Saturday, December 08, 2007

Rope and Dragon Skin

So, good news: I've finished a new DVD. Yep', Dan Oniroku's ROPE AND SKIN, yet another Nikkatsu Roman Porno starring the always delectable TANI Naomi as a card dealer in 19th century Japan. When her boss is killed in a turf war, the boss' daughter is tricked by the new oyabun and it's up to Tani's magical egg filled cunt to save her. Can the virginity of her boss' daughter be protected? Will Tani be able to crack that egg with her vagina? How about cutting the banana? Will I post screencaps?!

No. Not yet, at least, 'cause I have a lot of nonsense I'd like to type out before posting pictures of (live action) Japanese vaginas spewing egg shells. But I offer to you this wank material solely because I love you.

Mmm, vintage Tani-sama.

Anyway, while GENOCYBER is damn near complete (stupid friggin' menus... ugh!) and basically going through final revisions, the next project - I'm excited to say - is, much like ROPE AND SKIN, going to be a surprise. My partner-in-crime is hooking me up with the incredibly awesome-yet-gross content, and he's transcribing the subtitles from an old VHS tape dupe. I don't want to spoil the surprise, but I'll say the following:

Chopped of hand. Tantou blade. PAL kiddy porno.

If you can't figure it out yet, I'll let the suspense tingle at your neither for a while. I promise... it's not what you think it is.

Nope. Not even close.

Anyway, I had a pleasant surprise for once. On my Anniversary - which was the 6th, "Four More Years!", etc. - I, somehow, talked my wife into seeing BEOWULF with me. I'll admit that, from trailers, I was expecting the film to feel like 300 Lite. I'm glad to say that I couldn't have been more wrong about what the film was, and I'll also say that the presentation was something special.

For those that don't know, I'm going away for the Holidays, but I'll be back with the New Year. I told my family, and my mother, sister, and mom's boyfriend (poor bastard) all pitched in to give us a gift certificate to the IMAX down in Hooksett, while gushing about how motherfucking awesome Beowulf was. Again, I already had my doubts - the CG looks like crap on all the TV adverts, though the initial Quicktime trailer didn't look so bad - and I'm actually glad I was given the card when I was, since had I gotten it during X-mas Beowulf would probably have been, y'know... gone. Not that my family stops to consider that theatrical showings are limited engagements, but whatever.

Also, fun story: we had a rough idea where the theater was, and ended up getting to a Cinemagic with an hour to spare. Great, we could play a few arcade games, I could take a leak, so as we asked for tickets we specified we wanted to see the 3D version. "Oh, that's the other Cinemagic. The one with the Imax." My wife noted that she could see my eye twitching when we realized what this meant. It also meant I needed to get some cash for tolls, and none of the gas stations did cash back, but all had ATMs. Vampires. So we ended up getting to the right theater, and found out that, sure enough, tickets were $13 a pop. Make that super powered AIDS vampires. At least after that $13 for a large drink, a literal plastic tub of corn and some junior mints didn't seem so bad. So I get to the theater with 5 minutes to spare and consider taking a leak after I get my seat... and previews have already started. Well, shit. Find a nice place to sit in the stadium seats... mmm, stadium seats... and away we go.

Being only the second Hollywood feature to create animation entirely via motion capture I honestly have trouble comparing it to anything I've ever seen before. There's elements of Hollywood epics, of awe inspiring 3D animated features, and occasionally, even objects thrust towards the camera like a bad 80s' sequel ending in "3D" (Friday the 13th, Jaws, Amnityville, etc.), but I do believe that the parts make up an entirely different whole. Beowulf isn't a mere shadow of genres that have existed before it, it's likely the first in a new entry of a plan that James Cameron has been working at for nearly a decade now: it's a film designed to blow audiences off of their couches, away from their 80" plasma screens and back into theaters where they belong.

All I can tell you is if Avatar and Battle Angel end up being even half as cool as Beowulf, it's a sub-genre I'll be glad to pay $13 to see at least once a year.

Discussing the plot should be a moot point to anyone who reads this, but I'll give it the once over anyway: Beowulf was the first story written in Old English in the form of an epic poem running over 3,000 lines. It concerned the titular hero, who saved the Geats (Swedes, nowadays) from the terror of a Cain descendant named Grendel by tearing the brute's arm off. Hailed a hero, his men were killed the next night by Grendel's vengeful and nameless Mother, to which Beowulf confronted her beneath the bog where she presided over her beloved son. Besting the witch, he returned and was crowned king, until as an old man his kingdom is threatened by a wyrm and Beowulf dies defending his country. Started as an oral poem somewhere between the 8th and 11th century, it was finally written down in the year 1010. Fundamentally a Christian interpretation of Geat legends it was "heroic" in the most traditional sense, in which the hero was a kind and strong man who bested inhuman monsters with his unflappable strength and resolve. It's not archetypical, it's damn near biblical in its' simplicity.

In 1997, Neil Gaiman - creator of the Sandman comic book series in the mid 80s, alongside other esoteric pieces about magic and the supernatural - co-wrote with film maker Roger Avary (The Rules of Attraction, Mr. Stitch, writer of Pulp Fiction) a modern day satire of the literal legend, and after nearly a decade of it rotting away director Robert Zemeckis (Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future) had a thought on how to bring it all together. The result is what we now have, a film that, while not quite perfect, probably lived up to everything the film possibly could have hoped to be regardless.

First off, let it be said that the Beowulf in this film is not the infallible hero of legend: he's a braggart, a liar, a womanizer and is flatly unapologetic for any of it. Similarly Grendel is less a monster and more a miserable wretch, a creature who's literally rotten from the inside and lashes out at mankind through bouts of unbearable pain, hoping that should mankind perish he'll finally be free of his own personal Hell. This very starting point - in which Beowulf is more a monster than Grendel - has fundamentally inverted the source material, and it's not going to change for the remainder of the picture. When Grendel's nameless mother turns out to be Angelina Jolie covered in melted gold with a tail (or sorts) the legend is officially null and void, and we know that Beowulf will only fight a dragon because, if he didn't, there'd be no reason to name the film version Beowulf.

That said, I don't mind the dramatic changes that have been made since it gives the piece some emotional gravity. While the original is exciting and fun because of its' simplicity, what we have here is a story in which the "monsters" that our heroes face are literal reminders of their own sins. Man being a monster wasn't something people wanted to hear a thousand years ago. They wanted to believe that they were inherently good, and that their inherent goodness was juxtaposed by inherent badness all around them. Well, I don't see any wicked beings, but if I want to feel better about myself, hell, I'll make up some demons and it'll all work out. Nowadays the majority of people know that the only creature capable of performing wicked and evil deeds is their fellow man... maybe chimpanzees, the jury's out on that one. Unless we want to see movies in which we fight armies of evil chimps - and Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes proved we don't - we need to find a way to make that evil part of ourselves more engaging. Gaiman found a way, and used the structure of Beowulf to craft something beautiful and human out of it. Certainly scholars will likely be pissed, but that's not who movies are made for, so... nyah.

Let it be said that, for all of Gaiman and Avery's work, it could have been for naught if the film was given to an idiot to direct. Mercifully Zemeckis - despite having produced nut-punches like Gothika - is more than up to the task of crafting a continually exciting, and most surprisingly, adult film. Nudity - equal parts male and female - is paraded around on a regular basis, and violence - while far from "realistic" - is still quite shocking and gory. Watching Grendel's inverted ear-drum punctured shortly after a blade in his head literally ejaculates pus is about the most disgusting thing I've seen in a PG-13 rated film, though I'll admit that it's no more shocking than watching Anthony Hopkins almost drop his toga... in 3D. Stew on that one for a moment and then shove a fork in your mind's eye. I honestly can't remember the last time I felt the MPAA was asleep at the wheel, though I'll admit that I can't help but wonder if Beowulf's mysteriously shadowed crotch during his second battle in the feature was the result of later tinkering, or planned from the start. It's easy to see why Zemeckis wanted to do a simultaneous PG-13/NC-17 release, though it looks to me like he got the latter and they mistakenly put on the rating of the former. I can deal with that.

For a moment I'll compare the film to Zach Snyder's 300, only because... well, I sort of have to, since all the marketing WB is flinging our way is trying to make the two look similar. They are not. Not even close. 300 pushed the boundaries of what "live action" cinema could do, and took the aesthetic of video games and comic books and put them into a (vaguely) historical setting to literally re-define what the word epic means. It was a Heavy Metal Historical War Film, and yes, I'm very much hoping this becomes a sub-genre with a lot of entries, no matter how bad they may be. Beowulf's cold and colorless lands is less trying to look like Snyder's masterpiece than it is simply presenting Sweeden (or saw it Denmark?) as a lifeless Hell in which monsters run amuck, and the set pieces on display have more to do with the over the top antics of Die Hard or Terminator 2 than they do UFC or Mortal Kombat. Beowulf sits comfortably as a contemporary version of a classic Hollywood epic (despite being animated), and as such the only real comparison between it and 300 is the fact that I adore both films, and can't wait to buy the both of them on Blu-Ray someday. Or DVD if they're under $10 and my "no more Hollywood films in standard definition" position finally breaks.

Well, that and the fact that Beowulf is actually more naked than Leonidus, a feat I'm more than impressed by. Kudos on that. I still can't tell if I saw CG sac, but I'm almost sure I did at least twice.

More than the film is kinky of bloody, however, it's always exciting. Grendel throwing grown men around like they were rag dolls, Beowulf emulating The End of Evangelion gags with one eyed sea serpents, and the final non-stop chase chained to a classic fire breathing dragon (not exactly a wyrm, but again, the scholar in me has to STFU for a minute) is genuinely breath-taking stuff. The sort of thing I'd expect to find in a mindless Hollywood blockbuster without any of the sex, violence and substance that I'm wallowing in already. I'll also say that, while early on the "spear" gag (you'll know the one) gave me uncomfortable memories of Friday the 13th Part 3-D juggling apples at me for 5 minutes straight, most of the 3D work here was blended in such a way that it simply works as a natural part of the film instead of a disposable gimmick. Only once or twice did I ever feel like the 3D was truly forced, and as virtually every single shot has multiple layers to sift through that's nothing short of unbelievable. My grumpy tendencies at first made me say "Oh come on, we're actually hanging from a dragon's belly? You have got to be-" but this bitchy thought was quickly replaced with an involuntary movement of the head to avoid a tree branch from hitting me in the teeth. I could argue that such effects are manipulative, gut-reaction inducing insults to the mind of those who don't want to have their faces shoved in it... but what can I say. It's the most exciting manipulation I can remember having since being "forced" to watch the killings in Argento's OPERA with those lovely leering close-ups of the needles in the viewer's eye.

For all the spectacle and 21st century reimagining of classic "hero" storytelling, the film does have its' technical faults. While the motion capture CG of the men is pretty much spot on all the way through - it's difficult to remember that Ray Winstone isn't a scarred golden God with the way he bellows and snarls - they're lucky in generally having fairly short coarse hair and wearing body armor. The women, while elegant and beautiful in their own right, were cursed with flowing dresses and soft billowing hair that just doesn't look quite as believable. It's still immeasurably better than anything I can think of in terms of competition - Shrek and Final Fantasy doesn't have shit on these girls - but they were a reminder that, no matter how impressive the film is in person, it's still animated. The sea serpents also have a difficult to explain artificiality to them - impressive as they are - but in the context of Beowulf boasting of his accomplishments, perhaps this was intentional? I'm more than willing to believe that Zemeckis is smart enough to give the "fake" creatures a sort of muppet look, and as such will write it off as less of a flaw than a warning to potential viewers to expect these guys to look a bit cheesy.

If anything Crispin Glover steals the show as Grendel, who despite looking like a 15 foot tumor covered zombie acts just like a giant child with all the flailing awkwardness of a cranky toddler left too long at daycare. Despite him horrifying the audience early on (and as stated prior... he's gross), watching him speak to his mother filled with pain and shame, even when we can't understand the words, is so pathetic that I doubt the performance would have been any more convincing had the feature been live action.

I'll give special mention to Jolie for a moment since... well, as you may already know, I'm not a fan of hers. In fact I think that, much as I love Oliver Stone's epic trainwreck Alexander as much as any man could, she's the single worst part of it. Collin Farell is not as bad as Jolie with her clunky sounding Russian accent that, I swear, is an emulation of whoever the hell voiced Lamika in the English dub of Vampire Hunter D 15 years ago. It's really that awful. I also don't get why the world wants to fuck her. Okay, she's live action Laura Croft. Think about that. She is a surgically enhanced perfectly replicated version of a decade old Playstation game model. (Find me some live action D.O.A or Rumble Roses girls and we'll talk about video games being sexy.) If I want to jerk off to artificial women who meet my every requirement of my own personal definition of hawt, well, that's why I have a shelf full of hentai DVDs and a hard drive overflowing with wank manga. In short, she's a generally shitty actress who's been over-rated simply because she's got big fake lips and big (possibly) real boobs. But I see through the shtick, and over time I've grown bitter towards her for it.

That said... she actually wasn't bad here, despite speaking in Old English as much as she did, uh, New English. Her motion capture looked far more natural than Beowulf's wife or mistress, and while I may not find Jolie amazingly hawt, anything with boobs slathered in melted gold with a twitching tail is enough to get me off, so Jolie or not... yeah, this was Kentai Approved Hawt. That said I doubt I'll ever manage to like her unless she winds up in Miike's upcoming YATTERMAN. If that happens I don' think I'll have much choice in the matter.

Also, hilarious midget exploitation and background chatter in Old English. I don't know where to mention these in the context of a critique, but had I neglected to mention them I'd feel really bad.

You'll notice I haven't said much about the individual set pieces, or about many of the drastic changes that the legend has undergone. This is because I honestly want anyone who reads this but hasn't seen it to give it a shot. If you like 1,000 year old epics, you'll like it. If you like fascinating character pieces focused on wicked men and their sins come back to haunt them, you'll like it. If you just like watching dragons breathe fire and fuck shit up (and if you don't, get the fuck off my blog) you'll like it. It's not often that I go into a film expecting one or two things to like and found myself enjoying pretty much everything, but sure enough it happened.

For a grumpy jerk like me to have warmed up to a PG-13 fantasy that essentially takes a shit on a 1,000 year old legend I'm familiar with, it had to have done something right. Maybe you guys can figure out exactly what that was.

I also have to bow to the beauty that is IMAX. For the first time in my life I realized I was watching film - actual celluloid, with scratches and dirt and everything - that had absolutely no grain. I didn't believe such a thing was possible, but between the gorgeously crisp print and the crazy full on color 3D glasses, I could believe that should I lunge at the screen I'd literally be standing next to Grendel and feel his drool all over my face. The sound was also impressive not because it was loud, but because I could actually understand every line as opposed to half of the background chatter just being a loud boom like I get from most theaters I go to. While $13 a ticket is about twice of what I'd pay elsewhere, I'll begrudgingly say that it's worth it, and I wish I'd known before I saw 300. Not that I'd have been able to use that coupon for a free IMAX showing, but still.

This is easily the last thing coming to theaters that I'm interested enough in paying to see. I AM LEGEND could be fun (Will Smith remaking Vincent Price... who knew?), but until RAMBO comes out I think I'm all set. I'm just incredibly glad that it all ended on a high note with Beowulf instead of the "not bad, but..." that I felt with 30 Days of Night.

What's that? You want more Tani? Oh, all right.

"Check out THAT sideboob."


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