders for the longest time, allowing Rose to visit place to place, and then Avary decides to bludgeon his audience with a 5-minute chunk of exposition meant to clarify everything up to that point.

The acting is pretty bad. Mitchell gives a valiant effort and has a nice scream, but she can’t escape the dead weight of the dialogue and total lack of characterization. Bean is entirely wasted and his “American” accent seems to waver quite a bit for such short screen time. Holden is more a fetish figure fantasy than a character, evidenced by her tight leather pants being the first thing we ever see of her. Still, it’s somewhat interesting seeing the romantic lead from 2001’s The Majestic kickin’ some unholy ass. It’s hard to say if any actors of any caliber could have redeemed the film, but this collection of thespians doesn’t even try to put a polish on the dialogue. You can tell because the howler lines are still howlers.

Lest I forget, this thing is OVER two hours long. There’s no reason Silent Hill should even be teetering over 100 minutes, especially for a film as sparsely plotted as this one, that is, before Avary’s exposition head rush. I don’t know why the filmmakers included the pointless subplot involving Christopher on the search for his wife. The subplot adds no deeper insight, affords no opportunity to help shape the plot, and only serves to whisk the audience out of the moment and remind them how pointless Silent Hill is quickly becoming. And is it ever pointless.

Director Christophe Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf) has a great taste for visuals, Silent Hill‘s only positive marks. Some of the images in this movie are truly horrifying and have, reluctantly, stuck in my head days afterwards. The Pyramid Head man, with a 20-foot sword, makes little sense but is a jarring and memorable image. When those loud sirens sound there is a slight amount of dread, but really it’s more of a morbid curiosity at what kind of hellish transportation will happen next. The excellent production design and cinematography also contribute to the film’s eerie, striking, sometimes suffocating atmosphere. But, alas, an interesting visual palate cannot save a slow, dimwitted, inane movie. Otherwise What Dreams May Come may have worked. But it didn’t.

Silent Hill is pointless, plodding, incoherent, far too long and far too boring. The bad dialogue, acting, and plot don’t seem to help matters either. Gans creates a moody atmosphere with some powerfully nightmarish imagery, but that’s the only thing Silent Hill has going for it. Whether it be a man with a Pyramid for his head ripping the flesh off someone like a coat or a little demonic girl dancing in a literal blood shower, Silent Hill has its small potent visual moments. However, these small moments of visual potency cannot make up for the giant black hole of suck. This movie is simply dreadful and designed too faithfully as a video game adaptation, which means the same gaps in logic and pacing are present. I certainly expected better from Avary. I told my friend Dan that I was embarrassed we’d forever know we saw Silent Hill on its opening night, so much so that I bought him food after the show to make up for dragging him along. This is the first movie I’ve ever attended where I heard booing afterwards from my audience. I would have joined them but I was too busy getting out of the theater as soon as the end credits rolled.

Nate’s Grade: D

The Rules of Attraction (2002)

The Rules of Attraction is based on Bret Easton Ellis’ hedonistic 80s novel about boozing coked-out, aloof teenagers and their rampant debauchery. Roger Avary was Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner for years, with an Oscar sitting at home for co-writing Pulp Fiction. As a director Avary lays the visual gloss on thick utilizing camera tricks like split-screens and having entire sequences run backwards. While Ellis’ source material is rather empty, echoing the collegiate friendships bonded over substances or social lubricants, Avary does his best to represent the dazed world of college. Not the Tara Reid-integrated college of Van Wilder mind you.

We open with Lauren (Shannyn Sossamon) getting coldly deflowered by some drunk “townie” while the film buff she had her eyes on videotapes it. She’s just broken up with the bisexual and apathetic Paul (Ian Somerhalder), and both are interested in the dealing sociopath Sean Bateman (James Van Der Beek), a self-described emotional vampire. Lauren keeps a picture book of venereal diseases to ward her from her wayward sexual urges. Her roommate Lara (Jessica Biel) needs no such book. Our introduction of Lara has her dancing down a hall, liquor bottle in each fist, bedding an entire sports team. Some attractions connect, many don’t. But the fun is watching the characters interact in their own seedy, yet often hilarious ways.

The best thing that The Rules of Attraction has going for it is its about-face, against-type casting. The film is populated with the WB’s lineup of clear-skinned goody-two-shoes getting a chance to cut loose. Van Der Beek broods like a predatory hawk and bursts with spontaneous rage. Biel sexes it up as a cocaine-addicted harlot who asks if she’s “anorexic skinny” or “bulimic skinny.” Even Fred-Wonder-Years-Savage shows up briefly to shoot up between his toes! We’re along way from the creek, Dawson Leary.

The adults of this world are no better than the kids. Eric Stoltz has an extended cameo of a duplicitous professor offering a higher GPA if any coeds are willing to go down on their morals. Swoosie Kurtz and Faye Dunaway show us that pill-popping ditherheads may likely breed drug-addled teenagers.

Attraction may have the most disturbing suicide I’ve ever witnessed in film. After having her advances rejected a woman slips into the bathtub, razor in hand. The scene is as unsettling as it is because the camera hangs on the poor woman’s face every second and we gradually see the life spill out of her as the music becomes distorted, not letting us escape the discomfort.

Some of Avary’s surface artifice works perfectly, like Victor’s whirlwind account of an entire semester in Europe. Some of the visual fireworks are distractions to the three-person narrative but the film is always alive with energy, even when it’s depressing you. What The Rules of Attraction does get right is the irrational nature of attraction. Each character is trying to fill an inaccessible void with what they think is love but will often settle for sex, drugs, or both.

The Rules of Attraction is made up of unlikable, miserable characters that effectively do nothing but find new ways to be miserable. It constantly straddles the line of exploitation and excess but maintains its footing. The movie is entirely vapid but it is indeed an indulgently fun yet depraved ride. If you’re looking for degeneracy instead of life affirmation, then The Rules of Attraction is your ticket.

Nate’s Grade: B

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