Ferdy on Films, etc.

Film reviews and commentary, random thoughts on the world around us, blatant promotion of favorite charities, and other ponderables.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Chicago (2002)
Director: Rob Marshall

Grand, isn't it? Great, isn't it? Swell, isn't it? Fun, isn't it?

When Fred Ebb wrote those lyrics for John Kander’s catchy celebration of the immorality of the Jazz Age, “Nowadays,” for the stage musical Chicago, he likely was making an ironic statement about America in the 1970s. I don’t know if his lyrics for that song, “You can even marry Harry/But mess around with Ike,” had anything to do with the landslide victory Richard Nixon, Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower's Vice President, received in the year the play premiered (1972), but I do know that Kander and Ebb sounded an early warning of the cynicism and lawlessness to come. Their message fell on deaf ears, and their musical was a flop.

In the 1990s, Chicago returned in triumph to stages all over the world, and the film won the Best Picture Oscar for 2002. I wonder sometimes what the success of Chicago today says about us. In 1972, we still thought of ourselves as liberal, warring on poverty, and peacing on war. By the 1990s, bloody war on others was still the rage, and bloodless war on the poor was well underway. Everyone could understand and many aspired to be like Chicago's greedy, amoral lawyer Billy Flynn. We also had just experienced a media frenzy over a celebrity murder case that would have pushed Velma Kelly’s and Roxie Hart’s headlines out of the paper altogether. This clearly was a musical for our times.

The show opens in a backstage frenzy of nightclub performers getting ready for their acts. One such performer rushes to her dressing room amid questions about where the other half of her sister act is. Velma (Catherine Zeta-Jones) answers flatly, "She's not herself," and deposits her things, including a gun, in her vanity. She rushes on stage to perform her act alone, amid the writhing chorus boys and girls that Chicago's choreographer Bob Fosse is known for. At a climactic moment in the dance, Velma transforms into a glamorous blonde. It is Roxie (Rene Zellweger), an aspiring singer and dancer imagining her heart's desire. Reality intrudes on them both, as furniture salesman Fred Casely (Dominic West) hustles Roxie back to her apartment for the horizontal tango, and the cops come to take Velma away for murdering her two-timing husband and sister.

This opening sets up the structure of the film beautifully. It uses quick cuts to shorthand the story to us and pulse the film with energy, as well as establish a relationship between Velma and Roxie that will fill the frames of this story. The use of music and dance to telegraph fantasies and underlying motivations also is established, undercutting one of the main objections people have to musicals--they can't believe a story in which people leave the plot to break into song and dance. In Chicago, we don't have to take these intrusions literally and, therefore, can enjoy the interludes (which, in fact, comprise almost the entire film) without worrying about the logic of them.

A month passes in the wink of an eye. Casely has decided to end things with Roxie and does so in particularly rough fashion. This does not seem to bother Roxie as much as the fact that Casely lied to her about being able to get her into show business. She does what any self-respecting woman in this film does--she plugs him full of lead. After unsuccessfully trying to pin the murder on her doltish husband Amos (John C. Reilly), she arrives at Cook County Jail to take her place among the other women murderers and learn the ropes of self-preservation through self-promotion.

It's a merry ride Chicago takes us on. Roxie deposes Velma as the flavor of the month and shows her cunning in holding the spotlight for the duration of her incarceration. Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) is a master manipulator, illustrated by the superb "We Both Reached for the Gun" number, in which Roxie is a dummy on ventriloquist Billy's knee, and in the spin-control cross-examination at Roxie's trial, "Tap Dance." The film has a happy ending, if you want to call it that, with our two ladies of larceny making a comeback on the stage of the Chicago Theatre. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but our endless fascination with celebrity has proven him wrong.

Rob Marshall’s choice to cast actors with limited or no background in musical productions in the leads was an interesting one. In a story obsessed with celebrity, choosing to cast some of Hollywood's biggest stars adds to the irony of the story. At the same time, I think that the first-class acting chops of these performers, particularly Zellweger, add depth to the portrayals. The stage production used no realistic scenery and was close to being sung through, which heightens the unreality of the proceedings. The convincing performances of the cast ground this film and add to the power and poignancy it offers.

I'm sorry Marshall chose to cut "Class," the duet between Velma and Mamma Morton (Queen Latifah), the prison matron/fixer. The deleted scene is on the DVD and deserved to be in the final cut. Who knows why it wasn't. I also quibble with his decision to cast Christine Baranski as obsequious reporter Mary Sunshine. Baranski is a favorite of mine, but the phoniness of the news coverage would have been better highlighted if he had stuck with the strategy of the stage production and depicted Sunshine as a very masculine-looking drag queen.

Still, Chicago makes few mistakes. It is masterfully crafted and enormously entertaining. And it still manages to throw a pie at the audience and strike them right in the kisser. Grand, isn't it? l

Monday, March 27, 2006

"Our Backstreets" #7
A Message for Nancy

I got word a few weeks ago that cancer had struck my counselor Nancy. She said she was giving up her practice to concentrate on fighting her illness and hoped to come back to the work she loves at the end of a successful battle. I haven’t been to see Nancy in a while. All the hard work we did when I was digging my way out of a divorce and back into a happy and productive life, has long been over. A few smaller crises have come and gone. I guess I always thought that whenever I needed her, she’d tell me in her cheerful voice to come in.

Now I can’t do that, but I don’t feel sorry for myself. Nancy pushed me, coaxed me, cheered me, and taught me how to come out the other end of a bad situation better than before. She said that she had come to trust that I always seemed to know what was good for me and that I would always point my nose in the right direction, even if I got a little sidetracked on the way. So, yes, I know I can take care of myself.

I hope that my example helped Nancy, too. I saw us as a team, so I wanted to do my part. Nancy, you have shown me that your instincts are exceptional, which is why you are such a good counselor. And I, too, trust that you know what’s right for you. The world will miss you at work, doing your best to help people find their way. We are fighting alongside you in spirit and feel confident that you’ll be back, in your brightly colored outfits, with your feet on your foot stool, to share our stories with us.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Léon (The Professional, 1994)
Director: Luc Besson

Léon (The Professional) is a film that polarizes people. Some people think it is the best action film of the 90s, maybe ever; others think it is an overhyped, overdone exercise in excess. I find Léon to be a strange and singular movie that is both highly implausible and gut-wrenchingly real. Whether it becomes one of your favorite movies or leaves you wondering what all the fuss is about may depend on how real you need your movies to be.

The story revolves around the relationship between a 12-year-old girl named M
athilda (Natalie Portman in her first screen role) and an Italian hitman named Léon (Jean Reno). We are shown in an impressive opening just how superb a hitman Léon is as he takes out a squad of heavily armed bodyguards for his boss Tony (Danny Aiello) to teach a maverick drug trafficker a lesson. There is no possible way that Léon could have pulled off the feat Besson shows us. What we are witnessing is a French fantasy of an American action movie, with stylized action and the American mystique of the invulnerable hero played large for the entertainment of the audience, the players, and the director. It's hard to view as a hero a man who can off a half-dozen people for money and then go home and water his plant, but this is the irony of Hollywood films that Besson is playing with.

Léon lives in a New York apartment building of--what else?--weirdos. Next door to him live Mathilda, her scumbag father (Michael Badalucco), her prostitute stepmother (Ellen Green), her slutty half-sister (Elizabeth Regen), and her beloved 4-year-old brother (Carl J. Matusovich). Since Léon is a weirdo, too (has a plant for a best friend, sleeps sitting up in a chair, does power sit-ups with his feet tied to his mattress for leverage, drinks gallons of milk in a week), he is never really noticed. Mathilda's small talk with him in the hall after his superhuman hit job is a rare event in his life that establishes a connection, however tenuous, between them.

Enter the fly in the ointment, Stansfield (Gary Oldman), an exceedingly live and deadly wire looking to ground itself into Mathilda's father for cutting some 100% heroin with 10% filler and hiding the 10% pure for himself. Badalucco insists he doesn't know who messed with the heroin. Although this must be a lie, Stansfield gives Badalucco until noon the next day to come clean--we sense that owning up to his deception will not change his fate, but never mind. The deadline convention is another that Besson feels must be obeyed. Shortly before noon, Mathilda goes out to buy groceries. She sees Léon and asks if he wants her to pick up some milk for him. "Two quarts, right?" I don't know how she would know this, but she does, and Léon becomes aware that he is not as invisible as he thinks he is.

While she is out, Stansfield returns with a bunch of sleazy-looking guys who appear to be either as crazy or as drug-addled as he is. They storm the apartment, shooting first and asking questions of the last one standing, Badalucco. When he still won't give up the dope, they toss the apartment. Badalucco gets his hands on a rifle and tries to blast his way out. Stansfield executes him and empties an entire magazine into him because he got blood on Stansfield's suit. This massacre is played for laughs; we are not meant to sympathize with anyone in this family but Mathilda and her brother.

Mathilda returns home and unaccountably passes by the open door of her blood-soaked apartment without Stansfield or his men impeding her in any way. She knocks on Léon's door and asks to be let in. He refuses for some time, but as her pleas become more urgent, he is forced to relent. In the morning, Mathilda learns that Léon is a "cleaner," a hitman, and she begs him to teach her his trade so that she can avenge her brother's death. Eventually Léon agrees.

Tony is worried about Léon when he comes to get his old, outmoded rifle "for training." He becomes more worried when Léon asks him for some of the money Tony has been "holding" for him so that he doesn't have to put it in a bank ("Banks get knocked over. Nobody knocks over Tony."). Léon has a girl, right? Nothing but trouble. Little does Tony know what kind of a girl and what kind of training Léon is involved with.

Mathilda learns where Stansfield can be found--on the 46th floor of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) building. He and his crew are crooked cops! She goes to the building to slay him, pretending to be--what else?--a pizza delivery girl. Stansfield comes close to killing her but is interrupted by one of his crew. It then becomes time for Léon to step in and do the job for her. The climax of the film occurs when Stansfield requisitions the entire firepower of the New York DEA to take down Léon in a highly implausible sequence reminiscent of the flying warriors battling in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and with just as much visual flare. The ending of the film is predictable, a bit unsatisfying, but still neat and logical. So what makes so many people cling to this film with a bursting heart?

Simple. Jean Reno. The violence Léon engages in is cartoon violence against cartoon villians, so we are free to wallow in the familiar and sentimental story of a lonely outsider whose heart is warmed by a child. Reno plays Léon with such comic tenderness that our hearts can't help going out to him. He's an illiterate immigrant without options. He tenderly cares for his plant like it was his child. He becomes Tony's cut-rate hitman who gets promised $5,000 a head while being paid only a meager allowance, but he thinks Tony is taking care of him. In an odd way, he's right. Tony uses Léon, but he takes a beating for him, too. He knows Léon is a simple man who doesn't screw up or double-cross him, and he worries when Léon becomes involved with Mathilda.

And what of Mathilda? Natalie Portman has a tough innocence about her that speaks directly to Léon. They are cut from the same cloth, prisoners of their own weaknesses who find a way to work whatever it is they can do. Mathilda tells Léon that she thinks she is falling in love with him. He is startled at first, but he asks her how she knows. She says she feels it. Where, he asks. Here, she says, as she holds her stomach. There used to be a knot there, and now it is warm. We guess that Léon feels the same way. They both have found someone they can relax with and care about. If Besson hadn't stuck by the rules of Hollywood that sinners must be punished, Léon and Mathilda might have been happy for a long time together. He finds a perfect end for Léon, however, one handled in one of the most brilliant and kindly manners ever committed to film. This is a stylish film that, in the final analysis, is a classic Hollywood love story. l

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

V for Vendetta (2005)
Director: James McTeigue

V for Vendetta is one of the most talked-about new movies of the year. So why am I talking about it? Don’t I usually champion the overlooked film, the ancient film, the foreign film that Americans don’t want to read? Of course I do, and that’s why I’m not going to give you the kind of review of this film that other outlets have. Forget all the fanboy details about who wrote what and who disowned what. Forget about the Ebert/Academy Award for the message film that “may just change the world.” If V for Vendetta has a message to deliver, it’s that we just love a down and dirty game of good cop/bad cop.

First off, I want to say that I liked V for Vendetta. I thought Natalie Portman was convincingly scared as Evey, and the shaved head showed off her lovely, swanlike neck. Hugo Weaving showed a surprising range of attitude and emotion even though he spent 100% of his time behind a mask. But I liked Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984), too, also set in London and, perhaps not coincidentally, also starring John Hurt. Hurt played the rule-breaking minion in a totalitarian society in the latter film; in V for Vendetta, he plays the rabid dictator. See what I mean? Good cop/bad cop.

The biggest difference between these films is the existence of the superantihero V. The new film was made from a comic book, I mean graphic novel, after all. V is a cross between the darker version of Batman and the accidentally power-endowed Spider-Man. V means to get revenge on the people who disappeared him behind prison walls and tortured him, Josef Mengele style, in the name of science. He also wants to bring down the world his tormenters have created, a world of surveillance and fear. The parallel with the Bush Administration certainly couldn’t have been lost on the liberals who flocked to this film, but what of the conservatives? They just wanted to see things get blown up and blood spurt out of people's necks. Truth to tell, so did the liberals.

I note that Roger Ebert in his backhanded three-star review of V for Vendetta thought that blowing up Parliament was a real shame because it’s such an historic, old building. Some other reviewer thought the scene was in poor taste given the somewhat-recent London subway bombing. I say, “It’s an imaginary building on a flat screen, and V took care to ensure that no one would be in the building anyway.” Watching explosions is very entertaining. That’s why a planned building collapse shows up on the TV news whenever one occurs. Notice the cheers that follow the implosion. We like destruction.

But I do think a lesson can be learned from this movie. Terrorists, insurgents, rebels, freedom fighters, whatever you want to call them, are made in the forge of state cruelty. V was made in a government prison, and he made Evey the same way, ending her conversion with a baptism in the rain. It is important to remember that governments make terrorists who work for them every bit as much as they make terrorists who work against them—they are called soldiers. Good cop/bad cop. If you think force is sometimes necessary, make sure you know what you're fighting against and why—because cruelty started by a state never really ends. It just grows a few more Vs. l

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Beyond the Rocks (1922)
Director: Sam Wood

Major news was made in the film world in 2004 when Nederlands Filmmuseum announced that a complete print of the Dutch version of Beyond the Rocks (six reels instead of the seven-reel American version) was found among the effects of a private Dutch film collector. This film, the only screen collaboration between Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, was presumed lost forever. Its rediscovery and first-rate restoration (including original tints) by Nederlands Filmmuseum is a triumph for cinematic history and scholarship, as well as an enormous treat for film buffs all over the world.

This film returned to the big screen in Chicago this weekend thanks to the efforts of the Silent Film Society of Chicago and the historic Music Box Theatre. I was one among the sizable crowd that turned out to welcome Beyond the Rocks back. Well-known silent-film organist Jay Warren accompanied the film on the Music Box's Wurlitzer pipe organ.

In Warren's introduction to the film, he said Beyond the Rocks wouldn't have won any Oscars, had they existed in 1922, and that the real draw is Swanson and Valentino. In this remark, he was exactly right. The film is a silly affair. Swanson plays the youngest of three daughters of a retired British officer (Alec Francis) struggling to make ends meet. The older daughters contrive to marry her off to a rich older man (Robert Bolder), which she does for the sake of her father's financial security. But she meets and falls in love with Lord Bracondale (Valentino). When Swanson's husband inadvertently discovers that his wife is in love with another man, he runs off on a dangerous archeological expedition in North Africa, where he is killed by Bedouin thieves. Swanson and Valentino end up together, "beyond the rocks" of their previous difficulties, sailing into a happily ever after.

This film packs in the action in a way that makes it seem as though we are watching The Perils of Pauline. Twice Valentino must come to Swanson's aid--once when she unaccountably falls overboard from her rowboat in a laugh-inducing scene and once when she falls over a cliff in the Alps and dangles precariously from a rope tied around her waist. Rescuing the damsel in distress moves Valentino from inveterate bachelor to ardent suitor.

Swanson's wardrobe is very odd. She wears a youthful sailor suit at the beginning of the film that makes her look ridiculous. After her character's marriage, she becomes uber-glamorous. Her outfits range from bizarre to ravishing. She even dons 18th century garb, supposedly to play a part in an amateur drama at the estate of Bracondale's sister. We don't see the drama, of course, only Valentino in a courtier's costume stolen from the man who was to play opposite Swanson riding off with Swanson in a carriage loaded with play-acting footmen. Romance is the real star of this plot, and in the silent era, that meant all the bodice-ripping elegance they could muster. When the film switched to North Africa, where Swanson, Valentino, and Francis pursue Bolder to dissuade him from his suicide mission, I was sure we'd see Rudy back in his Sheik costume. This was not the case, but he certainly did look very fetching in a pith helmet and riding jodhpurs.

The amazing, dazzling thing about Beyond the Rocks is the interaction between Valentino and Swanson. It's pure dynamite. As Stella Du Bois Kowalski said in A Streetcar Named Desire, "There are things that happen between a man and a woman in the dark that sorta make everything else seem unimportant." This is especially true for the film buff watching these two beautiful creatures from his or her seat in a darkened theatre. Their electrifying chemistry and screen presence have their equal in only a few other pairings, most notably Garbo and Gilbert. I was swooning about every five minutes at this handsome, sexy pair, and that's all I really cared about. It's hard to believe these two stars were never teamed again.

It is very fortunate that Beyond the Rocks was liberated from the lock and key under which it has been kept for so many years by a private collector. The magic created by Swanson and Valentino, now finally revealed to the millions of film fans who have been denied it for so long, is as special as anything ever committed to celluloid. l

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Primer (2004)
Producer/Director/Writer/Star: Shane Carruth

Have you ever seen a grown man gush? I did following the screening of Primer at Roger Ebert’s 2005 Overlooked Film Festival. During the Q&A session with first-time filmmaker Shane Carruth, Ebert said he felt privileged to be in on the beginning of a career he felt was destined to be as great as Martin Scorsese’s. W-O-W. A rightfully humble Carruth seemed bewildered and overwhelmed by this extravagant praise. That made him a lot like Aaron, the character he plays in Primer.

The transformation of Carruth from computer system designer to filmmaker parallels the journey of Aaron and his friend and business partner Abe (David Sullivan) from computer industry workers to inventors of the stuff that dreams (and many movies) have been made on. Abe, Aaron, and two other young men have been working for months on an invention around which they hope to set up their own company and make their fortune. The nature of the invention and the specific skills each man brings to the table are never specified. It's not even clear how they hooked up. We simply enter their lives at what turns out to be a crucial stage.

Money is running short and the partners are starting to disagree about what the next step is. The team seems split into pairs, with Abe and Aaron the more intellectually and emotionally invested of the two pairs. They start working on their own and run a couple of tests. They're not sure whether their machine is doing what it is designed to do, but their measurements seem promising. Curiously, a mossy substance appears on the machine after they run a few cycles. Reminiscent of the accidental way Sir Alexander Fleming discovered a secretion that we now call penicillin, this bit of flora reveals the true nature of Abe and Aaron's invention and alters their lives forever.

After a short bit of soul-searching, Abe and Aaron decide to cut the other two inventors out of their work. They cover over the windows in Aaron's garage/workshop and begin to experiment with their machine, first in predictable ways and then with the growing realization that they are in way over their heads. The characters speak in a shorthand that people who inhabit the same closed universe do, which leaves the audience on the outside a lot of the time. But it also lends the narrative an edgy excitement. What are they doing? What have they discovered? How are they going to deal with the consequences of their discovery?

Even though this film heads into fantastical territory, it seems so real, grounded as it is in chaos theory, that the suspension of disbelief almost doesn’t enter into the mix. The film is shot in an almost banal, flat way, but at the same time is given a look that seems hyperbolic in its use of color and contrast. There is no color coding, but the beautiful and evocative tinting in every scene puts this film into the landscape of the mind, of dreams. I can only call this near-genius in visualizing the themes of the film.

Trying to follow the plot gave me a headache (which did not improve on a repeat viewing), but not as much as the one Carruth experienced. He said that he had written and posted elaborate timelines for the story so he could keep each thread straight. The film was rigidly storyboarded to keep it within its austere $7,000 budget. Carruth said that his inspiration for the film was All the President’s Men. The dark-haired Carruth resisted casting Sullivan, who is blond, to avoid making the homage too obvious, but the influence is subtle, in my estimation. Like that film, Primer leaves its main characters breathless at the magnitude of their discovery, and seems to turn a page for the audience in terms of what the future will bring. This is a film respectful of its heritage and bold in its execution. While it seems to follow in the tradition of scrambled narrative popularized by Memento, it stakes out new territory in its examination of ordinary consciousness and goes further to examine the consciousness of the soul. l

Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Pride of the Yankees (1942)
Director: Sam Wood

Lou Gehrig's ashes had barely cooled when this biopic of him hit movie screens across America. The film garnered several Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, and is beloved by baseball and film fans alike. I understand why hero-worshipping baseball fans would hug this starry-eyed film to their numbered jerseys. Film fans, though, have no excuse. Although a star-studded cast was assembled, headed by the great Gary Cooper as Gehrig, with a competent, if sentimental, director at the helm, this film is all ham and no bone. What went wrong?

First and foremost, we must blame New York sportswriter Paul Gallico, who contributed the story and the treatment. Because of him, we are to believe that a sportswriter, played by Walter Brennan, discovered Gehrig, became his best friend, and was the only person with him when he got the terrible news that he was dying of ALS. Second, we must blame the screenwriters, Herman Mankiewicz and Jo Swerling, for not slam-dunking the treatment in the circular file where it belonged and attempting to bring a little reality to the story of a fine role model who deserved better.

We also must blame the haste with which this film was conceived and created. It is clear that the Samuel Goldwyn Company wanted to make as much hay out of the widespread grief Americans felt at Lou Gehrig's passing as possible. Making a buck in haste has never done a movie any good.

And what lapses in quality did that haste cause? Well, there was no effort to create a dramatic arc surrounding Gehrig's career. He just hits balls hard and far. Beyond a little rookie baiting at the start of his career with the Yankees, he doesn't seem to know his teammates at all, so the gimmick of casting several real Yankees, including Gehrig's real best friend, Bill Dickey, was just that--a gimmick. Instead, we are fed generic characters to fill his private life. In addition to the sportswriter, we get Gehrig's quaint German parents (Else Janssen and Ludwig Stössel) who are trotted out when needed for a bit of comic relief and to build the mildest, most nonthreatening tension possible (Mama wants Lou to be an engineer instead of a baseball player; Mama meddles in the home-decorating plans of Lou's new wife).

Cooper's performance is adequate. He has a winning smile and demeanor, and he closely resembled Gehrig, but he mugs horribly when trying to convey the first stages of ALS. Teresa Wright does her best to bring some sass to Eleanor Twitchell, the woman Lou eventually marries. She does a pretty good job of it, that is, until she becomes Mrs. Gehrig. Then all she gets to do is be deliriously in love and have several playful wrestling scenes with Cooper. Of course, the real Gehrig frequently played hurt and sick to reach his record of 2,130 consecutive games; he broke his hand at least 17 times. It's hard to imagine Lou being able to wrestle with such gusto even before the ALS set in. I can only conclude that the wrestling was meant to serve as action--or maybe it was someone's idea of an ingenious substitute for sex, since we never see Wright and Cooper in bed together at any time during this film.

Someone also thought it would be a good idea to put a completely gratuitous dance number in the movie. So we get a sort of tortured tango in which specialty dancer Veloz does something similar to the headbanger now used in pairs figure skating to his partner Yolanda as the Ray Noble Orchestra plays some hideous Latin music in the background. These performers are featured prominently in the credits. None of them made it to the Golden Age of Musicals. Big surprise.

Finally, I blame Babe Ruth for dancing on the grave of a man he feuded with for the last six of Gehrig's 14 years with the Yankees, not speaking to him until the final tribute in Yankee Stadium. The Babe is featured prominently in a number of scenes, but most obscenely during Gehrig's famous "luckiest man on the face of the earth" speech at the end. We get a medium shot of Cooper as he starts the speech; framed full face in the corner of the screen like one of today's TV station logos is Ruth.

There are so many inaccuracies in this film that it would take another post to list them all. Period costumes, cars, and props are entirely dispensed with. The actors don't age over time either. But the most egregious error, the one that shows the careless way this film was hacked together, is having Cooper portray the left-handed Gehrig as a right-hander in every way but when batting. According to IMDb, this one concession to accuracy was accomplished by flipping the film; Cooper apparently batted right-handed for the camera, too.

All in all, I think there's room for another biopic of Lou Gehrig, now known mostly for the disease which bears his name. I think his reputation as a man and a ballplayer needs to be rescued from the grotesque legacy of The Pride of the Yankees. l

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Valley Girl (1983)
Director: Martha Coolidge

Valley Girl is perhaps best known as the film in which Nicholas Cage had his first starring role. His soulful eyes and sculpted physique burst over teenaged girls and young women like molten rock, a well-formed and permanent memory after cooling. The glare of Cage’s spotlight, however, has thrown the rest of the movie into an unfortunate eclipse. There is so much more to like about this modern, Southern California translation of Romeo & Juliet that is by turns hilarious, sobering, and wise.

Martha Coolidge is a director who has often been tapped for light fare, often directed at teens and starring teen or young adult actors. Valley Girl may be the reason for her career trajectory. Aided by a sharp script and winning, intelligent actors, Coolidge turns this confection into an affecting portrait of the timelessness of teen life and young love set in a dead-on satire of California culture in the 80s.

The film opens with the prototype of the device that Julia Roberts popularized in Pretty Woman (1990)—the shopping montage. Julie (Deborah Foreman), the leader of the popular girls, is shopping with her best friends at a mall in the San Fernando Valley, picking through plastic bracelets and mugging with kicky shoes and cotton jersey tops in the store aisles. When the movie starts in earnest, they are gathered in the food court with their acquisitions, talking about—what else?—boys. Suzi (Michelle Meyrink) is throwing a party to which hunky teen Brad (Tony Markes) is to be the main draw. Julie starts mooning over Brad, and Suzi, Stacey (Heidi Holicker), and Loryn (Elizabeth Daily) complain to her to leave some guys for the rest of them. Julie already is dating the superhot Tommy (Michael Bowen), after all. Julie complains that Tommy takes her for granted, “like I’m an old chair.” “Not cool,” her Valley friends chime in. “I definitely need something new,” Julie muses.

Julie runs into Tommy going in the opposite direction on the mall escalator. A short argument ensues as Tommy reverses course on the moving staircase. When they both reach solid ground, Julie says, “I’m so totally not in love with you anymore,” and gives Tommy back his ID bracelet. Without wanting to overburden this scene with meaning, the movement on opposite sides of the escalator is one of the careful set-ups Coolidge uses to suggest that Julie’s course is shifting away from the familiar.

We next see the girls on the beach. A lanky lad runs to a small rise and the girls comment on what a hunk he is. Loryn says, “Yeah, he’s my kind of guy.” Stacey says, “They all are!” Loryn replies, a bit defensively, “What’s wrong with that?” She is the most sexually experienced of the friends. Julie dips her sunglasses to look at the boy. Their eyes meet. Later, Loryn is standing in a food line, trying to convince another girl to go to Suzi’s party. When she gives Suzi’s address to the girl, a boy in line leans in closer to hear it. He runs back to the lanky boy, Randy (Nicholas Cage), and tells him they have to go to the party. “I’ve seen the chicks!” enthuses Fred (Cameron Dye). “I don’t want to go to the Valley. I’m not in the mood to go to the Valley,” Randy protests. He’s a punker who goes to Hollywood High, in the city.

Of course, they do crash the party, their punk attire grating against the very straight partygoers. They check out the sushi buffet: “What have you got going here—a bait shop?” Fred tries to make small talk with several girls. He asks Stacey, “How’s your mother?” “She’s dead!” Randy tells Fred he knew the party was going to be a dud—at that very moment, in a scene right out of Franco Zefferelli’s version of Romeo & Juliet, a person steps out of Randy’s field of vision, revealing Julie standing alone in the middle of the room. He approaches her and says he has seen her before. “When?” she asks haughtily. “At the beach.” “That was YOU?” Thus starts this crosscultural romance.

The film enjoys playing with the horror of the Valleyspeak teens for the “grody to the max” punks. Julie is offended when Randy puts down her music but can’t deny that she feels connected to him at a very deep level. When the pressure builds from her friends to dump Randy, she turns to her father (Frederic Forrest), a flowerchild from the 60s, for advice. She wants to be with Randy, but she doesn’t want to have any problems. “Now there’s the rub,” her father says in a perfect Shakespearean quote. Subtly coaxing her away from the group-think of the Valley, he says, “Let me know when YOU decide.”

There are a number of well-executed subplots. For example, Loryn is used and abused by Tommy, and we see that her promiscuity masks a deep insecurity. Elizabeth Daily is superb in this part of the naïve/wise teen who eventually understands why Julie rejected Tommy. Suzi finds herself competing for a boy she likes with her widowed stepmother Beth (Lee Purcell). As Skip (David Ensor) circles on his bike in front of Suzi’s house, where he has a sexual rendezvous scheduled with Beth, muttering “this is ridiculous” under his breath, his dilemma is perfectly communicated by the background song “Eaten by the Monster of Love,” an 80s tune by the Sparks. In fact, the entire soundtrack is full of 80s gems that exquisitely capture the mood of the characters, most specifically, “Melt with You,” by the Modern English, that describes the unique world Julie and Randy have made for themselves.

I could go on and on about the many wonderful moments and gags in this beautifully directed, performed, scored, and edited film. Better you should see it yourself. Fer shure. Totally.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)
Director: Billy Wilder

By Roderick Heath

Sherlock Holmes comes just behind Dracula as the most portrayed fictional character on the movie screen, but few films about the great sleuth hold claim to greatness. One of the few is Billy Wilder’s elegiac The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. It was a dismal flop on release even after being shortened drastically from its original three hours plus, which is a true pity, as it stands as probably Wilder’s best post-The Apartment work in his unique genre of films, so ruthless in observing human nature but so deeply sympathetic to it.

The personal attraction of Holmes to Wilder is intriguing and crucial. Holmes is the quintessential intellectual’s idealised self. Holmes is mythic and eternal because Conan Doyle deliberately avoided rounding him out. He presented a man that avoided normal human entanglements - in a word, women. With his usual writing partner I.A.L. Diamond, Wilder sets out to mock and subvert Holmes, and yet strengthen him as a man.

The opening credits roll over the disinterment of Holmes' and Watson’s personal effects, 50 years after Watson's death, with Watson’s (Colin Blakely) accompanying letter promising the revelation of the more discreet details of Holmes’ life that were left out of his heroic Strand magazine accounts. Holmes’ deductions are skewered in the narration’s account of a murder’s solution: “You may recall that he broke the murder’s alibi by measuring the depth to which the parsley had sunk in the butter on a hot day.”

Holmes (Robert Stephens) is bored, and, thus, crabby, exacting (he berates Mrs Hudson (Irene Handel) for cleaning up his filing system, which relied on the depth of dust for dating) and puckishly humorous as he complains about Watson’s distortions of him for the stories. Holmes wastes time sawing his violin, composing monographs on varieties of cigar ash, and finally taking to his seven-percent solution for days at a time (“Holmes, aren’t you ashamed?” “Thoroughly, but this will fix it.”) to kill his great energy. Holmes is suffering in the emergent cult of celebrity. His life mythologised by his friend, devoured by the public, he is a target for everyone who seeks to pick his brain for trivialities.

Searching to escape this rut, he surveys various available cases and offers. One is from a circus owner, whose six-man midget acrobatics team has vanished. Holmes concludes from the offer of five pounds to find them (“that’s not even a pound a midget!”) that the owner’s a stingy blighter and the midgets obviously took a better job.

Watson insists they accept two free tickets to the Imperial Russian Ballet’s production of “Swan Lake”. On top of his hatred of ballet,Holmes is wary of ulterior motives. Predictably, Holmes is spirited backstage by the ballet’s director-general Rogozhin (Clive Revill, who here and in Avanti! provided priceless comic performances for Wilder). He is introduced to prima ballerina Madame Petrova, who has an unusual offer: Holmes is tofather a superchild with her in exchange for a Stradivarius. Rogozhin explains, as Holmes chokes on embarrassment, that Holmes was not their first choice for a father:

“We considered Russian writer. Tolstoy.”
“Oh that’s more like it, the man’s a genius!”
“Too old. Then we considered philosopher. Nietzsche.”
“Absolutely first-class mind.”
“Too German. Next we try Tchaikosvky.”
“Oh you couldn’t go wrong with Tchaikovsky.”
“You can and we did. It was catastrophe! Women - how you say - not his glass of tea.”

This last revelation provides Holmes with the perfect excuse to opt out, claiming to having been in a relationship with Watson for “five happy years.” Watson,meanwhile, dances in ecstatic abandon with ballerinas at the backstage party. As word of his apparent predilection spreads, he promptly finds his dancing partners made up of men. Watson, enraged, storms into 221B Baker Street. Holmes calms his distraught friend, who fears scandal, by reminding him of his legendary heterosexuality. “Yes," Watson declares, “I’ve got women on three continents who can vouch for me!” But when Watson asks Holmes if any can vouch for him, “ I hope I’m not being presumptuous…But there have been women in your life…?” Holmes’ chilly reply is, “The answer is 'yes,' you’re being presumptuous.”

This sustained comic movement brings up two important themes: shifting identities (the swan who is not a swan has several fellows in the story) and the question of what kind of sexual creature Holmes is. The possibility of his being gay is, for Holmes, a preferable smokescreen. We’ve heard him protest that Watson has “given people the distinct impression that I’m a misogynist. Actually I don’t dislike women. I merely distrust them.”

Soon, Holmes and Watson are presented with a classic case. A woman (the always tantalising Geneviève Page) is brought to them by a cabbie who found her in the river, assaulted, with Holmes’ name on her lips. Holmes is brutally eager to get solve the case (“the sooner we find who she is, the sooner we can get rid of her!”) Holmes is disturbed by her crying in her sleep, and finds himself grasped by her, stark naked, in a feverish state, thinking he is her husband. Picking up various clues, he tracks down her belongings and identifies her as Gabrielle Valledon, wife of a Belgian engineer. When she’s clearheaded, Gabrielle explains her husband disappeared whilst on a job in England, working for a company called Jonah, Ltd., with only a postal address for contact.

Checking out this address, they find only an empty shop where letters picked up by a wheelchair-bound lady, and a cage full of canaries, a number of which are picked up by some workmen and transferred to a smaller crate lined with copies of The Inverness Courier. The mysterious Jonah is mentioned again; even more mysterious is that a letter left by the woman is addressed to Holmes. It is from his brother, timed to the minute, requesting a meeting. Their trip to that museum of Empire fossils known as the Diogenes Club is occasion for Holmes to theorise about his brother’s involvement in all sorts of Foreign Office shenanigans. Christopher Lee’s Mycroft radiates a calm, acid authority as he warns Holmes to drop this case, shrinking his younger brother from indomitable hero to bohemian brat meddling with grown-ups’ games. Of course, this merely deepens Sherlock’s interest. But Mycroft may have a point. Mme. Valladon has an odd habit of flashing Morse code with her umbrella to an accomplice on the street.

Holmes and Gabrielle travel to Inverness as “Mr and Mrs Ashdown”, with Watson posing as their butler, riding third class, conversing - one-way - with a group of Trappist monks who are reading the Book of Jonah in their Bibles and whispering in German to each other. Meanwhile, in their sleeping compartment, Holmes, explains to Gabrielle why he distrusts women:

“The most affectionate woman I ever knew was a murderess. It was one of those passionate affairs at odd hours right in my laboratory. And all the time right behind my back she was stealing cyanide to sprinkle on her husband’s steak and kidney pie…”

“You musn’t judge all women just because...” Gabrielle protests.

He cuts in, “Of course not. Just the ones I was involved with. And I don’t just mean professionally. Kleptomaniacs. Nymphomaniacs. Pyromaniacs. Take my fiancé for instance. She was the daughter of my violin teacher. We were engaged to be married, the invitations were out, I was being fitted for a tailcoat, and 24 hours before the wedding, she died of influenza. It just proves my contention that women are unreliable.”

This explanation for Holmes is brilliantly offered by Wilder as an affliction of cruel logic for a rigorously logical man. After a grievous early loss cheated him of a traditional romantic sensibility; of course, the devious genius obsessed with criminals would be most attracted to women with hints of unstable or criminal tendencies, the only ones with minds that work like his, to tantalise all the poles of his personality. That he is attracted enough by Mme. Valladon’s beauty and mystery is enough to rattle him; the more intelligent and supple she proves, the more rapt he is.

As this unlikely threesome book into their hotel room overlooking Loch Ness, Watson swears he saw the monster in the loch, strenuously disbelieved by Holmes. In a graveyard they witness a burial of coffins, one large, two small, which the gravedigger (Stanley Holloway) tells them was a father and two children who drowned in the loch. Then comes a peculiar spectacle, four schoolboy mourners who, as Holmes realises even before seeing their wizened faces, are midgets, the band who abandoned their circus; two of their fellows are now buried. Holmes, Watson, and Gabrielle disinter the larger of the two coffins, fearing it might contain M. Valladon, in the night, and find the engineer buried with several dead canaries stained ghostly white, signs of gas poisoning. Gabrielle is distraught, with Holmes providing less-than-delicate consoling, but soon they’re back out, searching for any sign of where Valladon was working, with Gabrielle signalling via umbrella code to the Trappist monks trailing them. At Urquart Castle, they find restoration works being run by an auxiliary of the Diogenes Club and soldierly guides who know nothing of history. Holmes pursues his gathering theory, and he, Watson, and Gabrielle ride a rowboat on the loch chasing the monster. He is able to hear, through Watson’s stethoscope, a throbbing engine beneath the waves, just before the "monster" surfaces, overturns their boat, and heads for its "lair" in Urquart Castle.

Returning to shore, sopping wet but unharmed, Holmes is called for by a carriage and driven to the castle. Holmes is confronted by Mycroft, who explains to him what Holmes has already deduced - that the navy is testing an experimental submersible, the HMS Jonah, crewed by midgets; that it is run by a battery system built by Valladon that, when it leaked and mixed with water, produced gas that choked Valladon, and what he surely has not deduced - that Valladon’s real wife was murdered weeks before and the woman posing as her now is Ilse von Hoffmanstall, a German agent who has subverted Holmes’ method and used his abilities to trace the Jonah project.

In silent agony, Sherlock now must watch as Mycroft, in fatuous style, shows Queen Victoria (Mollie Maureen) the craft. Victoria, pint-sized, grandmotherly, is delighted by the machine, and asks, innocently, “Where’s the glass bottom?” Mycroft explains confidently that she misunderstands the machine’s purpose: “Jonah is to be commissioned as a warship!” Victoria’s horrified opinion, almost word for word that of a real British admiral, is, “It’s unsportsmanlike! It’s un-English!” and orders it destroyed.

Sherlock is given the job destroying the warship, which he does, and unmasks Ilse with dutiful melancholy. He gives Ilse the gift of knowledge that she outwitted him. As she is driven away by Mycroft and his men, she signals with her umbrella “Auf wiedersehn” to him. Some months later, after she has been exchanged back to Germany, Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft, informing him that Ilse was shot for spying by the Japanese. Holmes turns back to the seven-percent solution, which even Watson cannot argue against, and Holmes disappears in his room.

This is possibly the most gossamer tragedy ever pulled off in a film, one highlighted by Miklos Rozsa’s sublime score. But it’s hardly depressing, as the film’s richly funny texture endures in the heart. It’s worth stating that Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely are possibly the best Holmes and Watson ever. Properly, they’re both relatively young, especially Blakely’s Watson, a boyish-at-heart ladykiller and slightly ridiculous, and Holmes, stuck somewhere between Oxford and Bohemia, portrayed with enormous wit and feeling by Stephens. There’s so much to praise in the film it’s almost absurd to say that it’s unsatisfying. You can’t help but wish that three-hour epic with more discursions, more humour, more detail, was extant. As Holmes experiences with Ilse, this film is the beautiful mystery woman you have all too briefly, but it’s somehow enough.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Song of Bernadette (1943)
Director: Henry King

A few days ago, one of the last surviving members of Hollywood's pantheon of classic stars, Jennifer Jones, turned 87. Miss Jones--and I couldn't dream of calling this angelic-looking actress anything else--has always held a special place in my heart because she was the star of The Song of Bernadette. Every year, I'd go to the home of my Orthodox Jewish aunt for Passover and watch this life of a Catholic saint on TV--programming for the Easter crowd. I'm a little surprised that my traditional aunt would allow this film to play in her house, but at 153 minutes (it never seemed that long), it did keep me quiet and out of the way. If she had known it also inspired me to walk around with a towel on my head, practicing to be a nun, she might have rethought her decision.

This film, the first in which Phyllis Isley was billed as Jennifer Jones and one of the first she ever made, tells the life of Bernadette Soubirous, an asthmatic teenager living in Lourdes, France, who saw the Virgin Mary standing in a grotto in the city dump and brought forth a spring whose waters are said to perform miraculous cures. It would have been easy to create a sentimental view of this girl and her surroundings, but the film takes the story seriously and chooses to keep its editorializing to a minimum. In so doing, it becomes one of the best biopics ever made.

Director Henry King begins his tale surveying the hovel in which reside the impoverished Soubirous family. He fixes on the worried face of François Soubirous (Roman Bohnen), then shifts to his equally worried wife Louise (Anne Revere). Pere Soubirous must make the rounds of town to see if he can pick up some day work. The year is 1858, and times are hard. The only work he can find is carting medical waste from the hospital to the dump in Massabielle.

Switch to the convent school that Bernadette and her sisters attend. Several girls, including Bernadette, are being quizzed in front of the class on their catechism by the severe Sister Marie Therese (Gladys Cooper). Bernadette does not know what the Holy Trinity is. When asked by the nun if she is pert or merely stupid, Bernadette admits that she is stupid, though she was, in fact, sick the day the class learned this lesson. Father Peyramale (Charles Bickford) visits the class and hands out holy cards to the girls the sister has been quizzing. Bernadette gets a brief glimpse of the manger scene on her card before Sister Marie Therese confiscates it, saying she did not earn it because she did not know her catechism. Father Peyramale good-heartedly tells Bernadette that the possibility of getting a holy card can be more incentive to her to learn her catechism.

In these two scenes, important characters and themes are laid out indelibly for us. We grasp the situation the Soubirous family is in and get our first glimpse of the filthy location where the miracle takes place. We understand Bernadette to be a sickly, simple girl who isn't given to making excuses for herself. We see Sister Marie Therese as a hard and bitter woman predisposed to disbelieve her. And Father Peyramale shows Bernadette the image that will dominate her life.

The film is in no hurry to wow us with the miracle. King recreates the events of the day just as they are in the actual church records, right down to Bernadette removing her shoes and socks to wade across a stream to join her sister and friend in gathering firewood. When Bernadette actually sees "the lady," a glow of light becomes rapture on the expressive face of Jennifer Jones. She got the part, it is said, because she saw when the other hopefuls only looked.

The furor over the sighting sets both local government and church officials against "little Soubirous." The mayor of Lourdes (Aubrey Mather) and the high prosecutor (Vincent Price, in his best role) look for any means they can to put a stop to the growing horde of believers who follow Bernadette to the ghotto each day to see the lady. The railroad has been planning to construct a depot in Lourdes, and neither the mayor nor the prosecutor wants the town to be known as a gathering place for religious fanatics. Father Peyramale holds to the official church line to ignore the supposed visions. It seems that the Enlightenment has turned even religious leaders into skeptics.

Of course, when Bernadette brings forth the miraculous spring, in a scene of moving intensity, by scratching in the dirt and eating weeds, there's no way for anyone to suppress Our Lady of Lourdes anymore. Bernadette's future moves swiftly toward the nunnery and immortality.

Several scenes stand out for me. The confrontation in the convent between Bernadette, who is now Sister Marie Bernard, and Sister Marie Therese about the older's nun's disbelief. When confronted with the fact that Bernadette has been suffering silently with a horrible leg tumor and tuberculosis of the bone, Sister Marie Therese runs to the chapel and begs forgiveness for her envy. "I know now we cannot storm the gates of heaven. We must be chosen." While this scene seems to reinforce the need for worldly suffering to reach the kingdom of heaven, in fact, it does just the opposite. Rather it reinforces the church's dogma that Jesus Christ and his saints are the ones who suffer for humanity's sins, and that the suffering Sister Marie Therese put herself through to be worthy of divine grace is neither desired nor required.

Another scene I like, which was meant to startle skeptics in 1943 but which has much truth and relevance today, is when Vincent Price's character warns of the danger of religious fanaticism to a properly governed world. It takes only a look at the holy wars occurring around the world and on American soil today to see that he was right to be worried. I can only applaud the authorities depicted in this movie for demanding confirmation of the miracle to the fullest extent possible to discourage the kind of fanaticism that quickly hardens into prejudice.

I am always moved by Bernadette's deathbed vision of the lady. Throughout the film, Miss Jones gives indications why this girl was chosen as a divine emissary. Her truthfulness, simplicity, and untarnished heart glow through in every scene. She has common sense and normal instincts, such as wanting to be romanced by a boy she likes and running away from a policeman who is harassing her. She's not one of the monumental, larger-than-life figures we've seen in other religious films. She is a figure in whom belief is irresistible and unshakable. "I did see her. I did!" she repeats over and over.

For this amazing performance, Miss Jones received the Best Actress Oscar. St. Bernadette was well served by Miss Jones and the entire cast and crew of The Song of Bernadette. This is a great and timeless film. l

Here's a good one for trivia buffs: The Virgin Mary was played by future "bad girl" Linda Darnell!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Director: Terry Gilliam

When I finished watching The Brothers Grimm last night, this exchange from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus came to mind:

Emperor Joseph II: Your work is ingenious. It's quality work. But there are simply too many notes, that's all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.

Mozart: Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?

Substitute Harvey Weinstein for Emperor Joseph II and Terry Gilliam for Mozart, and you may understand what went awry with this picture.

Terry Gilliam has one of the most distinctive and extravagant visions of any filmmaker who ever lived. His fantastical world view is at its best when it is most fully realized. Unfortunately for Gilliam, he can’t make a movie his way without spending something close to the gross domestic product of Switzerland, and his films are so unique that they rarely come close to making back their investment. Therefore, Gilliam films rarely happen, and when they do, they frequently are compromised by the men with the checkbooks.

I think that Harvey Weinstein/Miramax had good intentions when they signed onto Gilliam’s idea for The Brothers Grimm. It seemed that with the help of CGI, the director’s over-the-top production demands could be met at a fairly reasonable cost. Unfortunately, there is a warmth and craftsmanship to Gilliam’s handmade contraptions and fairy castles that cannot be had with even the best computer graphics available today. And believe me, buying into the extreme world of Terry Gilliam requires the proper setting. That’s why The Brothers Grimm only succeeds by half.

The cast only succeeds by half as well. It was a mistake to put Matt Damon in the role of Wilhelm Grimm, the more pragmatic of the two brothers who are sent to a town in Germany by a lunatic French general (Jonathan Pryce) to find, on pain of death, 10 girls who have vanished. The kinds of parts that fit Damon down to the cuticles call on his talent for alienation and subtle intensity. He simply is not up to playing a P.T. Barnum huckster who makes his living by pulling off bogus exorcisms. His slapstick moments are not funny, and he only makes an impression when he yells at his brother. He’s not even sexy when he’s meant to be. So that’s the one half of the Grimms who doesn’t work.

Heath Ledger as Jacob Grimm is the half who does. He completely disappears into this fairytale fanboy who can’t believe he has stumbled onto a real-life enchantment after years of fervently collecting stories that he silently believes. He is taken with Angelika (Lena Headey), the town’s “cursed one,” not because she’s beautiful and available, but because she’s versed in folk arts and a believer in enchantment. At one point, he must awaken her, like Sleeping Beauty, with a kiss of pure love. The love he uses successfully to revive her is not for her, however, but for the fairytale she stepped out of.

Pryce and Peter Stormare as the French general’s master torturer Cavaldi are silly in the best sense. Both love being ruthless, and both reminded me a great deal of my beloved Captain Hook. Stormare lays on a hilarious Italian accent that had me giggling even as I found some of his antics a bit frightening. That was the perfect combination for this caricature. Pryce, with less screen time, had to make more of it. At one point, a fluffy kitten is kicked into the rotating blades of one of Gilliam’s inventive torture devices in a Monty Pythonesque gag. A bit of puree of kitty ends up on the general’s face. He wipes it off with his finger and eats it, humming his approval at the flavor. I was splitting my sides at this send-up of French gourmandizing. Indeed, the French are thoroughly despised in this film shown from the occupied Germans’ point of view, and this national rivalry becomes a running joke as well.

The film is a bit like a “Where’s Waldo” game that piles too many references to fairytales in for its own good, keeping Jacob scribbling in his notebook almost nonstop. The final battle between the Grimms and a 500-year-old witch played by Monica Bellucci is exciting, but it also is CGI overload that seemed to me like a weak imitation of Sleepy Hollow. Degenerating into noise and catastrophe using fair-to-poor special effects, the plot barrels over the characters and teeters on the edge of incoherence until it reaches its wimpering end. I blame this digital excess entirely on Miramax. If only Gilliam had been able to do it his way.

I don’t know whether to recommend this film or not. It held my attention but it’s a bit of a hash. I say, though, that I’d rather have an original like Gilliam making movies than not. I’m sure I’ll go see his next effort—if he manages to get it made, that is. l