Saturday, March 26, 2011


"Sucker Punch" (2011)

Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch" is weird, ridiculous, overlong, flawed and really isn't even that good. What it is, however, is an affirmation of Snyder's uncompromising work as a director. He knows what he wants to make, has a passion for it and sure as hell for whatever it's worth, he gets it out there even if it all doesn't work--by a long shot. This is the first time Snyder has directed his own story; most all of his other work (notably "300" and "Watchmen") were graphic novel adaptations. The screenplay was co-written with Steve Shibuya, and places the almost fatally ambitious film as a blend of Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, "Showgirls," "Inception" and I'm sure countless other vague mash-up of influences. I'm really left having to call Snyder's latest work an action musical. I'll explain later.

The opening slow-motion sequence à la the opening credits of "Watchmen" tells the entire backstory without uttering a word. A young woman named Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is framed by her evil step father for the murder of her sister. This sends her to a bleak, dirty and rundown insane asylum that turns out to be more like a prison for women. From the moment we're introduced to this place, nothing about it seems right.

Baby Doll is first brought to a room called the auditorium occupied by the sultry and severe-looking head shrink named Madam Gorski (Carla Gugino), a corrupt hospital orderly, Blue (Oscar Isaac), and a team of almost unrealistically attractive inmates: Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), her sister Rocket (Jena Malone), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) and Amber (Jamie Chung). Their names are like those of strippers because suddenly--and completely unmotivated--the asylum transforms before our eyes into a sleazy nightclub where the girls' only use there is to dance for paying men.

In this other world, which is perhaps part of Baby Doll's damaged psyche, Madam Gorski becomes the terse dance instructor and Blue becomes the vile and dastardly head of the club. As for the girls, they are the seductive and scantily-clad dancers, and Baby Doll needs to prove that she, too, can dance.

The movie revolves around four central action set pieces, the first of which is dominated solely by Baby Doll. This sequence, and the three to follow, are all triggered by Baby Doll's dancing which not only transports us to new realms but also just so happens to hypnotize everyone in the room. Every time she dances, we enter new alternate realities all of which are vastly different and fantastical, equal parts extravagant and beautiful and murky and ugly with everything coated in shades of rust and bronze. It's all the quality work of special effects we've come to expect from a well-produced Zack Snyder film.

In the first sequence we're introduced to a mentor played by Scott Glenn who appears to be greatly channeling the late David Carradine from a combination of his older kung-fu movies and "Kill Bill" days. He shows up at the start of every action sequence providing Baby Doll and her mini-skirted cohorts with a debriefing of their mission ahead and snippets of trite motivational wisdom such as, "Never write a check with your mouth you can't cash with your ass." And then each and every time, without fail, he includes, "Oh, and one more thing." Unintentionally humorous? Purposely bizarre? Hard to say, but in either case, it's an occurrence that feels straight out of a video game.

Whether they're slaying a giant dragon, slaughtering a bunch of steam-powered Nazis in WWII trenches or defusing a futuristic-looking bomb, each mission has a correlation with an item the girls need in reality to escape the asylum/nightclub. The way Snyder sets the action to a unique dance floor soundtrack throughout the whole movie is rather impressive and catchy. It's what led me to the conclusion of calling it an action musical. It certainly has influences of one because the credits contain a full-blown musical number.

There's a lot here that doesn't make sense, though. Like, do the girls see the worlds as Baby Doll does, or do they only see the reality of the situation? Only once do we see how the dream world and reality sync up; every other time it's up to our own imagination. Also, we never see Baby Doll's dance. I found myself wondering what she could possibly be doing that's so intoxicating.

In any case, complete understanding isn't entirely required with a movie like this. The dialogue and plot are supplement, really, and you also can't help but wonder about the point. Softcore exploitation or feminist girl power? Mind-numbingly repetitious or rhythmically absorbing? Whether brilliant or idiotic--or maybe a bit of both--there's something about "Sucker Punch" that works and is telling of Zack Snyder, a continually growing director who--no matter if he makes a misstep or not--cannot be dismissed.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


"Battle: Los Angeles" (2011)

"Battle: Los Angeles" is an embarrassment and a travesty of American cinema that unfortunately dominated the box office this weekend. Pegged as a realistic alien invasion flick, the movie is nearly two hours of incomprehensible chaos and destruction. Even if all you're looking for is Los Angeles to get blown up and leveled by aliens, look elsewhere. Director Jonathan Liebesman works on a grand scale all right creating a vast landscape of dust, rubble and debris, but that's all we get. Given its premise and all those explosions on screen, the movie manages to be a boring, ugly and inept exercise in careless monotony.

In the style of "District 9"--which looks like a full-blown masterpiece standing next to this--we're introduced through news reports playing in the background on TV sets that clusters of meteors are headed toward the earth in major cities all across the globe. A crew of marines is deployed in Santa Monica to take care of the foreign invaders. They're helicoptered in and immediately get attacked while traversing a landscape that is engulfed in smoke and flames. Although they're supposedly running around Santa Monica, they could be anywhere in the world, and we wouldn't know the difference; that's how horrendously the film is shot. The one potentially interesting part--the guerrilla-style shaky-cam cinematography--is botched terribly. Each insanely brief frame contains an incoherent mess of flashes and gunshots with maybe a character's profile yelling something loud in the forefront, all a result of lazy editing.

The characters--if you can call them that--are all nameless faces wearing a military uniform, their faces covered in blood, dirt and grime. Even the civilians the marines pick up along the way are bland and featureless. The only recognizable faces are Michelle Rodriguez looking tired and, God help him, Aaron Eckhart who somehow got trapped within this shambles of filmmaking. Tried as he did to make a performance, he couldn't get around terrible dialogue. In what was meant to be an uplifting motivational moment, Eckhart's hero, Staff Sgt. Nantz, delivers an unintentionally laughable monologue reeking of cheese.

Aside from this one moment, the rest of the movie's dialogue consists of one to two phrase-long shouts and guttural roars of anger or triumph. There's a macho "hoo-rah" bravado in everything the marines say that is sickening. They are a team of war movie clichés stampeding around as placeholders for storyline and characterization that is not there.

The movie strategically avoids talking about and showing the actual aliens--you know, the entire focus of the movie--as much as possible. I don't blame them, however, because once you see these things, you'll wonder to yourself why a big budget film like this couldn't get a better special effects team. From afar and clouded in smog the aliens look quite ominous, but up close they look like things created from leftovers in a junkyard with artillery attachments. Now, I understand leaving it open for discussion and not clearly explaining what the aliens want or how they work--à la "War of the Worlds"--but this movie doesn't even do that. It attempts an explanation but then drops it and never follows up.

The aliens are here for our water. They have a vulnerable spot to the right of their heart; shoot that to kill them. All of their spacecrafts look the same like floating piles of scrap metal, but some are more important than others. Do they get defeated? I couldn't even tell. Instead, the movie is too busy feeding us crap about the marines, honor, duty and servitude.

A video game would've done a better job presenting what "Battle: Los Angeles" abysmally failed at. After 30 minutes realizing there was nothing left for the movie to offer, I checked out and was impatiently waiting for it to be over. It's such a painful and unnecessary bombardment on the senses to the point of being unbearable and unwatchable. Worst of all, it didn't even make an attempt at humor or humanity. By the end I couldn't even differentiate the aliens from the humans because they all were so robotic. What easily could've been cool, fun, explosive alien action was turned into what I perceived to be a marines recruitment video, and that is the movie's biggest offense of all.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


"The Adjustment Bureau" (2011)

What starts off as a deft blend of romantic drama, eerie sci-fi thriller and thought-provoking philosophical fantasy, "The Adjustment Bureau" eventually loses its footing. Written and directed by George Nolfi, the movie is based on a short story by Philip K. Dick about a team of adjusters who are in control of everyone's fate as written to a certain plan. In the movie, these adjusters are all white collar business men wearing snappy suits and fedoras. They work in some office building that may or may not exist in everyone else's reality. And they are careful to not reveal whose plan they're exactly following perhaps as the screenplay's attempt to not bring religion into the equation.

The introduction of the adjustment bureau brings a lot of fascinating questions to the table about chance, fate and free will. These questions, however, get muddled into a confusing expository approach to the film's own mythology rather than allowing the audience's own take on the questions to unfold in their mind. I started having my own questions that became more distracting than fun or engaging like, say, "Inception." The logic of the adjustment bureau itself has too many holes in it which breach into the story to make too many holes there, as well.

Matt Damon plays a congressional candidate from New York named David Morris who's on the verge of losing his election. To mentally prepare for his speech, he enters what he expects to be an empty men's restroom only then to meet a woman hiding out in one of the stalls, Elise (Emily Blunt). The two of them hit it off immediately almost unbelievably so. They are two people who, though strangers, feel chemistry between each other they can't deny; they're a perfect match. Realizing this almost instinctively, they embrace each other and kiss. Their story begins.

The two of them meet again on a bus by pure chance. Here they exchange phone numbers and plan to see each other again, except the adjustment bureau has other plans. David gets apprehended by two men, Mitchell and Richardson (Anthony Mackie and John Slattery in equally affecting roles), after seeing behind the curtain of their establishment. Now aware of their existence--the existence of these strange guardian angel figures--Richardson warns David of the consequences of telling anyone. And the consequences of seeing Elise again because, according to the plan, they were never supposed to meet again. For both of their sakes, Richardson says, he must never see her which is something David refuses to accept.

In the spirit of the "Bourne" movies, Damon's character spends a lot of the remainder of the movie running away from people and watching over his shoulders. It becomes a game of cat-and-mouse that David and Elise are willing to play because they feel they're destined for each other, but it gets repetitive. This is especially true by the time a more senior member of the bureau shows up, Thompson (a stern-looking Terence Stamp), who brings his job to a whole new level of grandeur over his colleagues to the point of being preposterous.

There's good chemistry between Damon and Blunt's characters, but there isn't that much of them actually on screen together--or at least enough to create a true connection to their plight. Instead, I just began feeling bad for the flustered and frustrated Elise as David desperately tried to explain why he was running through magical door portals through the city wearing a funny-looking fedora.

There were some promising implications made early on, but despite fine acting and swift production, the filmmakers decided to settle for something that fell to pieces beneath its lofty ambition.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

RANGO Review

"Rango" (2011)

Rango (Johnny Depp) is a lizard in the middle of an existential crisis. Standing in his square glass tank --which acts as an abstract creative space--talking with inanimate objects, he begins acting and putting together a performance. He tells his plastic wind-up goldfish, his dead bug and headless doll that he needs an ironic twist of fate to project his protagonist into conflict. And at that exact moment, the car in which Rango resides swerves abruptly sending him and his tank flying out the back in a gorgeous slow-motion sequence and shattering on the highway leaving Rango more aware than ever of his isolation. It was at this moment I realized this animated feature from Nikeloedeon studios and director Gore Verbinski was truly something special and vastly different than the other animated movies out there right now, even from Pixar.

"Rango" is essentially a western, and a movie that is in love with westerns. Taking countless references and allusions from westerns of the past ("High Noon," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly"), the movie uses these as inspiration to form a collective dreamscape of imagination, much like what rumbles around inside Rango's own mind.

Rango--after a perilous trek through the desert--drops into a town called Dirt, the perfect location for the domesticated Hawaiian shirt-wearing lizard to reinvent himself just as he practiced in his tank playing out dramatic scenes and scenarios, except this one's for real. He calls himself a gunslinger and unwittingly becomes the sheriff and protector of the rundown Western town that is in the midst of a desperate water shortage.

It makes sense the movie's visual consultant is Roger Deakins--who is most noted for filming the Coens' American west in "No Country for Old Men" and "True Grit"--because the movie is expertly crafted and astounding to look at (not to mention listen to with Hans Zimmer providing the score). The desert environment is bleak and eerie but not without some stunning scenery, especially when the sun is setting just right. The critters--Rango included--are rather grotesquely rendered whether they're scaly, slimy or hairy. It adds to the tactile feel of the movie's beautiful animation.

The story (credited to John Logan and James Ward Byrkit with Verbinski) is weird, wacky and, for the most part, wildly unconventional and original. It reminded me of Verbinski's valiant effort in turning an amusement park ride into a movie with the first installment of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise. There is a whimsical strangeness to Rango's adventure in the Old West with a vast array of birds, reptiles, amphibians, rodents and other unidentifiable animals populating the space. Half the time we can't really guess where the plot's headed which is a great thing considering the predictability that plagues kids' movies.

There's a plucky romantic interest named Beans (Isla Fisher), a visionary and prophetic armadillo (Alfred Molina), a trio of mariachi owls narrating Rango's quest, the mayor of Dirt (Ned Beatty) who controls the town's water and may not have the civilians' best interest in mind, and there's even a voice cameo encapsulating the Spirit of the West which I can't spoil. This is among the great energy found in the voice cast. Others include Abigail Breslin, Ray Winstone and, lastly, Bill Nighy who provides the voice of a villainous rattlesnake.

Within the story are politics on water and real estate in the Old West which turn out to be smart, sophisticated and vaguely allegorical. What's more, "Rango" is witty and thrilling, an animated romp embracing its own eccentricity with an unabashed enthusiasm for its story, characters and colorful palette all shot in--yeah, get this--glorious 2-D.