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Review: “Beowulf” (2007)

BeowulfViewers, leave your preconceived notions at the door: This isn’t your eighth-grade English lit teacher’s “Beowulf.” No, this “Beowulf,” a CGI-coated, action-packed visual spectacle of a film directed by Robert Zemeckis, has a wicked, sly sense of humor that surprises you. In fact, the double entendre-laden dialogue, the expertly-choreographed battle scenes and the over-the-top characters all feel like something straight out of a Monty Python film. Think of “Beowulf” as “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the CGI generation.

The film, of course, is based upon the Old English epic poem “Beowulf,” a distant, unpleasant memory for some (excluding yours truly, former English major). Set about 700 A.D., the film, like the poem, opens on the eighth-century Danish kingdom of aged King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), who has called his warriors to the mead hall for a celebration. All the mead-soaked merrymaking comes to an abrupt halt when hideous, shrieking monster Grendel (the ever-creepy Crispin Glover) starts snacking on the king’s guests. Hrothgar then issues a call for heroes to kill Grendel.Enter Beowulf (Ray Winstone, whose booming voice could — and probably has — incited on-the-spot battle cries), a valiant, boastful warrior from Geatland (part of Sweden), and what can accurately be described as his traveling “entourage” of coarse, mannerless warriors. The famed Geat accepts Hrothgar’s challenge as much for the reward as a chance to bed his lovely queen (Robin Wright Penn) and sets off a chain reaction of events that does not, at various turns, follow the legend.

But enough about the plot. The fun of “Beowulf” hides in the unexpected ways the plot unfolds. For starters, there’s the director’s decision to use “photorealistic animation,” which means the characters resemble real-life actors. It’s certainly a bold choice, since that animation style can look downright freaky and sometimes downright soulless and scary (“Polar Express,” anyone?). Here it’s been tweaked and improved to the point where the characters’ appearances are almost spot-on. Their expressions and eyes still aren’t quite there, still lack the spark of life that suggests humanity, but it’s close enough. (It’s even possible to see the faintest traces of Glover’s unusual features behind his Grendel getup, and Angelina Jolie is clearly recognizable as Grendel’s seductive mother.) And the animation, no doubt, injects “Beowulf” with the same kind of enchanting surrealism that’s made the film’s literary inspiration a perennial favorite on high school and college reading lists.

There’s another surprise in “Beowulf”: The film or, more accurately, the director has a biting sense of humor. (And this reviewer chooses to believe the laughs are intentional, not accidental.) Entire scenes are played for comic, satirical effect, and there are too many allusions to the Python troupe to be accidental. Consider the fight scene between Grendel and Beowulf, which should win some sort of award for Best Choreography or Best Use of Props to Conceal Exposed Private Parts. The reason? Beowulf is entirely naked, but every move, every prop is designed to prevent the audience from seeing what can’t be shown. Half the fun is figuring out what “cover” will be used next. The whole thing would be right at home in a Python sketch.

The characters’ speeches, too, are unexpectedly comical. Observe the scene where Beowulf and his right-hand warrior Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson) debate who will enter Grendel’s cave first. When Beowulf loses his arm in battle, his response recalls that of the Black Knight in “Holy Grail” (remember the “your arm’s off” exchange?). The humor makes “Beowulf” a rather surprising film, one that will make Old English lit scholars no doubt howl with displeasure. But see it with an open mind and it’s a thrilling, visually stunning experience you won’t soon forget.

Grade: B-

Pacing, performances hit hard in Eastwood’s “Changeling”

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Angelina Jolie confronts a corrupt LAPD captain (Jeffrey Donovan) in "Changeling."

It’s a filmmaker’s neverending dilemma: how to distill a decades-spanning true story into a movie that’s a) short enough to keep viewers’ attention and b) long enough to do its characters’ real-life counterparts justice. Look to “Changeling” for the answer. The haunting, unnervingly tense thriller — file these adjectives under “use for any/all Clint Eastwood movies” — clocks in at 160 minutes but seems much shorter, thanks to careful pacing and measured performances.

Topping that list of said performances is Jolie’s impressively restrained but effective turn as Christine Collins, a single mother mired deep into every parent’s elemental fear: the unexplained disappearance of a child. Though Jolie is an Eastwood newcomer, she’s a natural (Dirty Harry, after all, tends to pick actors known more for restraint than over-the-top fits of hysteria). She hits every one of the cycles of grief but never once “acts” like a grieving mother; she is one.

The cause for that grief is the too-horrible-to-be-fake story of Collins, who returns home from a Saturday shift in 1928 to discover her son Walter (Gattlin Griffith) missing. The smug LAPD captain she calls (Jeffrey Donovan sporting an indecipherable accent) could care less about a missing child — until radio broadcast preacher Gustav Briegleb (an impressive Malkovich) takes up her cause. Then Capt. Jones happens upon a homeless lad (Arthur Hutchins) and sees an opp for good publicity. So he dumps in Collins’ lap while insisting — to the media and a horrified Collins — that it’s Walter. The mistake leads to a department-wide coverup, particularly when cops pick up fast-talking drifter Gordon Northcott (a skin-crawlingly creepy Jason Butler Harner) for butchering 20 children.

This begs many questions. Was Walter his victim? Did he die, dirty and frightened, inside a chicken coop like so many others? Or did he escape to freedom and remain hidden out of fear? I will not answer these questions, and neither does Eastwood. Ever the shrewd, careful director, he doesn’t force an ending that never existed for the sake of “drama.” (Expect Hollywood’s version of closure and you’re sure to be disappointed.) Instead, he hones his focus on the intersecting stories of Collins and Northcott. Better still, he paces “Changeling” to mirror the unfolding of these stories: things come to pass slowly and then all at once. Yes, as the film winds to a close, one story steamrolls right into the other; it’s impossible to separate them, and so Eastwood doesn’t. It’s a wise choice, since Jolie and Harner do great work.

In fact, it’s Harner who commands much of the screen in the film’s third act. He’s an actor who’s made no name for himself in TV roles and movie bit parts; not anymore. This is the kind of performance that ought to merit critical praise but, sadly, probably won’t (Jolie’s got better bone structure, you see, and her lips look better coated in ruby-red lipstick). He ratchets up the creepiness factor by playing down the malice; his Northcott is more slimy sycophant than slice-and-dice killer. He smooths his hair, lobs a clever remark to mobs of reporters, even flirts with Collins at his trial. Too bad Ted Bundy’s a 20th-century killer; he could have learned a thing or too from Harner. He’s that good.

Other players, too, make “Changeling” feel more real, less maudlin. Note the work of Amy Ryan as a smart-mouthed and street-smart prostitute with more than a few skeletons in her closet. Here’s to hoping she never becomes a leading lady; it will ruin her for tarnished, character-rich parts like this. And kudos to Malkovich, who goes against type as a reverend who’s neither preachy nor weepy. He’s a quiet man, indeed, but one with a mission he refuses to compromise.

Which, of course, could be said of Eastwood: He’s a director on a mission, and that mission is to tell this true story with as little pretense — and no bells or whistles or unnecessary hysterical crying jags — as possible. Mission accomplished.

Grade: B+