Movie review: 'The Brothers Grimm'

EntertainmentBrazilMoviesDVDs and MoviesMonica BellucciTerry GilliamHeath Ledger

2 stars (out of four)

In story terms "The Brothers Grimm," the frustrating new film from director Terry Gilliam, has a potentially rich one in its corner. The real-life Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, collectors of uber-bloody folktales such as "Hansel and Gretel" and "Little Red Riding Hood," are here transformed into a pair of theatrical con men played by Matt Damon and Heath Ledger, working the provinces in French-occupied Germany. Setting themselves up as early 19th Century ghostbusters, the Grimm boys must tap hidden reserves of courage when they run afoul of a genuine enchanted forest, a bona-fide evil queen and a village cursed by the disappearance of several children.

Story terms, however, interest this director only nominally. Blessed with a prodigious visual imagination, Gilliam—a founding member of the Monty Python troupe as well as the maker of its distinctive jolly-nihilistic animated segments—has always given audiences an eyeful. Look at any still photograph from "Time Bandits" or "Brazil" or "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" or even the frantic "Twelve Monkeys." The pictorial dynamism of each individual shot grabs your eye. Put all those shots together, however, cut to a hypercaffeinated rhythm, and you have uneven, often inspired fever dreams on the high end, overbearing Ken Russell-y bores on the low. There is magic in "The Brothers Grimm" but it's hard to locate amid all the … "stuff," I believe is the technical phrase.

Gilliam fought with his producers over casting, choice of cinematographer and running time of this $80-million enterprise, eventually shutting production down for six months, during which time he filmed another movie, "Tideland." Like most mavericks, Gilliam has a long, bloody history of battling the suits with the money. No producer smackdown was greater, or to Gilliam more satisfying, than his battle with MCA president Sidney J. Sheinberg regarding final cut of Gilliam's neo-futuristic "Brazil" 20 years ago. The director got his way, ultimately, though on the Criterion DVD edition of "Brazil" Gilliam acknowledges his version as akin to a cinematic "mugging." And "Brazil" is one of his least assaultive pictures.

"The Brothers Grimm" never calms down for a second. It's the visual equivalent of the "Sabre Dance," and its only oxygen comes from the actors, who are quite good. Damon and Ledger give game and wry performances, Damon playing the frau magnet with a touch of Cockney, Ledger twitching his way through the twittier role with a touch of wit. Needless to say the real Grimms did not resemble these two. If Gilliam were interested in historical veracity he'd have cast Jeffrey Jones and Jim Broadbent.

The screenplay intertwines bits of various Grimm tales, everything from the Frog Prince to Rapunzel. (Ehren Krueger is the official screenwriter, though uncredited rewrites were handled by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni, both of whom are cheekily listed as "dress pattern makers.") The gorgeously icy queen (Monica Bellucci), who lacks only a Snow White, collects the village children in order to bury them alive. It's part of some spell that will enable her to return to a rich, full life, or something like that. Gilliam's black-magic forest is a deliberately artificial construct, confined to a soundstage (part of Barrandov Studios in Prague, built by the Nazis). In this forest the evil trees sprout evil, slithery roots that snake all over the place. Also snaking all over the place is the heartless French officer Delatombe (Jonathan Pryce), aided by his torture-mad No. 2 (Peter Stormare). Gilliam's obsession with the grotesque finds full expression here, though the relative ineffectiveness of both Pryce and Stormare proves that Gilliam's collaboration with actors can easily turn into a competition.

The movie takes its design cue from woodcuts and illustrations crisscrossing the last two centuries. The effects are proudly old-school: Even when Gilliam deploys computer-generated imagery for some dizzying forced-perspective shots of the queen's tower, the results don't give you the usual CGI headache. Gilliam's interested in giving you a more old-fashioned kind of headache by way of nervous, restless editing and pacing and bombast.

It's hard to find—and care about—the Grimms in their own adventure. At one point, gussied up in their witch-fighting, mirror-plated armor, one of the boys reminds a minor character that the costume isn't magic; "it's just shiny." "The Brothers Grimm" doesn't trust its own magic. Even the moments informed by an insinuating brand of style, such as the shot of the kidnapped Red Riding Hood's crimson cape fluttering on a tree branch in the wind, get lost in the hurly-burly. If Gilliam had held that shot for more than a second, it might've meant something in emotional terms. Those terms, like story terms, tend to be undervalued by fantasists who dream big but don't know when to quit.

mjphillips@tribune.com

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'The Brothers Grimm'

Directed by Terry Gilliam; screenplay by Ehren Kruger; photographed by Newton Thomas Sigel; production designed by Guy Hendrix Dyas; music by Dario Marianelli; edited by Lesley Walker; produced by Charles Roven and Daniel Bobker. A Dimension Films and MGM release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:36. MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, frightening sequences and brief suggestive material)

Wilhelm Grimm - Matt Damon

Jacob Grimm - Heath Ledger

Cavaldi - Peter Stormare

Angelika - Lena Headey

Delatombe - Jonathan Pryce

Mirror Queen - Monica Bellucci

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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EntertainmentBrazilMoviesDVDs and MoviesMonica BellucciTerry GilliamHeath Ledger
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