Saturday, April 23, 2011

"Dogtooth" is weird and disturbing and yet you've seen nothing like it

Dogtooth (2009)
94 min., not rated.
Grade: B

A very strange, disturbing, and provocative curio from Greece like "Dogtooth" could go either way: it's either unwatchable or strikingly interesting. It's the latter. And yet it's still not an easy film to recommend with loving embrace. 

In "Dogtooth," a family isolates itself in their country estate, as only the father (Christos Stergioglou) can leave the property to work at his factory job. The three teenagers are shielded from the world but given free reign to the sizable grounds with a yard and swimming pool. The brother (Hristos Passalis) and two sisters (Aggeliki Papoulia and Mary Tsoni) play endurance tests for fun, talk in their own language, and listen to a daily tape that teaches them new words for things. (A salt shaker is a "phone" and a big light is a "pussy," just to name a few.) A high fence keeps them in their compound away from the man-eating cats, as their father tells them. Father teaches his children to get on all fours and bark like dogs to protect themselves, and they can leave when their first dogtooth falls out. The only telephone in the house is locked away in the parents' bedroom and VHS tapes that aren't family videos are evil. 

Also, when a Frank Sinatra record plays, they're told it's their grandpa. If that's too normal and harmless for you, the father brings over a blindfolded security guard from his work to have sex with his son. Eventually, that woman starts giving the eldest daughter presents to lick her "keyboard." And you thought your family was weird? Are these parents experimental home-schoolers or cruel, brainwashing prison guards? Like an askew family portrait of deranged parents and children who don't know any better, all you can ask yourself is what will happen next. What the eldest sister does with a dumbbell will make you gasp and wince all at once. 

Filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos uses his camera very effectively and in the most still, voyeuristic fashion for observation and quick but brutal shocks. The performances are deadpan and the pacing deliberate. Only does Lanthimos not clearly lay out his point (Is it an allegory? Or a sick-joke black comedy? Who knows?) and is just as weird-for-weird's-sake as Lars von Trier but less self-congratulatory. "Dogtooth" is so daring and daringly open-ended that, much like a car accident, it's hard to look away from a single carnal/violent frame. Like it or not, there's still nothing else quite like it. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Not even Anna Faris can brighten unfunny "Smiley Face"

Smiley Face (2007) 
88 min., rated R.
Grade: C -

Anna Faris gets her first vehicle in the loopy, rolling-paper-thin stoner comedy, "Smiley Face," indie filmmaker Gregg Araki's "straightest" feature to date. In what's basically a 5-minute sketch padded to feature length, we follow the random, ridiculous misadventures of Jane (Anna Faris), an ambition-free L.A. loser with a fondness for smoking marijuana who goes on to have a busy day ahead of her. That morning, after mistakenly eating her roommate's pot-laced cupcakes, Jane rushes to an acting audition, has to pay her electric bill, and pay off her dealer. Along the way, she finds herself running from the cops...and going to a sausage factory with a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” and passing herself off as a union worker (don't ask). As Roscoe Lee Browne's voice-over says, Jane goes from A to Z. 

"Smiley Face" is a total lark, sure, but any way you slice it, it ain't funny. It's just limp and might get you laughing if you're baked (but it's not encouraged). The giggly Faris is a game, daftly inventive comedian and keeps the silly material going. She brightens a few moments (i.e. her senseless monologue about liking lasagna like Garfield), but you won't really care if Jane succeeds or not, and it all depends on your easily amused tolerance for pothead slapstick. 

TV's “That '70s Show” co-star Danny Masterson is ideally cast as Jane's creepy sci-fi geek roommate. The rest of the highly capable cast is left up the stream without a paddle: Adam Brody has less to do than sport dreadlocks and tattoos as Faris' dealer, John Krasinski isn't given much to do likewise, and everyone else is just there, including Jane Lynch, Marion Ross, Danny Trejo, and John Cho. 

Araki's colorful visual touches and Faris's space-cadet act should put a smile on your face here and there, but "Smiley Face" goes up in a puff of smoke. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

"Your Highness" doomed by lame jokes

Your Highness (2011)
102 min., rated R.
Grade: D +

In a nutshell, "Your Highness" is "The Princess Bride" with penis jokes. Never amusing as you want it to be, this medieval stoner-comedy feels like the work of 15-year-old boys, old enough to see an R-rated goof like this and immature enough to find four-letter-words hilarious. And like so, it feels like a big-budgeted excuse to have director David Gordon Green ("Pineapple Express") and his college buds (co-writers Danny McBride and Ben Best) throw around a lot of sexual innuendos and naughty words that aren't used cleverly in the least. Speaking of Green, his "Pineapple Express" had to be viewed high to make it funnier than it really was, so maybe the same goes "Your Highness" (pun intended with this title). 

Milking laughs where there are none, Danny McBride plays Prince Thadeous, the bumbling slacker brother of noble hero Fabious (James Franco). When Fabious's bride-to-be Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel with cleavage) is taken by an evil wizard (a goofily over-the-top Justin Theroux), Thadeous must prove himself in the rescue quest. Despite a few perversely outlandish touches that only a pot-brownie-induced filmmaker might brew up (courtsey of the horny, fey Great Wize Wizard), what could've been a bawdy (and potentially funny) lark is just a lowbrow mess of a lame, lazy script and missed opportunities. The fantasy effects are of the cheesy "Dungeons & Dragons" sort and there's bloody swordplay to be had, but it's the witlessly crude humor and flat punchlines that doom "Your Highness." 

At least Natalie Portman shows up, playing it straight as tough, hot-chick warrior Isabel, and sports some class even if one wonders what the hell she's doing here. (Take note users: you get to ogle Ms. Portman in a thong. We won't even mention actor Toby Jones' nude scene.) But if you really must see overqualified Oscar big shots like nominee Franco and winner Portman "just having fun" (a.k.a. doing it for the paycheck), wait four months, buy a case of beer with some friends, and rent it. Talk about a party foul.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Nothing "Super" about this smug Taxi Driver wannabe

Super (2011) 
96 min., rated R.
Grade: D

Writer-director James Gunn must've intended "Super" to be a geeky, subversive goof, but his follow-up to "Slither," a deliciously disgusting slimeball of fun, is a smug and off-putting black comedy. Rainn Wilson plays Frank, a sadsack diner line cook who loses his waitress wife Sarah (Liv Tyler), a recovering addict, when she begins using and abusing again. She's fallen into the arms of a weaselly drug dealer named Jacques (Kevin Bacon). So, pushed by the hand of God and a Christian superhero show, Frank reinvents himself as a masked crusader, The Crimson Bolt, complete with a self-made red costume and mask but no secret powers. His secret weapon? A wrench…that he uses to bash in people's heads to a bloody pulp that, you know, butt in line at the movie theater, or sell drugs, or molest kids. 

Wilson almost makes Frank's misery sympathetic, but he's really just a pathetic loser with a screw loose that turns him into an insane psychotic even if he thinks he's a do-gooder. It's especially hard to root for him, considering Frank is such a grating doofus and Sarah seems hardly worth saving. Ellen Page, bless her, jumps into the film to let it all hang out in a gonzo performance. With her dependable comic energy, the whip-smart "Juno" star plays Frank's kid sidekick Libby, a 22-year-old comic book store clerk with a nympho side, who ends up calling herself (tuh duh!) Bolty. But we never understand where Libby comes from or why she acts the way she does. However, Nathan Fillion and director Gunn score a few laughs as the Holy Avenger and the tongue-waggling Demonswill on the religious programming. 

An oddball, anarchic edge can always be appreciated, but this indie-hipster sibling to "Kick-Ass" has such a contempt for its characters and audience. Just because "Super" wants to be so weird and offbeat doesn't mean its tone has to be wildly all over the place, sliding from deadpan to broad comedy to extreme violence, or that a low-budget film has to be ugly to look at. Usually in superhero movies, no one can tell the man from the superman, but not here. Maybe that's one of the jokes inside this bleak, off-the-wall dud, but it's hard to tell what's funny about it or what the point of it all is. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bloody, meta "Scream 4" worth the wait

Scream 4 (2011)
111 min., rated R.

Back in 1996, when VHS was still "in" (which in Hollywood or Best Buy years feels like a century), "Scream" was a game-changer that had its finger on the pulse of horror movies. The sleeper hit playfully deconstructed the slasher genre, along with its successful sequels that poked fun at sequels and trilogies. So now, eleven years after the last stab-a-thon and four spoofy "Scary Movies" later, "Scream 4" goes back to the original teaming of director Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson to tackle remakes. And like sharpening an old knife, they give us a deathlessly entertaining and knowingly smart reboot, or a "screammake" if you will, that's even more of a definitive and post-modern "shriekquel" than 2 or 3. What a difference a decade can make. Despite press claims of shooting before the script was finished and reported reshoots, "Scream 4" will exceed the expectations of fans as a revitalization ("New decade, new rules.") of the slasher genre and these self-aware horror movies themselves. Not to get too "meta" on you, but "Scream 4" is a scream times four. 

Off the top, as that Dimension Film logo comes up and the white landline phone rings (who has landlines anymore?), you won't be able to wipe the big smile off your face. In comes the shrewdly twisty, hilarious, brutally bloody movie-within-a-movie opener with cameos from Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell, among other starry cuties, who complain about the based-on-"Scream" Stab movies ("Sequels don't know when to stop"…"Stick a fork in 1996 already!"…"there's no element of surprise"). Not since Drew Barrymore got gutted in the original's iconic set piece, Craven and Williamson have outdone themselves in terms of a high body count and inventiveness inside this triple-whammy surprise in all of 10 minutes. 

When the story proper begins, it's the 15th anniversary of the original massacre and Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell), no longer a victim, returns to her hometown of Woodsboro (now filmed in Michigan) on a book tour, promoting her cathartic survivor memoir. Still in town are Dewey Riley (David Arquette), now the sheriff, and his wife, Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox), who's now retired from journalism and turned to fiction writing but going stir-crazy, until the latest murders bring out her opportunist side again. Two bloody murders and ring-ring calls later, Sid must stay in town for the investigation with estranged cousin Jill Roberts (as in Emma Roberts, who gives a star-making performance) and Aunt Kate (Mary McDonnell). On cue, Ghostface is only a phone call away to carve up Sid, Dewey, Gale, and the group of newbies. What Dewey says is true: "One generation's tragedy is the next one's joke." The new iPhone-generation kids on the chopping block are even savvier and snarkier movie buffs than the ones from the '90s. Hayden Panettiere plays Jill's bestie Kirby, a badass babe with a Brigitte Nielsen haircut and a pointy chest who knows her movie trivia and can even list off all the horror remakes when her life is on the line; Marielle Jaffe is Jill's next-door neighbor; Nico Tortorella is the Billy Loomis-esque ex-boyfriend; and Erik Knudsen and Rory Culkin are the funny, know-it-all hosts of their high school's cinema club who break down the new rules for survivial in a horror movie. 

Rounding out the cast with comic relief are Marley Shelton as clingy Deputy Judy Hicks, pining after Dewey; Alison Brie as Sidney's heartless publicist who, naturally, will get what's coming to her; and Anthony Anderson and Adam Brody as those inept cops who wouldn't die if they were Bruce Willis. Red herrings abound, or as Jamie Kennedy's Randy once said, "everybody's a suspect!" Principal cast members Campbell, Arquette, and Cox return like old friends at a reunion, building upon the roles they created 15 years ago. (Arquette and Cox's characters mirror the ex-couple's real-life marital problems; they fell in love on the set of the first "Scream.") 

Craven and Williamson know what they're doing: the stalking suspenseful, the slashing-and-gashing very bloody, the pacing tight and efficient, and the writing cleverly smart as ever, with the whodunit twist a doozy, surprising as it is twisted and sick. Not only is anyone in the cast not safe, name-checking includes "Top Chef," the "Saw" movies, "Shaun of the Dead," Robert Rodriguez, but the fad of 3-D technology is surprisingly left out of the mix. Even before you think it can't any more self-referential or end soon enough, one character cutely says "this is just silly" and calls the climax-on-top-of-climax "an alternate ending." With commentary riffs on fame, technology, dreaded remakes, torture-porn, and itself, "Scream 4" is proof that the series has enough meta humor and startling jolts left in its arsenal for a fifth. Isn't that what you kids dig in your favorite scary movies? 

Grade: A - 

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"Hobo with a Shotgun" not much fun

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011)
86 min., not rated.
Grade: C -

We probably could've done without "Hobo with a Shotgun," considering it's the expansion of a fake trailer for a grimy, scratchy exploitation B-movie and not a very good one. This down-and-dirty homage is gratuitous, sleazy, and ridiculously bloody, just as it should be, in keeping with the grindhouse model of trash cinema. But Canadian director-editor Jason Eisener and screenwriter John Davies, who made their winning trailer in a 2007 contest for Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's "Grindhouse," would probably take it as a compliment to say their obnoxious brainchild is a Troma imitation. Getting right down to it with its straightforward title, "Hobo with a Shotgun" is nothing more than an amusing premise. It's basically "Taxi Driver" with balls-to-the-wall ultraviolence and untamed gore.

Cult figure Rutger Hauer plays it completely straight and to the hilt as a craggy-faced, rail-riding homeless man that goes vigilante. And who wouldn't? His ironically named Hope Town is crime-ridden, scum-populated, and apocalyptic with punks, psychopaths, snuff filmmakers, a pedophillic Santa Claus, and the like. So, wanting more than ever to have $49.99 to buy a new lawnmower, he steals a shotgun instead and delivers justice one shell at a time. Also, the hobo with a shotgun protects a prostitute with a heart of gold named Abby, played by newcomer Molly Dunsworth who sure can scream. 

With ambitions to be the be-all, end-all of grindhouse movies, "Hobo with a Shotgun" forgets to be any fun. It's a grim and bleak killjoy, and there is a lot of repetitive nihilism, debauchery, and agony on display, but none of it done with wit or a wink. For instance, leaving a sour taste in the mouth are scenes in which a school bus of children is roasted with a flamethrower and a sewer drain beheading ending with a half-naked girl getting a blood-geyser shower. And the overacting is broadly outsized and gung-ho, especially Brian Downey's foaming-at-the-mouth turn as The Drake, a crime empire sleazeball, and his psycho sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman, doing a Seann William Scott impression). Shot in vividly oversaturated Technicolor, each scene has a garish, kaleidoscopic filter where the flesh tones are orange and the blood redder than red. The filmmakers recall the Rob Zombie school of filmmaking, throwing enough mud at the wall in hopes that some of it will stick, whereas it could've used the same gleeful cleverness as Tarantino's "Death Proof," and both Rodriguez's "Planet Terror" and "Machete." In fact, watch those instead. 

"Insidious" delivers the scary goods

Insidious (2011)
102 min., rated PG-13

Advertised as being "from the creators of 'Saw'" promises a gory slab of torture porn, but "Insidious," a shivery, old-fashioned haunted-house horror movie, is classier than that. Director James Wan (2007's "Death Sentence") and writer/actor Leigh Whannell (2004's "Saw" and 2007's "Dead Silence") spook their audience rather than splattering them, producing a funhouse where it's actually fun to be scared. As the title card comes up in big, blood-red letters, jolted by booming orchestral strings, you know things are about to go bump in the night with a bang. 

A likable couple, Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson), have just settled into a spacious Craftsman house with their two young sons and baby daughter. Once the one son, Dalton (Ty Simpkins), falls off a ladder in the dark attic after he hears a sound, he falls into a coma that doctors can't explain. He's basically asleep but cannot be woken up. Renai starts experiencing disturbances in the house, such as raspy voices on the baby monitor, seeing spooky faces and figures in bedrooms, and their alarm system going off in the middle of the night. But this couple has an uncommon common sense for a horror-movie couple: they actually move. Just when you ask "Who they gonna call?" Josh's mother (Barbara Hershey) luckily has the number for a medium named Elise (the under-appreciated Lin Shaye). Without being a spoiler, Elise agrees to help them, first telling Renai and Josh that it's not their house that was haunted but their son. 

Although a succubus to "Poltergeist," "The Shining," and "Paranormal Activity," "Insidious" is a scary, creepy, fun machine, even if you watch it through your fingers. Wan has a way with using silence and a slow-burn build-up for mood and tension until he's ready to goose us. And when he does, the jump scares are noisy but work like gangbusters and are never telegraphed by a beat, like waiting for a cat to jump out for a cheap "gotcha" or an "arm on the shoulder" false alarm. The scares will have you jumping out of your skin. It also helps that Byrne and Wilson, both good actors, register as a real couple. When Shaye does show up, she has kooky fun with the Zelda Rubinstein role, as do Whannel himself and Angus Sampson as a pair of comic-relief ghostbusters dressed as Mormons who always one-up one another. The visual style is cold and desaturated, and the music score by Joseph Bishara (who plays the "Lipstick-Faced Demon") may be screechy but it's also classic Gothic horror. 

Even if the mythology feels a bit half-baked, throwing astral projection and a dark dimension called The Further into the mix, the climactic sequence is visionary and reminiscent of a dark, fog-shrouded nightmare that might exist in Wes Craven's original "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and at one point Ridley Scott's "Legend." And the filmmakers' spastic, strobe-light editing from "Saw" doesn't come out until the big séance scene. Ultimately, the movie is stacked with some of the creepiest images seen in a long time, especially a Darth-Maul-looking demon standing in the shadowy corners of Dalton's bedroom, and Tiny Tim's caterwauling ukulele tune "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" on a record player is put to memorably weird and inspired use. "Insidious" will leave horror fans giddy and, like a theme park ride, you'll be holding your breath as a door opens and everything goes quiet. Keep your hands inside the tram car on this ride. 

Grade: B +

"Arthur" needless but a good deal of fun

Arthur (2011)
110 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B -

To find enjoyment in "Arthur," it depends on your tolerance for the remake business and Russell Brand's brand of humor. The world probably wasn't clamoring for a remake of the 1981 Dudley Moore-Liza Minnelli comedy—it holds up just fine, even today, but wasn't a classic to start. And the taller Brand has some pretty big duds (and the impish Moore's top hat) to fill as the pampered, happy-drunk playboy who's worth $950 million. You just have to go in with the right attitude, not expecting Brand to be the Moore of this generation. He's basically playing daft, saucy, British Russell Brand, but he makes this Arthur entertaining and frequently amusing. Taking over the Oscar-winning John Gielgud role, Helen Mirren classes it up in the gender flip as Hobson, his dryly sarcastic damage-control nanny, and pairing them together is pretty inspired. Arthur's negligent, bitchy mum (Geraldine James) threatens to cut him off from the money if he doesn't marry Susan (Jennifer Garner), a wealthy, domineering business woman who doesn't even love him and vice versa. 

Delightfully quirky mumblecore graduate Greta Gerwig gets placed into the Liza Minnelli role as kooky, unlicensed N.Y. tour guide Naomi who aspires to write children's books (quirky!). She's an infectiously cute ball of sunshine and approaches her character with naturalism and plausibility. Predictably, he loves Naomi, attempts at getting a job without swigging from his flask, and learns to clean up his sloshing act. After their quick meeting, Arthur and Naomi's romance at first feels rushed and forced, succeeded by an extravagant date in Grand Central Station over candle light with Pez dispensers. Then again, the two are sweetly appealing together. Before he gets too much overexposure, Brand may need an intervention soon, but for now, he puts his own spin on Arthur, bringing an endearing child-like quality to his libertine, wild-card shtick and delivering his hilarious lines on cue. He's more loud than Moore's droll, sad-and-lonely performance but still likable. And Mirren always keeps him on his feet (same goes for Evander Holyfield's in one scene) and stands as the mother figure. Garner has the rare opportunity to act unlikable in the thankless shrew part, but she has fun with it. As Arthur's chauffeur Bitterman, a wasted Luis Guzman has one funny sight gag dressed in his Robin suit (and Arthur as Batman), going on a just-for-kicks drive in their Batmobile. 

TV director Jason Winer ("Modern Family") indiscriminately uses a lot of close-ups and telephoto lense shots, but his snappy pacing and cast bail him out. Peter Baynham's script does a nice job of modernizing the material in terms of addiction and the economy, even if it's surprisingly sanitized without any hookers or a slurring, incoherent Arthur. A minor remake of a minor original, "Arthur" still has plenty of laughs, pretty consistently actually. 

"The Other Woman" flirts with too many emotional gaps

The Other Woman (2011)
119 min., rated R
Grade: C +

Natalie Portman has no time to breathe from working overtime this film season, and she again proves herself a versatile actress in The Other Woman, this drab melodrama adapted from Ayelet Waldman's 2006 novel "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits." 

She plays Emelia, a cold, prickly lawyer who dove into a homewrecking affair with her married boss, Jack (Scott Cohen). After he divorces his wife (Lisa Kudrow), Emelia and Jack marry. She's now grieving over the death of her own three-day-old baby girl and tries warming up to Jack's precocious, sensitive stepson, William (Charlie Tahan). 

Flashbacks reveal how Emelia and Jack's affair began, but there are gaps in writer-director Don Roos' screenplay that don't make emotional sense. 

It's hard to accept the relationship between Emelia and Jack. What do they see in one another? Jack is bland and Emelia is a cold fish who shows no guilt for ruining a marriage and family. Her friends (Anthony Rapp, Lauren Ambrose) don't think anything of it, and nor do her parents, one of whom has had an extramarital affair as well. 

Fortunately, revalatory and reconciliation scenes are played with sincere emotion by the fine actors. The Other Woman manages moments of truth here, a well-written scene or two there (conversations between Emelia and William are charming). 

Whether she's pirouetting into crazy madness (Black Swan) or banging Ashton Kutcher (No Strings Attached), Portman proves she can do emotional distance and still gradually reel in our empathy. Even Kudrow, her character short-tempered and for good reason, blows her scenes out of the water. 

But as for the film itself, Rabbit Hole handled similar issues more effectively. 

Fun to be had in "Sucker Punch" but a lot of sound and fury

Sucker Punch (2011)
110 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: C +

Expertly remaking "Dawn of the Dead," rewriting Spartan history with a lot of blood in "300," and bringing a graphic novel to life in "Watchmen," director Zack Snyder was onto great things, until co-writing his first original screenplay and the parts are far greater than the whole. His kick-ass, girl-power, women-in-prison fetish exercise, "Sucker Punch," is directed like an ersatz graphic novel/music video/video game/lingerie catalog. So props for all those slashes, Mr. Snyder. 

Indelibly kicking off the film is a bravura opening cued to "Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)," as the curtain opens through a rainy bedroom window to the harsh reality that belongs to Baby Doll (Aussie Lolita Emily Browning), a young waif in 1950s, Vermont. She endures the death of her mother, the murder of her younger sister, and the abuse of her evil stepfather, who locks her up in a Gothic mental institution to be lobotomized. But right before the whole prefrontal cortex procedure, she fantasizes the asylum as a brothel (as a coping mechanism, maybe?). She meets her bruised inmates with false eyelashes and fishnet stockings that dance for scuzzy men: rebellious Rocket (Jena Malone), her toughie sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), sweet Amber (Jamie Chung), and brunette Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). When Baby dances, she escapes into another fantasy world and meets her sensei, Wise Man (Scott Glenn, doing his best David Carradine), who informs her that she must acquire a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a mysterious fifth item in order to escape. So before being sold to a client named the High Roller, Baby lets her fellow scantily attired prisoners in on her plan for freedom. This means, while Baby "dirty dances," she imagines her and her comrades to be warriors in dreamscape battles against 10-foot samurai cyborgs, zombie German soldiers, and fire-breathing dragons, and steal the objects from the orderly and clients. 

Snyder's fanboy bait is largely a mishmash of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Brazil," "Showgirls," "Kill Bill," and Sailor Moon comics, but more to the point, it's "Alice and Babes with Guns and Swords in Wonderland." "Sucker Punch" has a nihilistic, comic-booky tone and kinky, anime-manga aesthetics, within the constraints of a PG-13 rating of course. You wouldn't mind witnessing Baby's "raw talent" of gyrating dance moves since everyone says, "Damn, that girl can dance," but nope, standing on stage in a corsette is the only titillation. The escape fantasy-within-a-fantasy structure is executed confusingly (more than say, you know, "Inception"?) and there's no consequence or context to any of the fantasyland action. And the "Call of Duty" quest sequences themselves are chaotic and repetitive in a steampunk atmosphere. It's like watching someone else play a video game: the super-girls leap around, dodge bullets, and jump from B-25 bombers to land perfectly on their feet like they're avatars. 

As a living-and-breathing movie, "Sucker Punch" is neither here nor there, a stylish piece of flash and eye-candy on the surface. But when the fantasy stretches play out, all the CGI enhancements are even more artificial and processed than the glossy but beautiful texture of "300." By the third video-game level, it looks as same-y as the previous one, and the proceedings become more dramatically emptyheaded. It doesn't help that everyone on screen is a one- or two-dimensional vessel and there's not a soul to care about. As Baby Doll, doll-faced Browning is all hypnotic eyes and pout, and dolled-up in pig tails, knee socks, and a naughty sailor get-up. Malone and Cornish work some depth with no real characters to play, while Hudgens and Chung were evidently chosen solely to fill the cherub-slut schoolgirl uniforms. Fun Polish accent and all, Carla Gugino vamps it up as Dr. Vera Gorski, the institute's psychiatrist, burlesque instructor, and a madam. Jon Hamm doubly plays the High Roller and the lobotomist, but there's no parallel or ironic humor to either. Snyder's aim is female empowerment by objectifiying women who get back at their male oppressors, while many critics have bashed it for being misogynistic. But come on, this is just a fanboy-gamer's wet dream that's rather misandric. Every man, with the exception of Glenn's Wise Man, is creepy and despicable, especially Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac), the girls' leering orderly/pimp. 

One thing Snyder does get right every time is the pulsing soundtrack, consisting of ethereal covers (The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" and The Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows"), some sung by Browning. Snyder does sucker you into actually having shameless fun with some of the stylized fantasia, but during those useless video-game scenes, just close your eyes and open your mind to a more imaginative, more coherent movie with less sound and fury. 

Goofy, sweet "Paul" phones home with a knowing script

Paul (2011) 
104 min., rated R.
Grade: B +

Witty Brits Simon Pegg and Nick Frost know how to write an affectionate tribute, just like their collaborations on "Shaun of the Dead" (the zombie genre) and "Hot Fuzz" (the cop genre), even if the extraterrestrial road-movie comedy "Paul" isn't really a full-on spoof like their previous work. It's amiably goofy, sweet, and funny. In other words, "Paul" is good fun, so let your geek flag fly. 

On a trip in their RV to San Diego's Comic-Con convention and across America to stop at the UFO hotspots, best buds Clive and Graeme (Nick Frost and Simon Pegg), a sci-fi comic book writer and his BFF illustrator of a three-boobed alien babe. Then these man-boy geeks—like a dream come true—have a close encounter with a little green guy in shorts and flip-flops named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen) who owes a thing or two to Spielberg's whole career and craves Reese's Pieces. Paul is trying to get back to his mothership, so Graeme and Clive decide to help him. Then they “kidnap” a Christian trailer-park worker, Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), and they all go on the lam from rednecks, Ruth's crazy father, a man in black (Jason Bateman), and two nimrod FBI agents (Bill Hader and Jo Lo Truglio). 

Assuming the role of director for Edgar Wright, Greg Mottola has an easy-going, shambling pace that gets faster as it goes along. Pegg and Frost's dry British humor is a comfortable match with Mottola's "Superbad"-ish bromance and all the meta sci-fi pop references cutely phone home to Star Trek, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E.T.," "Aliens," and The X-Files, but they never feel wedged in. And any jokes with curious mention to the "Capturing the Friedmans" doc and "Lorenzo's Oil" are fresh in our book. 

The CGI creation of Paul is seamlessly rendered, and Rogen conveys the slacker, jokey rudeness that he's come to engineer. A lovably dorky Wiig, as a cyclops-eyed, Christian fundamentalist shut-in from the world, makes her discovery of a wider world endearing and priceless, as she tries timing her cuss words. Blythe Danner also provides some warmth and surprising stoner humor as the farm woman whose dog Paul was crushed by a UFO when she was just a girl. Jane Lynch plays a daffy, gum-chewing waitress in one scene and the closing credits. And Sigourney Weaver has an amusing walk-on cameo as a government baddie known as The Big Guy, who knows a thing about aliens (wink wink). 

If some of the jokes go over your head like a flying saucer, you're either living under a rock or you're no movie fanboy—"Paul's" demographic—because even a Mars head like Paul is cultured.