POSTED ON MARCH 30, 2011:
So long, Sucker
Aptly titled and unlikely do go down in campy infamy
Wow, what a mess of a movie. It looked that way from a distance when the trailers for Sucker Punch started circulating and revealed a patchwork of geek iconography. Undead Nazis; hot girls in small skirts kicking the asses off of giant, mini-gun-wielding, robot samurai warriors; giant dragons; bi-plane combat; medieval siege warfare and steampunk dirigibles -- a sci-fi mash up of period art designs and anachronistically melded historical cultures. It looked like someone letting their imagination go wild, self-indulgently so.
But I had no idea how far off the mark director/writer Zack Snyder (with freshman Steve Shibuya) would be. Sucker Punch is a borderline entertainingly bad shotgun blast of visual masturbation grafted onto a story conceived as a female-empowerment fantasy as written by someone who possibly rubs out while playing Dead or Alive 2.
I knew I was in trouble right away, as the opening music video -- which Sucker Punch often resembles only featuring shitty versions of really good songs -- reveals the circumstances that landed Baby Doll (the over emotive though hardworking Emily Browning) in Lennox House, a mental institution for orphans. Plunked down with a ward full of indeterminately committed patients with comic-strip names like Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), Baby Doll saves another inmate, Rocket (Jena Malone) from a lecherous cook who was attempting to find a home for his summer sausage. Baby Doll forms a bond with her fellow nutcases.
Baby Doll has been scheduled for a lobotomy in five days time by the corrupt director. So she begins to form a plan of escape through her imagination by picturing the asylum as a dance studio/bordello for indentured prostitutes, led by a good hearted teacher/warden, Dr. Vera Gorski (Snyder favorite Carla Gugino).
As Baby Doll succumbs to the fugue of the dance she finds herself transported to a fantastical Japanese dojo where she meets the Wise Man (Scott Glenn, who is slowly morphing into Leonard Nimoy) who tells her she needs to find five items--a map, fire, a knife, a key, and "a mystery" -- in order to be set free. He also doles out incredibly clichéd life lessons.
Baby Doll convinces her new friends to help her in their escape, and each of them is charged with finding the first four items while Baby Doll dances for Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) the pimp/director of the brothel/asylum to (seriously) distract the staff while her comrades collect the appointed items they need to escape. Each time she dances she finds herself teleported to phantasmagoric dream worlds where she must fight or vanquish any obstacle in her path -- while Quasi-Nimoy doles out even more clichéd life lessons.
Punch Drunk. There’s just something about watching Zach Snyder commit his considerable visual talents and ingenuity to something so ambitiously silly and ill advised as Sucker Punch. “What were you thinking?” was a mantra in my head as the cacophony of Snyder’s nerdstincts crashed into the wall of his ability to render them into a good story.
The results are kind of amazing, like watching a drunk mow down a bunch of runners in a Maserati during the Special Olympics -- a series of misguided decisions leading to an outcome surreally sad, yet oddly compelling. There's just something about watching Snyder commit his considerable visual talents and ingenuity to something so ambitiously silly and ill-advised. "What were you thinking?" was a mantra in my head as the cacophony of Snyder's nerdstincts crashed into the wall of his ability to render them into a good story. His visual chops have actually improved, his trademark speed-ramping playing less of a role as he indulges in some energetic new camera tricks while he wallows in his production design. As a director that has always been his strong suit but it only really works when someone else, be it George Romero, Frank Miller or Alan Moore, gives him something truly tested to work from. In his hands, his story for Sucker Punch is little more than a music video spliced into a video game with a story that has as retrograde a view of women as anything dreamed up by a caffeine-fueled, manga-reading 15 year old, which would be fine if it were fun. There wasn't a single genuine emotion in Sucker Punch and nothing clever about its convoluted and awkward narrative structure, just a bunch of shit that looks cool to those that are easily amused -- or fanboys.
The characters are all ciphers in the service of Snyder's rigidly constructed cinematic jumble (he's like the anti-Chris Nolan now) and, as such, only have to look a certain way and hit their line readings with the appropriate emphasis, highlighting Snyder's unevenness as an actor's director. Browning as Baby Doll emotes with the range of an anime character while Malone actually makes an impression as Rocket, the good soul of the bunch. Oscar Isaac has a couple of decent moments of passive aggressive sleaziness while Carla Gugino is typically watchable and good; goofy Russian accent and all. John Hamm, in a brief dual cameo, reminds you that there are much better things you could be doing with your time, like watching Mad Men -- or 2010's The Town. Scott Glenn reminds you that he was almost this wooden in 1983s, The Keep, another over indulgent film by a premier visual director that made you wonder what the fuck he was thinking.
Maybe Sucker Punch -- an apt title -- will live on in campy infamy and take on a cult following for its amusing awfulness, kind of like Showgirls; though that's doubtful since at least Verhoeven had the good sense to embrace the slick misogyny and prurience of his far more fun abomination.
Indie filmmaking is tough. Really tough. The odds of scoring a best feature win at someplace like South by Southwest are on par with that of a puny salmon navigating past hungry grizzlies on the river bank. Writer/director Lena Dunham did just that, though, with her sophomore feature effort Tiny Furniture. And while its mumblecore-lite aspects, preponderance of self-aware, quasi-intellectual New York hipsters and annoyingly arch pseudo-bohemians are a recipe for scorn in my real life book, in practice it's hard to really hold that against a young filmmaker's obvious labor of (self?) love just because her sense of what and who are actually compelling differs from mine. But, Tiny Furniture is supposed to be a comedy that's only occasionally cute at best and vaguely annoying at worst. That's a problem.
Dunham plays Aura, a 22-year-old college grad returning to the coldly upscale loft her successful photographer mother, Siri (Dunham's real life mom Laurie Simmons) and sister, Nadine (real life sister Grace Dunham). A mousy girl, with an arty bikini video shot by her feminist ex-boyfriend that's generated 400 Youtube hits, Aura is trying to figure out her life, which consists primarily of existential malaise and envying her younger sister while absently yearning for the future to manifest itself.
Too Cute. Tiny Furniture is a film about musings and emotions and moments that, while seemingly innocuous in dramatic weight do capture the meandering thoughts and actions of a girl who is struggling to define herself against the contrast of her talented and intuitive mother and sister.
Aura goes to a party where she meets Jed (Alex Karpovsky), a YouTube "star" known for Nietzsche Cowboy, clips of him spouting philosophical comedy whilst riding a rocking pony. She also reunites with an old friend, crazy British daddy's girl, Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) who has a penchant for pills and weed and utter shallowness. She hooks Aura up with a restaurant hostess gig while Jed, an itinerant Chicagoan in town for two weeks, winds up staying with Aura while her mom and sister are out of town. Jed, who appears to be what would happen if Vincent Spano and Eric Bogosian spawned a self-affected, nice guy raised by Zack Braff and young Woody Allen, makes no meaningful moves on Aura so she becomes attracted to a sous chef from work, Keith (David Call), yet another sarcastic pseudo-intellectual with little sense of irony.
And I just realized the pointlessness of synopsizing Tiny Furniture.
It's a film about musings and emotions and moments that, while seemingly innocuous in dramatic weight do capture the meandering thoughts and actions of a girl who is struggling to define herself against the contrast of her talented and intuitive mother and sister. As a family dramedy it works better but even there the flatness of the narrative and the sometimes stiff direction never sucked me in, while as a comedy, it comes off a bit like Diablo Cody and Woody Allen's dialogue got mixed up at the nursery and accidentally given to Sophia Coppola. Nothing hits with a sense of force and so the family dynamics, while often genuine, never really connect while the comedy almost seems an afterthought in a script that mistakes it for irony and sarcasm which feigns characterization. Maybe if I saw it again it would grow on me, as people tend to do, even when they are relatively privileged yet completely discontented. It made me laugh a few times, just not always for the right reasons.
The characters are mostly understated, with the exception of Karpovsky's mugging and Kirke's turn as Charlotte, Aura's saucy, vacuous, sexy and, ultimately, faithful friend. Dunham, as Aura, vaguely recalls a young Jennifer Jason Leigh with her shy performance while her sister, as Nadine, has some fine moments of natural chemistry with her that were almost enough to pull me into the film.
Likewise, with her mother, Laurie Simmons, who shares a few good scenes with her family that ground Tiny Furniture as a sweet, fitfully funny, film that thinks it's more interesting, penetrating and wise than it actually is.
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