Monday, November 19, 2007


The blurb at the start of the IMAX 3D version of Beowulf promised “the ultimate movie experience,” and I was hoping it would be – of its type, of course. After all, what better way to watch an epic action adventure scripted by graphic novelist Neil Gaiman than as a three-dimensional image on a four-story screen?

Beowulf is entertaining enough that I didn’t mind having spent a Sunday morning on it, but it was hardly a revelation. Some scenes, like one of a warrior galloping across a burning bridge just ahead of the flames, had me gripping my armrests, but I kept wondering why director Robert Zemeckis had gone to all that trouble to make things feel hyper-real with 3D cameras and CGI imagery only to shoot his actors in that motion capture mode that makes everyone look like a plastic action figure.

The director used the same technique in the creepily expressionless Polar Express. The technology has gotten somewhat better since – people’s eyes don’t look as dead -- but the cast of Beowulf still looks like a bunch of refugees from a Botox carpet bombing.

The 3D amps up the camp factor, as spears protrude to what feels like an inch or two from your eye. It also exaggerates the way distance changes perspective, separating an image into a series of unnaturally distinct planes. And the picture gets a little blurry every time the camera swoops or swirls, which it does a lot, giving me vertigo whenever it goes on too long. It’s as if John Candy’s Dr. Tongue, the character who simulated 3D on SCTV by swooping things right up to the camera and then away again, were in charge of the cinematography.

The screenplay supersizes the Old English legend, a pretty straightforward tale of heroism from a highly militaristic age. A young warrior named Beowulf conquers Grendel, the demon who’s been terrorizing King Hrothgar’s Denmark. Then Beowulf kills Grendel’s even more fearsome mother and a bloodthirsty dragon that shows up a little later, like the bonus round on a video game. Beowulf is killed for his trouble, but he dies a hero, his fame assured.

The screenplay, which was cowritten by Gaiman and Roger Avary, Quentin Tarantino’s writing partner on early movies like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, gives us a compromised hero and a pitiable monster, updating the 10th century fable for the 21st century with lines like: “We men are the monsters now.”

In this version, Grendel has major Daddy issues that explain his hatred of the king and his men, Beowulf is plagued by a guilty conscience, and the Danes are more hard-partying frat boys than they are the self-sacrificing warriors of the original. Swilling beer and harassing barmaid, they’re hardly admirable as they carouse in a new mead hall their king calls “a place of merriment, joy, and fornication.” So when the horrific-looking Grendel, the original party-pooper, rampages through that hall, tossing drunken warriors into the air while dripping gelatinous slobber, like a mastiff on steroids, you’re more fascinated by the verisimilitude of his flayed, misshapen body than you are put off by the gore.

Grendel’s formidable mother (Angelina Jolie) is also a trip. She’s not on the screen much, but the camera makes the most of every second, hugging her tight while she rises slowly up out of the water or circles seductively around Beowulf, purring promises in the same vaguely Translyvanian-sounding accent she rolled out for Alexander.

Jolie looks unreal enough without the help of motion capture technology. With it, she’s positively extraterrestrial, and she’s wearing nothing but a rather elegant tail, stiletto heels, and a kind of molten gold that drips slowly down her superhuman body. It’s an inspired piece of stunt casting, and it’s echoed – though it can’t be matched – by the equal-opportunity performance of the buff body double who does the acting for Beowulf (Ray Winstone provides the voice), who strips down for Beowulf’s big battle with Grendel. The technology is the real star here, but the naked bodies probably helped make Beowulf the best-selling movie in theaters on its opening weekend.

With its grimly gorgeous settings, faux-archaic speech, frequent and brutal hand-to-hand combat, embattled royalty and mythical creatures, Beowulf will probably remind you at times of Lord of the Rings. And that’s too bad for Beowulf, which is much thinner gruel than Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.

Still worth seeing, if you’re a fan of this kind of story. But hardly the ultimate movie experience.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

No Country for Old Men

“It’s very good that the Coens took the words Cormac wrote and didn’t try to ‘improve’ them,” said Tommy Lee Jones, sounding a lot like the master of understatement he plays in the movie, after a New York Film Festival press screening of No Country for Old Men.

Joel and Ethan Coen were incredibly faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s tale of an unstoppable killer and the good man he has on the run when they adapted it for the screen -- but then you’d expect as much from two such smart cookies. With its near-mythic characters, vivid imagery, spectacular violence, propulsive pacing, and minimalistic dialogue, the novel is nothing if not “cinematic.” Strip out the descriptive passages, collapse a few scenes, and run it through Final Draft and you’ve got yourself a kick-ass screenplay.

What I hadn’t expected was that McCarthy and the Coens would bring out the best in each other.

Both the novelist and the filmmakers take a pretty dim view of people in general, though McCarthy’s bleak pessimism seems to spring from a despairing view of human nature as essentially feral, while the coldness that characterizes much of the Coens’ work feels like the contempt a couple of smart, nerdy boys turn back on the crowd that once froze them out. Merging the two sensibilities in No Country for Old Men brings out the Coens’ often latent humanity and lightens McCarthy’s sometimes oppressively dark tone by a shade or two.

McCarthy’s story takes the Coens back to Texas, where they started their career more than 20 years ago with Blood Simple. But instead of the mouth-breathing yokel caricatures of their clever but snarky debut, this tale features a rich range of fully rounded characters – and a wise, plain as dirt local lawmaker who rivals one of the brothers’ greatest fictional inventions, Fargo’s Marge Gunderson.

At the heart of the story is a killer named Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who leaves corpses in his path the way Hansel and Gretel left bread crumbs. Chigurh is a human demon, implacable and unplaceable. Even his name seems to come from nowhere in particular, and so does his anti-stylish Prince Valiant haircut, a look so weird that it has gotten more press than most of the excellent supporting cast.

With his thousand-yard stare and the innocuous-looking but lethal machine he totes everywhere, Chigurh is a nightmare figure, the personification of the horror beginning to be rained down on either side of the Mexican border by dueling drug dealers in 1980, the year of the story. When Chigurh steals drugs and medical instruments and holes up in a hotel room to tend to his own gunshot wound, he brings to mind the Terminator, another unstoppable killing machine.

No Country for Old Men is a warning bell sounded about the damage being wrought by the U.S.-Mexican drug trade and the general degeneration of social codes in a world where, as Bell sees it, everything started going downhill when kids stopped saying “sir” and “ma’am.” Yet this ranks as a relatively hopeful story for McCarthy, whose post-apocalyptic landscapes are sometimes too sere to house a drop of human kindness. Chigurh may be the ultimate bad guy, but he’s facing off against an old-fashioned hero and another good ol’ boy gone slightly bad, and the two give him a tightly paced run for his money.

Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin in a breakout role) is a welder who stumbles upon the gory aftermath of a gunfight between rival drug runners in the West Texas brush. He impulsively makes off with the abandoned case full of cash, seizing a chance to transform his and his wife’s hardscrabble existence. Jones’ Bell is the sheriff who sizes up the situation and tries to save Moss and regain the money before the killers get both. Smart, capable men who know how to read people and how to get things done, both strive to do the right thing. And both are also married to good women who keep them grounded and soften their hard edges. (The wives are played by Tess Harper, who was born for roles like this, and by Kelly MacDonald, the Scottish star of The Girl in the CafĂ©, who plays that girl’s West Texas equivalent with the same quiet strength and a flawless accent.)

In his best role since Lonesome Dove, Jones plays the story’s moral center, drawing on his Texas bona fides, his dust-dry sense of humor, and that retro tough-guy gruffness that got so nicely tweaked in Men in Black. The movie preserves some of his musings as voice-overs to give us his perspective on how much more brutal things are getting in his part of Texas, where life has never been easy.

The story lopes forward relentlessly, as lean and focused as the three men at its core. On the way, it passes through a typical Southwest Texas landscape, including dusty towns with just one main street, gas stations and hotels and diners that haven’t had a face lift in half a century or more, miles and miles of featureless highway, and the Mexican border, that portal to an alternate reality.

The dialogue is pure Texas, too. Full of wry understatement, it’s as much about what isn’t said as what is. “It’s a mess, ain’t it, sheriff?” Bells’ deputy remarks as they survey the scene of one of Chigurh’s killings. “If it ain’t, it’ll do ‘til the mess gets here,” Bell replies.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Running Funny

On first impression, Anthony Grippa strikes you as a likeable, somewhat diffident guy, as much a watcher as a doer. But he obviously knows how to get things done: His first feature is one of the homegrown movies being shown at this year’s New Jersey Film Festival.

The film is Running Funny, and it’s part of the crop of extremely low-budget, do-it-yourself features by young filmmakers with a prosumer video camera and a story to tell. “I decided two or three years ago that I’d get a day job and make my life about getting this film made,” says Grippa, 25. “I watched as more and more of my friends started making more money and getting cool cars and apartments. But I have this film, which to me is a lot more valuable.”

Based on a play by Princeton-based playwright Charles Evered – who’s also Grippa’s uncle – Running Funny tells the story of Ed (Gene Gallerano) and Mike (Maximilian Osinski), friends just out of college who rent a garage together for a few weeks from a wise elderly landlord (Louis Zorich) while trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

Grippa read the play after graduating from Rutgers, when he was living in the same state of confusion as Mike and Ed. He called the man he calls “Uncle Chuck,” who has written movies as well as theatrical plays, and proposed that they turn his 1988 play into a screenplay.

The two agreed not to stray far from the play’s script. “We didn’t want to open it up to much to become something completely different, because the heart of the story is these two guys living in this small apartment-garage,” explains Grippa. “Also, we knew we couldn’t afford to open it up too much, since we’d need to shoot most of it in that one location.”

I wanted to just grab a camera and go do it
Grippa grew up in Upper Saddle River with his psychotherapist mother and two younger sisters. (His father, who runs a business in the Fulton Fish Market, lives with a second wife and their two children.) For the last couple years, he’s been living in Hoboken, working his day job at the Lincoln Center Institute for the Arts in Education, and making and marketing this film on his time off.

“I didn’t want to write a script and wait for somebody to give me $5 million to make a movie, because it just wasn’t going to happen,” says Grippa, who started making short movies in high school. “I wanted to just grab a camera and go do it. I think when you have less resources available, you really learn how creative you can be.”

Making his first feature was a much bigger production than making those high school shorts -- but it was essentially the same process on steroids. The most important thing, Grippa says, was “just committing to it, saying ‘This is what I want to do with my life.’

“I’m the co-writer, I’m the co-producer, I’m the director, I’m the marketing guy, I’m the caterer, I’m the sales guy. It’s basically the best film school I could ask for.”

Getting it made
Making the movie was “definitely a grassroots process,” he says. The key to success was telling everyone he came across about what he was doing, since “you never know who might want to help you out.”

The whole thing cost only $10,000, which he raised from “friends and family, and friends of friends and family. No amount was too small. Some people gave 20 bucks; some people gave a thousand bucks.”

Other things were donated too. He found the garage where they shot in Upper Saddle River after his hometown paper ran a story on the movie and a reader called to offer his garage, free of charge. “It was the first one we looked at, and it was perfect,” Grippa marvels.

An indie filmmaker operating on a shoestring has to be “a great communicator,” he adds. “You have to be able to get people as passionate as you are about what you’re trying to do.”

For his cast and crew, he rounded up a group of people, most of them also starting out their movie careers, who volunteered their time in exchange for adding a feature to their resumes. Grippa was hardly the only one who did more than one job. “The gaffer was also the sound guy; the grip was also helping out with wardrobe,” he says. “Everyone was wearing many different hats. I think everyone was working on it for two reasons: because they really cared about the story and to gain experience.”

For the actors who play Mike and Ed, there was a third reason: “the chance to work with Louis Zorich. They couldn’t turn that down,” says Grippa.

Zorich, who plays the landlord, is best known for his role as Paul Reiser’s character’s father on TV’s Mad About You and for cofounding the Whole Theater in Montclair with his wife, actress Olympia Dukakis. “Louis became involved because he was in my uncle's play The Size of the World about ten years ago when it ran Off Broadway,” says Grippa.

Getting it seen
“In a way, making the movie was the easy part,” says Grippa. “The hard part is getting people to care about it. How do you get them to see it?”

Hoping to interest a distributor in putting the movie into theaters or on DVD, Grippa submitted it to film festivals. So far, it’s been accepted by three, including the Woods Hole Film Festival, where he won the emerging filmmaker award. He does advance publicity for festivals, plastering area coffeeshops with flyers, contacting the media for stories like this one, and “telling everyone I see about the movie.”

And he doesn’t stop with film festivals. “I’ve done all this work for two years, so why do I want to put the life of this movie in the hands of these festival programmers?” he asks. So he’s also screening it at colleges that accept his offer to show the movie and answer questions afterward.

“I think you became a filmmaker by making films,” says Grippa. “I made my feature film for a third of the cost of one year of tuition at NYU film school. The technology is so accessible -- it’s all digital now. You just need a desire to do it and a camera.

“The bad thing is, since more and more people are making films it becomes more difficult to break through the pack.”