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Polar (2019)

Polar is such a thoroughly unpleasant film experience I was wondering if Lars von Trier had somehow made a comic book movie. I enjoy exploitation movies, I enjoy slick hitman spectacles, and I enjoy audaciously stylish indie films with their own lingering sense of cool, but Polar is gratuitous in every sense of the word and a chore to sit through.

Duncan (Mads Mikkelsen) is the top assassin in an organization filled with colorful personalities with guns. The head of the agency, Blut (Matt Lucas), has a surefire plan to pay off his debts. Rather than pay the assassins their pensions once they hit the mandatory retirement age of 50, he’ll just kill them. Brilliant. Duncan sets off to enjoy his last few days before his big birthday by settling down in a sleepy small town, getting to know his meek neighbor, Camille (Vanessa Hudgens). This quiet new life is interrupted by a team of crazy killers determined to eliminate their colleague and collect his riches.

The tonal disparity with Polar never settles down, which makes it hard to find any sense of a baseline of what is acceptable reality. What is normal here? The film veers from grotesque, brutish, gory violence to cartoonish, grating, juvenile slapstick. The violence is far too gross and brutal for the light tone it wishes to maintain. It’s the kind of violence where every gunshot necessitates a lurid explosion of blood, and why stop at one gunshot when a dozen will do? There’s an extended torture montage that lasts a total of four days when it could have just been a single session if the point is to kill the hero. It’s close-ups of skin peeling and being penetrated, and I’m not averse to gore effects and exploitation elements but when it’s paired with this flippant, nasty tone it cheapens the violence. This is a film that wallows in the grotesque, tittering to itself and trying so damn hard to be so provocative that it becomes exhausting. It’s jam-packed with style-for-style’s-sake choices that further call attention to its overall emptiness. I started counting the number of shots that existed simply to highlight a woman’s butt, and mostly that of Ruby O. Fee (The Invisibles). I swear her entire role seems to be butt-centric. Then there’s one shot composed entirely of butts shaking in Katheryn Winnick’s (Vikings) face. She’s having a phone call and her face is squeezed between two strippers shaking butts just because. It’s hilariously and transparently gratuitous. So many edits, shots, and even scenes exist just to call attention to its supposed sense of cool. However, cool movies, just like people, don’t have to convince you that they’re cool, they just are.

Let’s take the evil assassins that chase after Duncan. They’re the kind of glib movie assassins that all seem defined by one or two quirks and costume styling guidelines. It’s a diverse group of ridiculous cartoon villains who seem reverse-engineered as toy figures. Why are they also working for an employer that plans on killing them all to escape paying them upon retirement? Why would you willfully work for someone who is so open about betraying you? It’s astoundingly shortsighted thinking. Regardless, other movies have utilized colorful criminals to better establish a sense of fun, particularly the early works of Guy Ritchie. These villains bounce from person-to-person tracking down their target, killing with callous indifference mixed with childish glee, but there’s no personality, no menace, so the bloodletting feels gratuitous and ugly. Scene after scene feels like the actors had large trunks of costumes and props and were told to dig around and grab anything they wanted before they began filming. It makes every one of their appearances feel annoying and trite, especially when one scene, again, exists simply to highlight Fee’s butt in jean shorts. The killers’ big plan is to shoot their target while receiving oral sex from Fee’s character. Then the others will bulrush and shoot some more. Or, and I’m not an expert here, they could simply break in while their target sleeps and shoot them in the back? This lame group of hired killers is the big threat… and then they’re taken out with half the movie left. They are removed with such haste that I was shocked. We had spent so much time with these antagonists and then they’re gone. It’s a fantastic waste of time for a group of characters that didn’t even merit one minute. There’s even one scene where Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) shows up and is never seen again.

The supreme villain is played by Matt Lucas (Doctor Who) and it just does not work. It’s like Toby Jones’ second cousin found the relics of Elton John’s closet and decided to try and play a Bond villain. I enjoy Lucas normally for his daft comedy roles and I think he’s trying to adopt a Goldfinger impersonation but it does not work. Once again it’s the entire tonal execution and narrative development at fault here. Blut is an officious dweeb prone to yelling at people and running away. He has no standout scene and poses no real threat once the hired guns and goons are taken care of. He cannot hold his own. This is why killing off the team of assassins with half the movie left relates to a dire misstep.

The only thing that does work in this movie is Mikkelsen (Rogue One), who is doing everything in his power to provide an anchor for the pitiable audience. He is way too good for Polar. He takes everything one hundred percent seriously and is genuinely emoting while everyone else is chewing whatever scenery isn’t nailed down. It very much feels like Mikkelsen is in some other different movie, or is pretending to be in a different, better movie. His interactions with Hudgens are a high point, taking her under his wing and showing small glimpses of sympathy and guilt. Their ultimate relationship is predictable, and she disappointingly becomes trapped as a damsel in distress for the final act. Mikkelsen does have a terrific brawl in a hallway (the location of all film fights now it seems) that is well choreographed and very physical without feeling like he’s superhuman. I wish I were watching the better movie Mads Mikkelsen thought he was in.

Everything about Polar feels unnecessary. The sex scenes are gratuitous, the violence is gratuitous, the style is gratuitous, and when everything feels tacked on for cheap thrills, the movie becomes hollow, calculated, and lazy. The suspense sequences should be exciting or an example of our protagonist’s expertise but little feels clever. There are one or two moments, glimmers of what could have been had more attention been given to developing the sequences. As I was watching this two-hour cartoon I was strongly reminded of the 1990s Tarantino knock-off, The Big Hit, which was an exaggerated cartoon of tiresome depravity. It tried so hard to evoke a carefree hipness when it came to its criminals, their depraved acts, their comedic interactions, the debauched humor, that it all felt like two hours of collective flop sweat. Polar is very much in that same description, a movie that is trying too hard to be a fun, breezy, exploitation movie. Except it feels adrift and phony and unpleasant. Polar doesn’t deserve Mads Mikkelsen and it doesn’t deserve a minute of your time, butts and all.

Nate’s Grade: D+

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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. The same, however, cannot be said of Browning (The Uninvited). The rosy-cheeked, pouty-lipped lovely young actress a stunning beauty. I am not immune to the charms of a pretty face. And for those who know me, it’s a huge revelation for me to say that Thora Birch (American Beauty) may just have some competition for my ultimate affections (it’s been a long drought since Ghost World, Thora). 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 resplendent geek fantasies come to life, samurai swords, pigtails and all. She makes for a great moving poster. At one point, apparently Amanda Seyfried (Red Riding Hood) was going to play Baby Doll, but then that familiar roadblock known as scheduling conflicts came into being. We may have replaced one saucer-eyed actress for another.

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, and Browning will certainly produce plenty, but not everyone gets a $100 million dollar check to throw them all together on screen.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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