Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sucker Punch

I typically don't have to think much when reviewing a movie.  I watch, I ponder briefly --- often as I type --- and share my judgement with a disinterested world via this blog.  I had a hard time with Sucker Punch, though.  It's not the first time I had difficulty accurately capturing my thoughts on a screen, but unlike Ingmar Bergman's Persona, this wasn't because I was confused by the film.  To better illustrate my difficulty, I would like to present you with the plot, complete with my reactions to the first twenty minutes of the film (my reactions are in bold):

Five minutes in
So, Baby Doll's (Emily Browning) mom dies, leaving her and her sister with their (presumed step-) father (Gerard Plunkett), who likes to leer at his daughters, especially when other people are present, like at a funeral.  Why have there been multiple slow-motion shots already?  There's been no action to justify them.  When dead mom leaves everything in her will to the kids --- which I assume is supposed to be a significant amount, although it is never again referenced in the film, despite it being a key motivating factor --- molester dad decides to molest his kids.  When Baby Doll fights back, he locks her in her room and goes after the sister.  Baby Doll breaks out, starts a house fire, steals daddy's gun, accidentally starts a gas leak, and shoots daddy.  He doesn't die.  The sister does.  The police show up and take Baby Doll to the insane asylum.  What the hell kind of police action is that?  You can prove prolonged sexual abuse, even on the sister-corpse, and the cops let the sister's death get pinned on Baby Doll, despite it not being a gun-related death?  And what was the point of showing the gas leak, if there was never an explosion?  Fire and gas leaks don't play well, especially in films, and yet Sucker Punch decides that it is above little nuisances like exploding houses.  By the way, the plot and cinematography in these scenes felt like a mash-up homage to the music videos of Korn and Aerosmith's "Janie's Got a Gun".  Cheery stuff.  What a great way to start a movie that is supposed to be an action-fantasy movie with hot chicks in it.
To be fair, thigh-highs and guns are on the way

Ten minutes in
Baby Doll is being walked through the insane asylum, accompanied by molester dad.  While walking through, the camera holds on specific items as Baby Doll passes.  I wonder if these seemingly commonplace items will be important later on?  Subtle!  In the asylum, we meet Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), an asylum orderly or something like that.  He and daddy discuss (in a room filled with people, and it's not like they are whispering) their plan to have Baby Doll illegally lobotomized (in front of Baby Doll, mind you) by a doctor who will visit the asylum in five days.  Meanwhile, Baby Doll shares a glance filled with meaning (or homo-eroticism, I can't tell which) with Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), from across the room of crazy folk.  Fast-forward five days, and Baby Doll is in the surgery chair, with an ice pick-looking thing milliseconds away from being nailed through her eye socket.  Well, at least we have something not-at-all-depressing to look forward to: a happy ending for a victim of sexual abuse and police mis-investigation.  I bet the deleted scenes show forty minutes of her being object raped by Blue Jones.  But wait!  Everything changes!

Twenty minutes in
Baby Doll has entered a fantasy world, one where she is an orphan (what a shitty fantasy) and has been more or less purchased by a gangster to work in his whorehouse/dance club.  But she's not going to have sex yet!  Of course not.  That would make sense.  Instead, she is awaiting the arrival of the High Roller, to whom she and her virginity will be sold.  All the other girls from the insane asylum (or at least the attractive ones) are in this fantasy world as dancing prostitutes. 
They do look happy as hookers
For a fantasy world, though, their lives all kind of suck.  Aside from the whole being-forced-to-have sex-for-money thing, they are often victimized by whorehouse employees and can be killed for misbehaving.  Baby Doll knows that she must escape before the High Roller arrives, so she hatches a plan to steal certain items (perhaps the ones that were slow-motion-ed earlier?  Subtlety pays off!) that will help her and the others escape.  The key to the plan is for Baby Doll to distract particular men by doing her sexy (and nudity-free) dance, which has the ability to mesmerize any audience.  Except the film's audience, because we are never privy to a single moment of Baby Doll dancing.  And when Baby Doll dances, everything changes again!  Now, we are in a fantasy world where the whores are essentially the heroines of an action video game, fighting off orcs, dragons, robots, samurai demons, and steam-powered German zombies.
Because normal action scenes were too realistic
Sweet!  Now we have a ridiculous fantasy within a crappy fantasy, with an assured lobotomy awaiting when we leave these fantasy worlds!  It's like a Russian nesting doll, only one that is made of crap!

What a depressing movie!  All the promotional work for Sucker Punch promises high-octane action and elaborate fantasy --- the tagline was "You will be unprepared" --- and yet we are shoved into a film where innocent women are repeatedly victimized by evil, evil men.  I suppose the tagline was right.

The acting in Sucker Punch is hard to gauge.  It is certainly not good, but the script is beyond wretched, so it's hard to completely blame the cast.
Literally one million times better than Sucker Punch dialogue
The ladies fared better than most of the guys.  Emily Browning got to deliver dead-eyed cliches, Abbie Cornish had strong opinions until she suddenly didn't, Jena Malone balanced some decent horror-stricken scenes with some numbingly dull lines, and Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung stare vacantly in the background of scenes.  Carla Gugino gave her very best Natasha from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle impression.  While these women certainly didn't "wow" with their acting, I will admit that they struck cheesecake poses quite well.  The men of Sucker Punch were pretty terrible.  Oscar Isaac is the lead male, and he's about as subtle as a Disney villain; I'm shocked that his mustache wasn't long enough to twirl.
But he looks so understanding!
Scott Glenn shows up as the advisor to the super-heroines of the video game-ish fantasy world.  He basically acts like a lesser Charlie to their Angels, and his last line in each scene begins "One more thing..." followed by something nearly impossible.  I won't begrudge an old man acting with young beauties, but it was a dumb role and he can do better.  Jon Hamm also has a brief appearance, but his dialogue is so wooden and unnatural that it felt like he was reading off cue cards for his three minutes of screen time.

While there are many problems with Sucker Punch, most of them can be laid at the feet of director/co-writer Zack Snyder.  This was Snyder's first attempt at adapting an original screenplay, and that took on even more importance after the criticisms he received for being too devoted to the source texts for 300 and Watchmen.  This was his chance to show off what his imagination could do without the restrictions that come with staying true to a source story.  And the result was an overcomplicated plot about women being victimized?  I would not have guessed that.  Sure, Snyder was probably trying to show these women as empowered, because they fight back and the bad men are all eventually punished; too bad that concept never actually reached the script, much less the big screen.  And here's a tip: revenge against abusers by the abused is not the same thing as empowerment.  It boggles my mind that this film was green-lit.  Who is the target audience?  It is a PG-13 movie with no gore or nudity that focuses on sexy ladies in action scenes.  It tries to incorporate music in the same way Moulin Rouge did, only without any explicit significance to the plot.  And what was with all the rape?!?  It's like Sucker Punch was made for internet-deprived video game enthusiasts who love musicals, but hate sex and violence, and want to masturbate to rape fantasies.  Maybe Snyder watched I Spit On Your Grave and thought to himself, "That was great, but how can I sell this to a wider audience?" 
Answer: Sailor Moon outfits

Zack Snyder also failed as a director in Sucker Punch.  This movie is full of scantily-clad women and ridiculous action sequences in fantastic worlds, and it still feels really, really boring.  The pacing is just atrocious.  It doesn't help that the plot is obvious and predictable, but Snyder has developed a style where he plods forward with his stories and randomly throws in slow-motion scenes, regardless of appropriateness.  Nothing ever happens quickly in a Sucker Punch, especially the action.  That was an interesting choice that glorified the violence in 300; without an R rating, all that style provides in Sucker Punch is a longer running time.  Speaking of the rating, for a movie that clearly wants the audience to ogle its women, I found the lack of nudity or consensual sex astonishing.  If there is a way for Snyder to show off cleavage or an ass in a slow-motion shot, he makes it happen.  And yet...PG-13.  No sex, no what the hell was I suppose to look forward to, once the plot was obviously terrible?
One of the few ass-free camera shots

Even the soundtrack was annoying.  Each song was sung by a female artist and they were mostly cover versions of songs made famous by male singers.  That would be fine, I suppose, but the songs are all used in the same manner (to vaguely describe the actions in the video game fantasy) with the same sound (breathy vocals and faux electronic rock production).  Do I really need a trip hop version of The Stooges' "Search and Destroy"?  No, I do not.  Bjork's "Army of Me" was remixed for the movie, and it serves as Baby Doll's sexy dance song, despite having a strange beat and absolutely no sexiness in the song itself.

I wasn't expecting a whole lot from Sucker Punch.  I was hoping for either a cool visual experience or something ridiculous enough to make me laugh.  This movie featured a gundam with an angry cartoon bunny face on it, and I was still bored stupid.
At this point, I didn't even care...and there were fifty minutes left!
 The action, which should have been awesome, was boring and routine.  The villains didn't put up a fight and with no gore, there were no shocking moments.

The absolute worst thing about Sucker Punch is that it is not completely inept.  If this was made by an amateur filmmaker, it would certainly be more palatable (although I would still wonder about all the rape).  Zack Snyder provides some very cool images and ideas --- like the steam-powered zombies --- and still managed to make an unwatchable film.
Cool-looking is rarely a solid character trait --- sorry, Boba Fett
The gorgeous images serve as a constant reminder that the rest of the movie absolutely sucks and will probably try to pee in your mouth if you fall asleep in front of your television.  It's one thing to make a bad movie and know it's bad.  I might not enjoy your movie, but I will respect the goals you set for your film.  But I have no idea what Sucker Punch was attempting.  I can't even argue that it aimed for the stars and simply fell short, because the story and script are so bad that they cannot be pretentious.  This was just a complete failure on every artistic level, save for the visuals --- and even those could have been better and more imaginative.  I felt insulted and cheated when this movie ended.  Sucker Punch, indeed.

The half star is for the visuals, particularly the idea of steam-powered villains in World War I.  And here's Bjork's video for "Army of Me," which is infinitely more creative and weird than Sucker Punch could ever hope to be.

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