Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Brothers Grimm (Dimension Films, MGM, Mosaic Media Group, 2005)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I got to watch a fairly recent (2005) movie on DVD: The Brothers Grimm, directed by Terry Gilliam from a script by one Ehren Kruger, which had a troubled production history (when has Terry Gilliam ever made a movie that didn’t have a troubled production history?). First, Gilliam and his writing partner Tony Grisoni heavily rewrote Kruger’s script, but because of Writers’ Guild of America rules aimed at keeping directors from claiming writing credits even if they rewrote (or originally wrote) major portions of the script themselves, they weren’t allowed writing credits — so Gilliam put his and Grisoni’s names way down in the credit roll as “dress pattern makers.” Then what’s left of MGM pulled their financial backing either just before or just after Gilliam started shooting, so he had to bring in Harvey and Bob Weinstein — who had their usual hissy-fits with directors, provoking an argument over the editing that lasted so long Gilliam was able to make a whole other movie, Timeland, while waiting for the conflicts to be resolved and The Brothers Grimm to be released. I wanted to watch this largely because it had been in the backlog a long time and after The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, the Gilliam film star Heath Ledger had been making when he died (three other actors completed his part), I wanted to see the Gilliam film Ledger had lived to complete. I also wanted to show it now because Charles just started taking an online class on science fiction and fantasy literature, and an early session mentioned the Grimms — even though this being a movie, and a Terry Gilliam movie at that, anyone expecting a dramatization of the actual Grimm brothers and their trips across war-torn early 19th century Germany collecting popular folk tales and editing them into books like their pioneering 1812 collection Kinder- und Hausmarchen (“Children’s and Household Tales”) would be sorely disappointed.

Instead what Kruger, Grusoni and Gilliam came up with was a script that followed one of the oldest dramatic chestnuts: a couple of con artists extracting money from townspeople to fight demons, goblins, witches or whatnot while they were actually staging the supernatural events themselves suddenly come up against genuinely supernatural events and end up comedically hopeless at stopping the real-life monsters. The Brothers Grimm starts “once upon a time … in 1796,” with one of the Grimm boys using the family’s last money to buy some “magic” beans, an obvious reference to Jack and the Beanstalk even though, as one contributor pointed out, the Grimms probably never encountered Jack and the Beanstalk because it’s a British folk tale not well known in Germany. The film then cuts 15 years forward, which would be 1811, at a time when Germany was being occupied by Napoleon’s France —and not surprisingly Gilliam makes quite a bit of the irony of being able to depict (as one of his titles has it) “Germany Under French Occupation” when we’ve been so conditioned by Casablanca and all those other World War II-set movies to think of the Germans as the occupiers and the French as the occupiees, not the other way around (Gilliam even stages a scene in which the French attempt to burn the Grimms’ book just to make sure we get the point). The Grimms, brothers Wilhelm (Matt Damon) and Jakob (Heath Ledger) — who call each other “Will” and “Jake” throughout the movie — are making a living as freelance exorcists, using a couple of actors to stage supernatural events in small German villages and then getting paid handsomely to exorcise the spirits, demons, witches, trolls or whatnot supposedly haunting the local townspeople. In fact, it’s this that leads them to their fairy-tale researches, as they collect a lot of information about local Germans and their superstitions, and when asking why the people believe this stuff, the Grimms are told a lot of the famous stories that ended up in their book.

The opening sequence (at least the first one that takes place in 1811 after that prologue with the beans when the Grimms are still kids) is one of the best things in the movie: the Grimms are in a small town whose millhouse is being haunted by a 100-year-old witch who was put to death a century earlier but not properly exorcised before she was buried — and she wasn’t buried in a mirror-lined coffin (a recurring theme in the film — the Grimms even go into battle with their supernatural nemeses with a mirror-covered shield). We see the witch rendered with all the artistry modern-day computer-generated imagery can muster, and she’s viscerally frightening — then, when the Grimms have “killed” her, we’re supposed to believe that “she” was only one of the two actors the Grimms have hired to help them stage supposed supernatural events so the Grimms can get paid to get rid of these diabolical nemeses. Of course, the Grimms end up in the town of Marbaden in the state of Thuringia, where they’re being hounded by the French authorities who threaten to have them executed for their con jobs — only one sympathetic French officer who’s really Italian, Cavaldi (Peter Stormare) offers to pardon them if they can go to Marbaden and find the young children who have disappeared under mysterious circumstances and free them. After a lot of back-and-forth involving the townspeople, the occupation forces and the film’s central female character, Angelika (Lena Headey, who for my money out-acts both the male leads), who tells them she knows vital information about the haunted woods where the kids disappeared and also has a vested interest in finding them because the first two to disappear were her sisters, we ultimately learn that the haunted castle inside the woods contains an 800-year-old countess (Monika Bellucci), listed as “Mirror Queen” in the dramatis personae, who needs a serum derived from the blood of 12 victims to make herself young and beautiful again. (Apparently the writers derived this character from the legendary “Blood Countess” Elizabeth Báthory in 15th century Hungary, who would kidnap young women, drain them of their blood and bathe herself in it in the belief that this would keep her from aging physically.) We also ultimately learn that Angelika is the 12th victim she needs blood from to make this stuff, and in the meantime the French, led by officer Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce, star of Gilliam’s marvelous 1985 film Brazil), enter Marbaden and, Avatar-style, decide the way to get rid of all those pesky creatures haunting the place is to burn down the forest.

When the Grimms protest he has them tortured and threatened with execution — when Cavaldi refuses to shoot the Grimms on Delatombe’s order, Cavaldi says he resigns his commission and Delatombe calmly pulls out one of the pistols he wanted to use on the Grimms, shoots Cavaldi and says, “Resignation accepted” — and there’s a catastrophic scene at the end in which the old woman appears to have won, Wilhelm Grimm has been mortally wounded, but the Mirror Queen says he can be healed if he has sex with her (and Gilliam, just to confuse things further, keeps cutting back and forth from Monika Bellucci as a young woman to her plastered in age makeup to play the 800-year-old crone), and he appears to have done so when Angelika, who also appears to have been raised from the dead, offers them a way to kill the Queen and be free of her spell. When she’s not corporeal the Queen takes possession of her mirror — the one she’s been asking throughout her story arc, “Who’s the fairest of them all?” (you remember) — and when it shatters each piece seems to contain a piece of her as well. I may be confusing my recollections of this movie big-time in terms of what was happening when, but that’s not too important because in a film like this, in which the writers have created a nearly rule-free fantasy in which almost anything can happen at any moment and therefore there’s no story logic or continuity, the actual events of the story are not that important. I had some of the same frustrations with The Brothers Grimm that I did with The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus: I find stories like this in which literally anything can happen at any moment highly annoying. In order to shock an audience by violating its expectations, you first have to create some — and this time around Gilliam and his writers, credited or not, couldn’t be bothered. What makes The Brothers Grimm grippingly watchable is the sheer beauty and audacity of the conception: the effects (particularly the ambulatory trees, which really do look like moving trees and not shaky models with actors inside) are first-rate and Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography has such intense depth-of-field Charles was wondering whether the film was originally shot in 3-D. (It wasn’t, but it really didn’t need to be — though one wonders what shots in the film are Sigel’s and which ones were done by the original director of photography, Nicola Pecorini, who was fired when the Weinstein brothers took over the production.)

Like many of Gilliam’s other films it’s audacious in its visual conception and rather shaky in its plotting — dramatic coherence has never been Gilliam’s strong suit, though one thing that made Brazil special was that it was, at least by his standard, a relatively well constructed story (and it also took place in the near future instead of the legendary or quasi-legendary past, and somehow making a movie in which the physical reality is more or less that of our own time puts some limits on that tremendous imagination of his and harnesses it to do useful work) — and it’s also not terribly well cast. According to various “trivia” posters, Johnny Depp was originally supposed to play one of the Grimms (there’s also a report that when Matt Damon and Heath Ledger finally were cast, it was originally supposed to be Ledger as Wilhelm and Damon as Jacob, though the two actors asked if they could swap parts and Gilliam said O.K.), and quite frankly it would have been a much better movie with the edgier, more interesting Depp in Damon’s role — Damon is just too pretty, too impassive and too concerned with projecting his looks to be right for a role in a Terry Gilliam film. As for Ledger, he’s O.K. as a “type” but, as I said in my comments on Imaginarium, he seems to have been a very limited actor, suited to play only one type of character: the tortured introverts he portrayed in his best films, Monster’s Ball and Brokeback Mountain. At least this role steers more towards his strength than the part in Imaginarium did (when I saw Imaginarium I thought Colin Farrell was so much better than Ledger they should have scrapped all Ledger’s footage and remade the whole movie with Farrell). The film is stolen by Lena Headey, who was strong enough it made me wonder what she’d been doing since — mostly the TV series Terminator and Game of Thrones, the latter of which has been popular enough hopefully it will give her the reputation she deserves — and it has the obligatory Gilliam-movie references to shit (notably one in which a French officer says “Merde,” then realizes he is supposed to be sounding like a German and corrects himself to say “Scheisse”) and a quite clever last sequence in which the final credit, “And they all lived happily after … ,” is interrupted by a shot of a shard of mirror containing part of the Mirror Queen’s face and the next title reads, “Well, maybe not.” It’s a title sequence that sums up Gilliam’s sense of humor and provides an appropriate tag to a film that shows just why he’s so controversial — among the items on the message boards about him are “Best Director of the ’90’s” and “Worst Director Ever.”