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SUNDANCE: DEAR WENDY (plus its trailer), MIRRORMASK and THE UPSIDE OF ANGER reviewed!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with Blue Gecko again. What's interesting about this report is it's an exact opposite take on all three films. DEAR WENDY has had all positive reviews (some "it was alright" positive and one or two "It was amazing!" positive), same with THE UPSIDE OF ANGER... I believe the first review we got for it claimed it to be one of the best of Sundance this year. Blue Gecko doesn't agree and let you know about it. MIRRORMASK got reviewed earlier today and it was a positive one, but still not very enthusiastically positive. Blue Gecko goes crazy-insane in love with it. Anyway, before we kick off the reviews, I was sent a link to the trailer for DEAR WENDY. I have to say I really dig the trailer. I think I'll give this one a shot unless all the other reviews we get echo Blue Gecko's opinion... then I may rethink that decision! Here's the trailer!

CLICK IT HERE FOR JAMIE BELL AND BILL PULLMAN PLAYING WITH GUNS!!!

Now here's Blue Gecko!

This is Part II of my Sundance report. There will be at least one more, maybe two!

SPOILERS on this one

DEAR WENDY

"This gun cost me everything: My wife, my kids, everything but my precious, precious gun."
-Homer Simpson
(Couldn't resist throwing that in quote)

When people discuss this film, Dogville is inevitably going to be mentioned. Both are parables set in tiny locals where things eventually go very, very wrong.

I caught Dogville last year at Sundance and was floored. It was one of those haunting films that I was thinking about for days, even weeks later. When I saw it, I had purposely not read a thing about it; thus, I was unaware of Lars Von Trier's anti-Americanism, ignorant to the fact that Dogville was supposed to be ripping hard on the country I live in. Now that may have been von Trier's intention, but in the process I think he came up with something much more profound - even if it was completely unintentional on his part. For starters, Dogville really fails on the level of being a convincing argument against America because it could have been set in a village ANYWHERE - feudal France, Medieval China, Australian Outback, Pacific Islands - whatever. Yes, even von Trier's beloved Denmark. The story would have been believable within its own world of metaphor, regardless of locale or era. Ultimately, I think the film says something more universal about HUMAN NATURE, and that's why I liked Dogville.

Dear Wendy (screenplay by the very same Lars von Trier), on the other hand, is so ham-fisted, so heavy-handed that it can only be saying one of two things: (1) America is a violent, trigger-happy, bullying, arrogant nation; or (2) Guns are Satan's tools, turning anyone who touches one into a power-hungry, crazy murderer. (Michael Moore, were you a consultant on this film?)

Now, I'm neither a card-carrying member of the NRA or a fervent pacifist, so I wasn't taking some sort of torrid political stance going into this film. If you want to make a film about a point of view, that's great. Even if it says something I ultimately disagree with, I can even like the film if it has other merits. But if you're going to make an allegorical film, it needs to work on another level besides that of allegory. (For instance, the Narnia Chronicles are blatant Christian fables, but work as stand-alone works of fantasy.)

Dear Wendy does nothing to merit itself a story unto itself outside of the single point it is trying to make. It never is able to pull us fully into the story, does nothing to make us care about or even understand the characters, and ultimately becomes SO ludicrous in plot that I was rolling my eyes for the entire last half-hour. There are FAR too many instances of the characters acting so irrationally that they may as well start shoving turnips up their noses. The plot is the only thing being serviced here, NOT character - and the plot is, ultimately, completely and utterly ridiculous.

Quickie Plot: Dick (Jamie Bell, sometimes looking like a young Chris Barrie), gets a gun, names it Wendy, forms a secret club of gun-toting pacifists, and... well, do you think things are going to go well when he invites Sebastian, a convicted murderer, to join? Are we supposed to believe for one minute that this makes sense? Are we at all surprised the film ends with a bunch of idiotic kids getting blown apart by a hail of bullets, with the Battle Hymn of the Republic swelling dramatically on the soundtrack? (Yeah, how's that for subtlety?)

Oh, and it's directed by Thomas Vinterberg who directed the laughably bad It's All About Love last year. I wouldn't call him a bad director on his style alone, but he REALLY needs to learn how to pick better screenplays.

THE UPSIDE OF ANGER

I'll be upfront about this film - it wasn't bad, but it really could have been so much more.

Terry Wolfmeyer (Joan Allen) is a raging, angry alcoholic after her husband leaves her and their four daughters to run off with his Swedish secretary. The story chronicles events that occur over a three-year period, as the family vents frustrations, deals with various issues, and tries to heal. Oh, and they have a neighbor, Denny (Kevin Costner) who has the hots for the mom.

Joan Allen is, as always, great. The four actresses who play her daughters (Alicia Witt, Keri Russell, Erika Christensen, Evan Rachel Wood) are all beautiful and do a decent job with what they are given. Even Kevin Costner is surprisingly good as you get into the film, and he gets some good scenes later on.

The screenplay could have used a few more revisions, as there seems to be a lot of filler in this story. This is really a shame, as the time could have been better spent. Terry's relationship with Denny is never as interesting as her relationships with her daughters; The film is at its best when we see the Wolfmeyer women interact, but too much time is wasted on the romantic-comedy aspect. We also see some superfluous activities of the daughters that don't really relate to the story, or add to the relationships of the film. This is especially the case with the youngest daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, who I swear has NO purpose except for occasionally throwing in voice-over narrative. Alicia Witt and Kerri Russell's characters have some good scenes, but Erika Christensen is completely underused as a true character, acting only as a vessel for some later scenes in the film. I can't help but think that the four daughters could have been easily condensed into three characters. And for a film narrated by one of the kids, we don't get a very good sense of the sibling relationships. Or the mother-daughter relationship, in 1/2 the cases.

Perhaps I'm being harsh - maybe this isn't supposed to be a film about familial relationships. But if it isn't, it should be, as it would have made a much more interesting movie.

There is a revelation that happens toward the end of the film that should be a huge emotional turning point for every character. However, the denouement comes far too fast and with too many unearned smiles. According to the voice-over, anger apparently changes who we are, but since we never see what Terry was like before her husband left her, we have no frame of reference to compare who she becomes in the end.

MIRRORMASK

This is, without a doubt, the best feature film I've seen so far!

While I have little to no acquaintance with his work, I know that Neil Gaiman (screenwriter) has a huge following. This was evidenced in how difficult it was to get into this film - the waiting list was over 100 people and the movie started late as the theatre workers tried to pack everyone in. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (the director) were both there and introduced the film to the very enthusiastic crowd. They said they were very excited to show the film, even a bit nervous, as we were the first real audience to see it (aside from a group of high school students they'd shown it to earlier).

Helena, the daughter of circus owners, is rather bored with her life as a carny. She spends her free time sketching pen and ink drawings of strange creatures and places and imagines a world with a black queen and a white queen. After her mother falls ill, Helena has a vivid dream about a fantastical world that looks suspiciously similar to her drawings. The balance of light and dark has been disrupted, and the white queen has fallen into an unwakable sleep. Helena takes on the quest to find the Mirrormask which will restore balance to this world, awaken the white queen, and allow her to go home.

Sure, this sounds similar to the plot of The Wizard of Oz, Labyrinth, Spirited Away, Alice in Wonderland, Paperhouse, The Neverending Story, and any other number of films. So in order to make the story work with any kind of significance, we need to have something completely original to set it apart. No worries there! First off, we have a wonderful lead in Stephanie Leonidas as 15-year-old Helena: she's sweet, beautiful, and completely likable. Even more importantly, though, the film has a brilliant - bloody brilliant - visual style. This is apparent from the opening credits, which are fantastic! There are plenty of masks in the film, both in the real world and the fantasy world, and I couldn't help thinking how much fun they probably had designing and building these things. The black and white drawings by Helena, which also pervade the fantasy world, are really cool - I believe they were done by McKean himself. The movie is very CGI heavy - everything in the fantasy world was done in front of a bluescreen. And since this is a low-budget film, some of the graphics look like they're fresh out of the computer - this bothered me for maybe five minutes, but the surreal quality actually lends itself well to the story, since it IS supposed to be a dream. The music is wonderfully weird and fits within the whole style of the film.

I loved the imagination of this film - the different creatures, the locales, the strange situations that exist in this reality. I won't give any of it away, but it's a total delight to watch this film unfold.

This film would not have been allowed to be made by mainstream Hollywood - you could say the same thing about the recent wonderful Spirited Away. Thank goodness for independent films that can bring us beautiful, imaginative visions like this! This is also a film that would be appropriate for children (a rarity in Sundance fare) so take your kids to see it. It sure beats a lot of the dreadful kids movies being churned out nowadays. If you loved Spirited Away, you'll love Mirrormask!

Since the movie started late, I had to run off to my next movie before they started the Q&A. This made me very sad, as I'd have LOVED to have heard what Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean had to say about their film! I hope someone else who went will report on what they said.

So there you go - not as eloquently expressed as I'd like, but I'm getting major film-festival sleep deprivation. More later!

-Blue Gecko



Readers Talkback
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  • Jan. 26, 2005, 5:07 p.m. CST

    directed by dave mckean = i'm there!

    by gredenko

    McKean's visuals finally finding their way into a feature length film is enough to make Mirrormask worth seeing I'd imagine.

  • Jan. 26, 2005, 5:09 p.m. CST

    Counting down...

    by Childe Roland

    ...to the first dumbshit post by phanboi and the first "gay" comment from fuckknuckles. Come on, boys... you know you want to. Oh... and I'm quite curious to see Mirrormask now.

  • Jan. 26, 2005, 5:28 p.m. CST

    Buh'bye Lars and Hello MirrorMask

    by Oompa_Radar

    I've had a passionate love/hate relationship with Lars for years. But what will put me over the edge on this one and prevent me seeing it is the fact that I'm sick to death of the film industry at large, foreign and domestic, putting me down and simplifying complicated issues unrealistically. I will not be preached at when I seek entertainment. Now, as for MirrorMask, I would love to see the fantasy genre revived with promising films such as this one seems to be. I grew up on the Labrynths and Legends and Dragonslayers, one of my kids is a huge nut for them and she'll definitely be all over this, as will I.

  • Jan. 26, 2005, 5:51 p.m. CST

    Obligatory Portman = Death post

    by somnambulating

    Sorry, at least it's a break from Hulk Hogan, though, right? http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v175/somnambulating/nat-death.jpg that's my make-shift mock-up of Natty as mousey Death.

  • Jan. 26, 2005, 6:04 p.m. CST

    By the way, anyone know the music to Dear Wendy?

    by somnambulating

    That ending song on the trailer sounds amazing and inspirational. Kinda wondering why Von Trier didn't just direct this himself, doens't look like it's suffering for it, though.

  • Jan. 26, 2005, 6:27 p.m. CST

    Wow, those were some good reviews!

    by eraser_x

    The reviews were not exhaustive or checklist-like, as some talkbackers seem to like, but the reviews sure gave me a good idea of whether I'll probably like the movies being reviewed. I hope AICN will have many more Blue Gecko reviews to post in the future.

  • Jan. 26, 2005, 8:22 p.m. CST

    Dog---SHIT

    by Louis P.

    Dogville is a terrible movie, so I really can't take this guy all too seriously. I really feel "Dear Wendy" looks amazing though. It will be cool to see another director take on Von Triers? material.