Talking Movies

November 20, 2019

From the Archives: Beowulf 3-D

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

The warrior Beowulf arrives to kill the monster Grendel, who is terrorizing King Hrothgar’s court. Killing Grendel enrages his demon mother, who made a deal with the treacherous Hrothgar, and Beowulf’s actions unleash a dragon.

Robert Zemeckis’ film of the Old English epic poem is a visually amazing triumph, which you should see in 3-D for full impact. There is a tracking shot which turns into an outrageous pull-out from Hrothgar’s hall, across the landscape, to Grendel’s cave. Hilariously this is more or less a tale of violence caused by noisy neighbours, as Grendel’s super-hearing is driven wild by the raucous celebrations at Hrothgar’s feasting hall. This film provides a deep down and dirty portrayal of Dark Ages bawdiness, especially in the salacious songs of the warriors and Anthony Hopkins’s startling performance as the lecherous drunken King Hrothgar. All of which makes Beowulf radically unsuitable for children. Zemeckis is after all Spielberg’s protégé and takes equal delight in seeing just what he can and cannot get in to a 12A film. The motion capture technology Zemeckis used in The Polar Express has been vastly improved (characters’ eyes are no longer soulless) and Zemeckis, who was always visually inventive, wows with the physically impossible shots it allows him achieve.

Hrothgar’s call for a hero to kill Grendel is answered by the warrior Beowulf. Killing Grendel is the easy part though as Beowulf discovers that Hrothgar was Grendel’s father. He had been seduced by a temptress demon who now wants her way with Beowulf. That popping sound you hear is the noise made by the imploding heads of Professors of Old English the world over. Screenwriters Neil Gaiman (Stardust) and Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction), who worked on the screenplay for nearly a decade, have based their script on the idea that Beowulf is an unreliable narrator. Which it must be admitted is a compelling justification for re-telling a tale that dates from around the 8th century. Their version is filled, in the spirit of the original campfire telling, with over the top butch moments of heroism. Beowulf’s battles with sea-monsters and the climactic showdown with the dragon have moments which rival 300 for ridiculous machismo. The changes also tie together the three disconnected battles of the original in a more satisfying fashion while academics will be mollified by all Grendel’s dialogue being in Old English.

Crispin Glover’s portrayal of Grendel as a tortured half-demon, half-human outcast is quite touching and nicely counterpoints Ray Winstone’s cockney bellowing as Beowulf. Angelina Jolie appears, startlingly, full frontally nude but she’s a water demon and has some archly minimalist scales on her breasts so that’s okay. Hmmm, all I’ll say is that she’s suspiciously more photo-realistic than some other characters. This version of Beowulf was dogged by suspicions of style beating substance but Zemeckis justifies this approach by combining budget blowing spectacle (such as the dragon fight) with quiet moments between characters, and adhering to the poem’s spirit.

4/5

October 29, 2019

From the Archives: Starman – Interview with Matthew Vaughn

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

InDublin talked to Stardust director Matthew Vaughn about casting and CGI, Sienna Miller and celebrity culture, and a comic book he’d never heard of….

Matthew Vaughn is just dripping with enthusiasm for Stardust. He’s been trying to get the film made since the start of the decade, and asked what drove him to adapt Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed novella simply replies, “I loved the story”. Vaughn sees Stardust as closer to The Princess Bride than The Lord of the Rings. “The main theme for me – it’s a movie about a boy becoming a man, and he becomes a man by falling in love with the right woman. But it’s done in a way which is fun, not taking itself seriously at all, a feel good adventure romp. So it’s a movie for everyone: when you come out of the cinema I dare you not to feel good”. Gaiman, as producer, was happy to give Vaughn free rein. “He trusted me. Because every time I wanted to do a big change I always rang him up and said ‘Look, I’m thinking of changing this – what do you think?’ because I valued his opinion….If you’ve got someone who’s created the idea and it’s their baby. For me they’re the best person to ring up to discuss if you’re thinking of changing a scene”.

Vaughn was painstaking with his casting. Once he’d settled on Charlie Cox as Tristan “the poor guy had to do three months of auditioning for me to find Yvaine….it’s about the chemistry between the two. And I didn’t want to end up with Tango & Cash, you know, I wanted it to be the right chemistry”. Vaughn cast his Layer Cake star Sienna Miller as Victoria despite the potential for distraction given her tabloid fodder status: “She [Victoria] is the It Girl of the village so I think it worked for the character and that’s one of the reasons I cast her”. Vaughn laments Miller’s tabloid troubles. “I just feel it’s a shame her acting is getting eclipsed. Cos she does some good work, but – she doesn’t get known for it. But I say to her ‘Just keep persevering’ and eventually someone will say ‘Oh you’re a good actress as well!’” He also blasts the whole celebrity culture as being unhealthy for everyone. “The whole Jade Goody phenomenon I just scratch my head going, ‘WHAT does this tell you about England?’ I’m a big believer that fame should be a by-product of talent and success and I’m a big believer that years ago, and maybe its naïve of me, but great politicians or actors or poets or writers or comedians they weren’t trying to be famous, they were just trying to be the best at what they do, and then they became famous because of it”.

Directing Layer Cake after producing Guy Ritchie’s films reinforced the perception that Vaughn preferred small projects but he claims “I’ve always wanted to do big cinema”. But working on smaller projects made him determined not to have the CGI swamp the characters in his blockbusters. “A movie’s about having an emotional connection and telling a story and if you have that the special effects for me are an enhancement”. Stardust’s use of wirework for a dead sword-fighter is an example. “We had a big puppet sort of control thing to make him…we literally just said go limp and let us control him, in a way he was a puppet with the voodoo doll”. InDublin’s geekery finally erupted and we asked if he had any plans to film Neil Gaiman’s awesome graphic novel 1602. Only to end up explaining what 1602 is: superheroes of the Marvel Universe appear in 1602 at the Court of Elizabeth I…and Magneto is the head of the Spanish Inqusition. “Neil’s never told me about that!…that sounds cool – that sounds right up my street! I’m going to ask Marvel about that tonight! 1602?” After musing over the tangled film rights of the various Marvel characters Vaughn simplified the plot based on his friendship with Ian McKellen aka Magneto, “Make it at Fox. Have Fantastic Four and Magneto together…Spanish Inquisition. He’d get a lot of confessions…” Watch this space.

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

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