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Reviews are written, for the most part, about films seen before their official release date, i.e., in some sort of free screening, and posted the day before (on a Thursday before a Friday release, et cetera). Reviews are all spoiler-free and can be read prior to seeing the film. Pieces written before this journal's creation are dated and posted as originally written to show improvement and growth of style over time (hopefully).

review: The Purge

Humans are inherently violent beings, and giving them a controlled outlet for said violence is the safest and most logical way of dealing with this unfortunate but natural instinct. So claims the premise of The Purge, written and directed by newcomer James DeMonaco. It's an idea that has been examined in plenty of films before--and indeed, it's been said about films, in reply to those who denounce violent fiction (such as The Purge) as dangerous and irresponsible: isn't it a good idea to allow people a harmless sense of catharsis by watching actors pretend to maim each other onscreen so that they won't feel the need to go kill people for real? The Purge gamely attempts to deconstruct this theory of humans' intrinsic bloodthirstiness by setting up a world in which such an outlet is actually the law and adding a dash of class commentary: it's 2022 and crime and unemployment are drastically down in America, thanks to an annual event during which all crime is legal and emergency services are suspended for one day (twelve hours, actually, and it's at night because what horror movie is set during the day?). Those who don't feel the need to murder or cause mayhem barricade themselves in their homes--if they are rich enough to afford security systems, that is. If they can't, that's their misfortune. (Murder is pretty much the only item on the menu; rape is presumably legal as well, but the film alludes to it as a threat only very vaguely, which is probably for the best.) The fact that it's basically enforced social Darwinism is addressed directly; the word "purge" seems to hint more at the undesirability of those who can't protect themselves from being killed than it does about the sense of release for people doing the killing. The story focuses on the Sandins, a well-to-do family who seemingly have no murderous desires whatsoever and hope only for a "safe night," as the common valediction goes, as do all of their Stepfordian neighbors; grainy footage of past Purges suggests that it's mostly the lower classes who feel the need to participate, as they are naturally more prone to lawbreaking and violent outbursts, either in acts of specific vengeance or through random vicious attacks. But, of course, things soon go awry for our protagonists and the night is anything but safe. The film replies to the claim of humans as naturally violent by arguing that no, all humans have the potential for violence, but some are actively sadistic, whereas others will only resort to such measures in desperate circumstances. It's an interesting idea, but clumsy, contradictory storytelling and a heavy reliance on tired horror tropes nearly inviolate the strong hypothesis.

Sandin patriarch James (Ethan Hawke, whose character is a stark contrast to his laidback cool-dad in Before Midnight) is the number-one salesman at his security company, and has made a fortune selling top-of-the-line systems to his neighbors in their upper-class suburban community. He has installed the same system in his own home, of course, in order to protect himself, his wife Mary (Lena Headey, who here is far more reasonable in her maternal instincts than she is on "Game of Thrones"), and their teenage son and daughter. They don't go out committing crimes themselves, but James and Mary "support" the Purge in a sense, explaining to their children that it has "saved America." On the night of the Purge, they lock themselves up and prepare to relax in their fortress until morning, but things don't go as planned and they soon find themselves in mortal peril. Obviously there has to be a conflict for there to be a plot, but what's annoying is that things go wrong not from some unforeseeable error or some metaphorical fatal flaw of the characters', but simply because the kids are idiots and because their security system is not particularly secure at all. It would be one thing if, say, James had attempted to take advantage of the situation to make money by selling shoddy products to scared people and only genuinely protected his own family, and it had then failed thanks to his hubris, but the decision to invalidate the story's parameters and handwave it with James' belated explanation that their system "works 99% of the time, but nothing is impenetrable" is just unforgivably lazy writing. And good grief, can we just have a purge on moronic teens who advance plots by making terrible choices in perilous situations already? (...Just fictional moronic teens, of course.) It's fine for circumstances to go crazily wrong in a scary movie, but the plot has to get there in a semi-reasonable way. The other problem is that police are usually irrelevant in horror/thriller films anyway: crazed serial killers do not usually pause to worry about being arrested when they're chasing nubile teens with a machete, nor does their terrified prey quibble over the technicalities of self-defense laws before blowing the killer away in the final reel. If the cops ever do show up, they're usually incompetent and/or just a deus ex machina, so the fact that all the killing that ends up happening is technically legal is sort of a non-issue.

As such, once the film essentially erases its own unique plot stakes, it becomes a fairly standard home-invasion thriller, filled with your basic jump scares, lurking shadows and characters hiding under the bed and fearfully staring at the bad guys' shoes. The morality and class issues add a bit of an interesting twist, though: after unwisely allowing a terrified homeless man sanctuary in their "safe"house, the Sandins find themselves besieged by the man's hunters, a gang of demented and preppy young adults "gussied up" in their Sunday best and ravenous for blood. They enforce the film's dire class-centric message by explaining that they only want to use the Purge to benevolently rid the world of useless plebians like the homeless man, though this falls apart a bit when it becomes clear that they are simply sociopaths who enjoy killing 365 days a year, not just tonight, and are just as content to murder each other and the wealthy Sandins. Why they bother to wear creepy masks, when the whole point is that they need not fear persecution for their actions, is anyone's guess. Their leader, played by Australian Rhys Wakefield and hilariously billed as "Polite Stranger"--blond, well-spoken, and dressed in what appears to be an actual prep-school uniform--is such an egregious rip-off of Paul, the dominant half of the sadistic duo in Funny Games, that one rather feels that Michael Haneke deserves a check, or at least a fruit basket. But that's not entirely a bad thing: Wakefield, all psychotic wide smiles and poetically-phrased threats, admittedly delivers the film's most (only?) interesting performance.

And still, there are some thought-provoking moments: early on, James assures his worried son (Max Burkholder of "Parenthood") that he has no desire to go out a-murdering, but things get medieval as he attempts to defend his family against the invaders and the viewer (and James himself) is forced to wonder if he's not secretly relishing the carnage just a little bit. And while the film at least resists the urge to totally separate the good and bad guys by race, the class divide is handled far more bluntly. The "new Founding Fathers," the unseen politicos who apparently instituted this event, may claim, Hunger Games-ishly, that the Purge is for the proverbial greater good, but by the end it's fairly clear: it's not an aggressive, hands-on bread-and-circuses thing; it's not a night when those working-class criminal types just run wild, as stereotype would suggest. It's a night when soulless rich people straight-up hunt poor people for sport and get away with it, apparently no longer content with simple economic oppression. Early on, before the security system fails, James arms himself with a firearm "just as a precaution," and he certainly does need it later on, seemingly supporting Second Amendment fans' beloved tenet that we need guns to protect ourselves from bad guys with guns. But conservative viewers will surely be outraged by the time the film's scant 85 minutes have wrapped up, because the one-percenters and the "patriots" are the clear and abhorrent villains. The Sandins' enemies even declare that they are "doing [their] duty as Americans" and form a little prayer circle before preparing to do away with our heroes. It's not subtle stuff, but one has to respect the frankness with which it is said. And there's a meaningful message hidden in there somewhere: we all have dark and violent desires sometimes and that's not a bad thing all by itself; what makes us truly human is our choices. We can choose to indulge those urges, and/or we can choose to do what is morally sound. The various characters' fates at the end hammer home the idea that what is sanctioned is certainly not always the same as what is right.

Grade: C
Release date: June 7, 2013

review: Seven Psychopaths

Viewer be warned: there are more than seven, and it's not the ones you're expecting. As well as a teeth-grindingly stupid tagline, Martin McDonagh's Seven Psychopaths features some terrifically misleading promotional images; not even the numbering of the psychos in question is correct on the poster. And not everyone pictured there survives more than five minutes of screentime. However, while misleading trailers and billing are nothing new in Hollywood and can usually be attributed to some shallow financial technicality, given the slyly self-aware nature of the film, in this case the argument could be made for a deeper meaning. Maybe placing the film's seven (arguably) most-famous actors on the poster rather than the actual 'psychopaths' of the film is a shrewd commentary on the exact nature of insanity and criminal behavior in fictional characters and the audience's interpretation thereof—who's really a psychopath? Perhaps it is echoing the film's examination of the line between gratuitousness and realism, between archetypes and believable characters. Or perhaps the studio missed the irony entirely and just thought a Bond girl, a beloved rock star and the "more cowbell" guy would bring in more viewers. It's hard to say.

Either way, it kind of works. Thanks to the deceptive promotion, the nature of the actual film will take most viewers a bit by surprise: "Seven Psychopaths" also happens to be the name of the film(-within-a-film) being written by Colin Farrell's character; the fact that his name is also Martin should be a clue. He enlists his friend Billy (a riotously wonderful Sam Rockwell) to help his craft the stories behind the titular septet of crazies while also continuing their dog-napping scams, in which they steal pets and then return them for the reward money with the help of mild-mannered friend Hans (Christopher Walken). When they inadvertently kidnap a Shih Tzu belonging to an extremely real-life violent psychopath named Charlie (Woody Harrelson), however, then the would-be screenplay and their actual lives begin to blend into one another far too closely. They're quite aware that they're living in their own story, and even writing it, to a degree, but they're also not. Neither Billy nor Martin are particularly pleased with the way things are playing out: Martin professes to dislike excessive violence, though he writes plenty of outrageously gory things on his own (in one of his ideas, in possibly the film's most quintessentially McDonaghesque image, a beloved character actor grimly draws a straight razor across his own throat and then takes a dispassionate drag on his cigarette). Billy, on the other hand, is just annoyed that things aren't happening in his ideal, over-the-top cinematic style. The two of them represent two of the worst aspects of mainstream Hollywood, which they both claim to dislike: Martin is the straw pacifist, hypocritically stating that he wants his film to be "life-affirming" while still adding plenty of attention-seeking carnage, and Billy is the shameless adrenaline junkie, unembarrassed in his love of wanton violence and sex as entertainment. ("Peace is for queers," one of his main characters sneers as Billy excitedly describes his ideal "final shoot-out" in a hideously funny, show-stopping monologue.)

The film's sneaky self-analysis works on a few levels: outrageous violence and foulmouthed characters are McDonagh's trademark, though he usually gets away with it by employing an extreme version of the Archie Bunker Method: offend everyone in equal measure, and do it so hilariously that no one remembers to be mad. And he takes care to ground his films with abrupt, remarkable depths: In Bruges avoided being a standard dark comedy-caper by nature of its surprising emotional twists and the bond between Farrell and Brendan Gleeson's characters. In Psychopaths, the most extreme violent scenes are played for (dark) laughs, but it's the less-gory deaths that are actually sad; despite their behavior, we actually care about (some of) these characters. The film achieves greatness by both gleefully exploiting standard Hollywood tropes and then smartly analyzing them; just as things begin to get legitimately problematic, the characters acknowledge them as so. "It's a hard world for women," Martin whines, unconvincingly, upon being rightfully called out on his script's blatant misogyny, whereas Billy argues that violence against women is fine, but he draws the line at animal cruelty. Similarly, Harrelson's ruthless Charlie commits murder without a hint of remorse—and that includes both men and women—but not unlike Ralph Fiennes' strangely principled baddie in Bruges, is reduced to tearful petulance when his beloved pet is in peril. ("He doesn't have a gay head!" he fumes, when Billy jeeringly threatens the dog. "He has a regular head!") In true McDonagh style, nearly all the characters are given to casual racism and bigoted language, but it's only the 'bad guys' that put any real malice in it, it seems, and there is a noticeable presence of interracial relationships. Very possibly he is pondering the criticisms tossed at his own past works; there is both a mischievous sense of defiance and also a genuine tone of self-reflection to the proceedings.

The film boasts a number of noteworthy cameos, including a delightful HBO-based reunion of sorts in the opening scene, though the characters in question are frequently bumped off after a few minutes, which suggests both a slight mockery of Hollywood celebrity—look, it's that guy you like! Well, now we're going to shoot him in the face—and also possibly the encouraging idea that many actors want to work with McDonagh, even if only fleetingly (not everyone does, however—eagle-eyed viewers will spot a sarcastic visual jab at Mickey Rourke, who departed the film after a characteristically contentious disagreement with the director). Only Walken plays against type, as arguably the sanest one of the lot, but Farrell, as another rascal-with-a-heart, and particularly Rockwell, as the cheerfully motor-mouthed borderline-sociopath, are also wonderful, especially when together. (Don't miss Rockwell's fabulous, possibly-improvised fake brogue: "You're me best friend!") As Billy meta-ishly notes "the perfect place for a final shoot-out" in an early scene, the film's climactic confrontation does not and is not meant to come as much of a surprise, though the pensive epilogue does: the film also includes occasional, startling references to historical examples of human cruelty, including the Zodiac killer and the My Lai massacre, and the film chooses to end on a bittersweet note, quietly acknowledging the awfulness of real-life violence in its final moments. 'You've just been wildly entertained by it, and that's fine because it's fiction,' the film seems to be saying to the audience, 'but you still ought to take a look at why that was all so enjoyable. We just spelled it out for you.'

Grade: A-
Release date: October 12, 2012

review: Haywire

Steven Soderbergh continues his streak of straightforward, no-frills storytelling with Haywire, a sleek and matter-of-fact action-driven piece featuring a cast of big names with an unknown (Gina Carano) as the lead. In a way, the film is an odd companion piece to last year's Contagion: it features a similarly impressive cast and color palette, and yet where Contagion followed a great number of characters' stories and refused to commit to one, Haywire has no subplots whatsoever. At a trim 93 minutes, the film follows our hero, black-ops agent Mallory Kane, with the same unflinching determination that she herself exudes as she travels the world on her various assignments and then, after a betrayal, fights to discover the truth and survive. The direct, unexaggerated style may reduce the tension somewhat, compared to other action films, but its tight storytelling and lack of reliance on special effects make it smarter and more believable than the others. It's hardly an everyday story, and yet it doesn't feel completely outlandish, nor do Mallory's exception skills feel superhuman. Instead we see her using her instincts and making logical choices, not all of which turn out well, and though her personality is not especially defined or charismatic, it's easy to get onboard with her experience and root for her.

The story hits the ground running when one of Mallory’s former associates, Aaron (Channing Tatum) finds her holed up in a remote coffee shop; their exchange features little exposition and within minutes they are brawling on the floor. From there she escapes with a bewildered young bystander, Scott (Michael Angarano, Red State) in tow, and ends up telling him the story of how she got there as they drive away. It’s not the neatest premise--the reasoning behind her telling this random kid her entire story isn't entirely convincing--but the flashbacks are efficiently, briskly done. As she explains, after a questionable mission in Barcelona, she was immediately sent on another job where things went awry and she realized she had been betrayed by her own side. She escaped and set out from there to uncover the reasons behind the set-up, jetting across several countries and employing many of the classic tricks of espionage (disguises, switching cell phones, et cetera). Despite the elite, covert nature of her job ("that's actually real?" Scott asks) and her skills, none of it is particularly glamorized--she travels all over the world, but she doesn't have much time for sightseeing and enjoying exotic lands; the film doesn't bother with the classic establishing shots of famous landmarks. A large part of the important action of the story takes place in Dublin rather than somewhere more obvious, like Paris. We actually get to see her hard work: when she chases down a bad guy, she runs straight at us in a long, steady shot, and when she prepares for fight after an undercover scene, she quietly takes off her high heels first. And the fight scenes, of which there are several, are stripped-down and decidedly un-Hollywood-ized: there are no stunt doubles used, for one thing, and no score is used for those sequences (though when there is music, it has a slick, old-school, Mancini-like quality, as if in a nod to classic spy thrillers of the past). And notably, Mallory fights only men, and while it is never overly gratuitous, they hit her just as hard as she hits them. In most films, male-on-male violence is exciting, female-on-female violence is sexy, female-on-male violence is funny and male-on-female is dark and wrong. With Mallory and her foes, however, it's about highly-trained soldiers fighting one another; gender is irrelevant. (For the record, MMA, or mixed martial arts, is the same fighting style used in Warrior, though to a very different effect.) She is not sexualized or subjected to the male gaze; she's certainly attractive, but never eye candy. The brief hints of romance don't particularly distract from the plot, and while there are no other females of note in the film and Mallory's character isn't really explored in-depth, there are still certainly some interestingly feminist themes present.

Tone-wise, the film has Soderbergh's usual dry, even temper; the stakes are high, but no one really raises their voice about it. Angarano's character serves as the sole comic relief, and it works, although he would have worn out his welcome if he'd stayed for even five more minutes--in Contagion, the scenes with Matt Damon's character and his daughter similarly attempted to humanize the situation and came off as the weakest part of the film. The color and light palettes range all over the place and makes ample use of natural light, though it once in a while slips into Contagion's sickly ochre tint, and a few times blinks in and out of monochrome for undetermined reasons. Visually it also borrows from Drive a few times, including in some of the early car scenes with Mallory and Scott (and a climactic encounter takes place on a beach as well). None of the performances particularly stand out, though everyone is serviceable, and it's interesting to see the often extroverted McGregor play someone so inscrutable. Michael Fassbender draws on his dangerous charm from X-Men: First Class in his brief role, and though Carano has little acting experience, she holds her own and the script plays to her strengths, keeping her dialogue shrewd and down-to-Earth (though there is never any good reason for a character to say "you better run," ever). Overall the story is unremarkable, but the impressive, non-flashy action, the understated characters and the commitment to a sense of realism render the whole thing rather classier and smarter than the average action flick (though when in the world did she have time to do cornrows?). It won't rank among the classics, but it's very confidently done, and frankly deserves a better release date than the wasteland of January.

Grade: B
Release date: January 20, 2012

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review: Immortals

Immortals is a rather well-marketed film. Rather than pretending that it boasts anything original story-wise or any career-changing performances, it is selling itself as a visually sumptuous experience, visceral rather than mental, an old, familiar story with a new, elegantly high-tech look--including the use of 3D, of course. And this is largely accurate: the film, from director Tarsem Singh (The Cell, unpleasant and best forgotten, and The Fall, stunning and grossly underrated), is a fairly standard retread of the familiar swords-and-sandals zero-to-hero historical fantasy epic that flirts only passingly with established mythology, but its eye-popping imagery, aided by Singh's trademark love of vivid colors, are engrossing and engaging enough to make it worth it (not to mention its decidedly easy-on-the-eyes cast). Oddly, the story seems to serve the visuals, rather than the other way around, and while this will not be sufficient for some viewers, it at least knows how to play to its own strengths and does not attempt to be groundbreaking across the board.

The story is easily summed up, and almost as easily forgotten: as we learn in a voiceover by--who else?--John Hurt, in a rather generic ancient Greece, the Titans (the monstrous gods overthrown by Zeus and Co., for those who have not recently perused their D'Aulaires) have been locked safely away in a cage. Our hero, Theseus (Henry Cavill, next year's Man of Steel) is a strapping peasant lad forced to accept his destiny of greatness when the villainous King Hyperion (a non-scenery-chewing Mickey Rourke) sets out to obtain a weapon of great power, the Epirus Bow, in order to wreak havoc on the world. "I will release the Titans," he informs us, helpfully, within the first ten minutes. Theseus is reluctant to become a warrior, but personal tragedy and aid from psychic priestess Phaedra (Freida Pinto, who appears to be making of career of playing women who are stunningly gorgeous and largely unnecessary) spurns him into action, and it is not long before he is leading an uprising of slaves and delivering the requisite we-are-few-but-mighty, I'm-one-of-you, tonight-we-dine-in-hell speech. The gods of Olympus play a large role as well, aiding and abetting the humans' struggles. Naturally, there is a romance between the two ridiculously attractive leads, a turncoat warrior who betrays his friends for a taste of glory, occasional witty banter between soldiers and a handful of grotesque, fantastical creatures for the good guys to battle. The premise would be entirely by the book were it not for a number of small, clever decisions that aid the viewer in genuinely connecting with the story: for one thing, for all the sweeping cliffside landscapes and elaborate palaces, Olympus is rather visually boring, shown as little more than a simple stone parapet overlooking the Earth. Furthermore, the gods are remarkably young and flawed; lead by a boyish, sensitive Zeus (Luke Evans of Clash of the Titans, ironically), they are conflicted about getting involved in human affairs, and when they finally charge into battle, many of them die as ingloriously as the humans do--the title, it seems, does not refer to them. As the protagonist is a low-class human who is raised to greatness, paralleling this with the gods' descent to startling mortality is a surprisingly deft move that renders all of them rather more identifiable than they might otherwise be.

The film's relationship with 'classic' myth is also rather shrewdly handled--Theseus does indeed battle a Minotaur, but it actually seems to be a guy in a creepy Wicker Man helmet rather than a beast, adding the brutal 'realism' of the story. And when he escapes the beast's lair, he follows his own bloody footprints back out rather than a convenient ball of thread. In another interesting casting choice, the fearsome Titans are brightly colored and inhuman-looking, and yet are nearly the size of regular humans; the threat lies in their skill and furious desire to kill, not sheer brute strength or size. When they clash with the Olympic gods, both sides certainly employ supernatural talents and weapons; it goes without saying that the film overall is rather gleefully gratuitous in its extreme violence: one slow-mo scene in particular thoroughly steals the dented crown of messiest head-smashing of the year away from Drive. But the final epic battle scene is intercut with another, far more personal fight sequence between Hyperion and Theseus, and it is a gritty, down-and-dirty, hand-to-hand street-fighting smackdown that is nearly shocking in its believability; no longer is he firing glowing silver arrows from a magical bow or performing fantastic slow-motion leaps into battle. Our determined but breakable hero is bleeding and writhing in pain as he fights for his life and his honor, and it helps to ground the film and the characters in reality. As nearly all of the good and bad guys alike are essentially stock characters, it helps to have a number of quiet, defining moments to make the audience actually care about them as individuals.

However, as performances go, no one especially stands out, except perhaps for Evans' remarkably cerebral King of the Gods and Stephen Dorff's wisecracking slave soldier Stavros; at times he appears to think he's in a '90s buddy-cop film, but his natural charm (and noteworthy abs) allows him to pull it off. Rourke brings little of his signature dark quirkiness; he seems more bored than in his last villainous role in Iron Man 2 and scarcely bothers with an accent, but there's no denying his intensity. Cavill and Pinto are sufficiently likable and emotional, though neither brings anything particularly memorable to their role, and the other gods go largely undeveloped. The acting is unoffensive across the board, but given the heartwrenching, Method-inspired turns from Lee Pace and child actress Catinca Untaru in The Fall, it's a bit of a shame that the performances aren't more interesting; we've seen that Singh can get exceptional work out of actors, and it seems that he was rather less concerned with that on this piece, possibly because the writing simply does not demand anything beyond basic angst and bravado. Nonetheless, it is simply a beautiful film to look at, with its rich palate and adroit use of green screen--one knows that it is nearly all fake, and yet unlike other lavish 3D fantasies like Avatar, one can often fool one's eye into believing that it is simply the more gorgeous parts of the real (ancient) world. It's less fun than 300 and less stupid than Clash of the Titans, and it knows where to keep things simple and where to go for the gold (literally--the preferred hues seem to be brilliant red and bright metallics). It won't be winning any acting or writing prizes come awards season, but it knows what it wants to be and effectively achieves its goals, and is an enjoyable, if somewhat shallow, ride.

Grade: B-
Release date: November 11, 2011

review: Drive

Movies about movie-making usually have the good sense to be somewhat self-deprecating, particularly if they’re focused on big-budget Hollywood pictures; there’s typically a significant sense of irony and mockery of the greediness and vanity stereotypically (and not unreasonably) associated with Tinseltown. Films such as S1m0ne, Barton Fink and the somewhat undervalued What Just Happened gleefully poke fun at their supercilious directors, self-important writers and preening stars, and also take care to employ a sense of meta and fourth-wall-breaking—‘we’re filmmakers making a movie about making fun of ourselves!’ Drive, however, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (who also wrote and directed the darkly fascinating Bronson and Valhalla Rising, of which Drive seems to be some sort of ungodly love child) and based on the novel by James Sallis, takes this in a different direction: it is not truly a movie about making movies, though the main character works in film; there is only one scene that takes place on a set. And yet there is still a distinct sense of self-awareness to the film, an frank acknowledgment of unreality and a deliberate use of make-believe. The plot itself is “realistic” in the most basic sense, but the tone and style of the film keep the audience constantly aware of the fact that is it, in fact, a movie. For one thing, it may be the first-ever movie to use a font so deliberately: the opening titles (and the film’s poster) feature a bizarrely bright pink, nearly whimsical script* which seems entirely at odds with the gritty nature of the story and gives the film an inescapably 1980s feel from the start. This motif is extended throughout the rest of the movie by its electronic, vintage-sounding soundtrack. And yet the film is clearly set in present day: no clear dates are given, but the clothes, language and technological devices all suggest 21st century. The oddly anachronistic noir-esque tone is entirely purposeful; the film wears it like a costume and never attempts to convince you that it is ‘real.’ And the plot follows suit: the film deliberately toys with its audience, shocking and deceiving and subverting all over the place. This Is A Movie, it seems to say, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to go for the obvious choices.

The ‘fabricated’ style of the film is reflected in its main character: our protagonist, known only as The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is a stuntman by day who steps in on dangerous, explosive, car-flipping scenes with a disinterested fearlessness that borders on sociopathy. By night, however, he has another career: getaway driver (or “wheelman”) for any crime, any time. He delivers the same matter-of-fact speech to all potential ‘clients,’ explaining that he will give them a strict five-minute window to perform whatever misdeeds they must, after which he will get them to safety at all costs. He maintains his sense of detached serenity during these moments as well, speaking only when necessary, rarely dislodging his omnipresent toothpick. In an early scene, he and his passengers are very nearly caught by the police after a robbery, and he cleverly evades them, brow furrowed with tension—and yet it is impossible to say whether he is nervous for his clients or for himself. He chooses non-descript cars; he doesn’t carry a gun; he doesn’t smoke. He’s brilliant at driving and doesn’t at all mind putting himself in extreme peril, and yet he's not a suicidal adrenaline junkie; he doesn’t seem to get any pleasure, sick or otherwise, out of any of it. He doesn’t even seem to care much about making money. It’s not until he meets his new neighbors Irene (Carey Mulligan), a sweet and slightly fragile young mother, and her son, Benicio, that he shows a flicker of genuine emotion. He develops an endearing bond with the pair that bears only hints of romance; it’s not sickly sweet, but it’s very gently handled. When Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac; possibly the only decent thing about Sucker Punch) gets out of prison after an unnamed crime, he is at first suspicious of his wife’s new confidante, but soon accepts him as a family friend. However, Standard's past is not quite behind him, and he ends up recruiting The Driver’s help on a heist, which then goes very badly wrong. That’s when things take a shockingly dark turn. The violence doesn’t start for a good half hour into the film, but when it does, it happens with Coen-like suddenness and appalling Cronenberg-like gratuitousness. The novel opens smack in the middle of a bloody scene that is later explained, but the film makes the decision to deceive and to shock. You are completely unprepared when a character is shotgunned in the head in close-up slow-motion, and that is the point: the film lures you into a false sense of security with its relatively sweet-natured opening act, and it is absolutely deliberate and decidedly cruelly done.

Furthermore, it turns out that The Driver is an amazingly prodigious killer as well as motorist: rather like an even colder version of his spiritual predecessor in Eastern Promises, he instantly leaps into action and starts slaughtering bad guys (so to speak) with unflinching gusto. And yet he doesn’t seem to enjoy this either—he’s suddenly The Punisher, except without the fun part. It’s like he’s emulating the hyperviolent ‘heroes’ in the mindless action films on which he works, except he’s not bothering to act. He improvises; he carries out horrific acts of grisly violence with dead-eyed efficiency—he’s doing it because he cares about Irene and Benicio, but his feelings for them don’t make him sloppy. The whole thing is like an inverted version of American Psycho: it has that exact Bret Easton Ellis-like sense of soulless ‘80s grimness and a similar level of carnage, and yet it’s completely lacking in that dark sense of humor, and The Driver does not at all share Patrick Bateman’s gleeful enjoyment of indulgent sadism. He alludes at one point to the fable of the scorpion and the frog, suggesting that it is his “nature” to behave so, and yet it’s hard to say how true that is. The peculiar thing about the violence, though, is that it’s the less-important characters who get the most gruesome deaths: as the film builds towards its climax, when the big-bads get offed, they’re killed in much more subtle, chilling ways, and they’re some of the most effective, original scenes of violence in any movie all year. In one scene, a character tells his victim, almost kindly, “Don’t worry, it’s done. There’s no pain” as he softly gasps and exsanguinates. Another scene features The Driver slowly pursuing his prey straight into the sea in a calm, widened shot on a darkened beach. Another character’s demise is shown only in shadow. They’re fairly brilliant scenes, and it’s bizarre to have such uniquely understated killings next to outrageously bloody headshots, stabbing and impalings, and it seems to simply be another example of the film messing with its audience: one expects the violence to escalate as the film goes on and for the important ‘villains’ to get the most dramatic deaths, and it doesn’t happen that way. It makes the violence even uglier, somehow: there’s no real sense of cinematic ‘satisfaction’ in seeing the true bad guys get what’s coming to them. It’s just simply gross and horrifying to watch. The film completely understands what the audience expects from a film of this style, and matter-of-factly defies it, totally willing to risk repelling its viewers.

The performances are strong across the board and surprisingly subtle, for the most part: Gosling plays the inscrutable Driver with a level of light-fingered casualness possibly unmatched since Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat—until he starts killing people, at which point he becomes a terrifying weapon of tightly coiled rage. He’s always been understated, and here it makes him serves to make him downright frightening. It might have been nice to have more hints about The Driver's life and backstory to understand how he became this remarkable machine of a man; the novel provides considerable, if incomplete, details on his upbringing and past life. But in this respect the film once again borrows from the Coens and simply does not care that we want more information; it bluntly refuses to make it easy. Gosling shares a genuine, nearly inaudible chemistry with Mulligan, who plays Irene with a sweetness that’s never naïve. Bryan Cranston, who seems to be in nearly every film of 2011 (and deservedly so), is tragically endearing as The Driver’s mentor and friend, Shannon; he doesn’t have quite enough to do (and nor does Isaac or Christina Hendricks as the mysterious Blanche), but he’s always believable. The always-alarming Ron Perlman chews scenery as the villainous Nino, although a later scene reveals his true insecurities and motivations, and he has a few surprisingly vulnerable moments. And Albert Brooks plays startlingly against type as the manipulative Bernie, whose slightly quieter villainy contrasts Perlman’s bluster. They all touch upon, and then subvert, the classic crime/heist/noir stock characters, all bringing extra layers and implied depth that prevent them from becoming archetypes—once again, they’re clearly Movie Characters, and yet they don’t do quite what the audience expects of them. Overall, the film’s tone and style are stunt men too: just as we know full-well that it’s never really the glamorous movie stars in the spectacular car crash scenes—which are in themselves faked, of course—we’re made to be aware that this picture is putting on an act. But that doesn’t make it any less effective, either for better or for worse. Its extreme nature will probably lead to love-it-or-hate-it reactions, but it knows what it wants to say and says it very competently indeed.

Grade: B/B+
Release date: September 16, 2011



*This font-happy writer believes the typeface to be Mistral, but cannot definitively confirm/deny.

review: Warrior

Warrior, directed by Gavin O’Connor (Miracle) and starring Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom) and Tom Hardy (Inception) suffers from two distinct impediments right off the bat. Firstly, its release was delayed by more than a year because of its similarities to The Fighter, to which it will definitely and possibly unfairly be compared. Secondly, its trailer is simultaneously overly revealing and misleading: it ‘spoils’ the fact that Hardy’s character Tommy has a mysterious and heroic back story in the Marines, and it blatantly exposes the ‘twist’ regarding the climactic fight scene. And it makes the story out to be a dysfunctional brotherly-love tale between the edgy outsider Tommy and Edgerton’s wholesome family man/high school teacher Brendan, which is similarly inaccurate. However, despite these setbacks and a overall sense of predictability and distinct unoriginality, the film stays afloat because of subtle but powerful performances from the two leads—they’re not given a lot to work with, but they’re both naturally talented enough to make it work. The story makes nearly every obvious choice possible, but Hardy and Edgerton imbue their roles with quiet, genuine emotion that very effectively balances out the extreme, over-the-top nature of the action scenes and provides the whole thing with resonance.

Aside from the basic plot parallels involving two opposite-sides-of-the-track brothers with a shared love of a violent sport, there are a few legitimate comparisons to make with The Fighter: it lacks a strong female lead, for one thing; Jennifer Morrison (“House”) as Brendan’s harried wife unfortunately does not share the depth and strength of Amy Adams’ scrappy bartender. Warrior also has less of a sense of humor, but it’s also noticeably less mean-spirited in the way it portrays both its protagonists and also its portrayals of class; The Fighter occasionally strayed from celebration and affectionate razzing to unkind mockery of its working-class characters. Warrior, however, chooses neither to glorify nor to condemn the brothers’ humble Philadelphian roots, opting instead to show them as straightforward, imperfect, and hardworking men who—in very different ways—attempt to do the right thing(s) at any costs without intentional fanfare. (Brit Hardy and Aussie Edgerton are thoroughly believable as Philly boys, both sporting near-perfect accents.) Brendan is struggling to support a wife and two kids (one of whom, of course, suffers from a nondescript ailment) on a teacher’s salary; he genuinely enjoys his job, but at night he falls back on his former career of MMA, or mixed martial arts fighting, to bring in extra cash. Tommy is a haunted war vet and drug addict who refuses to discuss his tragic military past, which is revealed very abruptly and jarringly halfway through the film. The brothers are estranged both from each other and from their recovering alcoholic father Paddy (Nick Nolte), who has a habit of listening endlessly to Moby Dick on tape; a more obvious metaphor for addiction would be hard to find. However, the so-called family soon reconnects when Tommy comes back into town and recruits Paddy as his trainer, having decided to make his fortune (or at least a fortune) in the professional fighting circuit. The brothers’ stories run parallel to each other’s rather than jointly, and they interact shockingly little in the film overall, not coming face-to-face until more than an hour in (in a scene shot as visually dramatic as possible). It’s an interesting move not to hang the entire emotional basis of the film on their fraternal tension, but it’s also a shame not to see these two exceptional and as-yet underappreciated actors play off each other more. It also would have given the brothers’ rift, not to mention the emotional climax of the film, more weight if we were allowed to know their history and the nature of their former relationship and what really went wrong between them.

In its broad strokes, the film is decidedly standard and unremarkable, but it’s in the smaller details that it shines. While the brothers’ relationship is disappointingly underdeveloped, the true ‘love story’ lies in Brendan’s bond with his longtime friend and trainer Frank (Frank Grillo, “The Gates”), who hones his fighting skills with the use of Beethoven’s music and with whom he shares a rather lovely and heartfelt bromance. The fight scenes are shot very cinematically, so to speak, and without the gritty, no-frills realism of The Fighter’s boxing sequences, but to be fair, MMA is a very different animal. The specific rules of the sport aren’t exactly explained to the audience and so we never really come to ‘love’ the sport as much as we perhaps should, but interestingly, the brothers’ very different styles actually serve as excellent metaphors for their personalities: Tommy prefers to KO his opponent in one swift movement and then stride stony-faced from the ring, ignoring the tumult of the crowd, whereas Brendan prefers to simply hold on as long as he can without passing out or “tapping” out (that is, conceding defeat with a gesture). For him, it’s not about beating the other guy, it’s only about surviving; defense rather than Tommy’s offense. Furthermore, the film makes quiet but very thought-provoking statements about the nature of heroes: Tommy stays determinedly anonymous even as he gains fame in the MMA world, refusing to do interviews and remaining “Google-proof,” and yet he soon becomes a patriotic poster boy and folk hero of sorts when his military history begins to come to light. It seems that the precise details of his life and his personality matter far less than how they are interpreted by the masses; it’s more about how he makes people feel than what he actually did. And with Brendan, it becomes clear that the only thing people like more than a hero is seeing them beaten and replaced by “the little guy”—they are only too happy to mock the unassuming, out-of-practice physics teacher when he steps into the ring, but as soon as he proves himself, he is beloved as a dark-horse champion ‘of the people.’

The final fight sequence features many real-life MMA stars and lasts for what seems to be at least the last quarter of the film, and while the eventual ‘showdown’ would have been forehead-slappingly obvious even if it hadn’t been ruined by the trailer, it’s still rather a nail-biter: they might be somewhat generic characters, but by then you genuinely care about both Tommy and Brendan, and it’s hard to choose a side, as it were. The intensity of the action scenes is smartly balanced by the wry sports commentary; the two guys are funny (“He ripped the door off a tank!”) but still sufficiently in the background as to not be distracting. The fights, kicked off by the referee’s shout of “let’s go to war!”, are certainly brutal and very convincing; Hardy (who already proved his commitment and on-screen physical intensity in 2008’s Bronson) and Edgerton clearly put the work in, and over ten total hours of footage were shot and then pared down over the film’s long production process. In an ironic twist, the film was shot far before Hardy was cast as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises, but now it serves as a rather thrilling preview for his next big role—if it’s that electrifying to watch him do that to some no-name opponent, how insane will it be to watch him battle the Caped Crusader himself? Despite its annoyingly heavy-handed inspirational tone, it’s hard not to cheer out loud once or twice during those final scenes. Given the attention to technical details and the physical and emotional commitment of the actors, one regrets its conventional plot and lack of daring choices. It’s additionally hampered by its marketing disadvantages, but overall it’s dignified, moving and effective, and will hopefully help usher its two stars into further well-deserved prominence.

Grade: B-
Release date: September 9, 2011

review: Larry Crowne

It’s hard not to like Tom Hanks. His talent for both drama and comedy compounded with his nice-guy reputation more or less guarantees that audiences will find something to enjoy about his nearly all of his performances. In Larry Crowne, he plays the titular character who decides to go back to school when he finds himself unemployed in his middle age. Hanks plays him with his usual boyishness and slightly nerdy sincerity, and particularly given the relatability of his dilemma, it’s impossible not to root for him. However, while the character is certainly likable enough, the film suffers from a number of other troubles, including an uneven script and an unpleasant romantic interest, and it turns out that Hanks’ personal charm is not enough to keep the entire thing afloat. Hanks served as co-writer and director on the film for the first time since 1996’s That Thing You Do!, and while his vision of the character comes across effectively, the rest of the film is not nearly as approachable. The shooting and pacing is mostly fine, but plot-wise it tends to feel like an early draft of a potentially good film, with some unnecessary details and clunky jokes that want polishing. It does have a refreshing lack of all-too-common cynicism—Larry’s existential crisis could just as easy have been portrayed as melancholy and self-indulgent, but he chooses optimism and hard work instead of navel-gazing. The message is friendly and endearing enough, it’s just that it’s told in a clumsily distracting fashion.

When the film opens, Larry is a longtime employee of “U-Mart,” a bargain department store, and he genuinely seems to love his job. He’s not a underachieving slacker, he’s a 20-year Navy veteran (he was a cook, but still) and seems to have an admirable work ethic for whatever’s put in front of him. However, he is let go because of corporate’s theories about the ‘upward mobility’ of employees without college degrees, and he is rather reasonably stunned that his hard work counts for so little. There’s no sense of Michael Mooreian rage against The Man, but it’s still fairly heartbreaking to see him get teary-eyed when he realizes that all of his effort has been meaningless. Nevertheless, he right away goes out and begins searching for a new position while simultaneously recruiting his wealthy-but-frugal friend Lamar (Cedric the Entertainer) to help him sell his belongings. It’s this take-action attitude that really makes Larry likable; rather than feeling sorry for himself, he puts immediate, sensible effort into improving his life despite a setback, something that many comedic film protagonists seem oddly incapable of doing until the final reel. He soon decides that he needs to procure his degree in order to make himself a more desirable employee and enrolls at a community college. There, his winsome nature causes him to fall right in with his younger classmates, and he wins the affection of the bubbly and “irritating free spirit” Talia (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, of NBC’s short-lived “Undercovers”), who instantly cements her Manic Pixie Dream Girl status by christening him with a hip nickname, giving him a cool new haircut and inviting him into her scooter “gang.”

Larry also catches the eye of his public speaking professor, Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts), who is perplexed and eventually smitten by his dorky enthusiasm, largely because she doesn’t remotely share it—she is thoroughly disillusioned with educating in general, despite claiming that her classes will teach her students to “care.” The problem is that she’s not at all old enough to merit that kind of ennui, nor does her cushy job in a wholesome, friendly community college seem particularly taxing. And she doesn’t seem to be much of a teacher anyway—her style consists of ordering her students to give speeches on various subjects and sitting at the back of the room, halting their attempts with a bell, presumably because she couldn’t find a gong. And unlike Cameron Diaz’s unabashedly apathetic educator in last week’s Bad Teacher, we aren’t meant to love to hate her. She’s not meant to come off as obnoxious and self-centered, but she does, especially considering the fact that she’s married. Her husband (Bryan Cranston) is a porn-surfing man-child who doesn’t appreciate her, but he’s not really quite terrible enough to legitimize her essentially cheating on him, at least not without having a rational conversation first. (And it’s a crime not to allow Cranston, who has been scaring us all with his astonishing performance on “Breaking Bad” for the past few years, to remind us that he has a great aptitude for humor as well.) Mercedes also becomes jealous of Larry’s relationship with Talia, despite the fact that his feelings for her are entirely older-brotherly, and it happens so rapidly that it just feels petulant—she hardly knows him and is barely separated from her husband, and yet still harbors spite towards a pretty, spunky 20-year-old. The Larry-Mercedes relationship is meant to be the heart of the film, but it’s very difficult to support their budding romance under the circumstances.

The secondary relationships and characters in the film, however, are more engaging: the friendship between Talia and Larry is quite believably sweet, though she does have a boyfriend (Wilder Valderrama) whose entire purpose is to glower at the nonplussed Larry every time he sees them together. It’s funny the first time, but not so much afterwards. George Takei steals all of his scenes as a menacing economics professor (although with that voice, he could teach home ec and make knitting potholders sound somewhat terrifying). However, while the characters themselves are often funny, the jokes they tell are often not: for one thing, there seems to be a running gag about how technology is destroying the world; Mercedes complains that Twitter and Facebook are ruining students’ attention spans, and her no-good husband is, most unimpressively, a blogger. It makes sense that Larry would be out of step with his fellow students’ newfangled gadgets, but there’s a sense of unwarranted baby-boomer bitterness to it, which is especially odd as Hanks himself is a frequent, enthusiastic tweeter (and the studio made ample use of social networking sites in promoting the film). Overall, the film tries so hard not to be bawdy or sarcastic that it just comes off a bit bland. Hanks and co-scribe Nia Vardalos of My Big Fat Greek Wedding fame might’ve done well to watch a few episodes of the massively underappreciated "Community" and learn from its droll, self-deprecating sense of humor. Larry’s everyman-ness does provides a subtle and possibly unintentional sense of relief and near-schadenfreude to at least part of the audience, however: recent college grads (and parents thereof) scrambling for jobs will be comforted by the message that an education is worth something in the long run, and at least they’ve got one up on this guy. The film’s sense of frivolity and lack of sullenness render it pleasant enough in the moment, but overall it leaves no lasting impression, other than a renewed sense of affection for Hanks. And one could just stay home and watch Turner and Hooch for the same result.

Grade: C+
Release date: July 1, 2011

review: Beautiful Boy

Movies pertaining to real-life tragedies, whether natural or man-made, are often accused of being "too soon": there doesn’t seem to be a set amount of time after an event that needs to pass before it can be explored in film, but when one such film is announced, invariably someone somewhere will accuse it of being exploitative of emotions that have not yet had time to mend. And then, of course, there are events so devastating that some feel they should never been explored or used as a form of entertainment, regardless of the tone of the piece. Beautiful Boy, directed by newcomer Shawn Ku, will likely fall into this category for some. Its personal and painfully invasive look into one family’s horror and grief in the wake of an unimaginable tragedy may prove too emotionally brutal for general audiences, regardless of its proximity to actual events. However, the film very carefully keeps a tight focus on the characters and their emotions rather than on the actual nightmarish violence of the plot: Kate (Maria Bello) and Bill (Michael Sheen) are a married couple living in a non-specific suburban neighborhood and are parents to only child Sam (Kyle Gallner, who, despite his talent for it, may want to consider breaking out of the troubled-teen roles sooner rather than later), a quiet, troubled freshman who, one sunny morning, takes two semi-automatic weapons onto his unnamed college campus and opens fire on his fellow students and professors before taking his own life. None of the event is ever seen; there are no images of bloody bodies or students weeping at a candlelit vigil. The exact number of victims is never even divulged (although a news report suggests it is over twenty). There are no screaming public confrontations with victims’ parents or pushy reporters, although Sam’s Facebook page and grave are vandalized. Instead, the story follows the couple as they wade through the stages of mourning—rather than endless plate-smashing hysteria, the film captures the characteristic peaks and valleys of grief; they do not simply suffer at the beginning and heal by the end. The film uses silence, unspoken tension, and a handheld, almost documentary-like camera style to strip a horrific story down to its bare, honest bones, avoiding sensationalism and instead focusing on the intimacy of facing impossible truths.

At the beginning of the film, Bill and Kate are already dealing with considerable tension in their marriage—there is no torrid affair or dramatic betrayal tearing them apart, but something has eroded between them. They co-exist cordially, focusing on work; Kate is a book editor ("just a spellchecker," she assures an anxious aspiring writer) and Bill does something unnamed and corporate in an office. When Sam makes what turns out to be his final phone call to his parents the night before the rampage, we see that they are perfectly loving, well-meaning and tragically clueless parents. They’re not selfishly, ludicrously oblivious, they’re just mistaking deeply hidden sorrow and rage for normal teenage angst, and the most disturbing part is how understandable that is. When they receive the news of what has happened, they react with numb denial, and the subsequent scenes are long, mostly silent takes of the two of them, nearly catatonic, trying to begin to understand. There’s a quick, perfect scene where Kate awakens on Sam’s bed, having slept in a nest of his clothes, in which you can actually see the moment where she ‘remembers’ what has happened. After some time, unable to deal with the cabal of paparazzi camped outside and the oppressive memories inside the house, they move in with Kate’s brother (the always-lovable Alan Tudyk), his wife (Moon Bloodgood) and their young son. Kate and Bill soon begin to process things in separate, conflicting ways: Kate opts for denial, choosing to focus on her nephew; there’s a painful inappropriateness in the way she bonds with him, as though she does not have the ‘right’ to mother again so soon, especially when the little boy begins to ask what has happened with his cousin. Bill throws himself into the technicalities, like their statement to the press and Sam’s student loans, and the tension between the couple soon builds again, worse than ever.

Finally, when they exile themselves to a motel, they almost allow themselves to forget reality for a day or two. In a scene of heartbreakingly genuine chemistry and sweetness, they share a ‘dinner’ of vending machine food and laugh and make love for the first time since the event. "What are you, sixteen again?" she asks, suggesting the length of their relationship and their growth into adults together. Soon, however, the questions which they have been avoiding become impossible to ignore and they finally explode at one another, with her accusing him of spending Sam’s childhood off at the office and him firing back that she was always too critical of his flaws. "You and your red pen!" he rages. It gets painfully ugly, far beyond the breaking-down couple Blue Valentine or the shared grief and guilt seen in Rabbit Hole; the compounded facts of both Sam’s death and that he died a murderer seem impossible to bear. The film does not end in hopeless despair, but it certainly does not attempt to pretend that they will ever be fully OK again either. Instead, it shows the astonishing range of what people can do to one another, from acts of shocking cruelty to tender solicitousness, and where the two extremes can sometimes meet.

The camera seems to chase the characters around like an invasive reporter, peering through cracks in doorways and from behind furniture, desperate to intrude on private moments. In the scene in which Kate and Bill finally have their catastrophic fight, it pushes in close and flies wildly out of focus, like a scene from "Cops." The style helps to heighten the tension and realism, and also seems to speak to the uncomfortable morbid curiosity that goes along with tragedies of this kind: society may decry the violence and condemn the killers and their families, but we still want to know every detail and see inside the horror. We see only a few chilling seconds of it, but it is explained that Sam’s final message, a recorded video rant sent to the news ("You all could have prevented this!") has been playing on constant lurid rotation on TV. And it is also possible that the deliberate lack of detail is a message to the audience of the film itself as well: in contrast to those who will feel that the film is too horribly real to be viewed, there will undoubtedly be those who seek to view it as a catharsis of sorts to reality, that natural desire to slow down at a car accident—except this crash is fictional, and its avoidance of specifics seem to free the audience of the ‘guilt’ of trespassing on their lives and speculating about where a family went so wrong, while at the same time calling attention to that very instinct. The performances assist this idea—both Bello and Sheen are excellent; many scenes feel unscripted and natural, and director Ku appears to have given the talented actors ample room to explore and find their characters’ souls. Some may accuse the scene of the big fight of being too over-the-top and awards-bait-y, but as seen in films such asMystic River, Monster’s Ball and In the Bedroom, the loss of a child seems to be the one plot area in which actors are permitted to truly take it up to eleven in their depiction of grief and horror, as long as it is a controlled percentage of the overall performance, as it is here, rather than the entire thing. The film also takes care to avoid stereotype and cliché, although having Sam be an English major whose revealing emotional poems are perused far too late does feel a bit easy. (At least he doesn’t wear a black trench coat.) Rather than feeling like a cop-out, the film’s minimalist style emphasizes the strength of the performances and the frightening universality of the emotions; it’s not about what Sam does, it’s about what it means. Its honesty may still render it too difficult for many to take, but it never seeks to manipulate the viewer, instead providing a frank, clinical autopsy of grief that is oddly relieving in its truthfulness.

Grade: B+
Release date: June 3, 2011 (limited)

review: Sucker Punch

In literature, multiple narrative frames usually serve to give a story depth and clarity. With some definite exceptions, multiple first-person-limited threads are used to give the reader a more profound, well-rounded sense of the events. In film, however, this is usually handled differently: seeing multiple ‘versions’ of the same story in one piece usually serves to confound the viewer, or at least to make them second-guess their understanding of the plot, like in Rashomon and those it inspired. Non-linear storytelling (Pulp Fiction), unreliable narrators (American Psycho) and fantasy sequences (Atonement) can be used to this same end, and a character’s madness can also be used to distort the viewer’s perception of reality as well, such as in Black Swan. Inception took the idea of uncertain reality and multiple levels a step further by telling the same story in wildly different circumstances and settings, and also by having some characters lose their own sense of reality, leading to that infamously maddening ending. In Sucker Punch, the action-fantasy written and directed by Zack Snyder (Watchmen, 300—this one is not an adaptation, although it feels like it), a young woman escapes to alternate realities in her imagination to escape her dangerous, loathsome real life—or does she? There are multiple layers of fantasy—dreams within dreams, as it were—and a good deal of playing with the fourth wall and what it means to play a ‘character’ within one’s own life. There are highly interesting ideas at play, including concepts of gender, imagination, empowerment and freedom, but they’re not always executed very expertly or decisively. One has to look a little too hard to find the significant messages and metaphors in the film; at times it rather forgets to have a story and descends into pure action mayhem. It is clearly trying to say something about inner strength, but the characters and writing aren’t quite strong enough to make the proper impact.

The very opening of the film features the production company logos appearing on a stage curtain, which rises as a voiceover muses about guardian angels and protection. Already the film seems to be suggesting a sense of awareness of form: it is a movie that is acknowledging that it is one; it is meant to be a show, not a realistic story with which one can identify in any literal way. Our protagonist (Emily Browning, Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events) is then introduced—sort of: she is given a wordless montage in which her family dies and she is sent off to an asylum by her abusive stepfather. She speaks barely a word through the first fifteen minutes of the film, and she is never given a real name, only “Baby Doll.” It’s also set in the 1950s, although this is never made particularly clear. The asylum is the typical nightmarish madhouse, with a lecherous staff and hollowed-eyed patients confined to a room called “the theatre,” again possibly reinforcing the slightly meta nature of the story. The place is entirely corrupt, of course, and Baby Doll is soon threatened with a grisly lobotomy—but the scene then switches to a cabaret of sorts, where she and the other four girls are not patients, but prostitutes, essentially, who are under the thumb of sadistic club owner Blue (Oscar Isaac) and “perform” for the various men that come through. The girls are all apparently there against their will, and Baby Doll soon devises a plan for their escape, which will result in their deaths if they are caught. This, of course, is her ‘dream version’ of the asylum; the parallels are obvious, but the transition is not. Until the ending of the film, it is not entirely clear just what is being imagined and what she is escaping from and to; her situation in the brothel is not much better than her life in the asylum, and so it is somewhat confusing as to why her imagination would take her there.

Her dreams do not stop there, however: every time she is ordered to dance at the brothel, she loses herself in another sort of fantasy, and these are the action scenes that have served as the film’s main promotion. (We also never see her dance, which feels either cheeky or dumb.) In the first sequence, she finds herself battling samurai monsters in a Japanese monastery of some sort, and is told that she will need five objects in order to escape her situation, the fifth of which is a mystery. She talks the other girls into helping, and their schemes to acquire the objects become the other action sequences: they need a map of the brothel that hangs in Blue’s office, and suddenly she and the others are battling for it in the trenches of WWI against German soldiers—zombie/robot soldiers, technically, but that’s irrelevant. When they need a lighter from a “client,” it becomes a battle against a fire-breathing dragon in an extremely Tolkien-esque castle. Another scene involves a bomb on a speeding train. In all of these sequences, the five girls become fearless warriors, armed with swords, guns and all manner of futuristic weapons. All of the action sequences seem standard and rather archetypical, and that seems to be the point: in imagination, one casts oneself in a familiar, exaggerated setting (the danger of which is also explored in Inception). The film is purposefully both dated and futuristic, combining classic old settings and ideas with new technology and styles, as typified in the soundtrack, which consists mainly of electronically reworked covers of classics, like “White Rabbit” and “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”, in the spirit of Moulin Rouge. It works fairly well in throwing the viewer off and creating an alternate reality that is both fantastic and also grounded, and the action scenes are certainly very impressive, rather reminiscent of the video game-themed Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with a great helping of Snyder’s favorite tricks of slow-motion leaps and stabbings and so forth as seen in his other prominent films (although it does keep to its PG-13 rating and is significantly less bloody than the others).

However, while the basic structure of the film works well enough, some of the deeper themes are problematic. First of all, it’s hard to ignore the gender and sexuality issues at play: the main characters are five nubile young women who have no names other than their prostitute monikers (Baby Doll, Sweet Pea, Amber, etc) and dress in midriff-baring skirts, thigh-highs, push-up bras and pigtails, including in the action sequences. There’s no getting around the extreme fetishization of their characters, and it almost feels deliberate: they have no identities except as the playthings of men and are working to achieve them, so it follows that they would maintain their exploitative appearances until they attain their freedom. It seems like a deliberate subversion of juxtaposition of sex and violence so often seen in action films featuring women. Or, possibly, the studio knew that hot, sword-wielding girls in skimpy clothes will attract audiences; it may be as simple as that. It’s hard to say. Similarly, there may be a men-vs.-women theme present as well—in her ‘real’ life, Baby Doll is abused by her stepfather and manipulated by the men in the asylum, and in her fantasy life, the prostitutes are used and “owned” by their clients and by Blue. There is definitely a “girl power” message—except that the presence of the head doctor/madam/dance teacher Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino, employing a slightly ridiculous Natasha Fatale accent) muddles this somewhat, as does the presence of a Yoda-like advisor known only as the Wise Man (Scott Glenn) who assists the girls in the action scenes. If it’s supposed to be about girls standing up for themselves, why do they need him telling them what to do? And if it’s about freedom in general, shouldn’t it go beyond the simple parameters of misogyny? They could’ve played with the way women can be cruel to women; the way the young are dismissed by the old(er); the way women confident in their sexuality are condemned as sluts, et cetera. The message of finding strength within oneself to fight back against oppression and disrespect is certainly a good one, but they could have gone a lot further with it.

And while it makes sense that the characters’ personalities would be ignored by those who are exploiting them, it might have been nice to give them more development and depth that they only share with one another as their friendships deepen, adding another narrative ‘layer’ of sorts when they drop their prostitute “characters” and reveal their real selves. Next to no backstory is given for the other four girls, and as most of the emotion resonance rests with their fates in the third act, it’s something of a problem that the audience barely knows or cares about them. It is clear that the most love and attention was given to the production of the action sequences, with the actual main plot(s) receiving rather less, and it waters down what might have been a fairly smart and well-told story. As it is, the multiple threads do come together reasonably well; it has some elements of a warped Wizard of Oz, with multiple elements and people from ‘real life’ representing themselves symbolically in the dream sequence(s). By the end, the meanings of each ‘layer’ are relatively clear, and a number of thought-provoking ideas and metaphors have presented themselves along the way. However, too many of these themes are shorthanded or underexplored in the interest of battles and action, and neither the dialogue nor most of the acting are really up to the challenge (only Isaac and Jena Malone, as the loyal Rocket, are really doing anything interesting up there). It’s entertaining enough, particularly for fans of Snyder’s previous work, but it definitely could have used more of Watchmen’s introspection on social themes and less of 300’s barrage of attractive people kicking butt in their underwear.

Grade: C+
Release date: March 25, 2011