More Like A Sucker's Bet

There is probably nothing new I can add to the discussion about Sucker Punch that A.O. Scott, Annalee Newitz and Andrew O'Hehir haven't already said. But I've never allowed that to stop me before, and why start now?

My expectations going into this movie were pretty low. I am not what one might call a Zack Snyder aficionado. His films are all style, no substance, and nothing I had seen or read about Sucker Punch did anything to alter my perception.

So it would be unfair to say I was disappointed in Snyder's latest offering. It was, in fact, exactly what I knew it was going to be. Vapid and emotionless, but damn pretty to look at.

I believe all three reviews linked to above compare many aspects of Sucker Punch to video games, and while that is not an entirely inappropriate comparison, it is also somewhat insulting to video games. I was playing video games 15 years ago that had more compelling characterization and plot than this insanely expensive trifle of a movie, to say nothing of the current generation of games with even more complex gameplay and storytelling.

Yes, there are moments during Sucker Punch where you just want to grab control of the gamepad and start button-mashing. Numerous moments, in fact. Who wouldn't want to take control of a scantily-clad schoolgirl armed with a ninja sword and hack-n-slash your way through hordes of WWI German zombie soldiers or battle a dragon in air-to-air combat while piloting a gunship?

But the really good games provide some sort of context through which you grow to care about your characters, but Sucker Punch can't even be bothered to try to make us care.

Our protagonists (to call them heroines would be inaccurate) all have ridiculous code names like "Baby Doll" and "Sweet Pea." They have no personalities, or they all share the same one: scared, sniveling little girls in one reality and hardcore monster killers in another. They're interchangeable, like most eye candy is in Hollywood these days.

Speaking of realities, and not that it matters so much, because, really, no one is going to see this movie for its plot, but the vast majority of this movie doesn't matter at all. Because none of it is real (within the confines of what the film establishes as "reality" in the beginning). (Also, I suppose, *Spoiler Alert*, but, again, no one cares.)

Baby Doll's mother dies, ostensibly murdered by the wicked stepfather who wants her fortune, but the sneaky minx went and left all her money to her daughters instead, darn it all to heck. So the stepfather figures the girls have to die, too, right? Only Baby Doll tries to fight back. And fails. Her sister is killed, and the stepfather blames it on her. He then commits her to an asylum for the criminally insane. Apparently no one bothered to ask Baby Doll what happened or gave her a psych evaluation. Nope, off to the looney bin she goes, with a lobotomy waiting for her. (Do they even still do lobotomies anymore?)

No sooner does Baby Doll get locked up that she withdraws inside her own mind, where instead of a psych hospital, she's trapped in a whorehouse, because that's somehow worse. Or better. Or something.

And all the whores learn ballet. They're taught to dance for their clients. But we never actually see any of the girls dance. We only hear about it. Because as soon as Baby Doll starts her apparently hypnotic gyrating, we're sucked into yet another imaginary world, one filled with the aforementioned zombie soldiers and dragons.

See, to escape the insane asylum, Baby Doll makes up a whorehouse to hide in, and then to escape the whorehouse, she makes up these other worlds where she and the other girls are scantily-clad ass-kicking super soldiers. Or something. Why she didn't go straight from the nuthouse to the ass-kicking, I don't know. There doesn't seem to really be a point to the whorehouse. Or any of it, really.

For a film that is probably supposed to be some kind of feminist, empowering, pro-women fable, I don't understand why Baby Doll is imagining herself and the other girls wearing ultra-short skirts and tiny, cleavage-baring tops. I guess she's trying to "own" her sexuality? But it really just comes off as kind of creepy. It's like Zack Snyder made a masturbatory pseudo-feminist fantasy for guys.

Or I could be wrong. Do women fantasize about killing robots while wearing tiny schoolgirl outfits?

I mean, if the movie at least tried to play up the camp, if there was the occasional wink at the audience, that'd be one thing, but it's played completely straight throughout the entire ridiculous movie. You cannot make a movie like this without knowing how silly it is, and to not play up the silliness is perhaps the film's biggest flaw.

But definitely not its only flaw.


Oscars 2011

It's been a while since I've blogged anything, or felt I had something worth saying that would take more than 140 characters at a time. Not that this is necessarily worth saying, but for the first time in a long time, I've actually seen the vast majority of films that have been nominated for the Academy Awards. Nine out of the 10 Best Picture nominees, to be exact. So I figured, hey, I vaguely know what I'm talking about here.

First, a few general thoughts about the nominations as a whole.

There were no real surprises in this year's crop of nominees, aside from the utter whiteness of every category, which isn't so much of a surprise as a disappointment. (Although, off the top of my head, I can't think of a single nomination I would change, so maybe it was just a banner year for honky Hollywood.)

I was immensely pleased to see Winter's Bone receive so many nominations. It was a small, quiet film, but had some wonderful performances, especially John Hawkes, who I most distinctly remember as Sol the Jew on Deadwood.

I was also glad to see Animal Kingdom, a brutal Aussie crime drama, receive recognition in the form of an acting nomination for Jacki Weaver, who brilliantly played the cold, vicious matriarch of a struggling Australian crime family.

I'm still trying to figure out why Hailee Steinfeld, who played Mattie Ross in True Grit and was in virtually every scene, received a supporting actress nomination rather than a best actress nod. It was suggested to me that it was because it would give her a better chance to win, a reason I admit has some merit, given how this is Natalie Portman's year, but I have doubts about her chances in the supporting actress category, too, and I think her role and performance deserved to be honored for what it was, which is lead actress who went toe-to-toe with Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

I really did enjoy every film on this list of nominees that I saw. This was a great year for movies, both big and small, and all are deserving of the praise that's been heaped upon them.

Anyway, enough of that. Here are (most of) the nominees and my picks (in bold) for this year's Academy Awards ...

Best Motion Picture of the Year

127 Hours
Black Swan
The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The King's Speech
The Social Network
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Winter's Bone

I saw every film in this category except for Toy Story 3 (I know, I know, so sue me; I never saw the first two either), and while I immensely enjoyed the taut, wince-inducing claustrophobia of 127 Hours and the psycho-thriller, acid-trip insanity of Black Swan, this category really came down to only two films: The King's Speech and The Social Network. And it was a difficult call to make, almost a toss-up, save for a few key points that went in "the Facebook movie's" favor.

The King's Speech is remarkably well-crafted and delightfully entertaining, and much more hilarious than I was expecting, but while I didn't know the specifics of the story, I knew exactly what its particular beats were going to be. I've seen this movie before. We've all seen this movie before - A feel-good, triumph of the spirit, overcoming personal adversity to achieve greatness, etc.

Which is not to say The King's Speech is not a great, highly enjoyable film, because it is. But it's not The Social Network, a movie that takes rote themes of brotherhood and betrayal and thrusts them into the digital age of the 21st century. For a movie light on likable characters, The Social Network captures what the idea of friendship has morphed into over the past decade, thanks to the Internet, email, texting and, yes, Facebook.

Director David Fincher and writer Aaron Sorkin, two names I never thought would work well together, what with Fincher's wildly ambitious visual style and Sorkin's rat-a-tat-tat, rapid-fire dialogue, crafted a Cain and Abel fable for a new generation, weaving contradictory points of view into a compelling Rashomon-style narrative, with the truth always just ever so slightly out of focus.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Javier Bardem, Biutiful
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours

Immediately after I saw 127 Hours, I knew James Franco was a lock for an Oscar nomination. He created a character we immediately liked and bonded with, a character full of such wonder and joy, so that when he became trapped, and we were stuck with him in that crevasse for almost a week, we felt everything right along with him. We cared what happened to him. And we were never bored in spending that time with him. It's an amazingly intimate performance.

But, unfortunately for Franco, this is shaping up to be Colin Firth's year. And while I may be rooting for this year's Oscars co-host to win, I'm pretty sure the award is going to the King.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Michelle Williams, Blue Valentine

Easiest award to pick. No hesitation. No second-guessing. Which is not meant to take away from any of the other actors in this category, but the physical and mental strain both Portman and her character underwent to make this film are both impressive and insane. Much like the following award's Christian Bale, what Natalie Portman put herself through, and the way she so completely embraced her character, is a wonder to behold. To watch her fragile, delicate Nina slowly, gradually warm under the spotlight until she shatters is to watch a true master of her craft.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

Christian Bale, The Fighter
John Hawkes, Winter's Bone
Jeremy Renner, The Town
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech

To see Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight practically destroy his body, to see him morph into this jagged-edge of a man, this jittery meth-head, is to sit in awe of Christian Bale. I don't remember when last I saw an actor so utterly recognizable and yet ... not. Probably the last time Bale did this to his body, in 2004's The Machinist.

Bale so personified Dicky Eklund, there was not a trace of himself left behind. Sure, Bale was manic and over-the-top, but have you ever seen a jonsing meth addict?

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit
Jacki Weaver, Animal Kingdom

This is always a tough category to choose from. Each of these actresses delivered great performances of such disparate women. Part of me wants to see Jacki Weaver win, but she's not well-known enough and no one saw Animal Kingdom. I'd love to see Hailee Steinfeld win, but, assuming she keeps her head on straight, she'll have plenty more opportunities.

The more I think about it, the more I think Melissa Leo might take home this award, for her role as Micky Ward and Dicky Eklund's gaudy, overbearing mother in The Fighter. Leo has come a long way since solving murders in Baltimore in TV's Homicide almost 20 years ago. I almost feel a kind of pride at her nomination. I just like the idea of Detective Sergeant Kay Howard, Oscar winner.

Best Achievement in Directing

Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, True Grit
David Fincher, The Social Network
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

David Fincher took what could have been a very boring story, about a bunch of geeks arguing over who created a website, and turned it into a visual feast. Fincher is a meticulous director, often asking for 50 or 100 takes, because he wants/needs to get it just right, and I think that attention to detail, that striving for excellence, comes through in every frame of The Social Network.

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Another Year, by Mike Leigh
The Fighter, by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Inception, by Christopher Nolan
The Kids Are All Right, by Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
The King's Speech, by David Seidler

I'd really like to give this award to the wonderfully imaginative Inception, and the Academy might do so, to make up for Nolan not receiving a directing nomination. (Honestly, Nolan deserved a directing nomination much more than Tom Hooper. The King's Speech is a very nicely made movie, but what Nolan did in Inception is oftentimes mindblowing.)

But I think 73-year-old David Seidler is taking home this Oscar, and he's certainly more than deserving of it. The King's Speech veers between almost slapstick comedy to a sort of maudlin melodrama, but it never tips too far one way or the other. Seidler's script keeps on a very even keel, bridging the moments of great levity with the looming shadow of the Second World War.

But despite the seriousness of the world's situation, Seidler never lets you forget that this is a deeply personal, intimate story of one man's attempt to overcome a lifelong disability, and his friend who helped him through it.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

127 Hours, by Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy
The Social Network, by Aaron Sorkin
Toy Story 3, by Michael Arndt, John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
True Grit, by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
Winter's Bone, by Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini

I love A Few Good Men. I love The West Wing. And Sports Night. And even the short-lived Studio 60 on Sunset Strip. And the singular thing all these films and TV shows have in common is Aaron Sorkin. I'm a sucker for his dialogue, I readily and openly admit it. And if that makes me biasd, then so be it.

But when I read the script for The Social Network, those first eight or 10 pages of dialogue just blew me away. I was immediately and completely engrossed in the story from page one. Not many scripts can do that, and Sorkin did it, and does it frequently, with dialogue and dialogue alone. That's a rare feat. There's just something about the rhythm of his words and the beats of his scripts that, it's almost like it's music. The work of David Mamet hits me the same way.

When it's done well, there's just nothing better than listening to a great actor perform a Sorkin script.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

127 Hours, A.R. Rahman
How to Train Your Dragon, John Powell
Inception, Hans Zimmer
The King's Speech, Alexandre Desplat
The Social Network, Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross

The 15-year-old inside me just wants Trent Reznor to win an Oscar award.

And it's a really great score.

Best Documentary, Features

Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job
Waste Land

I only saw two of these nominated documentaries (and why was Waiting for 'Superman' left off this list?), both of which I enjoyed immensely, but for different reasons.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is about street artists, graffiti artists, and the power of that medium. (Part of me still thinks is all just a big prank perpetrated by Banksy and Shepard Fairey, but they both swear it's 100 percent real, so I'll just have to take them at their word.) Regardless of its truthfulness, Gift Shop is just entertaining. It's funny and thought-provoking and I highly encourage everyone to watch it, even if you have no idea who Banksy or Shepard Fairey are.

The other documentary I saw was Restrepo, and while I don't want to pick a winner from a category in which I've only see two-fifths of the films, if you pressed me, I'd give the Oscar to this war journal about a 15-month deployment at one of the most violent and remote U.S. military outposts in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley. The final few minutes really illustrates just how utterly pointless the war is, and how utterly in vain the sacrifices truly are. After spending 15 months with these soldiers and getting to know them, I almost felt sick to my stomach over what they were put through for no good reason.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

How to Train Your Dragon
The Illusionist
Toy Story 3

Yeah, I didn't see any of these films. But I'd like to. They're all supposed to be wonderful. I thought about leaving this category off my list here, because I have no opinion and am not going to make a pick, but I like animated films and wanted to give a little spotlight to this year's nominees, which I all hope to see soon.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

In a Better World
Outside the Law

And the same as with the animated films, I didn't see any of these foreign language movies either. But they were nominated for the Academy Award, so they must be good, right? Again, I just wanted to shine a light on them. I'm sure I'll see them, or at least some of them, eventually. Just as soon as they show up streaming on Netflix.

And those are my picks. The main picks, anyway. I left out stuff like cinematography and editing and art direction, because, hey, this post is already too long and I doubt you even made it this far. But if you did, you have my thanks. And I hope you enjoy the Oscars, airing Sunday, February 27 on ABC.