6 More Film Reviews From 2014: At Middleton, Barefoot, Divergent, Gimme Shelter, The Other Woman, and more!


Let’s continue to get caught up with 6 more reviews of 6 more films that I saw in 2014!

At Middleton (dir by Adam Rodgers)

“Charming, but slight.”  I’ve always liked that term and I think it’s the perfect description for At Middleton, a dramedy that came out in January and did not really get that much attention.  Vera Farmiga is a businesswoman who is touring colleges with her daughter (Taissa Farmiga, who is actually Vera’s younger sister).  Andy Garcia is a surgeon who is doing the same thing with his son.  All four of them end up touring Middleton College at the same time.  While their respective children tour the school, Vera and Andy end up walking around the campus and talking.  And that’s pretty much the entire film!

But you know what?  Vera Farmiga and Andy Garcia are both such good performers and have such a strong chemistry that it doesn’t matter that not much happens.  Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter was much as you might think it would.

Hence, charming but slight.

Barefoot (dir by Andrew Fleming)

Well, fuck it.

Sorry, I know that’s not the best way to start a review but Barefoot really bothered me.  In Barefoot, Scott Speedman plays a guy who invites Evan Rachel Wood to his brother’s wedding.  The twist is that Wood has spent most of her life in a mental institution.  Originally, Speedman only invites her so that he can trick his father (Treat Williams) into believing that Speedman has finally become a responsible adult.  But, of course, he ends up falling in love with her and Wood’s simple, mentally unbalanced charm brings delight to everyone who meets her.  I wanted to like this film because I love both Scott Speedman and Evan Rachel Wood but, ultimately, it’s all rather condescending and insulting.  Yes, the film may be saying, mental illness is difficult but at least it helped Scott Speedman find love…

On the plus side, the always great J.K. Simmons shows up, playing a psychiatrist.  At no point does he say, “Not my tempo” but he was probably thinking it.

Divergent (dir by Neil Burger)

There’s a lot of good things that can be said about Divergent.  Shailene Woodley is a likable heroine.  The film’s depiction of a dystopian future is well-done. Kate Winslet has fun playing a villain.  Miles Teller and Ansel Elgort are well-cast.  But, ultimately, Divergent suffers from the same problem as The Maze Runner and countless other YA adaptations.  The film never escapes from the shadow of the far superior Hunger Games franchise.  Perhaps, if Divergent had been released first, we’d be referring to the Hunger Games as being a Divergent rip-off.

However, I kind of doubt it.  The Hunger Games works on so many levels.  Divergent is an entertaining adventure film that features a good performance from Shailene Woodley but it’s never anything more than that.  Considering that director Neil Burger previously gave us Interview with the Assassin and Limitless, it’s hard not to be disappointed that there’s not more to Divergent.

Gimme Shelter (dir by Ron Krauss)

Gimme Shelter, which is apparently based on a true story, is about a teenage girl named Apple (Vanessa Hudgens) who flees her abusive, drug addicted mother (Rosario Dawson).  She eventually tracks down her wealthy father (Brendan Fraser), who at first takes Apple in.  However, when he discovers that she’s pregnant, he demands that she get an abortion.  When Apple refuses, he kicks her out of the house.  Apple eventually meets a kindly priest (James Earl Jones) and moves into a shelter that’s run by the tough Kathy (Ann Dowd).

Gimme Shelter came out in January and it was briefly controversial because a lot of critics felt that, by celebrating Apple’s decision not to abort her baby, the movie was pushing an overly pro-life message.  Interestingly enough, a lot of those outraged critics were men and, as I read their angry reviews, it was hard not to feel that they were more concerned with showing off their political bona fides than with reviewing the actual film.  Yes, the film does celebrate Apple’s decision to keep her baby but the film also emphasizes that it was Apple’s decision to make, just as surely as it would have been her decision to make if she had chosen to have an abortion.

To be honest, the worst thing about Gimme Shelter is that it doesn’t take advantage of the fact that it shares its name with a great song by the Rolling Stones.  Otherwise, it’s a well-done (if rather uneven) look at life on the margins.  Yes, the script and the direction are heavy-handed but the film is redeemed by a strong performance from Vanessa Hudgens, who deserves to be known for more than just being “that girl from High School Musical.”

Heaven is For Real (dir by Randall Wallace)

You can tell that Heaven is For Real is supposed to be based on a true story by the fact that the main character is named Todd Burpo.  Todd Burpo is one of those names that’s just so ripe for ridicule that you know he has to be a real person.

Anyway, Heaven Is For Real is based on a book of the same name.  Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear) is the pastor of a small church in Nebraska.  After Todd’s son, Colton, has a near death experience, he claims to have visited Heaven where he not only met a sister who died before he was born but also had a conversation with Jesus.  As Colton’s story starts to get national attention, Todd struggles to determine whether Colton actually went to Heaven or if he was just having a hallucination.

You can probably guess which side the movie comes down on.

Usually, as a self-described heathen, I watch about zero faith-based movies a year.  For some reason, I ended up watching three over the course of 2014: Left Behind, Rumors of War, and this one.  Heaven is For Real is not as preachy (or terrible) as Left Behind but it’s also not as much fun as Rumors of War.  (Rumors of War, after all, featured Eric Roberts.)  Instead, Heaven Is For Real is probably as close to mainstream as a faith-based movie can get.  I doubt that the film changed anyone’s opinion regarding whether or not heaven is for real but it’s still well-done in a made-for-TV sort of way.

The Other Woman (dir by Nick Cassavetes)

According to my BFF Evelyn, we really liked The Other Woman when we saw it earlier this year.  And, despite how bored I was with the film when I recently tired to rewatch it, we probably did enjoy it that first time.  It’s a girlfriend film, the type of movie that’s enjoyable as long as you’re seeing it for the first time and you’re seeing it with your best girlfriends.  It’s a lot of fun the first time you see it but since the entire film is on the surface, there’s nothing left to discover on repeat viewings.  Instead, you just find yourself very aware of the fact that the film often substitutes easy shock for genuine comedy. (To be honest, I think that — even with the recent missteps of Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children — Jason Reitman could have done wonders with this material.  Nick Cassavetes however…)   Leslie Mann gives a good performance and the scenes where she bonds with Cameron Diaz are a lot of fun but otherwise, it’s the type of film that you enjoy when you see it and then you forget about it.

Back to School #63: Thirteen (dir by Catherine Hardwicke)


Have you ever seen a film and thought to yourself, “Oh my God, that’s my life?”

That’s the way I always feel whenever I see the 2003 film Thirteen.  Thirteen is one of my favorite movies but I always get uncomfortable whenever I watch it because a lot of the film hits really close to home for me.  Thirteen tells the story of 13 year-old Tracy (played, in an amazing performance, by Evan Rachel Wood) who, after befriending Evie Zamora (Nikki Reed, who also co-wrote the script along with director Catherine Hardwicke), goes wild.  Soon, Tracy is shoplifting, self-harming, experimenting with drugs and sex, and striking out at her mother, Melanie (Oscar nominee Holly Hunter).

As played by Hunter, Melanie is probably one of the best moms to ever show up in a contemporary film.  I’m tempted to say that Hunter’s performance here is the American equivalent to Sophia Loren’s work in Vittorio De Sica’s Two Women.  Melanie is not portrayed as being perfect.  Instead, she’s a recovering alcoholic who is dating a former drug addict (played by Jeremy Sisto) and she doesn’t always say the right thing and sometimes she does wish that she could just be selfish and not have to deal with her rebellious daughter.  When Evie, claiming that she’s being abused at her own home, literally moves in with Tracy, Melanie instinctively knows that Evie is a bad influence but she can’t bring herself to turn her away.  And yet, for all the mistakes that she makes, Melanie is still a good mom.  She loves her daughter and finally proves that she’s willing to sacrifice her own happiness to try to save Tracy.  Off the top of my head, I can’t tell you who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 2003, but it should have gone to Holly Hunter.

Thirteen was the directorial debut of one of my favorite director, Catherine Hardwicke.  Hardwicke doesn’t get the critical respect that she deserves, largely because she directed the first Twilight.  (Twilight, however, is not a badly directed film.  The trouble is with the source material, not Hardwicke’s direction.)  With Thirteen, Hardwicke approaches the film with a matter-of-fact directness that keep the movie grounded and prevents it from going over-the-top with its nonstop parade of delinquent behavior.

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It’s a difficult film for me to watch because, when I was thirteen, I basically was Tracy.  I was angry at my Dad for leaving us and a part of me blamed my mom but an even bigger part of me blamed myself.  Like Tracy, I felt as if I had been abandoned and I felt as if control of my life was out of my hands.  I resented the life that I imagined I would never get to live and so, I went out of my way to make sure that everyone knew that I didn’t need them but they certainly needed me.  I struck out in whatever way I could and, looking back at it now, I know that, basically from the ages of 13 to 17, I caused a lot of unneccessary pain to the people who loved me.

Thirteen captures all of that perfectly and, therefore, it’s not easy for me to watch.  But, at the same time, I’m always glad after I do watch it because I know that I turned out okay and that gives me hope that, despite the film’s ambiguous ending, Tracy will turn out okay as well.

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Trailer: Gimme Shelter


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This film, which features Vanessa Hudgens in a change-of-pace role, looks good and life-affirming.  However, there are two reasons for concern.

First off, the movie is being released in January, which is traditionally the time of year that all of the really bad movies are released.

Secondly, the trailer features three quotes praising the film but they’re all from the same review.

Hopefully, Gimme Shelter will beat the odds.

Any Takers For “Spring Breakers” ?


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So, we’ve finally discovered what it takes for Harmony Korine to go mainstream — a couple of  established stars, a little T&A, and hey! — he’s in the club. Hell, he can even manage to get himself invited onto Letterman outta the deal — although apparently he can’t stick around for long. Still, the fact remains — long (hell, decades) after you’d given up on the very notion it would ever happen, Hollywood has opened its doors to the guy who gave us GummoJulien Donkey-Boy, and Trash Humpers. And truth be told, he didn’t have to dumb down his sensibilities all that much in the process.

Okay, yeah — Spring Breakers is full of Girls Gone Wild-type footage of hot young flesh parading around in bikinis (or less), muscle-heads partying in jock straps, beer bongs being poured on impossibly tight stomachs, impromptu lesbian make-out sessions, yadda yadda yadda. But it’s piled on so thick and so repetitiously that there’s no way Korine can possibly be engaging in anything but parody of the Bacchanalian subculture he’s depicting. The film never takes itself too seriously, even when it ventures into some pretty dark territory, and it seems to me  that our guy Harmony is sending a none-too-sly message to the Tinseltown suits who previously wouldn’t have touched his work with a 50-foot pole : “this is what you want? Okay. But we’re doing it my way.”

And frankly, that “way” hasn’t changed much — the ultra-naturalistic hand-held camerawork, hallucinatory pacing and editing, and free-from improvisation (as usual, the story per se here doesn’t seem to follow any set “script” as you or I understand the term and appears mostly to consist of the actors getting into character and then ad-libbing from there) of his earlier efforts remains, and the end result is more akin to a series of “found footage” snippets pieced together pretty haphazardly than anything else. The setting may be different this time around, but the basic Korine modus operandi is essentially the same.

In short, if you’ve been following this guy’s career over the course of the pas couple of decades, you’ll only think you’re getting into something different with Spring Breakers, but by the time Ellie Goulding’s “Lights” plays over the end credits, there’s no doubt that this work fits in very comfortably with the rest of his directorial oeuvre. Think Trash Humpers in bikinis, or Gummo with “hotties” rather than genetic rejects, and you won’t be too far off thSo, here’s the deal — four friends (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife, Rachel) at a piece of shit college in piece of shit Kentucky are bored out of their minds and want to go down to St. Pete to live it up over Spring Break. There’s just one problem — they don’t have enough money. In order to alleviate that situation, three of them (Gomez’s character — named, appropriately enough, Faith — a devoutly religious young woman most of the time sits it out) decide to pull a heist at a local fast-food chicken stand using those purportedly realistic-looking squirt guns the cops are always telling us fooled ’em whenever they shoot some poor kid who was holding one dead. They get away with it and head down for a week of sun, fun, sex, booze, and drugs — but they don’t get away with that, because they’re busted at a party that gets out of hand. Don’t fret too much, though, friends, as they aren’t forced to cool their heels in jail for very long. A local dope dealer/wannabe-rapper who goes by the handle of Alien (James Franco, doing his best impression of Gary Oldman in True Romance , just substitute hip-hop for reggae) takes a liking to them when he sees them in court and bails ’em out en masse. Does he have ulterior motives? Of course, and watching him use pimp-like “turning out” psychological manipulation on the ladies in order to seduce them into into being hench-women in his pot-selling-and-armed-robbery enterprise (his only other “employees” are two identical twin brothers that Korine taps from the low end of that gene pool he’s always wading in  ) is both creepy and cool at the same time.

That being said, Alien’s not a one-dimensional character (even though most of the girls, frankly, are) and he does seem to develop a genuine emotional bond with his new recruits. Faith doesn’t fall for his shtick and hops a bus home, but the rest are in. And that, of course, is where the troubles really begin.

Korine follows a pretty delicate balancing act the rest of the way — he eschews standard “don’t aim higher than your station in life or it’ll end in tears” morality-play-style sermonizing even though the material could be played that way pretty easily, while simultaneously upping the ante on the over-the-top-ness of it all in a manner so sly that you almost don’t even notice that it’s happening. The ladies get Alien to fellate a gun silencer and it feels perfectly natural, fer cryin’ out loud! But what the hell, they all appeared before the judge in nothing but their bikinis a few short scenes ago, so anything goes here, right?

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The final shoot-’em-up at the end, at which point another of the former-foursome has made her way northward after taking a bullet in the arm, does in fact strain credulity a bit, but by then the ethos of the film —in short, presenting the blatantly absurd in the most free-form, unforced manner possible — is so firmly established that, even if you don’t exactly buy it, you don’t mind it. The flick’s firing on all its admittedly warped cylinders, and your choices are either go with the flow or pull your hair out. Since I don’t have all that much hair left, the decision is  a pretty simple one.

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I suppose, at the end of the day, there will be those who go into this thing for no other reason than to see three-and four-way sex or former “Disney Girls” gone bad. If that’s your thing, fair enough — but I have to warn you, if that’s what put your butt in the seat, you’re destined to head for the exits scratching your head, even though the film delivers everything you want to see in even more ample proportion than you’d probably been expecting. The rest of us? We’ll have thoroughly enjoyed a movie that’s never as stupid as it pretends to be.

Review: Sucker Punch (dir. by Zack Snyder)


There have always been films through the years which will garner extreme reactions from its audiences. These reactions will always take two sides on the film. People who see these films will either love them or they will hate them. There is to be little to no middle ground reaction when it comes to these films. In 2009, we had James Cameron’s epic scifi Avatar which had two sets of fans. Those who loved it to the point that it transcended simple fandom into something these people thought as important. Then there were the vocal minority who absolutely hated the film. Whether both fans were right in their opinions was (and continues) to be irrelevent. All that mattered to these people was that they’re right and the other side was wrong.

2011 is entering it’s second season and a film finally arrived which seem to have elicited the same sort of reaction from people who have seen it. Sure, there’s some who saw it merely as entertainment and left it at that, but there’s a growing rift between those who loved the film and those who hated it. The film which seem to have caused this is the action-fantasy film Sucker Punch.

To say that Zack Snyder’s latest visual extravaganza would create discussion amongst filmgoers would be an undertstatement. Sucker Punch has arrived to much genre fandom fanfare. This was a film that seemed to take genres from all corners like scifi, fantasy, anime and manga and mashed them all up into something new and serving it up to the legion of fans who love those very things. Zack Snyder has made his reputation as a filmmaker as a visual artist. His entire filmography from the Dawn of the Dead remake all the way up to his adaptation of the Alan Moore graphic novel Watchmen have all been very strong visually. His grasp of narrative structure continues to grow and improve but it’s always been his handling of dialogue which has tripped him up.

Sucker Punch is a tale within a tale about a young woman we come to know as Baby Doll (played with an almost angelic quality by Emily Browning). The film opens up with the curtain rising on a theater stage and we soon become witness to a dialogue-free opening sequence of the events which transpired to bring Baby Doll to the Lennox House mental institution. This entire opening sequence is a great example of Snyder as a master of creating a montage of striking visuals sans dialogue with only music to break the silence. It helped that the music chosen to accompany this scene was a haunting rendition by Emily Browning herself of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of These)”. Just like in Watchmen‘s own intro title sequence, Snyder was able to convey the beginnings of the story without the need for dialogue and do it so well that we as an audience understand fully all that’s transpiring on the screen.

Once this prologue ends we move onto the main setting of the film where Baby Doll gets put into the care of the Lennox House’s resident boogeyman in the form of Blue as played with slimy charm and panache by one Oscar Isaac (last scene chewing up the English countryside in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood). The audience sees what Baby Doll sees as Blue gives her the tour of the facilities which finally ends at the “Theater” where all the female patients act out their problems and fears through the guidance and help of Doctor Gorski (played by the lovely and return Snyder performer, Carla Gugino).

The first 15 minutes of this film was pretty much a basic set-up of what Snyder will use as his blueprint for the rest of the film. All the different levels of fantasy Baby Doll will imagine and inhabit throughout the film is rooted deeply in this initial sequence of events which begins the film. The clues as to who the story is truely about could be found in this intro if one was paying attention to the film instead of being distracted and mesmerized by the visuals Snyder crafts to start the film. While it won’t become apparent until the reveal at the climactic events of the film. Once all are the cards were revealed, so to speak, the beginning of the film begins to make sense. From the curtain rising, the silent film-like scene to begin and the narration to open things up, all those give a hint to what the answer to the question the film’s narrative really asks: “Is what we’re seeing truly real or is it all just fantasy?”

Sucker Punch becomes a sort of a trip down the rabbit hole a la Alice In Wonderland once the film establishes Baby Doll’s predicament upon arriving at the Lennox House (she’s to be lobotomized in 5 days). The film moves from the gray and depressing confines of the Lennox House to the fantasy world centered on a burlesque establishment where Baby Doll is an orphan sold by a decadent priest (the form her stepfather takes in this fantasy) to Blue, the proprietor of this house of ill repute where orphaned young women become burlesque dancers and worst to the clientele. It is in this place we meet the rest of the gang Baby Doll will befriend to help her try to escape the place and thus avoif the “High Roller” who will come to collect her in 5 days.

The film shares something similar with Christopher Nolan’s Inception in that both films deal with different levels of reality or fantasy (depends on how one sees the different worlds shown in both films). Where Nolan’s ideas seem more rooted in what he would consider as more grounded to reality as much as possible Snyder goes the other way and takes the leashes off of Baby Doll’s imagination. This third level Baby Doll goes to as she begins her dance to distract the men of the burlesque house is her mind unfettered and where she’s not helpless but has power not just to protect herself but do so better than the men who inhabit this fantasy world of steampunk zombie soldiers, orcs, dragons, alien robot machines and many other scifi and fantasy tropes which define geek culture through the decades.

If there’s one reason to watch this film it would be just to bear witness to Snyder letting his imagination as a visual filmmaker take over. Some people may not like this and want a strong, structured narrative to balance out the visuals. I, too, would’ve liked to have seen something stronger in terms of story and plot, but there are just instances when the visuals are so striking and wildly imaginative that one just marvels at the scenes unfolding on the screen. If any, Snyder as a visual artist helps prop up the weakness in the story. Snyder would’ve served this film better if he went even further and turned Sucker Punch into an avant-garde silent film of the digital age. That beginning in the film just unfolded so strongly despite no dialogue that the rest of the film could’ve been done in the same manner and be the better for it.

Which brings me to what was the film’s near fatal flaw. A flaw that many of the film’s detractors have taken as the rallying cry to denounce the film as horrible and Snyder as a hack. The interesting thing is that these same people were also the ones who had been praising of Snyder prior to this film. Even those who begrudgingly gave Snyder his props for having some semblance of talent because of the very handling of the visuals that he has now have become much more vocal about how they always knew Snyder was never that good.

I would say that Snyder is not the second coming of Ridley Scott as some of his supporters have anointed him or is he a hack filmmaker who is all flash and no substance. I think he’s somewhere in the middle and still finding his true voice as a filmmaker. I’ve always seen Snyder as being weak when it comes to handling the slower scenes of dialogue and most visual filmmakers tend to be the same when starting out. The dialogue seem to get in the way of what they really want to do and tell the story through striking visual sequences. They’re like painters who don’t need words to convey the emotions they wish to convey. Sucker Punch I believe suffered from Snyder trying to combine his strength on the visual side of the equation with his handling of story through the dialogue which he still hasn’t mastered. If someone else had written, or at the very least, fixed and strengthened the script, I do believe that the film wouldn’t be getting so ripped and trounced by those who had been so excited to seeing one of Snyder’s personal projects.

The performances by the cast ranged from good to just being there. There really wasn’t anyone in particular who performed badly. Everyone from Emily Browning to Oscar Isaac all the way to Abbie Cornish did well enough with the material they were given. Oscar Isaac as both Blue in the insane asylum and as the pimp in the burlesque house did particularly well playing up the fun role of the villain in Baby Doll’s different levels of reality/fantasy. Of the ladies in the film I must point out the performance of Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish as sisters in the second level. While we only get a glimpse of Cornish’s Sweet Pea character in the Lennox House, once in the burlesque setting she becomes the anchor by which the rest of the women in the cast held onto. Jena Malone as the younger sister Rocket who still dreamed hopes of escape was a nice complement to Sweet Pea.

So, we have a film in Sucker Punch which seem to have strength on one side of the filmmaking equation and a major weakness on another. This is the kind of film that I would, in the past, have dismissed as another attempt by Hollywood to pander to the geek crowd with its mash-up of different scifi and fantasy imagery. But this time around I actually enjoyed the film both in a visual sense and how Snyder was able to play with the audience’s personal observations about the themes his film is trying to explore. It’s these very themes which have split audiences into two camps. While the gender politics and stereotypes people have brought up in discussing this film have made for some lively debate I refrain from adding my views on it in this review. I think I’m not well-qualified to debate such discussions.

For me, Sucker Punch succeeds more than it fails because Snyder didn’t play it safe with how he wanted to make his film. He was able to tell the film’s story through the different visual styles for each world the cast played in and did it quite well. While most of the time I wouldn’t give a film a pass for a weak narrative and average dialogue with this film I felt like the experience one gets from experiencing the visual canvas Snyder continued to paint with from beginning to end was enough to balance out the negative. It’s really a film that one must experience for themselves and make their decision on that experience instead of listening to other’s opinions (both good and bad) about the film. One may end up hating the film like some, but then again they may end up like me and forgive Snyder for trying to reach for the sun and failing to do so, but at least tried to with panache instead of playing it safe.

Lisa Marie Takes A Sucker Punch (dir. by Zack Snyder)


Last Friday, I went and saw Zack Snyder’s new film Sucker Punch with my sister Erin and a group of our friends.  Sucker Punch was a film that I had been looking forward to seeing for a while and not even all of the scathingly negative reviews that I read before leaving for the theater could dampen my enthusiasm.  Somehow, I knew I would love this film (despite the fact that Zack Snyder is, usually, one of my least favorite directors).  And you know what?  I did love it.

The plot has been criticized for being both overly complicated and not being complicated enough and I actually think that a case can be made for either one of those complaints.  The film opens in the 1950s.  Teenage Babydoll (Emily Browning) is sent to a mental asylum by her evil father.  Her father has made a deal with an orderly named Blue (Oscar Isaac) to have Babydoll lobotomized. (By the way, this was actually a pretty common thing back in the 50s.  I shudder to think what would have been done to me if I had been born five decades earlier.)  As Babydoll waits for her lobotomy (scheduled to occur at the end of her first week as a patient), she is subjected to the therapy of Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino) who plays music and encourages her (all female) patients to find peace by controlling their fantasies.

Suddenly, we’re in a fantasy (just who exactly is having the fantasy is one of the film’s mysteries that’s never really explained but is actually kinda fun to debate).  In the fantasy, the insane asylum is actually a brothel/dance hall that is owned by Blue.  Gorski is a choreographer.  The patients are now all lingerie-clad dancers/prostitutes.  Babydoll is the latest girl to be put into service in the brothel and she is being held over for “the High Roller” who is expected to show up in five days.

(The fact that the movie explicitly compares forced lobotomy to rape is one of the many interesting facts that the majority of negative reviews have chosen to ignore.)

Babydoll soon discovers that 1) she’s such a good dancer that when she does dance, men can only watch in stunned silence and 2) whenever she does dance, she finds herself transported into a fantasy world where, along with getting advice from the Wise Old Man (Scott Glenn), she also battles (and defeats) everything from giant Samurai to dead Nazis who have been reanimated by “steam power” to a dragon.  These battle scenes, as odd as they are, are actually pretty exciting.  Say what you will, Snyder knows how to direct a battle scene and Browning and the rest of the almost entirely female cast all seem to be having a blast getting to do the type of things that usually, only boys are allowed to do.

Anyway, as a result of her fantasies, Babydoll comes up with a plan to escape the brothel.  She quickly recruits four other girls into her plan — Amber (Jamie Chung), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), the free-spirited (and really, really cool) Rocket (Jena Malone) and finally Rocket’s older sister, the world-weary Sweatpea (Abbie Cornish).  In order to escape, they need to steal four different items.  While Babydoll distracts their captors by dancing (and therefore going into one of her battle fantasies), the others steal whatever is needed.  And everything works out just fine.  Until it doesn’t….

Sucker Punch is a glorious mess of a movie and, perhaps because I’m a glorious mess myself, I loved it.  In fact, it’s probably my favorite film of 2011 so far.  In this regard, I know I’m going against the majority but so what?  Throughout history, if one thing has always been consistent, it is that the majority sucks.  Yes, Sucker Punch is a deeply flawed film that runs on for at least half-an-hour too long.  And yes, I think it can be argued quite convincingly that this film is ultimately a happy accident, a film that’s strength comes not from directorial design but instead as the result of a few random elements that resonate in the subconscious.  But no matter — happy accident or not, I loved Sucker Punch and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Hmmm…that’s a familiar pose.

Let’s start with a few obvious points.  As even those who hate this film seem to be admitting, it’s visually stunning.  The battle scenes are kinetic and exciting, the film’s over-the-top production design (a mix of German Expressionism, 50s film noir, Bob Fosse choreography and old Zack Snyder films) is always a blast to look at, and the soundtrack kicks ass.  Like other films in the so-called “Girls with Guns” genre, Sucker Punch allows its actresses to be something other than just scenery or helpless damsels.

Interestingly enough, for a film that takes place mostly in the world of fantasy, there’s no attempt to really make this film’s version of “reality” come across as anything other than an elaborate fantasy as well.  The film’s opening scenes are played out in slow-motion and the film’s asylum (which, like most movie asylums, appears to have been borrowed from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is so gray that the film might as well be in black-and-white.  Blue and Babydoll’s father hold a melodramatic conference while standing directly behind Babydoll, their three heads filling the screen like flashes of manic paranoia.  As such, the film — at times — becomes a fantasy taking place in a fantasy taking place in a fantasy.  It takes a while for the viewer to get used to this and, at times, it can seem like there’s really nothing to give the film any sort of grounding.  However, for me, the opening sequences are not meant to be “real” as much as they serve as a reflection for the way that the real world can imprison anyone but women in particular.  As women, we know what its like to look up and suddenly realize that our entire world has somehow become gray and cold without our knowledge.  Throughout history, when everything else has been taken away from us, fantasy has been our escape and salvation, our imagination being the one of those precious things that our fathers, our husbands, and our bosses would never be able to deny us.

One problem I did have with the film is that, for all the talk about how Babydoll’s dancing is essential to the escape plan, we never actually see her dance.  Instead, we see Browning start to sway a little, her eyes cast down and then suddenly, we’re transported into a fantasy involving zombie Nazis or giant samurai.  Once this fantasy mission has been completed, we’re suddenly back in the brothel where we see Babydoll ending her dance while her audience applauds.

To a large extent, I actually agree with Snyder’s approach here because I know, for me much as with the characters in this film, dance always presented an escape from the grayness of being.  When I was dancing, I was literally living a fantasy and this seems to be the case with Babydoll as well.  However, from simply a cinematic point of view, the constant talk of the importance of Babydoll’s dance leads the audience to naturally expect that they’ll get to see at least a little bit of the dance in question.  When you don’t, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve been teased.  (I have to admit, as well, that all this dance talk got my competitive streak going as well.  As I whispered to Erin, “They should see me dance.”  “It’s a movie, Lisa Marie, not a challenge.” Erin replied.)  Snyder, as a director, certainly probably has a strong enough visual sense that he could have found a way to make any dance that Emily Browning came up with look impressive and other worldly.

Oscar Isaac

As Arleigh has pointed out on both twitter and this site, Zack Snyder is a director who concentrates almost all of his effort on producing memorable visuals.  That’s how he tells his stories and gets the whatever response he wants from his audience.  Characters and dialogue are often kept simple so that they don’t get in the way of his visuals.  Typically, I hate films like this and I’m hardly a fan of Snyder’s previous work.  However, it didn’t bother me so much here, perhaps because I could relate to the overall theme of feeling trapped and needing an escape.  (More on that later.)  As with previous Snyder films, the performances here are mostly in service of the visuals.  The actors don’t so much perform as much as they just pose against the stunning backdrops.  As such, Emily Browning, Vanessa Hudgens, and Jamie Chung don’t really get much of a chance to make an individual impression.  Playing sisters, Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone don’t have a lot to work with but they both are strong enough personalities that they manage to bring some life to their characters beyond simply serving as figures on a landscape.

(I should also mention — and Arleigh had the same reaction — that Cornish and Malone and their character’s relationship reminded me a lot of my relationship with my older sister, Erin — especially all the times that Rocket attempted to keep things fun and interesting just to be told, by Sweetpea, that she wasn’t being boring enough.  I definitely related to that.  Erin, for her part, says that she related to all the scenes where Sweatpea nearly got killed “because her bratty, little sister did something stupid that made absolutely no sense.”)

Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone (or Erin and Lisa) In Sucker Punch

I also have to mention Oscar Isaac and Carla Gugino, both of whom seem to understand just how far they can go with their characters without descending to the level of camp.  Gugino — after this film, Sin City , and Watchmen — has got to be the Queen of digital filmmaking.  She’s also the closest thing that American film has to an old school femme fatale right now.  As well, as I told Erin as we watched the film, I can only hope that my tits look that good when I’m 60 years old.  And speaking of looking good, Oscar Isaac certainly does look good here.  Even when he has dark circles under his eyes and sports a glowering scowl, I would still throw Isaac on the ground and lick his face.  Plus, he and Gugino contribute a great performance of Love Is The Drug which plays over the end credits.

Finally, Scott Glenn — looking a lot like the late David Carradine — plays the “Wise Old Man” who pops up as a father figure of sorts in Babydoll’s fantasies.  Glenn does okay with his role though I wish his character had been a bit more clear.  To be honest, simply from the point of view of empowerment, I kinda wish his character had been known as the “Wise Woman” and had been played by Cate Blanchett.

One huge issue that seems to be coming up a lot when people talk about Sucker Punch is the issue of “empowerment.”  Does this film, which indulges in a massive schoolgirl fetish even while portraying girls kicking ass, empower or degrade women?  Well, first off, I would suggest that the question itself is an inappropriate one because to argue that a film is either “empowering” or “degrading” and nothing else is basically the same as arguing that all women are going to have the exact same response to what they see regardless of their own life experiences or personal outlook.  Quite frankly, because of some of my own personal experiences, I find the infamous, much-maligned 1970s rape/revenge film I Spit On Your Grave to be very empowering and I’m not alone in that regard.  At the same time, I also know many very intelligent, very strong women who would consider that film to be anything other than empowering.  It’s simply a matter of perspective.

I think the same can be said about Sucker Punch.  To me, Sucker Punch was a very empowering film and, honestly, that’s the main reason that I loved it even with its flaws.  First off, I think that any film in which women are allowed to do something other than stand around and panic until they’re rescued by a man, is going to be empowering because, far too often, we are taught that waiting for the right man to arrive is the only option available to us.  As well, the main theme of Sucker Punch was the theme of escape, whether that escape was physical or mental.  While I won’t presume to speak for all women, I can say that for many of us, escape is the usually the root of all fantasy and, at least to some extent, the ultimate goal.  As I watched Sucker Punch on Friday night, it seemed to me that, for far too many of us, life is a series of prisons and asylums in which the walls are constructed out of the harsh judgments of patriarchal society.  We allow ourselves to become trapped by the need to be a mother or a wife or a nurturer or a seductress or a whatever it is that society says a good woman has to be on any given day.  The women in Sucker Punch are imprisoned because they’ve gone against the expectations of society and now, whether being lobotomized or sacrificing their bodies in the fantasy brothel, they are allowing their role and personality to be defined by men.  Therefore, when Babydoll and her crew fight for their freedom, we can relate to them because that’s what we have to do every day of our lives.

My Dream Is Yours

But, the argument goes, how this be considered to be empowering when all the female images in the film are so hyper-sexualized?  And it’s true that even when the film is supposed to be portraying reality, the camera does linger over the bodies of the actresses.  In the brothel sequences, the film often looks like an outtake for some anime-inspired Victoria’s Secret fashion show.  (Seriously, this film has a major lingerie fetish but you know what?  So do I.  Lingerie is fashion poetry and when I’m wearing something pretty, I feel like a poem.)  Finally, there’s the image of Babydoll fighting her enemies and dodging explosions while flashing her underwear to the viewer.  Many have argued that this is a degrading image, that it encourages male viewers to leer and to ogle.

Well, the fact of the matter is that this film was directed by a man and often times it is obvious that we’re watching the action through a male gaze.  But, so what?  Just as I believe that women should not be ashamed of their sexuality, I don’t see why men should be expected not to look.  (Looking is not the problem.  It’s the assumption that the right to look also gives one the right to judge.)  And ultimately, I would argue, that being sexy is empowering because society, with its fucked up view of human sexuality in general, is so quick to tell us that the ideal woman is unaware of her sexuality or, at the very least, she should either hide it behind a facade of demure humility or else flaunt it to such an extent as to suggest that it’s all actually a sign of some deeper neurosis.  What is rarely given as an option is the idea that we might want to show off a little just as a matter of pride.  Men are applauded for showing off their muscles yet we are still expected to blush if we show a little cleavage.  Being sexy is not degrading.  What’s degrading are the conditions that society has attempted to impose on the right to be sexy.  To me, it’s very empowering to see strong, independent women standing up for themselves and looking good while doing it.

Sexual Empowerment

And therefore, for me, Sucker Punch was a very empowering film.  It’s entirely possible that this empowerment could be the result of a happy accident and that Snyder had no idea he was actually making a film that celebrated third wave feminism.  In fact, I’m sure that’s probably the case.

Even with as much as I enjoyed Sucker Punch, I’m still not really sold on Zack Snyder as a director  When his films work, they almost work despite his directorial flourishes than because of them.  The slow-mo action thingee was kinda fun at first but now, everyone’s doing it and it’s hard to see why it was so exciting in the first place.  Add to that, whenever I hear his name mentioned, I think about the Zach was on both seasons of Paradise Hotel and who, at one point, did this priceless drunken monologue about how he was apparently descended from lawyers.  Seriously, he was such a tool.  Well, why take my word for it?  Here’s a clip of Zach that I found on YouTube…

But anyway, what about Zack Snyder?  As I’ve mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of people right now who are gleefully hating on Sucker Punch in general and Zack Snyder in specific.  What’s really odd is, to judge from twitter, a lot of these haters are people who previously loved Snyder’s more male-centric films.  Which just goes to show what I’ve always said — men suck.  Well, that and nothing breeds contempt quicker than success.  The fact of the matter is that it was time, in the eyes many, for Snyder to take a fall.  Personally, I think Zack Snyder could be a truly noteworthy director but his style — the slow-mo action and all that — is running the risk of becoming less a storytelling tool and more of a nervous tic.

In many ways, Sucker Punch is a happy accident, a film that works despite itself.  I think that’s probably why so many male filmgoers are having such a negative reaction to it — in order to surrender to a happy accident, one has to surrender the illusion of control and men aren’t exactly good at that.  (Of course, neither are most women but seriously, at least we’ll admit to being lost.  I mean, goddamn, guys — if you don’t know where you are, you’re lost.  Just deal with it.)  I expect to have a lot of people disagree with me concerning my opinion of this film and I expect those same people will probably use Sucker Punch as some sort of code word for a “bad” or “disappointing” film from now until whenever David Fincher releases his Girl with The Dragon Tattoo remake.  But I think, as time goes on, Sucker Punch will probably be one of the few Zack Snyder films to truly become a cult film.  300 will be forgotten but Sucker Punch will remain.

Sucker Punch (2nd Trailer)


Still recovering from the SF Giants winning the 2010 World Series so my review of the pilot episode of The Walking Dead is still in need of completion. To show that I haven’t been slacking off on my postings (Lisa Marie’s really been on a posting tear these past couple days. So proud of her.) I decided that what better stopgap until the review is up than to post the newly released 2nd trailer for Zack Snyder’s upcoming fantasy film, Sucker Punch, that seems to be a who’s who of the industry’s hottest young actresses. It has Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung and (one of Lisa Marie’s favorites) Jena Malone. To help chaperone this quintet of hotness are the mature stylings of Carla Gugino and Scott Glenn.

This latest trailer gives a bit more of the narrative to Sucker Punch, but even with that the visuals may be what brings in the audience. Snyder looks to be the king of the hyperstylized visuals in Hollywood today. Whether that translates into a well-made product is still being debated, but one can never accuse Snyder of not having the eye for the spectacular.

The trailer shows more action with dragons, anime-style mecha, samurai, Nazis and zombies. Interestingly enough the trailer skimps on the Moulin Rouge-type sequence the Comic-Con trailer showed. I’m sure those scenes will be in the final film, but Legendary Pictures look to be using the stylized action to sell the flick. I’m for it either way. If sex doesn’t sell then cool violence does in Hollywood.

I’m wondering how much Legendary Pictures ended up paying Led Zeppelin to use “When the Levee Breaks” to score this trailer. It has to be some major coinage which tells me that the studio has high-expectations about this film succeeding and raking in even more coinage.