Monthly Archives: March 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

Director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) has been drubbed in many circles for being an empty visual stylist, someone in the Michael Bay camp that worships at the altar of style. Snyder is a nearly unparalleled visual stylist. If only he would use his considerable talents for the purposes of good. I’m not a Snyder basher by trade, and have enjoyed all three of his previous films to some extent, but it’s obvious that Snyder spends much of his time scribbling down imagery he thinks will be cool, and then figuring out how to connect it all at the last minute. So Sucker Punch gives us a bevy of highly stylized, anime-influenced imagery complete with a posse of full-lipped ladies with heavy fake eyelashes operating heavy weaponry in fetish-style clothing. If you were expecting much else, then you’re the one who’s been suckered.

Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is a 20-year-old sent to live the rest of her days locked away inside a dilapidated mental ward thanks to her wicked stepfather. He even makes arrangements with a dastardly orderly (Oscar Isaac) to lobotomize Baby Doll to shut her up for good. Then step dad can swindle the family estate for all its worth. While in this asylum, Baby Doll imagines she’s inside a different world to survive. Her fantasies offer her a world to escape to. Inside, she plots with a group of other patients, including Rocket (Jena Malone), her feisty take-charge sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). Together, along with the sage advice from a mysterious mentor (Scott Glenn) in her visions, they will collect four items to secure their escape. But time is of the essence. The lobotomy doctor, known as the “High Roller” in the fantasy (played in a major surprise by Mad Men‘s Jon Hamm), is scheduled to come do his needle through the brain trick in a matter of days. It’s up to Baby Doll to utilize the therapeutic techniques of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) and retreat into her mind to find the key to save herself.

You can tell Snyder was trying to crowbar in a meek message about female empowerment, but I ask you: is it female empowerment when the women have to be reduced to pretty play things that still operate in the realm of male fantasy? Just because women fight back does not mean that you are presenting a feminist message. Baby Doll’s mode of power is erotic dancing? And her main outfit looks like a grown replica of Sailor Moon’s, which should be a dream come true for just about every male fan of the animated series. You think having characters in short skirts and names like “Baby Doll,” “Sweet Pea,” and Sucker Punch is no more about female empowerment than some ridiculous women’s prison movie where they all fall into long lesbian-tinged shower sequences. That’s female empowerment, right? It’s got women loving women, so what could be more empowering to women?

After Sndyer’s kitchen sink approach to storytelling, the one thing that Sucker Punch lacks, in abundance, is sense. There is no real connective tissue to anything happening onscreen. Snyder employs two different framing devices before slipping into the metaphorical delusions of a third. I felt like I was tumbling through the Inception dream levels without a roadmap or a competent guide. Considering that the first framing device, Baby Doll being locked away in a mental ward, is only featured onscreen for ten minutes, Snyder could have exercised the bit completely. The second framing device, that Baby Doll has imagined her institutionalized imprisonment into a vaguely 1920s-esque burlesque theater/brothel seems just as unnecessary, but whatever. But it’s the third metaphorical level that gave me a headache (more on that later). The premise alone, girls use fantastic imagination to escape from a cruel prison, is good enough to tell a compelling tale. But there desperately needs to be a connection to those images, a relationship between the fantasy and the movie’s reality. In Sucker Punch, there is no substantial relationship to anything. It is a barrage of images meant to arouse and entertain but little more. The different metaphorical levels are only metaphors for, well, hot girls kicking ass, which isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a literal translation. And when the girls are at play in those fantasy sequences, the movie drops all pretenses of any purpose. It’s not just reality defying, which is what movies were meant for, but it defies its own narrative. If I can just cram whatever cool junk I want then what purpose do I even need to set up characters or develop a plot. When the ladies are off on their fantasy tours, they’re invincible and no law of physics, or man, applies to them. It zaps all danger from the screen, and with that, all tension. They all become superheroes who just run around doing super heroic things. And I might have cared if I felt there was any real purpose for what I was watching other than Snyder wanting to scratch a few cinematic itches.

The girls’ quest to attain their needed items for escape is laid out in the most shockingly lazy manner. Snyder uses the power of dance, yes dance; you see, when Baby Doll starts movin’ them hips of hers, she plunges into a fantasy world of her own doing. And then we witness all sorts of crazy things, and she returns back from the fantasy and the mission is complete. The girls have stolen whatever item they were after. I was expecting the fantasy binges to have some direct correlation with the makeup of their world, so that, say, if they have to cross a massive bridge to gain their item, in the brothel they have to cross some massive barrier. It’s the height of indolence for Snyder to simply type “character dances” and then we get an indulgent fantasy sequence and the job is done. We don’t see the steps the girls had to do to win their freedom, the relationships between fantasy and reality, or any clever plotting along the way. There’s no cleverness at all to be had. The fantasy is not just an escape for the characters; it’s an escape from having to do any thinking when it came to storytelling. Imagine what would happen to other works of cinema if they followed this same approach. Why watch the back-and-forth arguments of a courtroom thriller when we could just have “prosecutor dances” and cut to the case being over? Or why bother watching the complicated struggles of a relationship drama when we can have “guy dances” and just cut right to the shot of the camera spinning around the couple kissing? It’s like a fast forward button that eliminates all plot development. Isn’t that much more satisfying? What, you mean it isn’t because it’s a self-indulgent diversion that has no connection to the main storyline and fails to add anything?

I think ultimately Snyder just really wanted to make the most expensive music video of all time. The dialogue is clipped and kept to a minimum, mostly of the expository “you need to do this now” variety. There are long stretches of full-length musical interludes by Tyler Bates (300) and Marius De Vries (Moulin Rouge). The duo orchestrates some uninspiring fuzzy alt covers of alt songs, so familiar tunes like Bjork’s “Army of Me” and the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind?” get a polish they didn’t need (how many times is that Pixies song going to be covered?). Worst of all is a bizarre mash up of Queen’s “I Want It All” and “We Will Rock You” with a rap track. And of course no film that aimed to ape the tropes of Alice in Wonderland would be complete without some version of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” this time covered by talented Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini. The entire musical oeuvre is a bunch of distorted, loud, blaring guitars meant to amplify the visual noise.

Sucker Punch is not so hot in the acting department. Browning doesn’t particularly act well in the movie, but then again nobody does, especially Gugino’s awful accent. But this isn’t a film about acting so much as it’s looking the part. And Browning is a geek fantasy come to life, samurai swords, pigtails and all. She makes for a great moving poster.

Expect nothing more from Sucker Punch than top-of-the-line eye candy. Expect nothing to make sense. Expect nothing to really matter. In fact, go in expecting nothing but a two-hour ogling session, because that’s the aim of the film. Look at all those shiny things and pretty ladies, gentlemen. This is the perfect film for a 13-year-old kid fed on anime, comic books, and horror films and who don’t give a lick about things like plot, character, or substance. It’s like somebody combined One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with every single damn videogame cut scene in the history of time. I was waiting for the next dance/trance sequence where Baby Doll was going to start jumping on turtles and collecting coins. It’s a series of vignettes that have no connection whatsoever. Sucker Punch is really a live-action Heavy Metal, except with even less plot. This isn’t a fairy tale. This is a meth-fueled explosion of a Hot Topic store, captured in Snyder’s signature slow motion. Everyone is entitled to their own fantasies but not everyone gets a $100 million dollar check to throw them all together on screen.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Megamind (2010)

You’ve seen this movie before, and pretty recently too given in the influx of superhero tales in the last decade. Megamind recycles heavily from numerous other super forbears, and yet this animated tale about a tired hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) and his inept nemesis (Will Ferrell). While it’s never as funny as its premise and cast should make it, the movie does pack a lot of fun and even a little bit of heart. The action sequences are inventive enough and the movie has a tone that drifts from sincere to self-conscious satire, while never settling down but doing enough right not to inflame your sense of irritation. The concepts of identity, good and evil, the duality of man, striking a life for your own… they’re all here. It’s a sloppy message that feels copied out of a plot playbook. Ferrell is funny but a bit more restrained than I like him. I think he works best when he cranks up his absurdist tendencies with a jolt of enthusiasm. Megamind doesn’t come close to approaching the magic, thrills, and emotions of How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s still many ways better than stuff like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale. It’s overly familiar story given a super spit shine.

Nate’s Grade: B

Dinner with Schmucks (2010)

Oh man was this thing just painfully unfunny on all levels. It’s an American remake of a fairly funny French film and it stars Steve Carrell and Paul Rudd, two actors that have to work really hard not to be funny. Well they found a way. Talk about a bunch of schmucks. Every single character is a world-class idiot that behaves in a manner that 1) isn’t remotely relatable and 2) isn’t funny. It’s all yelling and raised eyebrows and exclamation points in place of setups and payoffs. Even worse, it tries to force a horrendously false saccharine feel-good message, a comedic “believe in yourself” sort of moralizing that says, “They aren’t the freaks, we are.” No, you all are freaks. The film confuses situations that are weird, uncomfortable, and just plain unlikely with comedy, which doesn’t work without some careful context and setup. Watching this nonstop leaden buffoonery makes you hang your head and sigh. This makes Three’s Company look like enlightened comedy. The movie also features Jeff Dunham doing his wacky puppets. This cinematic stick in the eye comes across as an obnoxiously unyielding comedy that doesn’t know when to stop, how to start, or what to do in between.

Nate’s Grade: C-

The Tillman Story (2010)

Perhaps better than any movie I’ve ever seen, the searing documentary The Tillman Story explores the nature of shared grief and whether a family is even entitled to privacy when the world feels like it has a shared pain in their loss. This documentary focuses on former NFL star Pat Tillman who enlisted in the Army Rangers in 2002 and was killed in 2004 in the mountains of Afghanistan. He was hailed as a hero of battle, saving his men from enemy ambush, but the truth was really far less sensational but just as damaging. Tillman was killed by friendly fire, a fact the Army admitted only with their backs against the wall. Tillman was their most famous soldier and became a recruiting poster for the post-9/11 armed forces. The doc recounts Tillman’s family struggling to get a straight answer from Army officials and government goons who felt the truth could not compare to a good story. While recreating the events that lead to Tillman’s death in a mostly commanding manner, the doc’s real draw is exploring the idea of a family who has had their private mourning torn away, who are trotted around the nation to events memorializing their son, turning him into whatever symbol best serves personal agendas (conservative pundits are seen in stubborn disbelief when it comes to processing the news that Tillman read Noam Chomsky, thought the Iraq War was illegal, and was going to vote for John Kerry in 2004). What gets lost in all that patriotic maneuvering is a complicated man who didn’t want to become a myth.

Nate’s Grade: B

Piranha 3D (2010)

Truly missing out on seeing Piranha (as its home release now calls it) in 3-D will be one of my life’s greatest disappointments. This boobs-and-blood-soaked ode to 80s exploitation horror has its tongue firmly clenched in cheek. This is a gleeful gorefest that plays many of its absurd elements for laughs while squeezing in gratuitous nudity at every turn. There’s an underwater lesbian synchronized swimming sequence that I’m utterly certain would have been the greatest thing to witness in the third dimension. Regardless, this Jaws rip-off (Richard Dreyfuss even shows up in the opening dressed identically to his character and named “Matt”!) plays like an ironic parody of the genre while still satiating its red meat-hungry target audience of teenage boys. To this point, it succeeds admirably. It is crass beyond belief and delivers exactly what it promises. Watching actors like Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Christopher Lloyd, and Jerry O’Connell ham it up alongside some fairly cheesy special effects critters, you never feel the waft of desperation. The movie ends too abruptly for my tastes, leaving too much open and unresolved for presumable sequels. As my friend Eric Muller said: “We watched a 3D movie in 2D that was really 1D.” While the movie is entirely one-dimensional in scope, that lone dimension is a blast. I know where I’m going to be when the rumored Piranha sequel is released. And this time, I’m seeing the campy carnage in 3D.

Nate’s Grade: B

Source Code (2011)

Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakes on a train. His mind has been transplanted into the body of Sean Fentress, a doomed train passenger. Fentress, along with 200 others, were killed in an explosion on a commuter train heading in to Chicago. But this has all happened in the past. Colter has been quantum leaped into a top secret government program known as the source code. It uses people’s brain waves to simulate a recorded reality. The last thing Colter can remember is a firefight in Afghanistan, and now he’s aboard a train looking for a mad bomber. Whatever info he can retrieve will help the officials (Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright) prevent a second terrorist bombing scheduled that day. Colter only has eight minutes to interact with the train passengers and deduce who the bomber is. After eight minutes, the train explodes and the reality resets itself again. Things get even more complicated when he falls for Fentress’ fetching female friend Christina (Michelle Mongahan). Can he save her? Can he save anyone? Can he get out of the source code?

Source Code manages to be a twisty, trippy little film that doesn’t so much knock you out but definitely packs a bit of a punch. Its simplicity is its very best asset. There’s a bomb on a train (ignore the questionable movie sci-fi physics). Colter has exactly eight minutes to learn what he can before he and everybody else blows up. Then the fun starts anew. The movie is less a time-travel flick than an alternate reality sort of experiment. Personally, I love movies that present a timeline and then slowly thumb away at the edges, stretching the narrative space, showing the audience the various intricacies of this tiny world. Whether it’s Pulp Fiction, Groundhog Day, or the propulsive fun of Run Lola Run, I enjoy a story that expands outward into a greater foundational complexity. I enjoy the clockwork of a story that shows me how the different pieces work together. I enjoy that through the variations I can experience a richer world, seeing what happens to a passenger as they leave the train, seeing how a character’s actions can impact another, seeing how altering that character’s action alters other forces in the story. That kind of narrative trickery, perfected in Groundhog Day, makes the story feel like a living creature because you witness the interconnected relationships of everything and everyone. It also makes it pretty fun to watch.

Director Duncan Jones makes slick use of tight spaces like he showcased in 2009’s celestial sci-fi thriller, Moon. The quick pacing and collective rhythm of the movie helps contribute to its entertainment factor. Source Code is playful enough in design and execution. It remains consistently clever with its plotting, but what’s really surprising is that Jones is able to find a personal human story inside all the thriller trappings. Colter is trying to make sense of his situation, but he’s also trying to reconcile the idea of life, death, fate, and getting to speak with his parents who assume he was killed in Afghanistan (he’s been with the source code project for over two months). There’s a human face to all this, and while the love story feels tacked on and underdeveloped, Colter’s emotional turmoil and existential struggles to reassert his identity and find some peace from his life ring true. Gyllenhaal (Prince of Persia) is an ever capable lead who takes a near Hitchcockian leading man role and plays it straight to fine effect.

At the same time, Source Code tries to have it all with an ending that I don’t truly believe it pulls off. Spoilers will lurk, so skip the next two paragraphs those who wish to remain pure and chaste. The film does a fairly nimble job of setting up an appropriate, if mostly downbeat, ending. Colter doesn’t want to be a brain in a box; he doesn’t want the government using him as their newest tool for the rest of his unnatural days. He was pulled from the brink of death and he now just wants to die in peace. In the recorded reality of the source code, he’s allowed the chance that most of us will never have – he can find closure. Whereas he would have died on a desert battlefield, now Colter has an opportunity to speak to his father one last time, to say goodbye. The entire denouement of Source Code seems to be establishing a memorial for the people who were lost on that train, because once the source code is erased so too will they be. They’re electronic recreations but in the end it reminds you that they were real people, and now they get something of a proper sendoff, a fairly touching memorial to the people who will just be seen as numbers in a news report.

And then… just as Colter makes peace with passing over, he passes over into another reality. The train doesn’t blow up. The people are able to get off. He gets to walk hand-in-hand with his new sweetheart. Jones doesn’t make it clear what really happens, which can lead to some mounting confusion. Did they really alter the past? Did they create a parallel dimension? In one dimension is everyone on the train dead whereas in another everyone lives, short of Sean Fentress? And how crappy is that? Yes, Gyllenhaal is a charming and terrific looking guy, but does no one shed a tear for the fact that he stole another man’s body? Sean Fentress may not have had the courage to ask out his pretty friend, but that doesn’t mean he deserved to have his identity hijacked and his existence more or less erased from time and space. It’s a weird blemish that the filmmakers don’t truly want to address, and why would they? The ending lacks commentary of any sort strictly because the movie wants to have it all. It wants the sad, mournful ending, it wants the happy “Everything’s gonna be okay” ending. It almost let’s you choose. But Source Code doesn’t come across so much as a film that begs to be opened for different interpretations so much as a film that didn’t want to upset anyone by picking an ending.

Source Code is nicely paced, nicely plotted, and it produces just as many intriguing questions as it does substantial thrills. Jones finds interesting ways to make the same material different. The various characters, converging storylines, and science-fiction mumbo jumbo are all nicely woven into a satisfying bite-sized sci-fi thriller. It fumbles with the landing, in my view; it seems like a pandering appeal to please every faction of the audience, or at least to confuse them with the illusion that they have gotten what they wanted. This is an intellectual sci-fi potboiler in disguise as a thriller. Roll with it, play along, don’t think too hard about the moral implications of its murky ending, and enjoy the ride.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Battle: Los Angeles (2011)

It’s just your typical sunny, Southern California day. Blue skies, good vibes, and aliens wiping out the indigenous species (read: us) for our bountiful resources. Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart), literally a morning away from retirement, is pulled back into combat to be apart of a Marine platoon that must hold up in the city and fight back against our otherworldly intruders.

Well there is a battle, and it is set in Los Angeles, but that’s about all you’re going to get from this movie. If you were looking for something approximating character, you’re looking in the wrong place. The characters are purely defined by one-note superficial differences, like this guy’s a doctor from Nigeria, this guy has a pregnant wife, this guy has… glasses, etc. The characters were so powerfully indistinct that there were three separate times that a person appeared onscreen and I said aloud, “Hey, I thought that guy died.” Battle: Los Angeles is a military movie, a grunts-eye-view to an alien invasion. And we keep that limiting POV for the entire movie. Battle: Los Angeles has more in common with Black Hawk Down than it does with Independence Day. Replace the depiction of angry, faceless Africans with aliens and there you go. We move from house to house, rubble-filled street after another, shooting wildly, barking commands, and trying to make sense of the urban battles. I’m doing the film too much of a favor because that makes it sound thrilling, which it is not. While there is plenty of action kept at a fairly frenetic pace, that action consistently stays at the same level of intensity. Nothing truly builds or develops to add extra levels of tension. The action is consistent, shooting through one neighborhood after the next, and when the action is plentiful but fails to develop, then the entire movie feels stagnant. Sure it develops from a “We have to go here now” assembly of plot dominoes, but advancing from one location to another with fewer characters each time is not the same as a plot.

These have got to be some of the dumbest aliens in the universe. These are the aliens that the other aliens pick on. Some scientist/exposition device pontificates that the aliens are after our water, which is a better reason than invading a planet to harvest our tasty brains (Skyline, I’m looking in your direction). The talking head says it’s a rarity to find a planet with liquid water and thus Earth is so attractive to outsiders. Okay, so you’re going to tell me that aliens lack the ability to take ice melt it? There’s an awful lot of ice in the universe that could be more easily obtained. That seems like a better solution than an interstellar road trip for a drink. The creature design is decidedly lacking as well. The aliens look like a cross between squids and a hardware store shelf; they have metallic weapons forged to their skin. At one point Nantz and his crew is dissecting an alien POW to look for vulnerable spots (this might violate some sort of treaty somewhere) and find a lone sack underneath about five layers of armor and exoskeleton. Then they relay the news about this “delicate” spot to all the troops and miraculously all of the aliens start to now go down easily by being shot at a great distance and having the bullets penetrate layers to hit one spot a half a foot in diameter on a moving target. Makes perfect sense now that they know. That info didn’t seem any more helpful than just blindly shooting at the area below the head, which was the previous method for killing. These alien spaceships look like someone attached rockets to the shantytowns from District 9. These ships look like something assembled over at a junkyard and I thought to myself, “You traveled through space in this heap?” It’s like an invasion from an impoverished alien race that also happens to be ignorant and uneducated, which might explain the whole coveting water thing. Battle: Los Angeles might secretly be a metaphor for class warfare. Or not. Probably not.

The movie transforms into a two-hour commercial for the Marines. Battle: Los Angeles espouses the selfless bravery and honor of our servicemen, which is commendable, but it should have been done in the ame of recognizable human characters. It does the honor of good men no justice when they are turned into statues. These aren’t people, they’re recruitment figures spouting poster slogans through gritted teeth. The valor turns just this side of jingoism, and that does a disservice to the sacrifice of the men and women of the armed services. It’s hard to watch Battle: Los Angeles and not come away with the impression that the Marines are superhuman badasses and let’s fight some aliens! What compounds this messy association is that the Marines have long featured TV ads where their square-jawed recruits battle fantastical monsters (I recall one of them being made of lava).

Director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, most famous for Jordana Brewster’s gravity-defying low-rise pants) is no great lensman. He gives shrift attention to the significance of geography in action composition, but he makes up in quantity what he lacks in quality. There is plenty of loud noises and the like, so you’ll be kept awake, that is until you heard the stilted dialogue and wish you could fall asleep. The film packs enough stuff into an overlong 110 minutes but it’s not terribly interesting stuff, which is saying something for an alien invasion movie.

Disappointingly, the movie makes no usage of its titular location. Los Angeles may be the battlefield in name, but this movie could have been set anywhere. It does not take advantage of any of the geographic features that are unique to Los Angeles, or even California. Why bother establishing a specific location in the title and premise when the execution means you could have set the story anywhere (Battle: Cleveland?). It’s a crumbling city; it could be Libya for all that matters. Some of this is likely due to the fact that the movie was almost entirely filmed in Louisiana, which seems like a rather unnatural double for Los Angeles pre and post-alien invasions.

Battle: Los Angeles is a studio film that gets its job in an efficiently empty-headed manner. The space invaders are dumb, the action is too limited and erratically framed, and the story exists only in a theoretical state. Eckhart grunts in his raspy Two-Face voice from The Dark Knight for the entire film. I suppose if you have low expectations and just want to fill up on special effects, Battle: Los Angeles should sate your desire for straight-forward shoot-em-up entertainment. It’s not brainless but it’s close to it. Near as I can tell, Battle: Los Angeles is devoid of political or topical commentary on contemporary conflict because that would just get in the way of its straight-laced heroics. Sorry District 9, what were you thinking?

Nate’s Grade: C

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010)

I won’t pretend these movies are anywhere close to good, but each one has provided some mild, mindless thrills. However, the fourth film in a franchise going nowhere is the first of the series that just says, “To hell with trying to be even remotely real.” This is a living video game, especially the opening sequence where it’s a nonstop barrage of self-conscious visual tricks, hails of bullets, gore, and a general kick in the balls to the laws of physics. I’m not asking for much, but I’d like my mindless violence to be of a quality where it doesn’t feel 100 percent gratuitous and, frankly, boring. If every single scene involves someone doing something fantastic, over-the-top, and absurd, then where can my interest go but down? Director Paul W.S. Anderson returns to the series he begat in 2002. Get ready for more zombies, more weird mutant creatures that will act however they damn well feel like, and more Milla Jovovich confusing toughness with cold stares. The action is ripped purely from a video game with no regards for geography, setup, tension, development, or anything that would matter. It’s just all flashes of violence one after the other. It’s a mostly depressing enterprise. But where do they go from here? The second movie was subtitled “Apocalypse” (little too hasty there), the third “Extinction,” and now this one is subtitled, “Afterlife.” Is the next one going to be, “Reincarnation”? And the certainty of a fifth movie only adds to my depression level.

Nate’s Grade: C-

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