Saturday, March 26, 2011

Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch

I should have hated this movie. I saw it under not the best circumstances. I decided to see it at the 34th Street AMC, mostly because it had the most convenient showtime and partly because it's across the street from one of my favorite breakfast places (one of the few places in NYC that serves grits). I was going to go all out and see it in IMAX. It was a matinee, so it wasn't ridonkulously expensive. But the theater turned out to be one of an alarming number of "fake" IMAX theaters, i.e., theaters with slightly-larger-than-normal screens that for some reason are allowed to use the IMAX brand name. Also, they gave us 3D glasses, and I spent the first 40 minutes of the movie trying to keep them on my face before discovering that THE MOVIE IS NOT IN 3D. Shame on you, AMC 34th Street.

This movie is, by all empirical standards, not a good movie. It has huge, HUGE narrative issues. Other folks will find many other flaws, but I think at least some of those are clever subversions. Nordling of Ain't It Cool News calls this a "kitchen sink" movie, wherein a filmmaker throws all of his passion and resources into a project in the hopes that this will be his/her definitive work. Those movies rarely turn out to be anything but hot messes, and Sucker Punch is no exception. This is a movie with big ideas, ideas that are tragically too big for the story in its current form. I think it might have fared better as a two-parter. Preferably with a different writer.

The basic setup is fairly simple. Our heroine, played by Lemony Snicket's Emily Browning, has just lost her mother, and her conniving stepfather is furious that the mother left all her money to the girl and her sister. After a sequence of events that's a tad confusing but culminates in the murder of the younger sister, the stepfather has our heroine committed to an asylum and arranges for her to be lobotomized. The rest of the movie consists of her attempts to escape, both figuratively and literally.

Almost as soon as she arrives, her mind constructs an alternate reality, though only slightly less bleak than her current one. Part of the inmates' therapy is to act out their issues, quite literally, on a stage. So "Baby Doll," as she comes to be called, imagines the asylum as a burlesque theater where she and the other girls dance for "clients." The asylum orderly who abuses the girls becomes a cruel boss figure, and the psychiatrist (Carla Gugino) becomes an artistic director of some sort. (Just a note, while we're here and while you may or may not be frozen with a "huh?" expression on your face at what you've read so far ... if suspending disbelief is not your thing and you demand logic from your stories, stay far away from this movie.)

Baby Doll is asked to dance. The music starts and eventually she starts to (barely) move, but suddenly we zoom in on her eye and we enter a third level of reality. Baby Doll is now in a completely different place and time within her own mind, and she meets The Wiseman (Scott Glenn), who tells her how to escape. She needs five things - a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth item that is a mystery. She defeats three giant mecha-monsters in a sequence that at first might seem frivolous and lacking in risk and emotional connection, but which I think merely serve to show Baby Doll the rules of this reality and what she is capable of. After this initial battle, Baby Doll is back in the dance studio and has finished her dance, and she has apparently impressed everyone so much that she's going to use her dancing as part of the plot to get the items she needs for escape. But first she needs help from the other girls - Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgins), and Amber (Jamie Chung).

We see the girls fight to secure the needed items, both in the dance hall reality and in the third reality. Baby Doll uses her dancing in the second reality to distract people while the other girls get the tokens. And, just as before, whenever the music starts, we enter that third and much more heightened reality, and the girls are on missions (led by The Wiseman) to capture items that are analogous to the escape tools. They fight Nazi zombies to steal a map, they slay a baby dragon and steal the fire from its throat, etc. One of many things I felt should have been different is that I wish the movie had cut back to the *actual* reality of the asylum at least once or twice. Maybe Snyder was trying to make the ending more surprising, when you see that she was in the asylum all along and - aha! - she really did do the things she did in those other realities, just more mundane versions of them.

As I said, there are huge story problems with this movie. It feels a lot like it was meant to be longer and just got chopped to pieces, with the action setpieces getting priority in the editing process and the actual storytelling and characterization stuck on the cutting room floor, or perhaps merely ghosts from earlier drafts of the script.

However, there are some subversive elements that I quite liked and wish had been in a better movie. I cringed like hell at the trailers and what I saw as Scott Glenn's dumb hero lines, notably "If you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything" (the origin of which has been credited to many historical figures, including Malcolm X, General Patton, and Alexander Hamilton). But I think they're *intended* to be awkward and somewhat meaningless. If you watch the film, you'll notice that his mentor advice is always two-fold. The first bit is the dumb hero line, the second (preceded by "oh, and one more thing") is actually useful information for whatever task the girls are trying to accomplish. I thought it was kind of poking fun at other movies/stories that use that kind of dialogue much more earnestly.

Mr. Beaks of AICN wrote a fairly thoughtful (though still very critical) review in which he proposes the idea that Snyder is criticizing the fetishization of sexy, scantily clad, fighting female badasses. I'm not sure how confident I am about it being a critique, but I don't think it's an accident that Baby Doll is made up to look eerily like Sailor Moon.

Nor do I think it's an accident that the logos for the two works are so similar.

As disappointing as the movie is on so many levels, though, I still really dug it. I'd much rather see an ambitious failure, where I'm certain that everyone involved believes in the story they're telling and are having a good time telling it, than a lazy cash grab. Perhaps this is why I have an unusually rosy response to the Harry Potter films (not that I think those are failures AT ALL, though some of you may). It puts a grin on my face to see David Heyman and his posse trying (and yes, usually failing) to do Rowling one better. They REALLY want those movies to be good. You can feel it (or at least I can), and that's pretty intoxicating to watch (again, for me, at least). And I can tell how much Zack Snyder wants Sucker Punch to be good, which is why, even though it's mostly a mess, I respect it and I respect the effort. [NOTE: I hope no one thinks I'm comparing this movie to the HP films, by the way. I AM NOT, BY ANY MEANS.]

If you're wondering whether you should check this out ... I honestly don't know what to tell you. If you're intrigued by what I described of the plot above, I'd say it's at least worth a matinee. I personally think it's worth seeing for the pretty stunning visuals of the "third reality" alone, especially (OMG!) the "bomb on the train" sequence. There's some good music on display, too, but it's kind of wasted. But if you decide to see it, don't make the mistake I did. This is NOT a 3D movie, and there are theaters posing as IMAXes that are NOT IMAX. It probably looks great on an IMAX screen, but it looks good on a regular (or slightly larger) screen too.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Final Girl Film Club - Blood and Roses

This month's Final Girl Film Club pick is Roger Vadim's vastly under-appreciated Blood and Roses. If you remember the series I did a couple of years ago on vampire movies, you might remember the well-established trope of the lesbian vampire, originating from Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu's short novel Carmilla. Carmilla the novel actually pre-dates Stoker's Dracula by about 25 years and there have been several interpretations of it, either literal retellings of the story or other tales that follow the female vampire trope with varying degrees of lesbian subtext (and often plain text). Perhaps the best known and most faithful adaptation is The Vampire Lovers (1970), part of Hammer Horror's Karnstein Trilogy. I'm quite fond of that one, but I do believe I like Blood and Roses even more.

Blood and Roses (1960)

The story begins on an airplane - a setting far removed from the 18th century trappings of the original novel. We hear some vague drivel in voice over about the spirit world, and there's no explanation as yet for why a vampire who has been alive for hundreds of years is flying the friendly skies. We travel to Italy, to a branch of the Karnstein estate. A count, Leopoldo, is about to be married and he's consulting a pyrotechnics expert to design a fireworks show for his engagement party. The fireworks expert has found the perfect spot for the spectacle - the abbey on the estate. This causes some concerned looks from several people in the room, because this is where the old Karnstein cemetery used to be. Thankfully, all the tombs have been empty for a couple of centuries, but this leads to some half-amused/half-serious discussion of the old Karnstein vampire legend.

Leopoldo's cousin, Carmilla, tells the story of her ancestor Millarca (anagrams yay!), who died the night before her wedding in the arms of her lover Ludwig, who swore eternal faithfulness. There is a clear parallel between Carmilla and Millarca and, in turn, between Leopoldo and Ludwig. Leopoldo is marrying a young woman named Georgia, though, and it's clear from the start that Carmilla is jealous. At the engagement party, Carmilla sulks and drinks in her room but eventually joins the party at Leopoldo's infuriated insistence. After a few moments at the party, however, she wanders off again, toward the cemetery. Some unexpected explosions from the fireworks display open Millarca's tomb, and voila - Carmilla is dead, her spirit replaced by that of the sleeping vampiress.

I'd only ever seen one other of Vadim's films, Pretty Maids All in a Row, but I knew enough about Vadim as a filmmaker to be aware of his reputation for sensuality. This seems more restrained than I'd have expected from him, but it still manages to have definite erotic undertones with little winks of partial nudity and, of course, the lesbian subtext which is not as overt as in The Vampire Lovers but is certainly still there. In particular, I have to love Leopoldo's strangely gleeful expression as his fiancee undresses the unconscious Carmilla. See something you like there, dude?

I really, really dug this film. The look is very dreamlike, and a lot of credit must go to Annette Vadim (who plays Carmilla/Millarca) for giving the film its melancholy soul. The highlight of the film, though, is a surreal sequence where Millarca seduces Georgia and enters her subconscious. Wonderfully bizarre stuff and quite ahead of its time. And man, I love the ending.

Great movie. Thanks to Final Girl for picking it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

With March upon us, the winter "take out the trash" season is mostly in the past and it's time to get back into the groove. I saw three new movies this weekend, all of which are worth talking about.


Our story begins with a four-bird mariachi band (!!!!) and their hilariously on-the-nose lyrics which give us a series of signposts through the story. Johnny Depp gives voice to a lizard who's spent his whole life in a dry aquarium, his only friends a plastic fish and a naked Barbie doll with no head or legs. He keeps himself amused by staging theatricals, but he seems completely unaware that his tank is in the back of a pickup truck and that said truck is moving him and the rest of his owner's belongings to presumably a new home. One severe bump in the road, however, and the tank goes flying. Soon our not-yet-Rango is taking advice from a run-over armadillo and heading out across the desert to a town called Dirt, where he is told he can find water.

What follows reminded me quite a bit of The Three Amigos, actually. Rango is a character whose entire life has revolved around making things up to keep himself amused. He's an excellent improvisor, which comes in handy in the beginning, but he hasn't had the opportunity for real life lessons, and he certainly has never been put to any kind of test as far as his bravery or moral code might be concerned.

This movie is an utter delight, with some really unique-looking and photo-real animation. It's probably not what you're expecting, and that's a very good thing. It's a western, plain and simple, and the look is very much The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (especially the creatures who are all pretty salty characters). It isn't the least bit cutesy, as you could probably tell from the ads, but what you might not know is that there's a sauciness that will sail over kids' heads and hit adults in their giggle spots. Just to give you an idea of the kind of thing the movie gets away with, in the first scene of the film, our hero makes a breast implant joke. Oh yes. This has the audacity and nudge-nudge-wink-wink that the original Shrek had, only it goes a bit farther.

Voice talent is really exceptional here, and the best part is that, except for Johnny Depp and Bill Nighy, whose voices you could not mistake if you tried, you can't really tell who's who. These aren't characters built on a particular actor's gifts, these are original characters played by actors who don't want you to know who's behind the microphone. One of the most impressive moments for me was the appearance of The Spirit of the West, which you would swear up and down is the voice of exactly who it looks like on screen but is in actuality Justified's Timothy Olyphant.

I really loved this, and I think it would appeal to most moviegoers, but especially those of you who like westerns.

The Adjustment Bureau

This was much better than I expected, mostly because of how great Matt Damon and Emily Blunt are. The concept is interesting and very sci-fi - what if our lives were designed to follow a certain plan and there were people whose job it was to make sure we stayed on that plan? Damon Lindelof (formerly of LOST fame) recently compared it to the Desmond/Penny storyline on LOST, and that's pretty accurate. I don't want to give too much away. If you've seen the trailer and the ads you know enough about the premise.

It seems weird to talk about this as if it's something revolutionary, but it was refreshing to see a movie with some actual characterization, with people in it that you care about. This is not a movie that expects us to root for people just because they're played by pretty actors and, well, we're just supposed to care. David and Elise feel like real people with real issues, and I loved that. I also loved that there was some thought behind not just *why* everyone in the "bureau" was so desperate to keep them apart, but what it was about each of them that, when put together, was bad for the other person (in the eyes of the Plan).

Some of the philosophizing was a bit ponderous at times, such as the whole speech about what happened on the two occasions that the organization stepped back and let people make their own decisions, without any adjustments. (Not to mention the fact that the premise starts to fall apart if you think about it too much.) Actor-wise, I was also disappointed by Anthony Mackie, whose heart didn't seem to be in this movie. I hope all this doesn't sound like I hated the movie, because I definitely didn't. It works very well as a romance and mostly well as a sci-fi story. Above all, it's an engaging and entertaining movie, anchored by two good performances. I was also glad to discover that there was a reason for Matt Damon to be wearing that hat in all the trailers. :P

On a more trivial note, there are loads of cameos in this from political/news figures, like Jon Stewart and Mayor Bloomberg.

I Saw the Devil

Expectations were pretty high going into this, after hearing one critic compare it to The Silence of the Lambs. Disappointment, therefore, was inevitable. This is straight up horror, and certainly not the kind most of you reading this would be into. It's even a bit too much for me, but there were elements that I did like.

Basic story. A young woman is waiting for a tow truck when she is beaten nearly to death, kidnapped, then brutally murdered by a maniac who proceeds to chop her into pieces, despite her pleas for her life and the life of her unborn child. And that's just the first ten minutes. Bad luck for our murderer that his latest victim was the daughter of a retired and venerated police chief and the fiancee of a secret agent (though not that secret, since several people in the film seem to know what he does). Secret Agent Man vows revenge, but can't bring himself to strike a fatal blow. So he catches up to the killer repeatedly, inflicts painful wounds, and repeatedly lets the killer go, swearing that he's going to keep coming and that the attacks are going to get worse.

Over the course of the story, we're supposed to be getting the impression that Secret Agent Man is becoming a monster just like the man he's hunting. But I'm afraid I just could not get behind that idea. The killer is so disgusting and abominable that I was cheering for Secret Agent Man throughout. There are some interesting notions, I suppose, about how useful revenge is and who really comes out the winner in this scenario. There's also something to be said here about the illogical nature of engaging oneself in a battle of wills with a soulless maniac who can hurt you far more effectively than you can hurt him. But the movie doesn't lean on either of those ideas as much as it does the "who's the real monster" thing. And the movie's biggest problem for me is that this question is not nearly as ambiguous as the movie would like it to be. Spoiler Alert - the serial killer is the monster. There is no doubt in my mind about that.

This movie sort of piggybacks on Chan-Wook Park's vengeance trilogy (the killer is even played by the star of Park's Oldboy), but doesn't explore the idea of revenge quite as thoughtfully, in my opinion. And while the camera work, music, and acting are all top notch, there are some things I found incredibly difficult to watch, and not in a good way. There's a "dinner" scene in particular that exploits the horror of cannibalism beyond the bounds of decency, even for shock cinema. I never thought I'd find myself longing for the delicate sensibilities of Serbian cinema.

Next week brings us another good cinematic haul - notably Jane Eyre (!), Battle: Los Angeles, and Red Riding Hood.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Scenes Made of Awesome - Out of Sight

In honor of this movie's Blu-Ray release today, I thought I'd give a shout-out to one of my favorite love scenes of all time. George Clooney was still best known for being Dr. Ross on E.R. Jennifer Lopez was still an actress, and her "J.Lo" days were a few years away. And director Steven Soderbergh was still an indie guy, a few years away from the critical success of Traffic and the commercial successes of his Ocean's movies.

In the 1998 film Out of Sight, Clooney plays Jack Foley, a bank robber, and Lopez plays Karen Sisco, a U.S. Marshal. They have a connection while sharing the trunk of a car after one of Foley's escape attempts, and Sisco pursues Foley as a U.S. Marshal pursuing a criminal, but she may have other motives as well. Foley tracks her down in a Detroit hotel, and what follows is this scene, where they try and figure out how to explore their attraction to one another.

The editing in this scene is where the magic is, taking the scene in the bar and the scene in the bedroom and weaving them together. I compared it once to the love scene in Don't Look Now, and apparently Soderbergh did style his scene after that one. The sense I get from Foley and Sisco in this scene is that, despite the difficulties their prospective careers pose to any kind of relationship, there's an inevitability about their being together, however briefly. They're sitting there talking, but it's as if they're already in bed together.