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Saturday, March 26, 2011

‘Sucker Punch’ Aims High, But Is Really A Low Blow


Sucker Punch:  2 out of 5
Madam Gorski:  You’re safe.  You are all safe.  What you are imagining right now, that place can be as real as any pain.  Don’t be afraid, you have all the weapons you need.
So this movie was a big sandbox of ideas, ambition, and disappointment.  In terms of editing, style, and structure, watching Sucker Punch was like watching a day’s worth of programming on MTV, crammed into a long, two hour movie.  It begins early with a couple music videos; it then gives us shallow, underdeveloped, yet beautiful (skimpily dressed) teenage girls – dancing, fighting, and getting into one ridiculous situation after the other; then, finally, the film tries to hit us with a deeper message, while raising the stakes to help us feel the turmoil of the main character; we also get a hip dance number at the end.  Sucker Punch is a very messy film that strives for something deeper than style within the kitchen sink, which is not only thrown in with everything else, but blown up in a loud, “cool”, explosion.
 
Plot time, so bear with me:  Set in the 1950s, a teenage girl, later referred to as Baby Doll (played by Emily Browning), has just lost her mother.  In the will, everything has apparently been left to Baby Doll and her young sister, which does not sit well with their stepfather.  After a brief scuffle, the wicked stepfather has Baby Doll locked away in a mental asylum, and sees to it that she well be lobotomized in 5 days time.  This setup is all handled in a mostly dialogue-free sequence, with a reimagining of The Eurhythmics “Sweet Dream” playing loudly on the soundtrack.


Once in the asylum, Baby Doll meets the rest of the main characters, including four other female inmates: the sassy Rocket (Jena Malone), tough but reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), loyal Amber (Jamie Chung), and Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie (nothing was distinguishable enough about her to describe).  Rounding out the cast, there is also Oscar Isaac as the evil orderly, Blue, and Carla Gugino as Madam Gorski, the asylum’s psychiatrist.  The asylum remains the overall setting, but Baby Doll soon reimagines the facility as a dance theater/brothel, where she imagines the girls to all be struggling dancers forced to create enticing routines to please their…employers.

That’s not all though, since some kind of objective is needed for this story, when forced to dance, Baby Doll suddenly reimagines her already reimagined world as a fantasy world where she discovers a wise man (played by Scott Glenn), who informs her of how to escape.  Baby Doll is given the task of retrieving several items, which will allow her to break free from her captors.  With the help of her female cohorts, Baby Doll leads her Fox Force Five team through various battles with creatures and enemies, hoping to use their newly gained gun-toting/samurai warrior skills in an effort to succeed before it is too late.


A couple weeks ago, I described the film Battle: Los Angeles as one that would be better watched if you brought a video game controller with you.  Sucker Punch requires both a video game controller and the game’s instruction manual.  If it were not for the trailer (seen so frequently, it’s been engrained in my mind), I do not think I would be able to accurately describe the plot of this film, as the storytelling is, at times, incoherent and at other times just plain poor.  As the film’s tagline suggest, you may literally be unprepared if you were to walk into this movie with no knowledge of its premise.

Director Zack Snyder has stumbled here.  Up until this point he has not let me down.  Snyder previously directed the surprisingly solid (and action heavy) remake of Dawn of the Dead, the epically macho comic adaptation, 300, and took on adapting the Holy Grail of graphic novels, Watchmen.  He even managed to turn the preposterously titled Legend of the Guarians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole into a great-looking children’s film adaptation.  “Adapting” is definitely a key phrase in all of this.  All of these previous films were based off of previously written materials.  For Sucker Punch, Snyder has taken his first stab at working on a story that he has developed on his own (with the help of co-writer Steve Shibuya).  Unfortunately, Snyder’s keen eye for visual filmmaking has not lent itself over to his eye for screenwriting.


After seeing the trailer that introduced audiences to the idea that these girls would be imagining fantasy worlds in an effort to help them escape a mental asylum (sentences like these are why I enjoy writing), I speculated quite often to myself and friends about what this movie would be like if it ditched the fantasy element, and just functioned as a Zack Snyder-directed, prison escape movie, still featuring hot girls of course.  I am not sure what that movie would have looked like, but it probably could have still been better than Sucker Punch.  Beyond getting past the basic logistics of what is going on in the “real world” while Baby Doll does her dance (we never see her dancing, by the way), what goes on in these fantasy worlds is ridiculous.  I say ridiculous while also understanding that the stylized nature is obviously key to this film.  Instead, I am referring to what is being imagined.  The film is set in the 1950s, yet Baby Doll has the most detailed and futuristic imagination regarding guns, vehicles, robots, and various other fantastical elements.  The film just throws us into these places, with no setup as to what the relation is with these environments to any of the characters.


Speaking of characters, from an actor’s standpoint, there were not many highlights.  Browning’s Baby Doll is pretty lifeless.  We learn practically nothing about her, as a character, but at least get the idea that she is good with a sword.  The other girls accomplish little, with only Cornish and Malone standing out as people with the chops to deliver more than what the script is able to give them.  Carla Gugino gets points too, even with her Eastern European accent, as I am just fond of her in general.  It is also worth noting that Jon Hamm shows up for all of three minutes as the doctor who is the go-to guy for lobotomies, and nails each minute he unfortunately has to waste here.  Finally, Scott Glenn’s role as Obi Wan Exposition is just weird, the guy literally shows up out of nowhere in Baby Doll’s mind.


I also feel I was pushed around by what this film wanted to say in the end.  The thought of girls kicking ass is supposed to be cool, sure; but the film has the mindset of the ultimate teenage boy fantasy, with notions that suggest more misogynist qualities than girl power.  We are also supplied with some opening and closing narration that should have, I guess, explained something about what was seen, but I feel I have gained no further insight.  The PG-13 rating also puts this film in a place that shies away from getting into any territory that feels more threatening.  It is only in the final act of the film that the plot attempts to resemble something more substantial, and actually tries to raise the stakes, but I was already too far gone at this point to really care.


I can try to praise a few aspects.  Zack Snyder does work well with visuals.  Despite the bizarre nature of all of these girls having natural talent as brilliant warriors without the film making us feel as if they are ever in any real peril, the action is staged in a frantic and kinetic way, which would better serve the film if there weren’t so many of these scenes.  Snyder gets in his quota of cool moments, which includes plenty of elaborately staged shots, slo-mo ramp ups, and other neat flourishes.  Visual effects have seemed to come easy to Snyder, as these bizarre worlds he has created at least look interesting and blend the actors well into the CGI.  The soundtrack is a mix of some neat choices of reimagined songs, mixed with some that were way too on the nose.  In the end of all this, I certainly feel that Snyder knows how to assemble a film well enough, but communicating the story this time around did not come as easily.


I have to say, leading up to this film, I was in fact prepared for these sub-par results.  While many swelled with anticipation, I was initially put off by the game-like, objective-based layout that made up the plot of this film.  Even so, I had enough faith in Snyder, as a director, to hopefully deliver.  Alas, those hopes were not met.  While there are several art galleries worth of spectacular visuals, it means nothing in regards to this poorly handled story, that has very little substance.  There is certainly ambition present here, but the film is all flash.  The worlds created are both weird and creative, but seem to emerge out of nowhere, which is where I was taken in this film – it brought me nowhere and I feel I have gained nothing.  I do not think it is a disaster (if you want to see a big budget, studio disaster from a talented visual director: I direct you to Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender or worse – Lady in the Water), but I do think many marks were missed in this creative but very flawed film.
The Wiseman:  Don’t go writing a check with your mouth that you can’t cash with your ass.

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