MCN Columnists
Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Sucker Punch, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, Monogamy


Sucker Punch (Two and a Half Stars)

U,S.: Zack Snyder, 2011

Great visual effects. Lousy script. That seems to be a consensus on Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, even among some people who like it. And I guess I’d agree. Sort of. The movie is too incoherent and confusing to be really counted a success, too brilliantly executed on many technical levels to be dismissed as worthless trash. And even if that’s what’s wrong with many big studio movies today — they tend to give us stunning technique and visuals at the service of half-baked scripts or woefully unrealized ideas — well, stunning technique is nothing to sneeze at. Sucker Punch has it.

But what is this complex, flashy, elaborately designed, rock-’em sock-’em show about really? Freedom? The World of the Imagination? Or just Babes with Guns in Hot Pants?

In Sucker Punch, Snyder and his co-writer (first-timer Steve Shibuya) and his tech people, employing every trick at their disposal, hurl us into a bizarre mish-mash of Dickensian evil-stepfather melodrama, film noir asylum horror, Phil Dick alternative world sci-fi, girl power kick-ass comic book action, Cabaret or Moulin Rouge-style decadent pop song and dance numbers (dances that we don’t actually see, but which are suggested and maybe existed in some alternative movie), a peculiar psycho-soundtrack of ’60s (and ’70s) pop song nostalgia that includes versions of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “I Want it All,“ and The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” mashed up with classical excerpts from Mozart’s Requiem and Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, echoes of that great 1984-ish dark comedy Brazil (see it immediately, if you haven’t yet, so you’ll know what this movie could have been) — and, the piece de fucking resistance: three different video game battle sequences set in 15th century Japan (Samurai Sucker Punch), World War I trenches full of robots (WWI Sucker Punch) and on a distant future planet, where fire-breathing dragons pursue our scantily clad heroines aboard speeding trains while scorching the planet-scape around them (Alien Dragon Sucker Punch).

What brought all this on, besides a desire to knock millions of moviegoers right on their ass? Well, if you try to follow the plot — and it isn’t easy — you’ll find that Sucker Punch is centered on blonde, supersensitive, hyper-imaginativer, victimized-but-yearning-to-be-free heroine Babydoll (played by Australian actress Emily Browning), who witnesses her evil stepfather’s rampage and her sister‘s death on a stormy night, and then is arrested and committed by her stepdad (played by Gerard Plunkett, who looks like Anthony Hopkins’ mutant nephew) to a Vermont mental institution. There she is scheduled for a lobotomy in five days, and all her dangerous memories of that night, plus any threats to the evil stepfather, will be erased.

More danger abounds at the asylum, in the person of sadistic orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac) an immense, bad, horny cook (Malcolm Scott) and the guy who‘s going to perform the lobotomy (“Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm). But there’s one seemingly nice middle-European-accented psychiatrist, Dr. Vera Gorski (Carla Gugino), who believes in music and dance therapy, plus four plucky, pretty inmates — Abbie Cornish as more cautious Sweet Pea, Jena Malone as Sweet Pea’s more reckless little sister Rocket, Vanessa Hudgens as the spicy brunette Blondie, and Jamie Chung as resourceful Amber — all of whom Babydoll befriends, and with whom she makes plans to escape.

So now Babydoll begins to descend into the lands of dreams, and the movie into torrents of CGI and confusion. Is this Babydoll’s cell or Dr. Gorski’s dance therapy studio, or a fancy bordello-night club run by orderly-turned-director-pimp Blue, where the five girls dress up in sex-doll outfits and hot pants and, in the vein of Marat/Sade, prepare to perform before rich society degenerates in a kind of lunatic pole-dancing show? In any case, as Babydoll dances, at regular intervals, in her mind, she and her buddies all wind up in those video-game battle sequences — Samurai, World War I and Alien Dragon — which are supposedly the visions Babydoll summons up while doing these dances that we don’t see. (Maybe they’ll pop up in the DVD deleted scenes section.)

There are only five days until the lobotomy, and, according to somebody in the deepest dream called the Wise Man (Scott Glenn), there are five things they must find to win their freedom: a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a mystery. Glenn, doling out weapons and aphorisms, posed before banners with couplets from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, looking and sounding a bit like David Carradine in Kung Fu,   keeps dispensing wisdom like “If you don’t stand for something, you‘ll fall for anything.” (I don’t remember Wise Man saying “When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” but maybe I was distracted by those super-heroine hot pants outfits.)

Snyder and co-writer Shibuya have the beginnings of provocative, engaging or at least usable ideas. But, despite all those snazzy visuals, the script tends to sabotage the movie with corny short cuts and wild overstatement. And even as Sucker Punch soars to sometimes crazily amazing visual heights, it doesn’t give us enough down-time in “reality,” the asylum scenes where Babydoll is in a cell, and Blue is a nasty orderly.

 Without more of those scenes (and, after all, they’re the reality from which Babydoll is trying to escape) the movie tends to get drowned in its own visual bombast. The acting is also so archetypal and unreal that for a minute or two at the beginning, I thought I was watching not actors but motion-capture cartoons. (Maybe I was.) Isaac has a big dramatic scene where, to use an old critic-ese crack, he “Out-Herods Herod,” and Snyder shoots it as if it were something out of A Woman Under the Influence or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — which it doesn’t deserve.

Snyder has a very classy cast — these actresses have impressive dramatic credentials, and they’ve appeared in ambitious or demanding roles — but nevertheless, he dresses and photographs them most of the time like hookers and action-cuties, even in the thick of battle. Empowerment? Maybe. But this is Babydoll‘s dream, not her evil stepfather’s. (Maybe that’s the point.)

At various times, Sucker Punch exhorts us, “If reality is a prison, your mind can set you free,” and “Close your eyes. Open your mind, You will be unprepared.” That’s all well and good, wise men. But here, it’s more a matter of “Open your eyes, and close your mind.” Talented and energetic and sometimes wildly imaginative moviemakers like Snyder know how to fill our eyes all right, but not always our minds. And as a wise man once said, “If you won’t stand for something, you‘ll fall for anything.”

Will Sucker Punch knock you on your ass? Maybe. But Snyder probably could have used another writer working with him, one who wasn’t a visual effects specialist, to smooth out the edges, make it more human, dramatize it better, and work up the reality that feeds the nightmare. Critics so far have tended to jump to extremes on this movie, either drenching it in venom and hate, or drowning it in gush and blather. But I’d tend more toward a middle position. It’s overwrought, but imaginative. It coulda been terrific maybe, but it isn’t. Better luck next time. (Which, for Snyder, will be the next Superman.)

Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 (Two Stars)

U. S.: David Bowers, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid — based on Jeff Kinney’s highly popular illustrated book series about a kid who complains a lot, the kid’s best buddy, his family and his tormentors at middle school — was a better than average family movie that took place in one of those squeaky-clean movie suburbs, where everyone has a bit more expensive-looking house than they should have, and the central character (Greg Heffley, the wimpy kid who keeps the diary) has a steady wave of comic mishaps until the SPOILER ALERT happy ending. END OF SPOILER.

It wasn‘t a bad movie — it wasn’t a particularly good one either — but it succeeded with audiences because it had a definite viewpoint (Kinney’s deadpan, somewhat dyspeptic take on boyhood) and because it had two marvelous, just-right actors in the roles of the smart–aleck little whiner Greg (Zachary Gordon) and his chubby, good-tempered best pal Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron).

These two were as good a pair of child actor movie chums as I’ve seen in quite a while. They were both smart and they had the kind of complementary personalities (Greg acid and Rowley sweet) that best friends often have. They also both had very good comic timing, lots of rapport with each other and the contrasting styles and personas of the classic comedy team. Faster-talking Greg was the smooth, manipulative straight man, slower Rowley was the over-enthusiastic clown. They really clicked.

The rest of the cast wasn’t bad either: Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris as Greg’s parents, Frank and Susan, Devon Bostwick as Greg’s smarter-ass older brother Roderick, and a gallery of school chums, classmates and playground nemeses that included Grayson Russell as the freckled Fregley, Karan Brar as the diminutive ——Chirag Gupta, and Laine MacNeil as Greg’s thorn-in-his-side bully Patty Farrell. They’re all back, and the filmmakers have recruited a new face: cute little Peyton List to play cute little Holly Hills, Greg’s blonde dream girl. (One type we don’t have here is a male playground bully or two, which is strange, because that’s one movie cliché that happens to be true to life.) And the script and Thor Freudenthal’s direction were bright and zippy.

There isn’t as much of the kids in the sequel (also based on Kinney’s books, with Kinney as executive producer). And there isn’t as much of Greg-and-Rowley as a team either. The movie focuses instead on the contentious relationship between Greg and Rodrick. And though Bostwick is a good actor, with lots of presence — he‘s playing a party guy, lazy manipulator and wannabe rock n‘ roll drummer of limited talents for a group called Loded Dyper, and he wears lots of eye makeup — the chemistry and friction aren’t as strong between the two brothers as they were between the two buddies.

Greg and Rodrick don’t look like the kind of brothers who might hang out. (Bostwick is way taller than Gordon, and a bit older.) And it doesn’t strike a real chord when Mom Heffley tries to get them to mingle more by bribing them with “mom bucks.” Also, Rodrick has Greg’s worst qualities (laziness, selfishness, a kind of Eddie Haskellish sneakiness) magnified.

It’s true that young brothers are often on each other’s case — I can still remember, from my elementary school days, the sight of my chubby pals, the Gates twins whaling the tar out of each other in the playground — but brothers like that tend to be closer in age. (A few grades difference is an eternity in middle and high school.) The screenwriters, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, supposedly wrote more of Rowley into the story here than there was in the original book. But they probably should have written in even more, created a lot more tension, for example, between Rowley and Rodrick.

All of which says, I guess, that this movie isn’t written as well as the first. And it isn’t — though Sachs and Judah worked on the first movie, along with Jackie and Jeff Filgo, who are absent here. Present though is the production designer Brent Thomas and once again he and his set-dressers, who barely put a book in Greg’s room in the first “Diary” (instead his shelves were packed with ceramic bird bowls and horse statuettes), create a room more suggestive of a boy who will grow up to be an interior decorator or a production designer, than one who already writes a diary (and insists that it‘s a “journal“), and whose mother writes a local newspaper column (on parenting).

Here, they’ve thankfully included a few more books around the house (maybe more critics than me complained), and some of them are thoughtfully, and very carefully, opened and lying on desks and tables. But it still doesn’t suggest the book-friendly environment of a future writer — and it probably doesn’t even suggest the environments of actors Gordon and Capron, both of whom we‘re told in the press notes, “love to read.”

I bet they don’t have ceramic bowls and paintings of hens on their bookshelves, as Greg’s room in the first movie did. In fact, if there’s a “Diary 3” or a TV series (and there might well be), I hope the designers get off this pretty-room kick. I dare, double-dare, triple-dare, them to include twice or three times as many books in Greg’s room as they have here, which still won’t be all that much.

Another thing. I realize it isn’t her fault, but Rachael Harris as Mom Susan, began uncomfortably reminding me of Sarah Palin, perhaps because she plays Susan a little hard and brisk and over-smiley, as if she didn’t want the audience to think the wimpy kid had a wimpy mom. Maybe, but I didn’t want to see Sarah Barracuda either. (I realize millions apparently do.) Correspondingly, Dad Frank tends to fade into the background, which is a criminal waste of Steve Zahn.

When you’re a kid, everything can be ecstasy or torment, triumph or tragedy. The whole word is brighter, nearer. So I don’t mind the Spielbergian sunniness of either of the “Kids.” But Diary of a Wimpy Kid 2 has a new director, David Bowers (of the cartoon features Astro Boy and Flushed Away), instead of Freudenthal, and I don’t think Bowers did as good a job (maybe because he didn‘t have as good a script). To Bowers’ credit though, he lets Loded Dyper play  mediocre to bad in their last scene, and encourages Harris to her funniest moments, pugnaciously cheering the band on.

Yet the movie still has Gordon and Capron, even if it keeps them separate for far too long. (They do join up for a funny malfunctioning magic act at the end.) Let’s hope these kids stay happy and don’t start feuding, like Martin and Lewis. Comedy teams, like childhood, sometimes last too short.

Monogamy (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Dana Adam Shapiro, 2010

The first dramatic feature of writer-director Dana Adam Shapiro, who made the documentary Murderball, and not bad: Chris Messina plays a photographer whose marriage (to Rashida Jones) is rocky, and whose business, called “Gumshoot”  — surreptitiously photographing clients who want to track themselves — is pretty peculiar. Especially peculiar is his assignment to shoot a sexy young lady (Meital Dohan) who likes to expose herself in public. This movie is too often reminiscent of other, much better films (Blowup, Rear Window, A Short Film About Loving), and the subpar dialogue suggests the use of improvisation in a more forced way than Loach, Cassavetes or Leigh. Bur Shapiro tells his story well visually.  And the New York City atmosphere gave me a shot of nostalgia. Winner of the Tribeca Film Festivals’s Best New York Film Award.  (Facets)

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