Monday, March 28, 2011

Movie Review: Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch **
Directed by: Zack Snyder
Written by: Zack Snyder & Steve Shibuya.
Starring: Emily Browning (Baby Doll), Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea), Jena Malone (Rocket), Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie), Jamie Chung (Amber), Carla Gugino (Dr. Vera Gorski), Oscar Isaac (Blue Jones), Jon Hamm (High Roller / Doctor), Scott Glenn (Wise Man), Richard Cetrone (CJ), Gerard Plunkett (Stepfather), Malcolm Scott (The Cook).

I would never deny that Zack Snyder is a talented visual filmmaker, even if I have always thought that his visual style is more often than not over the top. Some films require that extra bit of stylization that Snyder brings to his films. His Dawn of the Dead (2004), while not being able to be anywhere near as good as the George A. Romero original, is still one of the best balls to the wall horror films in recent memory. His adaption of Watchmen (2009) was as good as we could expect from Alan Moore’s complex, graphic novel. And even his animated film Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole was entertaining. But after watching his latest film Sucker Punch, it brought to mind Snyder’s most popular film to date – the absolutely dreadful 300 (2007), and it once again started me wondering about Snyder. Does he have any concept of good or bad material? Does he understand anything he actually puts on the screen, or does he simply film whatever screenplay he has in front of him? Every scene in every one of his movies is hyper stylized – he shoots everything the same way. I am starting to suspect that whether his films are good or bad has little to do with him. Yes, he co-wrote the screenplay for Sucker Punch, so you would think he would understand the material, but that simply furthers my point. The story in Sucker Punch is so hyper chaotic that I don’t think there’s any point to any of it. It’s just another excuse for Snyder to throw a bunch of really cool stuff on the screen, and hope that no one is really paying attention.

The best scene in Sucker Punch may well be the first one. In a wordless sequence, we see our heroine Baby Doll (Emily Browning), as she fights off her cruel stepfather – angry that his recently dead wife is leaving everything to her daughters – and then watch in horror as he locks her in her room, and goes after her younger sister. She scales the wall outside her house, breaks back in, gets a gun and goes to shoot her stepfather – although things go wrong and her sister ends up dead. This sequence, shot in Snyder’s trademark, dark, grainy color palette, mostly in slow motion, is as good as it is going to get in this movie – and shows once again how Snyder can at times fill his movies with style – not just cool style, but style that works.

This incident gives the stepfather everything he needs to have Baby Doll committed to a mental hospital. In a week, a doctor will come and perform a lobotomy on her, and she’ll forget everything. She isn’t going to let that happen, and tries to make a plan for escape – enlisting the help of Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung) to help her break out. But that’s just one level of reality – the one we don’t spend much time in. What we see is not a mental hospital, but a strip club, where the girls are held captive and made to dance for the clients. In order to do that, they need five things – a map, fire, a knife and a key – and each time they go to get one of these things, the movie goes to another layer, in which the women are at war with giant samurais, Nazis and all sorts of other strange creatures. That’s right folks, Sucker Punch in Inception for dummies.

It becomes apparent early on in Sucker Punch that nothing much is going to make sense for most of its running time. Unlike the aforementioned Inception, which sets up its layers of reality and dreams early, with rules that make the movie, for all of its complexity, relatively easy to follow as long as you pay attention, Sucker Punch makes no attempt to do the same. Why we are devolving to different levels of reality or dream or mental state whatever is never really explained – yet if it’s true, than perhaps Baby Doll’s stepfather, as cruel and horrid as he is, has a valid reason to put her in a mental hospital. So accepting that the movie was going to make little sense, you have two options – you can fight the movie, or roll with it. I tried to roll with it – I really did – but at the end of the day, the movie, much like 300, becomes boring and repetitive. There’s only so much style, so many rounds of ammunition you can see being fired, so much killing, so much action one can bare before it all starts to blend together in a incoherent blob. And that’s pretty much what happens in Sucker Punch. I liked part of Sucker Punch – moments in isolation that never really add anything to overall movie. Snyder does have style, and it’s a style that I don’t mind much – even if I wish he’d tone it down at times. Not every scene needs to be hyper stylized. But there are moments that work – the first fight sequence for example against giant samurais, or the sequence where Baby Doll saves Rocket from the gross, creepy cook. But it doesn’t add up to anything. You can never even really tell if the performances of the actors are any good. I know from past experience that Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Carla Gugino and Jon Hamm are all talented actors, but they don’t get a chance to do anything here. As for teen good girl Vanessa Hudgens of High School Musical fame, I still cannot tell if she can actually act, or is merely the cutest thing this side of fluffy kittens. They are all buried under Snyder’s style.

As you can tell, I didn’t much like Sucker Punch. It is loud and incoherent for most of its running time. Snyder simply lets himself become lost in his effort to make everything look really cool. And to be fair, a lot of Sucker Punch does in fact look really cool. But there’s nothing more here. It’s a hollow, empty movie. A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing at all.

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