Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sucker Punch (2011)

The Movie: A young girl who we will know only as Baby Doll (the adorable and hot Emily Browning from Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) is placed by her abusive stepfather in a psychiatric institution so that he can get rid of her and get a hold of her inheritance. Poor Baby Doll has already had to cope with her stepfather, her mother’s death, and the death of her little sister as well; but much worse is in store for her. It turns out the institution is actually a cabaret, which is in turn a front for a brothel. Owned by the sleazy Blue (Oscar Isaac), the girls are trained by Vera Gorski (the sexy Carla Gugino of Watchmen and Sin City) and then exploited to make Blue money. Baby Doll’s stepfather paid Blue specifically to make her disappear, so she faces a particularly dire fate in only five days.

Baby Doll escapes into a series of fantasy realms where a wise old man (Scott Glenn) gives her the means to escape. To do it, she has to get a hold of five items. Four other girls; Sweet Pea (Abby Cornish), her little sister Rocket (the versatile Jena Malone), Blondie (the gorgeous Vanessa Hudgens of the High School Musical Movies), and Amber (Jamie Chung), agree to help her in the hopes that they can escape as well. But the hurdles for the five girls succeeding start to mount, even as the lines between fantasy and reality start to blur. Can they succeed?

The Review: I present another first for this blog; this is the first time I went to an in-theater movie with the intent of reviewing it. Sucker Punch came to my attention mainly due to the conflicting opinions about it. All the critics seem to hate this movie, while several friends have raved to me about how great it is. I became curious to see it for myself and maybe throw my own two cents into the mix. So what’s my verdict? Well, if I had to sum up Sucker Punch in one word I would say this; it’s a mess. Sucker Punch is a bizarre, surreal, schizophrenic, anachronistic mess of a movie that spends a very large portion of its running time looking like the fever dreams of a highly caffeinated fan boy with severe A.D.D. That’s not to say, however, that it’s an entirely unentertaining mess.

I will start with the cast, since they are probably the best part of the movie. Browning works as the protagonist. Her facial expressions alone convey far more than words ever could. Cornish is also good; she gives us a convincing and fully fleshed-out human being of a character with all the good and bad that entails.

Jenna Malone is one of those actors who I regularly see in a lot of movies, but have trouble recognizing because she gets so deeply into her roles. In fact, in Sucker Punch I was only able to pick her out through process of elimination; I knew she played one of the protagonists and was able to rule out all the others. This is a good thing, by the way. I find that my favorite actors tend to be the ones who are able to get so far into their roles that it’s hard to remember we’re watching them and not their character. It’s easy to see why Malone has had so many roles up to this point, and I hope she gets many, many more.

Isaac does a good job of providing us with a villain who is slimy, sadistic; and who ultimately we love to hate. Gugino also gives us a convincing character. All Hudgens provides to this movie is screen presence, but as the script really doesn’t give her much to work with, it’s probably less her fault than it could be. Chung doesn’t even provide that, pretty much only being eye candy. I’m not familiar with her, so she might have some acting talent; it’s just not visible in this movie.

One of the critic’s major complaints about Sucker Punch is that it’s sleazy and exploitative. I’m on the fence with this one. The outfits the ladies wear aren’t that bad, I see far more revealing outfits weekly at the local YMCA. Although I must confess, being big on bellies and thighs, I can’t help but enjoy the outfits Browning wears during the fantasy sequences.

However, there is a, ever so slight, attempt at sleaze. It’s not much, and this is where my conflict lies. If you’re going to make a piece of sleaze, then by all means do it. But follow through; don’t chicken out at the last minute. I have a problem with the movies that try to create “safe sleaze;” you can have sleazy, or you can have safe, but you can’t have both. In fact, I find the hypocrisy of those kinds of movies far more disturbing than the blatantly honest sleaze pieces. However, there are far worse offenders in this than Sucker Punch. There’s just enough to touch on the subject, and that’s about it.

The fantasy sequences make some great stand-alone set pieces. They’re obviously CGI, but some of them still look amazing. My favorite is the anachronistic WW1 battlefield with its zeppelins and clockwork Germans. There are also some interesting little surreal touches, such as the bunny-faced mech Amber pilots in the WW1 scene. On the downside, I really don’t like the style of combat most action movies use these days; with the camera shaking and then suddenly turning away just as the character strikes a blow. The use of that technique definitely lessens my enjoyment.

Finally, I would say that Sucker Punch’s biggest failing is that it tries to do way too much at once. The themes are all legitimate ones that have worked well for other movies: finding strength in unexpected places; using fantasy to escape from and/or deal with an unpleasant reality; the thin, blurry line between fantasy and reality; gaining strength from a position of helplessness. I have seen all of these themes done and done well in other movies. However, while they are present in Sucker Punch, they tend to get lost beneath everything else.

Watching this movie, one gets the impression that Zack Snyder, who both wrote and directed it, had no idea where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do. It seems like Snyder had some disparate ideas for scenes and storylines, and tried to mix them all together into one movie. As a result, it can be hard to make sense of what’s going on. There are so many different layers of fantasy, reality and delusion blurring together that by the time of the “big reveal” at the end, said reveal loses a lot of its effect because you’re still trying to make sense of everything else you just saw. Individually, some of Sucker Punch’s components work very well. However, the resulting mess is unable to rise above the sum of its parts.

So in conclusion, Sucker Punch is a mess, but not an entirely unentertaining one. While the movie doesn’t work as a whole, there are several independent parts of it that are worth seeing. Yes, I’m well aware that I am damning this movie with faint praise. However, you have to admit, it’s far more generous than many of the other reviewers are willing to be.

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