Brotherhood of the Wolf is an exuberantly garish French movie about the so-called Beast of Gévaudan, a wolflike creature that terrorized a rural province and tore up more than 100 people in the 1760s. It was never resolved whether the creature was real or just a masquerading human, but the deaths certainly occurred. What remains is a legend ripe for cinematic bloodletting. If you like French films about effete bourgeoisie performing Pirandello as they scamper to and from luxe romantic liaisons, you should know up front that there is precious little ooh-la-la in Brotherhood of the Wolf: Its brow is slung rather low, and its splatter quotient owes less to Paris than to Hong Kong. I felt an initial surge of relief in attending a French film that isn't, for a change, filled with stunning-looking people acting existential, but the feeling didn't last. Government strictures prevent the French film-exhibition business from being swamped by American product, but this French film tries to out-Hollywood Hollywood.
In this case, Hollywood helped out a bit. The Beast itself, which appears to be a compost of shivs and corrugated whiskers, is a creation of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, recently leashed to movies like Cats and Dogs and probably grateful for something more fang-and-claw. The special effects are both animatronic and computer-generated, and I'm prepared to believe that a few of the cast members are, too -- notably va-va-voomy Monica Bellucci, who plays a high-priced brothel babe.
Director Christophe Gans edited a renegade film magazine, Starfix, two decades ago, and Brotherhood of the Wolf is crammed with homages to the likes of Sergio Leone and Mario Bava and the Hammer horror screamfests (as was the Hughes brothers' recent Jack the Ripper movie, From Hell, which this overloud, overlong film resembles in its lurid pop trashiness). Nerds of all ages will lap it up; it even has a hero, a mystical Iroquois warrior (Mark Dacascos), who might have stepped out of a video game. That fits Gans's aesthetic; he puts his one-dimensional figurines through regular bouts of bam-pow blood sport. Pop-fantasy action films don't have to be this unendingly horrid. One of the pleasant surprises of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings was the director's sense of wonder, which matched his aptitude for violence (though to my mind, if you've seen one mashed-up orc, you've seen 'em all). Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which Gans clearly pored over for its martial-arts sequences, is another example of how ferocity and lyricism can be combined into a transcendent vision. The Beast in Brotherhood of the Wolf doesn't do much crouching or hiding. Mostly, it's just in your face, fangs dripping. Turn away.
Sean Penn plays a single father with a mental age of 7 in I Am Sam, and the best one can say for the actor is that he doesn't disgrace himself. (Neither does Dianne Wiest, who has a startling cameo as Sam's agoraphobic neighbor.) Penn has completely transformed his speech patterns, his walk, his body language; there's no single moment when you catch him out and mutter to yourself, "That's Sean Penn." It's a prodigious feat of acting that's also highly limited: Penn's very authenticity in the role guarantees a constricted emotional range. I suppose every great performer has one of these roles in him -- Dustin Hoffman's Rain Man being the most obvious example -- but maybe it would be best if they remained hidden. It's not that such characters aren't worth playing; but inevitably, Hollywood turns them into sainted sufferers lighting our path to righteousness.
In I Am Sam, we are supposed to be on the side of Penn's Sam Dawson as he fights for custody of his 7-year-old daughter, Lucy (Dakota Fanning), against the social system that wants to place her in foster care. Allied with Sam is high-strung, high-priced attorney Rita Harrison (Michelle Pfeiffer), to whom he teaches valuable life lessons on how to appreciate the simple pleasures. This is one of Pfeiffer's rare terrible performances, perhaps because she can't make any more sense of her role than we can. Despite all the holy grandstanding on Sam's behalf, the movie, which was directed by Jessie Nelson from a script she wrote with Kristine Johnson, never comes close to making a case for why Sam should raise the child alone. The alternative option of a two-parent family, which really does seem eminently sensible under the circumstances, is shot down. Love conquers all. The movie portrays Lucy, of course, as the most well-adjusted of girls, thereby conveniently evading the real-world ramifications of this story. But then again, I Am Sam is about as connected to the real world as Dr. Seuss's Green Eggs and Ham, from which its title is derived -- in fact, in the realism department, Seuss may have the edge. When he directed The Pledge, Penn demonstrated a highly textured and despairing awareness of life's crazy-making complexities. He's a film artist renowned for the integrity of his career choices. Why, at this point, would he bother to act in the kind of mush-minded movie I'd hope he would never direct?
Set in Georgia, Monster's Ball is about Hank Grotowski (Billy Bob Thornton), a death-row prison guard who winds up in a charged relationship with Leticia (Halle Berry), the widow of a man he recently helped execute (Sean "Puffy" Combs). Director Marc Forster revealed a gift for depicting emotional violence in his second feature, Everything Put Together, in which a mother loses her baby and is slowly shunned by her friends; in Monster's Ball, there's a harrowing scene where Hank's bigot father (Peter Boyle) confronts Leticia, and the full horror of racism defaces the screen. But most of the movie, written by Will Rokos and Milo Addica, is an arty sleepwalk. Thornton has developed a style of acting that goes beyond minimal into the near nonexistent. (He's turning into the Actor Who Wasn't There.) Since Monster's Ball is supposed to be about Hank's redemption, this stylistic approach results in a rather large vacuum. Halle Berry overdoes the sobby-ravaged-woman routine -- she's hell-bent on showing us just how unglamorous she can be -- but most of the time she's surprisingly good. Her bracing openness periodically snaps this closed-off film to life.
Brotherhood of the Wolf
Directed by Christophe Gans; starring Samuel Le Bihan, Mark Dacascos, and Monica Bellucci.
I Am Sam
Directed by Jessie Nelson; starring Sean Penn and Michelle Pfeiffer.
Directed by Marc Forster; starring Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry.