Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sucker Punch

I don't want to talk about Sucker Punch.

It depresses me.

I was so excited to see it. I love director Zack Snyder. He broke into the public consciousness four years ago with 300, a great big testosterone booster about the Spartan defense of ancient Thermopylae.

He followed this up with Watchmen, a moody, philosophic superhero fable about the limits of power.

Now comes Sucker Punch, a tale of girls trying to escape a sadistic insane asylum, layered with fantasy episodes involving samurai robots and clockwork Nazis.

If that doesn't pull you in, consider that this is the first of Zack Snyder's movies to come from Snyder's own imagination.

300, you see, springs from an amazing graphic novel by probably the greatest graphic novel writer of all time, Frank Miller.

Watchmen springs from an amazing graphic novel by probably the second greatest graphic novel writer of all time, Alan Moore.

In Sucker Punch, Snyder's finally flying solo. This one's all him!

The movie was actually promoted that way.

And I actually bought into it.

Stupid, Neil. Stupid.

Sucker Punch is a colossal failure, the kind of failure only a movie protected against its own studio's mighty imperative towards mediocrity can be a failure.

In this, it's reminiscent of The Phantom Menace or Inception. It's so bad, it would never get made if it didn't have a director with extraordinary clout pushing it through the system.

But it did get pushed through, and I suffered a miserable couple hours as a result. Maybe you did too.

The movie is incoherent, indecipherable and so implausible it goes beyond implausibility. It's anti-plausible.

To start with, the insane asylum is only an insane asylum by day. By night, it's a burlesque dance club where the city's powerful but sleazy elite come to watch the inmates dance away the night--

Ack! I said I don't want to discuss the film, and I don't.

What I want to discuss is the curious fact that Sucker Punch is directed...

...brilliantly.

Anyone familiar with Snyder's work can see his signature fluidity with the camera, his marvelous feel for scale, and the strong sense of locational logic so crucial to any action sequence.

It's all here.

And it doesn't soothe the pain. Not one bit.

Which raises an interesting question.

If sterling direction can fail so utterly to salvage a bad script -- and conversely, if bad directing can so utterly fail to sabotage a brilliant script -- see the work of Woody Allen and just about every movie made before 1960 -- then... really... of what use is good directing?

Let's take complicating factors out of the equation. Let's eliminate music -- which is ridiculously important -- set design, costume design and so forth. Surely they impact a movie, but they don't bear on the question of directing's importance relative to writing.

To anticipate an objection: yes, a director consults with the composer, with the set designer, with everyone. But to say a director is responsible for the achievements of these departments is hero-worship at its worst. Most often a director can't read sheet music. Let's not go giving him credit for John Williams' scores.

Let's throw out acting too.

Let's really throw out acting. The number of times we've seen so-called inferior actors, like Stallone in Rocky, Costner in Dances With Wolves and Tom Cruise in Rain Man do sensational work with sensational material has reached the point where we really have to reject the idea that "good" acting has any impact on a movie whatsoever.

Good casting -- hey. That matters. An actor has to be right for a part. But good acting? That's hard to even define. What the hell is good acting without good writing? Does it even exist? Let's forget about good acting.

And let's look at what directing is.

It's a million things, because a director is the administrative head of the enterprise, but the studio that makes a movie happen requires two things of primary import: it expects a director to 1) pick a good story -- not create a good story, not bring a good story to life, but to pick a good story and 2) get that story on film within a specified time and budget.

Easy? Oh heck no. This is really hard from the perspective of the individual director. But it's also unimportant from the perspective of the moviegoer.

What do we care if a movie comes in on time and on budget?

What do we care if it's Steven Spielberg who literally saw a script for Jaws sitting on a producer's desk and asked, "What's this?"

Does it really matter it was Steven Spielberg who asked that question?

The greatness of Jaws depended on lots of things. It depended on the basic story; though it wasn't obvious at the time, the tale of a monster shark terrorizing the town of Amity was going to work on film with just a little help. It would help if the actors were cast perfectly, right down to Robert Shaw the actor actually hating Richard Dreyfus the actor, just like his character hated snotty Matt Hooper.

It would help if the mechanical shark would sink during the early days of filming, forcing the production to leave the shark out of lots more scenes than originally intended, which would end up making the shark that much scarier. (If you haven't read Jaws Log, the producer's take on the making of Jaws, you're missing out. It's thirty years old and still reads like the crack of a whip.)

The greatness of Jaws depended on many things, but it didn't depend on Spielberg's skillful camera work and visual flare. And if a movie ever did depend on such things, this would be the one, because I cheerfully admit Spielberg is the best in the business when it comes to camera work. And story selection, for that matter.

But Spielberg's magical run through the 80's and early 90's -- E.T., Raiders, Jurassic, Schindler's -- ran into a decidedly non-magical 90's and early 00's -- Jurassic 2, Amistad, A.I.

Yet his physical directing skills didn't erode. His passion for film didn't wane. He was doing everything the same as he'd always done it.

But Melissa Matheson didn't offer up another E.T. Nor did Kasdan, Crichton or Zaillian offer up more masterpieces of theirs. Not that they didn't try. Masterpieces are rare, that's all.

And so, Spielberg and his directing skills were kind of useless until more masterpieces got handed his way.

It turns out, directors are like stockbrokers. If enough people muscle their way into the stock-picking arena, some will have luck-driven hot streaks. Some will have longer hot streaks than others, and some will have the longest hot streaks of all. That's simple statistics, but this latter group will come to be called legends of Wall Street. This doesn't mean they know what they're doing. It means that when you're successful, moneyed interests don't look too closely into why you're successful. They don't want to discover that skill in this field is an illusion. They just want to keep making money.

So, too, with directors. These guys -- and increasingly, gals -- play the lottery with every movie they make. Catherine Hardwicke did Twilight a few years ago and won the lottery rigged for her by Stephenie Meyers.

A few weeks ago Hardwicke did Red Riding Hood, based on her own script.

And she just lost the lottery.

You could, of course, take this logic one step further.

You could say that writers play the lottery too, since a writer is only as good as the story he or she happens to be working on, and there's as much chanciness in that as anything. A writer walks into a producer's office, too, sees a script and asks "What's this?" Only the producer's office exists inside the writer's mind.

So you could say a writer is no more important than a director.

You could say that.

And I think you'd be onto something.

In the end, maybe The Matrix had it right. Maybe bending a spoon with your mind isn't so hard, once you fully accept the fact...

...that there is no spoon.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Limitless

We all have good days and bad days.

We have days we're functioning at peak productivity. Full of energy and creativity.

Then we have those other days.

But what if every day were a peak day? What if every hour were a peak hour?

That'd be pretty cool, right?

Turns out, it'd be much cooler than the movie based on that premise, called Limitless.

Said premise: Bradley Cooper plays a down-and-out novelist, vexed by writer's block, poor fashion sense, and a suddenly ex-girlfriend.

But then he runs into an old buddy who turns him onto a new street drug called NZT. You know how you only use ten percent of your brain? Well, on NZT, you get to use ALL of your brain.

(Yes, the ten percent factoid is a ridiculous piece of apocrypha. Roll with me, people.)

Now "limitless," Bradley Cooper turns his life around. He writes that novel, restocks that wardrobe and starts playing the stock market using his new brain.

Curiously, and insightfully, Cooper becomes happy. Not because he enjoys exercising his creativity -- he never bothers to write a second book; he devotes himself exclusively to stock trading -- but because he enjoys the material benefits that derive from said creativity. He likes his new cars, his new haircut, his new overall status in society.

If this strikes you as superficial and vain, welcome to Limitless!

If it also strikes you as vaguely familiar, it may be because this is the same idea behind the short story Flowers for Algernon, which became a novel, a play, and a movie starring Cliff Robertson.

Algernon was a little different from Limitless, of course.

In Algernon, the main character was a mentally retarded adult who took an experimental drug that not only cured his retardation, but gave him cognitive powers that put him in the IQ 200 range.

We spend the first third of the novel with the retarded Charlie, whose grammar is poor and whose spelling is worse. We almost need to read his writing as if it were a foreign language we understand only dimly.

He consents to an experimental trial, but he doesn't really understand what he's doing. He just wants to make the nice doctors happy.

Then something strange happens. Charlie's grammar gets marginally better. So does his spelling.

And it keeps getting better.

The fascinating insight in Algernon is that increased intelligence does not make Charlie happier. It makes him less happy.

Yet we still can't avoid a feeling of sadness when his intelligence starts slipping away, when he begins the descent back to retardation. In Algernon, we're screwed either way. That's why the story is a work of art. It captures an aspect of the human condition, lovely and sad.

By contrast, Limitless offers the message that boundless energy and creativity is boundlessly good, provided you can keep yourself in supply of the little white pills that make it all happen.

This may reflect Hollywood's idea of the key to happiness, but it's too simple and self-deluding for the rest of us.

Flowers for Algernon is the first novel I remember reading in one sitting. My body ached afterward and my sleep schedule was thrown off. But it was worth it. It was a great story.

Limitless is the same essential story, stripped of emotional power and thematic heft.

In other words it's the Hollywood version.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jane Eyre

You know which one Jane Eyre is, right?

It's not the one about the crazy guy who ruins everyone's life because he didn't get the girl he wanted... that's Wuthering Heights.

It's not the one with all the formal dances and sternly-worded letters... that's Pride and Prejudice.

Jane Eyre's the one where the girl who grows up in an orphanage finds work in an ominous castle owned by Mr. Rochester, who is gruff and direct and has a secret locked in one of the turrets of his castle.

Because Jane -- played by Mia Wasikowska of Alice in Wonderland -- is also direct, on top of being brave, clever and quite pretty, she and Mr. Rochester promptly fall in love.

They also promptly do nothing about it, since they are characters in a nineteenth century British novel, and for such characters, barriers of class and money always but always stand in the way of true love.

Nevertheless, the story of their relationship, stifled as it may be, is so good and so enduring it's hard to screw it up.

Happily, no one screws it up here.

Not rookie director Cary Fukunaga. Not newish adaptrix Moira Buffini. And not the principal actors, Michael Fassbender and the aforementioned Wasikowska.

They're all good, and so, everything works out for Jane Eyre.

Though not for the characters, of course. Not perfectly, anyway.

But it works out for me, the modern American moviegoer, thoroughly enjoying and somehow relating to a story of manners and morals written almost two hundred years ago in a land I've never been.

And that's as happy an ending as any story needs.

Battle Los Angeles

The reason I saw Battle Los Angeles is the title. That really suckered me in.

But it's false advertising.

"Battle" is too grandiose a term for what happens in the movie, and LA never enters the picture except in wide shots.

Squad Action Santa Monica suits the movie better.

And it's not even Santa Monica. It's a soundstage strewn with rubble referred to as Santa Monica.

And the marine squad in question doesn't act like a marine squad. It acts like a high school football team dressed as a marine squad for Halloween.

These "marines" run around the soundstage all movie long, firing at blurry movement in the shadows and shouting things like "Copy that!" and "Fire in the hole!"

This is pretty much the sole extent of the plot.

You see, robotic aliens have landed in the coastal shallows off Los Angeles. They proceed to wade onto Santa Monica beach and start machine gunning tourists.

Those damn aliens!

A fierce battle with the US military ensues, in which the aliens manage to push a surprised human resistance almost back to Century City, which means an interplanetary invasion force is able to secure some thirty blocks of real estate before their offensive grinds to a halt.

When you consider this movie alongside last summer's District Nine, you're forced to conclude that the major starfaring species in Earth's vicinity have been drastically cutting their military budgets of late.

Given this, I urge them to reconsider any and all invasion plans until they have squared themselves away.

I'm sure they long for the days, as I do, when alien invaders were formidable, sometimes overwhelming, adversaries of humanity.

So please stop launching these half-assed invasions.

And come back when you're ready to kick some human butt.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 14/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 10/100

Red Riding Hood

This movie's awful, don't get me wrong.

But it contains an interesting idea that keeps it from being the year's worst movie so far.

The idea is that the wolf which terrorizes a remote, vaguely medieval mountain village is a shapeshifter. When it's not being a wolf, it can resemble a human. So the ravenous beast might be your brother, your friend, your lover.

All we can really be sure of is, it's probably someone whom E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial -- oops, I mean, Amanda Seyfried -- as the eponymous Red Riding Hood already knows very well.

This is the cool idea that generates a few micro-watts of suspense and intrigue.

And it's all we've got on the positive side of Red Riding Hood's ledger.

Now on to the negative side...

The story meanders, the rules of the world are inconsistent, the setting is dreary and implausible, the genre veers all over the place -- is it a mystery? is it a romance? is it a horror flick? -- the characters are paper thin, the dialogue has less taste than a communion wafer, the acting is sub-professional, and the music kinda sucks.

The ostensible reason you even bother to make Red Riding Hood: The Motion Picture is to somehow modernize the old fairy tale. To give it a fresh take. But director Catherine Hardwicke -- of the first Twilight movie -- doesn't have a take on this story. Her take is to simply reduce the pace of the tale until it can fill an abominable two hours.

This is the kind of movie you watch with a dazed scowl while a voice inside your head hammers away, saying, "I can't believe it's this bad, I can't believe it's this bad, I can't believe it's this bad..."

Aw, screw it.

One cool idea's not enough. This is still the worst movie of the year so far.

SCORE

How Accomplished: 11/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 08/100

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Drive Angry

Wow, this movie got stomped at the box office.

And I'm trying to figure out why.

It's got action vet Nic Cage. It's got fresh starlet Amber Heard.

It's got the words "drive" and "angry" in the title.

It's got a delightfully outlandish premise: Nic Cage plays a man who has spent the last thirty years in hell. Literally. He has recently busted out to save his infant granddaughter (you don't age in hell) from getting sacrificed to the dark lord by a group of sadistic cultists.

To save the baby, he's going to have to shoot a messload of cultists and drive right over a bunch more.

Did I mention it's in 3D?

This is a throwback film, a seventies exploitation flick, more grindhouse than Grindhouse.

It features lots of brassy situations, like the slow-mo hotel room gunfight that takes place while Nic Cage has ongoing sexual intercourse with a middle-aged waitress.

He wins the gunfight.

Amber Heard plays a girl Cage picks to be his adventurous sidekick for two reasons. One, because she's got a great car -- a '69 Dodge Charger -- and two, because he figures she will make a good mother for his orphaned granddaughter when this is all over.

Why on Earth he thinks this is open to debate, but he himself is headed back to hell, so I guess his surrogate parent options are limited.

He's headed to hell because he is pursued by an implacable and well-dressed fury who will inevitably hunt him down in time: a man called only The Accountant, played by the urbane William Fichtner.

The Accountant provides more than his share of Drive Angry's fun.

He shows class and taste, and even a touch of humor, while everyone else in the movie mostly scowls.

He also reveals some insights into the movie's version of hell -- "essentially a large prison" -- and the Devil himself -- "introspective and surprisingly well-read."

When The Accountant finally catches up with Cage, he allows him the freedom to kick some cultist ass. It turns out, the Accountant is no fan of Satan-worshippers. Even Satan thinks they're scum.

Drive Angry features lots of carnage, lots of quips and some clean lines of action.

So why did it get killed at the box office?

You'll hear a variety of answers. People will say Nic Cage is no longer a bankable star. Which is fine, until his next movie opens to fifty million.

You'll hear the 3D format is losing its novelty, and that's fine, until the next 3D movie hits a billion dollars worldwide.

You'll hear that seventies throwbacks can't play today, but Stallone's eighties throwback The Expendables played just six months ago.

The truth is, we don't know why Drive Angry suffered a fatal accident at the box office.

The movie was carefully crafted to please large, primarily teenaged, male audiences. It's an over-the-top, outrageous piece of action trash that makes for rollicking good fun.

If that kind of movie can't make money, what movie can?

SCORE

How Accomplished: 58/100

How Much I Enjoyed: 72/100