An Alice in Wonderland style adventure, MirrorMask was apparently commissioned when executives at Sony realised that two Jim Henson-created films, Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal (a favourite of mine), which were regarded as flops at the time of their release, had gone on to generate a pretty much constant stream of sales on video and DVD, and so they wanted something new in the same vein. It’s a pity they didn’t have the courage of their convictions to back the idea with a good sized budget, because the result, MirrorMask, has a made-for-TV feel to it, perhaps due to the rather flat, overbright lighting that resulted from, as director Dave McKean points out in an interview included as an extra on the DVD, their not being able to afford the sort of full-scale 3D rendering required for the really complex ray-tracing that sets big budget animated and FX-driven blockbusters apart in terms of final look and polish.


MirrorMask starts in the real world, with teen Helena (played with a lot of charisma by Stephanie Leonidas) grumbling about having to work in her parents’ circus. Then her mother falls ill and Helena retreats into a dream world created out of her many drawings. The dream-world’s Queen of Light (played by Gina McKee, who also plays Helena’s mother) is in some sort of coma, from which she can only be awoken by a certain charm; meanwhile the Queen of Darkness is sending out dark tentacles that calcify whatever they touch. Helena decides to go on a quest to wake up the Queen of Light, only to discover that her place in the real world has been taken by the Queen of Darkness’s daughter, on the run from her over-protective mother.

It seems a bit mean to criticise a film for having ambitions above its budget, particularly as this is Dave McKean’s first full-length movie, and something he is obviously passionate about. (You only have to listen to the DVD commentary, where co-writer Neil Gaiman has nothing to contribute aside from the occasional interruption along the lines of, “Oh, look at that there, that’ll become significant later,” whereas McKean sounds like he could fill another DVD or two.) The dream-world he creates is full of visual invention — though I’d say over-full, because it never quite gels into feeling like one place, but shifts in tone and feel from scene to scene. For instance, some of the world’s inhabitants are human in all but that they wear masks, whereas others are barely-human collages of objects. (The police force are so weird I couldn’t work out at all what they were supposed to be.) In terms of the action, threats arise suddenly and inexplicably, and are often escaped without any clear indication of how it was managed. (For instance, when Helena and Valentine go to see the two floating giants and are forced to flee when the Queen of Darkness’s black, calcifying tentacles close in — why don’t the tentacles keep chasing Helena and Valentine? How do they escape these things that are obviously so fast and powerful?) In such a truly dream-like world, it’s difficult to feel at home and allow yourself any expectations of what’s going to happen next in the story, and so the result is a film that, for me, looks great in stills and individual scenes, but which doesn’t quite have the immersive quality of The Dark Crystal or Labyrinth.



icoI haven’t reviewed any games on this blog yet for two reasons. The first is that there are very few games I like enough to buy, let alone play all the way through; the second is that even once I find a game I like I’m pretty slow at playing it! But I’ve loved games ever since the days of Manic Miner on the ZX Spectrum (I never finished that one, but did spend a day of non-stop playing, with Garen and a friend of mine, Craig, after we found out a “poke” to get infinite lives.)

Games could well be the future of entertainment — being to the 21st Century what films were to the 20th — if they’re not already. The big problem for me is so many games are the same. They’re shoot-em-ups or racing games or platform games, all of which are basically about developing a skill with the game controls. I prefer games where the controls are secondary to what takes place in your imagination. Best of all are games which manage to tell a story, and though many attempt to do so by merely interspersing a few cut-scenes between otherwise identical levels, those that really manage it can have a much stronger effect on their audience, simply because that audience (the players) is actively involved in the story-world, rather than just passively observing it (as with film, for instance.)

So far my list of favourite games is quite short. I love the Tomb Raider series because I’m strange and love the idea of being left alone in some labyrinthine subterranean world so I can lose myself and explore. I love the Myst series. Myst III was the first game that really moved me emotionally, thanks partly to the acting of Brad Dourif (Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings), but also thanks to the fact that, near the game’s end, you get to make a non-black-or-white story decision (something that’s rare in a world of “no moral consequences” shoot-em-ups), which really requires you to feel as well as think your way through the final puzzle.

ico_yordaIco is another game I’m going to add to my list of favourites. Designed and directed by Japanese games-maker Fumito Ueda (also responsible for the recent Shadow of the Colossus, which is set in the same world as Ico), Ico is a puzzle-solving, exploratory game with some fighting elements, but with a unique twist that adds a very different feel to the game.

You control Ico, a young village boy born with horns. When children born with horns get to a certain age, they’re taken to a vast castle, entombed in tiny stone cells, and left there, presumably as some sort of propitiatory sacrifice. However, soon after this happens to Ico, there’s a fateful earthquake and his stone cell cracks open. Suddenly he’s free in this truly vast castle. Obviously, he wants to escape but, exploring, he finds a young girl trapped in a cage. The first problem in the game is freeing her. It turns out she doesn’t speak the same language as Ico. She is also rather weak, can’t climb, and is physically slower than Ico, but our hero immediately decides to rescue her as well as himself.

ico_icoFrom there on, the game basically consists of finding a way to lead this young woman, Princess Yorda, out of the castle. As Ico you explore ahead, experimenting with levers and doors to create a path for the physically inept Yorda, then rush back, grab her boyishly by the hand and drag her along after you in almost rag-doll fashion. If you get too far away from her, or leave her alone too long, dark creatures come along and try to drag her into shadow pools. If she’s dragged all the way in, you’ve lost the game. Fortunately, you have a stick (later a sword) to beat these shadow creatures off with.

The game play is simple, but Yorda’s presence changes it from being, say, a search for treasure, or the often rather meaningless quest to save the world. Having to take care of the helpless Yorda makes you feel protective of her, and gives the game’s objective an emotional slant that a mere finding-the-treasure ending doesn’t have.

Beyond that, there are a few further twists in the plot. For instance, you quite soon reach the castle’s main gates, only to have Yorda’s mother, the Dark Queen, suddenly appear and lock them, which means you have to delve back into the castle to find a way of unlocking them. There’s a further twist later on which I won’t reveal, as getting the full story is one of the rewards of playing (and perhaps can only be fully appreciated by playing, and getting involved in Ico‘s world.)

Another plus of the game is the sheer aesthetics of the world you’re in. The castle you have to find your way through isn’t just a series of strung-out puzzles, but a fully-realised place. You’ll see features in the background while playing one part of the game, then much later find yourself actually in that feature — be it a tower or a windmill or a cavern or whatever — and able to look back and see where you were earlier on. The locations, though obviously vast, don’t quite manage to conjure the awe I felt when I first stepped out onto the Sphinx’s head in Tomb Raider (whichever one it was — I or II?) even though the graphics are superior (but not up to the best of modern-day standards — Ico is a few years old, now). Another slight niggle is the automatic camera, which very occasionally gives you an awkward view of a puzzle you might solve a lot easier with a different angle. Aside from that, it’s one of the best games I’ve played in ages — and another of its virtues is it’s not monumentally long, meaning that (unlike some Japanese role-playing games, for instance — Final Fantasy VIII and IX excepted) it doesn’t outstay its welcome, and actually leaves you wanting to play it again. (Playing it for a second time, Princess Yorda’s peculiar twitterings are translated.)


The Flaming Lips: Zaireeka

zaireekaRecently I have got totally and utterly into The Flaming Lips. I bought their 2002 album, Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots, when it first came out and (partly because I was low on funds at the time) listened to it again and again till it became one of my all-time favourite albums. (Whose names I precede in iTunes with an asterisk for quick access. My iPod has over 800 albums on it, which takes some scroll-wheeling through.) Oddly, considering how much I loved that album, it took me a while to buy anything else by them, and when I did get The Soft Bulletin (1999) and Clouds Taste Metallic (1995), only a few tracks really sunk in. Then, quite suddenly, last month something just clicked and I’ve been unable to listen to anyone else. I’ve tracked down rarities and oddities (the Fight Test and Ego Tripping At The Gates of Hell EPs, the limited edition Fearless Freaks CD, and of course the Fearless Freaks documentary, to name a few), and slowly upped my iTunes star ratings of their songs from three to four to quite a few five-star songs. The Soft Bulletin, which I originally felt almost cold towards, has pretty much joined Yoshimi in my absolute all time faves.

But even then, I was sure that I’d never buy their Zaireeka album. Why? Well, Zaireeka is a 4-CD set with 8 songs on. Now, I’ve nothing against this. I own Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans (4 songs on 2 CDs) and am not embarrassed to say I listen to it and enjoy it. But Zaireeka’s eight-songs-on-four-CDs only amount to 45 minutes of music. Its 4 CDs are designed to be played on four different CD players, at the same time.

But I took the plunge. The more I learned about the band, the more I realised Zaireeka represents a musical turning point, taking them from the surrealistic poppy grunge of Clouds Taste Metallic and its forerunners to a much more thoughtful, much more musically open approach to song-writing in The Soft Bulletin and beyond. Every so often, artists of any sort who are serious about their work go through phases of experimentation and emerge transformed, with new directions, new freedoms, and often much stronger for it, but it’s rare that such experimental phases are laid out for us to look at and try to see what was going on. (JG Ballard publishing his “condensed novels” is an example.) For the Flaming Lips, Zaireeka was that transformative moment. (The name partly comes from the word eureka.)

The four CDs arrived yesterday, and I’ve just finished my first listen. It wasn’t a full listen. I played one CD on my hi-fi, one through my TV using my DVD player, and one through my computer, meaning the fourth was unplayed. (The only way I could play it would have been to have plugged my iPod into my guitar amp, but I knew I’d already find it difficult enough to start three CD players simultaneously (one remote control in each hand, plus an elbow to hit the space-bar on my computer), without having to click an iPod at the same time. That’s why people have Zaireeka parties. The logistics are easier.) Even then, the three CDs didn’t start in sync, because not all three players responded with the same speed. The first track I listened to, the three players were up to a couple of seconds out, but after that, a few quick stabs on various pause buttons brought things more into line.

Zaireeka’s CDs aren’t meant to be played in perfect sync, anyway. Wayne Coyne, the main vocalist and the bloke who had the idea in the first place, says in his liner notes that he found that even when playing two identical tracks on two CD players, the sound would occasionally go in and out of phase, as the players played at slightly different speeds. With Zaireeka, the idea is that such real-world glitches would bring in some randomness to turn each listen into more of a unique experience — and it’s definitely not a passive experience. There was a certain amount of pausing and playing, adjusting of volumes, and walking round the room finding the best place to hear all three sound sources at once.

As for the music, it’s difficult to judge on one listen. I thought the more successful tracks were those where one CD played what could be considered the main track and the others added embellishments, sometimes by playing quite weird, and seemingly unfitting accompaniments that nevertheless sort of worked because they were coming from a different direction. It was one of those situations where sounds from outside start to include themselves in the music. Usually, for me, Hawkwind is about the only band who can take on a police siren, car screeches, train brakes, arguing neighbours, and so on, without it jolting you out of their musical world, because I’m used to hearing weird sounds in the middle of Hawkwind tracks. Well, it happened with Zaireeka too, as if the world were conspiring to perform alongside the Flaming Lips.

The best song of the lot was the last, “The Big Ol’ Bug Is The New Baby Now”, in which, on one CD, Wayne Coyne tells a story about his dogs and their predilection for tearing things apart, while another CD plays a pretty much conventional rhythm section backing, and the third comes in with sound effects (dog barks); then all three CDs go into a multi-part chiming vocal chorus, singing the song’s title at different times, to produce a sort of “Row, row, row your boat” effect.

The idea with Zaireeka was for the band to introduce its listeners to new ways of listening to, and participating in, their music. (Brian Eno felt the same sort of thing when he started making ambient music.) Of course, since 1997, when the album was released, further “new ways” have come about. It’s much more likely, for instance, that today’s purchasers of Zaireeka have the computing power and hard drive space to rip the four CDs and mix them down into stereo. Okay, it’s perhaps against the spirit of the thing, but sometimes you want to just sit down and listen.