Monday, September 2, 2013

Josh really hated Sucker Punch

This is a slightly different version of review of Sucker Punch I wrote for Geek Speak a while back. It's been hanging out in the drafts folder forever, but I figured I might as well post it here.

I guess we can start this review with a math problem. Balance the equation for the name of this month's movie.

Scott Pilgrim - sense of humor - ironic self-awareness + icepicks + fishnets = ?

If you guessed Sucker Punch, give yourself a gold star.

(We would have also accepted the movie's working title: "Sparta, Interrupted.")

We open with a cover of Sweet Dreams by Emily Browning.  Very quickly, director Zack Snyder sets the stage. (Well, as quickly as one can do something in slow motion! Fun fact! The whole movie is actually only forty-five minutes long, but Snyder's trademark use use of slow motion stretches it out to nearly two hours.)

Baby Doll's mother dies, the evil stepfather is going to do very bad things to Baby Doll and her sister, so Baby Doll steals his handgun to defend herself and her sister, but things go wrong and Baby Doll is taken away to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane

I used to live near Brattleboro and I absolutely believe this could happen there.

So far, so good. The reference to Annie Lennox (original performer for Sweet Dreams)  couldn't have been less subtle if Snyder had tapped me on the shoulder in the theater while saying "Get it?!", but the cliches employed here are serviceable and they work to get the story underway.

Once there, an orderly continues the conversation he'd apparently been having over the phone with Baby Doll's stepfather, where he would forge the signature of the asylum's psychiatrist in order to have her lobotomized in exchange for a lump sum payment. They don't have a surgeon on staff to perform the procedure, but there is a traveling doctor who services all the local mental hospitals and he'll be getting there in five days.

We fast forward to his arrival, and just as he's hammering the spike into her frontal lobe (in slow motion, of course), we cut to a scene in a bordello, where it seems the lobotomy is just something the dancers were acting out for a show.

It seems everyone has a counterpart in this world. The mental patients are dancers, Rocket (Jena Malone) and her sister, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie, and Jamie Chung as Amber, the psychologist Doctor Gorski (Carla Gugino) becomes Madam Gorski, a dance instructor, and the evil orderly (Chris Issacs, who devoured the scenery every time he opened his mouth) is Blue, the owner of the burlesque. Instead of being lobotomized in five days, Baby Doll is going to be sold to the High Roller at that time.

Madam Gorski has Baby Doll dance for Blue. When Baby Doll begins the dance, it drops her into a fantasy world where she meets a wise man (Scott Glenn, looking leathery enough to make the Marlboro Man seem like a Neutrogena model) in a Japanese Temple. He gives her some weapons and tells her she'll need to collect a bunch of plot coupons: A  map, fire, a knife, a key and a super-mysterious fifth item that would require "great sacrifice".

Baby Doll resolves to escape, and she convinces the others to assist her. Then we cut to a bunch of scenes in fantasy worlds that you've no doubt seen in commercials, where Baby Doll and her fellow inmates metaphorically steal the items they will be stealing to escape in the burlesque world, and consequently, the real world.

I didn't go into Sucker Punch with any specific expectations, but the one thing I never thought it would be is dull. Whatever else, a mech with a bunny on it fighting steampunk zombie Germans in the trenches of an insanely detailed alternate WWI should be exciting . But every time we went into a dream sequence, I just wanted it to be over.

Even the zombies should have enjoyed that mech.

It's not like he's a lousy director. I happen to think  Zack Snyder is one of the best directors for his frenetic style of filmmaking, and I have enormous respect for the technical expertise with which he leverages every tool available to a modern director. He's found his niche, that of the exquisitely crafted slow-motion masterpiece, and he does it better than just about anyone, and I cry tears of joy to see at least one director eschewing shaky cam fights.

The film had a very distinctive look, and sound and feel (the soundtrack was particularly well-suited the action scenes it accompanied), but everything is less than the sum of its part. Part of the problem is that it takes itself so seriously. Kill Bill was cut from a similar cloth, but it reveled in its absurdity. Sucker Punch seems so intent on being a serious  movie that fails at being a good one. The biggest part of the problem was that there were no plot twists to be be found. Every scene and the movie itself ends exactly as I expected it to end.  Even in the ostensibly empowering scenes where the girls kick ass, they need a man spouting Sphinx-from-Mystery-Men level aphorisms to tell them what to do.

WISEMAN: Don't ever write a check with your mouth you can't cash with your ass.
BABY DOLL: Okay. Am I the only one who finds these sayings just a bit formulaic? "If you wanna put something down, you gotta pick it up". "If you wanna go left, you gotta go right". It's...
WISEMAN: Your temper is very quick, my friend,but if you don't stand for something--
BABY DOLL: "'ll fall for anything." That's what you were gonna say, right? Right?

Sucker Punch had the misfortune of coming several months after the release of another movie dealing with nested dreams. I speak of course of Inception, which, while a better movie in almost every respect, suffers from the same flaw of a lengthy preamble, which, if remembered by audience, telegrahs the conclusion of the movie almost from its beginning.

As the song goes, I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. Seeing Emily Browning's performance, I'm inclined to think that she took method acting a little too far, because her performance led me to believe that she had undergone an icepick lobotomy in order to understand what her character was going through.

I can imagine her audition:

"Make your happy face."
"Make your sexy face."
"Make your sad face."

"Make your angry face..
"Great, you're hired!"

Snyder has stated that the film  is a critique on geek culture’s characterization of women, but I don't buy it. I've seen all sorts of fan theories, some of them incoherent, some of them quite clever, attempting to explain exactly what was going on, and why it was really a clever bit of film making. I don't buy that either. For one, it's not Zack Snyder's career has been one characterized by incisive social commentary. For another, as much as I do like his craftsmanship, he's unable to resist showing how clever he is, and I just don't think he's capable of producing something genuinely subtle.

 In fact, after reading that interview, I'm reminded of the phrase, "It is impossible to tell for certain the difference between genuine stupidity and a parody of stupidity," meaning that if the only difference between a movie that is intended to be shallow and sexist and exploitative and one that winds up being shallow and sexist and exploitative, but is ironic about it, well, that's not as big a difference as he seems to think it is.

It's clear that he's going for deeper levels of meaning with each layer of the hallucination (and the presence of a guard with an iPod and the return of a certain someone at the end seem to imply that the asylum level was not in fact the really, real world), but it's not hard to give your movie a vaneer of arthouse ambiguity simply by scattering a couple incongruous items and a bunch of loose ends throughout your script.

tl;dr  version:

How was it? Take the first syllable of the movie's title and you have your answer.

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