Thursday, April 14, 2011

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. 

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