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…

Stories We Tell 2013 ***


Actress Sarah Polley has made quite a career for herself as an actress in popular movies like the Dawn of The Dead reboot, and as a director with Away From Her and Take This Waltz. For the documentary film, she turns the camera on herself and her own family, and documents her own search for her real father. Using home movies, she builds up a picture of her mother and family life, then embarks on a series of interviews with her adoptive dad and the man she believes his her real father. Stories We Tell ruminates intelligently on the way people can lie to themselves about who we are, and Polley includes herself in this equation; she demonstrates how she has to fake elements of the story to deal with them. Where most documentaries happily take on the mantle of truth, Polley’s film looks with admirable honesty at the nature of lies and why we need them to survive.

Exotica 1994 ****


The title Exotica has a double meaning; not only does writer/director Atom Egoyan focus on the exotic dancers of the Exotica nightclub on the outskirts of Toronto, but the pet-shop run by Thomas (Don McKeller) is funded through the illegal import of bird’s eggs. This playfulness is part of the ingenious notion of Egoyan’s thriller. He intercuts a developing triangle of unrequited lust, as auditor (Bruce Greenwood) enjoys nightly dances from Christina (Mia Kirschner) under the watchful eye of club DJ Eric (Elias Koteas), with a search for a missing girl’s body. Whether this search happens before or after the club tensions is initially unclear, but that’s part of Egoyan’s game; he misdirects the audience brilliantly into expecting a different story to the one he delivers. Greenwood is excellent as a father with a dark past, and there’s a telling role from Sarah Polley as his niece.  Exotica is a brilliant low-budget noir, moody and provocative, but humane in its message.

The Sweet Hereafter 1997 ***


Armenian director Atom Egoyan’s output is patchy; his best work, like Exotica, is dense and brilliant, but his willingness to look at the darker side of work has kept him well away from the mainstream. His 1997 adaptation of Russell Banks novel  is a sober, sobering drama about a small town where a generation of schoolchildren have died in a bus accident. Into the town comes Mitchell Stevens (Ian Holm), an insurance investigator who has troubles of his own; he saved his own daughter years previously, but has become detached and removed from her. Stevens begins to work his way through the accounts of the grieving parents, and Egoyan skilfully uses flashbacks to skip back and forward to the town pore-accident and the aftermath. The use of Robert Browning’s poem about the Pied Piper is one of the few obvious clues to Egoyan’s intent; The Sweet Hereafter is a haunting lament for lost innocence. Bruce Greenwood and Sarah Polley are amongst the supporting cast.

Go 1999 ****


Bridging the gap in Doug Liman’s progress from indie kid (Swingers) to blockbuster director (The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith), Go is one of the few Pulp Fiction-style films that really works. Three stories are interlaced in time via John August’s script, but the central element is a drug deal in LA one Christmas Eve. Sarah Polley plays Ronna, a check out girl who is covering for dealer Simon (Desmond Askew) and when two customers hit her up for pills, decides to make some money by trying her luck as his profession. She’s quickly out of her depth in her interaction with professional dealer Todd (Timothy Olyphant). Intercut with Ronna’s problems are Simon’s trip to Las Vegas and the adventures of Ronna’s customers Adam (Scott Wolf) and Zack (Jay Mohr), with August’s script cleverly drawing the disparate threads back together. Go has energy, neat performances, an original idea and plenty of off-beat notions; the story might be about teenagers looking for cheap thrills, but Liman’s film is an adrenaline rush for all ages to enjoy.

Away From Her 2006 ***


Adapted with great sensitivity from Alice Munro’s short story The Bear Came Over The Mountain, Sarah Polley’s directorial debut rises far above the disease-of-the-week TV movie genre. Set in a snowy Ontario, Polley’s script depicts the internal angst of Grant Anderson (Gordon Pinsnet), who notices that his wife Fiona (Julie Christie) is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Reluctantly accepting the need for Fiona to be in a residential home, Gordon has to face a stark reality when it becomes apparent that his beautiful wife has forgotten his caring touch, and started a relationship with another man. Mental illness is often stigmatized in cinema, but Polley takes a less judgmental tack, sticking closely to the emotional journey of her characters and maintaining sympathy for all parties in an unusual take on sexual jealousy. Pinsent and Christie are magnificent, capturing all the nuances of a sophisticated relationship foundering on the rocks of a difficult reality.

My Life Without Me 2003 ***


Writer/director Isabel Coixet’s 2003 adaptation of Nanci Kincaid’s short story might look on paper like a conventional weepie, but it’s nothing of the sort. Sarah Polley plays Ann, a young mother of two who discovers that she has terminal cancer, and decides to get on with her life with a vigor that that previously escaped her. Never as sentimental as the ‘bucket list’ storyline suggests, Coixet’s film features Scott Speedman as Ann’s husband, Mark Ruffalo as a lover, and Debbie Harry as he caustic mother. Each character manages to be more than a stereotype; My Life Without Me is a tear-jerker that never strays into schmaltz.

Last Night 1998 ***


Writer director and star Don McKellar summed up the pre-millennium angst of 1998 with this moody, multi-character drama. Last Night focuses on the last evening of planet earth, and follows a selection of Toronto residents as they try and find some accommodation with themselves as the world ends. McKellar calls in support from fellow Canadian directors Sarah Polley and David Cronenberg in supporting roles, as well as Sideways star Sandra Oh. A cold, reflective piece, McKellar’s intimate film sits nicely alongside melancholia as an end-of-the-world piece that ducks sci-fi cliché in favour of existential angst.