Rarely does a title so accurately describe the experience of watching a movie; Zack Snyder´s Sucker Punch is just that. It´s an unbearable exercise in tedium that blindsides the audience, a pandering ComiCon fanboy disaster; story, theme, continuity, coherency, and logic are gleefully tossed aside, all casualties of the oppressive, overbearing style. It´s bold, no doubt; you can make sense of it, yes, and even foster a deep admiration and appreciation for Snyder´s strange new work. But why bother? Sucker Punch is pure torture to sit through.
Sure, there´s a pulsating hard rock score featuring covers of classic tunes, a menacing mental institution, a sleazy 30s-era nightclub, scantily-clad women in various stages of PG-13 undress, big guns, knives, and swords, giant samurai cyborgs, re-animated Nazi zombies, an Aliens/Avatar-like metal war machine, knights in armor battling Lord of the Rings-like Orc monsters, fire-breathing dragons, futuristic robots, an unstoppable train, and Mad Men´s Jon Hamm as a lobotomist.
There are ideas here, yes, and style to spare – Snyder previously made the graphic novel adaptations 300 and Watchmen – but the problem is in the presentation. There´s no internal logic to anything – no real reason for any of it – beyond the realm of the arbitrary. Snyder is effectively switching channels every few minutes, bouncing from idea to idea and showering us with visuals while locking us out of the story.
In a fitfully effective opening sequence – perhaps the only one in the film, told without dialogue or sound effects, just Emily Browning´s cover of the Eurythmics´ Sweet Dreams – bleach-blonde, pigtailed Baby Doll (Browning) accidentally shoots her sister while trying to defend her from an evil stepfather, who wants the money their recently-deceased mother willed to them; Dad has Baby Doll institutionalized, and bribes one of the orderlies to arrange a lobotomy, which will be carried out in five days time.
Things are starting to get interesting, maybe, so Snyder pulls the rug out from under us: that´s the last time we see the asylum and this level of reality until the very end. Instead, we dive into Baby Doll´s fantasy world, a retro nightclub/brothel in which Baby Doll and (we presume) other inmates are now dancers facing similar oppression. The evil orderly is now Blue (Oscar Isaac), the sadistic proprietor; psychiatrist Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino) is now the girls´ madam.
With the help of Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), Baby Doll plots escape by obtaining five necessary items; as the girls obtain these items, the film shifts into further levels of fantasy, which include massive battle sequences set in a Japanese dojo, a WWI/WWII amalgamated battleground, a futuristic robot city, etc.
What we experience, effectively, are metaphors piled on top of metaphors: the girls need to obtain a map to escape the mental institution, they plan this in the nightclub fantasy sequence, and carry out the mission of obtaining the map on the fantasy warfront. Sitting in the audience, we have no way of interacting with these scenes: there´s a level of disconnect between each fantasy world, so while watching the first level of reality might have had some intrinsic tension or suspense, there is none by the time we get to the third. It´s Inception gone all horribly wrong.
Sucker Punch, and films like it, will often be dismissively compared to a video game, or to the experience of watching someone else play a video game; that´s an affront to video games, where we might watch a life meter go down when a player gets hit, or experience actual progress within a level. Sucker Punch plays out more like a video game cutscene, something that bridges the gap between player or audience interaction.
What´s undeniable is that Sucker Punch represents a work of vision: from beginning to end, Snyder is in complete control of this steampunk striptease samurai zombie robot nightmare. It´s just a shame that he hasn´t provided the storytelling essentials that would allow an audience to interact with it. I think the filmmaker realized this by the end, but by the time hamfisted narration is addressing you, the viewer, this piece of junk is being laughed off the screen.
There are two films competing for attention in Ivan Reitman´s No Strings Attached: one is a moderately interesting character study about a woman with a fear of intimacy, the other a standard-level romantic comedy based off an ultra-thin premise. Guess which wins out?
Yes, No Strings Attached is all about the casual sex, “friends with benefits” relationship and what happens when – shock, horror – one of the parties falls for the other, or they both fall for each other, and things start to get weird. Coming this fall: Friends with Benefits, starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. Hot topic, I guess.
This premise was, I think, successfully explored in an episode of Seinfeld, which might have used about one-third of a 22-minute runtime on the subject. Things get weird; there aren´t too many other directions you can take this story. Yet No Strings pads it out to 100 minutes, filling up the dead space with an abundance of subplots that are actually far more interesting than the main storyline.
The friends who agree to participate in this are Adam (Ashton Kutcher, who we expect in this kind of thing) and Emma (Natalie Portman, whose presence here is dumbfounding), casual friends who have known each other since summer camp. After a night of debauchery finds Adam naked on Emma´s couch, the two jump right in. “You wanna do this?” Emma casually asks. “Use each other for sex?” I had real difficulty buying those lines from Ms. Portman.
There´s something vaguely sleazy about this setup (wait – I think I know what it is ) that automatically distances us from the main characters; when they start to have real feelings for each other, we´re not as invested in them as we ought to be. They´ve already done the dirty deed, in starkly realistic, businesslike terms, and now they want the magical Hollywood romance?
Subplots all trump the trite premise, including an actual romance, which exists only in the background of some scenes, between best friend characters played by Greta Gerwig and Jake Johnson; I cared more about them than the leads. Also: Emma, as a doctor in training, making googly eyes at Dr. Metzner (Cary Elwes – fourth billed but barely in the film, likely a subplot casualty); Alex´s celebrity father (Kevin Kline), who is dating his ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond); and Alex´s day job working on the set of a High School Musical-like production, where a nice girl (Lake Bell) is interested in him.
Better than anything else here is an actual examination of the Emma character, who persists with the casual sex thing because she´s afraid of true intimacy; but while her story is hinted at throughout, it gets only a cursory glance and a brief, packaged explanation at the end. Surely, that´s what drew Portman to the project – there´s nothing else here to merit her interest. Coming right on the back of her Oscar win for Black Swan, this is the first true rom-com on her resume, and it couldn´t be more generic. On the flip side is Kutcher, who we expect to see in these films; playing a mostly likable character without any real problems, he´s especially bland.
Director Reitman previously made Stripes, Ghostbusters, and other above-average comedies in the 80s and 90s before his career was just about killed by the megabomb Evolution; in the past 10 years, his only other film has been My Super Ex-Girlfriend. He brings a workmanlike craft to No Strings Attached, but Elizabeth Meriwether´s screenplay – a formula rom-com minus much of the romance and comedy – doesn´t give him much to work with.
Scream without the wink-wink self-awareness: Wes Craven´s My Soul to Take is an entirely watchable – but by no means remarkable – teen slasher film mixed with Scooby Doo mystery. Ever since Scream´s ironic take 15 years ago, the genre has been beaten to death in mainstream cinema with scores of sequels, ripoffs, remakes, and 80s throwbacks; these days, it seems the best we can hope for is a polished turd like this from an old pro like Craven.
Soul starts things off with an extended prologue featuring the Rivertown Ripper, a knife-wielding maniac suffering from multiple personality disorder who manages to call his shrink before hacking up his wife. Cops arrive on the scene to dispatch of the Ripper, and unintentional hilarity ensues as he jolts back to life at least three times to commit further mayhem, overturning the ambulance carrying him and vanishing into the night.
Fifteen years later: local highschoolers hold an annual vigil at the scene of the Ripper´s disappearance, fighting off an elaborate puppet to ensure they make it through the next year. Among these kids is the Riverton Seven, a group each born on the same night the Ripper died; this year the task of puppet bashing falls to insecure Bug (Max Thieriot). He fails, and yeah, they´re all doomed.
Other members of the parade of stock characters that makes up the Riverton Seven: Bug´s best friend Alex (John Magaro), a put-upon outcast; Jerome (Denzel Whitaker), the token black character with a twist – he´s also blind; jock/bully Brandon (Nick Lashaway); Miss Popular, Brittany (Paulina Olszynski); Miss Weird, Penelope (Zena Grey); and Asian-American Jay (Jeremy Chu), who gets about five lines. These ‘kids´ are all supposed to have just turned 16, but they each look about 21.
One by one, they´re each disposed of in (by today´s Saw standards) not-so-gruesome fashion by the Ripper, who has retuned yet again. Or has he ? No, that would be too obvious and fantastical, so we´re treated to some extreme misdirection as the film becomes not a teens-being-stalked-and-murdered slasher film, but a who´s-the-murderer mystery.
Under the blatant misdirection, the film collapses. He´s the killer, the film keeps telling us, until that becomes too obvious; no, it´s him! And on and on, until we just stop caring; we can´t properly get involved with the mystery when so much time is spent misleading us. The ultimate revelation feels just as arbitrary as the final reel of Clue, which was randomly distributed in multiple versions to different cinemas.
I´ve never been a fan of Craven, who hit it big with A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, two of the most successful horror franchises out there; the sketchy dream logic of Elm Street never worked for me, and Scream felt too pretentious to work on its intended level. The rest of his filmography is littered with films of comparable quality to My Soul to Take, many worse (his best? 1977´s The Hills Have Eyes). Up next: Scream 4, opening in local cinemas in two weeks. Prediction: more of the same.
Note: My Soul to Take is screening in Prague cinemas in a 3D version; the above review refers to the 2D version of the film.
Also opening: Hop (showtimes | IMDb), an Easter-themed blend of live action and animation featuring Russell Brand as the voice of the Easter Bunny’s son. Screening in a Czech-dubbed version in Prague cinemas.