Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Chicks Who Love Guns: Sucker Punch (2011) Review

Seeing hot young scantily-clad girls fighting in frantic action sequences all strung together in a brooding esoteric plot, would have totally popped my cork when I was a teenager. Now, however, copping an eyeful of Emily Browning brandishing big weapons and strutting around in a micro skirt, heels and thigh-high tights, with no legitimate context, just makes me feel like a dirty old man.

After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) and her sister are left in the care of their abusive stepdad. When Stepdad tries to assault Sister, Baby Doll grabs a gun and attempts to put a bullet in him, but accidently kills her sister instead. Doh!

At least, I think that's what happened in the Sucker Punch prelude. It's shot entirely in slow-mo with an overwrought cover version of the Eurhythmics' classic Sweet Dreams playing over the whole thing, so what transpires during the shooting scene isn't 100% clear. In fact, this prelude had me quickly double checking the DVD cover to make sure I had hired Sucker Punch and not the latest MTV compilation.

Whatever happened in the music video prelude, Baby Doll is promptly carted off to an insane asylum (presumably convicted of her sister's death) where, on arrival, Stepdad bribes an attending physician to have her lobotomised before the end of the week (presumably to stop her revealing his abuses). Shortly after Baby Doll's admission, the asylum somehow turns into a sleazy cabaret night club. The transition is jarring and writer/director Zack Snyder gives no clue, visual or otherwise, as to why it happens. Ultimately, we have to assume that what we are seeing is Baby Doll's fantasy version of her bleak reality, but Snyder just forges ahead unconcerned whether his audience has any idea what the hell he is doing.

Within this fantasy, one of the hospitals' psychiatrists (Carla Gugino) is now a dance instructor who urges Baby Doll to join the ensemble of other "dancers" (in reality they are the other asylum patients). When forced by the dance instructor to shake her groove thing, Baby Doll is somehow transported to yet another fantasy world. Here, she is given a quick mission briefing by some mysterious "wise" old stranger (Scott Glen) before being set upon on by all manner of weird and wonderful monsters. It's at this point that Sucker Punch starts to feel more like a video game than MTV (sorry, I mean, movie), as Baby Doll kicks ass, Scott Pilgrim style, in this fantasy world within a fantasy world.

Once her battle concludes she emerges back at the night club, where everyone present is rapturously applauding her dance routine. We never get to see her dance, because this has happened in the level 1 fantasy world, while we were witnessing the level 2 fantasy world kick-assery. You follow? It's a bit like Inception, without the coherence or purpose.

After her first dance she hatches a plan to escape the asylum, before she is lobotomised, that involves performing three more dances and dragging her fellow patient/dancer friends along for three more fantasy-world-within-a-fantasy-world kick-ass missions. Oddly, none of the missions seem even remotely related to one another, with all the locations and antagonists being completely different each time. The other girls reluctantly agree to help Baby Doll, but once they enter the fantasy world they too dress and fight like they have just escaped a teenage boy's wet dream.

"Do you two have this problem? Everytime I roundhouse, this stupid outfit rides up my ass and pinches my tits!"

Like Snyder’s previous movies (300 and Watchmen) Sucker Punch is visually sumptuous. There probably isn't a frame that isn't somehow computer generated or manipulated, but Snyder uses technology as a means to end, creating truly gorgeous visual imagery. Say whatever else you want about Snyder (and I will very shortly), but you have to acknowledge he's an impressive visual artist.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that Snyder is a pretty lousy story teller. In fact, he doesn't even really have a story here to tell. He uses a depressingly awful predicament (Baby Doll's abuse and incarceration) as a framework to indulge in pure male fantasy. If you don't think about what you are watching and why it's happening I guess you can get lost in the visuals on offer. But, as soon as you start to think about the fact that Snyder is trying to exhilarate us with a fantasy supposedly conceived by a tortured young woman as escapism from a truly horrific reality; it just feels like all kinds of wrong.

I mean, it's really a double edged sword. If you care about the characters you can't genuinely be enthralled by their escapist adventures, knowing what's happening to them in the real world. If you forget the real world, the escapist adventures all seem a bit hollow because the characters no longer have any grounding in reality, and no real purpose in their missions.

Each time the ensemble of barely dressed hot young women started brandishing powerful firearms in their latest arbitrary videogame-esque fantasy mission, I was reminded of that Chicks Who Love Guns video Ordell (Samuel L Jackson) watches in Jackie Brown. Ultimately, such misogynistic fantasy just doesn't fit with the tale of an abused young woman left to rot in an asylum, which makes Sucker Punch a strangely unsatisfying experience despite is undeniably impressive visual flair.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Green Amber Read: Spiral (2007) Reveiw

Spiral begins with our main man, Mason (Joel David Moore), in a disorienting scene of psychosis. It’s late at night and Mason is having some sort of panic attack. He’s hyperventilating and generally acting like his world is about to end (kinda like when I run out of beer). The light spilling from the bathroom door jamb seems to be the source of his disquiet, but there’s obviously more to it than simply being shocked by the cost of energy-saving light bulbs.

Mason telephones his friend Berkeley (Zachary Levi) who calmly talks him into taking a hit of Ventolin and dragging his neurotic ass back to bed. Berkeley’s weary demeanour gives you the impression that this isn’t the first time he’s had to deal with one of Mason’s intense late night anxiety attacks.

In the calm light of the following day Mason goes to work at an insurance company where he disinterestingly sells insurance over the phone. He goes to every effort to avoid any and all human contact on the way to his neat sterile office cubicle. He can’t, however, avoid Berkeley who, it turns out, is also his boss. Berkely berates him for being late, but it seems like the dressing down is more for the benefit of other employees. He needs to be seen to be disciplining Mason. You get the distinct impression, from these early encounters, that Berkeley has assumed the role of a pseudo guardian for the barely functional Mason.

Before too long, Mason is befriended by a new hire at the insurance company, Amber (Amber Tamblyn). Over lunch one day, she notices the sketches of a beautiful woman that Mason has in his spiral sketch book and starts inquiring about his art and the woman featured in it. Mason is not forthcoming with details, which seems to pique Amber’s interest even further. Through sheer persistence Amber forges a friendship, of sorts, with Mason and eventually starts modelling for him in a new series of sketches and paintings.

"Perhaps if I act like a complete weirdo no one will notice me."

Spiral is a slow burn psychological thriller that rewards the patient viewer. I guess it’s not difficult to guess how the movie might end, as there’s really only two or three ways it can play out, but I was never really certain about which way it was going to go. Even if you are certain you have the movie’s conclusion pegged, I’d suggest that the journey there is still pretty intriguing, and often suspenseful. It plays like a more thrilling version of He Was A Quiet Man.

Unlike Hatchet and Frozen, Adam Green is working from someone else’s script here. It’s less talky and humorous than his own screenplays but Green, the director, shows he is perfectly capable of turning the leaner script into an involving movie. He has no trouble making the dialogue-free scenes compelling viewing.

The performances are all pretty good, but the movie really rests on Joel David Moore’s shoulders. He co-wrote the script, co-produced the movie and plays the lead of Mason. He’s reasonably solid most of the time but occasionally I thought he overplayed Mason’s sullen but nervous routine. Maybe it was just because he was on screen so much, but at times it felt like I was watching an actor playing an anxious basket case rather than an actual anxious basket case.

The other minor niggle I had was with a really jarring exchange between Mason and Amber where I felt like I was suddenly listening to the screenwriter talking, not the characters. In a conversation where Amber is telling Mason about her dislike of the insurance company job, she rather oddly says she’d rather be a “feminist or a ninja”. It’s a truly bizarre line and Tamblyn, not surprisingly, struggles to deliver it with conviction. Mason then asks Amber what it is that feminists do (an equally odd response, that’s clearly a contrived set up for Amber’s punch line). Amber responds by saying that feminists just bitch and complain about stuff. Good grief. It’s not funny, it’s completely out of character, and you can’t help but think you’re listening to the film-maker’s “voice” instead of that of the character. Granted, it’s a fairly minor misdemeanour in an otherwise accomplished movie, but Green and Moore need to get out of the habit of using their characters as personal mouth pieces.

With Sprial, Adam Green continues to demonstrate his ability to create interesting genre pictures with limited resources, and also shows that he’s no one trick pony. Hatchet, Spiral and Frozen are all quite different movies, but the one thing that they have in common is that they’re all quite good.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Turdsday Movie Review: The Tripper (2006)

Sometimes you reach a point when viewing filmed entertainment made by, or featuring, a particular individual that you find yourself wondering why it is exactly that this individual is gainfully employed in the industry. I rented The Tripper because it was written and directed by David Arquette. It wasn't until afterwards that I thought, "hang on, why did I do that?"

The Tripper feels like it's the product of jotting down a whole bunch of ideas, sticking them in a blender and filming what comes out. I'm speaking metaphorically, of course, because if you did that literally you'd just end up with grey sludge which, in fairness, would be less interesting than The Tripper. But only just.

The Tripper starts with a contrived prelude, set sometime during Ronald Regan's presidency, featuring a stand-off between a hardworking, struggling logger just trying to do his job (of chopping down trees) and a belligerent arrogant hippy standing in the way of the logging trucks. The poor old logger pleads with the hippy that his wife is dying of cancer and desperately needs medical attention that he can only afford if he's allowed to get his logging done. The heartless hippy doesn't give a shit and soon finds himself on the wrong end of a chainsaw when the logger's young son snaps and attacks him.

The film then skips ahead to the present day... and... well... I'm not sure where to start in terms of giving you a concise plot synopsis that adequately describes all the random crap that transpires during The Tripper.

I guess the basic story is this: a music festival, held in the forest, is terrorised by a madman with an axe wearing a Ronald Regan mask.

The Tripper crew quietly ponder who put the clown in the red hat in charge.

That, of course, only scratches the surface of what transpires. There are the potty-mouthed escapades of a principle group of stoner protagonists at the festival. There's a group of local rednecks (including Arquette in a minor role) who terrorise the festival goers. There's the clichéd Mayor who insists the festival must go ahead even when things start to turn pear shaped. There's the under-resourced local law enforcement trying to keep a lid on things. There's the desperate promoter, trying to smooth things over. There's full-on musical numbers. There are nudists strolling here and there. There's a complicated romance between two of the main stoner kids. There's a pathological ex-boyfriend sent to complicate the already, aforementioned, complicated romance. And then... there's the logger's son... all grown up, sporting a Ronald Regan mask, and randomly wielding an axe amongst it all. And I do mean randomly.

Add to all this madness and mayhem some seriously confused political sub-text and The Tripper is a complete mess. It doesn't work as a horror movie because it's never scary or suspenseful, and if Arquette was hoping to make some sort of political point his message comes across as being incredibly muddled (think Sarah Palin at her I-don't-know-the-difference-between-North-and-South-Korea worst). The basic idea sounds like it should be a hoot, but it's such an undisciplined scatter-brained effort, full of clichés and half-baked ideas, it's actually a bit of a bore.

I'm now at a bit of a loss to explain why I ever thought that a film "written and directed by David Arquette" would necessarily be a good thing. Notwithstanding Arquette's outstanding, academy award worthy, performance as Deputy Dewey in the Scream films (ahem), I'm just not sure exactly why Arquette has the profile he has, or how he got finance to write and direct The Tripper.

Despite a few promising elements in The Tripper, Arquette fails to convert them into a cohesive horror and/or comedy movie, and his performance as one of the rednecks is a pretty awful cherry on top of his grey sludge cake.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Seul à la Maison: Inside (2007) Review

In most modern French horror cinema you can count on two things:
1) nut-tearingly extreme violence.
2) a genre-bending narrative u-turn somewhere throughout the movie.

Bucking this trend is Inside, which delivers the requisite everyone's-wearing-their-guts-on-the-outside violence but rather subversively doesn't suddenly become a completely different movie halfway through proceedings. It starts as a home invasion movie and, rather refreshingly (for a French horror film), finishes as one.

A pregnant Sarah (Alysson Paradis) and her unborn baby survive a car accident that claims the life of her husband. Not surprisingly, this puts her in a pretty depressed state of mind. During the last four months of her pregnancy she distances herself physically and emotionally from the family and friends who try to support her through the difficult time. So much so that, with her pregnancy just about full term, she finds herself home alone on Christmas Eve.

But this ain’t no Home Alone...

The peace and quiet Sarah is "enjoying" is rudely interrupted by a stranger at her door. Sarah wisely doesn't open the door to the stranger who claims to have broken down and needs access to her phone. She is polite but refuses the stranger entry into her house. The stranger is polite but ominously insistent that she come in and use the phone. The stand-off becomes increasing tense before the stranger reveals knowledge of Sarah that suggests she is no stranger at all.

What ensues is a gripping, intense, home invasion movie with all the disturbingly violent trimmings we've come to expect from French horror.

"Santa?... Santa, is that you?"

As an aside, if Inside ever gets remade in the US (actually scratch that... when Inside gets remade in the US) I'd love to see Macaulay Culkin in a protagonist role getting brutally slain.

With the possible exception of one brief moment shortly before the film's conclusion that I had trouble making sense of, everything else is played pretty straight. It's a good old fashioned horror narrative told with plenty of good new fashioned violence. It's suspenseful and gruesome in equal measure. The ending is unsurprising, but still quite disturbing, which is exactly how this sort of thing should conclude.