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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-

No. 6: “The Princess Bride” (1987)

“She is alive, or was an hour ago. If she is otherwise when I find her I shall be very put out.” ~~Prince Humperdinck

Giants and monsters and evil wayward kings, sword fights, gallant gentlmen on noble steeds, lovely damsels awaiting rescue, perfectly magical kisses and the prospect of love everlasting — it’s enough to put a person’s gag reflex to the ultimate test. But let not your esophagus revolt and your stomach turn, for “The Princess Bride” is not that sort of fairy tale. Not in the least. Oh, sure, Rob Reiner’s absurdly clever film about the courtship of Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright Penn) and lowly stablehand Westley (Cary Elwes) contains all these expected elements. But every single one of them gets a little tweak, a shot of sly wit that blasts off the dust and cobwebs of yore and makes “The Princess Bride” the kind of feisty creation that feels fresher and funnier with every viewing. 

So how, exactly, does this “Extreme Makeover: Fairy Tale Edition” play out? How can it enrapture and intrigue us in ways that don’t feel like a quirky rehash of “Cinderella”? For starters, there are the characters, who fill the standard roles but refuse to play to type. Princess Buttercup, though lovelorn, isn’t quite the garden-variety lady-in-distress. She’s got a mouth on her, a temper and a brain too — and she’s not shy about using them all. Westley’s neither a boorish Healthcliff nor a mindless Prince Charming. He’s more apt to shred his foes with “you warhog-faced buffoon” than cry about lost love. There are sidekicks, but they do not serve merely as boring spacefillers; Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) have enough issues to get Freud’s head spinning. And the villains, including Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon) and Count Tyrone (Christopher Guest), spend as much time being droll — who but a perfect scoundrel could pull off “please consider me as an alternative to suicide”? — as they do plotting evil deeds. Everyone who shows up in “The Princess Bride” has a distinctive personality that’s just a shade left of center, just enough to subvert our expectations.

Based on William Goldman’s equally fantastic book, the story itself, though, supplies intrigue aplenty. “The Princess Bride” employs that story-within-a-story method, with a wiseacre grandfather (Peter Falk) reading to his sick young grandson (Fred Savage), who’s really worried there will be too much smooching and not enough sword fights. There’s plenty of both in the tale Grandpa reads, an entertaining yarn about Westley and Buttercup, lovers separated by his quest to seek fortune on the seas. Prince Humperdinck takes the heartbroken Buttercup as his bride-to-be (he has his own motives, and all of them are unsavory), but there are hiccups in the sneaky prince’s plot, not least of which is Buttercup’s kidnapping by Inigo, Fezzik and their shrill employer Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the appearance of the mysterious Man in Black/Dread Pirate Roberts. Throw in an impending mawwage*, a life-sucking torture machine and a miracle man (Billy Crystal) with the power to rise the Nearly Dead, and you’ve got yourself a story so interwoven in its complexity that it makes “Syriana” seem like “Son-in-Law.”

By now we’ve covered what catapults “The Princess Bride” leaps and bounds above other fairy tales. Wa-hoo. But why does this movie deserve a place on our shelves and in our hearts? There’s no easy answer to that question. The script is full of piquant wit and infinitely quotable quips like “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder” and “You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” Maybe it’s because the likes of Patinkin’s damaged but resilient Inigo Montoya, set on avenging his father’s death, and Fezzik, a sad pariah plucked for a dreadful life of unemployment in Greenland, feel sweetly and surprisingly real to us. Or perhaps we return to “The Princess Bride” again and again because there’s some deep, primal, frightfully uncynical part of us that wants to believe in the happy ending, the world in balance, the magic.

And if there are a few Rodents of Unusual Size thrown in? Well, that just sweetens the deal.

*It’s what brings us togevuh today.

Real-life movie moment

The movie: “Forrest Gump” (1994); dir. by Robert Zemeckis; starring Tom Hanks, Robin Wright Penn, Gary Sinise, Sally Field.

The moment: During my walk to work, a bird feather floated down and landed directly in front of my right shoe.

The correlation: My mom was right — these are magic shoes. Well, she said “unusual,” but I’m certain that she meant “magic.”