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Feature


Based on the epic poem, Beowulf follows the adventures of the title character (portrayed by Ray Winstone) who comes to King Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) Danish village to kill the tyrant demon Grendel (Crispin Glover). After the braggart Beowulf makes good on his promise he is dispatched to murder Grendel’s evil mother (Angelina Jolie), but the malevolent she-demon has other plans for the arrogant hero.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut
Every time someone’s attempted to deliver a fully successful adaptation of the ancient epic ‘Beowulf’ things have come up short. Either the adaptation is very loose, as in the case of John McTeirnan’s 13th Warrior, or the adaptation entirely misses the point and lacks a suitable budget, as in the last two in name only adaptations. Robert Zemeckis didn’t strike me as the man for this particular job, but my craving for an adequate adaptation of the story forced me to give the guy a chance.

My distrust of Zemeckis has to do with my general luke warm feeling towards his films, even the films everyone else loves like Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future series. Zemeckis’ films are not bad films; they just don’t do it for me.

The use of this new fangled motion capture technology is an interesting choice, one that helps Zemeckis to avoid too many unfair comparisons stylistically to Peter Jackson’s action/fantasy altering trilogy. Zemeckis utilizes the technical advantages of having no camera or crew to worry about more effectively here then he did in his last mo-cap feature The Polar Express. He squeezes the virtual camera through impossibly small crevasses, he swoops across a several mile long valley in seconds, and he focuses on reflections without worry of catching the crew in the shot. The human characters still look uncanny—their lips never seem to sync appropriately, and their limbs move too smoothly—but these oddities are quickly assimilated once the story gets rolling. Besides, how else could portly Ray Winstone star as an Adonis with near supernatural powers?

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut
The comparisons to the other super-manly and semi-animated feature of 2007, Zach Snyder’s 300, are fair enough. Most folks will probably prefer the splattering red ink and simplistic black and white of Spartan swashbuckling, but the repetition and terrible narration got the better of me upon a second viewing. Beowulf wasn’t as much fun on video where the wackiness of three dimensions is lost, but story, performances, and action doesn’t lose too much bite. Though obviously a visually arresting feature, the film will likely find lasting success in its sense of humour and its genuinely frightening moments. Zemeckis’ use of (fantasy illustrator) Frank Frazetta inspired imagery and comparisons between motion capture and rotoscoping technologies has led me to a more satisfying filmic comparison—producer Ralph Bakshi’s 1983 animated film Fire and Ice.

The film’s suspenseful elements shouldn’t be a surprise to Zemeckis fans, but the sheer volume of graphic and horrific violence is something new to his repertoire. I have no idea how Beowulf managed to get a PG-13 rating for its theatrical release, as it was easily one of the flat out goriest movies I saw all of 2007. I didn’t catch any major difference in the levels of violence between this ‘director’s cut’ and the theatrical cut—both were as violent as all hell, much to my delight. The visual humour is a less impressive step for Zemeckis—the man that brought us the real life cartoons of Roger Rabbit—but keeping his tongue in his cheek is an effective way to deal with what is ultimately a very silly story. The joke is taken a bit too far during the attack on Grendel, where increasingly ridiculous objects obscure our hero’s crotch. Come on guys, either put the guy in some underwear, or show us his bee-wolf wang and take the R-rating.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut
The less cartoony humour is likely attributed to co-writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery. Gaiman, who’s work was also the basis for one of the most overlooked features of 2007, Stardust, is known for his whimsical takes on dark fantasy material. Avery’s work with Tarantino on Pulp Fiction, along with his solo work on Killing Zoë and Rules of Attraction, have all been brutal but funny. The team cleverly deals with the original story’s two act structure by dealing with its characters’ one dimensional nature. By making the character a braggart and a failure on a moral level a new third act is created which more or less follows the same themes, and which leads us into the film’s most spectacular set pieces.

And that’s the film’s most obvious problem, though there are some emotionally effective and genuinely funny moments, the whole thing comes down to a series of increasingly exciting action set pieces. Critics have rightfully made comparisons between the eerily computer animated film and video games. Anyone who’s played a videogame in the last dozen or so years will recognize the cut scene to boss battle rhythm, but is this a valid criticism, or is Beowulf a valid comment on modern videogame entertainment? I’m not sure, but as technology and audience sophistication continues to grow I can’t help but assume that his is the future of popular cinema, whether we like it or not.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut

Video


Well, I’m not sure what most of you were expecting from a high definition release of an entirely digital film, but I was expecting perfection. It’s nice to have one’s expectations met. Beowulf pushes my aging television’s specs to their limit. The disc’s clarity is so severe that it causes injury to the film. The already eerily crafted characters appear almost plasticine. The textures of the creatures, on the other hand, are done great justice. The film’s colour pallet is purposefully pretty limited per scene to either warm and shiny golds or glowing baby blues. Both pallets are bright and noiseless, and punch well when accentuated with blood reds. There isn’t anything I can complain about here other then the fact that my television can’t get any brighter and that one dead pixel looks larger then ever now.

Audio


All the fury of Viking fleets, angry sea monsters, screaming warriors, and thundering horses has never sounded this…relatively…quiet. We’re talking relatively here, this isn’t a failed mix, but when compared to other HD DVD Dolby Digital Plus mixes the overall volume level is noticeably quieter (I had rented Transformers the same day I got Beowulf in the mail, so I did an immediate check to make sure it wasn’t a problem with my player, which it obviously wasn’t). When I saw the film in theatres it just about blew my ears out, especially the scenes of Grendel’s attacks, which became nothing but Crispin Glover’s screaming at me through the front channel. This time I notice that the centre channel is again a bit overbearing on the rest of the mix, but not to any devastating effect. For some reason Zemeckis and his sound designers just seem to have preferred a dialogue heavy action film. Alan Silvestri’s score (which is impressive and very ‘Alan Silvestrian’) could do with a bump up as well, though I’m assuming this was a decision made in the original mixing process.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut

Extras


I must apologize; my player is not hooked into any kind of Internet access, so I was unable to view any of the web-enabled extras on the first disc of this two-disc set. The rest of the ‘In the Volume’ picture in picture option worked fine though. There isn’t any interview footage or commentary in the tiny screen, just a bunch of behind the scenes footage and rough animatic animation. Those that enjoyed watching the 300 green screen footage will likely have even more fun watching big movie stars wearing unflattering, skin tight scuba gear with grey dots all over their faces.

High definition disc number two begins with ‘A Hero’s Journey’, a look at the ‘filming’ of this state of the art motion picture. The volume of work that went into this project is pretty mind boggling in technical terms, but when compared to the physical effort and manpower that goes into something like Lord of the Rings one can easily understand Zemeckis likes making special effects blockbusters this way. The first shock is how quickly the filming process is. Camera set-ups are reduced to mere minutes of sensor calibration, and set construction is timed to fifteen minutes or less. Zemeckis is able to get more then double the average amount of takes for a sizably budgeted feature. The featurette is amusing and informative, but runs under thirty minutes, which doesn’t quite cut it in this information age. Okay, not really.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut
The featurette adds a special trivia mode which includes on-screen pop-up factoids and links to the disc’s additional featurettes. The pop-up facts come hard and fast, so if you’re trying to keep track of the featurette’s dialogue and this additional text info it’s a little overwhelming. The extra featurettes total ten, run about twenty-one minutes total, and can also be accessed via the main screen under ‘The Journey Continues’. These are mostly brief, deeper looks into things touched on during ‘A Hero’s Journey’.

‘Beasts of Burden’ is a featurette covering the design of the film’s monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, the sea monsters and the Dragon. I won’t mince words here, Andy Sherkis’ Gollum is the best motion captured performance ever, and probably will be for a long time, but hiring Crispin Glover to play the tortured monster Grendel verges on genius on Zemeckis’ part. The physical manifestation of the creature is fantastically original and disgustingly realized. There is a touch of that Gollum patheticness, but overall the Old English spouting character is one of the film’s strongest and most memorable elements. Grendel’s Mother is something I’m not so fond of (I just don’t get the liquid gold thing), but it’s another memorable and original element, and is in keeping with Zemeckis’ Frank Frazetta inspired visuals. Though very informative to the process and such, the featurette is a bit of a disappointment at only seven minutes, though it ends up being one of the longest extras on the disc.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut
Another group of featurettes starts with ‘The Origins of Beowulf’, which is another super short featurette that should’ve been longer. In about five minutes Roger Avery and Neil Gaiman run down their changes to the original story, and Zemeckis explains how he was brought onto the project. As a little aside, I’m not a very big fan of Gaiman’s work on the whole, but I’ve got to say that I’d love to just sit and talk with the guy someday, he strikes me as unbelievably warm and good natured. ‘Creating the Ultimate Beowulf’ is one of the only places on the disc where the huge schism between actor Ray Winstone and the physical representation of Beowulf. Besides this it doesn’t do much, at a minute and a half. It probably won’t surprise anyone when I tell you that ‘The Art of Beowulf’ is about the art of Beowulf. This is more or less the only time that anyone mentions the fact that the film was originally meant to be seen in 3D, and otherwise covers some of the concept art and model work. It runs about five minutes.

‘A Conversation with Robert Zemeckis’ is an interview session as posed by USC students. This is the closest we get to a director’s commentary track. The questions are super soft balls in the sense that they’re obvious, but the answers are spot on. Zemeckis will likely be called all manner of bad names by various industry big wigs for his love of this approach to filmmaking, but I’m very impressed with his willingness to risk failure through experimentation. I’m looking forward to more of these from him (might I suggest an adaptation of Jeff Smith’s ‘Bone’ comic series?). The talking head nature of the interview is visually dull (maybe it should’ve been spiced up with some behind the scenes or film footage), and runs about ten minutes.

Beowulf: Unrated Director's Cut
The disc also houses nine deleted scenes and two alternate scenes. These are presented in rough digital pre-viz form, with very little detail, almost no sound effects, a temp score and what appears to be finished dialogue performances, with a few minor exceptions. One can’t blame the filmmakers for cutting these scenes at such an early stage considering the cost of finishing them. The cuts are all appropriate for the films pacing, but none of them would’ve been wildly inappropriate if left in either (including yet another penis joke). The scenes run a whopping thirteen minutes.

Overall


Beowulf probably isn’t your High School English teacher’s idea of classic literary entertainment, but it’s hard to deny the visceral effect. The technology hasn’t made it to an entirely acceptable level just yet, but overrated filmmaker Robert Zemeckis shows successful growth in the format, and range as a director. It’s forgettable and weak in sections, but a thrill for those in the right state of mind. The HD DVD looks unbelievable and sounds pretty good, but the extras aren’t nearly as exhaustive or compelling as the back of the box might lead you to believe. My 7/10 film rating is a bit of a lie, I'd probably put it somewhere around 6.5/10 if I could.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the HD DVD edition.


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