Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“I shall slip unnoticed through the darkness... like a dark, unnoticeable slippy thing.”

MirrorMask? That’s not a horror film! Well…no. Its not. Technically. But it is a cavalcade of weirdness from two of the masters of the modern form of the gothic and the creepy. And really, isn’t October supposed to be a Cavalcade of Weirdness anyway? It also ties into the unofficial theme of this month, which happens to be carnivals/circuses. So sit down, shut up and soak in the weirdness of 2005’s Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s MirrorMask. I promise its got nightmare fuel.

A girl who’s family owns a small circus is dissatisfied with her life and verbally takes her frustrations out on her mother. During the next performance, mom takes ill and has to go the hospital. Feeling guilty about things, the girl worries about her mother, then enters a bizarre dream world which is a lot like Alice in Wonderland on even more drugs and where everyone, everyone wears strange masks as their faces (well, except Helena). She goes on a search for a Charm that will prevent the destruction of this strange new world, meets an unreliable, snarky companion and generally has an ADVENTURE! of trippy proportions. And then you’re left wondering if it really was just a dream or not, which, if you've read any of Gaiman's novels, you will recognize as a common theme.

Helena Campbell/Anti-Helena: Stephanie Leonidas is our young hero, a rather likable, rebellious girl. She’s a capable juggler and an obsessive drawer. Her mouth is what gets her in trouble in the first place (more or less) but other than that, she’s a perfectly normal lass. Anti-Helena, who’s only seen in glimpses here and there, is a bratty princess from the Shadow Kingdom that’s causing all this trouble for the “dream world” when she escapes (and is also the real Villain)

Morris Campbell/The Prime Minister: Rob Brydon is Helena’s dad. A loving father and husband, he’s also in charge of the circus. The Prime Minister in the “dream world” is a worried member of the Queen of Light’s court that is trying to find the Charm. The PM provides quite a bit of exposition.

Joanne Campbell/Queen of Shadows/Queen of Light: Gina McKee pulls triple duty playing three characters. The first is Helena’s mom who falls sick and has an operation done on her. The Queen of Light is in a dormant state during the story (a metaphor for the mom being sick) and the Queen of Shadow is trying to find her lost daughter so that she can smother her with love. Adversarial, certainly, and also someone that vomits up black goopy stuff that can turn into bats or spiders or other generally creepy stuff.

Valentine: Jason Barry is the roguish, tricksterish juggler that through circumstances ends up linking up with Helena. Part trickster and part fool, the fast talking Valentine is often a voice of cynicism and prudence on the quest (he certainly has no interest in dying, or in being a waiter). He’s also quite badass, especially in the moment where the tower that he’s been talking about all movie finally gets dealt with. He is a very important man, after all.

The Librarian: Stephen Fry (the voice of the HHGTG in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy among a billion other things) in a very small cameo role as a creature made up of books that provides some background exposition on the dream world.

Dave McKean is an artist first and foremost, and the art direction of this film really goes nuts with the visuals. The scenes in the carnival have an incredible energy and quickness to them, and then the scenes in the dream world are just…well, I really doubt you’ve seen anything like them anywhere else. The effects were done by the Jim Henson Company and it involves a lot of CGI, but all of it is presented in a hyper-stylized way. In the dream world, everything is filtered in such a way that there is a flickering effect on the screen, particularly the edges. It almost comes across like an old home movie reel (if that makes sense). Costumes are outlandish, the backgrounds are even more so, and the GCI creatures are both imaginative and freaky. The monkey birds are mostly comical, until you see them moving around in one hell of an impressive chase scene, and the sphinxes, little cats with wings and human faces bolted on are really creepy when you see a lot of them. And then there’s the scene with the clockwork women--, no, I won’t go into that. Needless to say, its probably the most surreal and just plain creepy scene in the whole film, and even knowing that now, if you see that movie, you won’t be ready for just how messed up it is.

Neil Gaiman & Dave McKean came up with the story, with Gaiman doing the real writing chores. The story is a fairly standard tale of going to a different and strange world and having to perform a quest to save everything. However, like in music, it’s the singer, not the song that really matters. The story is well paced, highly symbolic, and chock full of Gaiman’s offbeat sense of wit and humor. It also gets points for making the circus and employees of it not at all creepy or unlikable in any way, and for Helena and her parents being a fairly well adjusted family. Sure, Helena & her mother argue, that’s typical. So’s trying to apologize for it later and hand drawing a get well card. Honestly, it’s a breath of fresh air in contemporary cinema.

Iain Ballamy’s original score for the film is a lot like Bruno Coulais’ score for Coraline; through a combination of different-than-the-normal instrument combos, it achieves an otherworldly quality. Here, the opening scene has a circus band setting the precedent for the rest of the movie. Various forms of saxophones dominate the soundtrack, along with some electric bass and various electronic additions among other instruments. The result is a really unique sound that’s hard to describe.

Alice in Wonderland by way of a Venetian Carnival, that’s probably a more apt way to describe MirrorMask.
Its festive, thought provoking, trippy, creepy, funny and a feast for the senses. Its very much an indie film, and the art style will no doubt turn some people off, but for the adventurous among you, this spiritual successor to Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal is definitely worth a viewing.

Hmm, the trailer doesn't really do the film justice.

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