St. Petersburg Times: Weekend
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By STEVE PERSALL, Times Film Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published January 24, 2002


This pack is tough to track

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[Photo: Universal Studios]
Mani (Mark Dacascos) may bring unusual fighting skills to 18th century rural France, but martial arts don’t speed up tracking a mysterious beast in Brotherhood of the Wolf.
Brotherhood of the Wolf (R) (142 min.) -- There is nothing subtle about the French horror flick Brotherhood of the Wolf, surely the first movie ever to combine 18th century period details, a hound bigger than the Baskervilles and Matrix-style martial arts. Director Christophe Gans fashioned a seductively violent yarn pumped up on its imagined importance: schlock wearing the cloak of high art.

It's 1765 and something is stalking the women and children of Gevaudan in southwestern France. The king dispatches scientist Gregoire de Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his trusty Mohawk sidekick Mani (Mark Dacascos) to investigate. These guys aren't just beaker freaks. They're martial arts warriors itching to use their moves. Gans sets up their brawls with sonic and slo-mo precision, each more unbe-Jet Li-vable than the last.

Gregoire and Mani punch their way through social and political roadblocks to unravel the mystery of the beast. Some historical allegory that an academic would have to explain may be at work behind the graphic action. Most viewers will be transfixed by Dan Laustsen's hyperkinetic camera work and the polar sex appeal of Emilie Dequenne as Gregoire's chaste love interest and Monica Bellucci (Malena) as a scheming courtesan.

Brotherhood of the Wolf does get tiring around the two-hour mark, having exhausted its bag of cinema tricks and kung fu kicks without a decent logical explanation for those massacred women and children. There's nearly another half-hour to go, and a late explosion of Lord of the Rings-style computer effects don't make it breeze by. Gans' sexy excess holds us hostage, however, until the final frame. B+

Too colorless to thrill

Charlotte Gray (PG-13) (118 mins.)

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[Photo: Warner Bros.]
A French Resistance leader (Billy Crudup, left) attracts undercover agent Charlotte (Cate Blanchett) after her British lover is killed in Charlotte Gray, a film whose potential to excite is slowed by a plodding script.
The prospect of Cate Blanchett and director Gillian Armstrong, two of Australia's finest gifts to the international cinema, reteaming for the first time since their audacious 1997 Oscar and Lucinda could generate only high expectations.

That Blanchett is outstanding under Armstrong's direction unfortunately makes their Charlotte Gray, in which she plays a British secret agent in Vichy-controlled France, all the more disappointing. Instead of the sharp and exciting World War II spy thriller with serious undertones that it is reasonable to expect from Armstrong, Charlotte Gray, for all Blanchett's radiance and intelligence in the title role, is a bore.

When a member of Britain's Special Operations Executive notices the beautiful Scotswoman Charlotte Gray reading Stendahl's The Red and the Black in the original French aboard a train sometime in 1942, he strikes up a conversation and invites her to a book publishing party in London, where Charlotte is working.

At the party, Charlotte will meet a Royal Air Force pilot (Rupert Penry-Jones) on leave and swiftly embark upon a wartime romance; she will be recruited for service in the SOE. When her new lover is shot down over France, Charlotte is eager to become an undercover courier with the hope of finding him if he survived.

Charlotte's assignment sends her to a provincial town falling under stepped-up Nazi rule. As "Dominique," she is given the cover of a housekeeper in the palatial but crumbling manor house of crusty but kindly Levade (Michael Gambon), who is sheltering two Jewish boys who escaped being transported to Poland.

Levade's son Julien (Billy Crudup) is the fiery local leader of the Resistance, with whom Charlotte will be working closely and to whom she will become increasingly attracted once she receives word that her lover is dead.

Armstrong and Jeremy Brock, in adapting Sebastian Faulks' 1990 bestseller, are unsparing of the local collaborators, fueled by an anti-Semitism that lamentably continues to surface in France to this day, but this permanent stain on French honor is not exactly news. Armstrong's honorable attempts at seriousness, instead of trying merely for the easy escapism and romanticism of the typical World War II action-adventure, unfortunately reveal that Brock's script is too plodding and unimaginative to work as either entertainment or commentary.

-- KEVIN THOMAS, Los Angeles Times

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