Sucker Punch


Sucker Punch

Superheroines don’t necessarily need to look slutty to be effective.

(2011) Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, Oscar Isaac, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn, Richard Cetone, Gerard Plunkett, Malcolm Scott, Ron Selmour, AC Peterson, Frederique De Raucourt. Directed by Zack Snyder

The imagination is a powerful thing. It can transport us from any situation, no matter how painful, and set us free. We can use it as a tool to help us escape from our pain – or else wallow in it and ignore the means of our own salvation.

Babydoll (Browning) has seen her mother die, her cruel stepfather attempt to rape both her and her sister (De Raucourt) and her sister die in a tragic accident for which she has been blamed. She is committed to a mental institution by said cruel stepfather who stands to inherit a fortune if Babydoll becomes mentally incompetent; a lobotomy would certainly go a long way to achieving that aim, but the doctor who performs these procedures will not be available for five days, so Babydoll gets the use of her brain essentially for five more days.

But is this really a gothic mental institution in the 1950s? Or is it a bordello into which Babydoll has been sold into white slavery, forced to dance for a high rolling clientele? Baby is befriended by Rocket (Malone), a spunky blonde who is also incarcerated there with her sister Sweet Pea (Cornish). Also there are their friends Blondie (Hudgens, a brunette) and Amber (Chung). They are presided over by Vera Gorski (Gugino), a Polish choreographer who might also be a doctor in the asylum. The club is owned by Blue Jones (Isaac) who may also be an orderly in the asylum.

It also turns out that Babydoll’s dances not only entrance her audience – they also transport Babydoll into a parallel world where she meets Wiseman (Glenn), a wrinkled old sage in a Japanese temple who informs her that she needs five items to escape; a map, fire, a knife, a key and a mystery. These can be found in the bordello but in order to retrieve these closely guarded items, Babydoll’s friends will need to grab them while the staff and guests of the bordello are distracted by Babydoll’s dancing. However, time is ticking down, cruel Blue might be onto them and each parallel world is more dangerous and scarier than the next. Can Babydoll and her friends make it out of their prison and into freedom?

First of all, let me just say that Zack Snyder is one of the most imaginative directors working in Hollywood today; he has given us 300, Watchmen and The Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole, all of which I can recommend without any hesitation whatsoever. I really can’t say the same for this one, however (which is incidentally the first original story he’s made a movie from – all the rest of his films are based on graphic novels, children’s books or are remakes of existing movies). In fact, this might wind up being the biggest disappointment of 2011.

There is so much going for this movie, too – great action sequences, lots of imagination and plenty of eye candy, both of the special effects sort and the female kind as well. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t gel. Much of this can be attributed by the storytelling, one of Snyder’s strong points but lacking here. He is essentially creating three parallel stories and trying to link them together but the linking is done in a clumsy fashion; the movement between the three parallel worlds should be seamless and frankly, it’s jarring the first time it happens, leaving the audience going WTF (which should also be in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language if LOL is).

For much of the movie, the primarily female cast are mostly in lingerie and stockings, which while a fine idea to my mind also kind of demeans them as action heroes when the script calls upon them to be that way. You’d never have seen the members of The Expendables prancing around in Speedos and socks before going out to kick ass. Then again, would you really want to?

There are some very nice performances, particularly from the always-reliable Gugino as the Polish madame/psychiatrist who is a figure of sympathy despite having made a deal with the devil. Malone also fares very well as Babydoll’s bestie, showing an enormous amount of pluck as well as being sexy and strong. Cornish, who plays her big sister, also does well as the over-protective Sweet Pea who has seen her leadership position usurped by Babydoll.

Browning, however left me a bit flat as Babydoll. She has nice pouty lips and big blue eyes but she never really convinced me as the action hero or the leader of the pack. She’s done fine work in other movies, but this one ain’t gonna be one of her shining career moments.

We rarely get to see female team movies like this and given the propensity for women to bicker and argue among themselves (at least as seen when they are teamed up by gender on reality television shows), I might have liked to see a bit more of the dynamics of an all-female action team. Unfortunately that’s a lost opportunity here.

Most of the men here are either rapists, flunkies or hopelessly clueless with the exception of Scott Glenn’s Yoda-esque Wiseman. Glenn is one of those actors from the 80s and 90s who did extensively good work (who can forget his turn as the sub captain in The Hunt for Red October or as the iconic cowboy hero Emmett in Silverado) but rarely got credit for it. He’s a terrific screen presence who I love seeing on the screen even though he’s pushing 70 now.

I really, really, really wanted to recommend this film and I really, really can’t. The story is too disjointed, the performance of Browning not compelling enough to grab my interest. The special effects, the fantasy sequences and the lingerie all are good enough to command my attention but the sad fact of the matter is that the movie simply doesn’t come together into a cohesive whole and the disappointing box office reflects that. I know Snyder as a director is as capable and imaginative as they come – I just wish he’d let a capable and imaginative writer handle the script.

REASONS TO GO: Incredible special effects and an amazing amount of imagination.

REASONS TO STAY: Storytelling shortcuts ruin the flow of the movie. Some of the performances are less-than-compelling.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of sexuality (as you can see from the picture although no overt sex), some fairly graphic violence, a bit of bad language and some disturbing thematic stuff.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Emily Browning doesn’t have a line of dialogue (despite being the lead character) until nearly twenty minutes into the film.

HOME OR THEATER: The digital effects alone are worth seeing on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: The Queen

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Sorority Row


Sorority Row

Most sorority sisters will tell you that a sorority house is just a series of excuses to dress up in lingerie.

(2009) Slasher Horror (Summit) Briana Evigan, Leah Pipes, Rumer Willis, Jamie Chung, Audrina Partridge, Carrie Fisher, Julian Morris, Margo Harshman, Matt O’Leary. Directed by Stewart Hendler

The slasher movie is a time-honored tradition that usually involves a mysterious, hooded or masked maniac, lots of women in lingerie, bikinis, miniskirts or nothing at all and a series of grisly but imaginative murders. The 1983 opus The House on Sorority Row combined all of these elements and while not a classic of the genre, was certainly one of its better moments.

Flash forward to 2009 and an all-new rendition of it, mostly starring ladies from television shows (Audrina Partridge from “The Hills,” Leah Pipes from “Terminator: The Sarah Connors Chronicles”) or low-rent movies (Briana Evigan from Step Up 2, Jamie Chung from Dragonball: Evolution) with daughters of the famous (Rumer Willis – daughter of Bruce Willis and Demi Moore, Evigan – daughter of “BJ and the Bear’s” Greg Evigan). It would seem to be a winning mix.

The sisters of the Theta Pi sorority at Rosman College (the original party school) decide to pull a stunt on the cheating boyfriend of Megan (Partridge) by convincing him that the date rape drug they supplied him with had caused an overdose, after which they would have to dispose of the body. This takes place at a sorority house party in which ingénues in lingerie stage beer chugging contests, pillow fights in a scenario that could only take place in the fevered imagination of an adolescent male who yearns for the opportunity to see a bare breast up close and personal – or the mind of a cynical Hollywood screenwriter who is catering to him.

The prank goes horribly wrong when the panicky frat boy, wanting to make sure the “dead” Megan is truly dead, shoves a tire iron into her chest with lethal force. The shocked sisters are bullied by Jessica (Pipes), the queen bee of the crew, to toss the body down the mine shaft (which was what they had convinced the frat boy they were going to do in the first place) and Never Speak of This Again to Anybody. Yeah, right – as if. Cassidy (Evigan), the brainy one who has the closest thing to a moral center at first refuses but is peer pressured into reluctantly agreeing to it.

Months later as the group prepares for their graduation party, they begin to get text messages from the victims’ cell phone. Could it be Megan – back from the dead and seeing revenge? Or maybe her creepy sister, who has turned up unexpectedly?  In any case, sisters start turning up sliced and diced by a mysterious hooded figure wielding a tire iron. Now that’s what I call a party.

The clichés are abounding here, and director Hendler doesn’t seem much disposed to straying beyond them. Mostly, the girls have little to do but wear clothes that say less college sorority girl and more slut and scream periodically. While I admit it’s nice to see Carrie Fisher onscreen (as the feisty house mother whose best line is “Do you think you scare me? I run a house with fifty bitches in it!”), the part is so very beneath her. You’d think that Princess Leia would be able to get better parts.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Carlos – this is a slasher movie. Nobody goes to see it for the acting – their target audience just wants boobs and really clever murders, the more gruesome the better. While there are plenty of boobs, where the movie fails to deliver is on the murders. The payoffs are rarely there and even the build-ups are pretty lame. Yes, a couple of the murders are nicely done but the bulk of them are rather anticlimactic. That’s not a word you want to use when describing a slasher flick.

The fact that the movie was profitable is owed more to its low production cost rather than its quality. A word to prospective producers of slasher movies; think how much more profitable your movies would be if you threw a well-scripted, well-executed movie with exciting murder scenes on top of the breasts and lingerie? This movie demonstrates that the market is there for it. Now we just need some filmmakers to deliver on it; unfortunately, these didn’t.

WHY RENT THIS: Some nice scares and a couple of really well-done murders. It’s nice to see Fisher onscreen, even though it’s in a role that’s clearly beneath her.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The concept has been done to death and the movie doesn’t particularly bring anything new to the table. While there are a few good scares, mostly it’s just gruesome.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of violence, plenty of gore, sexuality and nudity, foul language, teen drinking – pretty much the whole gamut.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rosman College, the setting for the movie, is named for Mark Rosman, who wrote and directed the 1983 original and is an executive producer on this film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.2M on a $12.5M production budget; the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: The Mechanic (2011)

Killers


Killers

Katherine Heigl prays for a better movie next time after checking out how much she made on this one.

(Lionsgate)  Ashton Kutcher, Katherine Heigl, Tom Selleck, Catherine O’Hara, Martin Mull, Katheryn Winnick, Kevin Sussman, Alex Borstein, Lisa Ann Walter, Rob Riggle, Casey Wilson, Usher Raymond, Letoya Luckett. Directed by Robert Luketic

How well do you really know your mate? You can take at face value what they tell you about their past, but how truthful are they really being? More importantly, what could they be leaving out?

Jen Kornfeldt (Heigl) has just been dumped by her boyfriend. They had been planning a vacation to Nice on the French Riviera but she winds up going with her parents instead – her dad (Selleck) a dour, straight-laced former airline pilot and her mom (O’Hara), a borderline alcoholic whose free spirit has been drowned in an endless ocean of cocktails.

In Nice she meets Spencer Aimes (Kutcher), a handsome, ripped and nice young man who yearns to settle down with the right girl and put down some roots. He’s a consultant working for a company that has him travelling all over the world, and he’s ready to get off the merry-go-round. At first, Jen is reluctant to confess her status as recently dumped and vacationing with her parents but eventually she comes clean, particularly after she’s had a lot more to drink than she normally does, confiding in Spencer her dating past as a “nerd magnet.”

Fast-forward three years. The two are happily married and living in a quiet Atlanta suburb with block parties, nosy neighbors and the sound of riding mowers. Jen is a consultant for a computer software company while Spencer has his own construction company. Life is pretty idyllic for the two, with Jen’s parents a mere five minutes away. Okay, maybe not so idyllic.

It’s Spencer’s birthday and he really doesn’t want to make a big deal of it. In fact, he seems pretty moody lately and Jen’s at a loss to explain why. She makes arrangements to throw a big birthday party for him, with her dad in charge of driving Spencer to the house. The party goes pretty well, although again Spencer seems distant. Jen’s friends attribute it to the Three Year Snooze, the point in a marriage when routine begins to dominate. Jen wants to question Spencer further but she has to go out of town to deliver a presentation on her company’s new software at a San Francisco computing conference.

She returns home and is horrified to discover her husband and his best friend Henry (Riggle) locked in mortal combat. After Spencer subdues Henry and they get him tied up, she is understandably shocked and demands an explanation.

It turns out that Spencer’s past is catching up with him. The “company” he used to work for is in fact the CIA and he was a contract assassin for them. Having left the agency to be with her, he has discovered that nobody just “leaves” the company. After questioning Henry, they discover that there is a $20 million bounty on Spencer’s head and there is more than one assassin planted among their neighbors and friends just waiting to collect it.

From that point on they are dodging bullets and homicidal killers, all the while trying to get Jen’s pregnancy test done. When they try to question Spencer’s former boss (Mull), they find him as dead as a doornail – two shots to the heart and one to the head, very old school. If Spencer’s boss didn’t let loose the hounds, who did? Jen is angry and bitter, feeling that Spencer had lied to her all this time about his past. In the meantime, people they thought were friends and neighbors are trying to kill them. If they survive the attempts on Spencer’s life, will their marriage survive?

Heigl has been repeatedly cast in romantic comedies of late, few of which match her breakout role in Knocked Up. Here they even add the pregnancy card to try and maybe recapture that magic but quite frankly this isn’t the right role for Heigl. While she isn’t really called upon to be the action hero here, she is probably more comfortable in straight comedic roles.

Her chemistry with Kutcher isn’t what you’d call scintillating. At times you wonder what they saw in each other to begin with. The relationship is so central to the movie that if it isn’t believable, the whole movie falls apart. It’s not quite unbelievable but it’s close.

The action sequences are a bit rote which doesn’t help matters. This is primarily a comedy with the action secondary, but even so I would have liked a bit more edge to the action. That’s one of the things that made the similarly-themed Mr. and Mrs. Smith so delightful. Here there’s nothing surprising so you tend to stifle a yawn.

What does work in the movie is Tom Selleck and Catherine O’Hara. Selleck has fun with his image as a tough guy and brings a little DeNiro into the mix. The combination works very nicely. O’Hara is an underrated comedienne and steals nearly every scene she’s in. It’s nice to see her do what she does best – create a character that’s funny and believable at the same time.

Killers isn’t really a bad movie, it’s just not a very good one. It’s diverting and has its own charm but certainly it isn’t a movie you should feel the need to run right out and see. It has its moments and if you are fans of either Kutcher or Heigl you’ll probably see it anyway, but otherwise this is one you can safely wait for its appearance on home video or cable.

REASONS TO GO: Kutcher and Heigl are amusing. Selleck and O’Hara just about steal the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: Not a lot of chemistry between the two leads. The action sequences don’t really compete with other summer movies out there.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some comic violence as well as a good deal of sexual innuendo, and a bit of bad language. It’s suitable for teens, but probably not for the really young kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While filming a fight scene, Kutcher accidentally knocked out one of the stunt men with a punch to the head.

HOME OR THEATER: While this is clearly an action movie, it doesn’t have the kind of big action requiring a big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Lucky Ones

Nine


Nine

As you can see, film directors really do have a God complex.

(Weinstein) Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Nicole Kidman, Sophia Loren, Kate Hudson, Stacey “Fergie” Ferguson, Ricky Tognazzi, Giuseppe Cederna, Elio Germano, Andrea di Stefano. Directed by Rob Marshall

The creative process is a tricky one. The moment you put pen to paper, image to film, something dies a little bit. It is not a pleasant process; it is violent sometimes, turning savagely on the artist.

Guido Contini (Day-Lewis) is one of the most acclaimed film directors in the world, certainly in the Italy of the mid-1960s. Referred to affectionately as “Maestro,” he has been on a bit of a cold streak of late, his last two movies having been as he put it “flops.” His latest, Italia, starring his regular leading lady Claudia Schaeffer (Kidman), is meant to put him back in the drivers’ seat. At least, his producer (Tognazzi) hopes so.

Guido, on the other hand, is falling apart both personally and professionally. He is suffering from an excruciating case of writer’s block and has been unable to write down a single word or idea about the movie with filming set to begin in only ten days. He is under enormous pressure from his producers, the studio and the press; after another banal press conference at his home base of Cinecitta Studios in Rome, he flees to a spa on the Italian coast. 

There his personal shortcomings begin to catch up to him. Guido is a charming womanizer; he married Luisa (Cotillard), his first leading lady and is having an affair with Carla (Cruz), who is also married. He confesses his anxieties to his friend and therapist of a sort Lilli (Dench) the costume designer. All of them show up at the spa, throwing his marriage into disarray – where it was heading anyway. He is having flashbacks of his late mother (Loren) and Saraghina (Ferguson), a prostitute he had known in his youth. To make matters even more complicated, an American reporter (Hudson) with a passion for his style makes it clear she wouldn’t mind sharing his bed. What’s an artiste to do?

Director Marshall won an Oscar for Best Picture for Chicago and no doubt the producers were hoping that lightning would strike twice. After all, this was a Tony-winning musical based on the great Italian director Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8 1/2. Unfortunately, this musical simply doesn’t measure up to Chicago. Whereas Chicago didn’t take itself terribly seriously in many ways, Nine certainly does, full of sequences that take place in Guido’s tortured mind that come off as self-indulgent. Perhaps that is as well, since Guido clearly is guilty of that particular sin.

My issue is that if you’re going to have a musical, the music should be memorable, no? Unfortunately, there are no songs here that are going to make you rush out and buy the soundtrack. The closest number that comes to it is ”Be Italian” as sung by Fergie – who knew that she would be one of the best features of this movie – and even that number is sabotaged by an egregious misuse of sand. Clearly the movie would have benefitted from an Andrew Lloyd Weber who, for all his detractions, definitely knows how to write a song that will stick with you.

When the musical numbers are the weakest part of your musical, you know you’re in trouble. The movie is saved by the depiction of Fellini’s Rome, taking you back to an era of Vespas, skinny ties, sophisticated women in cocktail dresses and cool Ray-Bans on the faces of suave men. Also, any opportunity to see Sophia Loren is worth taking. Ms. Loren is in her seventies now, but she still grabs your attention every time she’s onscreen. Modern movie goddesses like Kidman and Cruz simply can’t compete.

Because the musical numbers take place in the sexually-obsessive Guido’s mind, most of the women are clad in lingerie during them. Normally I don’t object to that kind of thing but you eventually come to a point of overload and quite frankly while I admire Judi Dench as the great actress she is and believe she is a beautiful woman, seeing her in a bustier trailing a feather boa the length of a Winnebago behind her was just disconcerting.

Even so, I enjoyed myself somewhat despite the many failings of the movie, which I guess is damning it with faint praise. If the music had been better, perhaps Marshall might have had something here but quite frankly, he was sunk before he even rolled cameras. I think Guido might have understood that completely.

REASONS TO GO: Recreates Fellini’s Rome very nicely. Sophia Loren is the epitome of Italian glamour and worth seeing alone. Day-Lewis does a credible job in a role he probably shouldn’t have taken.

REASONS TO STAY: The musical numbers are not terribly memorable, despite all the glitz and lingerie. Too over-the-top in places.  

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of lingerie, incessant smoking and a lot of sexuality make this not a kid-friendly musical.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The late Raul Julia originated the role of Guido Contini on Broadway.

HOME OR THEATER: In order to more closely replicate the Broadway experience I recommend you see it on the big screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Final Destination 3