The Animation Show

Also: Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Imaginary Heroes.

The Animation Show

Runs Fri., Feb. 25–Thurs., March 3, at Varsity

To address the first and most natural point of confusion here: No, this is not that dreadful annual Spike & Mike compilation of toons that skulked onto the Ave last month. Same theater, different show. Here we have a dozen animated shorts of far superior grade—selected by Mike Judge (King of the Hill) and Don Hertzfeldt, whose The Meaning of Life concludes the program. Both are scheduled to introduce Friday's 7 p.m. show, which is a good reason to buy your tickets early.

A wealth of animation styles is showcased here. There's remarkably little CGI, but the eight-minute Rock Fish manages to use supercomputers the right way for once. A man and his dog (well, space monkey) working on some remote planet aren't made to look like creatures from our planet; their features are blocky and somehow evolved, befitting the sci-fi setting. When they get to work hunting a subterranean monster (think Tremors meets the sandworms of Dune), the newfangled technology supports good old-fashioned action.

Close calls and narrow escapes also abound in Ward 13, but they're all executed in claymation: Some poor soul gets hit by a car and wakes up in a hospital of horrors. Before his limbs can be amputated, he takes flight in a motorized wheelchair, being pursued down endless hallways by disorderly orderlies and a tentacled green ghoul. The stop-motion mayhem nicely brackets what otherwise might be too gory for the squeamish; it's like SNL's Mr. Bill endlessly in jeopardy—only here you're rooting for his safety.

Bill Plympton's Oscar-nominated Guard Dog is also obsessed with safety, from the paranoid perspective of a pooch that (correctly) sees squirrels for the evil creatures they are. Executed in a pastel-pencil style, Plympton's usual deadpan violence is funny because, like Ward 13, the red is never blood red. Then there's the Polish Fallen Art, which literally aestheticizes violence, making senseless slaughter into a balletic snuff flick. The perpetrators are ogres out of George Grosz, like allegorical monsters from the old Eastern Bloc.

The F.E.D.S. employs the same film-based animation technique used in Richard Linklater's Waking Life: real actors processed through the computer, their features and settings floating and jiggling in a colorful broth. Local boy David Russo uses pure celluloid and a vintage stop-motion camera in Pan With Us, which sets a Robert Frost poem to a montage of mostly Seattle locations. The two best titles are purely hand-made. The Man With No Shadow is all color and bright, broad daubs of paint, like late Matisse, yet with the wandering aerial perspective of Chagall. Its look is suited to the simple, folkloric story. When the Day Breaks is more ink and wash—smudgy lines and muted colors to depict a city populated by animals. Their likeness to humans isn't strict, but it's stirring—laughter and sadness, life and death, all before the morning teakettle is turned on. (NR) BRIAN MILLER

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Opens Fri., Feb. 25, at Meridian and others

Don't let the shriekingly extreme incompetence of writer-actor Tyler Perry and director Darren Grant's no-budget flick blind you to its genuine, crudely clownish virtues. Perry is a once-homeless playwright whose stage shows about black Southern family life have grossed $75 million, his Web site claims. Since the title character in this hit-play-turned-niche-film resides in what is said to be his real mansion in Atlanta, I'm not surprised. It's one heck of a mansion. Members of an almost 100 percent black preview audience, a fun crowd as ebullient as a Baptist congregation in full possession of the spirit, actually burst into cheers when they saw the film's heroine, Helen McCarter (the stunningly lovely Kimberly Elise) pull into the circular drive and stride into the place like she owns it, her designer silks fluttering like a flag of triumph.

Then they booed when her villainous lawyer husband (Steve Harris of The Practice) sneeringly tells her that he owns it, thanks to a prenup, and kicks her out on their 18th wedding anniversary, kind of like in the beginning of The Philadelphia Story. It's allegedly funny when Helen boots the moving-van driver her ex hired to take her away out of his own damn van, and drives off with her possessions, leaving him in the street. He's so handsome and cookie-cutter perfect, he looks like a soap opera actor, and he is: Shemar Moore of The Young and the Restless. Imagine Helen's surprise when she meets him again at a party.

Or better yet, don't. Everything I tell you about the plot stresses what's bad about the movie. Elise is too placid to be convincingly mad, and if she's had an 18th wedding anniversary, she must've married at around age 8. The iniquity of Harris and virtuousness of Moore are ridiculously cartoonish. (The latter chastely courts Elise for months; he's more interested in intimacy than sex. C'mon—even Baptists are interested in sex. They just don't do it standing up, because someone might think they were dancing.) Every plot turn urgently signals its arrival at top volume for a country mile. Jesus ultimately heals rich divorcées and crack hos alike. Godless audiences will be turned off by the movie's insistent Christian moralizing. Christian moralists may be turned off by the jokes about farts and dirty old men and the pot-smoking old ladies.

But you can't deny that Perry is pretty funny in drag, playing Helen's aunt Madea with a gun in her purse, a sassy rap in her mouth, and huge boobs that droop past her navel. He's less funny as a man, Madea's horndog, emphysemic old brother, who tells an old church lady (Cicely Tyson), "I got Viagra!" ("I got Mace!" she retorts.) And he's just plain awful in a third role, Helen's straight- arrow brother.

See you in church. (PG-13) TIM APPELO

Imaginary Heroes

Opens Fri., Feb. 25, at Metro

Desperate housewife Sigourney Weaver stealing her son's pot, getting stoned in the yard, then stumbling to the grass and taking a nap in full view of the neighbors is plenty amusing, and if she were the main thing going in Heroes, it'd be a film to recommend—or maybe even a sitcom to pitch. Nobody standing around her, however, is half so interesting in debut director Dan Harris' woefully familiar study of suburban pathology; they're just broken slats in Weaver's formerly white picket fence. She's got an emotionally unreachable husband (Jeff Daniels), a sullen, hostile jock son (Kip Pardue), a sensitive brooding boy (Emile Hirsch), and a daughter (Michelle Williams) who sensibly spends most of the picture away at college.

Suicide sends the Travis clan into a tailspin: Dad starts popping pills and absenting himself to a park bench, Forrest Gump–style; Mom tries to relive her '60s bad-girl youth with comic, clumsy results (why not give a twentysomething supermarket checker your phone number when he hits on you?); 17-year-old pianist Tim (Hirsch) outdoes them both with more drugs, more booze, and more mopery than the entire oeuvre of John Hughes. Want more dysfunction? There's some kind of a feud with the woman next door; Tim's sexual identity seems to be in flux; cars get wrecked and bodies sent to the hospital; and there's even a third-act outbreak of Serious Illness that, yes, threatens to bring the family together again.

The hokey plotting would be tolerable if the writing were as sharp as Desperate Housewives', which at least has fun with its clichés. Unfortunately, Harris, who previously contributed to the X-Men sequel, has his fretful, forgettable characters ask things like, "How did we let it happen?" (Well, you randomly type on the computer keyboard without any original ideas or language, and somebody makes a movie out of the script, that's how.) A better question would be, "How did we let this happen to Sigourney Weaver?" (R) BRIAN MILLER

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