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THE BROTHERS GRIMM (2005)
HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (2004)


The Brothers Grimm Starring: Matt Damon, Heath Ledger. Director: Terry Gilliam. Screenwriter: Ehren Kruger.
This is a fun and exciting movie, but itís also a strange one.  Itís part comedy, part adventure story and part horror movie, so itís easy to see how it could end up being neither fish nor foul, satisfying no one.  The fact that it manages to do everything really well is an amazing achievement, almost overshadowing the narrative itself. 

The narrative concerns folklorist brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the famous tellers of fairy tails.  In this film, theyíve abandoned research and gone into being con artists; they travel around the country, surreptitiously setting up elaborate supernatural manifestations (with the help of two associates) and then offer their ghost-busting services to gullible villagers.  When the monsters are defeated, they pocket a tidy fee and head for the next town.

Caught by the army, who are aware of their machinations, they are spared execution on one condition:  someone else in a distant town is employing methods similar to the Grimmís, for a far more sinister purpose.  If the Grimms can discover the methods and find the criminal, theyíll be spared.  To see that they donít just run away, theyíre assigned guards. 

Once they arrive at the village, however, they discover that things are very, very different from what theyíve been led to expect, and they have to once again use their creativity and imagination to survive.

As with any Terry Gilliam film, the look is both sumptuous and somewhat filthy, with many images approaching a rare beauty.  The music is great, the effects are imaginative and serve the story, and acting ranges from fine to very good indeed.  Most of the minor roles are extremely well-played, while the brothers (Heath Ledger and Matt Damon) do pretty well, Ledger better than Damon (who seems somewhat bland).   Peter Stormare is very over-the-top, and I usually find him pretty annoying as an actor but here he manages to work pretty well.  His acting is almost Vincent Price-like.

Also well-done are several recreations of some Grimm tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretal, Snow White, CinderellaÖIím sure there are more).  Theyíre not just tossed in randomly either, but are actually parts of the narrative.

In the end, I have very few complaints.  Matt Damon was pretty bland, as noted, but the biggest problem for me was the ending, where the final assault on the tower seemed to take far longer than it should.  There is definitely a time limit for action sequences (at least for me) beyond which they become more annoying than exciting.  Ledgerís moaning and cowering before finally taking action just made me impatient; a few seconds of judicious trims could have made it tighter and better.

Still, I recommend this one.  I think some of the scarier parts might be a bit much for younger children, and I imagine teenagers wonít have any interest at all.  But that still leaves plenty of folks, eh?   It would make a great double-bill with Sleepy Hollow some cold October evening.

 


House of Flying Daggers
Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau. Director: Zhang Yimou. Screenwriters: Zhang Yimou, Li Feng, Wang Bin.
Itís always difficult for a person from one culture to appreciate, let alone judge the art of another culture, but itís not impossible.  Certain things are constant in the human experience, love, honor, sadness, fear, and these are easily recognized no matter the language or customs. 

Itís in the way that the culture in question presents these human qualities that pose the most difficulties.  House of Flying Daggers is a pretty good illustration.   Itís a Chinese tale, told from a time long ago when honor and duty and propriety were strictly observed in society.  What this means is that the emotion portrayed most often was a tough, hard stoicism.  Very few smiles are cracked during the course of the narrative.

The narrative on the one hand is pretty straight-forward:  a young blind woman is struggling to return home.  A young warrior helps her along.   On the other hand, though, the story is a tangled mass of double-identities, hidden loyalties, reversals and things being not what they seem.  If Iím reading it rightly (and I may not be) it seems to be mostly a stiff-upper-lip love story.  With action sequences.

Ah, the action sequences.  Here is where the film really comes alive, with elaborate attacks, swordplay, arrows and daggers bouncing here and there and incredibly choreographed fighting. (Full disclosure: Many of these sequences are achieved with CGI and blue-screen techniques. Apparently no one's kung fu is that good. But the effects are pretty seamless; if you don't know it's CGI, you'll find yourself repeatedly saying, "How did that do that?")   At times, the action is so elaborate, itís downright baroque and starts to slide into the ridiculous section.  But it always looks incredible, whether believable or not.

The rest of the film is gorgeous as well; itís got an incredibly beautiful look, whether an open field or a bamboo forest.   Like the fighting, at times the beauty of the surroundings is piled on too high; Iím thinking particularly of a fight in a sunny field which, after a brief cutaway, is suddenly a raging snowstorm.   Did the fight last for months?  Or did the film-makers just think, ďYou know what would be cool?  Iíll tell you what would be cool.  A fight in a snowstorm!  Tell me thatís not cool.Ē

And it is.  Itís ridiculous, but itís also damn cool. 

I certainly think this one is worth seeing in terms of beautiful cinematography, haunting music and amazing, kinetic action sequences.  Because the story and acting are portraying a culture foreign to my sensibilities, I canít really judge them.   My tendency would be to say, ďThese people ought to loosen up,Ē but then Iíd become the ugly American, always demanding a cheeseburger in Paris.   Still, you canít help the culture youíre born into.  Because of that, you may not get very much out of this one other than an appreciation of the well-crafted background parts and the awesome action.

Sometimes, though, thatís enough and if youíre in the mood for something beautiful with daggers, this should be first on the menu.   You wonít find it in the same place you find cheeseburgers, though.