Thursday, September 08, 2005

Ah, Terry Gilliam, my poor Terry Gilliam

I saw The Brothers Grimm a couple days ago, and to my chagrin, it was not as muddled and painful as I feared it would be. It was worse.

Another one of Gilliam's productions which had become mired in Hollywood red tape and bad luck, this project has been kicking around for a while. I think the worst part of watching this movie is that hints of true Gilliam humor and sensibility were detectable, but were smothered by poor editing, an inconsistent script, and lack of funds.

The plot of the film is fairly simple (or is it?) --two brothers, Jake and Will Grimm (played respectively by Heath Ledger and Matt Damon) travel from town to town in Europe, making their fortune by swindling people. With a little help from "Team Grimm", (a couple of traveling performers) they manufacture ghosts, ghouls, and witches to frighten townspeople, only so they can then swoop in and save the day, --for a modest monetary fee of course. Early on the brothers are kidnapped by the French Army, (who occupy Germany at the time --its the late 1700's) and forced to discover and destryo the supernatural force causing unrest in a small German village.

Part of the problem with this film resides in the desire to cram in too many storylines and ideas, which resulted in a lack of thematic clarity. Is this a historical film about the politics of the late eighteenth century and the brash mindless and chaos of occupation? A remark on how different European cultures were often thrust together for comic effect? Or is it a fairy tale about a village terrorized by a monstrous and vein Queen? Perhaps a story about two brothers who learn that witches really do exist, and that true love can conquer all?

To begin with, there are too many bad guys. One of the villains in the film is French General Delatombe, portrayed by an old Gilliam veteran, Johnathan Pryce. Delatombe had little tolerance for the German food he was served to eat, and even less for the German people under his control. His right hand man, Cavaldi, played by the ham-alicious Peter Stormare, was an Italian with a bad toupe that was forced to serve in the French military. Though Cavaldi eventually changes his loyalties at the very end of the film(though exactly why, remains unclear), both he and Delatombe serve to provide a dramatic conflict to main protagonists: Brothers Grimm. Gilliam has often poked fun at government and politics in his films(namely Brazil), but if he was trying to make any statement here, it became muddied and mindless in the translation. There were several sequences in the film where we see the French storming the German Village, holding villages hostage, and torturing them. One can't help but scratch their head and ask why or at the very least, what is the importance of this? Particularly, why the French should care so much about the girl being kidnapped in the German village in the first place. The reason that they wanted to quell general discontent, and therefore can only rely on the Brothers Grimm to help them with their ghostly problem, doesn't fly. The movie vacillates between scenes with the French and the primary story regarding the mystery of the forest and the creature that lives in it and kidnaps the young girls who live in the village. There is the creature/wolf in the woods, the Mirror Queen ( played by Monica Belluci and is only in the film for about ten minutes), The French General, and his mercenary lieutenant, a crazy Italian. Perhaps if the story was about the Brothers Grimm, and focused on their work as con artists, and somehow juxtaposed this with the geopolitical climate of the time that would be one thing. If it was just a fantasy fairy tell without a grounding in European history, that followed the adventures of the Brothers Grimm as they fought against the forces of evil that would be another. But the melding of these two concepts....

One of the many plotlines in the film revolved around the female romantic lead, Angelika, (played by unknown Lena Headey). Angelika wins the heart of Jake (Heath Ledger), yet engages with Jack in Beatrice and Benedict type discourse. A resident in the German village, her two young sisters and father had vanished in the last few months, victims of the forest. While Headey did the best she could given the circumstances, her character was a mess if ever one was written. One minute she was in a masculine Davy Crockett getup, skinning rabbits, and refusing to help the Bros Grimm through the forest, --the next she was a damsel in distress in a white nightgown begging for their help. There seemed to be only these two extremes at the hand of screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who I now believe to be is a hack screenwriter who did one good movie, instead of a good screenwriter who's done a couple stinkers. This year has not been a good one for him between The Ring 2, The Skeleton Key, and now Brothers Grimm. Yikes. While it seemed like Kruger wanted to create a love triangle between Angelika and the Brothers Grimm, there were not enough small moments between her and each of the boys to sell us on the fact she might actually like both of them, for different reasons. The way it came across she just seemed happy and ready to kiss whoever was around, with indifference riding high on her list of motivations.

Now, I love watching film about the supernatural and the improbable, and naturally in these genre pieces you get ideas and concepts that on their own might seem ridiculous, but within the constraints of the film, work, because the writer and director create a world in which it is believable that this could/would happen. Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror films that create rules and logic within the framework of their story are far better than those that don't. Brothers Grimm was a prime example of a garbled inconsistencies, that channeled at times the ill begotten Van Helsing. In addition to the socio-political havoc going on inside the village, there are the bevy of plot elements generated from the forest and the mysterious Mirror Queen. There is the wolf like creature that is absconding with the villages young girls. The wolf, it seems, also has the power to shape-shift into different things, including a swarm of insects, that posess a horse at one point, and a tar baby that is supposed to invoke the gingerbread man. Of course, its not clear that it is the wolf transforming into all these things --it could also be the general evil spawned by the Queen's spirit. Oh, and that's another thing, is the Queen alive or dead? What is the deal with her curse? We learn at some point that the Mirror Queen was a vain and beautiful woman who hid away in the tower in the forest as the plague ravaged those around her. That is of course until disease touches her, and her flesh rots away. But does she die? It's unclear. We see her five hundred year old corpse laying on her bed. Apparently she has been able to conjure up a spell that gives her eternal life. But not eternal youth. So she seeks to capture twelve young girls, whose blood she can drink so she can complete the spell to regain her former beauty. But things only get more complicated from here -- there seems to be more involved then just the blood, she also needs to kiss someone, and apparently the twelves girls don't need to all be twelve little girls because Angelika (a grown woman) is used at the end to complete her spell. Turns out Angelika's MIA father was the wolf creature all along, enslaved to the Mirror Queen by some sort of enchanted metal badge. Oh its all just a big mess.

To me one of the most surprising things about the movie was the lack of visuals. Gilliam at his best, is a director who works closely with his production designers and cinematographers to conceive completely stylized and minutely detailed worlds. Brothers Grimm looked predominantly slapdash, in both the way it was shot and the way it looked. The primary reason for this appeared to be budgetary restrictions, and it is well known that the production did have trouble with its financial backing from the beginning, being dropped by MGM, and reigned in by the Weinstein's at Dimension. The film switched cinematographers half way through and I got a strong sense that they did a lot of reshoots as well. Sure there were some cool effects or shots scattered in the mix. They did some neat things with the Mirror Queen who appeared old and decrepit in person, but had a young and sumptuous reflection in the mirror. Portions of scenes were played out in the mirror while characters watched unmoving from the other side, and in the end when the mirror is shattered we see her fractions of her image on every little fragment. However, overall, the film lacked Gilliams' original touch. I suppose the idea is that the German village was meant to be bleak and blah, and it was, but it lacked any sort of unique style, or dark gothic elements that it could have had. The forest just looked It should have been more ominous than it was, and it could have benefitted from some digital enhancements to create a fuller landscape. What visual FX were in the film, were pretty mediocre. The original Brothers Grimm tales are often dark and gruesome, and the film should have had a look that reflected their sinister imagination, but sadly it did not.

I felt bad for the actors in this film. There were many talented folk in the cast, and it seemed as though everyone was trying to have fun and do their best. Damon brought a light hearted trampiness to his role, and Ledger endearingly cast aside his stud status to play Jake Grimm as a scruffy bespectacled scholar. Though going over the top at times, Peter Stormare had some funny moments in the depths of his ridiculous character, as did Jonathan Pryce. Mackenzie Crook, of Office fame, had a small supporting role that he did the best he could with, but overall was wildly underused. It seemed to me like most of the performances in this film suffered from poor editing, and a lacking script.

I find myself wondering what went wrong with this film. The director was there. The cast was there. The concept was there. The Brothers Grimm crafted some of the most imaginative and well known fairy tales ever. A film based around their adventures, and how they came to be writers is quite intriguing. Seems like a big part of the problem came from the execution of the story and the way it was all put together. Among one of the many inconsistencies that the film had, were the attempts to sloppily weave in elements found in actual Brother's Grimm fairy tales. It had Little Red Riding Hood, and the Mirror Queen was both a precursor to the vein witch of Snow White and Rapunzel, but the script also veered off into other stories which the Grimm did not even write, like The Gingerbread Man, as well as general fairy tale tropes like the magical power of a kiss of true love. It would have been really interesting to see the fully realized potential of a film that cleverly wove together many Grimm tales, instead of just having a couple obvious markers thrown in for good measure.

I think this is just one of those films that got off on the wrong foot and probably never found the right one. If only some brave figure could have lifted the curse off this production by giving it a big smooch or battling a great dragon. I guess even famous and talented directors need a knight in shining armor every once in a while.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

so this has nothing to do with the Grimm's Fairy Tales? what a disappointment when I heard this film was coming out

6:03 AM  
Blogger The New Yorker said...

It is indeed a disappointment and a pity that the film did not make better use or its rich and wonderful source material. *sigh*

8:02 AM  
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11:06 PM  

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