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THE BROTHERS GRIMM, 2005
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THE BROTHERS GRIMM POSTERTHE BROTHERS GRIMM, 2005
Movie Reviews

Directed by Terry Gilliam

Cast: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger,Peter Stormare, Lena Headey, Jonathan Pryce, Monica Belluci
Review by Mark Engberg


SYNOPSIS:

In 19th century French-occupied Germany, two traveling con-artists are forced to solve the mystery of a village’s missing children.

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Gloomy shadows in a cursed forest surround a young girl in a red hood as she searches the trees for fruit. A 500-year-old queen uses black magic to steal the souls of children in order to preserve her own youth and beauty. A werewolf armed with a magical axe uses the moonlight to stalk his human daughter.

By the setting and linear narrative format, “The Brothers Grimm” looks and feels more like a Tim Burton film than a work by Terry Gilliam. And that’s not necessarily a good thing. Though Gilliam’s eighth solo-directed picture succeeds in making the world of the supernatural seem artistically eye pleasing, it misses the opportunity to present this material in a thoughtful or engaging manner.

“This is a fairy tale,” explains Production Designer Guy Hendrix Dyas. “But at the same time, it crosses over into this semi-truthful history about how the Grimm brothers collected all these folk tales and put them into one big novel. There is a nice parallel between reality and fantasy here.”

Armed with his legion of art directors and set designers, Gilliam’s sense of fantasy has always been remarkable. And with his most recent releases prior to “Brothers”, he has proved he can depict the broken human heart as well (“12 Monkeys”, “The Fisher King”). But his mixture of the fantastic with the realistic tastes bland in this cauldron. And no amount of kitten blood can give it any spice. By the way, animal friends, there is a scene when a kitten gets punted into a blade-o-matic torture device. It’s meant to be funny, but comes off as stupid.

Matt Damon and Heath Ledger play Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, respectfully, brothers and partners in confidence trickery. Whereas Jake lives in the world of the fantastic, earnestly obsessing over supernatural folklores, Will occupies the real world in all of it hustle and flow. In other words, Will is the realist and Jake, the romantic. They make their livings by traveling to nearby towns and performing fake exorcisms for the gullible villagers who believe that witches and demons are responsible for their problems. Since the two brothers are freelance experts in the fantasy industry, they are recruited by the French military (specifically Jonathan Pryce’s General Delatombe) to investigate the alarming disappearances of ten female children from the village of Marbaden.

As the story progresses towards its anarchistic climax, which is ludicrous and forgetful, the storyline becomes more murky and less provoking. And by the time the credits roll, there are more memories of make-up and digitalized special effects than any thoughts of everlasting comprehension.

Incorporating references from Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, the Gingerbread Man, and that awful witch trying to unload the poisonous apple, the overall storyline becomes a dizzying mess of irreverent allusions. Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel does indeed deliver impressive visions of spooky forests and peasant European life. And Dyas paints a portrait of 19th century Germany that would make an artist from the Renaissance Era salivate. However, the story underneath all of this beautiful paint is convoluted and tiresome.

As Damon does his traditional Alpha-male performance, Heath Ledger manages laughs and sympathy with his humanistic depiction of Jakob. As the fantasy-land obsessed younger brother, Jakob is perhaps the most engaging and seemingly realistic character in the whole film.

But complicating the development even further is Peter Stormare’s over-the-top portrayal of Cavaldi, an Italian torturer who threatens the brothers Grimm repeatedly with slapstick violence and a bad accent. Motivated by his allegiance to General Delatombe, his character interrupts nearly every scene with loud and non-sensical shouting. His character would not be so annoying if there was some greater understanding of his role in this already hectic storyline. It is as if Gilliam could not decide whether to make him a bumbling and oafish sidekick to be liked, or a menacing second-hand villain to be despised. His duplicitous nature coupled with his aggravating speech kept reminding me of Ray Winstone’s character in “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Robin Williams was reportedly supposed to play Cavaldi, but dropped out shortly before filming.

And you would think the appearance of Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo from “300”) as the roadwise forest tracker Angelika would warm up the moldy breadcrumbs, but her character is regrettably underdeveloped and fails to achieve any romantic chemistry from either of the two brothers, despite suggestions of flirtation between both. Also, I could not help but wonder where she kept finding the rouge and eye shadow.

In terms of the production phase, there were all of the problematic headaches and sources of conflict typical of a Terry Gilliam production. For starters, the Writers Guild of America forbade him and his longtime collaborator Tony Grisoni screenwriting credit because they adapted their version from a spec script written by Ehren Kruger. An almost identical scenario occurred when Gilliam and Grisoni tried to claim credit as adapted screenwriters for “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998.

The film was bought by MGM, but was left stranded when the company dropped out as its main distributor. That’s when the Weinstein brothers picked up the trail and made Dimension Films the main production company. Six weeks later, Harvey Weinstein personally fired Gilliam’s cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (Gilliam’s steadi-cam operator from “Fear and Loathing”). And Bob Weinstein rejected Gilliam’s first choice for Will Grimm, Johnny Depp, because he actually believed the actor was not commercial enough for the role.

With this sort of tension slowing down Gilliam’s creative style, it was only a matter of time before the auteur director would publicly clash with the Weinsteins.

According to Damon: “You can’t try and impose big compromises on a visionary director like him. If you try to force him to do what you want creatively, he’ll go nuclear.”

When post-production squabbles ensued between Gilliam and the Weinsteins over final cut privilege, the director left the movie on their shelves to concentrate on his next picture, “Tideland”. Gilliam would later summarize “The Brothers Grimm” as a result of “two groups of people who aren’t working well together.”

But what the movie lacks in story structure, it provides in eye candy. To give it some credit, the film is loaded with background beauty and gorgeous set design.

“He’s interested in detail,” says Damon. “And that’s why he shoots everything on these wide-angle lenses that incorporate this world that he’s creating. And because the lens takes in so much, the frame is packed with information. And there are all of these different elements that have to work for the shot to work. And how he does that is by focusing on every detail.”

A wise and accurate description of a talented director, Mr. Damon. But next time, let’s focus on a better plot.

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