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.



Jonah Hex

Jonah Hex

You have to wonder if Josh Brolin didn't just take a blowtorch to his career.

(Warner Brothers) Josh Brolin, John Malkovich, Megan Fox, Michael Fassbender, Will Arnett, Michael Shannon, Tom Wopat, Aidan Quinn, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Julia Jones, Luke James Fleischmann, Rio Hackford, Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Directed by Jimmy Hayward

We all have a reason to get up out of bed every morning. Be it love, career or cause, there is something that motivates us to keep going even when the going gets rough. For some that cause is vengeance.

Jonah Hex (Brolin) was an officer in the Confederate Army under the command of General Quentin Turnbull (Malkovich) but when the General ordered the burning of a hospital with innocent women and children inside it. Jonah balks at this and betrays Turnbull to the Union Army. As a result of this, Hex is forced to kill Jeb Turnbull (Morgan), the son of the General.

As you might guess, the General doesn’t cotton to this very well. He finds Jonah and ties him to a cross, then makes him watch as he burns Jonah’s wife and son to death. That General Turnbull, he sure has a thing for burning women and children alive. Just in case Jonah forgets who is responsible for the death of his family, General puts a branding iron on the side of Jonah’s face while the General’s Irish right hand man Burke (Fassbender) holds him down.

Jonah is left on the cross to die, but was rescued by members of the Crow nation whose medicine men were able to bring back Jonah to this side. Jonah came back hideously scarred but with the ability to converse with the dead. That comes in handy since the dead can see where those they trafficked with in life are.

Jonah becomes a bounty hunter but after killing a corrupt mayor and his sheriff in the lovely mining town (if you can really call it that) of Stunk Crick, he finds himself with a bounty on his own head. Naturally, he does what any self-respecting bounty hunter would do in a situation like that – go visit a prostitute with a heart of gold, namely the fetching Lilah (Fox) who carries a torch for Jonah. She also carries a derringer and a knife. She may have a heart of gold but she’s also practical.

Their rendezvous is interrupted by about a dozen Union soldiers (Jonah’s withering bon mot – “How many men are you seein’ today?”) who get Jonah’s co-operation by telling him three words; Quentin Turnbull’s alive.

You see, everybody had assumed that Turnbull had perished in a hotel fire but it turns out that he had faked his death. You’d think someone able to communicate with the dead would have better intel about who had passed on and who hadn’t. In any case, the U.S. Army had determined that Turnbull was assembling a superweapon designed by Eli Whitney, inventor of the Cotton Gin and was planning to use it against the United States on the occasion of its Centennial celebration. President Ulysses Grant (Quinn) thinks that Jonah Hex is the best bet at stopping that wacky General, who not only likes to burn women and children but sure can’t let go of a grudge. Can someone who has cheated death so often do so once again?

I really wanted to love this movie, and I had high hopes that I would. After all, Josh Brolin has been hot as of late, with terrific performances in No Country for Old Men, W. And Milk all increasing his bankability as an actor. This looked to create his genre profile and maybe put a franchise character under his belt.

Alas, it is not to be. While the script writers Neveldine and Taylor are some of the most innovative action film writers in the business (they wrote and directed both Crank films), they missed the mark here. Early on there’s a nifty animated sequence, and the dead guy interrogation sequences are pretty cool, but this feels slopped together. The heavy metal score gives it a kind of steampunk feel but the doomsday weapon, which features a kind of rotating cannon firing device that shoots big iron balls that are detonated by an orange glowing bocce ball, is nonsensical and not really impressive.

As kind of an aside, I think there’s a trend here that any movie that depicts Ulysses Grant as president turns into a major bomb – first there was The Legend of the Lone Ranger, then the misfire that was the remake of Wild, Wild West and now the box office receipts for this one were anemic. Screenwriters, take note.

Brolin does a credible enough job as Hex, mainly having to squint, snarl and drawl his lines in a Clint Eastwood-esque rasp. You get a sense of his pain and his violent nature, and while Neveldine and Taylor do try to give Hex a bit of backstory, Brolin’s narration gives us more insight into the character than we might have had otherwise.

Malkovich is a capable villain, although this is probably not his best bad guy role (that would be In the Line of Fire) and Fox is easy enough on the eyes in her Victorian boudoir fashions that she wears throughout.

There are lots of explosions – most of the budget seems to have gone to pyro. It’s a shame we didn’t see more story here. The movie clocks in at a mere 81 minutes, so there was room for more exposition but I get the impression that story was sacrificed for pacing here.

Jonah Hex comes from the realm of DC Comics and I find it somewhat surprising that the powers-that-be at DC have elected to greenlight a film about what has to be characterized as one of their minor characters over better-known characters such as Wonder Woman, the Flash and the Teen Titans, none of which have had a chance to shine on the big screen as of yet. Given the talent both in front of and behind the camera, I would have expected a better movie than the one we got here, which does little to establish DC Comics as a player in Hollywood the way Marvel Comics is. It’s too bad; the story of Jonah Hex is a compelling one and with a little more focus, this could have been a really good movie instead of a mediocre one.

REASONS TO GO: The movie isn’t as bad as you heard it is.

REASONS TO STAY: It’s still a mess. Story seems to have been sacrificed at the altar of pacing.

FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of violence, a little bit of bad language and a little bit of sexual innuendo. Okay for teens but probably not for much younger than that.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Along with veteran film composer Marco Beltrami, heavy metal band Mastodon composed the film’s score.

HOME OR THEATER: Chances are this will be gone from theaters by next weekend but quite frankly it’ll look a lot better on the big screen than the small.



Mutant Chronicles

Take off, hoser!

Take off, hoser!

(Magnolia) Thomas Jane, Ron Perlman, John Malkovich, Devon Aoki, Benno Furmann, Sean Pertwee, Anna Walton, Pras Michel, Tom Wu, Steve Toussaint, Luis Echegaray, Shauna Macdonald, Christopher Adamson. Directed by Simon Hunter.

The future is not a very nice place. The resources of our planet have all but been exhausted by the 28th century. No longer a planet divided into nations, the world is ruled by mega-corporations. There are only four left, more or less divided into geographical territories, and they fight over the scraps that Mother Earth has left.

One such battle takes place in Eastern Europe, where a strange seal is uncovered in the Earth. A stray shell cracks the seal and inadvertently re-activates a massive machine that has been dormant for thousands of years.

In the distant past, the machine had come from outer space without explanation and began mutating the human population into homicidal creatures whose sole purpose was to kill, or capture the remaining humans for mutation. An ancient hero managed to overcome the mutants and seal the machine in the depths of the earth, leaving behind a document that has been unknown to the general population but guarded by a group of monks who revere the Chronicles as scripture.

The mutant outbreak gets to be overwhelming – the corporate armies can’t withstand the onslaught of the mutants, whose arms have become deadly bone-blades. Major Mitch Hunter’s (Jane) unit barely survives – they wouldn’t have without the sacrifice of Mitch’s friend and mentor Nathan Rooker (Pertwee). The decision by the Earth’s erstwhile political leader Constantine (Malkovich) is to evacuate as much of the remaining people on Earth off-world to Mars. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough transports to evacuate everyone on time and massive panic erupts, with the accompanying studies in humanity’s baser emotions.

However, Brother Samuel (Perlman), one of the last remaining members of the Order that has guarded the Chronicles for so long, has a plan. He will lead a team into the Machine itself and plant there a weapon left behind that the Chronicle says will end the threat of the Mutants and the Machine forever.

An elite team of commandos from all four corporations are assembled, led by Major Hunter. His team includes the arrogant, elitist Lt. von Steiner (Furmann), the silent but deadly swordsman Severian (Walton), the easy-going Cpl. De Barrera (Echegaray) and the beautiful Cpl. Duval (Aoki). Together with Brother Samuel they journey to the location of the Machine, but quickly discover that even the skies aren’t safe from the rapidly evolving mutants. Can these few stand against the vast hordes of Mutants taking over our planet?

Hunter has crafted a visually arresting movie. There’s an excess of carnage – the Mutants kill with bladed arms, slicing and dicing a swath through the film’s endless supply of extras. The look has been described as “World War I meets Steampunk” and that’s quite accurate. It begs a few questions – how does a civilization that has the capability of off-world colonies rely so heavily on steam-powered vehicles that have gauges and valves instead of digital readouts and computers. And of course, the usual Hollywood bugaboo – if there is an ancient weapon capable of destroying the unbeatable foe, why wasn’t it used the first time out?

The cast is pretty impressive for an independent action movie. Perlman plays a character more akin to the Beast than to Hellboy (remember his work on the TV series “Beauty and the Beast”?). Jane, who has starred in such movies as Punisher and The Mist, is one of those actors who don’t seem to get the respect he deserves. His heroic Hunter tosses off one-liners that would do Schwarzenegger proud, and has the charisma to be a leading action star. Malkovich, who is only in a couple of scenes here, is typical Malkovich for his role. Aoki is, like Jane, an incomprehensibly underrated actress who doesn’t get the attention she should be getting.

The real star here however is production designer Caroline Greville-Morris. Her task was to create a society that is crumbling, advanced and yet without the resources to sustain it. Something tells me that she was given the directive to make it look deliberately like First World War trench warfare in the initial battle scenes, and it does, down to the uniforms of the corporate soldiers.

There is some CGI here, but it isn’t the centerpiece of the movie, which is amazing considering the subject matter. The mutants make excellent monsters, and their relentless, unremorseful bloodlust and rage are completely credible. I’m not that familiar with the pen-and-paper RPG that this is based on, but I’m assured it’s fairly faithful to the storyline of the game.

I didn’t expect to like The Mutant Chronicles as much as I did. This movie has been around since last year (it’s already seen release in Europe for nearly a year) but the producers have had difficulty securing an American distributor. Normally that sets off alarm bells in this critic’s brain. After finally cutting a deal with Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Releasing, Cuban made the odd decision to air the movie first on his HDNet cable channel before its theatrical release (which unfortunately has been limited to New York and Los Angeles). That’s a shame, because despite all its logical flaws, it is a highly entertaining sci-fi war film. I’d characterize it as The Dirty Dozen if written by John Carpenter and directed by George Romero. That’s pretty high praise in my book. In any case, if you get an opportunity to see it in a theater, or on HDNet, or eventually on DVD/Blu-Ray, by all means do so – you won’t regret it.

WHY RENT THIS: The WWI meets Steampunk production design is visually arresting. Fine performances by the leads, particularly the underrated Jane, are unexpectedly welcome. Truly menacing villains and some excellent battle sequences make this an exciting sci-fi war film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The story has some severe logical flaws that at times take you out of the movie’s world. The carnage can get brain-numbing after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of carnage and foul language. The mutants are so unnerving that they’ll give younger viewers nightmares for weeks. Okay for older or more mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Mutant Chronicles began life as a pen-and-paper role-playing game developed in Sweden.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: An HD-Net making-of documentary, footage of the movie’s Comic-Con panel and a seven-minute teaser made by director Hunter to generate buzz and illustrate to his cast and crew what kind of mood he was looking for.


TOMORROW: The Wrestler