Beowulf & Grendel 2005 ****


Didn’t I review Beowulf a few weeks ago? Aha, well spotted, but that that was Beowulf, and this is Beowulf & Grendel; yes, as you survey months ahead without a single cinema release circa 2020, over a decade ago there was such a glut of cinema around that there were competing films based around Old English epic poetry. Millennials might find it hard to believe but there was a worldwide mania for Old English epic poetry in the first years of this century; you couldn’t sit down in a Seattle coffee shop for grungy West Saxon scholars. Alas, Robert Zemekis’s Beowulf was not a hit, and neither was Sturla Gunnarsson’s earlier effort as viewed here, and the focus moved to Marvel now that the vogue for Hrothgar interpretation has faded.

Critic Nathan Rabin, always a good canary-in-the-coalmine when it comes to this kind of film, described it as going ‘entertainingly awry’, but while the director admitted that pretty much every aspect of this film went ‘awry’ in a feature length documentary Wrath of Gods (2006), the result is defiantly entertaining. Firstly, it’s got a much better Beowulf in Gerry Butler, freshly graduated from Strathclyde University’s law department and in his absolute prime here. The warrior fights the monster Grendel, and his mother, but strangely the events that provide the inciting incident for Zemekis’s film are the climax here, with ensuing pacing issues. In fact, Beowulf and Grendel has quite a different take on the source material, humanising Grendel, who we see playing 10-pin bowling with human heads and passing the time before revenging the death of his father. Much more is made of the tribal issues that Beowulf, pumped-up on herring and egg, solves, notably Eddie Marsan as a religious leader. ‘Christ? I’ve heard of him,’ muses an unconverted heathen. ‘Did you ever have much luck with trolls?’ Such anachronistic dialogue promises and delivers laughs for sure, but it’s clear that everyone is in one the joke; everyone mumbles about ‘f**king trolls’ and Stellan Skarsgaard’s boozy king curses ‘No-one eve tells me anything!’ He’s a king who bemoans ‘I’m a king whose balls are ground up on Instagram’ although I may have mis-transcribed that line; no subtitles were available.

‘Where there is superstition, there is practice,’ is a more stimulating line that sticks in the mind here, suggestive of the film’s demythologising of the subject without removing the magic; this Beowulf isn’t given to CGI, but stunningly shot locations in and around which tiny figures run, a unique look that, from all accounts, exhausted cast and crew. More information on the trials and tribulations of the shoot can be gleaned from the detailed EPK interview with Butler on the last day on the shoot, sitting in his Winnebago in full costume looking like every inch a football star giving a post-match interview.

Beowulf & Grendel made $100,000 on a sixteen million dollar budget, quite a feat, and yet it is, by Rabin’s terminology, a secret success. It has a unique, authentic look, a striking take on superstition and religion as non-exclusive, and big, big performances from Butler and Sarah Polley, red of hair, lustrous of make-up and relishing every second as an Irish soothsayer. It’s no surprise this whole enterprise was caviar to the general; the two box quotes on the DVD offer the faintest of faint praise ‘Gerald Butler is perfectly cast,’ gushes while dishes out the superlatives with ‘the movie is better than the book’. Neither or exist now, even if they existed back then, so questions might be asked about the authenticity of these pull quotes; bizarrely, it’s easier to trace Old Norse epics than identifying reviewing websites of 15 years ago. Beowulf & Grendel is a knowing, underrated, revisionist take on a legend that comes up fresh, funny and far better than it’s reputation suggests. Much like the title character.

99p on Amazon Prime in the UK, go on, you know you want to…

Underwater 2020 ***


‘You sweet, flat-chested elfin creature,’ is how Kristen Stewart gets described in Underwater, a slick, predictable but enjoyable horror/action hybrid that takes a lead from the highlights of the Alien franchise. Filmed in 2017, but sneaking out in 2020 as the last film under the 20th Century Fox banner now absorbed into Disney, it’s clear that Underwater’s belated release is a contractual obligation rather than a passion project; still, it’s a big film with a great star, and it’s far better than most of the misfits that appear in the January/February dump-slot.

It’s possible to imagine an alternate universe where Underwater is the big blockbuster of the year; about 1995 would seem like prime-time for William Eubank’s film, which hits the ground running as Norah Price (Stewart) struggles to protect the crew of the Kepler Minig station from a series of explosions, deep in the Mariana trench. Price manages to rescue her Captain (Vincent Cassel) and together they look for a way out, but there’s something in the water that doesn’t want them to leave. Before you can say Leviathan, Deep Rising, Deep Star Six or any number of genre titles, Price finds herself embarking on a hazardous walk across the sea-bed, with all kinds of Lovecraftian creatures in wait for her.

Underwater is a cut above most creature features, and suggests a project that could easily have been released under the Cloverfield banner. The timing of the film’s release give Stewart an uneviable 123 combo of flops, with Charlie’s Angels and Seberg barely making an impression, and yet the mark of a real star is that they’re good in everything, and Stewart is terrific in all three films. An action woman who doesn’t need any help from men, she’s got this, and manages to be the Ripley that Underwater needs. The gear shifts might be generic, but the dialogue has the right salty feel; “When you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there,’ is a good way to describe the miles of bad road that Price has to navigate.

It’s a shame that Underwater is being so comprehensively buried, and that this is seemingly the last gasp of the Fox imprint; the consolation that that Eubank’s film is a good example of the kind of lean, futuristic action movie that Fox did so well, but it’s unlikely that Disney will want to do at all. With the number of action movies, teen movies, comedies and other genres decreasing at the multiplex, it’s a shame that this kind of tough action movie is an endangered species. Stewart will go on to bigger and better things, but Underwater gives a spirited last hurrah for a lock-and-load ‘soldiers vs monsters’ thrill-ride.

King Kong Escapes 1967 ***

kongWith the current monsterverse toplined by Godzilla and King Kong seemingly running out of steam before it gets started, it’s fun to look back to a more low-fi time. The success of Toho’s Godzilla franchise led to exhuming the rights to the 1933 King Kong, and then reworking it so that there’s a fair fight at the end. So we still have an expedition to a remote island, called Mondo here, and we still have a giant ape who falls in love with a comely Susan (Linda Jo Miller). But there’s a new and absurd frame; Kong is working for the mysterious Dr Who (Hideyo Amamato) who, alongside Madame Piranha (You Only Live Twice’s Mie Hama) is hoping to use Kong to replace his Mechani-Kong, a metal replica of the ape. King Kong Escapes is much like many of Ishiro Honda’s films, good to look at if patchy in effects by today’s standard, although some of the models are delightful. But Mechani-Kong steals the show here, walking like a wrestler, with big boggly eyes and a metal smile that suggest an invention of Wallace and Gromit in the vein of Crow T Robot, he’s a wonderfully silly creation that causes mirth every second he’s on screen. With Kong looking somewhat threadbare, Mechani-Kong is considerably more amusing here than anything in the Pacific Rim series so far.

Noah 2014 ***


Darren Aronofsky’s biblical tale harks back to the weirder excesses of Intolerance rather than the more pious made-for tv reverence of Son of God; with huge stone monsters helping Noah to build his ark, this version of the age-old story deviates by some margin from the expected path of a religious film. Aronofsky uses the same flash-cut sequences to illustrate Noah’s dreams that he used in Requiem for a Dream, and there’s a feverish feel about the whole enterprise. Russell Crowe plays Noah as a tormented obsessive, in the manner of Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Driven by his vision of an earth under water, he ropes in his monster pals to build an ark and gathers his family, including adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). The second half of the film settles down for a sea-bound family drama, as Ila become pregnant and threatens the purity of Noah’s mission. Despite a uselessly flat ending, in which Noah’s journey is explained to him in a boringly straightforward fashion that removes the nuances from the story, Aronofsky’s epic drama is more fun than it needs to be, and benefits from a sincere performance by Crowe.

Q; The Winged Serpent 1982 ***


Unstoppable writer/director Larry Cohen reacted well after being fired from I The Jury, knocking up a fresh horror project in six days and enlisting David Carradine and Michael Moriarty as leads. Shepard (Carradine) teams up with Richard “Shaft’ Roundtree to investigate missing people who are being snatched off the street in NYC, with Moriarty’s loner a possible link to the killings. But who is responsible? Cue the winged serpent, a stop-motion creation of Harryhausen charm, who dives around Manhattan searching for unwary construction workers and sunbathing women to snack on, dropping body-parts on unsuspecting citizens. Q: The Winged Serpent fully deserves its cult reputation; it’s well scripted and acted, and delivers fully on its ridiculous premise on an obviously low budget.

The People That Time Forgot 1977 ***


Terry Gilliam once noted that if you put a blonde wig on Matt Damon (as he did in The Brothers Grimm), you have Doug McClure. The Virginian star found a second lease of life in the small but memorable genre of British period dinosaur movies, with 1977’s The People That Time Forgot a good example. A sequel to The Last That Time Forgot, Kevin Connor’s film conflates Edgar Rice Burroughs’ two follow up novels into on adventure, with Patrick Wayne leading an exploration to the Antarctic to rescue Bowen Tyler (McClure). Dana Gillespie is ideally cast as a comely cave-girl while Sarah Douglas snaps pictures of dinosaurs and Tony Britton worries on a nearby ship. An Apocalypse Now story for schoolboys, The People That Time forgot is a crisp entry in the lost world genre.

Jacob’s Ladder 1990 ***


Adrian Lyne made his name with 9 ½ Weeks, and somehow never escaped the accusation that his films were all flash and no content, despite managing hits (Indecent Proposal) and worthy misses (Lolita). His best, most troubling film was 1990’s Jacobs’s Ladder, a chilling portrait of mental disintegration featuring Tim Robbins a Jacob, a Vietnam veteran struggling to deal with life after the war. From a script but Ghost-writer Bruce Joel Rubin, Jacob’s Ladder is a psychological horror film, with Jacob’s terrifying visions realised in a disconcerting way by Lyne Inspired by the photography of Joel Peter Witkin, Jacob’s Ladder cleverly updates Ambrose Pierce’s template story “An Incident at Owl’s Creek’ to powerful effect, switching between fantasy and reality deftly, and the final twist is devastating given the emotional connection with Jacob’s characters that Robbins creates. Jason Alexander and Ving Rhames and Danny Aiello and amongst the capable support.

Dragonslayer 1981 ***


Disney in the early eighties found itself in a strange quandary; the family audiences it had long courted were returning, but the studio seems unsure of their material; 1981’s fantasy Dragonslayer was a flop, but one that’s far more accomplished than many hit of their time. Matthew Robbins directs this tale of a young knight (Peter McNicol) who joins with wizard Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson) to free the land of a fire-breathing dragon. The dragon itself is a fearsome creature, rendered impressively with a little computer-generated assistance, and it’s eggs hatch into an even nastier strain of creature. Pre Games of Thrones and The Hobbit, Dragonslayer features probably the best dragon on cinematic record, and the lavish design and an appearance from Star Wars’ Ian McDiarmid make this well worth chasing down for fantasy fans.!content/35561/Dragonslayer

Monsters 2010 ****


Gareth Edwards made his name with this ingenious low-budget monster movie, which wisely keeps its alien creatures off-screen for maximum effect, and focuses on the relationship between a world-weary journalist (Skeet Ulrich) and a well-heeled tourist (Whitney Able) as he tries to escort her through Mexico. The country has been partitioned due to rampaging monsters, and the love-hate relationship between the protagonist takes up more of the running time than confrontations with the creates, although when the set pieces come, they’re extremely well staged. Complete with an ambiguous ending that chimes with District 9’s suspicions about whether mankind are the true monsters, it’s easy to see why Gareth Edwards was quickly propelled to the A list for his Godzilla reboot.

Bug 1975 ***


Adapted from the novel The Hepheatsus Plague by Thomas Page, Jeannot Szwarc’s 1975 horror-thriller was good enough to win him the plum job of directing Jaws 2. Bradford Dillman plays James Parmiter, the scientist who stands in the way of a plague of fire-starting cockroaches released into the desert by an earthquake. Horror legend’s William Castle’s final film gives him a screen-writing co-credit, and the cheap thrills with which his name are associated are delivered in large helpings as the bugs attack the innocent bystanders in a small farming community. Making good use of mankind’s natural fear of creepy-crawlies, Bug is a more-than-decent genre entry.