"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Friday, December 30, 2011

The Commitments

Everyone wants to relive a magical cinematic moment. A film or theater or evening that just makes one want to return back in time. For me, one such experience was the first time I saw The Commitments (1991). It was a film that spoke endless depths of sincerity both in spoken and sung dialogue. When it first came out, Alan Parker’s film became a bonafide cultural phenomenon with the soundtrack album climbing up the charts. People were hungry for authentic-sounding music, tired of the hedonistic hairspray bands of the 1980’s. To its credit, the film still stands as an unabashed love letter to the belief that music can change your life and make a difference.

Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) aspires to be the manager of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, with only one kind of music in mind: Soul. Disgusted with the current state of bands in Ireland, this determined young man decides to assemble an old school Dublin soul band in the tradition of greats like Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. Jimmy holds auditions out of his parents’ house (in which he still lives, by the by) and soon assembles his group of young musicians whom he can’t wait to mould. With the help of Joey “The Lips” Fagan (John Murphy), the only veteran musician in the band, Jimmy begins to whip the rest of the members into stage-ready shape.

One of the things that makes The Commitments work so well is its brazen cast of relative unknowns. These actors come with no preconceived notions or baggage that name actors bring to the table (Bruce McDonald’s rock ‘n’ roll movie, Hard Core Logo, would also successfully employ the same technique). With the exception of two band members, they were all real musicians, lending the film fresh authenticity. Parker showed his aptitude for working with first-time actors with Fame (1980) and did it again, more genuinely, with this film.

For such a large cast, all of the characters are beautifully realized. From the egotistical lead singer, Decco (Andrew Strong), to minor characters such as Jimmy’s Elvis-worshipping father (Colm Meaney), Dick Clement, Ian Le Frenais and Roddy Doyle’s screenplay provides each character with his or her own unique character tics that define them. From Rabbitte’s colorful one-on-one interviews to Decco’s repugnant outbursts, the actors and their counterparts provide hit after hit.

The Commitments has been said to be a musical with dialogue intervals, due to the infusion of music everywhere. Everyone in the community is in touch with music. From the local gangster (“Everything’s shite since Roy Orbison died.”) to Mr. Rabbitte (“Elvis wasn’t a Cajun! That’s fuckin’ blasphemy!”), it’s in everyone. It is Jimmy who articulates the very essence that drives the film when he delivers an impassioned speech about the power of soul music. “Sure it’s basic and it’s simple but it’s something else. Something special. Cos it’s honest. There’s no fucking bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart.” What unites The Commitments’ band members; however, is really a bit more than a love of music. This band is a way out for them. It is a release for them. It is something that they can all look forward to, something that represents possibilities. Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher), stuck working a chippie van, or Decco, the bus conductor — they’re all in need.

The dialogue, in particular the banter between the members of the band, is another strength of the film. Their conversations are littered with “familiar profanities” that are utterly convincing considering that these kids (the actors, that is) come from the urban slums of Dublin. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the film’s source material is Roddy Doyle’s book of the same name. Finally, the best part of the film is the music. The concert footage (and its corresponding audio) was recorded live, which separates it from films that use previously recorded music that always sounds too polished, too lip synched. There is a rawness and energy to the musical sequences that perfectly captures the experience of seeing a band live. This is due in large part to how the musicians perform, most surprisingly Andrew Strong, who was only 16 years old at the time and had a voice made to sing gritty soul music. It is also due to how Parker photographs them all. He uses snap zooms and employs many close-ups of their faces and them playing their instruments. It gives these sequences a you-are-there immediacy that is very effective.

After making several Hollywood films in the United States, Parker “wanted to do something that wasn’t so colossally expensive ... I wanted to do something lighter and with music.” While making Come See the Paradise (1990), two British screenwriters, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, turned him on to Doyle’s 1986 novel The Commitments. Parker felt that he understood and empathized with the characters. Clement, La Frenais and Doyle ended up writing the screenplay together.

Parker started work on the film in the summer of 1990 when he flew into Dublin to hold auditions. It was important to him that all of his actors be musicians first. Casting directors assembled 64 bands from Dublin’s club scene and after seeing approximately 3,000 musicians, Parker picked 12 for the main cast. According to the director, the musicians were cast “to be pretty close to the kinds of personalities they already had, so they’re not playing roles outside of themselves.”

The Commitments received mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “The result is a movie that doesn't lead anywhere in particular and may not have a profound message — other than that it's hell at the top, however low the top may be. But the movie is filled with life and energy, and the music is honest. The Commitments is one of the few movies about a fictional band that's able to convince us the band is real and actually plays together.” In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “The Commitments finds Mr. Parker again doing what he does expertly: assembling a group of talented newcomers, editing snippets of their exploits into a hyperkinetic jumble, and filling the air with song.” Time magazine’s Richard Corliss wrote, “The Commitments finds Mr. Parker again doing what he does expertly: assembling a group of talented newcomers, editing snippets of their exploits into a hyperkinetic jumble, and filling the air with song.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “C” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The idea that the Commitments are doing something revolutionary by ‘bringing’ soul to Dublin is downright insulting. In Parker's hands, soul music becomes little more than a self-serving metaphor — an easy symbol for ‘commitment’ and integrity. His film celebrates musical daring without having a shred of it.”

The Commitments refuses to resort to sappy altruism. This music isn’t going to save the world but it does enrich these characters’ lives for a brief moment in time. Apparently, other people felt the same way. After the film debuted in theaters, the band in the film actually toured (and continues to tour to this day albeit with only some of the original members) the country and people fell in love with the movie and the music. The Commitments ranks right up there with Hard Core Logo (1996) and Almost Famous (2000) as one of the greatest films about a fictional band’s rise and fall.


Schoemer, Karen. “A Film Pursues the Redemptive Power of Rock and Roll.” The New York Times. August 18, 1991.

Smith, Stephen. “In A Departure from his ‘more serious’ films, Alan Parker tells the story of an Irish soul band, and finds himself empathizing with the characters.” Globe and Mail. August 15, 1991.

Friday, December 23, 2011

White Hunter, Black Heart

From early on in his career, Clint Eastwood has been interested in taking the path less traveled when it came to his career, taking on roles and making films that often subverted his Hollywood icon image. In particular, the films he has directed explore the darker side of humanity with topics ranging from stalking (Play Misty for Me), drug addiction (Bird), violence (Unforgiven), and child abuse (Mystic River). White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) is no different. Based loosely on Peter Viertel’s experiences working with legendary film director John Huston on The African Queen (1951), Eastwood plays John Wilson, a filmmaker more interested in hunting down and killing a wild elephant then making his next motion picture. He becomes fixated on this quest and Eastwood uses this story as an opportunity to explore the notion of obsession and how it can consume someone at the expense of everything else in their life.

White Hunter, Black Heart played several prestigious film festivals around the world and was admired by many critics but was never a commercial hit with audiences perhaps expecting an exciting adventure. What they got instead was something more akin to an art film that saw Eastwood yet again subvert the Dirty Harry persona that has defined his career for many years. White Hunter has become something of a forgotten effort in his filmography and considered a minor work but I’ve always felt that it was one of his more interesting pictures.

From the get-go, it is easy to see what drew Eastwood to this film. The opening voiceover narration describes his character John Wilson as “a brilliant, screw-you-all type filmmaker who continually violated all the unwritten laws of the motion picture business yet had the magic, almost divine ability to always land on his feet.” These words could easily be describing Eastwood and his career – one that saw him frequently go against prevailing trends to make the kinds of films he wanted to do. Wilson is gearing up to make a film in Africa and enlists the help of his good friend and screenwriter Peter Verrill (Jeff Fahey) to give the screenplay a rewrite. Pete’s not so sure as he’s working on a book and Wilson tells him, “There are times when you can’t wonder whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do … You just gotta pack up and go.” While they are there making the film, Wilson wants to go on safari and bag an elephant.

Wilson and Pete meet with the film’s producer Paul Landers (George Dzundza) who implores the writer to come on board if only to keep Wilson focused on the task at hand. It’s an entertaining scene as we see Wilson’s open disdain for Landers and the money men, especially when one of them informs the director that they’ve talked about replacing him with someone else. Wilson knows that all Landers cares about is that the film makes money no matter how just so long as it does. As he tells the exasperated producer, “You’d sell your mother down the river to make a deal.” Pete observes it all with the bemused expression of someone who has seen Wilson act this way before and is just enjoying the ride. The director doesn’t care about the business side of filmmaking – dealing with nervous producers and studio executives and every person who pitches him a lame idea for a film.

The chemistry between Clint Eastwood and Jeff Fahey is excellent in these early scenes as we see how well they play off each other, Wilson trying to convince Pete to do this film with him and the writer not really needing much convincing. The two actors do a nice job of conveying two men who have been friends for years by the way they act towards each other. In a nice, self-flexive bit, Wilson lays out his filmmaking philosophy but it could easily be Eastwood as he tells Pete that there’s two ways to go about it: “One is you can crawl and kiss ass and write their happy endings, sign their long-term contracts and never take a chance on anything and never fly, never leave Hollywood. Save all your goddamn money, every cent of it … The other way is to let the chips fall where they may. Refuse to sign their contracts and tell off the guy who can cut your throat and flatter the little guy who’s hanging by a thread that you hold.” Wilson is the quintessential film maverick and on the surface he certainly seems like one of Eastwood’s usual anti-authority protagonists – the cynic with a heart of gold. Wilson talks a good game, like how much he hates the movie business, but Pete knows him well enough to know that the curmudgeonly director wouldn’t have it any other way because he enjoys and thrives on conflict. It stimulates his creativity.

Once Wilson and Pete arrive in Africa, Eastwood opens the film up visually with stunning shots of the wilderness courtesy of long-time collaborator Jack N. Green and this gives a real sense of place. It’s a sharp contrast to the stuffy opulence of Wilson’s English mansion. There are also gorgeous aerial shots of herds of wild animals running across the plains. Eastwood really shows the exotic locale in all of its diverse glory: large lakes, jungle and dense wooded areas.

Wilson and Pete encounter quite a bit of racism from their English hosts. For example, there is the man who curses out and chastises the local team of football players for easily beating his team of all whites, or the posh wealthy woman who criticizes the Jewish people that lived in Soho during the Blitz in World War II. Wilson is disgusted with both of their attitudes and gets into a fist fight with the former and tells off the latter by recounting a hilarious story that really puts her in her place. Eastwood does a fantastic job of delivering this monologue with a mischievous twinkle in his eye as Wilson stands up for his friend Pete (who is Jewish). With the fist fight scene, we get a glimpse of Wilson’s self-destructive tendencies. Drunk and clearly outmatched physically, Wilson gets in a few good shots before being beaten down by the larger, stronger man. However, he feels justified in doing what he did because he stood up and fought for what he believed in.

While Pete continues to fine tune the script, Wilson plans their safari with the occasional detours to pre-production on the film. The director is all about testing his own limits, whether it is challenging a large man to a fight or taking a rusted out old river boat through dangerous river rapids. For him, that is what life is all about – experiencing it to the fullest with no regrets, much like I imagine Eastwood’s own outlook on life. Wilson thinks that bagging one of those giant elephants is a life experience he’s meant to have and becomes obsessed with it. Pete lets him know that he doesn’t want to shoot one because they are beautiful animals, a rare link to life before humans, which deserve to exist. There is something pure about them and shooting one would destroy that nobility, which is a rarity in this world. Over the course of the film, Wilson and Pete’s friendship is put to the test as the writer tries to keep the director focused on making the film.

Some critics felt that Eastwood miscast himself as a John Huston-type filmmaker but I think that what he does in White Hunter, Black Heart is fuse parts of Huston’s sensibilities with his own. In some respects, the two men are very much alike: larger than life icons that continued to make films well into the twilight of their lives, constantly bucking expectations and latching onto projects that interested them whether they were commercial hits or not. Eastwood understands the nature of obsession and how it can lead to self-destructive behavior.

Jeff Fahey is well cast as the audience surrogate and voice of reason. Pete may be Wilson’s friend but he won’t blindly follow him on every grand adventure that the director wants to pursue. Fahey brings an intelligence to the role, playing a character that has his own strong convictions and just doesn’t follow his friend around without question. The actor was on the verge of becoming a breakout star in the 1990’s with this film and The Lawnmower Man (1992) but for whatever reason his career didn’t take off like it should have and he ended up making a lot of forgettable genre films and television shows until as of late when he landed significant roles in high profile projects like Lost and Planet Terror (2007). It’s good to see this underrated actor enjoying a resurgence of sorts.

To say that The African Queen had a checked production history is a massive understatement. Most of the film was shot in Uganda and the Belgian Congo. Producer Sam Spiegel mortgaged his home in London and borrowed the rest while Huston made him sweat right up to the moment of filming with his indecisive nature. Spiegel put the film’s stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart (along with his wife Lauren Bacall) in an expensive hotel with no way to pay their bills. The cast and crew flew to their first location only to find out that the rains had come, which delayed filming. Instead of preparing for the project, Huston got the urge to shoot an elephant and took off on safari. The river that the director decided to shoot the film on was infected with bilharzias, a parasitic disease, Spiegel was bitten by a tarantula and almost died, while Hepburn drank only water and was stricken with dysentery. Peter Viertel, a novelist and screenwriter, had been hired to work on James Agee’s screenplay. He witnessed, first hand, Huston’s behavior and two years later published a little-read novel that fictionalized what had gone down. Incredibly, Huston actually liked Viertel’s book, signed off on it and even recommended a more tragic ending.

Over the years, the rights to the novel passed from producer to producer with Burt Lancaster showing interest at one point. Several screenplays based on the story were commissioned but it wasn’t until Eastwood was given a copy of the novel by veteran film producer Ray Stark that there was an actual possibility it would get made into a film. He read it on the way back from Italy where he had been promoting the Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988). In the past, filmmakers had stayed away from the project because Huston was still alive, the lead character wasn’t very likeable and it didn’t have a happy ending. This didn’t seem to bother Eastwood who used his clout with Warner Brothers to get it made. He was drawn to the story because he liked Huston’s attitude and his speeches about taking chances, not being afraid to try something different, and not caring what the audience thought. He also had an understanding of the Wilson character. “Now, I’ve never felt I wanted to kill wildlife,” Eastwood said in an interview with The Guardian, “or anything like that, but I think there’s a bit of him in my nature … You want to break out of what you’re doing and live differently sometimes. It’s something you have to prove to yourself.”

Early on in development, Eastwood restored the book’s unhappy ending because he felt that it was more faithful to the source material. Originally, he looked at shooting White Hunter, Black Heart in Kenya but the authorities there wanted input on the script and he had heard that there was real demand for bribes in order to do business. Zimbabwe was much more filmmaking friendly with the government being very accommodating to the production and so most of the film was shot there.

White Hunter, Black Heart divided mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars and wrote, “In the early scenes of White Hunter, Black Heart, Eastwood fans are likely to be distracted to hear Huston's words and vocal mannerisms in Eastwood's mouth, and to see Huston's swagger and physical bravado. Then the performance takes over, and the movie turns into one of the more thoughtful films ever made about the conflicts inside an artist.” Time magazine’s Richard Schickel praised Eastwood’s performance: “Eastwood has dared to attempt a faithful impression of the director, his growling drawl, his loose-limbed stride, the arrogant tilt of his head. The result is a stretch for him as an actor, and fun for the audience.” In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott wrote, “White Hunter, Black Heart is a beautifully made elaboration of a thesis that has thankfully lost its antithesis to time.”

However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “And none of it works as fully as Mr. Eastwood obviously wants it to, as a consequence of the sheer sweep and colorfulness of the man being portrayed. But even in this relatively stiff, sometimes awkward form, the John Wilson character is as compelling as Mr. Eastwood's desire to play him.” Entertainment Weekly gave it a “C+” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “In the end, though, White Hunter, Black Heart emerges as little more than a plodding shadow of the great film it could have been. An actor making a stretch is one thing. As Huston, Eastwood is so out of his depth he seems to have lost his entertainer's instinct, not to mention his modesty.” The Toronto Star’s Peter Goddard found fault with Eastwood’s performance but not Jeff Fahey’s: “It is Fahey's Verrill who has the power of self-absorption that Eastwood's paper-thin Wilson lacks. Any question about Eastwood's insecurities should probably stop with this film because – as its director – he's given Fahey, a vividly handsome actor, every chance he can to steal scenes. And Fahey, aware of what he's been given, does just that.” USA Today gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and Mike Clark wrote, “Yet despite one of Eastwood's more respectable directing jobs, we never sense the method to his madness – or even if it is madness. Nor can Jeff Fahey lick his own character's novelistic origins: the first-person narrator (and Trader script doctor) who by himself isn't too compelling.” Finally, the Washington Post’s Rita Kempley felt that, “White Hunter, Black Heart is not about the making of The African Queen. It's Mondo Machismo, Hollywood on safari, a self-aggrandizing epic reeking of man scent.”

In the end, Wilson realizes that he’s not the rugged protagonist from one of his films but a film director who is sabotaging his own motion picture with this foolhardy quest. He finally acknowledges that nothing good can come of his obsession and that he must make a decision – continue to pursue it despite the consequences or let it go and focus on things that really matter. Unfortunately, he learns this at a painful cost and Eastwood doesn’t let Wilson off easy. His obsession has terrible consequences and the shameful expression on his face at the end of White Hunter, Black Heart suggests that it is something that will haunt him and that he will have to live with for the rest of his days.


Goddard, Peter. “Eastwood Explains Lure of the Rogue Director.” Toronto Star. May 13, 1990.

Gristwood, Sarah. “Two Drunks and A Black Mamba.” The Guardian. August 23, 1990.

Malcolm, Derek. “Huston’s Hexes.” The Guardian.

Perlez, Jane. “Clint Eastwood Directs Himself Portraying a Director.” The New York Times. September 16, 1990.

Perry, George. “Eastwood’s African Quest.” The Times. August 18, 1990.

Scott, Jay. “Elephantine Obsession a Departure for Eastwood.” Globe & Mail. May 12, 1990.

Also, check out Joe Valdez's excellent look at this film over at his blog, This Distracted Globe.

Friday, December 16, 2011


With Ghost World (2001) and Sin City (2005), comic book creators have been taking a more active role in the cinematic adaptations of their work. Following in the footsteps of people like Daniel Clowes and Frank Miller, comic book legends Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean became filmmakers. They both rose to prominence in the comic book medium collaborating on numerous graphic novels, including the popular and critically acclaimed Sandman series. With Gaiman’s impressive storytelling ability and McKean’s dazzling eye for design, a film of some sort wasn’t completely unheard of – it makes sense that they would do this as McKean’s artwork has always been very multimedia oriented, mixing photography with drawing and painting. He continued this approach with Mirrormask (2005) while also adding in CGI animation and music into the mix.

Helena (Stephanie Leonidas) is a young girl whose parents own and operate a circus. Normally, it is a kid’s dream to run away and join the circus but the fun and novelty of it wears off if you’ve grown up with it your entire life. Her father (Rob Brydon) keeps it running on “charm and peanuts,” but she doesn’t share his dream. In fact, it is the fantasy world she wants to escape for a more real one. Helena is a typically petulant teenager rebelling against her parents. Her mother (Gina McKee) is in need of a potentially life-threatening operation and has been hospitalized just as the circus begins to collapse in on itself financially. Helena is an aspiring artist with all kinds of illustrations wallpapering her bedroom (it’s like McKean’s portfolio exploded in there) and she has the most bizarre, surreal dreams.

It is during one of these dreams that she enters a strange world resembling an oil painting where eyeballs sprout spider legs and books can be opened and used to float through this dream world. It’s a place where everyone wears a mask and Helena’s circus skills become quite useful. She learns that a dark shadow is falling over the land, threatening to engulf it. The City of Light is in danger of being eclipsed by the Land of Shadows and the White Queen (McKee again) is asleep, unable to wake. Helena must find the Mirrormask if she hopes to defeat the Black Queen (also McKee) and wake the White one. This fantastical dream world and the conflict it is embroiled in is obviously Helena’s way of dealing with her real life trials and tribulations. Solving the problems in one world mirror the problems faced in the other.

The young Stephanie Leonidas does an excellent job as the audience surrogate in this strange cinematic world. She has to gain our trust and empathy in the real one so that we’re willing to follow her into the elaborately designed dream world. She is the cinematic equivalent of Little Nemo and we are invited to tag along for the ride through her Slumberland. There is also a lovely short-hand between Helena and her folks that is believable and endears us to these characters.

Mirrormask reminds me of when I saw a travelling circus as a child with its acrobats, illusionists, jugglers, clowns, and various performers. It’s a dying art form that runs the risk of becoming extinct what with so many other forms of entertainment vying for our attention these days. The early scenes in the film have a handmade feel to them and this is contrasted by the CGI landscapes of the fantasy world later on. Helena lives in a drab, colorless concrete apartment building, which is juxtaposed with the rich colors of the circus and fantasy world. There are all kinds of gorgeous shots, like a long one of the outside of the circus big top bathed in red light with nearby vehicles and trailers illuminated in gold all reflected on the water, which makes the film so fascinating to watch. McKean also shows a keen eye for composition of frame, like the shot of Helena and her father talking on the balcony of their apartment with the ocean visible to the right.

In 1999, the Jim Henson Company was studying the figures of their DVD sales for the library of their films. They noticed that their fantasy films The Dark Crystal (1982) and Labyrinth (1986) sold very well with little to no promotion. They figured that there was a decent-sized audience for these kinds of films and looked into making a prequel to The Dark Crystal or a sequel to Labyrinth but in the end decided to create something else in the spirit of these films. Executive producer Michael Polis pitched this project to Sony Pictures and out of that came The Curse of the Goblin Kingdom, which originated from conversations with artist Brian Froud, the conceptual designer of both The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth.

Lisa Henson, CEO of the Jim Henson Company, was trying to get another Dark Crystal film going and Polis approached her with his project. She agreed to work with him on it. She was friends with writer Neil Gaiman and they were planning a film version of his television series Neverwhere when she contacted him in 2001 with the idea of making a fantasy film in the vein of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. She asked him if artist and regular collaborator Dave McKean was interested in directing and if so would Gaiman be willing to write the story. He sent Henson a copy of a short film that McKean had made and she was impressed with the visuals and that he had made it so cheaply.

Polis considered teaming McKean up with Froud but soon realized that for the sake of coherence there could only be one particular style for the film and sided with McKean because he was going to direct. Henson and Polis then pitched Mirrormask to Sony who greenlit the film with a $4 million budget in 2003. Although, Gaiman and McKean worked for almost no salary, they were given complete creative freedom. The two men lived in different countries on different continents and ended up meeting at Henson’s house in London, England where they spent ten days creating a general story outline. It was felt that this environment was more conducive to creativity then a sterile hotel room. Gaiman wrote the script based on McKean’s specifications in 2002. For example, Gaiman came up with the idea of a girl who was part of a traveling theater and her mother got sick while McKean changed the theater to a circus (more interesting visually) and came up with the masks and the two mothers. Filming of the live-action footage took place in Brighton, England in June and July of 2003.

McKean wanted Mirrormask to have “a painterly, illustrative feel to it.” To this end, he had a very “loose working” relationship with 15 computer animators, many fresh from college, allowing for improvisation. There was never a worry that the film wouldn’t fit together because it was all based on his imagery. For example, when he designed the film’s creatures, he made them quite simple in order to give the animators a lot of room to work with. However, this approach extended the post-production phase, which was originally budgeted for approximately eight months, to 17 months.

Mirrormask was originally set for a direct-to-DVD release but it was accepted in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival and this convinced Sony to give it a limited theatrical release in the United States. The film received mostly mixed to negative reviews from mainstream critics. Roger Ebert gave the film two out of four stars and wrote, “I suspected the filmmakers began with a lot of ideas about how the movie should look, but without a clue about pacing, plotting or destination.” In his review for The New York Times, Stephen Holden called it, “an example of too much lavished on too little. Because there is often more on the screen than the eye can take in, the originality of its visual imagination is compromised.” The Washington Post’s Desson Thomson felt it was “so single-minded in its reach for fantasy, it becomes the genre's evil opposite: banality.” The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson wrote, “The measure of conviction needed to make and read comic books is all that's brought to bear, and the result might make good dope software, if you can sit still and stay awake.” However, Entertainment Weekly gave the film an “A-“ rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum called it a “dazzling reverie of a kids-and-adults movie, an unusual collaboration between lord-of-the-cult multimedia artist Dave McKean and king-of-the-comics Neil Gaiman (The Sandman), has something to astonish everyone.” In his review for the San Francisco Chronicle, Walter Addiego called it, “richly inventive.”

Naturally, Helena’s surreal dream world is where Mirrormask comes to life with one stunning visual set piece after another. As you would expect from a Gaiman/McKean production, it is very visual and rather non-linear in nature with a light façade but underneath lurks a darkness that is the hallmark of their collaborations. Every frame looks like a work of art, like one of McKean’s paintings come to life. There is so much to look at (like a landscape filled with red, spiral staircases) and it is a densely visual film much like a waking dream. Even though, at times, you may not know what is going on exactly, you trust that Gaiman’s storytelling abilities and McKean’s visuals are going somewhere. After recently watching Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (2009), I think it would make a fantastic double bill with Mirrormask as both films deal with vagabond performers traveling through England and how the real world becomes intertwined with a fantasy realm, each one feeding off the other.


Brevet, Brad. “Neil Gaiman Talks Mirrormask and More.”

Carnevale, Rob. “Mirrormask – Dave McKean Interview.”

Flanagan, Mark. “Neil Gaiman Interview.” About.com. September 9, 2005.

Holmes, Kevin. “Feature Interviews.”

Khouri, Andy. “The Mirrormask Interviews.” September 15, 2005.

Weiland, Jonah. “Putting on the Mirrormask.” August 6, 2004.