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Media Column -- December 2007 by Rogan Marshall
Review by Rogan Marshall Column  ISBN/ITEM#: MC122007
Date: 06 December 2007 /

Following an October so uneventful for fantastic film, as to encourage me to skip my monthly report, November, as expected, brings a flood of big studio theatrical releases into, or out of, our chosen generic corner... some of which are well worth seeing.

directed by Robert Zemeckis
Paramount Pictures/Shangri-La Entertainment
starring Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, Crispin Glover, John Malkovich
theatrical release 11/16/07
The Mist
directed by Frank Darabont
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Dimension Films
starring Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Toby Jones
theatrical release 11/21/07
Mister Magorium's Wonder Emporium
directed by Zach Helm
20th Century Fox/Walden Media
starring Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills
theatrical release 11/16/07

October was not entirely uneventful; actually the reason I skipped this column last time, is that I had nothing good to say about anything I'd seen all month. This is to be expected in any October, at least on the big screen, where the big studios tend to drop obvious aesthetic failures, formally doomed to fail at the box office, into the lull the moviegoing market always dips through before Thanksgiving.

Remarkable among those failures were the Susan Cooper adaptation titled, with fitting if unintended awkwardness, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, and the dreary high concept vampire movie 30 Days of Night... But why should I skip a whole column to avoid speaking ill, only to start talking trash at the top of the page when I come back? Especially when there's plenty of fresh good news to get excited about (enough good news to shove the subject of DVDs entirely off my desktop for the moment), particularly Beowulf.

Adapted from the famous epic poem (which is well known for being among the oldest texts extant that remains a good read), Beowulf takes place in 6th century Denmark, against a carefully sketched backdrop of neighborhood kingdoms run by hilltop regents who surround themselves with barbarian-esque warriors. As the movie begins, one such king, Hrothgar, celebrates the completion of his great new mead hall, by drinking mead excessively in it with his warriors; disturbed by their noise, the hideous monster Grendel, who lives in a nearby cave with his mother, busts in uninvited and slaughters Hrothgar's men, instigating a reign of terror that, ensuing scenes inform us, becomes internationally famous, as traveling bards sing far and wide of the curse hanging over Hrothgar's hall. Attracted by the promise of fame and fortune attendant upon besting the monster and ending the curse, Beowulf, already a renowned hero, arrives on the scene with a host of armed and dangerous companions, only to find that dispelling Hrothgar's curse involves not just the killing of monsters, but the unraveling of dark mysteries, and the discovery of dreadful secrets.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who always does excellent work, has here made perhaps his best movie yet. Though Zemeckis has a special touch for both camera, especially trippy trick shots, and cast, from whom he's occasionally exacted award-winning performances, I doubt anyone loves every movie he's ever directed; if his wildly varied career is characterized by one major flaw, it is that he often allows his first-rate style to grace second-rate material: What Lies Beneath and Castaway both occur immediately to my mind as examples of technically laudable pictures directed by Zemeckis from thin boring scripts. That's certainly not the case here; the script for Beowulf is so good, I'll spend a couple of whole paragraphs getting into it, presently.

Beowulf displays the trademark Zemeckis eye for trippy camera work to its best advantage ever; this movie is as visually frantic, as unpredictably fluid, as even animation ever is. Perhaps working in "animation" (in this case photo-realistic computer rendered imagery that contains performances by real actors) encourages Zemeckis to let himself go, or maybe he's inspired by the need to exploit the special 3-D process they're showing this movie in (on some screens); in any case, Beowulf is fiercely, aggressively kinetic, pushing toward a breathtaking leap forward in camera dynamic comparable to that which occurred a generation ago in classics like The Road Warrior, Raising Arizona and Evil Dead 2.

This might easily read as overkill, if the eye-popping trick shots didn't flow so smoothly, if the assaultive imagery didn't tell the story so clearly. The design helps; Beowulf looks, feels, oppressive, claustrophobic, yet is suffused with, tempered by, wonder and imagination; Beowulf maintains a sense of imminent carnality, of menacing violence and brooding sexuality, that the live action classics in this sub-genre, Conan the Barbarian and Excalibur and a hundred of their imitators, only ever achieved imperfectly at best. I suspect Zemeckis has been waiting for a long time for the opportunity to make this kind of heroic fantasy movie; he's usually so cold and distant, but on Beowulf he seems to have brought his heart to the set. Though it's an overwhelming experience visually, a subtle but powerful quality of emotional investment informs Beowulf also, partially communicated through some totally committed performances from some great actors.

Of course, the director and the cast wouldn't have the necessary framework, to hang all this commitment and investment from, without a first-rate screenplay; the screenplay for Beowulf, credited to Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, is the kind of work that wins awards and inspires eternal devoted cult followings. (Yes, those few among you who read me religiously, have observed correctly: both Gaiman and Avary have come under fire for lousy work in this very space. How, you might wonder, could the same writers produce both excellent and miserable work, in the same critic's opinion, within such a short span of time? The answer is complex, beyond the scope of this report; I will, however, pause to point out that this complex unwieldy answer, is closely related to the reasons why the considered author of a feature film is often its director, and sometimes its producer, but hardly ever its screenwriter.)

That being said: oh man, does Beowulf have a great script! Such rich dialogue; such sharply drawn characters; such gracefully motivated story! The movie displays formal near perfection, and consistently expresses a spirit of gleeful creativity, because its screenplay does.

It also, astonishingly, succeeds as both Hollywood action/fantasy blockbuster and as tricky highbrow literary adaptation; details cleverly deployed, snatches of singing and poetry, and dialogue in dead languages, careful historicity in matters of society and religion and literature, indicate a wealth of background reading and research that is, in this context, refreshing, to wildly understate the matter. Like Gaiman's best work – that is to say, his several-year run on the Sandman comic book - Beowulf is riddled with images and story points that consciously refer to, echo off of, the literary bedrock, the compressed classics underlying and supporting all popular storytelling, in ways that will richly reward the educated viewer, along with the obsessive repeat viewer. This isn't just a rare and wonderful quality in any Hollywood screenplay; it's a signature element in Mr. Gaiman's work, in other media, that contributed greatly to placing him on the pedestal he's largely confined to at my house. We haven't seen him take the time and trouble to exercise or deploy this quality to this extent in years; it's nice to see that he's still got it, or got access to it, when circumstances allow it, or call for it.

Note the recurrent grace notes in the script for Beowulf that address the importance of the original text, and fidelity in adaptation, weighed alongside the intrinsic tendency for all storytellers to add and embellish; the well read viewer watching closely enough to note how the story has been changed for the movies, will also find that the screenplay quietly weaves in a convincing apology for such cinematic license. Gaiman and Avary draw a meaningful parallel between the monsters in ancient tall tales, and the videogame influenced action in modern Hollywood blockbusters, and do so convincingly. If it's yesterday's news, when characters in a movie like this engage in self-reflexive dialogue about the stories that will one day be told of their exploits, Gaiman and Avary approach the material with a freshness so invigorating as to re-invest the idea with real meaning.

The other high profile wide release literary adaptation playing right now is The Mist, from a novella by Stephen King. This movie inarguably fails in important ways, but is still well worth seeing for its "good parts." Director Frank Darabont has made a career of top shelf King adaptations; this is his third, following The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. "The Mist" is a different kind of King story: written by King in his youth, and his prime, betraying a drug-fueled inappropriate amusement, by the mischievous attitude informing the ugliness and violence with which he attacks his characters, their social context, the literary conventions of the genre horror story.

In The Mist successful commercial artist and happy small-town suburbanite David Drayton is visiting the local grocery store with his small son and his semi-hostile neighbor Mr. Norton, when a weird white fog or mist, impenetrable to the eye, pours across the parking lot and blots out everything outside the plate glass front windows of the store, a mist, those trapped in the store quickly learn, which seethes with hidden monsters. (We find out later that there's been some kind of physics accident at a nearby government installation, opening a doorway to another dimension.) Among the grocery store patrons tensions rapidly soar and rapidly strip away social niceties, replacing them with mob madness and the threat of violence, a shift spearheaded by the rapid rise of local crazy Mrs. Carmody from harmless mumbling Christian maniac to ranting evangelical leader howling for bloodshed. Eventually the faction representing reason and responsibility, which includes Mr. Drayton and his son, a store manager named Ollie and an attractive female lead, along with a couple of old people, must decide to take their chances outside, with the monsters, to escape the human monsters in the store.

"The Mist" happens to be one of my favorite Stephen King stories; if I had room, it would be a pleasure to discuss at length the interesting changes time and adaptation have rung on the source text itself, changes reflecting those in the literary landscape, the cinema, and the real world – elements once wildly fantastic now seem ominously grounded in possibility; elements once unfilmable, now provide the core for a mass audience entertainment. It's as unfortunate as it is obvious, that writer-director Darabont has made a mixed muddle of this movie version.

Darabont's previous work has been characterized by firm control, and mannered distance, a stately methodical pace and somber restrained demeanor, traits of style collectively reminiscent of a certain kind of "old Hollywood" movie, a complex style, almost arty, possibly pretentious, perfectly suited to the material then at hand: quiet, character-driven stories, nearly histrionic with emotion, author King indulging his streak of maudlin sentimentality to its utmost extent, perfectly complemented by filmmaker Darabont's cold stern grip. On The Mist, in tune with the text, Darabont has altered his style, straining toward a certain kind of trendy jittery tense naturalism, using, for instance, a lot of shaky handheld camerawork, and it's just not a language Darabont is totally comfortable with. He doesn't seem to understand the propulsive narrative drive necessary to this kind of movie, either; it sputters and fizzles, lurching under the weight of unnecessary supporting scenes, of characters and performances that don't quite convince or engage. As a screenwriter Darabont is often on shaky ground with characters and story here; they, the characters that is, do a lot of things that don't quite make sense, on a realistic level anyway, failing to show the right emotions, or behaving unbelievably, awkwardly emphasizing that mannered distance I mentioned, a crippling flaw that gradually deepens the damage it does throughout the picture, finally culminating in a surprise "twist" ending that's so shockingly inappropriate, in terms of character, that I laughed out loud when I was supposed to be horrified, and I bet Darabont isn't allowed the creative freedom to screw up his movie like that, next time around, not if the production has the kind of budget he's accustomed to (like its two predecessors, The Mist is handsomely produced, for which Mr. Darabont shares the key credit).

On the positive side, all those peculiarities of style unexpectedly make Mr. Darabont a great action director; whenever the freaky monsters get into the store and attack people, The Mist lights up like the tree in your living room. Only these scenes really work, but they work ferociously: several monster attack sequences in this movie are genuinely intense, violent, and scary, in the funnest possible way, if those are qualities you find to be any fun at all. At least two moments with the icky mist-monsters are truly classic, another word I try not to throw around lightly, though I seem to have been using it an awful lot lately to describe the contents of monster movies, which reflects the place to which digital effects have taken the state-of-the-art (and I didn't even get into how cool Beowulf's monsters are!).

Another movie that ultimately fails, but has a lot of good stuff in it, is the ambitious confection entitled Mister Magorium's Wonder Emporium. A magical toymaker, played by Dustin Hoffman, runs the title store, an entity of independent, albeit inarticulate, consciousness, which spends its days incessantly tormenting giggles from its customers and staff by surrounding them with amusing impossible occurrences among the store's often unexpectedly animated stock, real magic which occurs by way of movie magic, largely digital effects. Mister Magorium, who's 243 years old, realizes the time has come for him to "pass away," so he hires an accountant (Jason Bateman) to sort out his estate, whose humorless materialistic outlook prevents him from seeing the store's magic, in a literal sense; weird digital effects only happen behind his back when he's around. Magorium uses his own coming demise as a tool to arrange for those close to him, to teach one another important life lessons: Bateman of course lacks a sense of wonder, Magorium's store manager Natalie Portman lacks faith in herself, and their favorite customer, a lonely creative child named Eric (Zach Mills), needs to learn how to make friends, while all of them must learn to cope with the inevitable passing of the old guy who's already taught them so many wonderful things.

All the supporting elements in this movie work great; in effect an ultragentle cross between Willy Wonka and Harold and Maude, Mister Magorium is thoughtfully written (writer-director Zach Helm wrote last year's hit Stranger Than Fiction) for both sensitive preschoolers and their pot-smoking parents, remarkable for its inventive magical toy store sequences, and a real literary bent, manifested in structural mannerisms too intricate to pry into here, any more than I have room to describe the cool toy store gags. There are some nice performances too; Hoffman oddly didn't do much for me (he seems to be trying to imitate Ray Bolger and failing), but Portman and Bateman are both great, and so is the child lead.

Unfortunately, there's just not enough story going on, for all this neat stuff to happen in the course of. The script does arrange, tentatively, for some conflicts to occur, but downplays them and backgrounds them so thoroughly, you get the impression Helm liked his characters too much to ruffle them unpleasantly, or intentionally hurt their feelings. Mister Magorium spends most of its time meandering through well-meant platitudinous dialogue about death and joy and creativity that will become increasingly boring for children and stoners alike. That being said, it's hard to imagine a movie with its heart, or its imagination, closer to the right place; though it's tiringly preachy, and embarrassingly earnest, the messages it delivers are all unapproachably good. (That is, unless you're cynical enough to think it's naive, to give humanity as much credit, as Mr. Helm seems to; I am that cynical myself, but I also think that family-oriented fantastic film, is probably a suitable arena for the expression of optimistic naivety.) At least these filmmakers have failed, in an attempt to do something special, and worthwhile; at least they partially succeeded – whenever the wacky toy store acts up, or Ms. Portman winsomely smiles.

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