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Moriarty’s Movie Marathon Begins! I’VE! SEEN! BEEOOOWULLLF!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. Deadlines? You wanna talk deadlines? I just stared down a paralyzing deadline and laughed in its face, and it was such a liberating experience that it’s inspired me to clean house a bit here at AICN as well. I am behind on my reviews. Just a li’l bit. It’s a shame, too, because there are some great movies out there right now, worth having a conversation about, and I’m sitting it out so I can meet those deadlines. Or rather, I was sitting it out. Like pretty much everyone I know, I had to hit an Oct. 31st deadline for things. And we did. Scott and I turned everything in well before noon on the 31st. What a relief to be able to spend the holiday hanging with Toshi (he dressed as a ninja, and it was mighty cute) and Mommy instead of doing last-minute pages I might not be happy with. With that pressure off of me, I can turn my full attention to the things I see piled up here on my desktop. I’ve got a number of things ready to publish, and I’m just going to start firing them off. First up, though, I spent tonight at the Universal Citywalk, where Paramount held the junket screenings for BEOWULF in IMAX 3D. Holy shit. Seriously. Holy shit. Like... I can’t believe the experience holy shit. As a film, I’ll get into specifics about what I do and what I don’t like as we get further into the review, but the first and most important thing I want to convey is that if you have the opportunity to see this IMAX 3D, that’s the way you absolutely have to see it. Any film fan owes it to themselves to see exactly what this was designed to be. Like all of you, I’ve been hearing the rumblings for a little while that 3D and IMAX are the future of theatrical exhibition. And up until now, I’ve thought that most of that was hype. I saw an amazing demo of the 3D process at the Lighstorm offices in Santa Monica, the same one they used to wow the exhibitors at ShoWest a few years ago, and I certainly think it’s an impressive process. But I didn’t really think anyone was going to be able to make a real mainstream blockbuster movie for the process, and I certainly didn’t think that exhibition would be up to the challenge any time soon. So I listened every time someone would talk about 3D and how it was going to be huge, and I’d go see things like THE ANT BULLY or CHICKEN LITTLE because that’s what was screening in IMAX 3D or RealD, and part of me suspected that it would always be used for very broad family fare exclusively. Well, consider me a convert. Bring on TINTIN. Bring on AVATAR. Bring on anything that any serious filmmaker wants to make in this process. And in return, I dare you... I dare all of you getting ready to work in 3D to pick up this gauntlet that Zemeckis has thrown down, and I want you guys to one-up each other, just like you used to. I remember a time when it seemed like the game was seeing who could push the envelope the furthest, who could have the most fun with the toys... when it seemed like you were all engaged, doing it because something burned in you. I haven’t seen that sort of passion from Robert Zemeckis in the entire time I’ve been at AICN. Ten years now, I’ve been disappointed by his output, and as a result, I’ve got this reputation as someone who dislikes him as a filmmaker. That’s crazy, though. When I moved to LA, I used to refer to him as Bob “God” Zemeckis. I was so impressed by him that when I met him by coincidence at a movie theater right after moving to LA, I temporarily lost the ability to speak English, to the degree that he actually told me to “relax and breathe.” I still think BACK TO THE FUTURE is the single best commercial screenplay ever written. So I haven’t enjoyed being a curmudgeon regarding the output of Robert Zemeckis. I wrote a CONTACT review right before I started work at AICN, and that was the last film of his that I really liked. In fact, I think geeking out with Harry about that movie was one of the first dialogues I had with him. Since then, WHAT LIES BENEATH, CAST AWAY, and THE POLAR EXPRESS have all made me absolutely mental for different reasons, and I published an infamous FORREST GUMP review that I still stand behind. So walking into the film tonight, I was looking at it basically as a chance to check out the state of the art, and I expected nothing from the film. Yes, I know that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary wrote it, and they both sound very happy with the end result. But I still refused to get excited. And, yeah, Zemeckis pretty much knocked that chip off my shoulder about ten minutes in. It’s a great movie, hugely entertaining and exciting and surprisingly adult. There’s some crazy violence, subtle moments with the actors that almost made me forget they were animated, and at least two great action sequences that deliver on the promise of this new technology to such an inarguable degree that I would imagine filmmakers the world over immediately starting to make plans for their own film to follow in Zemeckis’s ground-breaking footsteps. It took the right movie to make me believe that this sort of mo-cap world might actually work for a drama or for anything human. I’m sure some people will want to nitpick this moment or that shot, but on the whole, Sony Pictures Imageworks has created a living breathing world that drew me in and made me believe. The 3D is never used for cheap effect, but is instead like opening a window in a world of depth. You feel like you could reach into the movie, and the immersive experience drew me in emotionally as well as viscerally. Yes, the action is amazing, but what really sold it for me was the quiet stuff. The performance work. Because that’s really the question, isn’t it? When you’re pushing mo-cap and trying for something like photorealism, the real question at this point is whether or not you believe the people you’re watching. And for the most part, the answer is yes. Brendan Gleeson probably connects the most, in my opinion, as Wiglaf, Beowulf’s steadfast second-in-command. He does so much subtle work with his face and his eyes that I really believed I was looking at a person. And even though the design for Grendel is completely outrageous, Crispin Glover’s performance comes through loud and clear. It’s animalistic work, crazy work, and it’s everything I would have hoped from a reunion between Glover and Zemeckis. Anthony Hopkins seems to have great fun as King Hrothgar, waddling around with his fat soft baby body, playing his entire first scene practically naked. And every now and then, he’d do something so natural and real that I’d forget it wasn’t really him. I think both Robin Wright Penn and Alison Lohman’s characters have problems with expressiveness. The designs are okay, but perhaps too simplified, too clean. Something about them always seems a little stiff, and it’s a shame. Angelina Jolie’s evil demon creature witch beast character, known only as Grendel’s Mother, is a lot of fun to watch, but you’ve seen most of her role already. She’s not in a lot of the film. In fact, one of the things that I’m realizing as I think back is that the entire movie feels like it’s about 20 minutes long. The pace is relentless, and it seems like it’s over as soon as it gets revved up. I talked with someone tonight who actually griped about a lull in the middle of the film, but it’s basically just a moment where Zemeckis catches his breath. The first half is so fast, so packed with incident and forward motion, that when it ends, you need that moment to sort of recover. And the brief moment just sets up the stakes for what’s coming next, and then the last third of the film delivers on those promises. Ray Winstone’s Beowulf is a powerful interpretation, and the sense of regret that he inherits from Hopkins is well-played. I love that he’s a braggart and a boaster, and that his own men seem to tolerate him at the beginning, but when faced with madness, he knows how to get his hands around it and fight. He’s one of the great fantasy heroes not only because his story has lasted longer than almost any other written hero’s tale, but also because of how greatly imagined he is. Beowulf is the source for oh so many other heroes who have followed in fantasy, the inspiration for an entire type. Monster-killer, flesh-ripper, terror and slasher, the teeth in the darkness. Strength, lust and power. Winstone plays it right. He knows how to kick it into this intense hero mode, and he knows how to show the human behind the heroic legend. It’s a rich portrayal, and in a live-action film, finding the right combination of brawn and soul might have been a daunting trick. Here, Winstone’s able to slip into this brawler’s body and provide all the soul the role requires. Zemeckis is clearly re-learning his vocabulary as a visual artist with each of the movies he makes in this style, and he’s certainly refined it since THE POLAR EXPRESS. I have a feeling we’re never going to see him make a traditional live-action film again. I think he’s just found something that makes him feel free as an artist again. The film’s biggest asset is the script by Gaiman and Avary, two very smart guys who seem to have dug into this with wit and verve. I like the conversations about “this new Roman god, Christ Jesus,” and I like the first encounter between John Malkovich as Unferth and Winstone. I think Unferth is supposed to be the big bad guy of the piece, but they didn’t quite nail it in terms of how he’s written in the second half of the film, so it’s one of the film’s few major missteps. Even so, it doesn’t ruin the film so much as leave it not quite complete. I wish more had been done with Unferth, and that they’d written the character as strong all the way through as they do at the start, but it’s a minor thing. Overall, I think the script is smart and literate, and even though it has a wealth of huge set-pieces, it’s more concerned with the devils inside of the characters than the monsters without, which is exactly as it should be. I like Gaiman and Avary as a team, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what they’ll do with BLACK HOLE next. I’m not sure I’d call BEOWULF one of the deepest films of the year, and I’m not even sure I’d call it one of the best, but it’s a singular experience, something you absolutely have to witness for yourself in the theater, and it lingers in all the right ways. I feel like I saw the future in that theater tonight... at least one of the paths the industry will follow... and I find myself still reeling from it a bit even now, four hours later. This is the best Zemeckis film in well over a decade, and a rousing adventure that I suspect will win over even the most jaded of viewers. I’m proof enough of that. Back with more reviews all weekend long.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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