the CGI likeness of Ray Winstone in BeowulfBEOWULF

In 1977's Annie Hall, there's a scene between Woody Allen's Alvy Singer and Diane Keaton's Annie in which the title character mulls over her adult-education options:


ANNIE: Does this sound like a good course - "Modern American Poetry"? Or, let's see now ... maybe I should take "Introduction to the Novel."

ALVY: Just don't take any course where they make you read Beowulf.


Thirty years later, I'm not sure I'd want to take a course where they make you see it, either.

For what it is, Robert Zemeckis' screen adaptation of the mythic, notoriously weighty Old English poem isn't bad. It has a solid, good-versus-evil storyline with a refreshing dose of moral ambiguity, it's painstakingly designed, and, employing the animated device of performance capture - a technique familiar from Zemeckis' The Polar Express, in which actors' physical characteristics are mapped onto computer-generated figures - it's certainly an awesome visual achievement. (The film is playing in both standard and 3D formats, and I'll vouch that the 3D effects are mostly outstanding.) Yet despite the gory bloodshed and the nudity and the Alan Silvestri score pummeling your brain, Beowulf is, far too often, the last thing you'd expect it to be: boring.

The stultifyingly clichéd genre tropes and prosaic dialogue would be enough to generate yawns, if not derisive laughs. Its central problem, though, lies in the digital technology that Zemeckis is so entranced with; watching the film is like watching two full hours of that "cinematic" video-game filler designed to give your fingers a rest between rounds. Since The Polar Express, progress has definitely been made in making human characters appear more life-like, but there's still a deadening blankness to their expressions - computer wizards, blessedly, haven't yet learned to animate a soul - and their actions subsequently have no force or weight. You hear the faux Ray Winstone bellow and listen to Angelina Jolie hiss, but you miss out on the presence, the anima, of the performers. Beowulf could be an epic blockbuster set in Madame Tussauds.

Watching the movie, you can understand Zemeckis' need for truly realistic characters here, as the more believable they are, the more believable their fantastical adversaries - and the damage they inflict - appear to be. Yet while the monster-fueled spectacles are legitimately spectacular, especially the climax's brilliantly rendered dragon fight, there's an emptiness to the movie that just can't be filled with digital expertise. (It seems almost perverse to cast Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich in your movie and then strip them of the vitality that makes them Anthony Hopkins and John Malkovich.) Like the recent 300, Beowulf is an ultra-violent fantasia for audiences with no need for humans ... or at least, for humans still in full possession of their entrails.


Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman in Mr. Magorium's Wonder EmporiumMR. MAGORIUM'S WONDER EMPORIUM

It's been so long since Natalie Portman last appeared happy onscreen - was it in Garden State? - that you can easily derive some enjoyment from Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium right off the bat. Playing a struggling classical pianist who's currently managing a living toy store owned by a 243-year-old magician (Dustin Hoffman, doing a benevolent Willy Wonka with an occasional lisp), Portman smiles a lot in the film, and when she does, she smiles big, radiating a genuine, effervescent cheerfulness.

Being Natalie Portman, though, she also cries a little, and the film's biggest failing - aside from its frequently forced wackiness and confused storybook narrative - is its inability to reconcile the goofy with the earnest; writer/director Zach Helm, who scripted the imaginative mind-bender Stranger Than Fiction, doesn't seem much comfortable with either. (The movie might have seemed better not arriving so soon after Bridge to Terabithia, which more effectively covers much of the same emotional terrain.) Still, it's an enjoyable-enough G-rated diversion, and it has some pleasing throwaways: Jason Bateman and the wide-eyed Zach Mills communicating through a pane of glass; a Curious George doll plaintively reaching out for someone to hug; Kermit the Frog, in a cameo, doing some light shopping. It's all fluffy and forgettable, and for parents of young children, it's easily the most kid-friendly option out there.


Giovanna Mezzogiorno and Javier Bardem in Love in the Time of CholeraLOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA

Most reviewers have not been kind to director Mike Newell's adaptation of Love in the Time of Cholera. The consensus seems to be Newell and screenwriter Ronald Harwood have turned Gabriel García Márquez's romantic masterwork into a substandard soap opera, trading the author's lyricism for heavy-handedness, and trashing the novel's metaphoric brilliance. I, however, haven't read the book. The movie still sucks. As it follows the poet Florenzo (Javier Bardem, initially too old for the role, and eventually acting too old for it) through a 50-year infatuation with the elusive Fermina (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), this well-meaning, desperately tedious offering is alternately vague and distractingly ham-fisted - John Leguizamo has never been worse, if that's possible - and the leads' pivotal relationship doesn't ring true for an instant. Love in the Time of Cholera is about a devotion that lasts a lifetime. The film itself seems to last just slightly longer than that.

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