Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sucker Punch - Theatrical Review



SUCKER PUNCH



Release Date: March 25, 2011

Zack Snyder has been accused in the past of being a hack of sorts. Not so much in that he isn't talented (although his over use of the slow-mo technique he perfected in 300 is questionable) but more so in how every film he has made has either been a remake or adaptation of the work of someone else. With Sucker Punch he has finally given his critics and fans an original work that he created himself, but is it exactly what we wanted from him?



Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Edwards Irvine 21
Time: 2:30 pm March 25, 2011
Projector Type: IMAX

Biases:
Loves: Anime, Sci-Fi, fantasy
Likes: Zack Snyder, the entire cast
Neutral: Style over substance
Hates: Ridiculous story contrivances
Fact: This is Zack Snyder's first non-adapted film



From the mind of director Zack Snyder comes a very stylized and somewhat sultry entry into what can only be called the world of geekdom. I have heard and read so many reviews already that have been throwing around all the influences and/or genres that Snyder has stolen from like candy. It is amazing the amount of hatred this film has stirred up and after seeing it for myself I quite honestly I don't understand where all those feelings of disgust are coming from. I will be the first to admit that it has some very deep flaws most of which are almost deal breakers for me but there is also a level of originality in its visuals and presentation unlike I have ever seen. I guess that brings us to the age old question of film, what is more important to you...the visuals or the story? If you are like me and can't really separate the two then you might come away from Sucker Punch fairly frustrated and just the tiniest bit blown away by what Snyder has made here.

After a horrific family tragedy, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is shipped off to the local insane asylum called the Lennox House by her wicked stepfather who has paid off the man in charge of the facilities, Blue (Oscar Isaac), to have her lobotomized before any local police come sniffing around to ask her questions. She then has five days to break out of the Lennox House before the man they call the High Roller (Jon Hamm) shows up and relieves her of a good portion of her brain. After meeting the woman in charge of all the patients/inmates, Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), she quickly befriends a small group of girls that also want to free themselves of their prison. The girls she meets consist of four unique individuals that have equally unique names. You have the sisters, Rocket (Jena Malone) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jaime Chung) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Together they must find a way out before the five days are up and Baby Doll loses her mind...literally.


Probably the most well known and confusing aspect of the film to anyone that is familiar with its advertising campaign is just what the hell is it? The trailer showed all manner of imagery from large scale WWII battles involving zeppelins and anime inspired mechs to gigantic samurais wielding mini-guns and fire breathing dragons. I have to say that I was most curious as to how all those different elements could ever fit into a cohesive story. And the answer to that is they don't, not completely anyway. The problems with the plot can be linked to another criticism I have seen floating about which is how the film is structured like a video game and the character's progression through the narrative is akin to a person reaching different levels in a game. While I completely see that point of view and can almost agree with it I can't bring myself to being full on board with it.

The video game comparison is a non-factor to me simply because I don't really see the problem with it. If it works for the type of story we are being told then so be it. I think the most telling thing in the film about its video game origins comes in the form of the different worlds that the girls traverse as they lay waste to anything that stands in their way. You have three distinct worlds that can be easily summed up as Fantasy land, Sci-Fi land, and War land that make up the bulk of where our little ass-kickers go to find the trinkets needed to set them free. But I am getting ahead myself here and I think it is only fair to explain where exactly these worlds they visit come from and how they relate to the actual story.


You see, at the Lennox House it is demanded of all the girls living there to dance. Who exactly they dance for is never really gone into detail but we learn that the dancing they must perform is the key to the whole film and also key to probably my biggest gripe with it overall. Apparently when Baby Doll dances she puts her viewers into a hypnotic state in which time she and her friends are able to complete certain tasks while they are all under her spell. It is during her dance routines where we are thrust into these different worlds that Baby Doll has created in her mind as what can only be explained as an escape mechanism. She uses these dream worlds to escape the reality of what she is doing and while in these dreamscapes she is equipped with a single katana, a hand gun and one of the cutest little school girl outfits you are likely to find on a grown woman.

There are two issues with this concept for me, one of which practically derails any of the so-called tension in the dreamscapes build up and the other just comes off as silly. First of all I want to make clear that at no point do we ever see Baby Doll dance. We see her start to awkwardly sway from side to side a lot but we are quickly taken into an extreme close up as we switch over from reality to the dream world. That really wasn't a problem though because honestly with all the slack jawed reactions we see from the people that have watched her dancing I don't think anything they could have ever conjured up would make sense. Her dancing is portrayed as being life changing, everyone that sees her is just in complete bliss afterwards so I think it was a wise decision to refrain from showing us her evocative moves on the dance floor since it could never live up to what we ourselves can imagine.


What killed the dancing idea for me though was how it related to what was happening in the dreamscapes themselves. For instance, when they begin to use Baby Doll's dancing to prepare for their escape, which they need four very specific items in order to be successful, they are using her as a diversion so that one of the other girls can go get what they need. What is depicted in the dreamscapes during this time are battles involving all five girls as they search out the exact same item they are trying to obtain in the real world. However what we are seeing in those dreamscapes are representations or a metaphor if you will of what is actually happening as Baby Doll dances for everyone in reality. The first item they need is a map and in the real world they have to make a photo copy of it and return it back to where they got it. The visual representation of this in Baby Doll's dreamscape is that they are hunting down a German officer carrying the map as they cut through hordes of undead enemy (nazi?) soldiers to get to him and retrieve the map.

Do you see the disconnect there? In the dreamscape they must battle an entire army of undead steam-powered soldiers using all types of weaponry (including that awesome and underused mech of Ambers) to get the map and in the real world it is just one girl in an empty office making a xerox copy while everyone watches Baby Doll dance...yeah. We never see what is happening in the real world during the dreamscape sections though so that imagery is never present. But I couldn't stop thinking about it like that though. The whole time I am watching these girls kick all kinds of ass I was thinking to myself, "That copy machine sure is slow". So how exactly did this almost ruin the film for me completely? Because it is the main idea that the entire film rests on, the thread that keeps everything together and every time Baby Doll started to dance I couldn't help but think how excessively difficult it was for them to reach their target in their dreamscapes compared to how seemingly easy it was for them in reality.


I don't want to spend too much more time on this issue but there was one other thing that I have to bring up first. I started to find it overly comical near the end how the girls started using Baby Doll's dancing as a weapon of sorts. They would literally strip her down, prop her up on to a table, kick on HER music and FORCE someone to watch her dance so they would become hypnotized at a moments notice. It got to the point where I was being taken out of the film even more than I already had been. The amount of disbelief I was being asked to suspend was becoming a tad bit too much by that point. It wasn't nearly as bad as the other issue I mentioned but it most certainly didn't help matters either.

Probably the only other problem I had with the film was that I never really felt connected to any of the girls. Baby Doll is for all intents and purposes the main character, we witness the horrible events that land her into that prison but we are never given the chance to feel anything for her. I blame that mostly on how the opening was handled though, all played out with zero dialogue except from an unknown narrator and blown through quickly. Then she becomes friends with the other girls off screen for the most part, we never see how they connect with each other. All of their discussions we are privy to are filled with scheming and a few thank yous thrown in for good measure but never any moments of reflection. Besides Rocket and Sweet Pea we end up knowing practically nothing about any of these girls. All we know is that they want out but the problem with that is why should we care? Sure, I don't want to see any woman hurt but in a film where we see them placed into life endangering situations constantly I would have liked to at least feel worried for them. It is an emotional weight that was needed and was sorely missing.



I know that I have spent so much time on the negatives and for that I am sorry. It is just that I had some high hopes for Sucker Punch which it only marginally came through on. Snyder had given us our scantily clad men epic with 300 and I thought this was going to be our scantily clad women epic. There were still many aspects that I did enjoy though. Even with my issue on how the dreamscapes related to the off screen real world actions I found them to be exceptionally realized. When those action scenes kick in I found myself gripping my seat a few times as things progressively got more chaotic. And those video game haters be damned because I thought the shift in different environments each time they suited up for battle was refreshing. None of those scenes ever felt like they over stayed their welcome either which was a blessing in disguise I think. Speaking of that I would be remiss not to mention that this thing just flew by as I watched it. For a two hour film I never once found myself checking my watch or counting the minutes. I was even taken aback by how abruptly it all came to an end BECAUSE I didn't realize two hours had already gone by.

And say what you will about Zack Snyder's stylized filmmaking but I for one like it. Yeah, the slow motion stuff can wear on you after a bit but I'll be damned if he isn't the master at it. The switch in color tone to help define each level of reality is an overly used gimmick for sure but that doesn't mean it wasn't implemented well here. I always knew what reality we were in because of that and am thankful because I could see this becoming a very confusing film if I ever felt like I didn't know what was going on from moment to moment. The music selection was good for the most part as well but I do wish he had gone with a more orchestral score over the remixed tracks he most likely hand picked for each scene. Some of them worked, such as the song choices for the fantasy and Sci-Fi dreamscapes but others like Baby Doll's first journey into the recesses of her mind seemed to almost drown out the action on screen. Overall I thought his musical choices were fairly spot on and was grateful for the few pieces of original score we did get.


One last thing before I wrap this up, I just wanted to mention the performances of all the actors whom I think are being overlooked because of all the dislike the film is receiving. The entire cast was perfect in my opinion, the girls all had a great repertoire with each other and whenever they worked as a whole or had to split up into teams I liked how they each complemented one another. Emily Browning may just find herself being type cast in the ass kicking anime school girl role since she embodied both the look and tone of such a part perfectly. The other girls were great too, especially Cornish and Malone as the two sisters. They ended up being the heart and soul of a film in desperate need of both which I am truly thankful for. Chung and Hudgens got short changed unfortunately but their bravado in the heat of battle more than made up for any lack of character traits. Carla Gugino was her usual gorgeous and seductive self as the mother hen of the girls and Isaac surprisingly made a pretty good villain when it was all said and done. And I know I haven't mentioned him yet but seeing Scott Glenn in here was just awesome, he was the perfect guru for our girls to trust in. I loved that he punctuated the beginning of each new dreamscape by giving the girls some form of fortune cookie wisdom with a smile and sparkle in the eye.

I bet you might be asking yourself where exactly I stand on Sucker Punch. To be honest I am still a little unsure myself. I know I don't hate it as many others seem to but I can also say for sure that I don't love it. Perhaps further viewings in the future will help me lean one way or the other but I think if I sway one way it might just end up being more positive in the end. The truly difficult part is should it be recommended and if so to who? I think it is a safe bet that if you are a video game geek or love yourself some anime (or both) that you should see this as soon as you can, you will be blown away by some of the action set pieces, I promise. If you tend to like a bit more story and/or character development in your films then it will probably leave a bad taste in your mouth. You might enjoy it as you watch it but I can almost guarantee that afterwards you will start to pick it apart. If you are judging this on the Snyder scale then out of his four films I think this lands squarely at the number four slot (with Watchmen being number one for me). As flawed and silly as it is I still had a fun time watching it. You got yourself some beautiful women kicking ass in some crazy imaginative worlds (yes I know he stole his ideas from other material but he did it well) and ultimately that is what I went into this looking for which is the one promise those early trailers made to us that I believe it fulfilled. But I think in the end the safest bet for everyone unfortunately is to wait for it to hit home video and...


RENT IT



Reactions:

3 comments:

Unknown said...

Great review Dave. I will definitely have to see this one, although I may just wait until its out on video. In any case, your description of the various plot devices (like dancing as a weapon, lol) was informative and helpful.

PS-I think I may have the first comment on the new site....sweet!

LobbycastGeoff said...

Wow! I am amazed at the amount of hate that this movie is drawing.

I didn't hate this at all. The acting may have seemed lacking to some, but for the graphic novel adaptation style, that is usually how characters are portrayed and that is usually how dialog is delivered. Other examples of this are Sin City, Wanted and the underrated Running Scared. I think that, given the context of the story, that it is unrealistic to expect a lot of character development for five girls who are trying to escape an insane asylum within five days.

I got exactly what I was expecting out of this movie and was very pleased!

David Weaver said...

I here ya there Geoff but even though I wasn't entirely happy with the film I didn't hate it...far from it actually. I just found some of the core elements that it relied on to not really work for me. I had a good time watching it and as I stated in my review it most definitely had some cool stuff in there.

And the funny thing about the acting, I actually thought everyone did a good job. I thought it was the script that let the actors down.

Lastly, as for your examples with Sin City and Running Scared, (and yes I too believe Running Scared is very very underrated) I loved both of those films very much but in those I did connect with the characters. I cared whether or not Bruce Willis was gonna save Jessica Alba. I cared whether or not Paul Walker would make it back to his family.

In Sucker Punch I just didn't care if anyone died. And while I do agree that it is not necessary for me to connect with a character for me to like the film (see Cloverfield) it seemed as though we were being asked to care because the drama of the girl's situation was being thrown right into our faces constantly. And what use is a scene (regardless of how cool it all looks) where characters come close to death if you just don't care in the end?

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