Sucker Punch (2011)

Sucker Punch is a movie in which a young woman dances so alluringly that men are rendered dumbstruck, practically catatonic, their eyes glazing over with pleasure. The movie audience never gets to see this amazing dance, but their eyes will be glazing over just the same. It won't be with pleasure, however. A little interpretive dance might have been a nice break from the dumbening effect of Sucker Punch. Director Zack Snyder, who cowrote Sucker Punch with Steve Shibuya, comes out of the more-is-more school of filmmaking. If one explosion is good, 20 are even better. Giant robot samurai demon things? Dragons? Reanimated Nazis? Good, good, good, and keep 'em coming. And if you could make the skirt on that warrior girl even shorter...

You get the picture. But wait, there's more. Sucker Punch is sexploitation pretending to be grrl empowerment, because the girls in the short skirts and lingerie also have samurai swords, big guns, and artillery. Sure, they're captives in a brothel, sexually if vaguely menaced in a PG-13 kinda way, but they're trying to escape, see. Sisters are doing it for themselves. Just, you know, in their underwear.

This is not to say that Snyder (Watchmen, 300) is not an equal opportunity fetishist. 300 featured scantily clad Spartan menfolk with big swords fighting giant elephants and slaves and such, and it was every bit the crappy, loud, visual bombardment that Sucker Punch is. 300 looked like the Frank Miller graphic novel on which it was based. Sucker Punch, although an original creation for Snyder, borrows pretty liberally from Kill Bill, Lord of the Rings, Chicago, Inception and Japanese manga, all dismembered and reassembled and reanimated as the fugue fantasy state of Babydoll (Emily Browning), a Sailor Moon lookalike with platinum ponytails and an itty bitty sailor suit. 

Babydoll has had a tragic life. Her mother died, then her sister died, and her abusive stepfather had her committed to an insane asylum during what appears to be the 1950s. So it's a really bad, snakepit type of asylum where Babydoll is scheduled for a lobotomy. It's so terrible that Babydoll fantasizes that she is instead a captive in a brothel, about to be sold to a mysterious fellow known as "the Highroller" (John Hamm). When Babydoll dances, she goes another level deeper into a fantasy within the fantasy, where she encounters a mysterious mentor (Scott Glenn) who tells her she can free herself by collecting a map, a key, a knife, fire, and an unknown something. Then she has to fight some giant samurai robot things. It's too bad she can't imagine herself into a wildflower meadow with some frolicking unicorns and chirping bluebirds or something. And Oprah could be there. That would be nice. Back in the brothel, Babydoll becomes pals with Rocket (Jena Malone), Sweetpea (Abbie Cornish), Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and Amber (Jamie Chung), who all join in her quest to be free of the brothel's mean, violent pimp Blue (Oscar Isaac). I guess back in the asylum, they all want to escape too. So Babydoll dances her way into one thematic epic battle after another (fight dragons for fire, Nazis for a map, etc.). This requires much slow motion photography, and much leaping, slashing, gnashing, shooting, and blowing things up. Babydoll's imagination looks suspiciously like that of a 13 year old boy who spends all of his free time playing video games. This is also, coincidentally, what Snyder's films look like.

I'm trying to imagine who might enjoy this movie. I can't do it. The suggestive salaciousness isn't titillating, the pretense of female empowerment isn't convincing, the characters are one-dimensional, and the story doesn't even bother to hold together. The movie is all style and visual excess, but it's ugly, overly busy, derivative, and boring. You've see all of this before, even if you haven't seen it all scrambled together in one movie. 


Limitless (2011)

Cognitive enhancement is the topic of much debate among transhumanists and philosophers. Transhumanists are for it -- just think, they say, of all the great things we humans could do if only we were smarter, and could think faster, had longer attention spans and better memories. We could save the world! Or, the skeptics say, we might just destroy it that much faster. We haven't done so well with the brains we have -- we're rapacious, greedy, selfish, violent -- why think that thinking faster or longer or remembering more would be good? Sure, you'd never lose your car keys again, but would you necessarily think and reason *better*? Would you save the world, or just save yourself? Some philosophers wonder if we'd still be ourselves if we were enhanced. Would You+ really still be You? Or does an artificial means of enhancing your brain result in an artificial You?

These are all interesting questions, and since we don't have a magic mind enhancing pill just yet, maybe it's a good time to think about them, before the genie's out of the bottle. But Limitless, about a schmoe who takes a magic pill and finds fame and fortune, isn't terribly interested in these questions. More accurately, the movie is slightly interested in them, but has a lot of other things on its mind too, and a rather short attention span.

The schmoe is Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), a supposed novelist struggling with writer's block. He's stuck on the first word of the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first chapter of his book. Hey, it happens. He's unkempt. His apartment is a hovel. He needs a haircut. His girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish) understandably dumps him, and reminds him (for the sake of moving the plot along) that he was married once, and that didn't work out either. Minutes later, enter Vernon (Johnny Whitworth), brother of Eddie's ex-wife, a drug dealer who just happens to have an interesting new product called NZT. He offers Eddie a free sample, to help with the writer's block. Vernon reminds Eddie that humans only access 20% of their brains; NZT, he claims, will let Eddie access his entire brain. (Actually, the myth is usually that we only use 10% of our brains, and it isn't true, so, you're either worse off than you hoped, or brainier than you thought.) It is worth remembering, at this juncture, what Eddie has done with his brain so far, which is nothing much. Now imagine him doing all that with his entire brain.

But NZT turns out to be a real deal brain booster -- Eddie finishes his book in a few days, tidies his apartment, gets a haircut, learns some foreign languages, improves his vocabulary, and masters the intricacies of stock trading. Lindy is impressed, and takes him back. Vernon, however, is no longer around -- he is cognitively terminated, so to speak, which is an unfortunate side effect of the illicit drug trade -- so Eddie has a limited supply of NZT, and apparently there are other people who want to get their hands on it. Meanwhile, Eddie has borrowed some money from a Russian loan shark (Andrew Howard), who took one of Eddie's pills, and likes the results. Eddie moves on to another career, consulting for tycoon Carl Van Loon (Robert DeNiro) on a big corporate merger. If your head is spinning at this point, it's not because you need cognitive enhancement: Limitless has too many subplots, too many mysterious thugs, too many red herrings. Cognitively enhanced Eddie gets into more trouble many times faster than he did before NZT. And with all the murders, and the armed goons chasing him, and the drug's side effects, and the worse effects of withdrawal, he never gets around to saving the world. Remember that novel he was working on? Apparently he's forgotten it, since that little plotline disappears from the movie, although several more take its place. He's good at fighting though, because with his super duper memory, he can instantly access all the kung fu movies he watched as a kid. Since Limitless eventually turns into the kind of movie where Eddie needs such skills, you can see that it's not nearly as smart or thoughtful a film as it could have been.

Limitless is based on Alan Glynn's novel The Dark Fields, adapted by Leslie Dixon, and directed by Neil Burger (The Illusionist). The film could have profited from a little more focus and attention. It pays lip service to the interesting identity questions prompted by cognitive enhancement, but it is too busy piling on predicaments and puzzles to do more than mention them. Burger adds some nice visual flourishes -- rapid zooms that travels for miles through Manhattan streets, a shower of falling letters, digits that flip on Eddie's ceiling -- all to show how enhanced Eddie sees the world fall into orderly, tidy, manipulable place. 

The catch -- and this is the movie's skeptical thesis -- is that Eddie doesn't do very much with his newfound powers, and what he does do isn't good for him or anyone else. He gets rich, gets girls, gets some shiny new toys, gets into a lot of trouble, and stays the same shallow ne'er-do-well he always was. He's not limitless at all. He remains limited by trifling interests and frivolous ambitions. He may have a four-digit IQ (by his own estimation), but he remains a charlatan and a heel. Close-ups of Cooper's steely blue eyes are frequently used to signify clarity and insight -- Eddie sees a lot more than he used to. But he still lacks moral fiber, and his insights are empty and self-serving. Cooper, who specializes in shallow, handsome, charming characters, is perfectly cast. He makes Eddie a guy who is just smart and funny and likable enough, if you don't look too closely. You can say that about the movie too -- it's entertaining enough, if you don't think about it too much.


Red Riding Hood (2010)

If fairy tales are now being mined as source material for Twilight-derivative tales of angsty, romantically confused teen girls, then expect a lot of these movies before the well runs dry. I suppose it was high time someone wrested the psychosexually potent fairy tale from the sanitizing grip of Disney, but one can only hope they get better than Red Riding Hood (or the other offering currently in theatres, Beastly, an updated spin on Beauty and the Beast)

Red Riding Hood isn't terrible, and director Catherine Hardwicke (who directed Twilight, as well as teen dramas Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown) has made a stylish if frequently silly tale of romantic rivalry and things that howl in the night. As the movie begins, a tomboy named Valerie and her buddy Peter get into mischief, trapping rabbits in the forest. The woods are forbidden territory, but, as Valerie explains in a voice over, she always had trouble being obedient, even though she tried to be good. A good little bunny killer, it turns out. 

Years later, Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) and Peter (Shiloh Fernandez), a woodsman with the spiky, tousled hair of a 21st century alterna-rocker, sneak away into the forbidden woods to be bad all over again. Valerie has been betrothed to Henry (Max Irons), a prosperous blacksmith with dreamy eyes and curly hair. Valerie's mother Suzette (Virginia Madsen) doesn't approve of Peter, who is from the wrong side of the village or something, and whose smoldering good looks make him an obvious threat to her jailbait daughter. Suzette knows too well the poor economic prospects of a handsome woodcutter. She married one too -- Valerie's father Cesaire (Billy Burke). It being medieval times, Valerie can't post of her woes in a status update on Facebook, so for solace, she runs into the woods, to grandmother's house. Grandmother (Julie Christie) wears her hair in dreadlocks and looks like she might have walked straight out of the mud of Yasgur's farm to her little cabin in the wolf-infested woods.

Ah yes, the wolf. A werewolf, to be precise, one with whom the villagers of Daggerhorn have an arrangement. The wolf doesn't kill any humans, and the villagers, in turn, leave him delectable morsels like piglets and goats. Daggerhorn is nestled deep in the mountains, surrounded by forests full of spiky trees. The village looks like a movie set, which, of course, it is. The villagers are dressed in costumes that look exactly like costumes, adding a layer of inauthenticity to the already artificial proceedings. That the snow on the ground looks like sand doesn't help either.

So, the wolf kills a teenage girl, in a field full of hayricks that are mysteriously and distractingly dotted with blue flowers. Well, maybe that happens to hayricks when werewolves are about, especially during a... blood moon! Yes, indeed, the moon is red, and the villagers are all worked up because the werewolf has reneged on the deal. Apparently you can't trust a werewolf, but one wonders how exactly one bargains with a werewolf. Was it a contractual arrangement, or more of a handshake deal? More people die, and a werewolf hunter named Father Solomon (Gary Oldman, tearing off big chunks of scenery and chewing thoroughly for maximal villainy) is summoned. Father Solomon is... how to put this nicely? A lunatic. He arrives in an armored coach with his heavily armed, multicultural contingent of soldiers, and a very large metal elephant. The elephant, he says, was invented by the Romans, which doesn't seem to impress the villagers. The blood moon, he tells the villagers, is an especially dangerous time, for anyone bitten by the werewolf will be turned into a werewolf. He also informs them that the werewolf is no ordinary wolf, but rather a human who walks among them by day. (By night he's a computer generated creation with glowing eyes and my, what big teeth!) Solomon's werewolf witch hunt occasions much sideways glancing as the villagers consider whether their neighbors might be wolves in medieval costumes.

The screenplay by David Johnson combines elements from many versions of the Red Riding Hood story, including the revisionist feminist takes. Red Riding Hood doesn't scratch any deeper than the surface, doesn't explore the hidden meanings or psychological insights of the tale of the girl in red. Instead, the movie froths it up into a tale of sexual rivalry, sexual danger, and monster danger, with some kooky, ravey dancing around the bonfire and whatnot of the sort that downtrodden medieval villagers probably never had the time or energy to do. Especially not wearing short sleeves when there's fake snow on the ground. At various times, Valerie suspects both Henry and Peter of being the werewolf, and the movie plays along, creating all sorts of reasons to suspect both of them. Henry and Peter, being rivals for Valerie's affections, have clunky, awkward scenes in which they vaguely threaten each other like petulant schoolboys. Valerie's got troubles with her inconstant, backstabbing teen girlfriends too.

The movie's main trouble is that it's too long and slow-moving for such a scant plot. The plot, in any case, is packed with silliness, the main purpose of which is to spring a little surprise at the end when the werewolf's true identity is revealed. (It's a disappointment, frankly.) Hardwicke takes advantage of Seyfried's huge saucer eyes, and a goodly portion of the film consists of close-ups of those astonishing peepers, mostly signifying suspicion and distrust, as Valerie tries to detect -- by staring into other people's eyes -- the wolf in their midst. She's not a passive creature (unlike, say, Twilight's Bella, an annoyingly mopey, do-nothing waiting for her prince to bite), and in her way, confronts and invites danger, savagery, and animal lust. She's a pretty little wild thing, and she's armed. In a more committed, insightful movie, she could have been an interesting heroine.


The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

A young New York politician, running for a Senate seat, seems destined for victory. The crowds love him, eat up his hard-luck story of growing up on the tough streets of Brooklyn, of losing his family at an early age. But who is that disgruntled looking man in the crowd, watching the campaign speech? An assassin? And who are the other mysterious men watching the politician, and why are they all wearing fedoras? Do they have anything to do with the embarassing photos that scuttle David Norris's campaign?

Indeed, they did. Norris (Matt Damon) loses the election, but moments before he makes his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballerina. He's head over heels. Even more so when, by chance, he meets her again on a bus the next day. Ah, but there are the men in hats again. The snazzy, retro dressers are members of the adjustment team. Norris is a high maintenance case, requiring frequent "adjustments" because somehow, he keeps doing things that diverge from "the plan." 

That's about all Norris finds out, and about all the audience finds out, in The Adjustment Bureau, a playfully serious metaphysical romance written and directed by George Nolfi, and based on Philip K. Dick's short story "Adjustment Team." (Dick is a seemingly bottomless cup of coffee when it comes to made-for-movies ideas.) Norris learns one more thing: the plan is written by some entity called "The Chairman" (to which I say, please, oh please let it be Frank Sinatra! It would explain the fedoras.).

It's probably not Sinatra, because Ol' Blue Eyes would not stand in the way of true love the way The Chairman does. (On the other hand, Dean Martin said of his fellow Rat Packer, "It's Frank's world and we just live in it.") Norris's caseworkers are Harry (Anthony Mackie) and Richardson (John Slattery), and they get between Norris and Emily again and again. Somehow, the two keep finding their way back to each other, destiny be damned. Ah, but the movie, or the Chairman, has a trick up its sleeve -- maybe Norris and Elise are meant for each other because it's in the plan, or could have been in the plan, or maybe true love is just that powerful. The question is, does it matter? And right there is where this movie quietly and sneakily pokes you right in that spot in your brain where you're not sure why characters in romantic stories are just supposed to be together, that little bundle of neurons where you're uncertain if it would be better if they were destined to be together (and had no choice about it), or if they just truly, madly, deeply, freely love each other, and ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no river wide enough to keep them apart. Does is matter why? Whichever side of the free will vs. determinism divide you sit on, there's no way you want Norris and Emily to be torn apart, not if you have an iota of romance in your metaphysically mystified heart. When Norris makes a run for it, a heart-pounding sprint for true love -- in the rain no less -- it is both a complete romantic cliche, and a fresh, original, high stakes take on the whole star-crossed lovers story.

Clever, that George Nolfi, chairman of the movie that kinda, sorta comes down on the free will side of things, but leaves some wiggle room for chance (not up to you!) and determinism (not up to you again!) when it comes to affairs of the heart. The bureau boys specialize in little maneuvers that nudge people back on plan when they stray, but changes of heart are above their pay grade.

The Adjustment Bureau is lighthearted, sweet, romantic, and a whole lot of other adjectives you don't normally encounter in a metaphysical, vaguely dystopian science fiction movie based on a Philip K. Dick story. Nolfi clearly diverged from the plan here, and created a quick, lively, and unlikely mashup of sci fi and romance that really works. It's smart, thoughtful, and clever too, and made with a minimum of special effects (aside from some nifty geographical thaumaturgy). The Chairman would approve.


Drive Angry 3D (2011)

Drive Angry is the kind of movie 3D was made for: ridiculously violent, filled with objects that fly towards the audience, bouncing body parts (hint: they come in pairs), explosions, supernatural mumbo-jumbo, and vintage muscle cars. In short, it's an unapologetic B movie, a bit of souped-up, turbo-charged grindhouse pulp that is the rare example of a movie in which the 3D is both overkill and an enhancement.

It's a B movie with an A-list actor. That would be -- who else? -- Nicolas Cage, the best actor to routinely and unironically slum it in cheesy genre movies. Cage is the poetically named John Milton. The name is a hint as to his recent place of residence, a little joke inserted for the blank verse fans in the audience. Anyone who follows Cage's career closely will note the frequency with which he appears in movies with otherworldly themes. This one is no exception. There is, however, tremendous variety to his follicular prosthetics -- in Drive Angry, he sports a ragged thatch of straw-colored locks. Milton gets the movie off to a roaring, angry-driving start by gunning down some nameless bad guys, but not before they direct him to Louisiana where an infant girl is in peril. 

The title of Drive Angry is a bit misleading, for it suggests a far simpler and more straightforward plot than this movie actually delivers. Indeed, things get complicated fast for Milton. He meets a feisty waitress named Piper (Amber Heard) who can talk trash and throw a mean punch. She's also got a sweet ride: a 1969 Dodge Charger. Despite serious and compelling reasons not to, Piper rides along with Milton on his quest to rescue the baby -- his granddaughter -- from a satanic cult led by Jonah King (Billy Burke). King's a slippery, sleazy, messianic devil, and has plans to sacrifice the baby on the full moon in order to create Hell on earth or some such nonsense. It doesn't really matter. This is not the kind of movie where anyone can seriously believe that the baby is in any real danger. As props go, the movie pays less attention to the infant than to the curves of all-American automotive steel; the baby is the reason Milton drives from point A to point B, but the growling, purring cars are more importantly how he does it.

King's got lots of followers drinking the satanic kool-aid (and from the looks of them, smoking the satanic meth too), and his henchmen are chasing Milton, while Milton is chasing King. Consequently, there are a lot of car chases and explosions, and lots of killing. There's also some sex, and some sex during a shootout. Milton is an able multitasker, although he stays pretty focused on dispensing vengeance and death. Piper, I am happy to report, is not in the movie to be a romantic and/or sexual object. She's there for the girl-on-girl fighting. While Milton and the Lucifer-lovin' rednecks are making with the epic battles, an elegant, occasionally sadistic fellow who calls himself The Accountant (William Fichtner) is also looking for Milton. The Accountant is unflappable, and seemingly invulnerable to everything except a super-duper antique gun --the bullets have a latin inscription -- that Milton totes. (I love movies that give you a latin lesson along with a show.)

 Drive Angry, directed by Patrick Lussier (who cowrote it with Todd Farmer), is trashy, campy overkill, and a lot more fun than it really ought to be. The plentiful action sequences are delivered with wit and ingenuity, and the movie has low aspirations, which it easily achieves, and then some. Fichtner, as the enigmatic Accountant, gets the funniest lines in the movie, and he makes the most of them with a tranquil, poker-faced performance. As for Cage, give the guy credit, he never phones it in. He can bring the crazy to whatever level of craziness is required. As the dead serious, unholy avenger Milton, he offers up a deadpan performance with nary an ironic wink, even when reciting hokum like "Hell already is walking the earth." Cage is an apparent aesthetic egalitarian who seems to take every role equally seriously. He doesn't always elevate trash to treasure, but he's usually worth watching.