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Beowulf 

Movie buffs can be like sports fans supporting their favourite teams through losing streaks. They get very protective of the filmmakers they like. This makes some sense. If you love David Cronenberg, you're aligned to his sensibility and probably have more insight into what works in Eastern Promises than a casual moviegoer does. But it's also the job of a discerning critic to stay attuned, and admit it if Eastern Promises's one scene of memorable impact is self-consciously constructed for that effect. Or if Zodiac isn't as good as its proponents wish it was; if American Gangster isn't as strong as my Ridley Scott-fan friend argues. If The Heartbreak Kid breaks the Farrelly Brothers' streak. If Spider-Man 3 is no Spider-Man 2, and if Wes Anderson took the material in The Darjeeling Limited further in previous works.

It hurts more when the movie you're speaking against is by someone you've admired. Some would accuse me of blindly loving every Spielberg movie. But it's never blind. My appraisal counters the anti-Spielberg bias taught in film schools and found in alternative press by recognizing mastery. Spielberg is the greatest technical filmmaker of our era. Yet even I'll admit that he's fallible. I dislike Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade more than most of his non-fans do.

Despite the press Brian De Palma's getting for his good but frustratingly inconsistent Redacted (which premiered on cable channel HDNet two days before starting its slow expansion to theatres), some of the harshest reviews are from those who've been the director's most outspoken supporters. If you're a critic automatically programmed to like every movie a director makes, you're as useless to discourse as the critics who structure their reviews to comply with consensus opinion.

I was excited about director Richard Kelly when I saw Donnie Darko. Some of that faith was lost when Darko's director's cut indicated he didn't understand his own movie's strengths. Now it's completely obliterated with Southland Tales, which I caught in Hollywood last week. Calling it the year's most disappointing film is playing lightly. Kelly's failure on major levels of aesthetics, narrative and character only sounds defiant. If the movie opens in Halifax, I'll be interested to see its reception.

How does this lead into Beowulf? As a Robert Zemeckis fan, I wanted to love it. By the half-point it was obvious that love wasn't meant to be. But Beowulf is solidly good and that's worth something. The motion-capture animation Zemeckis pioneered in The Polar Express makes Beowulf, especially in the IMAX 3-D format, a big-scale action marvel. The script by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary stays largely true to the events of the Old English poem, a high school staple. It's the almost photo-real look that gives the tightly choreographed spectacle its abstract thrill: Actors and landscapes exist in fantastical plane between animation and live action. The movie even suggestively pushes boundaries in its eccentricities, such as Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie) laying down her dead son (Crispin Glover) in the shape of an aborted fetus.

In the warrior Beowulf's (Ray Winstone) pursuit of ridding monsters from a Danish kingdom, the movie's strict focus on being a great ride results in a hollow centre. Beowulf misses out on the awe that elevated Zemeckis's Back to the Future trilogy, Contact, Cast Away and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It's because of Zemeckis's involvement that the ride works this well. And it's because of his past movies that it disappoints.

Mourn your disappointments at palermo@thecoast.ca

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