Monday, April 18, 2011

We Disagree: Suckerpunch

graig: Let me tell you about my friend David... my friend David has a great imagination. One of the things he does, which is quite wonderful in its own right, is he's able to see things in movies that aren't there. He's able to take the ideas or concepts presented in a film (no matter how well or poorly executed) and run with them in his own mind, extrapolating whole storylines, character facets, backstories, metaphors, and themes (amongst others), and he bizarrely credits these thoughts to the film and filmmaker instead of himself.

david: "bizarrely credits" ?? Buuurn. I like to think of it as being able to see the director's vision beyond all pitfalls and foibles of film making where producers and editing room floors change the direction of a movie. Sure, I admit, sometimes I do it to piece things together in my head but I don't think its pure imagination.

graig: I get it, as I have seen films before that I have liked because they allow my mind to take off, but those films set a foundation, they don't require the viewer to extrapolate, they are whole on their own. Movies that don't provide you enough character or story or backstory or whathaveyou to satisfy the filmgoing experience as a whole/complete film, quite frankly, are bad films.

Suckerpunch is such a film.

But David might disagree.

david: Full disclosure. Suckerpunch reached into the part of my brain that has been fed by anime, RPGs, comics, action films and deviantart. I knew I would like it and, by Thor, I even told my counterpart I would like it [it's true, he did - g-], damn all the critics who pointed out flaws. And I did, despite myself.

Do I have to say SPOILERS? Even though every post will be chock-full o'spoilers, there it is. Disclaimer.

graig: Of course there will be SPOILERS (with a capital POIL)! David, lead us through the film... let's start with that opening music video montage, which were it just a music video and not the drudging opening 4-5 minutes of this movie I wouldn't have had so much of a problem with.

david: Opening sequence. Music video. "Sweet Dreams" done by the star, Emily Browning.

graig: Huh, didn't know that.

david: I knew I would like the movie as I watched the vignette of our yet-unnamed main character watching her mother die and her step-dad get the gleam of unfettered access in his eye. The girls are now his. The mother’s money is now his.

graig: Really? That's how you saw it? To me it was more that the girls were in the way of his money, as it was their money. He didn't want them around and if he had to keep them around then he was going to use and abuse them to satisfy his rage. It's a hoary cliche that works fine for shorthand in a music video but it wasn't even necessary to start this film. In fact I think the film would have been better off without it... to start with Baby Doll entering the asylum and reveal the extremely simplistic backstory in a line or two of dialogue (which they pretty much do at the beginning and end of the film anyway). But continue...

david: In dark contrasted colours and Zack Snyder signature angles ("Is that a BIG button or a tiny camera on the floor???") he sets the path for our star. She attempts and fails to protect her little sister and may even have assisted in her death. Probably not, but it opens the door to interpretation and allows step-dad to send our traumatized star off to the gothic mansion insane asylum.

Inside, we get the bare bones of the coming plot.

graig: LOL, well, there's not much more to the plot than bare bones.

david: Grrrr. Shut-up you.

So, as I was saying, step-dad is selling her. For 2 grand he will have her lobotomized, leaving the money for him. Our star (and she still only the star, no name) is shown to "the theatre" where all the girls in this (all girls?) asylum gather and under-go experimental treatment focused on leaving pain behind by escaping into your own, better, reality. It sounds counterproductive to me, as a source of therapy, but it is the early 60s so insane girls are lucky they get anything at all.

graig: Here's one point I had difficulty determining exactly what era it was in. I didn't see any TVs about so it doesn't seem like the 60's, so 50's at latest, but I'm even more inclined to think post-war 40's. I'm not enough of a car guy to know whether the cars they used in the opening scenes were of a specific era or created in-computer to look non-specific. The soundtrack, with its anachronistic songs, doesn't help matters either. But I'll get to my problems there later. What's next?

david: Then we are sped along to our star's ultimate ending, strapped to a chair with a needle about to be tapped into her brain. It suddenly jumps to the girls of the .... brothel, on stage, acting out the lobotomy. We get a tongue-in-cheek comment about sexualizing the girls in the asylum for the sake of arousing the audience. Wry smile.

graig: Sped along? Hardly. The first 20 minutes of the film are conveyed almost entirely without dialogue, and in slow motion to boot. I realize that it's part of Snyder's trademark "style" but it's egregiously overused in the earliest scenes which should have been the key points in establishing Emily Browning's character, but we honestly get nothing out of her but pouty lips and dead stares. And before she lets out a single word, she's getting a spike in the eye.

david: Egregious. Ooo, nice word !

This is where it begins to get jarring for most people. We are not in the asylum, we are now in our star's first level of escapism -- the brothel. A failed first attempt to escape the asylum, if you ask me.

graig: And this is the moment the film lost me. It wasn't jarring, or confusing, it just immediately left me cold to the characters presented before me, because they weren't "real" in the landscape of the film. They're ultimately figments of this girl's imagination created shortly before her mind is taken from her.

david: I admit, even inside the assumption that these girls are "all in her head" we should be able to get more from them. It wouldn't be the first movie to say "it was all a dream" but still have us wrapped up completely in the characters. I think Snyder wanted us to second-guess whether this was an imagining of another reality or an actual an actual exposure to another no-less-real one. If she cannot have a life in this reality, then she will in the next one. I don't truly believe this was the case but Snyder may have wanted us to travel that way.

Now in this second layer of reality, this imagined reality we hear, "You have all the weapons you need," from Dr. / Madam Gorski. And "Baby Doll", as she's now named by Gorski, has escaped into a world where the asylum mates are now unwilling "dancers" in the “employ” of Blue, owner of this Moulin Rouge meets Jean-Pierre Jeunet brothel & dance hall. Its failure as escapism leads to another ultimate ending, where Baby Doll will be sold off to The High Roller. The only positive effect of escaping here is identifying the camaraderie of the girls and giving Baby Doll her name and her first weapon – her sexuality.

graig: Couple points about this, even though the film does comment about "sexualizing the girls to arouse the audience", that doesn't a) excuse it or b) really mean it's all that self-aware of it or c) any less exploitative. Ironically though, the film is remarkably chaste, with little to no provocative scenes or green screen sensuality present. If a girl in a mini-skirt and ponytails fighting giant stone warriors is all you need to get your rocks off, then that's your deal, but the focus of these scenes were almost solely on action rather than titillation. I'm still not certain if that's to the film's credit or detriment.

david: Yeah, I am with you on this one. The movie is very dry in its sexuality. Sure there are skimpy costumes and fishnets galore but the girls of the brothel are not inherently sexy, despite pouty lips and lingering looks. Perhaps it was a statement of carrying the sexiness across to when they were “empowered” in the third level but even if so, it’s weakly done. I think if you are going to toss in the idea of pandering to the audience of sexy girls with guns then you should go all the way and just embrace the sheer allure of these women. Alas, it was not to be found. The setup was about titillation – it should have done more than present it as an idea but actually done so.

P.S. A girl in a school uniform with thigh high fishnets is sexy. Add a sword and I am a puddle. Just sayin’.

But what was her weapon? Well, Baby Doll can dance in a manner that leaves the floor cheering or sweating uncomfortably. It begins with a sway and... well, that's all we get because it triggers the next level of escape, where the weapons she will use are literal and the journey she will take is the warrior's path, the hero quest. She even gets a spirit guide, in the form of Scott Glen's grizzled cliche spouting mentor. This third tier is the useful one, where the path to true escape is given to Baby Doll. Gather the artifacts of the hero quest and they will free her from the brothel. At this third tier Baby Doll knows she is in control and able to exert her will on her enemies. She is not trapped, she can defend herself. But only if she chooses to do so.

graig: God, so many things. First, Baby Doll's dance, which starts off as a Laura Palmer-esque sway (I'm certain it's a Twin Peaks homage), and yeah, that is it. Mercifully that is it. This film made innumerable miscalculations, but one of them was not not showing Baby Doll's dance. But even in a fantasy film it's an unbelievable contrivance. Her descent into a sub-scape (it's really a much less intelligent Inception with its tiers of dreamscape layers) presents her with the hero's quest to search out a quintet of items meant to give the character purpose, sort of, but popping into a fantasy is one thing, popping out of a fantasy only to be in another fantasy is actually kind of illogical, here at least. Fact is, the "hero's journey" is a BS one especially when we, the audience, know that it's all happening in a character's mind, and though one sub-level has sort of an effect on the previous level, there's really no effect the burlesque dreamscape can have in preventing the skewering of her brain.

david: A mystical journey, completely within the subconscious, is no less a Hero’s Journey, dude.

So, Baby Doll gives the other girls hope.

graig: Yeah, but all these girls are just figments of her imagination, so really does this mean anything? But I digress.

david: She tells them what the plan is and she presents the use of her swaying dance as a weapon against the men of the brothel -- the chef, the visiting mayor, the gangster thugs and ultimately Blue, the owner. And each time the swaying begins, we are thrown into a new version of the third tier...

graig: ... otherwise known as the movie's raison d'etre.

david: First, the anime winter scene where she gets her quest and her weapons from the mentor. Second, the war torn battle fields of Europe where soldiers fight steampunk zombie Nazis using mecha and machine guns. Third, the siege of a castle defended by Orcs and a dragon. And fourth, the speeding maglev train protected by glass androids. Four worlds with four artifacts to be claimed.

The movie really excels here. It is the geek fanservice. It is the part of my brain that was captured on screen. I loved it. From Baby Doll's first combat sequence that was literally the best live-action representation of anime I have seen to the incredibly precise combat maneuvers the girls did as they raided the undead nazi trenches. The music overlaid for familiar music video effect was just about spot-on, but I would have preferred fewer covers and more grinding modern music. And Bjork's "Army of Me"... still a favourite. The dragon defending the castle in the volcano looked like it climbed off the cover of one of my D&D books. Yeah yeah, too many slo-mo scenes but you always take the director's quirks as they are. The scenes were adrenalizing.

graig: I thought quite the opposite (although I do like your made up word). While I think the big epic action scenes were well constructed (to a point), they're emotionless endeavors in the context of the film. There's a tangible lack of rules to these scenes, meaning we're never quite sure what the threat is (ultimately there really isn't one), the gravity of these worlds is inconsistent (the initial fight sequence was made painfully unreal by the lack of weight to the animated characters... this wasn't Yeun Wo Ping fluidity, but more Sonic the Hedgehog cartoon movement), as are the abilities of the girls (sometimes they can jump so high, others not, they can throw a map cylinder hundreds of feet in the air, but otherwise don't really show superhuman strength). Are they superheroes? I admit that the girls, Abbie Cornish's Sweet Pea in particular, did kick all sorts of ass in very impressive ways (the steampunk zombie Nazis were a fun concept) but it was hollow action at its hollowest and somewhat impossible for me to get into beyond admiring the construction of the scenes (or picking them apart). These girls don't even really seem like the same characters from level to level (unlike how the characters in Inception were consistent from level to level in that film). Point being these scenes actually took me further out of the film rather than drew me further in.

Back on the music of the film, first up after the "Sweet Dreams" cover is Bjork's "Army of Me" which, I confess, I chuckled... guffawed even, when the tune kicked in as the song presented to Baby Doll to dance to. So well worn it is for me (and quite prominently used in future "g&dsd" candidate "Tank Girl"). As I said before it's utterly anachronistic, given that it's a 1995 tune being played in a 1940's (?) set film. All the songs are just as bombastic and somewhat out of place (more in the burlesque house than in the action sequences, again presented almost as music videos). Snyder is no Tarantino and his ability to marry such a soundtrack to an ostensibly period film just isn't there. I quite frankly think an original score with perhaps tweaked period music would have been a far better fit, or even leading into the subscapes action sequences with period-specific interpretations of the modern songs that then segue into the song. It could have actually changed the overall texture of the film.

But I'm not entirely certain that the film has enough substance, generally to be redeemed. To be perfectly honest from the teasers presented at Comic Con last year and the trailers subsequent to it, I was expecting a delirious geek-pandering mess that tried to marry robots, blimps, samurai giants and dragons into some logical succession, but they're in actuality disparate facets, connected by framing sequences, and without much, if any, actual story present within them. They're not satisfying on their own, and somehow even less satisfying as a part of the larger picture Snyder presents before us. Had there been even something as simple as a sense of collective mental bonding between the girls in the asylum as they entered the fantasy together, then it would have given an emotional underpinning to the story. [/rant]

david: ...

So, the girls -- Rocket, Sweat Pea, Amber, Blondie and Baby Doll -- are all superheroes, right? They can't be beaten? Sorry, the problem is that this is Baby Doll's hero's journey. And Baby Doll is the Flawed Hero. In reality, she failed her sister. And reality keeps on seeping into the escapism. First, the brothel itself is her placing herself in another form of punishment. Sure, it's prettier and the girls are on friendly terms with each other. But the reality of their life there is just as horrible as the asylum. The hero Baby Doll should be able to redeem herself by helping the girls escape the brothel. If only she didn't believe she should be punished. It is this reality of her mind that eventually taints the brothel world, and the Third world, leading to an almost complete failure on Baby Doll's part. She suffers betrayal, doubt and loss. As the stories within stories progress things don’t go as planned. By the end there is but one thing for Baby Doll to do, as often a hero is forced to do – sacrifice herself.

The movie ends, we are where we expected to be. We are back in the asylum with Baby Doll being lobotomized…

graig: …by Jon Hamm no less. I should also note the coda, which attempts to tie in the events of the split-second story told in the girl's mind’s eye, as we're then made to understand that it's not her movie, that it's someone else's story. It's a twist of Shyamalan proportions, which, ultimately, may be why you, noted Shyamalan apologist you are, like this film. (That’s a low blow, and I’m sorry).

david: Not a satisfying ending but not completely unexpected. The hero’s journey does not often end with a Happy Ending.

graig: No, not it does not, certainly not for the audience (zing!). I for one went in cautiously optimistic, found failure immediately and searched in my own heroes' journey for some path of redemption for this film. None was to be found.

david: While I did make a joke about deciding to enjoy it ahead of time, I did so, without much effort. Graig teases me about my ability to enjoy a bad movie and while I do agree this movie was flawed, I did get much out of it. But I won't veil my admission it could have been a better movie without the conceit of having been all imaginary. I fail to believe that the plot should have been transparent, with them literally travelling from one world to the next, but the transition could have been more transparent and the final story more tied to all the girls in the "real world." Alas, there wasn't much desire by Snyder to attach the story to reality whatsoever.

P.S. I cannot wait for the DVD extras; unlike most disks, I will probably watch the behind-the-scenes with as much exhilaration as I did waiting for the movie itself.

graig: Heh, you can enjoy that all on your own.