A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 477 – The Brothers Grimm

The Brothers Grimm – June 20th, 2011

We saw this movie in the theater, you know. It’s a Gilliam film and it has Heath Ledger and Matt Damon and Jonathan Pryce! It’s a twisting and retelling of classic fairytales! How could we resist, right? Because those all sound like the makings of a fun movie. I certainly enjoy new takes on old fairytales and the cast has quite a few names we enjoy. So off to the theater we went. And rarely have I left a theater feeling as let down as I did then. It’s immensely frustrating and at the time I couldn’t even really articulate why. And given that at the time I wasn’t taking any classes in film analysis and I wasn’t working on a project like this, I didn’t bother trying. Tonight it seems I will have to.

Really though, it’s difficult to put my finger on it. There’s just something so off about this movie. It’s not the premise, which I enjoy. According to this movie’s version of the world, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm weren’t just traveling around researching folktales. They were a couple of con men using local legends to scare villagers into paying them to get rid of ghosts, monsters and witches, all of which were fabricated by the Grimms and their assistants. And along the way Jacob gathered a wealth of information and stories until they happened upon a story that wasn’t just a story but was real. That’s a great idea! I would be totally on board with that!

The trouble is that in order to force Jacob and Wilhelm into actually investigating a real supernatural disturbance, the movie gives them a real life antagonist. Two antagonists, actually. There’s the French General, Delatombe (played by Jonathan Pryce) and his associate, an Italian assassin named Cavaldi. They capture the brothers, sentence them to death for fraud, then offer them a deal if they will investigate a series of missing children and prove there is no supernatural cause for their disappearances. So off Jacob and Wilhelm go and of course there is a supernatural cause for the children’s disappearances and they have to use what they’ve learned of folklore to save the day. The thing is, here, that the movie divides its antagonism between the supernatural and the mundane. They go up against the evil queen in the tower in the enchanted forest while pursued by Cavaldi and his men. They attempt to rescue the missing children while Delatombe is interested in ordering them tortured. It’s so split and scattered and I would far rather have had the real world stuff be the impetus without getting in the way later on. They’ve got enough to deal with when it comes to the queen in the tower – or they should.

Which brings me to my next issue. The queen in the tower is a fantastic melding of elements we’re all familiar with. She’s in love with her own image, stating that she is the fairest of them all. She wants eternal youth. But she’s also isolated high in a tower and has grown the most luxuriously long hair. I very much like Monica Belluci’s performance here (much as I like almost all the performances, actually) but she’s just not given enough to work with. This should be the story of how Jacob and Wilhelm discovered that the fiction they’d spent years researching was truth after all, but the queen just isn’t given enough time or space to be the true villain of the movie and that forces the supernatural element of the plot into a secondary position. But it’s such a fundamental part of the whole movie that it doesn’t fit comfortably into a secondary position. So the supernatural and mundane aspects just spend most of their time not meshing at all. They’re pieces from two very different puzzles and all the pounding in the world won’t make them fit together.

To be honest, I would have preferred if the whole movie had been the supernatural stuff. Lose the French military and torture chamber and Italian assassins and all that nonsense and just railroad Wilhelm and Jacob into the situation with the villagers themselves! There’s even a strong willed and highly-skeptical-of-them woman in place to give them a reason to stick around (of course they both fall for her) or, alternatively, to keep them from leaving since her sisters were the first children to disappear. And she’s a trapper and knows how to use lots of sharp instruments. If the whole movie had stayed in the realm of fantasy then maybe it would have worked.

Because, you see, I like the whole rivalry between the brothers, with Jacob being the scholar who’s truly fascinated by these stories and Wilhelm being the practical one who’s using them to make a living (a dishonest living but a living nonetheless). There’s plenty of material for them to butt heads over here and Heath Ledger did a wonderful job as the bookish and somewhat timid Jacob while Matt Damon was a lot of fun as the forceful and outspoken Wilhelm. They play off each other nicely and I enjoy watching their scenes together. I’m even willing to allow for Angelika as a point of rivalry between them because she is otherwise an extremely strong character who could kick both their asses without breaking a sweat and saves said asses at least once, so she’s more than just a damsel and she’s played very nicely by Lena Headey. Yes, some of the fairytale references are somewhat forced, like the Gingerbread Man bit, which just seems goofy. It’s not like the original Grimms stories aren’t full of disturbing ways in which children can disappear. And I’m sure Gilliam knows many of them, if not all. But I can let that pass. What I can’t let pass is Cavaldi.

Now, I will not blame Peter Stormare for this entirely. Yes, it’s his performance, but well, the character was written to be a mix of villain and comic relief. And I just can’t quite see the combination of torturer and assassin with bumbling buffoon. It makes both the buffoonery seem bizarrely sinister (and not in a fun way) and the torture seem more foolish than it should be given that it is truly threatening. Stormare didn’t write this part for himself. And when Cavaldi makes a rapid 180 mid-climax and switches sides, telling Delatombe that he wishes to resign? I’m just left baffled. He was given so little screen time with lines that made it possible to see such a switch as believable. Sure, Jonathan Pryce gets an odder character in the overly-accented Delatombe, who enjoys eating freshly ground kitten and cheerily burns forests to the ground. But Cavaldi gets more time. It’s just not the time he needs in order to be a good character.

I just wanted so much more from this movie than it gave me. I wanted Gilliam-esque fantasy with oddities and strangeness and his take on the fairytales we all know. And I love the mirror queen and how the huntsman fits in, and the wolf, and then there’s the horrific spiderweb horse and the crows. The fantasy elements work for me. I can even handle the minor comic relief of Mackenzie Crook and Richard Ridings (who has one of the most distinct voices I’ve ever heard) because I like both actors and because truly, they belong with the Grimms in the forest. But instead I got not enough of what I did want and a whole pile of what I didn’t want and it didn’t come together well enough. It didn’t really come together at all.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Brothers Grimm

June 20, 2011

The Brothers Grimm

I feel like a traitor when I say that I don’t love this movie. It’s a Terry Gilliam movie about the true fantasy and horror behind farie tales. It stars Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. It has big budget special effects and a cool look to it. It even has Jonathan Pryce for that Brazil/Baron Munchausen touch. It seems custom made to my particular tastes, and yet it somehow doesn’t capture me as it should.

I love the premise of the movie. It posits that the Brothers Grimm, who archived fairy stories in the 1700s, were actually con artists who used superstitious belief in the stories they compiled to trick people into paying them to get rid of witches and demons of their own creation. They are captured by the French authorities, who send them to a little German hamlet that the French believe is the victim of a similar band of hucksters. Of course it turns out that this little village is actually cursed and there is real magic afoot.

I can’t complain about the performances of the three lead cast members either. Matt Damon plays the elder Grimm, Wil, who is a cynic and a weasel. He wants only to find a way out of the fix he and his brother have found themselves in, and maintains long after it should have been impossible to do so that there is a rational explanation for all the bizarre happenings they witness. Heath Ledger is Jacob, the impulsive younger brother, who actually wants to believe that the stories could be true. Between the two of them is Angelika, played by Lena Headey. She is a tough, tortured hunter whose sisters have already gone missing and whose father was taken by wolves. She knows the mysterious ways of the forest, which interests Jacob and irritates Wil.

Take that plot and those performances and Terry Gilliam’s imagination and visual flare and put it all together and you should have an absolutely golden movie. So what went wrong?

I have two primary complaints about the movie. The first is the “comic” relief. We have the two bumbling assistants to the Grimms, for example. They are not particularly funny to start with, much to my disappointment because I enjoy both of the actors portraying them, and ultimately they meet grizzly ends, which just makes me sad. Then there’s the ruthless, torture-mad, crazily accented Italian assassin sent along by the French to keep the Grimms in line. Peter Stormare plays Cavaldi as though he’s trying to steal every scene he’s in – all mad Robin Williams energy – but he’s just not fun to watch. It also robs the movie of much of its power that one of the primary bad-guys (who is supposed to have this great redemption arc) is flamboyant when he should be sinister. The other primary villain, DeLatombe, has the same issue. He’s the despotic French general sent to subdue the superstitious peasants in the German countryside, and he’s the one who not only captures the Grimms but sentences them to their task on pain of torture and death. He’s supposed to be the engine that drives the whole plot, but he’s played so ridiculously by Jonathan Pryce that it makes me want to just skip every scene he’s in. (I liked Pryce much better as the officious bureaucrat bad guy in Muchausen.)

The other issue I have with the movie is that it tries so hard to fit the fairy tales into the horror of the movie. In some cases it works, like the abduction of a girl in a red hood. In some cases it feels laboured and forced, like Hanz and Gretta leaving their trail of bread crumbs. And in some cases it simply doesn’t fit the mood of the story at all and breaks the tension, like when one girl is abducted by a living mud blob (which is fairly terrifying since it steals her mouth and eyes) and it then turns into a ginger-bread man and makes a joke about how delicious it is. The movie is at its best when it keeps things simple and primal. There’s a bewitched werewolf which is a tragic sort of figure and very cool. There’s an evil witch who enchants people using her beautiful reflection. There’s a wonderful scene that Amanda describes as “good old nightmare fuel” when a horse with spiders in its mouth spits out webs and ensnares a helpless girl. And there are the shambling trees with their grasping vines. All of these elements come from no specific story but feel more honest and real than the contrivances meant to link to stories from the Brothers Grimm.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s a great, dark, touching fairy tale for adults buried in this movie, but it’s not allowed to come out and be its own entity. Instead it is marginalised by the capering of the supposed villains and confounded by attempts to make the darker story into something that it’s not. It’s as though two movies collided here, and the resulting mess is neither as self referential and amusing as it wants to be nor as dark and sinister as it appears visually. Luckily for us we own the two movies that collided here in their more pure and unadulterated form. The light-hearted and satirical look at fairy stories is Into the Woods, which we’ve already reviewed. The dark fairy tale for adults is the brilliant and astonishing Pan’s Labyrinth, which we will have to review someday soon to remove the sandy taste of disappointment left by this movie.

June 20, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 440 – Brotherhood of the Wolf

Brotherhood of the Wolf – May 14th, 2011

This is a movie I’ve been hearing little things about for some time. I’ve meant to watch it for ages, but it’s so long! And it’s subtitled! And it seemed pretty dark. All together that’s a pretty hefty movie viewing experience, so I put it off. And put it off. And put it off. Until tonight when we had the time and Andy suggested it and a long dark French period piece sounded like a good idea. I don’t know why it appealed to me tonight and not some other night before now, but it did and so we put it in utterly ignorant of what we were actually going to end up watching.

I’m not entirely sure how to even begin to describe this movie. It isn’t any one single type of story. It isn’t even two types. It’s a whole laundry list of genres combined into something unlike anything else I’ve ever seen before. Oh, I’ve seen period action, which is part of what this is. I’ve seen political drama, which it also is. I’ve seen political action and period political. I’ve seen mysteries and martial arts and supernatural themes woven in through intrigue and I’ve seen many combinations. But not all of them in one place. Oh, I’m sure they exist, but I haven’t seen them. But now I have seen this and it is a wonderful thing to know that it exists.

The story is apparently at least superficially based on actual historical events involving a beast or beasts that killed a large number of people in south central France between 1765 and 1767. The exact nature of the beasts responsible for the historical killings is still debated, though there were two large wolves killed at the time which seemed to stop the attacks (if you’re curious, try poking around the links in the wikipedia article on the beast). In the movie the beast attacks are merely the hook to draw the viewer into a story of political intrigue, religious fervor and a small and somewhat isolated town terrorized into submission. It appears to be a supernatural thriller but really, Sherlock Holmes might as well be in play here, for all the actual supernatural events that happen.

The main character in the movie is Grégoire de Fronsac, a royal taxidermist and naturalist who studies animals and has done quite a lot of traveling. He is indisputably the hero of our story, arriving in the area to study the beast’s attacks and to preserve it once it’s caught and/or killed. And Fronsac quickly determines that the beast is far from supernatural, but is also far from the wolf most people believe it to be. It’s something else entirely and he aims to figure it out. Staying at his side is the mysterious Mani, a Mohawk shaman whom he met when in America. Mani may not be the hero of the movie, but he is certainly awesome, kicking a fair amount of ass as well as giving some great little quips and sly looks at just the right moments. Fronsac is all well and good and I certainly liked him as the hero, but Mani’s more fun to watch, and not just because he’s played by Mark Dascascos (who is also the Chairman on Iron Chef America). Of course, since Fronsac and Mani are so determined to get to the bottom of the whole situation there will have to be something standing in their way.

I don’t think I can really go any further with the plot synopsis without spoiling things even more than I already have so I’ll gloss a little. There’s a lot more at work here than a beast attacking shepherds. The title alone implies that there’s a group involved and that group has a motive and a goal and they certainly don’t want Fronsac ruining it all. And all of that would be complex enough, but then there are the two female leads. On one hand you have Marianne, a young noblewoman whom Fronsac becomes enamoured of right from the start. She’s sheltered and young but also clever and compassionate and unwilling to be swayed by tricks and wit. She holds her own quite well for the vast majority of the movie, even in the fairly constrained position she’s grown up in. On the other hand is Sylvia, an Italian courtesan who works in a local brothel. Sylvia is, without a doubt, my favorite character in the entire movie. Mani’s a close second, but Sylvia wins, hands down.

Sylvia is ruthless and calculating and cold and brilliant and very well versed in manipulation and observation. And Sylvia has her own agenda and motives and follows her own path through the events taking place around her. She sleeps with Fronsac several times and seems to know far more of what’s going on than anyone else does. But being a woman of ill repute, she’s gone unnoticed by those who might otherwise try to silence her. Sylvia kicks ass. Sylvia is precisely the sort of character who always makes me giddy and she is played beautifully by Monica Bellucci. I loved every second she got on screen and she certainly made the entire plot more interesting and complicated and I love that.

And even after all of that I have yet to really touch on the fight scenes, which were a fantastic combination of styles and weaponry and camera work. I hadn’t been expecting the sorts of fight scenes this movie has, with beautifully choreographed stunts and enough martial arts to keep it from being just brawling and European swordfighting. Not that I’d have been disappointed with swordfighting! But that would have been expected and really, nothing about this movie is what I expected. Not the action, not the plot, not the intrigue, not the characters and not the epic quality to it.

The movie exists in several acts. There’s the first act, where Fronsac arrives and studies the situation and meets Marianne and her brother, Jean-François and the marquis, Thomas d’Apcher and all the rest of their friends, relatives and associates. The second act involves Fronsac and Mani returning from Paris to resume the hunt. And the third act is when it all comes to a head, with Fronsac exposing the whole conspiracy and exacting revenge for every wrong done against him, his friends and the people of the area. That, plus the gorgeous scenery both inside the buildings and out in the countryside make this movie feel larger and more expansive. It’s both folklore and political history wrapped into one package, a politically minded tall tale with the ultimate femme fatale and some truly awesome fight scenes and yes, it’s a little long, but it’s worth every minute.

May 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment