Wednesday, February 28, 2007

In Theaters: Reno 911! Miami

There may not have been much reason to make RENO 911!, the funnier-than-it-sounds cop spoof running on Comedy Central, into a feature film. But, as with last year's STRANGERS WITH CANDY, it's a worthy translation, slightly smuttier and a tiny bit more plot-heavy than its source material but basically not a major change. Written and directed by the same team behind the series with all the original cast, RENO 911! MIAMI is a fun, inconsequential comedy which I'd recommend catching before it leaves theaters, though it'll probably hold up just as well on DVD.

The main characters are the members of the Reno, Nevada Sheriff's Department, who are invited to attend a police convention in Miami. A mixup lands them in a cheap hotel away from the convention center, which, the next morning, is hit by a mysterious bioterror attack, putting everyone inside under quarantine. This leaves the Reno team the only law enforcement in the entire city, and they must not only keep order but discover who attacked the center so an antidote can be found. Not being used to heavy-duty police work, or for that matter not very competent at all, the team stumble through various encounters and try to resolve some personal dilemmas in the process.

The film, like the show, is an ensemble piece, driven by its characters (in fact, the film was loosely scripted, with plenty of room given for improvisation.) The leader, Lieutenant Jim Dangle (Thomas Lennon), has tiny shorts, aspirations to join the Aspen PD, and a growing acknowledgment of his not-really-latent homosexuality. Deputy Trudy Wiegel (Kerry Kenney-Silver), a wiry, socially awkward woman, persists in a crush on him nonetheless, while the curvaceous and fun-loving Deputy Clementine Johnson (Wendi McLendon-Covey) spends much of the film trying to find out the identity of a man whose face ends up tattooed on her breast. The other members of Reno's finest- Deputy Travis Junior (Robert Ben Garant), Deputy Raineesha Williams (Niecy Nash), Deputy Cherisha Kimball (Mary Birdsong), Deputy James Garcia (Carlos Alazraqui), and Deputy S. Jones (Cedric Yarbrough)- don't get a lot of plot action, but in the end the plot isn't very important anyway, and everybody gets funny stuff to do. (Fans of THE STATE will also spot fellow alumni David Wain, Michael Showalter and Michael Ian Black, all playing people in tattoo parlors Johnson hits to find the wearer of the face on her chest.)

As mentioned above, the movie is raunchier than the basic cable show which spawned it, with swearing, nudity, a funnier-than-it-should-be masturbation gag, and an amusing sex scene, among other general R material. Inevitably it becomes a bit of a patchwork, but some gags do stand out, notably a series of repeated and random encounters with a Scarface-esque drug dealer (Paul Rudd, of all people) who interrogates the hapless officers about something they have no clue about while threatening their "partners" with sadistic tortures. There's also a run-in with at least one Reno troublemaker who finds himself in Miami through circumstances best left unexplained.

There's not a whole lot to say about this movie, really, but it's a solid bit of goofiness from a team that specializes in that kind of quality dumb humor. It's short, fast-moving and doesn't let the plot get in the way of any good gags. I'm still not wholly sure how this film ended up getting made, but so much the better. I hope we see more from these people.

Written by Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon, & Kerry Kenney (based on the TV series created by same)
Directed by Ben Garant

Grade: B+

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Brief Oscar Impressions

First off, I see that the average post rate for the blog has dropped a tad. Sorry about that- I've been in L.A. since last Thursday, and didn't really have time to write. Don't worry, I picked up some cool stuff worthy of review while there, so March should be big.

Anyway, while in L.A., I saw the Oscars. At somebody's apartment over in the Valley, and on Tivo because I went to my brother's improv show at the UCB theater, mind you, but I saw them in full and didn't know the results and was only really an hour behind. Time-shifting is very very fun.

I'm very cool with THE DEPARTED winning. As you know, it didn't really make the Top 5, but I just plain didn't see the other nominees, nor do I feel hugely inclined to- it was a dull slate to start with, full of Important and Respectable pictures (plus one indie comedy about a Quirky Family that also criticises Mainstream Culture) that might be worth seeing at some point, but aren't going to make cinema history. Neither is THE DEPARTED, but it has one thing going for it that a lot of films, including other Oscar winners, don't- it's fun. It's a violent and brutal and hugely enjoyable genre picture, which happens to have strong characters and themes and a rich atmosphere. It's worthy, and Scorcese has been in top form lately, so his Oscar was not only long belated, but richly earned in itself.

On the downside, CHILDREN OF MEN, the actual best movie of the year, was completely and utterly shut out. I blame this not so much on the Academy, but on Universal Pictures, who gave this film no push, no buzz, no heat whatsoever. With proper promotion this could have been the first science fiction film to win Best Picture- instead it wasn't even considered.

PAN'S LABYRINTH also deserved more than it got, but it was at least thrown a few bones. The awards were spread around pretty evenly, which is always good, and I was very pleased to see victories by Alan Arkin, Forest Whitaker, and Helen Mirren (as inevitable as that was). It is to my shame that I have not seen THE QUEEN yet, because unlike some of the other Important movies this year it's something that actually interests me.

Ellen Degeneres was amiable as the host, not as memorable as some, but still always likable and sweet. Her interaction with Scorcese and Eastwood was particularly amusing, the topper being when she asked Spielberg to take a picture. There was a good sense of fun at the ceremony when all was said and done. The "Comedian at the Oscars" number was also a highlight.

Writing was well-represented in its way; the montage showing writers at work was more enjoyable than most, and the novel idea of the presenters for both the original and adapted awards reading out the direction managed to successfully convey that screenplays are about more than dialogue.

So, it was a better ceremony than most, with no huge disappointments. The Oscars are never really about the best movies or the most deserving craftsmen, but they can be a nice celebration of the medium itself. As they were this past Sunday.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Movies: Top Ten of 2006 and Assorted Miscellany

2006 was a dark year at the movies. Almost everything had a faint veneer of glumness, from the art house classics to the big blockbusters to the kiddie flicks. This may just be continued despondence over world events, which is understandable, but surely in such times escapism is also sorely needed. Probably explains why that CGI penguin movie made so much money. But it was a good year, one without many dry spells, which is rare. And now that I've seen almost everything I'm supposed to see, here comes the list.

1. CHILDREN OF MEN. By far the most passionately life-affirming film to come out this year. Despite a bleak setting full of war and violence, it focuses on just how amazing the fact of living is, and how humanity needs to do whatever it can to hang onto it. Alfonso Cuaron brings a rich, sensual quality to the story alongside a bit of technical wizardry, including a long unbroken shot that almost passes unnoticed. Quite possibly a new masterpiece of science fiction cinema.

2. AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH. Al Gore's strangely riveting presentation on the threat posed by manmade global warming is given a modest but effective cinematic treatment. The science is clear, the pace is fast, and the added insight into Gore's past and what led him to this crusade adds a necessary human side. Throughout, one is struck by the man's moral clarity and strange optimism that, as dire as the looming catastrophe is, we have the power to stop it, and without even giving up our cars. A must see.

3. PAN'S LABYRINTH. A complex blend of the fantastic and the real, in which a little girl finds herself in the midst of a moral maze. Guillermo Del Toro's visual style is wonderfully inviting, and the story is downright tearjerking, featuring some incredible performances alongside cool imagery and a subtle religious allegory.

4. A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION. What Robert Altman knew would be his final film, despite never telling us, this cracking ensemble comedy is not only a great screen translation of Garrison Keillor's still-running radio series, it's also a nice meditation on death itself, both its inevitability and the way that life continues. A neat fusion of Altman and Keillor's sensibilities, it's both poignant and funny, a fitting capstone to a great career.

5. SUPERMAN RETURNS. No, he doesn't punch anyone. He doesn't have to. The Man of Steel's return is a lush and vibrant spectacle, gorgeous to look at and full of wit and sophistication. It builds on the legacy of the first two Superman spectaculars by Messrs. Donner and Lester, but Bryan Singer adds a distinct retro-pop visual style and some very dark exploration of Superman's alienation and distance from the people he protects, making his journey to reconnect with them the central struggle. In the meantime he saves airplanes and lifts an island out of the ocean. So you can, in fact, have it both ways.

6. A SCANNER DARKLY. The first truly dedicated adaptation of a Philip K. Dick novel, and though fidelity to the source isn't really an aesthetic virtue in and of itself, it's nice to see the distinct vibe of PKD's works finally captured on film. A low-key science fiction drug narrative, marked by a subtle sadness, Richard Linklater's latest uses the animation technique pioneered in WAKING LIFE to add life to drab surroundings and make us increasingly unsure of the reality of anything. Powerful stuff overall.

7. THE DEPARTED. Don't call it a comeback. Scorcese's latest may not be the most ambitious film he's ever done, but we don't judge movies by their aspirations, but by how well they do what they set out to do. (Well, I judge them like that. You may decide otherwise.) It's a scorching, cynical, and hugely entertaining remake of the HK police drama INFERNAL AFFAIRS, featuring what may be the best performance of Leonardo DiCaprio's career, and equally solid work from everyone else in the cast. The violence is shocking, the atmosphere lurid, the streets grimy, and the characters untrustworthy to a man. Nobody does this kind of thing better.

8. CARS. What would have been Pixar's last film for Disney took some flack for being too slow and too small, but that's sort of the point. An elegy for a very specific slice of American arcana- the "Route 66" experience and the days when driving was about the journey as much as the destination- this bright and funny animated fable also moves to a more general illustration of the virtues of slowing down and retaining a connection to the past. It's also very, very pretty.

9. V FOR VENDETTA. Two British films set in the near future featuring fascist governments in the same year- I wonder if this is a sign. Anyway, this radical adaptation of the Alan Moore comic isn't as purely anarchic as the source material, but adds a strong central plotline along with a polished post-millennial aesthetic. The politics are unremarkable; the imagery is astounding, with large compositions and small details combining to create a melodramatic symphony of rebellion and revenge. Hugo Weaving turns in a great performance despite being deprived of his face.

10. INSIDE MAN. Spike Lee dips his toe into mainstream waters with a sharp bank heist drama carried by amazing performances. Denzel Washington has never not been a good leading man, and Clive Owen (bookending the list along with co-star Chiwetel Ejiofor) demonstrates remarkable magnetism as well, but good performances abound, and Lee brings a sense of reality, even occasional mundanity to the proceedings which helps make the "thriller" bits work better. That Lee may also know New York better than any human being on the planet helps too. A caper film which not only holds together (a rare feat, or so it seems sometimes), but lets us connect to the characters as people rather than as playing pieces.

Not Seen:

Performances which impressed me (an annual list that I don't bother subdividing):

Michael Caine, CHILDREN OF MEN
Claire-Hope Ashitey, CHILDREN OF MEN
Chiwetel Ejiofor, CHILDREN OF MEN
Leonardo DiCaprio, THE DEPARTED
Hugo Weaving, V FOR VENDETTA
Kelsey Grammer, X-MEN: THE LAST STAND
Bryce Dallas Howard, LADY IN THE WATER

Most Underrated FIlm of the Year:
LADY IN THE WATER. A strange, unique fantasy story that may just have been too unironic for its own good (and that the critics seemed to take the unkind fate of Bob Balaban's character as a legitimate reason to dislike the film didn't help.) We have an original fantasy, told with a strange intimacy and featuring a truly eclectic cast of characters, setting down its own rules and demanding we pay a bit more attention than usual; the "twists", this time, constitute the architecture of the myth.

SNAKES ON A PLANE. A fun monster movie which met an unusually fierce bit of backlash from the mainstream press, which downright revelled in its disappointing box-office take and pointed to it as proof that internet buzz could never ever ever supplant traditional publicity. Maybe they're right, but this is still fun.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The Bookshelf #2: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

Used bookstores are the best kind, really. The books are cheaper, slightly aged (but seldom beyond the point of readability), and they carry the weirdest stuff sometimes. Case in point: SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND, a novelization of a bad musical with little dialogue to start with which began filming without a script. I had to have this, really, if only to see how they did it. And Henry Edwards, the film's screenwriter (as such), is the author, which adds a bit of curiosity value. And though I'm as much a Beatles fan as anyone, the misbegotten 70s musical is a nicely sacrilegious thrill, so spectacularly missing the point that it becomes amusing in itself, and I hoped for the same from the book.

I wasn't disappointed. Most novelizations are pretty flat affairs, not going far beyond what you can see on the screen (the original point of such books being to provide a sort of recollection of the film because home video wasn't available), and generally being written by people who would most likely rather be doing their own work but need a paycheck. This is a change. Edwards seems almost enthused about the project, and goes beyond the meager elements of the film to add all kinds of extra stuff. It's still not good, but it didn't make me want to hurl it across the room either.

The plot. Oh, yes, there is a plot. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was a legendary band hailing from the town of Heartland, U.S.A., a magical small-town utopia of the sort beloved by early sitcoms and conservative politicians. They played throughout WW1 and WW2 and the 50s and brought happiness and joy to millions, right up until the point when Sgt. Pepper himself died. The legacy has now been passed to young Billy Shears, nicest of the nicest, and local boys Mark, Dave, and Bob Henderson. As soon as they start playing, they get an offer from Big Deal Records to come to LA and make an album, and are suddenly bigger than Jesus. While they're away (one can only assume they write home every day), Mean Mr. Mustard, a real estate agent under the command of the mysterious FVB, comes into Heartland, steals the magical instruments of the original Lonely Hearts Club Band, and buys up the town, turning it into a sleazy dump. He's also got his eye on Billy's girlfriend, the oh-so-lovely-and-perfect Strawberry Fields.

It's crazier and dumber than it sounds. Both movie and book take this really surreal approach to the story, so that Heartland isn't just a nice town, it's freaking PLEASANTVILLE, and everyone there is the bestest and nicest they can be, and no good ever comes from leaving it. La-La Land is corrupt and full of drugs and sex and no good ever comes from going there. The book is written in the present tense, full of short sentences written in brash prose. Exclamation points abound. I'll excerpt some of this.

"The crowd boogies in front of the bandstand. The brashy boys and the silly girls leap high into the air! When the band sings of love, the audience shouts back, 'We love you!' And they do! No music has ever made them so happy, has ever made them want to dance and sing, has ever made them feel that every single day will be sunny from this day on."

The prose is so similar to that of a children's book that one is shocked when references to sex and drugs pop up. In the meantime, Edwards manages to sneak in all sorts of goofy backstory that wasn't in the movie- we learn about the silly and brashy girls and boys (respectively) such as Peter and Mimi and Hans and Carrie, and Butcher Jack and Farmer Jasper and Teacher Ellen and Postman Hank. It's like a cross between Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon and those STAR WARS anthologies wherein every visible character in the films is given a backstory longer than ULYSSES. Even the incomprehensible robots that serve Mr. Mustard are given distinct personalities. This is what makes me think that Edwards actually put some effort into this gig, like he had all this detail worked out in his head but couldn't fit it into the script. Or maybe he had to fill 190 pages- at one point, he actually just starts listing famous pop stars and acts, and goes on for five pages in a litany that makes the Book of Numbers seem action-packed. There is actually one added detail in the whole thing that I sort of liked- in an obvious jab at the Church of Scientology, we learn that Mustard was recruited by FVB when he took a free personality quiz that classed him as a complete loser, and was offered the opportunity to make himself a winner by joining up. It becomes a running gag for FVB's other minions (I'd tell you what FVB is, but let's just say it's unbelievably stupid), and it's kinda funny. Obvious, but funny.

Oh, yeah, the songs- they're written out in verse, with distinct borders and their own typeface. I actually rushed through them since they lose something sans music, but it's nice to have an extra lyric sheet handy. Half of the dubious joy in watching the movie is seeing great songs mangled by the goofiest renditions imaginable, from George Burns' "Fixing A Hole" to Steve Martin's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer"- my personal favorite is the version of "Mean Mr. Mustard" performed by Mustard's incomprehensible robots. (There's actually a good performance or two mingled in there, and Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees make an okay cover band, but I'm getting off track.) Just seeing the lyrics doesn't have that same shock value.

Many things went wrong when making "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" (or, more accurately, "Most of Sgt. Pepper plus most of Abbey Road plus some other songs") into a movie, but reading this I finally pinned down the big miscalculation. "Sgt. Pepper" the album came from the crazy idealistic neo-bohemian side of the counterculture of the late sixties, the side that believed war was best opposed by surrealism and the words "peace" and "love" flying over Terry Gilliam landscapes. It was about freedom and beauty and everyone both doing their own thing and connecting with each other, at least in theory. It was very much a leftish hippie kind of scene. This story, on the other hand, is vaguely fearful and conservative; it has at its center a small town that's utterly perfect in its isolation, that is best when nobody upsets the status quo, and the enemies are from the decadent and permissive world outside. It comes out of the weary cynicism of the late seventies, which would soon give way to the early eighties and "Morning in America." It's also completely un-British, and though the Beatles were undoubtedly influenced by American culture (even leaving out American jazz and rock), you can't read the lyrics of, say, "A Day in the Life" and not recognize it as something written by a Brit. The two just don't mix, and seeing the psychedelic Englishness of Lennon and McCartney and occasionally Harrison's lyrics sitting right alongside Edwards' Dick-and-Jane prose just highlights it.

Which is not to say that reading this book is an unpleasant experience. It's vaguely amusing, certainly friendly, and not any sort of challenge or slog. It is completely disposable and at the same time a unique cultural artifact, wonderful in its sheer wrongness. I can't recommend this book at all, but I bought it, I read it, and I think I'll keep it.

Grade: C-

Friday, February 09, 2007

In Theaters: Pan's Labyrinth

Okay, that's it, I've seen every movie from 2006 that I needed to see. It took PAN'S LABYRINTH a while to make it to Columbia, and I saw the very first preview showing at my local art house. It's good to get these things out of the way early. I have no idea how actual film critics manage to compile Top Ten lists before the end of the year.

PAN'S LABYRINTH is more dramatic and powerful than one would anticipate; it is a film that, while about children and their belief in magic and while rich in fairy tale imagery, cannot be said to be for children. It is graphic, and brutal, and tragic. It is also enchanting, and magical, and uplifting. It works on two main levels, and several sublevels. And a ground floor with a wonderfully decorated lobby. Maybe I'm getting overly cute with the metaphor there, but you gotta keep it fresh. The point is, it's a good movie.

The film starts in Spain, in 1944. The Spanish Civil War is effectively over, and General Franco's fascist army has sent the freedom fighters to the hills, literally. Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), a young girl, comes up to the northern mountains with her pregnant mother (Ariadna Gil) to meet her stepfather (Sergi López), a captain in Franco's army who wants to be present at the birth of his son. (He is certain the child will be male.) Outside the small mansion where they stay is an old ruined labyrinth. The first night, a fairy visits Ofelia and lures her to the labyrinth, where a large and fearsome faun (Doug Jones) confronts her. He says she is the reincarnation of a princess from the Underworld who long ago travelled to the world of mortals and died, and that the time for her to return to her people is at hand. Before the next full moon, she must perform three tasks, which will be revealed to her over time. Meanwhile, the housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdú) and the local doctor (Álex Angulo) are both covertly helping the rebels, who are planning an assault on the house, and the captain, in addition to eagerly anticipating the birth of his robust male heir, is downright giddy at the prospect of a glorious final victory. This does not bode well for anyone. And then Ofelia's mother gets sick.

Much of the film is a slow buildup of tension; there is a subtle feeling that things are going to get worse, and it isn't really until the last thirty minutes that the storm breaks. Slowly, the fighting between the fascists and rebels intensifies, and slowly, Ofelia's quest becomes harder and more dangerous, and we begin to wonder whether it really is just a child's fantasy. The film is placed firmly in the genre of magic realism, and as such there is no clear demarcation between the real and the unreal, nor is it ultimately profitable to look for such (though you can pick up on a couple of hints.) Our sojourns into the fantastic are relatively brief, but shot in a way that blends in with the less-fantastic segments, while still being memorably imaginative (the second task featuring a truly horrific child-eating monster, also played by Jones; it's interesting how rarely children actually come to harm in adult horror films, whereas kids have a much easier time imagining monsters specifically coming after them.) For much of the time we are distracted by the real skullduggery and carnage of the last throes of Spain's Civil War, and the personal dramas of the people involved. This is a story with many wrinkles.

Visually the film is excellent- Del Toro has a gift for rich, earthy visuals, and the use of color is also effective in smoothing the transition from the magic to the mundane and back again. What we see of the magical realm makes us wish for more, but the "real" vistas are often equally impressive. The action is intense and highly visceral, and at times strangely exhilirating (perhaps capturing a bit of the Captain's mania for us.) Despite the slow pace, this is a gripping picture; there's always something to be worried about.

Then there is the ending, which may be the most powerful of any film this year. I do not feel like spoiling it, but there's not much to say otherwise. But it elevates the experience like nothing else could; it is poetic, shocking, and gentle, even hopeful. There are a number of ways of interpreting it, and the director's is on record for those who care to look. Whatever its precise meaning, it suits everything that went before perfectly. There is even something of a Christian allegory. Suffice it to say, the film is about finding the right path to walk in a corrupted and dying land. When that path is discovered, it is a tearjerking sight.

PAN'S LABYRINTH is an emotional experience above all else, but it has its intellectual side too. There is an ambiguity to the characters and their motives and behavior; the Captain, though evil, has a set of ideals that would be admirable if we did not see what they lead him to. The freedom fighters must make their own moral compromises at times; obviously they're taking a path of violence, but they remain noble in spite of it. Ofelia's mother has perhaps compromised by marrying the Captain to begin with, but as she explains, a woman grows tired of being alone.

And so the film works on levels religious, political, mythical, and personal, deftly intertwining these things while still feeling coherent. I confess I have only seen one other film by Del Toro, that being HELLBOY, which was based on the comic book; it was very well done in itself, but here we see Del Toro's own imagination fully at work, linking so many things together in a unique moral fable that says a lot without preaching it. This is one of the best films of the year.

Grade: A

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Random Movie Report #18: Mirrormask

Sorry I haven't been posting more. It took a while to find any content worth writing about, but things should speed up in the coming days. Meanwhile, I'm also starting to put up reviews at TalkingMoviezzz, a group review site started with some buds from an AOL board. I've got up one now, but from now on stuff I post here will be posted there as well.

MIRRORMASK is a sort of LABYRINTH for the 21st century, and people not of a certain age will have no idea what that statement means. So- it's also a bit like THE NEVERENDING STORY. And just a teeny bit like THE WIZARD OF OZ, maybe. Fortunately, though its genre roots are obvious, MIRRORMASK stands well on its own as a variation on a theme. A collaboration between comic book writer and novelist Neil Gaiman and artist David McKean, made in part by Jim Henson Productions no less, it's a visually astounding fairy tale with a lot of neat ideas, some of which aren't fully developed, revolving around some unusually intense personal drama.

The protagonist of the film is Helena (Stephanie Leonidas), a 15-year-old girl with a talent for drawing. Her father Morris (Rob Brydon) runs a small circus, in which he, she, and her mother Joanne (Gina McKee) perform, but being 15 she's getting kind of bored with it (and everything to do with her parents.) During an argument before the show one night, Helena tells her mother she wishes she were dead. During the performance, Joanne suffers an aneurysm and passes out. Ten days later, she is still in the hospital and awaiting an operation, and Helena is wracked with guilt, trying to apologize to a mother who's too exhausted to hold a conversation. That night, as
mum goes under the knife, Helena dreams herself into the world of her drawings, a scratchy, mostly-black-and-white place where the City of Light is under threat from encroaching shadows which absorb and devour whatever's in their circuitous path. It seems there's an imbalance between the lands of Light and Shadow that happened when a shadow princess looking awfully like Helena came to the Palace of Light, and later departed with some sort of charm, this making the Queen of Light- who looks very much like Joanne- very sick. So it's up to Helena to find the charm, assisted by a cynical juggler named Valentine (Jason Barry) and a Very Useful Book. They travel through a world full of cats with human faces, books that fly back to the library if you convince them that you don't like them, giants who float in the air, and weird gorilla-birds with detachable beaks.

And just when you think you've worked out what's happening, the film takes a bit of a left turn. We learn about the not-Helena Shadow princess and what precisely she's done that's set the world out of balance, and we meet the Shadow Queen (who ALSO looks a lot like Helena's mum) whose motives are not as sinister as one expects. It's a nice conceptual bait-and-switch, with a black-and-white fairy tale turning out not to be so black-and-white after all, and it touches on the basic problem of Helena growing up, and the adolescent turmoil that entails. In Anti-Helena, Helena sees a sort of worst-case scenario of what could happen to her, the dark impulse which with she seemed to "curse" her mother. At heart, all these kinds of stories are ones of personal growth- it's very Joseph Campbell-esque- but it's the specific path that the protagonists of each take that distinguish them, and this particular path rings particularly true. (Then again, I've never been a 15-year-old girl so maybe I shouldn't talk.)

The film has the visual richness you would expect from a Henson fantasy, and anyone who's encountered McKean's Steadman-esque work even in passing will recognize the style (in addition to directing, McKean served as designer.) The sepia-tone look takes some getting used to, but it has a rich and vaguely sensuous quality. As I mentioned above, a lot of neat and interesting ideas are manifested in Helena's imagination, but we don't quite get to see them develop. There's a vaguely abbreviated feeling to the proceedings, although it's a healthy hundred-and-two minutes long. It would have been very nice to see this dream world explored in a bit more detail, or for some elements to play a bigger role in the plot. At one point, Helena and Valentine appear to be wandering a bit aimlessly before catching sight of where they need to go; I'm not sure if there's a scene missing or if I just wasn't paying attention. Given the expense that must have been involved in filming the bulk of this picture, I'm not surprised that they cut what they could, but you still wonder at what might have been.

Still, this film does linger on the memory. It's vivid, poignant, and sophisticated; Neil Gaiman contributes a lot of witty touches, and gives a strange maturity to the proceedings. It's definitely a film for children and young adults, but has the wisdom of hindsight in it. It has, and will, confuse some, disappoint others, and utterly enchant a select niche. Me, I'm getting to be fond of it.

Grade: B+