Friday, November 16, 2007

Review: Beowulf

Two word review:

utter pants

Why have a movie about heroics where there is not a single person who embodies the supposed ideal? It may have been meant as a critique of the concept, but if so it failed miserably. The script was a mishmash of half-articulated ideas. A barely developed theme of the effects of storytelling on the truth ought to have been heeded. The poem has kept its resonance over the years because it deals with timeless topics like heroism, mentoring, honor and ambition. This one has Beowulf roar the ultimately meaningless words, "!" What does that name mean? By the end it seems that his life's supposed to be a legend, but we know it's all lies, so what can we have but contempt for those who believe it?

What was the point of all the pneumatic breasts other than adolescent wank? In case we had any doubt, we know now for sure that modern Hollywood film makers have even less regard for women than Anglo-Saxon monks, because at least the latter actually thought women had a purpose beyond sexual titillation. Not so this team. Women are only of interest as sexual prizes. We even have the suggestion that wives and mistresses would get along if they just had a chance to chat heart-to-heart (naturally with the suggestion that perhaps this will lead to a guilt-free three-way for the husband). Wealtheow in the poem sets standards of behavior, commands the men and reins Hrothgar in when he steps beyond propriety, deftly balancing both his honor and Beowulf's. With all the digital breasts on display, it is likewise ironic that the other subtext is all about impotence. This script robs the father figure Hrothgar of most of his offspring and all of his glory. He's a buffoon from start to finish. Jolie as Grendel's mother (as designed by John Bolton) is an adolescent dream of sexless Barbie doll sexuality: smooth, hairless, flawless and dipped in gold with stiletto heels actually part of her body (heel spurs gone wild?). Robin Wright-Penn's lovely face is turned into a bland approximation of Hollywood "beauty" and loses any sense of attractiveness.

The effects: yawn. They worked on the eyes, but motion capture still looks like a video game. While playing a video game at least you actively insert yourself into the action, but it's harder to do with the passive movie viewing experience. Sure, the dragon episode looked cool enough (about like the dragon sequence in Goblet of Fire), but the people look like pudgy wax work balloons bouncing along, hands never quite touching what they pick up. The ridiculousness of the naked fight scene (mistakenly believed to be "in the text") required exposing Grendel's lack of genitalia (which they tried to "explain") and, as Variety's review put it, resorting to Austin-Powers-esque techniques to hide Beowulf's alleged genitalia. He probably has none -- the movie was rated PG-13 despite outlandish violence. It's the American way: violence good, sex bad (although endless teasing of a sexual nature is okay, thus endless balloony bosoms on parade).

Minor quibble of interest to few but me: really, they couldn't make the harp look like a Saxon harp?

Anachronistically they inserted Christianity into the narrative (in the poem, the narrator is a Christian looking back on his ancestors) only to identify it as the killer of the age of heroes. Far be it from me to defend Christianity, but that's pointless as well as reductively simplistic. But really, the less said about the violence to the source story or the era the better (a ginormous stone the 6th century? not a wooden mead hall?). You'd have thought they would at least replace the original with another story -- not just 3D arrows and swords. Ironic then that the whole exercise seemed entirely pointless. I thought it would at least be fun. Nope.

I'm curious to see what my students think: they're probably going to the big mall tonight. Maybe they will find it more fun -- they have said that their friends seem to think it looks like a kick ass movie. We shall see. The film is clearly meant to capitalize on the popularity of 300, a trifle I did enjoy because 1) it had a much smaller amount of adolescent male-oriented sexual titillation [and a great deal more adult female sexual titillation!] and 2) it gave us characters who were real actors if digitally enhanced (e.g. David Wenham's six pack abs) and had character! It wasn't all bombast and cool fight scenes.

The nadir of Beowulf adaptations still remains Lambert's Beowulf, only because it lacks even technical competence. This one nearly challenges it on most other points.


C. Margery Kempe said...

I have begun reading the first reviews posted by my students in the Medieval Texts on Film class. I had forgotten about Beowulf bursting through the eye of the sea serpent -- quite a memorable effect.

One student commented on Angelina Jolie walking not just on high heels but on water with high heels, saying "You go, girl!"

I can't wait for our discussion Tuesday. It's going to be fun.

Crispinus said...

And 71% on the Tomatomometer.

Go figure.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Indeed -- well, some people seem to be impressed with having various objects flung at them. I call that a low threshold for entertainment.

I'm puzzled by the far-reaching misapprehension that medieval monks were as faint-heartedly prudish as modern evangelical Christians: they weren't. Read the riddles with which monks entertained one another -- most of them are double entendres. But it's an opinion that's accepted widely, as the Salon review demonstrates:

You see, the "real" Beowulf is not a particularly sexy story, and Zemeckis knows it. "Frankly, nothing about the original poem appealed to me," he's quoted as saying in the movie's press notes, recalling that he'd been made to read the damn thing in junior high school. "But when I read the screenplay that Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary did, I was immediately captivated." He asked Gaiman and Avary why their script was so exciting when the poem was so boring. They explained that the poem was written somewhere between the seventh and the 12th centuries, although its story had been passed along verbally for hundreds of years. Since the only people who knew how to write in those days were monks, Avary and Gaiman figured these reputable men of the cloth would have edited out all the juicy bits, so they added some back in. If you see "Beowulf," you'll have plenty of opportunities to stare down computer-generated cleavage, and one rowdy, bearded, tattooed warrior crows to one of his conquests about how much noise he makes when he comes. Personally, I file that under "TMI," especially coming from a cartoon character, but you have to admit it would knock any monk off his sandals.

Ah, ignorance -- no need to address that lack. Let's just assume what we want to be true. Why bother investigating that past? Perhaps because it would complicate that feeling of superiority we have toward the past...

The Queen said...

After seeing an extended preview of this movie, I in no way thought you would be remotely entertained by that movie! And now after reading the reviews (yours was the bestest, cuz I could hear the vitriol spitting and melting my desktop monitor), I'm not exactly champing at the bit to see it.....

C. Margery Kempe said...

You know me; I'm all about the vitriol!

I thought you'd be in line to see the faboo FX. Wow -- it's really sad.

Quod She has a more seasoned review that delves more into detail (I'm far too lazy to do so) especially about the sadness of the female characters. It really depresses me that Hollywood filmmakers are more sexist than Anglo-Saxon monks (who would have seen women as the cause of all sin [Eve], but also the hope of redemption [Mary]). For modern filmmakers, balloons is it. Pathetic. But then this is the man who made Forrest Gump, so it shouldn't really be that surprising (the only film more embarrassing than Titanic to win an Oscar).

CL said...

Kate, *YOU* go, girl!
Won't be seeing this soon.

Crispinus, how do you visit the RottenTomatoes site without getting malware and viruses?

C. Margery Kempe said...

Thanks, Cranky. Although I bet Joey would like the monsters!

You all might want to jaunt by pal Scott's blog Unlocked Wordhoard for more commentary on the film from medievalists and others.

C. Margery Kempe said...

By the way: a lot of people are moaning that scholars won't like the film because it isn't "true" to the source. That's not the issue. Film has to be different from text in fundamental ways. I have watched with equanimity adaptations that have taken great liberties -- some improving on the original narrative in interesting and thoughtful ways. There is little interesting in thoughtful in this adaptation, and what there is get overwhelmed by the need to throw something at the audience to remind them it's available in 3-D or by gratuitous boob shots.

JShea@Krieble said...

joey likes monsters

but won't even grace this...
waste of my typing finger with "see it anytime soon"--howzaboot



j"Truth! BEOWULF was 1st book read by me in kindergarten w/superior illos by SEVERIN [l00k him up]"Z

C. Margery Kempe said...

Apparently Beowulf's not the only medieval hero* getting a makeover!

*Well, he is portrayed as a hero in the Middle Ages. I make no arguments for or against anyone's divinity. It's not my business.

Chuckie58 said...

"Jolie as Grendel's mother is an adolescent dream of sexless Barbie doll sexuality: smooth, hairless, flawless and dipped in gold with stiletto heels actually part of her body (heel spurs gone wild?)."

It makes me insane how adolescent boys sexually idolize - THEMSELVES! Smooth, hairless, flawless, small of hip and smooth of muscle...that's a teenage boy. How do they get away with panting over a parody of themselves and howl in protest if someone HINTS of their homosexual fantasy?

argh peeve.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Totally agree, Chuckie. Check out your average supermodel -- thin, hipless and flat chested. Sounds like a young teen boy to me!

Crispinus said...

"Crispinus, how do you visit the RottenTomatoes site without getting malware and viruses?"


The Queen said...

I was repelled even further reading the 'positive' reviews of Beowulf- violence & boobs are a hit for the important movie-going audience- 18-24 year old boys.

Oh, and Chuckie58 hit it right on the nose- I've often found myself wondering what's so sexy about an emaciated, shapeless female form with big, plastic 'enhancements' - it's not even androgynously attractive.

Linda C. McCabe said...

I also became annoyed with the repeated "" cry. It seemed like the film makers us to mentally think of someone yelling "GERONIMO" as Beowulf jumped Grendel's back.

The roles for women were abysmal.

Wealhtheow seemed utterly bored with life. As if she was resigned to her fate of being married to a drunken, slovenly king and do her best to avoid fulfilling her conjugal duties through guilt trips. Later she seemed resigned to being the long suffering wife of a braggart with no sense of honor.

Wow. Such a meaty role! I wonder how many actresses were vying to land it?

What ever happened to the feisty Princess Buttercup? She wouldn't have gone along with such miserable wretches. She'd have plunged a dagger into one of her perfect breasts long before agreeing to marry those losers.

Michael Shurtleff (
also discussed at length the need for each actor to fight for what they want in each and every scene. Wealhtheow did not fight, and therefore her scenes did not come to life the way that they should have.

Then again, possibly Robin Wright Penn did a fabulous job of acting and the editing and animation process flattened out her performance to being the pedestrian bit of work we saw on-screen.

I dunno. Overall, it didn't work for me.

Oh, and you mentioned the movie 300. You might be interested in reading this review:

Cheers and have a Happy Thanksgiving!


C. Margery Kempe said...

Thanks for dropping by, L.C. I suspect you might be right about Robin Wright Penn's performance getting flattened by the process -- but the script had a lot to do with that, too. As I always say to my film students, a movie without women is a movie; a movie without men is a "chick flick" regardless of its content. Men in this country tend to be so worried about their masculinity that they can't risk seeing a film (or book or television show for that matter) that requires them to empathize with a woman.

Thanks for passing along the review of 300. I'd agree that there are highly problematic issues with race (and gender for that matter) but I think too many reviewers have written their own political ideologies on the film. For me -- one of those people for whom "comic book" is not a term of derisive contempt -- the libertarian thrust of the narrative is clear: no independent people should bend to a superpower just because they intend to wipe you out. Rather than a pro-fascist narrative I see it as a story that supports the rights of self-rule in the face of ruthless incorporation (i.e. against the American occupation of Iraq and threats against Iran).

It's useless to bring up the "real Spartans" in the critique of the film as "proof" of its fascism. I'd agree with Eco, Lindley and Austin that films about the past are usually a pretext to talk about the present. Any relevance to history is bonus -- but how often do we see that?

Steve Muhlberger said...

300 wasn't all bombast and cool fight scenes? Are there two movies of that name circulating?