Robert Zemeckis’ high-tech “performance capture” adaptation of the Old English poem turns actors–Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Robin Wright Penn, John Malkovich, Angelina Jolie–into rubbery action figures. Only Crispin Glover, covered in a disgusting, festering texture, manages to infuse some sort of twisted soul into his Grendel. I saw this in 3-D, which is sorta groovy if you’ve taken some preventive aspirin, but it also further increases the sense of artificiality. The action sequences have all the excitement of a video game cut scene.

Beowulf is only one of a slew of recent movies that wouldn’t have been possible without The Lord of the Rings, and Zemeckis lifts dozens of shots directly from Peter Jackson. Of course, Tolkien in turn would be unthinkable without the Anglo-Saxon poem — and so we come full circle.

Long ago, in the Age of Heroes, I wrote an essay about “hyperfiction” that used the cheap carnival effects of early 3-D movies as metaphor for the teething troubles of a new form. I was tickled to see that even at this late stage, 3-D still means “Poles in Your Face,” along with all manners of swords, naked torsos, dripping saliva, and flaming arrows. It’s true that Neil Gaiman’s script manages to put a somewhat interesting spin on the original epic, but first and foremost, Beowulf is self-satisfied spectacle. I’d rather play God of War. Opens Friday.

Beowulf. Robert Zemeckis, 2007. **

A Mighty Heart

Angelina Jolie plays Mariane Pearl in Michael Winterbottom’s docudrama about the kidnapping and murder of her husband, the journalist Daniel Pearl. After United 93 and several other pointless exercises in dramatizing the “War on Terror,” you might ask: why bother? We all know what happened to Daniel Pearl–what’s the use in rehashing the story? Is the agony of a pregnant widow-to-be really worth sitting through, even if it’s portrayed by an A-list movie star?

Fortunately, Michael Winterbottom, the prolific and versatile talent behind The Road to Guantanomo, 9 Songs, and Tristram Shandy, supplies a convincing answer. As journalists, the Pearls believed that open dialogue would lead to better understanding. Unlike United 93, which was devoid of context and took liberties with known facts, A Mighty Heart, based on Mariane Pearl’s book, constantly refers to events before and after, to people’s motivations, to reasons, arguments, and possible explanations. The film is dedicated to the Pearl’s son Adam, and like the child that never met his father, we have much to gain from a better understanding of the complexities of what happened, and why.

In films like In This World and The Road to Guantanomo, Michael Winterbottom has perfected a semi-documentary style of filmmaking that relies on real locations, small crews, and serendipity to achieve an immediacy that’s rarely seen on the screen. A Mighty Heart was shot in Pakistan, and the presence of Angelina Jolie, in a wig and sans make-up, rarely distracts from the sense that we’re watching real events. From the teeming streets of Karachi, where Daniel (Dan Futterman) is last seen taking a cab to the guarded house where Mariane anxiously awaits his return, the texture of the film is full of impressionistic details that we couldn’t have gathered from the news. For some reason I can’t quite explain, I was especially touched by the way Daniel holds the microphone of his hands-free headset up to his mouth when he speaks to his wife.

The film narrates, from Mariane’s perspective, the days after Daniel’s disappearance on the way to a dicey interview on January 23, 2002 until his death is confirmed nearly a month later. The Pearl house quickly turns into the headquarters for the uneasy alliance of Pakistani and American agencies who are conducting a hectic search, along with journalists and editors from the Wall Street Journal. Emails and documents are searched for clues. A whiteboard fills with a tangled web of contacts, fixers, and mysterious sheiks. Pearl’s Indian colleague Asra (Archie Panjabi) is a accused of being an Indian spy. A chef is brought in to keep pregnant Mariane well-fed. Colin Powell announces that negotiating with terrorists is out of the question for the U.S. government. Suspects are taken into custody and interrogated. Mariane gives an interview on CNN but refuses to cry. A Pakistani toddler plays in the yard, his arms hennaed with curly patterns. The movie’s frantic bustle releases into an explosion of grief when Mariane finds out what we already know.

A Mighty Heart opens next Friday.

A Mighty Heart. Michael Winterbottom, 2007. ****

The trailer:

The Good Shepherd

Pretty good. Robert De Niro directs a terrific cast in a story that outlines the creation of the CIA from the thirties to the Bay of Pigs, with Matt Damon as stoically loyal spy. Angelina Jolie, Alec Baldwin, William Hurt, Billy Crudup, Timothy Hutton, Keir Dullea, Joe Pesci, John Turturro, and Michael Gambon make the nearly three-hour running time fly by, and it’s not until afterwards that you wonder about certain plot points. And how often do you see two movies on the same day where people try to buy their way out of Berlin by selling rocket scientists? Opens December 22.

The Good Shepherd. Robert De Niro, 2006. ***

[tags]film, 3 stars, spies, robert de niro, angelina jolie, matt damon, alec baldwin, william hurt, billy crudup, michael gambon, rocket science, cia, cuba, berlin, russia, cold war, world war ii[/tags]