Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

Zack Snyder’s latest film, Sucker Punch, at first glance appears to be a culmination of everything the director has been fascinated with over the years. At its heart, it aspires to be the ultimate geek movie: there are sinister mental hospitals, blurred lines between reality and fantasy, robots, steam-powered zombie Germans, dragons, orcs, interstellar landscapes, and gun-toting girls in fetish gear. This gives the film a this-is-so-cool aesthetic, as if Snyder’s doodles from his 10th grade math notebook have come to life as a blockbuster. This is the film’s blessing and curse: like a doodle, it’s fun to look at, but the various parts are nothing more than a series of disconnected sketches that never add up.

The movie concerns the story of Baby Doll (Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events’ Emily Browning), who’s locked up in a mental hospital by her alcoholic stepfather after an unfortunate tragedy. The hospital’s caretaker, Blue (Oscar Isaac), runs a caberet/brothel out of the hospital with the patients as his girls, with the assistance of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). It is here that Baby Doll meets Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), who together conspire to break out of the hospital through a combination of theft and Baby Doll’s fantasy-driven, “raw” dancing that mesmerizes everyone.

If the plot didn’t make much sense in the previous paragraph, seeing it in action on the big screen only exacerbates the confusion. Snyder and co-writer Steve Shibuya spend very little time developing characters or creating any sense of coherency, instead opting to lay down information through exposition so that the big fantasy sequences can happen. And to the movie’s credit, those sequences are the best part, bursting with giddy thrills and exciting visuals (proven once again to be Snyder’s forte) that appeal directly to the inner nerd. In fact, in this respect the film seems to have been made exclusively for the Comic-Con set, an elaborate cosplay come to life, and no doubt that audience will find the film thrilling. Also to the film’s benefit is its excellent soundtrack, consisting of industrial covers of classic rock songs such as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” or Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” However, the characters are so paper-thin or grossly unlikable that it’s hard to make an attachment to any of them.

This point in particular brings up an aspect of the film that’s actually offensive, at least to me. In interviews and promotional material for the film, Snyder has said that his goal was to create a film about butt-kicking women that doesn’t objectify them, therefore providing a positive, almost-feminist message of women’s empowerment. If these were indeed Snyder’s intentions, he has failed miserably at translating them to the final product. The film is rife with misogyny, most of which I can’t give away without spoiling, and though Snyder’s camera never ogles the girls, he does more or less dress them in bondage gear for most of the film, and doesn’t bother to layer them with distinguished, deep personalities. Supposedly, the original title of Steig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo translated into English as “men who hate women;” the same could be said about pretty much all of the male characters here. There's not a single redeemable male character here, as all of them are either thirsting to do leer and abuse women or inadvertently do so, despite questionably better attention. It takes the idea of "men-are-pigs" and takes it to the extreme; no doubt there may be some out there who agree with this point of view, but surely there could've been one other male character (apart from Scott Gleen's Miyagi-like Wise Man) that was interested in helping the girls. There’s no feminism or women’s empowerment to be seen here at all; if you’re looking for that kind of action film, I highly recommend Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, which obviously served as an inspiration to this film - just watch the first fantasy sequence and tell me some of the visual motifs there aren't strikingly similar to the Bride's showdown with O-Ren Ishii. (Another of Sucker Punch’s biggest sins: largely wasting the effortlessly talented Jon Hamm in the miniscule role of the High Roller.)

The film did force me into an unexpected philosophical problem, surprisingly. I as the screening rolled on, I became more and more disgusted at the sexism that runs rampant through the film. This is not uncommon for me; just about any given romantic comedy (but especially The Ugly Truth) can rouse this in me. However, the addition of the abhorrent misogyny drew my ire as well, and I've held it against the film ever since. Then a thought came to me: here I am, chastising one film for its brutal treatment of women, while I praise a film such as Antichrist or, to a much lesser extent, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the same reason. It's a contradictory opinion, and there are more than enough of those in film criticism. I eventually came up with a justification for this: there's nothing wrong with portraying this sort of thing on screen, Sucker Punch does so with a giant grin, letting it happen with a slapped-on punishment that doesn't really punish the men involved, and then has the gall to call it "women's empowerment." Antichrist was meant to be misogynistic and had no qualms about being so, with no feminist intents at all, while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo does go overboard but is anchored by a strong, independent woman in Lisbeth Salander, a well-rounded and deeply layered character that makes you cheer when she gets her revenge. Sucker Punch misses this mark completely. 

Sucker Punch strives very hard to be the ultimate “awesome!” movie, one that directly appeals to the pleasures of fantasy and hopes to be a cinematic daydream. Unfortunately, it’s a largely messy, undercooked, misogynistic exercise in filmmaking folly, a disappointing film that had the potential to be like nothing else. If nothing else, one thing is made certain: the film’s fantasy is far more appealing than its dreadful reality in every sense.

***I've written a shorter piece about the film for the online magazine dans la tete, which you can access through the link (it will take you to the February issue, which is the most recent at the time of publishing). Be sure to check out this great submission-based arts magazine!***

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

An Update

I apologize for not posting much in the past week. Things have gotten very busy for me lately, and in my spare time I've been watching a lot of this:

and this:

Anyway, I'll hopefully be posting more in the future, including reviews of Dreamgirls, Sucker Punch (well, a kind of review), and a new volume of Radio Daze featuring Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Cee-Lo Green, and the cast of Glee. So stay tuned!

It's Official....

I am in love with this poster, and I can't wait for this movie to finally come out this year (knock on wood).

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

RIP Elizabeth Taylor


A great actress has unfortunately left us this morning. Taylor is probably most famous for her volatile marriage to Richard Burton and the 1963 flop Cleopatra, but I'll always remember her for her Maggie's sweltering sexuality with Paul Newman's Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as her booze-soaked Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the best performance of her career, in my opinion. She earned five Oscar nominations over her career, winning two: Best Actress in 1960 for Butterfield 8 and the same category in 1966 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. She'll be missed.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

When Battle: Los Angeles premiered two weeks ago, critics went into a frenzy to see who could say the worst thing about the movie.  A pair of awesome trailers had me excited about the film, so much so that it took the #4 spot on my 2011 Most Anticipated List. But I acknowledged that the film would more likely than not be as good as I was hoping. And while its certainly far from being a masterpiece, and not even a good movie, it wasn't the end-of-cinema event that it was made out to be.

The film is about a global alien invasion, but only focuses on the attack on Los Angeles. Staff Sergeant Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), intent on retire, is asked to lead a group of Marines as they evacuate the city as meteors begin to make landfall. But when the meteors bring in alien invaders launching heavy firepower, the mission turns into something much, much more difficult: they're tasked with rescuing civilians left behind enemy lines before Santa Monica is bombed out of existence. This means going head-to-head with the aliens, and since several American cities have already fallen, its up to them to make sure Los Angeles survives.

Battle: Los Angeles has an interesting pitch, combining the war movie and alien invasion genres to create an exciting hybrid film that, as its most often described, is like Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day. Unfortunately, the film has three fatal flaws that keep it from rising above mediocrity. The first is that the characters are generic military stereotypes, with no real personalities or even anything interesting about them at all. Even though their names appear on the screen, they're all instantly forgettable, to the point where within 20 minutes into the film I had completely lost track of who's who. The second problem is that the aliens themselves are boring, suits of metal plating over generic alien bodies. Movies like this, both war films and alien invasion flicks, need a distinguished enemy, but Battle: LA just doesn't deliver that. The biggest problem, though, is that the hybrid plot manifests as nothing more than a collection of cliches: heroic efforts are made, stirring speeches delivered, bombastic strings that are patriotic and emotional, no-man-left-behind. The story never becomes coherent, and worse, it never forges its own identity: the film is simply a collage of other, better movies from both genres.

There are some good things about Battle: LA, though. The fight sequences are generally exciting, with director Jonathan Liebsman best utilizing the handheld-camera technique to recreate the chaos and confusion of battle. Its also really refreshing to see an alien invasion film that doesn't feature the destruction of any major monuments: if the Hollywood sign, Capitol Records building, or anything in any other city in the world was destroyed, we don't ever see it. In fact, the closest we come is a brief shot of the Santa Monica Pier on fire. There are also no Presidents, no ordinary civilians falling in love with reporters, no scientists ranting about how we should have seen this coming. And in that respect, Battle: LA should be celebrated. Maybe someone else will take this approach, but make a better movie of it.

Overall, Battle: LA is a film born from an idea worth exploring, but unfortunately is poorly executed. Hopefully it will provide a great lesson for some other filmmaker who's bold enough to give the idea a second chance.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Tween Phenoms Evaluated

With Twilight coming to a close soon and The Hunger Games starting production in the fall, I think its time to take a look at how far we've come since the phenomenon hit the big screen in 2008. This was inspired by Vanity Fair's new cover story about Robert Pattinson, who'll be appearing next month alongside Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz in Water for Elephants. Before we begin, I would like to say regarding the latter film that I do think Jennifer Lawrence is too old to be playing teenage Katniss in The Hunger Games, but if Jake Gyllenhaal can be Persian, then why not? I don't know much about this series, but I look forward to finding out in the coming months.

Robert Pattinson

He's become synonomous with his role as Edward Cullen in the Twilight films, and as the Vanity Fair article suggests, he's none too excited about that. He's been trying to branch out, though, but his first attempt, Remember Me, was a critical and commercial flop. Water for Elephants, on the other hand, will have a built-in audience in fans of Sara Guren's novel, and he'll be surrounded by terrific actors and the director of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video, Francis Lawrence (he also directed Constantine and I Am Legend, but those pale in comparison). Personally, I've only seen Pattinson in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and New Moon, and I wasn't particularly impressed by either. That being said, he is at least trying to avoid being typecast, so that kind of self-awareness is promising. Pattinson may be the kind of actor who just needs the right roles to showcase his chops; maybe he'll surprise us in Water for Elephants or David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis?

Kristen Stewart

Stewart is the cream of the crop of the Twilight main trio. In the role of Bella, she's wasting her talents, though anybody would in that role (Bella is supposed to be bland so that, in the books, readers can see themselves as Bella and live the fantasy of having two hot men fight over her, which is, in my opinion at least, how the books became so popular. Therefore in the film version of the books the actress playing Bella would have to act boring and flavorless so as not to distract from the gawking at hot men.). However, if you want proof that Stewart can act, look no further than her fiery performance as Joan Jett in The Runaways. Or at her more subdued turn in Into the Wild. Hell, just watch Adventureland to see that she really can be an interesting love interest. Stewart seems to be doing the same as Pattinson, trying out different roles in an attempt to avoid the dreaded pigeonhole. She's stuck with independent filmmakers mostly, so they're not huge moneymakers, but she's getting the street cred she'll need to work after Twilight.

Taylor Lautner

Lautner, unfortunately, gets the distinction of being the least interesting of the group. His previous credentials include Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3D, as well as an SNL appearance that was stiff, boring, and generally uninspiring. However, he's also the one that Hollywood is most gaga over. He's proven he's not much of an actor, but he seems to be the Ashton Kutcher type: despite his lack of talent, he's attractive enough to women to have a strong career. He's been offered several action movies (read: movies that allow him to be shirtless), including Peter Berg's board-game-adaptation Battleship alongside Rihanna (what does that tell you?). Interestingly enough, though he may be the worst actor of the bunch, he'll likely be the most successful. Welcome to Hollywood.

What are your thoughts on these three's futures?

Paul (2011)

What, exactly, is Paul? This is the question posited on all of Paul's promotional material. The answer of what is Paul, the character, is much easier to answer than what is Paul, the movie.

The film tells the story of two British sci-fi nerds (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also wrote the script) who come to San Diego to attend Comic-Con. After the main event, they decide to go on a road trip across the American West to visit all of the "UFO hotspots,"  hoping for a good time and hopefully catching a glimpse at a UFO themselves. Instead, they come across Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), an alien on the run from the government that's kept him captive since he landed here in the 1940s. Its up to these two to help Paul get to his ultimate destination, but not without being chased by government agents and kidnapping a Christian fundamentalist (more on that later).

So what is Paul? He's probably the most well-defined character in the film, a creation that's both visually impressive and layered enough to not be a shallow caricature. Rogen, who is not known for his multi-dimensional characters, surprisingly inflects a sense of world-weariness into his stoner-alien's voice, making him sound like an old mystic with a puckish side, like The Lion King's Rafiki voiced by Tommy Chong. Unfortunately, he's the only interesting character in this whole film: Pegg and Frost play broad, Jason Bateman, as a government agent, gets little to do, and Blythe Danner and Sigourney Weaver are largely wasted in their precious-little screen time. Then there's Kristen Wiig, the aforementioned fundamentalist who's biggest joke is that she now swears.

The plot is weak in execution, but one thing that does help salvage the film is its heavy nerd-humor. A nod to Aliens here, some Predator there, and a clever musical cue to Star Wars goes a long way, and I enjoyed the various in-jokes about Comic-Con as well (the rest of the audience at my advanced screening, however, were unmoved by this, laughing at the broader jokes instead, if at all). In the end, though, the film isn't entirely sure of what it is. It tries hard to be both an buddy comedy and a stoner flick, but it never really coalesces as either. And for some reason, Pegg and Frost felt it was necessary to shoe-horn a pro-evolution, anti-religion message that doesn't fit in the film at all. Its an odd note that prevents the film from being a decent attempt at a sci-fi comedy for everyone, instead ensuring the film is a non-congealed mess.

Paul has its laughs, but it ultimately falls short of being great. There's a lot of very good parts here, but they never add up to a whole.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

And By the Way....

Happy St. Patrick's Day, courtesy of a few famous Irish actors. Enjoy!

Daniel Day-Lewis (dual British and Irish citizenship) (There Will Be Blood)

Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot)

Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges)

Colin Farrell (Alexander)

Saoirse Ronan (Atonement)

Kerry Condon (The Last Station)

Barry Fitzgerald (1888-1961) (Going My Way)

Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia)

Maureen O'Hara (The Quiet Man)

Liam Neeson (Schindler's List)

Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds)