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Movie Review: Sucker Punch (3/26/11)

Movie Poster: Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch

Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Zack Snyder and Steve Shibuya

Emily Browning as Baby Doll
Abbie Cornish as Sweet Pea
Jena Malone as Rocket
Vanessa Hudgens as Blondie
Jamie Chung as Amber

Running time: 109 minutes
Motion Picture Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material involving sexuality, violence and combat sequences, and for language.

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Sucker Punch

Jena Malone (Rocket), Abbie Cornish (Sweet Pea) and Vanessa Hudgens (Blondie) star in Sucker Punch
[Photo by Clay Enos]

A convoluted, disappointing fever dream with a muddled message.

The marketing for Zack Snyder’s new flick Sucker Punch was ingenious and ubiquitous: “Here!” the trailers proclaimed, to the tune of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” “Hot girls fighting robots and dragons! Massive explosions! Archival, steampunk-influenced imagery!” What’s not to like? As it turns out, there’s a lot to hate about this newest feat in CGI. What could’ve been a powerful, cathartic fantasy turns out to be an exploitative head-scratcher that’s little more than a good-looking dragon and a lot of flesh.

After the death of her mother, Baby Doll (Emily Browning) tries to protect her younger sister from their lecherous stepfather. When this goes horribly awry the potential rapist promptly dispatches her to the Lennox House for the Mentally Insane. At Lennox House, a foreboding, Victorian structure reminiscent of Session 9’s Danvers State Hospital, Baby Doll meets Rocket (Jena Malone), her older sister Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), Amber (Jamie Chung), and Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens). Ostensibly presiding over them is voluptuous Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino), but in reality psychotic orderly Blue (Oscar Isaac) is pulling the strings. Baby Doll has a vision during a group therapy session in which she meets the David Carradine-like Wise Man (Scott Glenn), whose wisdom includes trite aphorisms like “Don’t write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass” and “Remember: if you stand for nothing, you’ll fall for anything.” The Wise Man tells her to locate a map, fire, a knife, and a key. Somehow she convinces her cohorts to join her in an escape scheme that occurs in a fantasy within a daydream.

In Baby Doll’s head, the girls are not in a mental hospital but a brothel ruled by smarmy, unbalanced Blue. The young women are essentially slaves in miniskirts, bustiers, and fishnets. And although we never see her do it, Baby Doll can apparently dance in such a titillating fashion that her gyrations hypnotize every male within a mile, allowing her compatriots to do her dirty work. Here’s where the dual fantasy worlds come in: the Wise Man sends the five women on four missions (“Good morning, Angels. This is your mission, should you choose to accept it”), allowing them to play the roles of samurais, soldiers, pilots, and dragon slayers. Sure, these are roles that are stereotypically masculine, and it’s great to see miniscule young women fighting the baddies. What’s unfortunate is the fetishistic garb in which the women are dressed. The lingerie, stockings, and headgear the actresses don are visibly constricting—making it pretty hard to believe they’d be kicking so much ass (for reference see also: Ultraviolet, Aeon Flux). HD may extol the virtues of computerized imagery, but it is extremely unkind to the kind of pancake makeup and goopy eyeliner under which our protagonists toil. One assumes the filmmakers intended the costuming and makeup to mean Baby Doll and the other young women are embracing their sexual power in the aftermath of attempted violations. Though there’s certainly power in being an object of desire, it’s hard to take seriously when the women do so little to assert themselves in the real world—and appear to revel in the trappings of weakness. When Blue, really a nonthreatening (though creepy) character with a ridiculous pencil-mustache, confronts the women, all of our tough-as-nails heroines just weep in their skimpy burlesque costumes. Come on, ladies, were you or were you not just slaying dragons and shooting machine guns?

Disclaimer: I’m not a humorless killjoy. Who doesn’t enjoy a good old exploitation flick on occasion? Unfortunately, Sucker Punch fails even at exploiting its strengths. It’s rated PG-13. There’s not even the barest hint of actual sexuality despite all the breasts and thighs on display; there’s no real bloodshed and definitely no cathartic, satisfying culmination. In between extended fight sequences during which you’ll find yourself zoning out, the characters remain static, their stock traits on display for simplicity. Sucker Punch strove to be what the trailers made it out to be: a comic-book-influenced tale of female empowerment—Alice down the rabbit hole with big guns, robots, and mythical creatures. It didn’t succeed. Duly unfortunate is the fact that Snyder, much like M. Night “What a twist!” Shyamalan, has officially figured out his signature: slow motion. Sucker Punch could easily have cut its run time by a quarter if there had been fewer protracted, sluggish shots fetishizing either flesh or brutality.

In the past Snyder has brought us some fantastic eye candy: Watchmen, 300, and the remake of Dawn of the Dead. Sucker Punch is at times a treat for the senses; the graphics and fight sequences are well done. Bafflingly, Snyder utilized a soundtrack that includes Bjork’s “Army of Me” and covers of The Smiths’ “Asleep,” Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” and The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Normally when a filmmaker uses covers, it’s to poke fun at or make a statement about the film’s derivative or self-referential content (Snyder did this well in Watchmen); here it doesn’t work and the music simply feels incongruous.

If you see Sucker Punch, you’ll probably get the faintest grasp of what the filmmakers meant to do. It’s too bad the end product doesn’t live up to it. Some people will love it—as I said, who doesn’t love a good movie about sexy women fighting sweet battles against big bad monsters? But those of us who wished for catharsis this spring or expected the first colossal blockbuster of 2011 will probably leave wishing we’d been lobotomized—and drooling at the prospect of Captain America and X-Men: First Class.

Movie Review: Sex and the City 2 (5/29/10)

Movie Poster: SATC2
Sex and the City 2

Directed by Michael Patrick King
Screenplay by Michael Patrick King

Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw
Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones
Kristin Davis as Charlotte York Goldenblatt
Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes
Chris Noth as John James Preston / Mr. Big
John Corbett as Aidan Shaw
David Eigenberg as Steve Brady

CLR Rating: 0.5/5 stars

Movie Still: SACT2

Kim Cattrall as Samantha Jones, Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes and Kristin Davis as Charlotte York in Sex and the City 2
[Photo by Craig Blankenhorn]

How the Mighty Have Fallen:
“Sex and the City 2” is a Cringe-worthy, Insensitive,
Headache-inducing Schlockfest

Sex and the City is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Unless you’ve lived under a rock for the last twenty years, you are surely at least peripherally aware of the main characters. When cell phones first started to come into vogue, you couldn’t go more than a day without hearing the show’s theme bleeping out of someone’s Motorola. The show, while sometimes vapid and occasionally downright silly, was smart, well-written, and progressive. Its decadence—Manolos, Cosmos, hot sex in NYC penthouses—was pure wish-fulfillment for a generation of American women who could only hope for that kind of frivolity.

The first Sex and the City movie was a gleeful addendum to the series with enough substance to be interesting and enough heart to be fun. The second movie, which released Thursday, is a headache-inducing, culturally insensitive, horribly written piece of trash. The film, set two years after the first, follows our girls Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), Charlotte (Kristin Davis), and Samantha (Kim Cattrall) as they take an impromptu vacation to Abu Dhabi. Carrie’s marriage to Mr. Big (Chris Noth) is growing boring; Miranda’s sexist caricature of a boss silences her at every turn; Charlotte finds motherhood with a full-time nanny to be entirely too stressful; and Samantha’s success as a publicist is tempered by the onset of menopause, which she desperately staves off by taking forty-four hormone and vitamin pills a day. So when Samantha purrs, “We need to go somewhere rich,” who are they to argue?

Abu Dhabi, in case you were unaware, is the “new Middle East” and Dubai is “over.” With its blinding ivory dunes, gold-tipped mosques, and shimmering blue oceans, the possibilities for beauty here are endless. But we’re meant to remember that the loveliest things in the frame are the shoes, the clothes, and the four main characters, so DP John Thomas drops the ball on the scenery, opting instead for decorator porn and an “ooh shiny, diamonds and beautiful cars!” sensibility (because, you know, women love the shiny). In Abu Dhabi Charlotte wrings her hands over her nanny’s ample bosom (it’s okay, the nanny turns out to be a lesbian), Carrie runs into Aidan in a spice market and rekindles that old flame accidentally, Miranda does her best to educate herself on the culture, and Samantha fights off hot flashes after customs confiscates her pills.

The screenplay, written by director Michael Patrick King and based on Candace Bushnell’s books, is truly awful. The puns, one-liners, and chemistry between the four actresses are severely flawed; what used to be witty and edgy has officially gone off the deep end of tacky. Charlotte got Montezuma’s Revenge in the first movie and pooped her pants; in this one she gets camel toe after falling off a camel—hilarious, no? No. “Lawrence of my labia?” Really? And ladies, please stop trying to make “interfriendtion” happen. The girls aren’t homophobic—at the beginning of the film they attend a fabulous gay wedding emceed by none other than Liza Minelli, whose performance of “Single Ladies” is one of the film’s only redeeming moments—but for all their education and New York openness, they have not a freaking clue how to respect other cultures.

Isn’t it funny that the woman at the next table has to lift her veil to eat? Hilarious that Muslims are offended by public displays of affection? (Samantha is arrested for kissing on the beach.) Isn’t it just uproarious that an ankle or a bare arm is scandalous to these backwards people? Note to the writers: unabashedly lampooning the traditions of a conservative society is not the best way to point out its myriad differences from (and similarities to) our own. Samantha’s sexuality is one of the progressive aspects of the show and the movies; a woman who enjoys sex with multiple partners and doesn’t care what anyone else thinks is still hard for Americans to stomach, and the terms “cougar” and “slut” are already being thrown around in other reviews. There are a few jabs at American prudishness along with the winking “how silly this is” reactions to Islamic conservatism, but these would’ve been easier to swallow were it not for the blatant impertinence toward Muslim culture. Jessica Simpson’s ridiculous TV show “Price of Beauty” is more culturally sensitive—and that’s not saying much.

On a shallower note, costume designer Pat Field dropped the ball on this film, too. This reviewer is not immune to the charms of great shoes or a gorgeous dress, but in Sex and the City 2, fashion turbans, harem pants, gauzy cloaks, full color-blocked skirts, and artfully deconstructed “J’Adore Dior” tee shirts are the girls’ uniforms of choice in Abu Dhabi. None of it’s attractive. There’s eye candy in the form of bulging Speedos and glistening pectoral muscles on the Australian national rugby team, and the art directors created a lovely set for Carrie and Big’s shared apartment. The movie is excessively long at two and a half hours, after which you may need a stiff drink (but not a Cosmo). Certainly there will be people who love the movie for its flaws. Those who long for the comfort of those characters will take the playfulness and bad jokes in stride, and find redeeming qualities. Nothing’s above criticism, though, and any movie that treats its subject and viewers with so little respect deserves none itself.

At one point in the film, Carrie narrates, “That’s the thing about tradition…it sneaks in whether you like it or not.” The show was anything but traditional, and that’s what made it great. Samantha’s rollicking sex life, Miranda’s career-oriented lifestyle, and Carrie’s reluctance to traditional marriage made them fantastic foils for naïve Charlotte’s conservatism. The characters offered something for everyone. Now, tradition, in the form of romantic comedy tropes and atrocious jokes, is seeping between the cracks (or gushing if you prefer). What used to be a fun and funny series about intelligent, sympathetic, albeit sometimes shallow, characters that enjoy sex as much as their respective careers, has degenerated into movies that beg us to laugh at the stupid, shallow American women. If this is what feminism in film is supposed to be, we need a sea change.

Blog: Bret Easton Ellis: Film requires the male gaze, female directors need not apply (5/19/10)

Movieline printed an interview with author Bret Easton Ellis, whose most famous work is probably American Psycho, which director Mary Harron translated into a bizarre little film starring Christian Bale in 2000.

Bret Easton Ellis in a publicity shot (from here).

Ellis’s books are infinitely dark, angry, and sometimes downright shocking. They are about the gritty, hideous underbelly of human emotion. Movie adaptations of his work, which include Less Than Zero (1987), The Rules of Attraction (2002), and The Informers (2008), along with American Psycho, are generally hit-or-miss. To be fair, the material’s often difficult to adapt, but Harron managed it brilliantly with American Psycho.

Christian Bale debates his weaponry in Mary Harron’s American Psycho.

For some reason, Ellis puts his in two cents to Movieline regarding female directors. He says,

“…There’s something about the medium of film itself that I think requires the male gaze.”
Read more

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity (10/24/09)

Movie Poster: Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity

Directed by Oren Peli
Screenplay by Oren Peli

Katie – Katie Featherston
Micah – Micah Sloat
The Psychic – Mark Fredrichs

CLR Rating: 1.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Paranormal Activity

‘The Scariest Movie of the Year’ Is Meek at Best

This is the time of year when, in temperate climes, leaves riot with color, breezes take on the scent of decay, and all the cultures that celebrate All Hallows Eve prepare for the year’s first nod to the holiday season. Scary movies are a serious draw when temperatures drop and leaves start to fall—and since the only other horror film released this month has been the sixth movie in the Saw franchise (just get it over with already!), Paranormal Activity will certainly make bank at the box office this weekend. Unfortunately, it is not the kind of catharsis many look for in a horror movie, nor is it remotely as interesting as its predecessors in the home-video-horror genre. In fact, it’s downright disappointing.

When The Blair Witch Project released in 1999, half of audiences believed they were actually watching footage chronicling the last days of three student filmmakers. That film fell at precisely the correct moment in recent history for that kind of guerrilla filmmaking. Amateurish as it may have been, it preceded the communications technology with which we’re all inundated each day, each hour, each second. It seemed possible that the movie could be real because the marketing relied solely on spare, spooky trailers and an intriguingly vague website. Ten years later, Paranormal Activity tries to exploit the same shaky-cam, night-vision film—and fails.

Paranormal Activity follows a young San Diego couple (Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat) through a month in Fall 2006 in which they strive to capture the presence that’s haunting their suburban home. The premise is simple: grad student Katie has sensed a supernatural force around her since the age of eight, and boyfriend Micah, a day trader who looks and acts like a frat boy, takes the haunting personally and decides to try to capture it with a video camera. Camera phones, the social media of Twitter and Facebook, and easy access to the kind of cinematic technology that used to be found only in Hollywood and college classrooms, have seemingly compelled us all to keep the world informed of every aspect of our personal lives. So of course the film industry wants to capitalize on the overshare.

The film falls short by arranging a regrettably thin layer of spooky occurrences beneath a thicker deposit of badly acted exposition and obnoxious characters. The couple and all secondary characters are total unknowns, which fits with the idea that audiences are privy to the lives of everyday citizens. The problem lies in the movie’s inability to create believable tension. The night-vision camera, which Micah sets up in their bedroom, captures one paranormal happening after another, but the tension isn’t enough to keep the plot moving. In Blair Witch, the characters began to use their cameras as buffers between themselves and the horror confronting them nightly; in that film the behavior makes perfect sense. You try to escape what you can’t believe or categorize. Paranormal Activity’s Micah, however, is simply the ultimate narcissist. He says multiple times that no one messes with his girlfriend and his house and gets away with it. He treats the subject with an appropriate amount of disdain and disbelief, borrowing a Ouija board and regarding the psychic Katie calls with utter contempt. As things progress he gradually becomes a believer while Katie descends into mentally unstable territory.

The movie touches briefly on theology—according to the resident psychic, the malevolent force responsible for slamming doors and amphibian nighttime footprints is no ghost, but an angry demon. The film only provides the audience with a fleeting nod to evil forces whose mythology should be utterly terrifying. Micah finds an article online telling the story of a “woman from the 60s” whose haunting bears a striking resemblance to Katie’s, but not enough information is conveyed to create adequate apprehension. There are a few genuinely spooky moments and one particularly jarring instant (which for some reason the filmmakers included in the trailer). But ultimately the film never lives up to the kind of tension it’s supposed to create, and the end is a cringing nod to every other movie in this subgenre.

The marketing campaign for this film is pure genius; the internet has been abuzz with reviews touting it as the scariest movie of the year. Frankly (and luckily for the filmmakers), 2009 has been a meager year in the realm of horror. The filmmakers strove to capitalize on the phenomenon created by The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield. Unfortunately, although the dollars will undoubtedly roll in for all involved, this movie fails to live up to its more worthy predecessors. For a good home-movie scare this Halloween, rent the utterly terrifying [REC] or its American remake, Quarantine. Watch Blair Witch again (at the very least, its foreboding Maryland woods set the scene for autumn). Although Paranormal Activity may tweak some viewers’ nerves, don’t go into it hoping for the most terrifying movie you’ve ever seen, lest you leave feeling duped..