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Thursday, Oct. 27, 2005
'Brothers' buried alive, 'Corpse' rises above
Not as good as "Sleepy Hollow," but not as awful as "Van Helsing."
That's "The Brothers Grimm" -- the first film in seven years from visionary director Terry Gilliam -- in a nutshell. And that's pretty much all you need to know, but for those of you who haven't seen those films, or are unaware of what Gilliam is usually capable of, or simply dislike sitting down with your coffee to find a big, blank space on your Re:view page, I will continue.
Much as it pains me to say this, "Brothers Grimm" marks the point where Gilliam is finally defeated by the big, bad Hollywood system he's challenged his whole life. That this defeat comes at the hands of Miramax -- once an indie challenger to the studios, now a property of the Walt Disney Corporation -- may be ironic, but no less depressing.
After his start as an animator and director for the Monty Python crew in the 1970s, helming such classics as "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian," Gilliam went on a quest in the '80s to produce lavish, whimsical fantasies, with themes that usually embraced dreams over reality. Twice, the studios tried to rein him in. His 1985 masterpiece "Brazil" involved a yearlong struggle with Universal simply to get it released, without having to change it to a feel-good ending. Gilliam won that battle, but his next film, "The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen," suffered from production troubles and studio meddling in postproduction.
In the '90s, Gilliam was forced to find work as a Hollywood director for-hire, but curiously enough, he produced some of his best work. But "The Fisher King," "12 Monkeys" and "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas," anomalies by Hollywood standards, had one big thing that "Brothers Grimm" lacks: tight, clever, original scripts that skewed far from convention.
"Brothers Grimm" was penned by one Ehren Kruger, a hack inexplicably favored by honcho Bob Weinstein at Miramax, whose work includes "Scream 3," "Reindeer Games" and both "Ring" remakes. The mess he delivered to Gilliam to direct is an attempt -- a la the monster-movie mash-up of "Van Helsing" -- to cram all of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales into one sprawling, action-fantasy overload. Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella -- they're all stuffed in, often at the expense of a coherent plot.
Kruger's story envisions Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (Heath Ledger, Matt Damon) not as fairy-tale authors, but rather as the Napoleonic era's version of ghostbusters. Jake and Will, as the film calls them, investigate supernatural hauntings and such, and drive off the spooks for a price. It turns out that they're shysters, so when confronted with some seemingly real phantoms, they're a bit underprepared
This is meant to be played for comedy as well as excitement, but hold "Grimm" up next to "Holy Grail" to fully measure your disappointment: Like so many films of late, it expects lavish computer-graphic effects to offset a lame plot, flat acting and witless humor. One can only wish for a Holy Hand Grenade to toss at the screen.
There are moments when the Gilliam sensibility seeps through: a cackling crone here, a gloopy, squelchy mud-monster there. But for the most part Gilliam remains unable to salvage the material. Reports have it that he was thwarted in many aspects by Weinstein. Damon reportedly said at one point, in exasperation. "Why hire Gilliam if you don't want Gilliam?" Indeed.
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Director Tim Burton, another Hollywood auteur with a taste for the bizarre, had his "Brothers Grimm" moment a few years back with "Planet of the Apes," a bland studio project that sorely lacked the director's usual quirks. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" saw Burton somewhat back on form, but with his animated feature "Corpse Bride," the director returns to what he does best: relentless Gothic ambience streaked with hues of pure romanticism and bursts of warped humor.
"Corpse Bride" looks and feels quite close to 1993's stop-motion animation classic "The Nightmare Before Christmas," which Burton produced and Henry Selick directed. Despite Selick's absence here, Burton teams up with co-director Mike Johnson to capture a world of manic skeletons and gloomy palaces, pitched somewhere between German expressionist cinema and the drawings of Edward Gorey or Charles Addams. And, of course, the animated skeletons made by the master of stop-motion technique, Ray Harryhausen, in films such as "Jason and the Argonauts."
Based on an old Russian folk tale, "Corpse Bride" is a simple tale of boy meets girl . . . but girl is decomposing. In fact, she's got maggots, one of whom keeps emerging from her head to give her advice. It's like a Disney flick, but one that flirts with necrophilia.
The film's hero is Victor (Johnny Depp), engaged to be married to Victoria (Emily Watson). Victor's parents are nouveau riche merchants in a somewhere-in-19th-century-Europe town, while Victoria's are aristocrats of dwindling fortune. The marriage is strictly in the parents' interests, but pale and shy Victor and Victoria actually fall for each other.
Stammering Victor, however, blows the wedding rehearsal, and ashamed, retreats to the nearby forest to practice saying his vows. There, under a full moon, someone hears those vows -- a beautiful, murdered bride (Helena Bonham Carter) who emerges from the grave to say "I do." Victor flees, but his new bride takes him to the underworld, a rollicking place whose bony inhabitants seem to be having a far better time than the dour, drab folks upstairs. (This is emphasized by painting the living world in cold gray monochrome, while reserving color for the land of the dead.)
The film is full of great sight gags, like a head waiter who is, in fact, a severed head, or the bride daintily trying to conceal the fact that her leg has fallen off, but at the heart of it is a very melancholic love triangle. Will Victor return to the living and Victoria, or will he stay with his bride in the underworld? And can she ask him to throw away his life to be with her?
There's something about stop-motion animation -- perhaps the otherworldly quality of dolls -- that allows this most basic of filmmaking techniques to continue in an age of computer graphics. Like Nick Park's "Wallace & Gromit" series, the characters' movements are unbelievably fluid, the facial expressiveness surprisingly moving, the use of light and shadow still superior to that of CG. In fact, the old argument against stop-motion -- the vast amount of time and labor involved -- doesn't seem to have been won by computers, where microscopic programming requires just as much effort in the end.
"Corpse Bride" took years to make, but the result is a film rich with detail, and one which invites repeat viewings. Its radical blend of Disney cutesiness and Gothic grotesquerie is an irresistible combination. Let's hope we don't have to wait a decade for his next animation.