Movie Review: Sucker Punch (2011)

Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens,
Jamie Chung, Scott Glenn ~ Writers: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya
Director: Zack Snyder ~ Year: 2011

Sucker Punch Zack Snyder Movie Poster[xrr rating=1.5/5]

The Low-Down: A schizoid mix of Shutter Island, Brazil, Inception, Moulin Rouge and Caged Heat, Zack Snyder’s geekfest opus Sucker Punch is an ambitious failure of jaw-dropping proportions. It’s also firm proof that it takes more than a gun, a sword and a midriff-exposing schoolgirl outfit to make an empowering kick-ass heroine…

What’s it About?: Sentenced to a grim lunatic asylum by her evil, EVIL stepfather, Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a traumatised teen who’s facing a personality-wiping lobotomy in five days, thanks to a corrupt orderly. Or is she the latest addition to an opulent bordello, where the girls all dream of escape? Or is she a superpowered action heroine, questing her way through lurid and explosive universes of the imagination?

The Story: In an odd kind of way I can’t help but slightly admire Zack Snyder. After all, this is a man who said “I want to make a film where nubile warrior vixens in suspenders battle giant samurai, dragons, and steampunk Nazi zombies”, and actually got someone to pay him to make it happen. It’s just a pity the end result ends up so ferociously boring, as well as being possibly the most misguided and wretched example of a director trying to prove themselves since Guy Ritchie’s hilariously awful 2005 oddity Revolver.

Sucker Punch Emily Browning Publicity Photo Zack SnyderAt the least, it’s hard to fault Sucker Punch in terms of ambition. In an era where big-budget original projects are the exception rather than the rule, it wants to stand out from the crowd. “Hey,” it says, “why can’t I be a reality-altering tale of a quest for freedom and the transformative power of the imagination, refracting my ‘escape from a girl’s mental institution’ plot through three separate realities?” It’d be a great idea, if all the ingredients of Sucker Punch weren’t crammed artlessly together in an indigestible stew that functions more as a sequence of music videos than an actual story, giving us a film that isn’t much more than a hyper-stylised guided tour through Zack Snyder’s personal scrapbook of geek fetishes.

From the evidence here, he’s definitely one of those directors who’s only as good as his material, and should on no account be allowed to write his own stories, as he barely seems to know how to create a believable emotional reality on camera. From the soundtrack of nu-metal cover versions (which somehow manages to choose songs that are both thunkingly obvious and staggeringly inappropriate) to the wildly inappropriate tone (which was obviously never meant to be tailored for a PG-13 certificate in the States), you’ve got a film that simply lurches from one scene to another, feeling like a teenager’s crazed recreation of some film they saw once that they really liked.

Amber Jamie Chung Character Poster Sucker Punch Zack SnyderThis needn’t have been a fatal problem – after all, plenty of films have been massively flawed but coasted by on the strength of their eye candy and some exciting battle sequences. And yet, one of the greatest acheivements of Sucker Punch is that Snyder takes the concept of sexy girls fighting Nazi steampunk zombies, dragons and ninja robots, and actually make it dull.

All of these sequences take place in the head of our main character, the vacuous and completely uninteresting Babydoll (Browning) while she’s performing lewd and lascivious dances that have the power to turn all the men in range weak at the knees. These sequences are supposed – in theory – to be heightened versions of the missions the girls have to perform in order to escape, metaphors for their imagination triumphing over adversity.

Trouble is, it’s impossible to care – these sequences are spectacular, but there’s never any sense of reality, never any stakes, and never any reason to emotionally connect with these ‘superhero’ versions of the characters. Parallels with Inception have been made – but while Inception has its flaws (and excessive exposition is definitely one of them), the one thing it does have is a genuine sense of risk, of something being at stake. We know the rules, and we know how the multiple worlds connect to and relate to each other. Sucker Punch’s multiple worlds exist simultaneously but only rarely connect – once the fantasy sequences start, we’re basically in a different movie for the next ten minutes, one that only rarely links up to anything resembling actual drama. Stuntwork, CG and absurdly overblown slow-mo are the order of the day, but presented without any explanation, any reason, any reality.

Sucker Punch Movie Still Zack Snyder Abbie Cornish Vanessa Hudgens Jena MaloneYes, Snyder is capable of rendering some amazingly energetic and imaginative battle sequences – but half of his tricks are ripped off from other directors, and the rest are worn to the ground in Sucker Punch to such an extent that he’s effectively robbed me of any fleeting interest in seeing a Zack Snyder-directed Superman movie (especially in the train-attack and subsequent robot fight, where the CG-assisted speed-ramping is cranked up to such a ludicrous extent, I almost thought it was a Zucker Brothers-esque parody of how insanely stupid CG-assisted fight sequences have finally become).

Sucker Punch ends up playing as if someone had edited videogame cutscenes into a Baz Lurhmann remake of a Seventies girls prison flick, and the grinding repetition (nu-metal cover version, briefing, kill footsoldiers, fight boss, rinse, repeat…) soon becomes incredibly wearing – the insane spectacle loses its novelty, and simply becoming noise for noise’s sake.

Emily Browning Sucker Punch Zack Snyder Movie StillIt’s not as if we’re given anything much to care about outside of the action. Lead actress Emily Browning is a complete cypher, spending most of the film looking awesomely photogenic and slightly dazed, and while Abbie Cornish (the angry one) and Jena Malone (the spunky, rebellious one) make a vague impression, it’s not as if they’re actually being given characters to play.

The only performers who really make an impression are Scott Glenn, channelling the late David Carradine as the wizened Wise Man who guides Babydoll through the various missions (and also manages to make some of the clunking dialogue sound almost bearable) while Oscar Isaac as evil orderly/evil brothel owner Blue actually pulls off a genuine performance (one that’s certainly stronger than Carla ‘Enjoy my eccentric European Accent’ Gugino).

Sucker Punch Promo Pic Zack Snyder Emily Browning Vanessa Hudgens Jamie Chung Abbie Cornish Jena MaloneEveryone else is essentially playing paper-thin cartoons and eye-candy, but while the Girls-prison-flick meets Moulin Rouge tone runs out of steam pretty quickly, the biggest failure of all in Sucker Punch is that this overblown, pretentious, chin-stroking nonsense actually thinks it’s empowering. Note to Snyder: When your film has its main character spend virtually the entire film being menaced by men, exploited by men, admired solely for her gorgeousness (and her ability to harness the power of Sexydance), not having anything resembling an interior life, and regularly escaping into a fantasy world where she gets told what to do by a man – that’s not empowering in the slightest.

It’s really no worse in this regard than any Hollywood film in the last ten years that’s tried (and usually failed) to do a decent action heroine (aside from rare examples like Kill Bill), but if you’re going to make a lurid exploitation flick, just come out and say it. Sucker Punch wants to be saying “Free your mind!” – but its only real message is: “Yes, dear, you can go killing dragons and zombies, but do make sure that you’re wearing something incredibly skimpy that shows off your arse, won’t you?”

The Verdict: If you want two hours of things going KA-BOOM and skimpy outfits, then Sucker Punch will intermittently push your buttons. Otherwise, this ambitious failure is the working definition of ‘a tale full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’ – a mish-mash of influences that’s too busy throwing CGI and opulent production design in the audience’s faces to give them anything to care about.

Movie Review: True Grit

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Hailee Steinfeld, Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper ~ Writers/Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen ~ Rating: 15 ~ Year: 2010

True Grit Movie Poster Coen Brothers 2010[xrr rating=4/5]

The Lowdown: The Western rides again thanks to the Coen Brothers, who’ve taken a novel originally filmed in 1969 with John Wayne and turned it into a powerful and moody portrait of the Old West, backed up by fantastic performances from Jeff Bridges and newcomer Hailee Steinfeld.

What’s it About?: 14-year old farm girl Mattie Ross (Steinfeld) has only one thing she wants – to see runaway criminal Tom Chaney (Brolin) hang for the murder of her father. However, Chaney has vanished deep inside the Indian Nations, and the only person she can find to help her is US Marshall Reuben ‘Rooster’ Cogburn (Bridges), a one-eyed shambling disaster of a man who seems more interested in whiskey than justice…

The Story: The rule is simple – never remake a classic. There’s so many elements that can go wrong second time around, so it’s often much easier to take on a film that isn’t quite so revered, as in the case of True Grit. Filmed in 1969, the John Wayne-starring version is actually a fairly good example of a mainstream Hollywood Western in the late Sixties, but it’s really best remembered for Wayne’s showboating performance, playing off his iconic status as the cantankerous, whiskey-soaked Cogburn (and netting him his only Oscar), and doesn’t always do justice to Charles Portis’s original novel. As a result, there weren’t any cries of horror when the Coen Brothers announced their intention to do a new interpretation of True Grit, and what we’ve ended up with is a very different version of the same story, taking the original novel and creating something much darker, more ruminative and violent.

True Grit 2010 Jeff Bridges Hailee SteinfeldBecause make no mistake – while there’s plenty of humour on display here, this is a story of justice, and the kind of price you pay for both seeking and defying it. Mattie Ross’ determined quest to avenge her father is brave and compelling, but it’s never framed as anything other than an extremely dangerous journey into dark territory that’s populated by dangerous men. There’s very little escapism or romance in the Coen’s portrait of the West – Mattie spends the film surrounded by death (even having to sleep at an undertakers in an early scene), and her quest eventually results in a serious price to pay, while the West itself is a spectacular but frightening place, a bleak and barren country where there’s little comfort (but plenty of room for occasional bursts of very Coen-Brother weirdness, like the bizarre encounter with a roaming wilderness Dentist).

True Grit 2010 Jeff BridgesWhen the action comes, it’s brilliantly handled and sometimes shocking, but the Coens mainly keep the pace gentle, focussing on the characters and showcasing their usual talent at bringing out strong performances. It’s no surprise that Bridges is excellent – he’s one of the most reliable character actors in Hollywood – but he does an amazing job as Cogburn, buried behind an eyepatch and a sometimes-incomprehensible accent, creating a character who’s both entertaining and dangerous, riding a risky moral line and being admirable without ever seeming entirely reliable or trustworthy.

True Grit 2010 Jeff Bridges Hailee Steinfeld stillThere’s also excellent work from Matt Damon, giving Texas Ranger LaBoeuf plenty of depth and pomposity, while Josh Brolin does plenty with only a handful of scenes as Cheney, but the whole film is stolen wholesale by Hailee Steinfeld who’s simply incredible as Mattie Ross, appearing in almost every scene and matching her co-stars line for line. The early sequence where she manages to talk around a tradesman who’s unwilling to buy back a number of horses is worth the price of admission alone, and Steinfeld holds the whole film together with a realism and charisma that you don’t often see in teen actresses.

True Grit sits at the more commercial end of the Coen Brothers’ work, although it’s definitely a successful fusion of art and commerce (especially now that it’s made over $100 million in the States). While it isn’t quite as distinctive or peculiarly moving as the fantastically quirky A Serious Man, or as gut-punchingly powerful as No Country for Old Men, it’s still a fascinating and rewarding piece of cinema, backed up with a typically excellent and moving score from Carter Burwell. In a way, it also makes a kind of odd double-bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven – and while it isn’t quite as determined to demythologise the West, it certainly takes the shine off the legend, showing it as a pretty merciless place that only cantankerous, morally dubious men like Bridges’ Cogburn are truly built to survive.

The Verdict: Darker and more melancholic than you might expect, True Grit contains plenty of the classic hallmarks of the Western, but it’s most memorable for the Coen Brothers’ more characterful touches, and the fantastic performances of both Bridges and Steinfeld.

[amtap book:isbn=0747572631]

[amtap amazon:asin=B004BDOEYK]

Movie News: The Unstoppable Craziness of Bollywood Sci-Fi Action Film “Enthiran”

There are some things in life that need to be seen to be believed – and quite obviously, upcoming Bollywood SF action blockbuster Enthiran is one of them. Found via (and tweeted by @jessnevins), words simply cannot describe the level of WTF insanity on display here, in a ten-minute clip that appears to be from a Russian dub of the original Indian dialogue. But trust me – you really don’t need the dialogue to enjoy the hell out of this kind of overblown ludicrousness. Strap yourselves in, and prepare for your jaw to hit the floor in sheer amazement at the fact that this film actually exists…

Comic Review – Casanova : Luxuria

Year: 2010 ~ Writer: Matt Fraction ~ Artist: Gabriel Ba ~ Colours: Cris Peter ~ Publisher: Icon

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba cover

[xrr rating=5/5]

What’s it about?: Casanova Quinn – liar, bad seed and international scoundrel. He’s leading a life of crime, enjoying the hell out of disobeying his father Cornelius Quinn and the forces of E.M.P.I.R.E… but then, he’s abducted out of his own timeline and taken to another. Here, he’s enlisted by his sister Zephr and bandaged villain Newman Xeno to become his own evil twin and destroy E.M.P.I.R.E. from within…

The Story: “How can a bunch of stupid comic books compete with drugs and girls that let you take off their clothes?” It’s a damn good question (asked during the second story in this collection, ‘Pretty Little Policeman’), but if there’s one comic that stands a pretty good chance of competing, it’s the mad, brain-expanding and sinfully sexy Casanova. The brainchild of comics writer Matt Fraction, a man who’s carving out a selection of highly acclaimed stories in the mainstream Marvel universe (including an acclaimed run on The Invincible Iron Man), Casanova is the kind of full-tilt, love-it-or-hate-it, packed-to-the-brim-with-invention story that thumbs its nose at normality, convention and good taste. Instead, what we get is a gorgeously hyper-lurid blend of sci-fi, pop art spy thriller and twisted family saga, as if someone had taken cult sixties adventure Danger Diabolik and mashed it together with Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels and a heavy dollop of Grant Morrison-style insanity.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Panel issue 1Originally published back in 2006, Casanova was first issued in smaller-formatted 15 page instalments (and in a simply coloured green/black/white style), and Fraction made every page count by cramming a jaw-dropping level of invention into each one. In the first instalment alone, we get horny fembots, psychic combat, drugged-out sex and a helicopter-driven supercasino – and that’s only in the first twelve pages, shortly before our hero gets torn out of reality and things get really strange. It’s a demanding read, one that hurls concepts at the reader as fast as they can take it, and while the broad ‘Bond on Acid’ style is fun, energetic and wonderfully sexy, the world of Casanova is also a weird, disturbing and downright brutal one. If it isn’t the torture, it’s the nude male wrestling deathmatch. If it isn’t the robot orgies, it’s the worryingly flirtatious nature of the relationship between Casanova and his alternate, not-technicially-in-a-quantum-way-related twin sister Zephr.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Zephr QuinnFraction knows how to mess with our preconceptions, and spins a series of tales that up-end traditional pulp fiction assumptions (especially in ‘Coldheart’, where Casanova investigates a savage island of tribal warriors), twisting the narrative into interesting and mindbending shapes. It’s not just a romp, though – at the heart of Casanova, there’s a dark and troubling story of a tangled family, and what happens when reality collides with comic-book insanity. The sheer level of invention is boggling, and this isn’t a collection that’s easy to take in one sitting, but in today’s world of decompressed comics where whole fight sequences can stretch over multiple issues, a comic as packed full of goodness as Casanova is something to be applauded. Combine that with Fraction’s crackling dialogue and truly demented sense of humour, and you’ve got a turbo-charged dose of craziness that repays multiple re-reads.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba panelThis Icon collection reprints the original series from 2006, but it’s been spruced up with new colouring (creatively done by Cris Peter, and still referencing the green look of the comic’s first outing) and new lettering, along with a selection of fresh extras at the back of the book, including the new 10-page story ‘I Think I Almost Loved Him’, which fills in some of the gaps in the story around the character of the Night Nurse. Also, Icon is currently reprinting in issue format the also-recoloured and never-before-collected second Casanova run Gula, with an all-new Casanova story coming later in the year. Don’t hesitate – get onboard now with one of the most entertaining, challenging and genuinely offbeat comics out there.

Casanova Luxuria Matt Fraction Gabriel Ba Zephr QuinnThe Art: Brazilian artist Gabriel Ba is better known for his work on offbeat fantasy comic The Umbrella Academy, but Casanova was the first work to get him serious mainstream attention, and it’s no surprise – this is stylish, distinctive and wonderfully sexy stuff. Dynamic and graphically interesting throughout, he’s brilliant at laying out pages and grabbing the reader’s attention. He also draws women like nobody else on Earth, managing a style that’s simultaneously over-the-top ludicrous, characterful, and utterly drenched in sultry sexiness (especially when it comes to Zephr Quinn in the ‘Pretty Little Policeman’ carnival sequence). There’s barely a crazed idea Fraction can come up with that Ba can’t pull off, and it all adds up to the kind of characterful and utterly unique comic art that’s easy to get lost in.

The Verdict: Like a particularly demented night out on the town, you may not remember everything that happens by the end of Casanova, but pretty soon you’ll be hungry to go through it all over again. It’s certainly not for everybody, but lovers of the cult, the strange and the sexy should buckle up for this ride as soon as they possibly can.

[amtap book:isbn=0785148620]