Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Saturday, March 26, 2011
- Zack Snyder's latest, SUCKER PUNCH, will no doubt be a polarizing film. Already, reviews are mixed and opinions divided. Maybe the following puts me in the minority, but here's my view, in short: Sucker Punch flat-out ruled it. It may not be for everyone and it may defy the expectations of the typical moviegoer and critic, but when I see a visual masterpiece of this caliber, I can't help but stand up and cheer. Sucker Punch is ultimately a VISUAL movie - it's one filled with interesting ideas and pop-cultural-commentary, sure - but at the end of the day this is quite simply Zack Snyder: Visionary Director, unleashed and going full-speed-ahead at 500 mph. With evocative characters, gorgeous, eye-melting direction, and some of the most next-level, balls-to-the-wall action scenes ever put to film, I think that Sucker Punch deserves high praise for being original, for being different, and for raising the bar in terms of putting unbridled visual imagination on the big screen.
Sucker Punch is nerd-porn, plain and simple. If the idea of kickass, sexy women fighting their way through a collage of fantasy worlds with the unhinged energy of the craziest Japanese anime you can imagine makes your eyes widen ... well, you will experience full-blown sensory overload with this film.
And I get that some people will have no idea what to make of all of this. But I think that a lot of people refuse to enjoy a film as an almost purely visual showcase. People have such preconceived notions of what a movie should be, it closes their minds to something like Sucker Punch that works on an entirely different level than your average Hollywood blockbuster.
Here's the thing with me: I love art that inspires my imagination. I love staring at comic book covers simply for the outrageous ideas they hint at and the possibilities they tease. I love seeing the raw visual energy of animation. I love the way the aesthetic of over-the-top videogames gives your brain a jolt of electricity in a way that nearly removes you completely from the confines of reality. I love simply seeing a great visual stylist at work, and Zack Snyder is such an artist. To me he is like the Jim Lee of action films - he just has that inherent sense of how to create iconic yet ultra-modern, ultra-cool imagery. Whereas Michael Bay is more like the Rob Liefield of action flicks - presenting ugly visuals and often-incoherant action - Zack Snyder can strike that perfect balance between high-intensity action, beautiful character and world design, and action that actually flows brilliantly from one beat to the next. Sure, Snyder has his crutches. Just like Jim Lee makes his characters look cool with too many hash-marks, Snyder reliably uses the speed-up / slow-down technique to give his action scenes that extra little wow-factor. But like the best martial arts movies or the most intricately-staged musicals, Sucker Punch transports you to a world of high fantasy that shatters the laws of physics and logic, yet somehow hits the sweet spot of sensory stimulation.
And let's face it - for years now, movies have lagged behind videogames in terms of producing insane visual experiences and in terms of setting the standard for bleeding-edge cool. Games like Metal Gear Solid, God of War, and Final Fantasy have long dared to push the limits of visual outrageousness, whereas movies tend to be bound to reality and physics and action-movie-convention and all those other outdated, boring concepts. Well, with Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder says "%#&% that!", and singlehandedly raises the bar for over-the-top visual insanity in movies. For years, Hollywood has been trying to play catch-up to games, trying to figure out how to translate the aesthetic of games to movies - how to inject the tried-and-true action movie with a heavy dose of next-gen videogame-style awesome-factor. Very few films have ever figured out how to do this - how to adopt the visual language of games, comics, or anime into a live-action movie. And the funny thing is that the movies that HAVE brilliantly done this - from Speed Racer to Tron Legacy to Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World - have all been universally panned by mainstream critics. These are people who sorely need to expand their visual vocabulary. To denounce SUCKER PUNCH as too videogamey, and to therefore shoehorn it into the same category as unimaginative dreck like Transformers, Prince of Persia, and so many other cash-ins and wannabes is to do the movie a great disservice. And you know what, seeing the sheer visual imagination on display in Sucker Punch ... well, it gives me cause to be hopeful about the new SUPERMAN movie that Snyder will be directing. Because frankly, I'm sick of "realistic" Superman. To me, Superman is a fantastic, epic hero - not a character tied to the "real world", per se. Look at old Jack Kirby or Curt Swan-drawn comics - they are all about bold, iconic ideas and limitless imagination. And that, I think, is what Snyder brings to the table.
Now, there will be many attempts to explain or read into the plot of Sucker Punch, but I think that to treat it as an Inception-style logic puzzle is to totally miss the point. The plotline is actually pretty simple, although it does adhere to a somewhat dreamlike logic. It's funny, because both this and Inception follow videogame-like structures, but whereas Inception is more Call of Duty, Sucker Punch is more The Legend of Zelda - it's that stripped-down, surreal sort of storytelling that makes sense on a micro-level (find the key, open the door), but less so on a macro level (what's "really" going on).
But basically, Sucker Punch follows the character of Baby Doll (a stunning Emily Browning), and her tragic backstory is laid out beautifully in a nearly wordless opening intro. After her mother dies, Baby Doll and her younger sister are left alone with their abusive Step-Dad - who resents the sisters even more when he realizes that all of their late mother's inheritance money went to them and not to him. One day, after being assaulted by her step-dad, Baby Doll grabs a gun and tries to shoot her tormentor, but she misses and accidentally kills her sister. Her step-father uses this as justification to have Baby Doll carted off to an insane asylum, where he pays off the mad-scientist warden, Blue (an awesomely evil Oscar Isaac) to have the poor girl lobotomized by the resident doctor (a cameo role from Jon Hamm). In the moment before the lobotomy, Baby Doll retreats into her own mind and imagines herself in a fantasy version of her current predicament. Instead of being in a drab asylum, she pictures herself as one of a group of girls taken against their wills, and forced to work as prostitutes in a brothel / burlesque house run by Blue. It is here that she assumes the stage name Baby Doll, and where she meets other runaways, castaways, and orphans - Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung). The girls are supervised and tutored in dancing by their sympathetic den mother Vera (the always-alluring Carla Gugino). Very quickly, Baby Doll becomes the star of the show - her dances wow Blue, the other girls, and the venue's high-paying clients alike, and soon Blue tells her that he has booked her first official one-on-one job with a sinister-seeming High Roller (the alt-version of Jon Hamm). But Baby Doll is determined to escape the brothel before that happens. While performing one of her first dances, she propels her conciousness into yet another level of dreamscape. It is the first of many fantasy worlds that Baby Doll will visit, each one co-opting the trappings of all manner of geek-friendly genres. Here, she is in a martial-arts movie world where she encounters her dream guide of sorts, a wise mentor (known only as Wise Man), played with appropriate levels of gravitas by Scott Glenn. The Wise Man tells her she needs to find five items to engineer her escape (and here's where the videogame micro-logic comes into play): a map, fire, a knife, a key ... and the fifth object ... is a mystery.
Thus we have the three levels of reality in SUCKER PUNCH: a.) the "real" world where Baby Doll is in an asylum, about to be lobotomized, b.) the alternate reality where she and her burlesque-dancer friends are trying to escape the clutches of Blue, and c.) the fantasy worlds that materialize via alt-Baby Doll's mystical, trance-inducing dances, where she and her friends are reimagined as action movie heroes in crazy sci-fi settings.
To me, the characterization and goals laid out in Worlds A and B were enough to make the balls-to-the-wall, videogame-like action of World C immersive and gripping. Since so much time is spent on the more abstract World C action, there is limited time for the more grounded characterization of World B. But the cast does an excellent job with that time they have. Emily Browning, for one, doesn't have to do a lot, but what she does, she knocks out of the park. Here is a new action-hero icon for the girl-power set, whooping ass seven ways to Sunday with swords, guns, and fists without breaking a sweat, all while wearing a Sailor Moon-esque schoolgirl outfit. Undersized and overmatched, there's still never any doubt that Browning as Baby Doll is willing and able to unleash hell. This, I think, is a star-making performance. No, it's not an Oscar bait performance, but it's one that will isntantly imprint itself deep into the minds of fanboys and fangirls everywhere. The other huge standout to me is Oscar Isaac as Blue - one of the great villainous performances I've seen in a long while. Just unabashedly sleazy, over-the-top, melodramatic, and downright EVIL, this is a guy who you can't wait to see get his just desserts. Carla Gugino is elegant and effective as always, and Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish bring personality and pathos to the proceedings as well. Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung are more window dressing, but hey, in a movie like this, that's allowed.
Now, I've talked about how the narrative of Sucker Punch is more about big ideas and less about jigsaw-puzzle precision. I do think Snyder is trying to make some interesting statements about the male perception and sexualization of women and about the female reaction to that. I think he's playing with ideas of male versus female empowerment fantasy, and grappling with concepts of true-empowerment as opposed to pop-culture's tendency to substitute actual empowerment with male-fantasy-driven faux-empowerment. I think Snyder opens up the door to A LOT of discussion and debate, although I don't know that he himself arrives at any legitimate conclusions. I do think that's part of the point though - the question of what is "girl-power", really? So many of our geeky concepts of hot-girls-kicking-ass have nothing to do with actual female ideals. And yet, here we are watching a movie about fetishized women fighting robots and zombies, and all of the "whoah, cool!" synapses in our fanboy brains are going off. It begs the question - are Baby Doll and her friends any actual woman's true idea of girl-power? Or would most women trade the action-hero chops of the Ellen Ripleys, Beatrix Kiddos, Lara Crofts, and Baby Dolls of the world for the real-world fem-power of the Eleanor Roosevelts, Oprah Winfreys, and Hillary Clintons? Again, I don't know that Sucker Punch arrives at any satisfying conclusions in this regard, but hey, it does offer up some provocative food for thought. By the same token, I do think that Sucker Punch suffers from a narrative that just doesn't have a strong enough connective tissue. This is a surrealist fantasy, so I don't need logical explanations of how we get from Point A to Point B. Snyder is taking his cues less from Christopher Nolan and more from the Terry Gilliams and David Lynch's of the world in this regard. But, you still need the THEMATIC tissue to hold up, and I think that's where Sucker Punch most falters. Key thematic elements of the story - Baby Doll's relationship to Sweat Pea, for example - just seem to come too much out of thin air, with not enough groundwork laid to set the stage for their relationship arc to feel fully fleshed-out. Similarly, the reveal of the fifth and final item needed to escape also feels anticlimactic - the movie wants the reveal to feel inevitable, but I think it's one of the film's biggest "huh?" moments, that just doesn't pack the punch - no pun intended - that it should have.
Still, narrative flaws aside, I love the fact that SUCKER PUNCH is an original vision. Not a sequel, not an adaptation. Hugely influenced by comics, videogames, anime, and sci-fi - yes - it's a pastiche of influences from across the geek spectrum. But it still felt new, fresh, daring and different. And to me, the moments where you're in those fantasy worlds - where Baby Doll and her team of girls-on-a-mission were slicing and dicing their way through hordes of steam-powered Nazi zombies, or flipping and blasting through an armada of glowing robots on a remote outer space outpost - these to me were moments of unrivaled visual glory and action-movie awesomesauce. The movie, particularly these World C sequences, is like every fanboy dream and nightmare rolled into one, delivered with so much style and flair that you can't help but feel like you're watching Zack Snyder actively school every other action director in the business, saying "hey dudes, there's a new sherrif in town." There are times when the movie swings and misses, but in some ways, and where it counts, Sucker Punch positively kicks ass. This will be an easy movie for many to hate on. Personally, I endorse it - as a visual showcase Sucker Punch is second to none - it's one of the most visually mind-melting and imaginative movies I've yet seen.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
- Battle: LA got absolutely eviscerated by a number of prominent movie critics, but after catching it last weekend, the truth is ... it's not that bad. In fact, as compared to some recent alien invasion flicks that were truly awful and abysmal (Skyline, anyone?), Battle LA gets a surprising number of things right. Yes, the movie suffers from some crippling problems - namely, its overly-shaky, less-than-coherant direction - but at the end of the day, it rallies in its third act and delivers some legitimately rousing and entertaining action and thrills. Plus, the movie is anchored by Aaron Eckhart, who is perfectly cast as the gruff, stoic, and superhumanly-determined leader of a squad of anti-alien GI's. Eckhart's performance in Battle LA reestablishes his chops as a true badass -- making you think that any and all superhero flick casting directors had better rethink their laundry lists of go-to action-hero actors, because Eckhart might be their man for the job.
The thing with Battle: LA is that it takes a while to really rev up. And yet, even during its introductory, "gathering of the team" scenes, director Jonathan Liebesman inexplicably subjects the audience to an unsteady, motion-sickness-inducing shakycam - even when the action onscreen solely consists of talking heads. It just reeks of Liebesman trying way too hard to artifically inject the film with some sort of you-are-there edginess. Instead, it's almost unintentionally funny. I mean, action-scene shakycam during dialogue-driven intro scenes? Really? All I can say is that five minutes into Battle: LA, I was prepared to hate it. And for a while, I found myself agreeing with some of the criticisms I had read from the likes of Roger Ebert, who blasted the film for its flimsy plot, characters, and messy, shoddily-choreographed action. For a while there, it was hard to argue.
But there is a strangely effective sort of pacing at work in Battle: LA. The movie plays out like one of those WWE wrestling matches where the good guy gets pounded on for most of the match, only to stage a late, miraculous comeback. Because for a while, Battle: LA really beats up its characters, and in turn, the audience. Within moments of the movie's intro, things are already looking incredibly bleak for humanity. A race of mysterious, warlike aliens have invaded earth, and they haven't bothered to talk or even make demands. They just want to straight-up conquer earth and kill all humans (there's some speculation that they're after our water supply, but it's never delved into with much detail). When the movie begins, a number of major cities are already S.O.L., and so the stage is set for the US Army to make a final stand in Los Angeles, where we later learn one the E.T.'s key central command units is located. Aaron Eckhart's character is the cliched (yet reliably awesome) army vet who was about to retire before the $%#& hit the fan, and who now must knuckle-up and go on one last mission for all the marbles. And it's because of the badassery he displays that we believe his unit has a snowball's chance in hell of making a dent in the seemingly unstoppable alien armada. For much of the film, Eckhart's squad just gets owned. It's almost funny, because since most of the characters sort of bleed together, it's hard to keep tabs on who lives and who dies. After about 45 minutes, I found myself surprised that anyone was still standing. There's not much ebb and flow - for scene after scene, the humans get whooped. Some of the confusion is also due to that pesky shaky-cam. Some of the action sequences are all about creating that sense of immediacy and gritty realism, but the directing style mostly detracts from the fun - with many of those first and second act sequences ending up as more headache-inducing than adrenaline-pumping. Utilizing shakycam means walking a fine line between purposely disorienting the audience and yet making sure to capture and give emphasis to the key action beats. I think that Battle: LA often fails at the latter, to the point where it sometimes feels like you're seeing a random jumble of action rather than actually being told a story.
Again though, Battle: LA makes a late-game rally, and at some point in the latter half of the film I found myself re-invested in the action. The characters had been wittled down to the essentials, and Aaron Eckhart was given the opportunity to give a rousing speech or two to give the movie a much-needed shot in the arm - and some semblance of humanity. This is, afterall, a war movie - and war movies need some sort of mission statement or else ... what's the point? Finally, we had a clear mission and a clear rallying cry -- Battle: LA was back in business. And I give the movie credit - it's final half hour or so is genuinely pretty kickass, with some well-put-together action scenes and a sense of urgency and coherancy that other segments of the movie lacked. The movie tightens up and narrows its focus on Eckhart, and much to my surprise I was rooting for him to overcome the odds, execute his risky, make-or-break last-ditch plan, and kick some alien tail.
Battle: LA ends on a send-'em-home-happy high note, and while I went in worried that this would be a bomb, I came away thinking it came surprisingly close to being da' bomb. Still, the movie was a long ways away from reaching its full potential. A bigger, better, more imaginative backstory and mythology would have gone a long way towards building out the world of the film. Too much of the movie seems to exist sans larger context, and it makes the film feel too insular and bland. I think of something like the book World War Z, where author Max Brooks went to such great lengths to paint a global portrait of his story of man-vs.-zombie warfare, and I wonder why Battle: LA seemed to put in such comparitively little effort at world-building. I also had some major issues with the direction / action choreography. Luckily, the movie tightened up at crunch time, but I think the shakycam style is only about 50% effective and 50% detrimental. Finally, Aaron Eckhart knocks it out of the park in this one, but the rest of the cast has little to do and there are very few other characters that are interesting or stand out from the pack.
At the end of the day, I do think that Battle: LA is a reasonably solid effort and that it has some legitimately kickass moments. To completely dismiss it speaks more to the inherent biases of certain reviewers than it does to the actual quality of the film. By no means a great work of cinema, but an entertaining action flick nonetheless.
My Grade: B