Sunday, April 3, 2011

Film Review with Robert Mann - Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch *** The success of 300 back in 2007 has earned director Zack Snyder a lot of good will with the execs at Warner Brothers Pictures, good will that has translated into a level of creative indulgence that only Christopher Nolan has also been granted by the studio heads in recent years, but has this good will truly been earned? 300 may have been a box office winner but Snyder’s follow up, his extremely long and very adult (it was a rare example of a superhero film carrying an 18 rating here in the UK) adaptation of celebrated graphic novel Watchmen, was hardly the box office darling many expected it to be, nor was it a film that exactly wowed the critics, and Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, his first attempt at a family features, was a box office failure and critical underperformer too, even if it wasn’t helped by the fact that it was a 3D movie released at a time when it seemed like there was a bit of backlash against 3D going on.
Whatever the case, Snyder has been given free rein over most of the films he has made since directing 300, something that was perhaps more understandable for the likes of Watchmen but less so for his latest film, Sucker Punch, given that his last two films were unremarkable performers with the average moviegoer, the fanboys and the critics alike. This free rein is clearly evident in the massive excess that is on display in Sucker Punch, a film over which Snyder has had so much creative control that, when the planned 3D conversion failed to deliver results that he was truly satisfied with, he was actually allowed to opt out of the plan to release the film in 3D altogether – it wasn’t shot in 3D or anything and any conversion would have just been another shameless cash grab on the part of a movie studio – although he has had to compromise on his original plan to make the film R rated (that’s the American equivalent of a 15 or 18 rating), this being his first live action film to not carry the R rating and the first to carry the American PG-13 or (12A here in the UK) – the lower rating likely being an attempt to increase the film’s prospective audience following the realisation that the film wasn’t likely to fare any better at the box office than Snyder’s previous films (and even with the lower rating has still proven to be a flop in the markets that it has opened in thus far). 

For fans disappointed or annoyed by the low rating for the film on its cinema release, however, you can take comfort in knowing that a lot of footage that was shot but had to be removed in order for the film to get a PG-13 rating will be reinstated in a director’s cut of the film that will be getting a home release at some point in the future and that will apparently be closer to Snyder’s original vision for the film – although this won’t be that much comfort upon viewing the cut of the film being released in cinemas. Despite having to compromise on the film’s rating, however, Sucker Punch is probably Snyder’s most personal film to date. Co-written with Steve Shibuya who is the composer of the original score upon which the story of the film is based, this is Snyder’s first film to not be based on another work – debut feature Dawn of the Dead was a remake of the classic 1978 film by George A. Romero, both 300 and Watchmen were based on graphic novels and Legend of the Guardians was based on children’s fantasy book series The Guardians of Ga’Hoole – even though it does feature motifs from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Snyder having pitched the film to studios as “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns” – now there’s a pitch for a film that truly was begging to get made and something that should tide over anyone waiting for the long in development movie adaptation of videogame American McGee’s Alice to actually come to fruition – this is his first movie that can truly be classified as something original and, with a concept and visual style that is way out there in both its spirit and its look, it truly stands out as something different and weird, a film that makes a huge change to the generic and predictable content that so often comes out of Hollywood these days. 

The tagline for the film is “you will be unprepared” and, in terms of what Sucker Punch throws at you, this is a pretty good indication of what to expect from the film, this being a film that thrives on the unexpected and the unobvious. Babydoll (Emily Browning) is a young girl on the verge of womanhood who has had everything she has ever loved taken from her. The death of her mother has already made her an extremely damaged person but when her abusive and sadistic stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) murders her younger sister and she gets blamed for it she tips over the edge and finds herself institutionalised in the dark and depressing mental asylum Lennox House, a place ruled with an iron fist by corrupt orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) who is more than happy to take money from Babydoll’s stepfather in exchange for putting her on the fast track to a lobotomy. 

Locked away against her will she may be but Babydoll has not lost her will to survive, and encouraged by the sympathetic Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), she frees herself in the only way she can – with her mind. Escaping the nightmarish world of the asylum into the fantasy world of a brothel, a world that itself isn’t a nice place but is at least one where she can stand up and fight back, she is determined to fight for freedom. In this world, Blue is even more sadistic, dominating everyone with an even harder iron first, but this doesn’t stop Babydoll from embarking on a plan to escape. Discovering a talent for sensual dancing, a talent that stops every man watching her perform in his tracks, she enters even more fantasy worlds as she performs, fantasy worlds that guide her in everything she needs to do if she is to truly free herself. Encountering a mysterious Wise Man (Scott Glenn), she learns that she needs to find five items – a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery final item – and, urging four other girls who are every bit as imprisoned as she is – the outspoken Rocket (Jena Malone), the street-smart Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), the fiercely loyal (Amber (Jamie Chung) and the reluctant Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) – to band together with her, she embarks on a quest to find all these items, quest that sees them taking on enemies beyond their wildest imagination, including giant samurai warriors, undead German soldiers, fire breathing dragons and futuristic robots. 

As they engage in increasingly fantastical warfare, the girls get closer and closer to freedom but, with the impending arrival of the mysterious High Roller (Jon Hamm) limiting the window in which they can escape, they must each decide what they are willing to sacrifice if they are to not only set themselves free but survive long enough to do so. More like a bizarre piece of art crossed with an adolescent male fantasy than a blockbuster movie, Sucker Punch is one unusual film. A film that takes us into the darkest recesses of Babydoll’s troubled mind, this really is a film that defies many of the expectations you may have for it, offering up a series of bizarre and twisted action sequences that vary so greatly as to make the film sometimes seem like little more than an excuse to bring them all together in one movie. The fantasy battles essentially break down into four sequences. 

Firstly, we see Babydoll fighting 3 giant samurai warriors armed with swords, rocket launchers and gatling guns in a snow covered mountain temple with only a Japanese short sword and a .45 automatic handgun as her weapons. Then, we witness all five girls fighting undead German soldiers powered by steam – bringing new meaning to the term steampunk – in World War One style trenches, Amber taking them on in a robot suit while above a massive aerial dogfight is taking place. Thirdly, the girls battle a monster army in a castle in the middle of a land that that is full of volcanoes and lava flows then take on a vicious fire breathing dragon with an aerial bomber. And finally, they fight their way through a robot army to stop a bomb from going off on a high tech train that is speeding towards a futuristic city on an alien planet with a gas giant appearing in the sky above. Almost certainly the most unusual action sequences you will see this year, these things are so completely different as to make it hard to believe that they are even in the same film. 

Fortunately, the blending kind of works up to a point, the disparic nature of these scenes proving to be quite a good fit with the generally insane feel of the overall film and the action sequences themselves are well executed, Zack Snyder creating scenes that both entertain and prove visually dazzling. Visually stunning and very unique, his distinctive visual style dominates every single frame and, while the sequences are perhaps hampered slightly by an overreliance on slow motion, it is hard to deny that the production design here is distinctive and different. It isn’t just the fantasy worlds where Snyder’s style is visible though but all aspects of the film. Obviously the sexy and revealing outfits that the girls wear will have an aesthetically pleasing quality to certain members of the audience but the film also succeeds in the settings it creates. 

The 1960s asylum setting is a very oppressive and depressing place, providing an appropriately nightmarish environment for the film’s events and the brothel, while seeming quite liberated by comparison, is an equally threatening environment – Snyder has said of the worlds Babydoll escapes to that they’re “not necessarily better than her reality – in fact, they’re quite a bit more dangerous – but these are places where she can take action”. The terrifying nature of both places makes it quite easy to understand how the characters could become so terrified as to need to escape, even if it only into their own mind. While subtlety isn’t exactly something you can expect from this film, there are also some quite subtle visual touches that work well, the name of the film appearing in rain drops on a car window and, at the start of the film, the Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures logos appearing on stage curtains which open up to reveal the opening events of the film. 

As well as being a film that looks good, this is also a film that sounds good. The soundtrack, complete with new and different takes on classic and recognisable songs – songs that don’t belong to the period in which the film is set, something that gives the film a distinctive edge – several of which are performed by Emily Browning, is bizarre and eclectic but suits the film’s twisted style. And these songs provide perfect backing for several montage sequences that prove very striking visually, even though they are greatly lacking in other areas. You see, while this film proves very striking visually, it is hampered massively by the writing. There’s little semblance of plot here, the film often seeming like several random action sequences linked together by the bare minimum of storyline, and the way the film cuts between the worlds of the asylum and the brothel occasionally proves slightly confusing, so much so that trying to figure out exactly what is going on might just drive you to the loony bin. 

All that really passes for character development is an opening montage set to the tune of an unsettling version of Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) performed by Emily Browning, a montage that shows us how Babydoll comes to be in institutionalised but doesn’t dig deeper than what we are shown visually. We don’t get to actually know the character before she is locked away in the asylum and with this don’t get to care about her before anything happens. Another montage scene shows us the lay of the land inside the asylum but again doesn’t offer much in terms of plot or character development. Worse still, there is no real logic to any of Babydoll’s adventures to give any kind of relevance between the action sequences and what passes for story. There is no indication as to why she fantasises about certain things or how her mind could even conceive such ideas, something that makes it feel like Snyder simply wanted to do all these things in one film but never really thought it through from the perspective of making us actually care. 

Of course, the script has not been helped by the fact that several “crucial scenes” were apparently cut in order to secure the PG-13 rating, the creative indulgence that Warner Bros gave to Snyder being somewhat muted in this cut of the film. Sucker Punch itself has been sucker punched – by studio pressure to deliver a film with a lower rating (which hasn’t worked anyway as the film has still flopped) – and the question has to be asked as to whether the film really needed to be PG-13, given how much the film has seemingly suffered as a result of all the cuts that have been made to achieve the lower rating – we really can tell that the scenes are missing and their loss is really felt. Unfortunately, the pressure to deliver a film with a lower rating but ensured that this is NOT Snyder’s film but something of a bastardisation – if you want to see the film as Snyder actually intended you will have to wait until the director’s cut is released – and that the story, while taking place on multiple levels, still manages to feel extremely one dimensional. 

Hopefully the inevitable director’s cut will restore some order to the messy and disjointed script – although it is still possible that, even with the cut scenes reinstated, the film won’t deliver any better in this regard. With very little in the way of characterisation we don’t really know any of the characters hence it is hard to care about them but the actors nonetheless do their best with what little they are given to work with. Portraying very tough and strong willed but also damaged emotionally scarred characters, the female leads all perform very ably, the bevy of tough and sexy heroines not simply being eye candy who sport a variety of sexy and revealing outfits but performers who really kick ass and do their best to deliver engrossing characters, even with the material they are given to work with prohibiting them somewhat. Emily Browning, in particular, convinces as a damaged and broken personality and is a generally decent, if not especially remarkable, lead. 

The sole other notable female cast member, Carla Gugino, also fares quite well as a sympathetic screen presence, one who provides a definite balance to the sadistic nature of Blue who is portrayed with an appropriate sense of threat and menace by Oscar Isaac. Jon Hamm, meanwhile, is an impendingly sinister screen presence but he hardly even features in this cut of the film, the impending sense of dread surrounding his arrival sadly not amounting to much. So, all in all, Sucker Punch is a very mixed bag of a film. Very loud and fast (although also slow because of all the slow mo), it delivers a decent level of thrills and looks pretty good but, perhaps because of all the scenes – or perhaps not, it might have been the same with the cut scenes included – that were removed to secure the lower rating, the film is left without a heart to truly make us care about anything that happens in the film. Saying that this is like “Alice in Wonderland with machine guns” is an extremely bold and somewhat misleading statement but, whether you like it or not, you have got to admit that this is one of the most original and different Hollywood movies in a long while and quite possibly the most original thing you will seen on the big screen this year. Simply put this film is totally insane. 

Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

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