Tuesday, October 18, 2005


Mirrormask was a film I was really interested in seeing because it's made by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Gaiman wrote the incredible comic series, Sandman, one of my favorite pieces of fiction. It's a landmark work in the history of comics and is certainly the best comic ever made that's not by someone named Moore or Morrison. McKean did the covers for Sandman and also has done some incredible comics art himself, including the great book Cages.

The film is very similar to their previous works, but the change of medium makes this forgivable. It's often difficult for artists to make the transition to directing film. If you've got a crew, it's pretty easy to shoot a film, but a lot of people moving to film from other mediums end up shooting stuff like Sin City, very static, sticking closely to storyboards and not really using what's uniquely cinematic. It's difficult to say how much input Frank Miller had into the direction of Sin City, but the film adds very little that wasn't already in the comic, so even though I enjoyed the film, I didn't feel like there was a particular reason to make it, other than to just get the stories out to more people.

McKean does not direct like Miller did, the film he makes has a lot of moments that are uniquely cinematic, and he created a really interesting cinematic world and style. The opening sequence is really well put together. I loved the cutting and visual saturation of everything. You were drenched in visual excess and that was very cool to experience. I liked the subtle use of split screen when Helena was speaking with her mother. And even though I don't generally like circus stuff, this was really interesting to watch. The filmmaking makes you experience the feeling of the circus more than just sticking the camera in one place and letting the people perform would.

This movie falls firmly into what I call the '80s Fantasy' genre, which consists of a teen protagonist who lives a boring life expressing a desire for something different, at which point they're taken into a a fantasy realm, where they have a whole bunch of adventures and return home with a new appreciation for their everyday life. In making this film, Gaiman and McKean set out to create a Labyrinth for the 21st century, and the influence is obvious, right from the sock puppet business at the beginning. The entire narrative structure is the same as Labyrinth.

The surprising thing about this film was how compelling the real world sequences were. Normally the filmmakers are trying to get into the fantasy as quickly as possible, but there was a lot of really interesting emotional stuff going on here. I actually wouldn't have minded if the entire film focused on the real world problems because McKean was able to shoot those segments in a really interesting way. I loved the setting outside the apartment, with the vast landscape off in the distance. Emotionally, these scenes were very strong and I really felt for Helena, and the mix of guilt and fear she carries.

Even though I love Gaiman's writing, he's got a lot of things that bother me that constantly pop up in his work. His strongest stories are the ones that are dark and serious, when he does whimsical stuff, the work frequently seems like it thinks it's more clever than it actually is, and he frequently gets in the habit of throwing out a bunch of wacky concepts rather than focusing on the emotional development of the characters. Most of Sandman stayed in a dark, serious place, meaning that the pieces that were comedy, like Delerium, worked well because they were the exception. When it's all this goofy comedy, it just doesn't work.

Mirrormask has a plot that's very similar to Coraline, his young adult novel about a girl who wanders into an alternate dimension. Both works are good, but the restrictions of a young target audience seem to lead to the works holding something back. Mirrormask has a lot really dark, great stuff, but isn't there consistently enough to be a truly great film.

I wasn't a fan of the sock puppet thing at the opening, that seemed like something that had been done too much, Labyrinth pulled off something similar, but twenty years have passed, and it's not fresh any more. However, after that, there's very little of the bad Gaiman tics. The opening chunk of the film is some of his most grounded, realistic writing and it's emotionally affecting.

For me, the beginning and ending of the film are great, it just suffers a lot in the middle. My biggest problem with most films in the '80s Fantasy' genre is the fact that there's not quite enough story to make a film, so they always rely on having the main character running into some wacky stuff along the way, some hilarious episodes that will show off the visual skill of the filmmakers. There's always that point where the film's sort of adrift, where the person's in this new world, but isn't sure what to do and just wanders around meeting strange things. I enjoy non-narrative filmmaking, but the problem is the things the filmmakers come up with usually aren't clever or entertaining enough to justify their screentime.

And sadly that's the case here. The first time the Sphinxes appear, they're very cool, and the book stuff is pure Gaiman, but by the time they get to the Sphinx with the riddles, I just wasn't dazzled by this stuff anymore. The film was progressing forward slowly without any emotional development for Helena.

Also, this was the only point in the film where I felt the presence of the green screen. In later scenes, the effects were completely seamless, but when the story was weak, I was taken out of the world. However, throughout the film, the acting is top notch, particularly from Stephanie Leonidas. It can't have been easy acting in a greenscreen world, but she pulled it off in a really top notch performance.

I will say that even though I thought the exploring the world section hurt the film, it was beautiful and very cool to see the McKean style in a film. I liked the fact that all the masks made the characters look like McKean drawings come to life, and on the whole, the effects were seamless. It's astonishing that they pulled this off with a 4 million dollar budget.

So, the film was losing me, but once Helena gets captured by the queen, it all picks up and up until the end is really great. I loved the 'Close to You' sequence, the combination of music and visual was perfect, making a really surreal moment. I loved the design on the jack in the box things. Also, I really liked Helena's goth fabulous wardrobe at the end, I'm sure a lot of Gaiman's fans who see this movie will be appropriating the style, that is if they don't already have lace up leather gloves.

As the film ends, it implies that the entire middle section is a dream, and if you view it that way, the conflict at the end, between the two Helenas, is essentially Helena confronting her guilt over what she said to her mother. Earlier, she said that she wanted to live a normal life and when Anti-Helena steals her life, she sees what that normal life would consist of. As a circus performer, they all hold on to something essentially childlike, a view of the world as full of wonder, something that's reflected in her drawings. However, Anti-Helena tears the drawings down and rather than existing in the realm of imagination, she lives on a purely physical. She smokes, she 'snogs' with boys and dresses in a cliched rebel teen style.

So when she looks through the windows she sees her wish fulfilled, and realizes that it's not what she reallly wants. This life repulses her and makes her appreciative of what she does have. So, at the end she has to consciously reject this lifestyle, and reclaim the life she did have, except now she knows that this is actuallly what she wants. She doesn't need to grow up so fast.

I'm a little hazy on what happens at the end to allow Helena to reclaim her life, but I figure that's the dream breaking down, so it doesn't have to make that much sense. Basically, the world is subject to Helena's will, and when she demands her life back, she gets it. And at the end, she's backk at the circus, only happy now instead of unappreciative.

The ending of the film raises some issues. Is it right for Helena to shy away from the adult world, most notably her quite repulsed reaction to seeing herself 'snogging'? I take it to be more that Helena is rejecting this accelerated development. Rather than having meaningless physical relations, she would want a relationship that goes deeper and fires her imagination. The most troubling thing for her is the destruction of her art, and by extension of the person that she is. She really likes the life she has, and the guilt she has over what she told her mother plagues her throughout the film.

The other thing that was great throughout the movie was the music. Reading Cages, you could tell that McKean was a big fan of jazz, and this film has a great score that's a combination of jazz and electronica. I love the trumpets and clarinets, it really helps to build the mood of the film, and is totally integrated into the storytelling. It's one of the most unique film scores I've ever heard, and it worked perfectly here, with the 'Close to You' scene as a highlight.

So, the film concluded on a real high note, and was generally top notch. Gaiman and McKean certainly made no concessions to the studio, this is a very pure hit of their vision. The problem with it lies in the second act, which makes the film good, instead of great. Of course, on a second viewing, maybe I'll appreciate it more, but we'll have to wait on that. On the whole though, they were completely successful in making a 'Labyrinth for the 21st century,' and I would argue this film actually surpasses Labyrinth, though I do miss the Bowie presence. However, in most other respects this film surpasses it, and I think it's that rare film where the cliche is actually true, it's got something for the whole family to enjoy.

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