MirrorMask. (PG) Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean's mandate from the Jim Henson Company was to take four million dollars and create something in a similar vein to The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth, movies which bombed on initial release but have steadily grown in popularity over the years. Thanks to a lack of time constraints, the precedent set by the likes of Robert Rodriguez and a team of young and hungry computer animators, McKean has made an astounding feature directorial debut that looks as amazing as anything onscreen this year. The daughter of two circus performers (Stephanie Leonidas) enters a dream world in which she must find the eponymous mask in order to trade places with an evil goth doppelgänger who has replaced her back in reality. Not everything looks realistic, but not everything is supposed to. Like McKean's illustrations, the movie combines drawings, photos, hazy filters, superimpositions and computer effects into a pastiche both beautiful and disturbing. It works, in large part, because the pacing and the dialogue are delivered as if in a dream. (Luke Y. Thompson)
Oliver Twist. (PG-13) Were Roman Polanski's name not up on the screen, you'd be hard-pressed to guess that he had directed this adaptation of the Dickens classic, so lacking is it in the qualities that have made his other films so memorable. One of Polanski's great strengths has always been his ability to create and maintain atmosphere. Here, however, everything feels designed and manufactured. His decision to go with a slightly larger-than-life look, instead of one more purely naturalistic, has the effect of taking the viewer out of the movie, as opposed to living the story along with the characters. (For real atmosphere, rent David Lean's 1948 version.) The second half of the film feels disjointed; not only does the focus shift from Oliver to the adult characters, but the scenes feel crudely cobbled together. A disappointingly flat film that's emotionally uninvolving. (Jean Oppenheimer)
Pretty Persuasion. (Not Rated) Kimberly Joyce (Evan Rachel Wood) attends a prestigious school in L.A., where, the administration boasts, "A lot of very important people send their very important kids." Though dead-set on becoming a famous actress, Kimberly isn't having any luck at casting calls. So when a local television reporter (Jane Krakowski) arrives to do a fluff piece on the school, she seizes the opportunity. Along with best-friend Brittany (Elisabeth Harnois) and new-girl Randa (Adi Schnall), she accuses the English teacher (Ron Livingston) of sexual harassment. A media circus erupts, and the case swiftly goes to trial. Pretty Persuasion can't decide on a level of sincerity. Its comedy is very dark (and sometimes funny), while its tragedy feels oddly light. The film wants to be a biting satire and a tragic statement about quite a few ills in contemporary society, and it ends up dithering somewhere between the two. That's a shame for the actors, especially Wood, whose commitment is impressive. There's just no rising above this troubled script. (Melissa Levine)
Serenity. (PG-13) For those unfamiliar with the story line of this movie, spawned from Joss Whedon's failed Fox TV series Firefly, it takes place 500 years in the future, sometime after a sort of civil war that pit Earth's Alliance against folks who didn't take kindly to being ruled and regulated. Among the rebels is a cowpoke named Malcolm "Mal" Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) -- the bastard son of Indiana Jones, Captain Kirk, Robert Conrad's Jim West and Rowdy Yates -- and a crew right out of every Western ever made. Their mission is to protect a young woman whose mind's been tinkered with by the Alliance, which wants back this powerful prophet with the ability to see the future and destroy all comers. The sole addition to the main cast is Dirty Pretty Things' Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose cool presence renders this a classier and more thoughtful affair. Ultimately, though, he's just a guest onboard this party ship, which is just as well. Who needs brains when there's a bullet left in the chamber? (Robert Wilonsky)
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