Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Insidious (James Wan, 2010)

Screenwriter Leigh Whannel and director James Wan became Hollywood's go to names in the horror genre by being the team behind the first Saw film. The series went on to be the eight hundred pound horror gorilla of the pre-Halloween release weekend. For seven years, Saw dominated the box office heading into every single Halloween.

Whatever one may feel about the series, the original film was definitely something new, original and unusual when it was released. It was also pretty damned good. I enjoyed that first film thoroughly. It was well made, the performances were strong enough to push past some of the more ridiculous elements, the story was engaging and the concept was interesting. I jumped off the band wagon after the third film was released, because it was clear they weren't going to be able to maintain or return to the quality of the first film.

The Saw series was unceremoniously knocked from it's pedestal as the King of Halloween horror by Paranormal Activity. Orin Peli came out of nowhere with his small haunted house opus. It was an extremely successful exercise in suspense and stream lined, budget film making. It was also one of the most fun and awesome theater going experiences I've had since I was a little kid. My love for that original film is no secret, and the sequel may have been a better film than the first, even if it lost a little of the magic of the buzz that had surrounded the first film and helped create such an intoxicating audience experience.

Insidious brings these three new hopes for the horror genre together, with Whannel writing, Wan directing and Peli producing. It doesn't quite live up to the promise that might suggest to some people, but this isn't an altogether unsuccessful endeavor either. It's basically, a fun, silly, even somewhat scary film that recalls the tone of some of the fun, lesser appreciated supernatural horror films of the seventies, and attempts to take some of the tropes of a few of the sub-genres, mash them together and add in some new pieces. There are a number of things in the film that work really well, and some things that don't, but these three set out to do something a little different, and though they succeeded in doing that much, they weren't able to completely pull it together.

The film begins with a young family moving into a new home. Rose Byrne (recently of the very funny Bridesmaids) plays the young mother struggling to find time to work on her songwriting in between taking care of three young children and running a household. Patrick Wilson (who starred opposite Ellen Page in the phenomenal Hard Candy, number twenty on the list of my favorite films of the last decade, and a film I can't suggest emphatically enough) plays the father. The film starts out with a pretty standard haunted house set-up, that's definitely effective in it's execution. It succeeds in creating good suspense and giving the viewer a sense of dread about what's going to be around the next corner or how things will escalate next. It employs some great jump scares at it gets rolling and since I have no objection to a well placed and well executed jump scare, I found it not only effective, but fun and a good way to get the audience engaged, while setting up their expectations for what the rest of the film is going to be. They're not "fake scares" either, they are germane to the story and the narrative, instead of being a broom falling out of a closet, a camping jumping into frame or some other cheap crap. I was honestly shocked at how well the film started out.

When the film reaches the point in every haunted house film where one of the characters (Rose Byrne, in this case) begins demanding that they get out of the house, it succeeds in doing something different and subverting the expectations of any person who is well versed in the haunted house genre. Quickly following the films subversion of our expectations, it changes track pretty radically, and becomes a completely different film than the first act suggests it will be. I'm not giving anything away by saying that this isn't a conventional haunted house movie and is tied to another variety of horror sub-genre, because the trailer basically gives that all away. The trailer didn't give away the whole kit and caboodle, so I wasn't completely prepared for where the film went and it kept me guessing for a few minutes, which is to it's credit. Lynne Shaye (sister of former New Line Studio head, Robert Shaye and is a horror genre veteran who is always entertaining) shows up as a medium, and is fun as hell to watch. There's what begins as a typical scéance scene that manages to do some different, interesting things, one of which is just weird, creepy and almost kind of funny, but isn't really funny either.

Following the scéance scene, the film changes track yet again, this time morphing into another sub-genre that basically fits under the larger umbrella of horror. This is where the film suffers somewhat from the ambition of the film makers. It was unexpected, and it was ambitious, but it didn't hold up as well as the first two acts of the film. Visually, it's inconsistent. Some of it is striking and engaging. Some of it is extremely bland. The third act narrative also suffers from a lack of focus. It makes sense overall, but it's lacking in some details. They're not necessarily details that have to come from the script, but could instead use some of the visual dead spots to help flesh it out or even the sound design, which was extremely well done in the first two acts. It also introduces a new character/story element that has real potential, but because it's already the third act of the film, there's just not enough there to grab onto. It doesn't so much feel shoehorned in as it does under developed. There's a good story there, and probably a whole other, fun and interesting horror film.  

It's always disappointing when a film loses it's steam or gets on the wrong track during it's third act. An underwhelming ending can ruin a film in so many different ways, it's not even worth attempting a short list. With Insidious, the last half of the third act definitely doesn't live up to either what the first two acts establish in a narrative sense or in the degree of quality. It doesn't necessarily ruin the film though. What works in the first two acts worked well enough for me to enjoy it anyway. I essentially walked away from it feeling like it was a fun horror film, that couldn't quite live up to it's own grand ambitions.

I may have felt a little more antipathy toward this film if I'd paid full price for a theater showing, but as a Netflix Blu-ray, it was definitely worth the time. It's not something I'm going to be in a rush to pick up on BR, though I might not pass it up if it were to show up in a $5 dollar DVD bargain bin.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Drive (Nicholas Winding Refn, 2011)

Nicholas Winding Refn has already proven himself one of the most auspicious film makers of his generation. His debut film Pusher, chronicled a period in the life of a long time, small fish drug dealer in Copenhagen. Like much of the subject matter Refn seems to have a preference for, there's nothing necessarily groundbreaking, original or unusual about it. The unusual part of his films is in the actual fabric of how he tells a story, and Pusher was the introduction to his atmospheric, moody film making. The two subsequent films in the Pusher trilogy examine Copenhagen's drug world from two other characters perspectives. These films were extremely popular in Europe, and gained him some recognition from people in the U.S. film industry.

The first time the majority of us heard the name Nicholas Winding Refn, it was because of a little film called Bronson (my original review), based on the autobiographies of a man who legally changed his name to Charles Bronson, and is notorious for being the most violent prisoner in the whole of the United Kingdom. It's also the movie that introduced most of us to Tom Hardy (now one of the busiest and most sought after actors in Hollywood), whose performance was like a high speed freight train trampling the audience psyche. The film succeeded not only in being perversely and thoroughly entertaining, but also in conveying the psychology of a truly bizarre and unusual individual. It proved Refn wasn't afraid to reach beyond audience expectations of what they should see.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, 2011)

I was not sure what to think going into Steven Soderbergh's latest film. I think Traffic was a really enjoyable film, that suffers slightly from the level of it's ambition. It was performed and directed beautifully, but by trying to cover almost every possible angle through which one could possibly see the War on Drugs, it was just too much, and one or two of the story lines ended up seeming underdeveloped, and therefore, unnecessary. It's the kind of mistake or problem I like to see a film make. I'd rather see a film be overly ambitious and fall short some than be exceedingly successful in it's mediocrity. So, I've always given Traffic the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, Traffic isn't the only film Soderbergh has made. There were those three little movies with George Clooney and Brad Pitt, Oceans something or Seas something. There was also the first movie, Sex, Lies and Videotape, which in it's own weird way prophesied the coming of reality television, the video blog and other bits and pieces of contemporary culture. Soderbergh has made a ton of small independent films as well, even since he's become the kind of director who can get Brad Pitt, George Clooney and Matt Damon on the phone anytime he wants and can get studios to give him large sums of money to make his films. He's taken the "I make one for me and then I make one for them" model of a director's career to a new level. There's no question that the guy is incredibly talented, but I was a little bit worried that Contagion, a drama dealing with the outbreak of a hypothetical virus and examining society's reaction from almost every conceivable perspective might suffer from some of the same failings that Traffic did. I wasn't prepared to cut him quite as much slack this time either, since it's ground he's already covered.

Contagion is a solid thriller/drama, all around. The direction, performances, cinematography, and score are all very good. My only complaint about the film is essentially that the stories of many of the people we follow could be entire films in themselves. I think that given the scope of this film, the writing is very good overall, and the thing is, I want to see more of it. The best example I have is Jude Law's character. He plays a blogger who is on top of the contagion from it's first public appearance. It's an interesting character and his motivations aren't completely clear at all times. There are definitely some questions about why he's doing or saying certain things, etc. But what we see of the character by the end of the film makes sense, and fits very well in the world they've crafted within the film, which does in many ways mirror our own world very well. The thing is, I want to see an entire film about that character. I want to know how he's gotten to be who he is at the beginning of the film and see him take the entire journey to where we see him at the end of the film. In a way, I think that would have been more interesting than the small disparate pieces we get by taking such an overarching approach to the story.

Lawrence Fishburne plays the head of the CDC, and I have to say, it's great to see Lawrence Fishburne playing something that doesn't in the slightest resemble Morpheus from The Matrix. He's a phenomenal actor and for a little while there, any character that had any shade of Morpheus was getting thrown at him. This character is most definitely not the super-guru Morpheus was, and it gives Fishburne the chance to flex some of the more subtle, emotionally mature muscles that roles like that denied him. I'd even like to see an entire film focused solely on his character. What exactly does it mean to be the head of the CDC in the midst of a major pandemic? What toll does that take on a person, what strengths does it give them? There's a whole lot there that I think could be really interesting, especially in the hands of someone like Fishburne. He does a great job, and his character is one of the centerpieces of the film, but it still doesn't really convey the toll it's taking on him, personally, and by the end of the film, it's clear there is going to be one.

The one I'd probably most like to see though is an entire film dedicated to Matt Damon's character. He plays a father and husband whose wife returns from a trip to Hong Kong, complains of not feeling well, and within a few hours goes from having flu like symptoms to being dead. He ends up being immune, but the daughter that is left with him might not be, and the rest of Damon's storyline is about what he's doing to try and keep his daughter safe, etc. Soderbergh doesn't make the film extremely graphic, but there is some stuff in there that is pretty disturbing not because it's graphic in nature, but because of how true it rings and what it really suggests about society and the nature of humanity in general.

In the end, when I think about the film, that's really the only thing about it that seems to fall short at all, but at the same time, it was a little flat for me. I'm attributing that sense of it being a little flat to the fact that by going for such a widespread perspective, the film doesn't give the audience enough time with any of the particular characters to really develop a connection with them. I do recognize that by making a film like this, that's something a film maker decides to do. I don't think it detracts from the degree to which the audience is invested in the urgency of the story.

I think my main criticism of this film could have less to do with the actual film than with the overall media environment into which it's thrown. Contagion successfully attempts to establish a level of realism that is one of it's biggest strengths and possibly it's ultimate downfall. Given that we're living in an age of constant media bombardment and that the entirety of our media is preoccupied with disaster and death and that nearly everything, whether deservedly or not is presented to us as being overwhelmingly urgent, I don't know that anyone could make a film about this subject matter, steeped in the degree of realism that this one is and have it be as emotionally and psychologically effective as it probably should be.

If I really consider the possibility of a contagious disease something like the one depicted in the film were to crop up somewhere and start taking the kind of effect it would, I almost think the majority of the country and probably the world would be both terrified and completely numb to it at the same time. In the film, the societal consequences of the virus are relatively dire. I somehow just don't think we'd get upset enough about it for that to happen. Mind you, it's not that I think it wouldn't be a big enough deal to get upset about, I just think we've spent so many years now with one dire emergency (real or manufactured) after another that we'd more or less just kind of see the news coverage and say, "Meh. That sucks." Sure, we'd take precautions, wearing masks and gloves, washing our hands much more often etc., but all in all, I think we'd probably just keep going to work, buying sport utility vehicles, and living our daily routines as much as was possible.

I'm not saying that cooler heads would prevail either. I'm just more or less saying that Americans have lost the capacity to know when to freak out when we should. It's not even that we've lost the capacity to freak out altogether, because I don't believe that either. I'm more or less saying that we tend to freak out about stuff that has no real meaning and in the end, doesn't really matter, and when there are things that have consequences, have real meaning and do matter, we tend to get overwhelmed and just go about our routine, hoping someone will take care of it. I also can't really be completely convinced that there wouldn't be an overwhelming percentage of our "leaders," be they political, social, economic or religious who wouldn't see something like this as a golden opportunity to cement their positions as "men/women of the people" for the foreseeable. I mean, let's be honest here, there would be a whole rash of religious figures coming out of the woodwork to say a contagion like the one depicted in the film is punishment from God for a whole grab bag of sins and iniquities, which is almost a subliminal suggestion to those people who believe those charlatans that we all deserve to die. I don't think people who on some level believe they deserve to die are going to get quite as upset about something like what the film presents as they probably should, and in this country, that is not a small number.

So, the degree of realism the film achieves might actually work against it. At least it did for me. One of the most disturbing sequences I've seen in a film in a long time took place in another film dealing with an "infection" of the populace. In Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, Cillian Murphy's character Jim wakes up in a hospital after England has been ravaged by an infection. When he stumbles out of the hospital, the streets of London are utterly deserted. That was deeply disturbing to me. A huge, silent London. It wasn't realistic (as many people have pointed out), because given the nature of the infection depicted in that film, there would have had to have been bodies all over the place. But there weren't. There were no bodies, no people, no animals, nothing, just London, one of the world's great city's, completely silent and utterly deserted. That disturbed me. There are a few scenes in Contagion which touch on the idea that people wouldn't be going on, so there were nearly empty streets etc., but nothing in this film was quite as effective as that one moment in 28 Days Later. I know they are completely different films with completely different objectives, but I'm suggesting this because Danny Boyle's choice (in part due to budget constraints) to step away from the steely realism much of the rest of his film relied on worked perfectly and helped create a really iconic moment. Contagion, because of the degree of realism it chains itself to never produces any moments like that, and really, much as I imagine a real world would react to the situation it presents, becomes a well produced, technically strong film which doesn't really suffer any gaping holes in it's quality, but is still more or less forgettable. If it were the real world, and we were struck with a contagion like this one, chances are very good that within fifteen years, it would be forgotten in every way except for science textbooks, lecture halls, the occasional news cast and the private pains of people who'd lost loved ones. I'd go so far as to say that in our actual real world, it wouldn't take long at all before a great many people were using the entire incident as a way to create an entire industry of more panic, more urgency, misplaced blame and accusations in order to enrich themselves.

In truth, I guess what I'm more or less saying is that as bleak a situation as Contagion suggests, the real world is an even bleaker, darker place, and the film suffers because it glosses over that. And in that, it's unfortunately extremely standard.

Monday, August 15, 2011

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011)

Takashi Miike's films are often an acquired taste. His portrayal of graphic violence and sexuality, combined with his love for unusual narratives driven by even more unusual characters has made him a cult favorite here in the States. Miike is a film maker who has made a reputation by holding nothing back and by approaching every taboo with the gleeful attitude of a rebellious teenager giving the finger to the high school principle. His skill behind the camera, and his prolific output are nothing short of amazing though, and those talents have earned him the kind of respect other film makers who approach the same subject matter and portray it as graphically are consistently denied. He has succeeded in taking what is often considered exploitation and turning into both what his audience craves and what critics still consider "art". It's no small accomplishment.

Still, he has so far been pigeon holed as a genre/exploitation director, especially here in the States where our faux cultural sensibilities tend to be offended by the celebratory tone Miike tends to embraced when presenting the most graphic material. 13 Assassins proves beyond the shadow of any doubt that Miike is more than a one trick pony and that he not only makes great films for an audience that appreciates his brand of balls to the wall, no holds barred cinema, but that he can hold his own with any film maker (living or dead) that is considered a more "serious" artist. To put it bluntly, 13 Assassins is a great fucking movie. Period. Full stop. It's not a great cult movie. It's not a great action movie. It's not a great drama. It's a great movie, all around, incorporating pieces of things Miike has shown he's capable of before, but this time putting them front and center.

13 Assassins has a place among the great samurai epics in film history, from Ran to Seven Samurai to Samurai Rebellion to Yojimbo and so on. It succeeds in telling a compelling story using interesting, intelligent characters and a visual style that is spectacular in it's simplicity. It suffers from neither the weepy, syrupy, over baked emotional manipulation often at play in even the more successful dramas, and also succeeds in that it avoids the pitfall of having a cavalcade of wooden, emotionless drones performing feats of action movie heroism which are devoid of anything but empty spectacle. It is earnest, straight forward, and impossible to take your eyes off of. The small, quiet dialog scenes are as mesmerizing as the action.

The film benefits from a cast that misses nothing, making every scene worth the seconds it takes to tick by, giving the audience believable, strong characters who feel more as if they are the result of a piece of non-fiction research than a fictional writers imagination. They simultaneously seem to have their own full histories while also being completely spontaneous in each moment. They don't all share the same amount of screen time or importance in the story, but none of them ever feel as if they've been tacked on to add some dimension that would otherwise be missing from the story or the other characters.

By the time the action begins, it's already been established that these are characters who have dedicated their entire lives to the discipline of the samurai code and have spent that time both in practice and studies. When the film's big action set piece takes off, there are no feats of superhuman strength or ability, no wire work or C.G.I flying. It's a group of men who have spent their lives preparing and planning for a moment like this one, and because that's been so well established, everything in the scene is believable and because we've spent the time we have with these actors portraying these characters so well, it has weight and meaning. It's not just a blood and guts spectacle. Miike doesn't spare us many of the gory details, because he's Takashi Miike and he never shy's away from the gory details, but again, it's not the kind of scene that highlights the effects or the gore. It's always about these men and this story, and because of that, it is spectacular.

Takashi Miike has made a full fledged samurai epic of the variety which hasn't been seen in decades. In many ways, it's a lean story. There's no love interest here. There's no modern sensibility to the characters attitudes or actions. There's no hidden subtext or allegory about the modern age. There's definitely a subtext about power and the ugliness it breeds in humanity, but it's a universal idea that could belong in any age. It's that quality, the utter indifference to traps and cliche's of modern storytelling that makes 13 Assassins a humming, churning steam engine of cinematic beauty. In 1954, Akira Kurosawa set the standard for samurai epics by making what is arguably one of the greatest films of all time, Seven Samurai. Miike hasn't made a film that is equal to that, but he's done what might have otherwise been considered impossible by getting in the ballpark.

I highly recommend this one. Get your hands on a copy, soon. It's available via Netflix Watch Instantly, but this is one I'd suggest watching on Blu-ray if you're internet speed isn't up to carrying full 1080p HD. It's shot with such a natural beauty that it's worth waiting a few days to see it in it's full glory. I'll leave links for purchasing the DVD and Blu-ray below. I'm going to pick this one up for my personal collection, immediately.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

I was not very excited when I began reading that there was a new Planet of the Apes film in development. The possibility of yet another reboot, sequel, prequel or just about any new film made from the bones of a classic genre property seemed to me like a guarantee for yet another sub par film exploiting an audience loyal to the original material or property. And if we're all honest with each other, the original film was the only one worth it's salt in the first place. The sequels were certainly fun for genre fans, but they weren't very good movies. The original film hasn't stood the test of time all that well either, but it's charm and it's place in the cannon of science fiction films earn it some nostalgia points. Tim Burton's remake or reboot or whatever the hell it is that thing is correctly referred to as, was just flat out boring. All of this combined with the number of horrid remakes and reboots being pumped out now just added to the fear that Hollywood was going to take another really great science fiction concept, dip it in shit and serve it up to those of us who are genre fans as if it were a delicacy.

I was right to be worried, and right to be wary, but as the credits rolled, I really loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is definitely the best of the "big summer movies" I've seen so far this year, and I've seen a number of them. I haven't written reviews for any of the other films because I didn't really walk out of those films excited about them. Sure, Captain America made me a little more excited about The Avengers, but I didn't walk out feeling as if I wanted to go sit right back down in the theater and watch it all over again. Rise of the Planet of the Apes made me want to sit through it again, as soon as possible. It might be heresy to say it, but in pure film making terms, it surpasses all of the previous films in the series. It will probably not find it's way into the hearts of fandom the way the original film did, but it's definitely a more well crafted film. The original film definitely has charm, and I don't love it less having seen this film, but anyone with the least bit of objectivity can admit that the script was somewhat clunky, and even as it's part of the charm, Charlton Heston's over the top performance hasn't lent the film credibility over time. The performances in this film are just better, hands down, and though there are one or two pieces of the script which could be stronger, they never distract from what works in the film. Beyond that, if this had been one single film unto itself, with no connection at all to the previous films, I don't think I would have enjoyed it any less or any more. It is able to stand on it's own and still be a movie that is damn good and borderline great. It gives a few cursory nods to the other films in the series and the mythological cannon already established, but would be as good as it is without any of those films ever having existed and audience members who may not have seen them will still find this an entertaining and fully satisfying experience.

For those who aren't familiar with the basic storyline of the film, a brief synopsis should cover it. Rise chronicles the birth, childhood, maturation and even rise of Caesar. Caesar is the offspring of a chimp which has been brought to a lab in order to be used for testing a new viral treatment for Alzheimer's disease. James Franco plays Dr. Will Rodman, the genius behind this new treatment, whose father (John Lithgow) is afflicted with the disease. Franco's new treatment is supposed to restore brain functions that are lost to Alzheimer's. Caesar's mother is given this treatment, and since she has been recently captured from the wild, the lab staff have no idea that she is pregnant. Caesar begins to show unusual intelligence almost immediately, and Franco's character realizes his treatment does more than just restore brain function for those who have lost it to some degree, it will enhance brain function for those who have suffered no loss. Caesar advances extremely rapidly, becoming more than a pet or a project, but a fully realized character within the narrative of the film. Make no mistake, this is Caesar's film. He is it's center and it is all about him. Everyone and everything else in the film are part of his journey. For those of you familiar with the series, you can probably guess where this eventually goes (though you would be hard pressed to figure out how without seeing the film or reading a more in depth synopsis), and for those of you who may not be, it is a journey most definitely worth taking.

Director Rupert Wyatt manages to make the audience care about Caesar, a character that essentially has no dialog in the film. On top of that, this is a character that is 100% C.G.I, and it works. WETA digital has done some really amazing work in creating the ape characters in this film. Because they don't speak, everything has to be communicated through expressions, and shockingly, through the eyes. For a few decades now, one thing digital effects have failed to do is to give characters eyes that don't look lifeless and hollow. No matter how good effects have been so far, they just haven't been able to get that part of a living being correct. With chimps, being higher primates and as close to humans in appearance as they are, anyone who has seen pictures or footage of real chimps knows that there is something eerily familiar in their eyes, as is true of many of the great ape species. The effects are actually used in service of the characters and the story, which is one of the reasons Rise is as good as it is. Wyatt and the screen writers succeed in putting the audience in Caesar's corner because he is a fully realized character, and a really well written character at that. His growth from infant to child to fully matured adult is played subtly, with small steps of his journey being taken throughout the film. One of the strengths of Caesar's story is that it isn't necessarily a story of inevitability. He becomes what he becomes as much because of what he encounters as because of his own innate intelligence. Fate doesn't make him what he becomes, but it's not the story of a character being forced down his path by his antagonists either. Caesar is an active character, whose reactions to the characters and circumstances he encounters are part of what eventually make him the ape to lead the others out of captivity, but it's evident that he is making the decisions to take the steps that lead him there. And he's also not portrayed as some kind of wild eyed revolutionary. He decides to lead the apes out of captivity, not because of some kind of zeal for human destruction or the kind of irrational megalomania that infects most of human history's revolutionaries, but because it is the best option for him and his fellow apes. It's not even a very grand revolution, in terms of it's scope. It's an attempt to reach safety and a peace and place of their own. Mind you, Wyatt and company manage to communicate this with Caesar only using sign language on one or two occasions through the entire film, everything else is communicated through body language, facial expressions, and the holy grail of digital character effects work, the eyes. Andy Serkis deserves special recognition for imbuing Caesar with a real soul and being able to make the character the perfect blend of human intelligence and animal physicality. Creating Caesar this effectively is more an act of teamwork that probably any other kind of character in film, and with that in consideration, it makes it all that more astonishing how well done it is. Many people had to have been at their absolute best to pull this off.

James Franco delivers a good performance as the man who is more or less responsible for Caesar's evolution and as the man who raises him. His desire to find a cure for Alzheimer's combined with the humanity he brings to his relationships with both Caesar and his own father (Lithgow turns in a good performance as well) make his actions completely understandable. In it's own way Rise is a Frankenstein story as well as a story of revolution, and Franco is the scientist, but in this version he's not overcome by the arrogance that categorizes so many of the other scientists in these kinds of stories. His motivations are more sympathetic, and more heartfelt. Maybe it's part of the difference between creating a character completely out of thin air and creating a character using the kind of motion capture technology used in this film, but Franco's interactions with Caesar are always very centered and real. Part of the reason it's so easy for the audience to buy into Caesar's character is because of the way Franco interacts with him. He probably won't be winning any awards for a film like this, and it's not the kind of character that usually draws that kind of attention, but he's done some really good work in this film.

The only real shortcoming in the film is that it's "villains" are pretty one note and aren't very well fleshed out. They aren't villains in the sense that they are even particularly out to stop Caesar from taking the each step in his journey or that they are particularly fixated on him as the protagonist. This is the type of villainy created more out of the fact that they don't give a damn about Caesar in any particular way. He is essentially property, and he is seen as and treated as such. The villains in the film, from an executive at the company Franco works for to two animal control officers (played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton of Draco Malfoy fame) are either just empty, money hungry suits or cogs in a much larger machine that is broken within itself and allows them to exist within it because of that. Along the same lines, Frieda Pinto is saddled with the unfortunate role of obligatory love interest for Franco's Will Rodman. She's a beautiful woman, no doubt, but her talents are wasted in a role that really only seems to be there to help give Franco's character someone to talk at. I say "talk at," because hers is the character that is used in order to have things explained on occasion. It's not constant, which is to the films credit, but when the writers or the director felt it needed to be done, she's the one either having things explained to her or doing the explaining. She the dumb audience character. In other words, she's the character in the film because there are going to be some members of the audience who are just too dumb to keep up with storytelling that isn't explained step by step and piece by piece. Because Caesar doesn't speak, this is possibly the most visual storytelling we've seen all year, and definitely all summer it wouldn't otherwise be explained in dialog, it's all in watching the characters. And unfortunately, as much as I hate to admit it, Hollywood seems to be right when they assume some people are just not quick enough to keep up with that kind of storytelling.

The writers do deserve specific credit for earning the big moments in the film. Because this is a more character driven film than an action/adventure, there aren't many spectacular sequences meant to marvel the audience, but there are a number of great character moments. Caesar's character, the other apes, James Franco and John Lithgow's character's are well drawn enough that those moments feel like they've been earned and they feel organic. They never feel as if they've been hastily thrown in there in order to keep the narrative moving on to the next necessary scene. There's one in particular that got a great reaction from the audience because it was both completely unexpected and completely earned. The trailers and the television ads have of course given away the fact that there's a big action sequence in the film involving apes running all over the place fighting with humans, and it too is completely earned, not only by the rest of the film, but through more of those small character moments being peppered throughout that particular sequence as well. It feels both as if it is what has to happen and also as if it's happening organically and as improvised as the story suggests. Rupert Wyatt deserves a nod for being able to craft a film that is as character driven as this is, and that handles it's big action set piece with an equal amount of skill. It's an exciting sequence that creates tension by using those character moments in it's midst, but it doesn't over power the rest of the film. I didn't walk away feeling as if the film didn't use it's best aspects as much as it should have. It's not as if the film seemed like it would have been stronger, more interesting or more exciting if it had had more action. I walked away feeling like it was pretty perfectly balanced.

Fans of the original series are going to be wondering where this film fits in with the mythology already established in the other films. It's definitely a prequel. The first three films in the original series made reference to Caesar, the first ape with the ability to speak and who lead the apes to create their society. It plainly contradicts the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and to some degree Escape from the Planet of the Apes, the third film in the series. Even as Conquest has been my second favorite in the series, that doesn't bother me one bit, and essentially, Rise is not only a better film, but it also makes more sense in relation to the first film. The truth is that the first three films often contradicted each other about how the apes came to be the dominant species on the planet. When taking all of the information presented by each of the films, it becomes clear pretty quickly that the progression of the films and events makes no logical sense, what so ever. Rise not only functions as it's own stand alone film, but by being an origin story that does take at least the original Planet of the Apes as the material it has to match up with, we end up with a much more logical origin story, and essentially a much more intelligent and sympathetic origin. Conquests story of apes having been turned into household slaves and Caesar emerging from hiding after his parents had come back in time through the same means that had catapulted Charlton Heston's character forward, is at best convoluted, and at worst, completely ludicrous. Conquest was my favorite of the original series, right behind the original film. As an allegory, it's pretty cool, but as a film it's pretty ridiculous and all in all not as well made as Rise. Rise also provides a new and different explanation as to how exactly it is humans wind up in the subordinate position that Charlton Heston's character finds them in the original film. All in all, Rise does pretty damn great job of tying up a number of loose ends left by the original series and working over the aspects that were vague or completely nonsensical.

The final question is whether or not this film sets up for a sequel or another film in the Planet of the Apes world. It does and it doesn't. This film deals very specifically with one small portion of the larger story, Caesar's rise, and that's really it. It gives hints and clues in connection to other things, but it doesn't necessarily play as if it automatically assumes there will be another film. It's been relatively successful on opening weekend, so there's a good possibility there will be another film, but it's not something that the film makers seemed to be immediately assuming or taking for granted while writing or making this one. It doesn't show the fall of humanity, the establishment of ape society or any of those things, so there is room for another film in the logical sense. On a personal level, I thought Caesar was a great character, and I could be interested in seeing what the next part of his journey is, but that's really the only thing I can see garnering my interest in a sequel. I can see some possibility for an interesting character driven sequel in the way that Caesar and the apes deal with the fall of humanity and what their reaction to it is, but at the same time, I don't necessarily need to see a sequel either. I'd rather not see another film than see a film which tramples on what's been done so well in this one.

I can suggest this film to basically everyone. If you're not necessarily a fan of the original series of films, this stands on it's own enough to be engaging, enjoyable entertainment that you won't regret having spent the ticket price on. If you are a fan of the series, I think this film is good enough on it's own for you to enjoy, even as it seems to throw some of the original cannon out the window. I think fans of the original series may enjoy it particularly because of how well done it is and because it doesn't just seem like a cheap, easy way to cash in on their love for the series. Go check it out, soon.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Hanna (Joe Wright, 2011)

I have to confess that I haven't seen director Joe Wright's other films. I have it on good authority that Atonement was a fine film, and worth seeing, but neither Pride and Prejudice or The Soloist are at all attractive to me as ways to spend two hours. Now that I've seen Hanna, the possibility of me sitting down to watch more of Wright's work has been multiplied by an exponent of about forty.

I was trying not to expect much from Hanna. The trailer suggested the film could either be a tired action film, attempting to throw a bone to an older audience by mixing in some aspects of the old school spy thriller or that it could be something fun, and a little bit different. I'm extremely happy to report that it ended up being the latter, instead of the former.

It's the story of a young girl (Saoirse Ronan, a name I wish I could figure out exactly how to pronounce) who has been raised in a sub Antarctic forest wilderness by her father (Eric Bana) who has spent his entire life training her for the day she would return to civilization, because a high ranking C.I.A officer (Cate Blanchett) wants her dead. I'm not giving anything away that the trailers don't, so don't worry. The fun of the film is figuring out why the C.I.A agent wants this young girl dead, how the girl succeeds in staying alive, and in how she begins to navigate the "civilized world."

Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Eric Bana and Tom Hollander (who is great in his role, though the only gay film stereotype older than the "hilarious gay friend"stereotype is the "psychopathic gay hit man") all give excellent performances. It's unusual to come away from a film and feel there could be entire films dedicated to any one of the characters, and that they could on their own being of equal quality, independent of the original film they appeared in. I'd actually be interested in seeing a film that focused on any of these actors playing the characters they have here. Even as Tom Hollander's role is relatively small in comparison to the others, and a tired old stereotype, he brings an energy and sense of unpredictability to it that I enjoyed. Cate Blanchett, Eric Bana and Saoirse Ronan manage to ground their characters in a sense of reality by giving them all moments that wouldn't fit in a film more typical of the spy/action genre. Cate Blanchett seems to savor the opportunity to play a powerful villain and she is to give the sense that her character is doing what she is for both professional and personal reasons, while never becoming the kind of shrill, shrewish female antagonist lesser, lazier films lean on. Eric Bana is one of those unfortunate actors who has a well of talent to draw from, but has chosen some really bad films in the past, and as a result his star hasn't risen quite as high as it probably could. He's able to play a pragmatic, practical, but still warm and somewhat sentimental father with real grace and vulnerability, which though it would seem counter intuitive, adds to just how dangerous the audience believes his character can be to the films antagonists. There's more to it than the idea that since he has raised and trained Hanna, who is a bad ass, so by the time the film concludes, it's clear that he's the only one who really understood the stakes involved.

Saoirse Ronan is fantastic. She is able to completely sell the confidence, competence and ability she's developed to live in a harsh wilderness without a hint of doubt. Out in the woods, she's an almost preternaturally self possessed young girl, chomping at the bit to have some independence from the disciplined regime her life has been. When that time comes, and she's then set loose into a world full of other people and the "mod con's" of the world, she's equally believable in being bewildered, dumbstruck and socially awkward. One of the things that sets Hanna apart from other films of it's kind is that it embraces the fact that it is not just an action film, but also a coming of age tale, and it makes some interesting connections back to the fairy tales which are the narrative forefathers to films like it. Ronan deftly manages to convey all of that in her performance, and be the believable, sympathetic center of the film, while also being completely believable as a well honed killing machine.

The thing about the narrative which is most interesting to me is that Hanna seems to have been constructed as a coming of age fairy tale first and foremost, and an action movie second. By having this much of a focus on character, primarily through Hanna's relationship to the other characters and the world she inhabits, it succeeds where two of the much talked about and hated actions films of late (Sucker Punch and Battle: Los Angeles) fail. The action in the film is an integral part of the story, and does actually further not just the plot, but also presents the moments or reasoning for moments of particular growth in Hanna's character as well. They're not just thrilling, well choreographed and shot action sequences, they also relate directly back to the whole reason the film exists, to follow this young girl on this journey. Where Battle: Los Angeles failed every single time the action stopped and the script had to take over, Hanna has some strong character moments that are endearing, funny, and at some points, kind of sad and disturbing. I also think in many ways it succeeds in being the kind of empowering film Sucker Punch wanted to be. It succeeds because it is relatively simple and straight forward, actually focusing on the characters by making the action related specifically to their motives very directly. Where Sucker Punch seemed to be lost and muddled by it's own grand ambitions, Hanna presents a compelling story of a young girl, trying to find her own identity, realizing the man who made her who she is in the beginning of the film isn't a perfect man, and at the same time that he actually did do everything he could to prepare her for what her life was going to be. The way the film mixes that metaphor of the coming of age tale into it's narrative, while also referring to it very directly sometimes, is more adeptly and deftly handled than most action films ever consider, much less actually even attempt. There are also some great references to The Brothers Grimm throughout the film, in both the script and some unexpectedly beautiful set design. These help to distinguish Hanna from so many of the other films that attempt to traverse the similar territory, because those fairy tales were in many ways, very much what this story was in earlier times and what the many like it are today. In this case, Cate Blanchett is the Big Bad Wolf, but the Woodsman isn't coming to save our central child character, she has to save herself. And, even if she had left a trail of breadcrumbs, this Gretel wouldn't want to go back to where she came from anyway. The thing that does come directly from those old fairy tales is the lesson of the journey, beginning with the parent who is less than perfect (though he doesn't toss his child in favor of his new wife, which was so often the case in those old fairy tales). 

Technically, it's superb. While it's closest relative in a narrative sense is probably the Bourne films, Hanna has a visual style that almost couldn't be more different. Where the frenetic camera work and fast pace worked perfectly for The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum films, this is a much more patient film, letting almost every scene play out in full frame, but at the same time is never inducing boredom. Presenting the action in steady cam, dolly shots, and fixed frame actually helps to build tension and suspense. It's an action film, with a classical visual vocabulary, creating beautifully framed and composed shots even in the midst of the action. There is one sequence that is much more stylized than the rest of the film, and at the time, I almost thought it seemed out of place, but as the film progressed, and then in thinking about it afterwards, it isn't at all out of place, so much as it is a visual representation of the setting and the element of the story it's depicting. It's the only piece of the film during which there was a definite sense of a directors hand, and it's visually stimulating, interesting and something different than what we've seen in the many other scenes which depict something very similar. To that end, Hanna manages to be a really engaging action film on the technical level, with an ever so slight touch of art house flair that works incredibly well. Joe Wright has presented a piece of work which is disciplined and entertaining in all of the right ways and all of the right places, while also being visually appealing and cinematic in the more positive connotations of the word.

The score for the film is drop dead, knock out fun. The Chemical Brothers were among the electronic artists to rise to the top of crop in nineties, and they've reemerged with the score for Hanna proving they aren't relics from a lost time. Their music adds an entire dimension to the film can't be understated by rounding out and complimenting all of the areas the film works well. It's not just background, adding a sense of atmosphere, but it doesn't overpower the visual presentation or the character aspects of the film. It's almost it's own character in the film, because it's never a cloying, pandering piece of scoring that seems to be trying to give the audience emotional directions. It's reminiscent of their other work, while also seeming to be tailored specifically for the film. It works for many of the same reasons Trent Reznor's score for The Social Network was successful, and it's also extremely listenable as it's own creation.

I doubt that Hanna will be the best film I'll see all year, but I don't doubt that it is going to be one of top ten or fifteen films of the year, and possibly the best film with as heavy an emphasis on action. I can definitely suggest this film to anyone. I wouldn't be shocked if there were some folks for whom it is not "exciting" enough and that can't get on board with the idea of a petite fourteen year old girl being a bad ass, dropping C.I.A thugs like a Charlie Sheen sitcom no matter the explanation the story provides, but I would be shocked if many folks who would feel that way about this film are my regular readers. I would also suggest checking Hanna out in theaters for a few reasons. First, it is visually interesting enough that a even a big screen T.V. isn't quite going to cut it (especially that more stylized scene toward the middle). Second, the score deserves to be heard properly, thumping and jerking very loudly. Last, supporting films like Hanna in the theaters and helping to make them profitable suggests to the studios that there is an audience for films like this. I have no doubt there is an audience for this, probably a relatively large one, whether or not they show up to the theaters is the question.

I'll say one last thing about Hanna, I very rarely walk away from a film and feel I would really like to see a sequel. I walked away from Hanna feeling that way because I think the way her character was handled and portrayed, both in the script and by Saoirse Ronan, leave the opening for a film surrounding exactly what becomes of her following this ending that could be equally as good. Because she's spent her entire life living in a forest wilderness, there could be a really interesting story in how this girl makes her way into society, at fourteen years old, without the benefit of a guiding force, but with an extremely interesting set of capabilities and talents.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Source Code (Duncan Jones, 2011)

In 2009, Duncan Jones debut, Moon, was released. He had written and directed the film and was quickly catapulted to the top of up and coming young directors. Having written that film, as well as directing it, he proved he could craft a deeply thoughtful film about the nature of identity with a warm, clear eyed humanity at its heart. It was great science fiction for adults. Source Code is Jones second outing, a film which is equally successful in fulfilling it's aims, though those aims are very different.

Source Code is about an army helicopter pilot who suddenly wakes up on a train in suburban Chicago, in a body that is not his own. Following eight minutes of the kind of disturbance which would be expected from waking up suddenly in someone else's body, the train blows up. And then Captain Colter Stevens (played effectively by Jake Gyllenhall), wakes up again, this time inside some kind of small pod or cockpit, with an Air Force officer speaking to him through a monitor, attempting to glean from him any information he may have been able to learn about the nature of the cause of the explosion. The point of all this is that Capt. Stevens is part of a program called The Source Code, which can send a person backwards in time, into the shoes of another person, during a specific event for eight minutes at a time. The trains explosion is the event under investigation this time, and Capt. Stevens is sent into this event to attempt to discover who planted the bomb, in hopes of preventing a second attack, the threat of a dirty bomb being detonated in the middle of downtown Chicago.

Source Code is a very good popcorn movie. I should make clear that I have nothing at all against popcorn movies. I have a definite distaste for any kind of movie which is so cynically derivative that it never attempts to have it's own voice or any film which never attempts to develop anything like story, character or narrative themes because it's counting on the the audiences familiarity with the tropes and clichés of the genre of film it's attempting to imitate. There are great popcorn movies, but it's also probably the kind of movie which is most often lazily thrown together with the hopes that the audiences will see some exciting but familiar scenes in a trailer and flock to the theaters. Duncan Jones has succeeded in crafting a popcorn movie that is exciting, compelling, smart, and has the same warm heart that made Moon such a special film. He demonstrates that he can make a more mainstream science fiction adventure film which is a cut above the majority of other big budget science fiction films by focusing on characters who have a fundamental decency at their core and by presenting the audience with philosophical conundrums that aren't easily solved. He also proves he can take a script written by someone else and carry it through to developing it into a film that demonstrates the same degree of confidence, understanding and ability equal to that of a film he had written himself. Source Code manages to strike a strange balance by only really being about explosions and the trappings of the action/adventure genre in a secondary way. The real story of Source Code is in Captain Colter Stevens, his choices in the face of what he's presented with, and the actions he chooses to take. Jake Gyllenhaal exudes a basic, simple decency that makes him one of the more believable and authentic "movie stars" working in Hollywood today. He takes some difficult material and makes it very easy for the audience to get on board and go for the ride that he is trying to convince them to take. In the beginning of the film, his dis-ease with the situation he finds himself in is perfectly offset by the way he plays the characters military background.
Michelle Monaghan plays opposite Gyllenhaal as Christina Warren, the traveling companion and romantic interest of the man whose body Gyllenhaal is dumped into. Monaghan has had very few opportunities to demonstrate her talents as an actress. Most of her other roles have been in light romantic comedies and a few other big budget action films that cast her as the necessary and too standard love interest. Although she is cast again as the love interest opposite the films primary protagonist, Source Code is somewhat different from the roles she's had in other action films in that this one is at the very center of the films narrative and is the window through which the film makes the journey from being about the kind of nebulous, generic "bomb plot" to being about something more concrete. It becomes very much about Captain Stevens realization that the people on this train that he is trying to save, despite the protestations of the source code's military minders who claim that nothing he changes matters because none of it is actually real, are just people living their lives on a day to day basis, not just numbers of the dead.
Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright play the Air Force officer who is Captain Stevens contact and the scientist who created the source code. Farmiga has been following a renegades path to stardom by passing on many of the kinds of star vehicles up and coming actresses usually jump at to establish their place in the "industry marketplace." Starring in The Departed was the role which afforded her the greatest commercial recognition, but she's been building a reputation as a strong and versatile actress by taking smart, well written roles and giving great performances in those roles. She brings some real subtlety to her role as Colleen Goodwin, adding another performance to that growing reputation. Jeffrey Wright does a great job as he venal and ambitious scientist in charge of the source code program, a villainous role he hasn't had the opportunity to sink his teeth into. Wright is one of the most unfortunately over looked actors in Hollywood. He's a great actor with a powerful intensity which can be beautifully mixed with a touching sense of the more fragile aspects of humanity. Here he proves he can just as surely handle bureaucratic villainy. In the early days of the Iron Man franchise, I was hoping to see Wright get a shot as Rhodey, Tony Starks best friend and conscience so that he may gain some of the recognition he deserve.

I can recommend Source Code to just about anyone, without a seconds hesitation. Though it lacks some of the visual elegance and heady themes of Moon, it's still an enjoyable film that provides some thought provoking ideas and questions. It's pacing and performances are sure to keep audiences invested in the story. It's a great spring time film, in that it is an action film, but is also more thoughtful and intelligent than the summer movie season tends to tolerate. With the sure onslaught of very large, very dumb spectacle films on the way, I'd heavily suggest getting out to see Source Code.

The Fiasco of and Surrounding Sucker Punch (Zach Snyder, 2011)

I should begin by saying that half of the reason I went to see Sucker Punch was because of the incredibly bad reviews it's been getting. They aren't just bad reviews either. They are vicious. I've been trying to find it again, and I can't, but I actually read a review which declared that Sucker Punch is the end of cinema, and tried to seriously carry that argument off. My friend G.W. Ferguson, sent me a link to another review, which is hilarious, well laid out, a good piece of criticism, and is equally excoriating. It's been derided for having horrific narrative problems, slammed for being soft core porn wrapped in the male idea of feminism, and barraged for being all style and no substance. I haven't read film reviews this hateful in a good while. I have to admit as well, that I didn't read many reviews for The Last Airbender, the film to which I've been seeing this compared because I wasn't that interested in that film in the first place. M. Night Shymalan's stock had plummeted with me as soon as I sat through The Happening, and The Last Airbender seemed like a project with characters and a story a little too complicated for him at that point in his career. I say all of this for two reasons. The first is that as a result of reading all of this, I think my expectations for Sucker Punch were extremely low. The second reason is that I think the majority of these histrionics actually say more about us, the critical community, than they actually do about the film. Sucker Punch is a flawed film, with one or two relatively serious problems that should be mentioned, because they are mentioned any time a film suffers from them, but is nowhere near the abyss of cynical hatred for intelligence or the feminine as it has been depicted. 

All of that being true, I understand why the reviews for Sucker Punch have been written with the eviscerating glee they have been. I can also see how the film may have been a huge disappointment for people who were enthusiastically anticipating it. After seeing the trailers for it, I was definitely interested in it, but I've also gotten to the point that there are very few films I can anticipate solely due to a trailer. I've been burned too many times, and my ability to establish a love affair with a trailer has been singed to the point of becoming numb. I figured that at best, Sucker Punch would be a film rich in visual imagination and short on plot and character. And I think I might actually have been wrong. First, I'll explain what my reaction to Sucker Punch is and then I'm going to make an attempt to dig a little deeper into the critical reaction to the film, why it's been so horrifically hated, and why I think most of that is essentially cowardice on the part of a number of web critics or is misplaced anger, that doesn't have as much to do with this film as it does the state of the industry in a more general sense. Let's also not discount the fact that it's fun to write reviews for films which the writer has a complete and unapologetic hatred for or films that the writer is gushingly, fawningly in love with. As someone who has probably spent more time writing reviews in the last few years than the majority of the movie going public, I can tell you this from experience.

My first thought following the last frame of the films credits was that it was actually too many things. I get the definite feeling that Zach Snyder felt that after the success of Watchmen, he knew he was only ever going to get one chance to make whatever he wanted, and he was trying to pack everything he thought no one would ever let him do into this one film. It's visually impressive, but the narrative is jumbled, muddy and almost seems as if there are pieces of it missing. I wouldn't be completely shocked if at some point a "Directors Cut" were released that restores some of those pieces. This isn't to say that replacing what seems to be missing is going to make this the Citizen Kane of fanboy films, because it isn't, but I do think it will provide some answers to a number of the more sensible criticisms of the film. There are good ideas here, and the general concept of the film is actually pretty solid. The problems lie in the execution, which is often the case.

This film does provide one major realization, Zach Snyder is not a writer. He is definitely a director, but he's not a writer, at least not as good a writer as the director that he can be deserves. I really enjoyed Watchmen, and given the nature of that material, with it's multiple plot structure, the story within a story, I think he did a pretty fine job bringing it to the screen. Having read, enjoyed and developed a real love of the source material, I was skeptical when I heard Snyder was going to be taking the reigns, but he ended up delivering a largely solid film, as well done as any film based on that material probably could be. I've seen it a number of times already, and I'll watch it again at some point. 300 was also pretty spectacular visually, with some unmistakable script and story problems, but a generally fun, kick ass kind of action flick. After seeing Sucker Punch, I'm even more convinced Snyder's got at least one really good or even great film in him, maybe more if he hits his stride sooner rather than later.

What I also can't say about Sucker Punch is that it's just another mediocre piece of crap, pumped out by some studio or other just to separate every sucker who'll buy a movie ticket from their money. It's a film with really grand ambitions. Granted, it may fail to meet those ambitions rather spectacularly in some ways, but it's still better for an ambitious film to miss it's mark than to be assaulted with yet another rehash of the same thing we've seen every few weeks for the last twenty years, and will probably see more of in the next few weeks. There are three concurrent narrative levels happening during the film. Two of them are fantasy and one is "reality." In the first, we follow our heroine, "Baby Doll" through a horrific set of circumstances which unjustifiably land her in a mental institution. I do have to comment that I always find it hilarious when I see a sign in a film which reads, such and such hospital for the "mentally insane," because first of all, insane isn't a medical term, it's a legal term. It's a term the medical community doesn't actually use. I can forgive that though, since insane is the kind of short hand term that makes a specific point clear and which is more or less culturally accepted, but beyond that, is there a kind of insane other than that of the mental variety? Is there a physically insane? Or a physiologically insane? Possibly a metaphysically insane? It's kind of like saying, largely humungous. Setting that aside, Baby Doll finds herself institutionalized, and overhears a conversation between one of the hospital staff, and the man responsible for her unjustified institutionalization, which seals her fate. She's headed for the old orbital lobotomy chair so she can never reveal the truth about the events that landed her there. From there, we're introduced to the other girls occupying the ward. And we're quickly swept away to the first level of the films fantasy narrative which sees Baby Doll and the other girls, Blondie, Sweet Pea, Rockett, and Amber as dancers and prostitutes in a forties style high end brothel. In this reality, Baby Doll is going to be given over to The High Roller in three days time (coinciding with the amount of time before the lobotomist arrives in the actual "reality" of the films first narrative). She's forced to begin enduring dance lessons (given by Carla Gugino, who is also the psychiatrist in the first level reality of the film) to start developing the act she will perform in the cabaret show that is the front for the brothel. And when she begins to dance, we're swept into the films third layer, the fantasy within the fantasy, at which point Scott Glenn shows up, playing the benevolent sage who can provide Baby Doll the necessary directions about how to achieve freedom. This reality, is necessarily the most fantastic, and throughout the film involves everything from giant samurai which seem to possibly be demons, steam punk Nazi's, dragons, goblins, and killer robots. All of the real action sequences take place in this fantasy, and the entire film slips back and forth between the reality and the first level of fantasy with very little to signal the audience that it's doing so. The third level, the action fantasy, is only ever brought out when it's Baby Doll is required to dance for one reason or another.

Snyder is attempting to make a statement about the power of the imagination to overcome obstacles, obviously, but I don't think that's all he's trying to get at. The problem is that either there's so much on the cutting room floor, so much jammed into the film already or he's just not nearly a good enough writer to get across exactly what he's trying to say within the narrative and it's structure. If I were to sit through the film two or three more times, I could probably pull out exactly what it is Snyder is reaching for, which is something that when done purposefully, can make for interesting film, but in this case, it's not the result of the kind of careful consideration that presents a layered narrative in such a way that there is an obvious narrative arc, which hints or heavily suggests there is more going on beneath the surface. The audience walks away from the film with a head full of jumbled images, concepts, themes and suggestions that they are attempting to reassemble into something resembling a sensible narrative structure or thematic thrust. When the film is finished, there's definitely a somewhat after school special message in the last scene, the kind of thing that takes no account of real subtlety or actual human emotions or motives. The thing is, the entire narrative structure of the film strongly suggests Snyder was reaching for more than that. If you've no intention to do anything more than make a pat, simple minded message movie, you make a pat, simple minded message movie and go about your business. That film could have been any one of the narrative layers the film presents, all by itself. Attempting to thread all three together suggests Snyder had a lot more on his mind than that. Anyone who doesn't at least have the ambition to do more wouldn't bury that message under three layers of fantasy dimension narrative. It's possible that Snyder's talents don't match his ambitions, but again, I'd rather see someone with real ambition make a film that doesn't live up to those ambitions than see a film made with no ambitions that succeeds in being an unambitious, pandering and cohesive fictional structure, but completely cliche. Sucker Punch seems to suffer from suggesting too heavily that there is something else going on beneath the surface of the narrative, but failing to make it as clear as it should given the weight of that suggestion. Again, these are problems with the writing, though it could be argued that Snyder could possibly have found a way to develop a more concrete visual vocabulary to communicate the larger ideas and themes he's trying to impart. Given that film is a visual medium, I can accept that argument without comment.

There are also some problems with the script itself. Some of the dialog falls flat in certain scenes that need it to be more lively to give them the impact the overall story needs. When taking into consideration that the majority of the film takes place in Baby Doll's fantasy worlds, there's a real opportunity here to play with the language in a way that could make it interesting and engaging. When the visual presentation is going to go as far as Snyder does with that fantasy, I don't think the audience is going to throw anyone to the wolves for trying to make the dialog as interesting and colorful as each and every frame of this film is visually. They aren't expecting realism at that point. In fact, I don't think anyone walking into this film expects realism. At least a little bit of experimentation with the dialog would have been nice. It would have been a good opportunity to give the characters some more depth as well. Using the fantasy aspect of the film would have been a good window to giving the each of the characters their own style of vocabulary etc. It does betray the degree to which Snyder is visually focused that there isn't any attempt to give the dialog more snap in those sequences. I can say, without hesitation, that the script never sinks to the depths of duh that Battle: Los Angeles did, which is another reason I'm somewhat perplexed by the critical reception to this film. It's not like Battle: Los Angeles was received with open arms and warm kisses by the critical community, but it didn't get anywhere near the level of spite filled smarm Sucker Punch is being subjected to (with the possible exception of Roger Ebert, who has skewed both films thoroughly). The script for Battle: Los Angeles was gobsmackingly horrible. It was like being smashed in the head with a giant hammer made of stupid, repeatedly. At no point during Sucker Punch did I find myself with my face in my hands, shaking my head, which is what happened more or less every time Battle: Los Angeles tried to get away from the action and "get serious." It was realleh, realleh dumb with a side of hurp and and extra helping of derp. All I have to say is... "Who's my little Marine?" My original review of that film was an extremely soft touch in comparison to what Sucker Punch is being subjected to, and I even commented in that review about the drubbing Battle: L.A. was getting. It's possible that I was so completely dumbstruck by how bad that script was, that anything which doesn't make me want to see all of the protagonists die as soon as possible, just so the movie ends immediately, seems a bit more acceptable than it would have prior to being subjected to that film.

I think those are the problems with Sucker Punch, if I take it as it's own film, with the goals and ideas it seems to establish for itself. There are larger issues, especially in the context of the critical community and American media as a whole, but I'll touch on those after I get to what exactly it is I think works in the film and for the film.

The first thing, that I think no one can really deny, and that I think many people have under appreciated considering that film is a visual medium, is that it is visually stunning. It's literally fantastic. Every single frame of this film is painstakingly gorgeous. Visually, it's one of the most fully realized worlds I may have ever seen on film, especially when considering how much of it is digitally created or built as a set, not shot on locations. It's gorgeous. When I saw Sin City in theaters for the first time, I said to a friend that it was going to change everything. That might seem like a really bold proclamation for a relatively silly film, but here's why it struck me that way. It was the first time I had seen a film whose entire world was fully realized and established it's own entire reality from nothing more than the imagination of the film makers, and was convincing within the reality that film was trying to establish. Obviously, it was a fantastic reality as opposed to trying to create a reality which seemed was more like the one we actually live in than not, but within that films confines, it was a convincing reality. What that said to me was that there were going to be film makers who were no longer bound by technical capabilities. They were going to actually be able to create visual representations of anything they could possibly imagine. Anyone who is familiar with the larger history of film, especially with a love of genre films, understands the enormity of that idea and the possibilities it opens up. There are scenes in Sucker Punch, all of them taking place in the third level fantasy world, where Snyder has created something in the digital space that has only ever existed in imagined worlds before. They literally bare almost no resemblance to things we find in reality. They look more like things we've seen before in paintings or in anime than they resemble actual things that exist. There's a sequence involving a castle, but it's not like a castle we've ever seen before, and the same can be said of the wide shots that take place when our heroines are fighting through an army of steam punk Nazi's, that bigger world is not something we've ever seen on film before. We've seen battle zones and battle fields before, but this takes it to another level. This is not to say he has created those worlds and fully realized them, because he hasn't. Within the confines of the story and the time he has with these specific scenes, it would be impossible to do so, but he does take another step in that direction by creating scenes and shots that strongly suggest that world is out there. It is going to be film makers taking steps like this which are eventually going to help some young film maker become unbound from the limitations have established the parameters of possibility, and that young film maker is going to create something that will be wholly unlike anything we have ever seen before.

One of the things I enjoy about film is variety. I love the fact that Seven Samurai and Airplane both exist. I love the fact that Citizen Kane and Hostel exist and that all of those films, and films in between all of those poles are loved by people. I think Christopher Nolan has done something incredible with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight by establishing that character in a world that is secured by a very grounded realism. He's given me the Batman I was waiting to see on screen since I was a kid. I watched Syriana again recently, and the degree to which that film is so very real terrified me considering the day and age we're living in. It's the films strongest asset. At the same time, I think there is room for real fantasy, and I'm looking forward to the day we start to see films which the visual imagination is able to ride out on the capabilities of the effects until the imagination itself can go no further, instead of the other way around. Sucker Punch is a small step in that direction. It may be a small step adorned with all the trappings of geek culture, and be something near a suggestive love letter to fanboys around the world, but it is still that step. I think Sucker Punch, possibly even more than Avatar, is the next step in that direction. Some of you are probably reading this and think that is heresy. I liked Avatar, but it suffered from many of the same problems this film does. It was visually stunning, but the story was extremely run of the mill and cliche. I'd even suggest that Snyder's created more of a fully realized world from imagination here than Cameron did in Avatar. Cameron basically created a digital representation of a rain forest. Was it impressive in it's scale? Yes. Was it impressive in it's detail? Yes. But is that something fully imagined or is it a recreation? I think Sucker Punch, possibly even more than Avatar, is the next step in that direction. Some of you are probably reading this and think that is heresy. I liked Avatar, but it suffered from many of the same problem this film does. It was visually stunning, and the narrative was somewhat disappointing. I'd even suggest that Snyder's created more of a fully realized world from imagination here than Cameron did in Avatar. Cameron basically created a digital representation of a rain forest. Was it impressive in it's scale? Yes. Was it impressive in it's detail? Yes. But is that something fully imagined or is it a recreation? Avatar's real accomplishment was in the quality of it's 3D, and don't think I'm discounting that, but it wasn't in the actual realm of creating a world, what was most impressive about it was the degree of detail Cameron was able to do that with. Leveling the criticism at Sucker Punch that it's derivative of so many other sources, is kind of ridiculous when you consider the degree to which every single movie ever made is somewhat derivative of or inspired by something else. At least in the case of Sucker Punch there is the real attempt and ambition to tell the story in a more interesting and less cliche way, even if it doesn't totally succeed. Now here's the real kicker, I do think Avatar ends up being a better film, but I respect Sucker Punch more specifically because of the risks it takes where Avatar didn't. James Cameron throws fastballs right down the middle. Zach Snyder tried to throw a breaking ball that never broke. The critical community, being the batter in this analogy, seems a little upset that in not breaking, the ball got a little closer to their chins then they'd like.

The other thing I thought worked well in the film were the performances. Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jenna Malone, Carla Gugino and Oscar Isaac all do solid work. I actually did care about the characters in the long run. I wanted to see them reach their goal and get out. I felt a combination of disgust and pity for Carla Gugino's character, which is what I think was what the story was trying for, and I definitely disgusted and hated Oscar Isaac. For all of the hoopla and breast beating given to the lack of character development, I think the truth of that is due to the fact that Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung's roles were unfortunately saddled with the same variety of character as the fourth crewman in the red uniform in any old Star Trek episode. It was evident from the beginning that they didn't have much to do, and the only question was how far they were actually going to make it. Apparently there are musical numbers missing from the cabaret that serves as the front for the brothel in the films first level fantasy, which Hudgens features prominently in. This would make sense considering her fame is due to her appearance in the High School Musical films, and there's no better way to shake off the typecast than to take a film which features you most prominently in musical numbers... only sexier.

All in all, I've seen much, much worse films. I have seen better films as well. What I don't think I've seen is an action/fantasy film that was as visually accomplished as this one is. Sucker Punch doesn't live up to it's own promise, but had it not been for the press need to pile on it as if ripping yet another piece of flesh from it's recently dead cadaver was going to earn them either a writing job that pays well or more respect from "real critics," it would have been remembered as an interesting, if not completely successful experiment by a director with a strong visual sense and style, but who obviously needs some help when it comes to the writing end of the film making process. Now, it will probably be remembered as a critical abomination, and people are already beginning to question whether or not Zach Snyder will be able to salvage enough of his reputation to put asses in seats for Superman: The Man of Steel, which is being produced by Christopher Nolan and written by David Goyer (you know, those guys making those Batman movies). I think with Goyer and Nolan on board to reign in some of his more outlandish instincts, Snyder can deliver a pretty interesting Superman film.

Now, we're going to get into both SPOILERS AND SOCIAL POLITICS. You have been warned.

Let me first suggest two different reviews/articles about Sucker Punch that are well written, intelligent, and avoid some of the histrionics many of the other writers have so gleefully engaged in. Both come from /Film.com, which has become one of the better sites for film news and related internet content. The first was written by Angie Han and is about the most hotly debated aspect of the film, whether or not it's exploitation, whether or not it is empowers it's female characters. The second is written by Adam Quigley and presents some defense for the film in regard to those claims and some others as well.

Sucker Punch has definite problems, but as I said earlier, I tend to be more forgiving of an ambitious film that fails to achieve those ambitions than a derivative, cliché ridden film that succeeds in being little more than cheap imitation on a large scale. The criticisms of the film that don't engage in the more hysterical bloviations of slightly over inflated egotism and are more straight forward do present some interesting questions about sexism and films place in the cultural discussion surrounding it. I do have one specific question about many of these claims. I'm not a woman, and I'm not going to wade into the question of sexism in film, in Hollywood or anywhere else, but many of the criticisms of the film are founded on the idea that there is a large audience of men in the country who enjoy depictions of violence specifically committed against women. In this case, they suggest the geek culture audience which the films imagery, the giant samurai's, the dragons, goblins, and killer robots seem to be tailored specifically for are the ones for whom the rest of the films imagery, very attractive young women in peril (and often under threat of sexual violence), is targeting as well.

I'm having a little bit of trouble swallowing that idea. I don't have trouble swallowing the idea that there might be an audience out there, made of men who enjoy seeing images of women being put in harms way or harmed. I think there are women's shelters full of women trying to escape just the kind of men who do enjoy seeing women harmed or in jeopardy. However, I don't buy the idea that there is a big enough audience who are specifically interested in seeing women harmed to bank a big budget action movies success on. One of the interesting things about the reaction to Sucker Punch is the discussion it has created. It is a flawed film, and one of the major flaws is that it is either attempting to make a real statement about the way women are perceived in popular culture or it is somewhat blindly indulgent toward what sociological discussions of feminism refer to as "the male gaze," but its narrative failures make it almost impossible to understand which, at least in one viewing. This claim also contains a blindness to the basics of narrative structure. Every narrative needs a dilemma, and most need a villain. They don't function at all if they don't succeed in making it seem as if the protagonist is under some real threat from the antagonist. That's the way narrative has worked in Western civilization for thousands of years, regardless of whether or not the protagonist is male or female. As someone who is a fan of both genre film and strong women (especially in real life where things actually matter), I personally find it somewhat insulting. I don't think making the claim that men want to see women harmed, especially sexually, is very different from saying "women are bitches." It's a gross generalization that essentially says more about the individual making that proclamation than it does about the group it is made about.

Another interesting thing in the criticism of the film is the number of different reviewers who have focused on the costumes, the way the characters are dressed. It can't be argued that the way these young women are dressed in the film isn't sexually suggestive, because it is. At the same time, I can't help wondering if focusing so specifically on the way they are dressed isn't the other side of the coin of bias, and that there's a good deal of malice being attributed to what ineptitude more properly explains. Here's the question I do have, if the characters and the film as a whole had been written better, presenting these women more three dimensionally, as women in control of their own destinies from the beginning of the film, instead of as women fighting for control, would what they were wearing matter to this discussion? If the costumes were exactly the same, but the writing and characterization were better, would the same people who are claiming the costumes are proof of sexism still be making those claims? At the end of the day, the question really is should what a woman is wearing really matter at all? If we're trying to get beyond the bias of physicality placed more specifically one women, why is what they're wearing always the focus of discussion, instead of something more substantive? To be completely fair, there have been some reviews that have addressed the failings in the script so far as character are concerned, before or after going for the "scantily clad" comments. On a personal level, these are two separate things. I can recognize that a woman is physically appealing, and also recognize that her character is or is not appealing. I think the same argument can be made about male characters in film. They may be physically appealing, and the character can be appalling or interesting. The two do not have to go hand in hand, and in a visual medium, it's not shocking that most of the films made are cast with people who are physically appealing, be they men or women, as the leads. If Brad Pitt looked like Hacksaw Jim Duggan, most women would never have seen Fight Club, which surgically skewers exactly the kind of male most of the negative reviews have been concerned with.

Don't get me wrong here, I know that sexism exists, and like any other form of prejudice, I find it morally abhorrent and intellectually bereft. At the same time, I don't think the classical objections to and arguments against sexism present any solutions or further the cause of ending that prejudice. It's a good deal more complicated than those ideas suggest now, largely because of the successes of many of the objections and arguments that did work in the past. Now, the larger question really comes down to what exactly the aim of feminism is today. In the past, it was a matter of achieving equality in the eyes of society. The things that stand in the way of those goals today, are much more straight forward like equal pay for equal work, promoting candidates to the highest levels of business and government in accordance with their qualifications instead of using gender as an excuse not to promote qualified and capable women to positions they can obviously succeed in.

Part of that same fight was about women having the ability to choose exactly what industries, careers, etc. that they want to be a part of instead of being relegated only to careers that had already been deemed acceptable by society, such as nursing, teaching and so on. At the end of the day, that's the problem that exists in most of the discussions related to feminism today. Women have more choices in their careers and lives than they've ever had before. Consider this, more women are making a conscious decision not to have children than we've ever seen, at least in the U.S. That alone presents a major shift in the psychology of modern women. For centuries, the two most accepted roles for women have been child bearing and child rearing. If women have not only begun to question those roles, but feel secure enough to relinquishing those roles, especially in the numbers they have, it suggests we have yet to have a real full account of the progress that has been made. If things hadn't changed in a relatively drastic way, there would be a lot more attention given to that women are choosing not to be mothers. And really, this is what I think is the problem with many of the arguments relating to feminism today, they often don't take that one very simple thing into account: individual choice. Understand, I'm not trying to make an argument against feminism at all, I'm more or less saying it needs an update to take into account the progress that has been made.

There's something left unsaid in the reviews that most stridently attack Sucker Punch as a deeply troubling piece of misogynistic propaganda. By making that accusation, it does, in a way, indict the women who star in the film as well. If they are being party to the objectification and victimization of women in general, they're most certainly doing it by being complicit in their own objectification and victimization. It is, after all, those very women who these same critics are seeing as having been the lens through which these crimes against the feminine have been committed. And so far, I have yet to see a single one of them even mention that they've attempted to contact any of the women who starred in the film to get a comment from them. Because they agreed to star in the film, and must have read the script prior to doing so, it's really impossible to make the claim that this film and it's director hate women so much, and leave these same women with no amount of guilt in having been accessories to such a crime. I'm somehow perplexed, how anyone, especially a number of the male critics, seem to think they're quite so able to speak about the misogyny of this film, thus partially indicting the women in the film, and never attempt to get a comment of any kind from its female stars. It is after all, a film full of women, so getting a comment from one of those women considering how horrifying this film was in these critics estimation might have made some sense, especially when considering a number of the most heinously angry reviews were written by people who are both critics and film press. I might not expect a critic to attempt to get a comment for something like this, but someone who's engaging in some variety of journalism probably should (criticism and journalism being different creatures which serve different functions). Not to mention that it would just be the civil thing to do when you're intimating someone is a traitor to their sex by making the exact kind of individual career choice the feminist movement fought for them to have in the first place.


There's a very cool article which addresses some of the reviews and coverage of the film over at Geekscape. 

And Diablo Cody, probably the hottest young female writer, just tweeted, "S. Punch was my first Zach Snyder film; maybe I was impressed b/c Snyder-ian trademarks were new to me? Either way, I liked."