If you must see "Beowulf," try to catch it in one of the 1,000 theaters where it will be shown in 3-D. Otherwise you will miss the full effect of the most visceral depiction of monster drool the cinema has afforded us: a long slimy gob of medieval spittle that threatens to land on our unprotected heads. The monster, as all English majors will know, is Grendel, whom the hero Beowulf slays in the oldest extant epic poem in the English—actually Old English—language. The spears that protrude from the screen are cool too, but this is a special effect you know is coming: it's the archetypal 3-D money shot.
Robert Zemeckis ("Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Back to the Future," "Forrest Gump") has always been on the cutting edge of new movie technologies. Here he lays 3-D on top of the motion-capture technique he explored in "The Polar Express." (Perhaps the most famous, and successful, example of motion capture is the computer-generated character Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, enacted by Andy Serkis.) Here Crispin Glover gets to play Grendel, a grotesque, misshapen giant whose skinless body resembles a nightmare version of a peeled anatomy in "The Body" exhibit. You won't recognize Ray Winstone, either, who plays Beowulf: the stocky, unglamorous, brilliant British actor has been transformed into a buff, blond superhero fond of shedding all his clothes at the slightest excuse. Other actors are instantly identifiable: Anthony Hopkins as the dissolute old Danish King Hrothgar, John Malkovich as one of his advisers, and Angelina Jolie as Grendel's shape-shifting mom. Though gold-plated like a Bond girl, the naked beauty who rises out of the water to confront Beowulf (and who seems to speak with the accent she used in "Alexander") could only be Angelina. More disconcerting than her long serpent's tail, however, are her feet, which appear to take the form of very chic high heels. The kitsch soul of Zemeckis's movie is hilariously captured in that image.
I can understand why Zemeckis, who possesses one of the boldest, most swoop-loving visual styles in Hollywood, would relish the freedom motion capture allows him to send his camera sailing anywhere it wants to go. But the director who once used special effects to pointed thematic effect now seems to use them just for effect. The most interesting thing about "Beowulf," alas, is its technology. It's the work of a man who has fallen in love with his toys, but I miss the wicked satirist who made "Used Cars." And the truth is the motion capture in "Beowulf" comes across as an unsatisfying compromise between animation and live action. It distances us from the characters. A lot of people complained that there was something creepy about the dead-eyed humans in "The Polar Express." The eyes may be less dead in "Beowulf," but there's still something creepy about the technology: it's a little like the figures in a wax museum coming to life. We're meant to be moved by "Beowulf," which writers Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary have freely adapted and embellished from the 10th-century epic, but did anybody ever weep over the tragic fate of a statue in Madame Tussaud's? Gaiman and Avary have actually made some interesting extrapolations from the original, and their vision of Beowulf as a flawed, hollow Faustian hero ought to have more of an emotional kick. But Zemeckis has been seduced by the siren call of motion capture no less than Beowulf has had his soul snatched by Grendel's deceptively beautiful mother. Memo to Zemeckis: come back to earth!
At the extreme other end of the cinematic spectrum is Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding." Small in scope, minutely focused on the emotional dynamics of a gaggle of neurotic urban characters, shot in dark, unslick images and wholly bereft of special effects, Baumbach's closely observed tale of dysfunctional family relationships has the microscopic texture of a New Yorker short story and the darting, spontaneous style of a French New Wave movie. But it too has a monster: the title character played, with jittery bravura and no emotional vanity, by Nicole Kidman. Margot, the mother of adolescent Claude (Zane Pais) is an unhappily married New York fiction writer who takes her son to the family's country home, where her long-estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is about to be married. The groom, the unemployed and unkempt aspiring artist Malcolm (Jack Black), is everything the skeptical Margot feared, and she's not shy about sharing her feelings. Margot is one of those people who, as soon as she spots the scab you're bearing, will pick it off. Insecure, passive-aggressive, manipulative, bossy, thin-skinned, she's a brittle nightmare, but Kidman understands her so completely you also feel the character's torment: Margot is smart enough to sense and be pained by the damage she wreaks. And she will wreak quite a bit before this misbegotten weekend in the country is over.
Baumbach, in his wonderful, semiautobiographical "The Squid and the Whale," explored the malign impact an egotistical writer father (indelibly played by Jeff Daniels) visits on his children. Here it's the intellectual mom who scorches the field. The cruelly funny "Margot at the Wedding" shares many of the virtues of "Squid"—it's psychologically astute, sociologically dead on, refreshingly unformulaic—but it's a considerably tougher, less ingratiating movie. People who insist on likable, "sympathetic" protagonists may find it a bitter pill to swallow.
Jennifer Jason Leigh (the director's wife), usually cast in fraught, neurotic roles herself, here gets to play the saner, more benign of the two sisters (though Pauline has her flaky, New Agey side), and she's wonderful. The push-pull, love/hate relationship between these two sisters is captured in swift, subtle strokes: you can feel the years of built-up ambivalent feelings in their every gesture. Black's loser fiancé may be too pathetic for the movie's own good—it's hard to disagree with Margot's judgment that Pauline is making a big marital mistake—and while you welcome the comic relief Black supplies, the performance is stylized to the edge of annoyance. Zane Pais is a discovery as Margot's sensitive son, who adores his mother in spite of her sometimes withering disregard for his feelings. (You may be initially unsure, as I was, if the longhaired Pais is her son or her daughter, so androgynous is his appearance.)
"Margot at the Wedding" is as personal as "Beowulf" is impersonal: it follows its characters where they take the story, with no concern for genre expectations. No swords leap out of the screen at you, no great winged dragons are slain, but the psychological battles it depicts draw deeper blood than anything Zemeckis's state-of-the-art computers can produce.