Thursday, February 23, 2012

Movie Review: Sucker Punch (2011)

DISCLAIMER: This post summarizes my initial gushing about the theatrical (PG-13) release of Sucker Punch.  I'm leaving it here because I like it, but I subsequently discovered that the "Extended" R-rated cut found on the Blu-Ray is infinitely superior (because the MPAA hadn't yet ordered it sliced to ribbons).  It actually makes sense, is less disturbing, and far more fun.  For details see my later post.

I really wanted to see Sucker Punch when it came out until I heard a lot of really terrible stuff about it, and I decided to pass. That was really my loss because it turned out to be a damn fine movie. In fact, after liking both this film and the oft-maligned Watchmen, I'm becoming quite the Zack Snyder fan. So why have so many people (especially professional critics) had such strong, violent revulsion to the thing?

Any time that a movie tries to do something that defies expectations, people are more likely to hate it. Most people want to know what kind of movie they're getting in to, and most people who went to see Sucker Punch were led to expect a popcorn action fantasy about girls in schoolgirl outfits chopping up robots with samurai swords. Sucker Punch is certainly that, but only for about 35% of it's runtime. The rest of it is an extremely challenging and convoluted art film.

Now the mere fact that someone would attempt to combine these disparate styles in one movie is shocking enough before we even begin to discuss the sexual issues at the heart of the movie. The moral outrage of many viewers and the metaphorical public spanking that Snyder has received over Sucker Punch prove that he has struck a nerve that probably needs a little more poking.

Sucker Punch is the story of Babydoll, a young girl who in a strikingly disturbing prologue is taken in by her sleazy-as-hell uncle after her mother's death. Sexual abuse is unseen but pretty damn obvious, and beyond this the uncle is scheming to rob the young girl of her inheritance. On one dark night Babydoll pulls a gun on her uncle to save her sister from him, and in the chaos the sister ends up dead.

This provides the uncle with a fine excuse to commit his niece to a mental institution, which is corrupt to the point of implausibility... except of course that this is a nightmare story and the Uncle is all-powerful. The doctors are bribed to swiftly have Babydoll labotomized, but just before the brain-damage is about to occur the movie punches us in our metaphorical guts.

Suddenly we're ripped from continuity and find ourselves in an early 20th century brothel where they're welcoming Babydoll as their newest addition. What's going on? It would appear that this brothel scenario is Babydoll's metaphorical retelling of the few days between her arrival and labotomy. Some have asked why this jump into metaphor was necessary, and I think it is for two good reasons.

First, it makes a commentary on the way that Babydoll views her situation. From her name on down she is presented to us uncomfortably as a fetish object. She's young looking, shy, beautiful, sad, terrified, and nearly silent, which plays into some of the most unsavory male sexual fantasies. In the film's heightened reality, she seems to exist solely as a helpless tool to be taken advantage of by scummy men. It's not much of a stretch for her to romanticize the situation and visualize herself in a brothel, where she exists solely to titillate and please clients (but with an added sheen of class).

Some have argued that Sucker Punch presents an unrealistic world where all men are scum and all women are victims, and it does because... it's a nightmare story. It also may seem like a shock to some members of the audience, but some women really do live lives this painful. Don't their stories deserve to be told? Why must Sucker Punch describe the situations of all women everywhere just because it's about a woman? All guys aren't James Bond after all.

In any case, the girls are each trained to develop a dance that will sell them to the horny men who frequent the establishment. If the dance is successful, the girls' physical services can be purchased. Babydoll is reluctant to dance until she is forced to, and at this point the movie really brings out the big guns of crazy...

You see, when Babydoll dances, her dance is so good, so sexy, so unspeakably raw and carnal that it completely entrances all men in range. Only we don't actually see the dance. We see it visualized as a fantasy action sequence where Babydoll blows the shit out of a bunch of zombie steampunk nazis, or gets into a swordfight with giant samurai mechas. It's awesome as all hell, and it's clear to me what Snyder's doing here. He's making the blatant point that these goofy girls'n'guns fantasies are incredibly juvenile and mean nothing, just like Babydoll's dances. They both play into adolescent male fantasies and give us exactly what we want. She's playing a part, and she knows it.

Once Babydoll realizes that she has this power, she comes up with a plan. In her fantasy, a wise Old Man has given her a list of four items that she needs to find to secure an escape. Her plan is to dance (which every man in the film will drop anything to see), while her fellow brothel-inmates steal the things they need from the incapacitated audience. The other girls in the brothel all have similarly fetishized names like "Blondie", "Sweet Pea" and "Rocket". All find themselves in the same position as Babydoll: seemingly born into a life as a thing, not a person.

Meanwhile, the dance-fantasies take the form of video game fetch quests that mirror the theft taking place in the brothel. These are set in a constantly evolving fantasia of male id, full of ridiculously complex scenes of mayhem and kinetic frenzy. No, the characters in the fantasies are in no danger of death, but Snyder's visual flair makes the sequences impossible to look away from. The imagery is astonishing, and while I'll admit that Snyder overuses slo-mo like he's John freakin' Woo, it works to great effect about 80% of the time. Who cares when everything's this beautiful?

Of course the characters in the brothel (and by extension in real life) are very much in danger of death, and therein lies the conflict. The fantasies become more and more difficult to maintain as the male characters begin to catch on to what's going on. Meanwhile, her dance is so impressive that her virginity is soon to be sold to an important high-roller, so time is not on her side.

This leads me to the second reason the brothel scenario works. It's strongly implied that in "reality" (the asylum) she's not just dancing, if you catch my drift. (EDIT: This actually isn't the case, as the R-rated cut reveals the film's plot to be less unsavory than I had imagined.  Another example of how making things more vague can cause the audience to imagine something far creepier)  The asylum is such an unspeakable nightmare world that it would be fairly brutal on the audience to spend more than 15 minutes there. Keeping things removed with another layer of fantasy allows the story to become that much more unreal, and something we'd actually enjoy watching.

With Sucker Punch, Zack Snyder is selling what is sadly a revolutionary moral: Sex is not by default degrading and terrible. A woman can be a sexual being, and even play into male stereotypes without being "impure" or "a whore". We're all used to fantasy characters like Lara Croft who are impossibly proportioned, but really just run around shooting people. Babydoll actually uses sex as a weapon. If she's going to be cast as a girl who's a fetish object, who's "clearly asking for it", she's still going to get the last laugh. At one point the ultimate put down is delivered to a villain: "You will NEVER get to have me... EVER.".

The biggest problem with Sucker Punch is the demands Snyder makes on his audience. It's a tough universe and moral for many viewers to swallow, and piling on plot complications and layers of abstraction means that most people aren't going to care enough to put in the effort required to unravel it all. It's incredibly hard to follow, there's no disputing that. There's nothing wrong with seeing a film and deciding that it's too much effort to be worth your time. That doesn't make you stupider than me, it just means that the movie didn't work for you.

Since I am a guy who loves to work his brain while watching a movie, even one with exploding runaway trains and robots, I loved every inch of Sucker Punch. Snyder's goal is a noble one, and the film's got style to burn, and is gripping to watch. It was definitely hamstrung by it's studio-enforced PG-13 rating and I will always dream of the R-rated masterpiece it could have been (EDIT: You don't have to dream!  Watch the "Extended Cut" on the Blu-Ray). But I have a feeling that some members of the audience who are in fact young victimized women may react to it most positively of all. This is not Babydoll's story, it's theirs.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Random Music: Bad Religion - "No Control"

This is the first in a hopefully recurring feature called Random Music.  I have about 600 CDs in my collection, and I'm going to randomly pick one to review using a number generator.  The advantage to this is that I won't always be reviewing something that I think is the best ever, and hopefully it will be more interesting that way.

That said, some bands are more likely to come up than others simply due to how many of their albums I own.  One of these is Bad Religion, whose music I devoured like a ravenous animal in college.  In fact, the first BR album I bought is today's pick, "No Control".  This is the disc that got me hooked on BR, and it definitely delivers the goods. 

For those unfamiliar with the boys in Bad Religion, they're one of the most influential melodic punk bands in history.  The recipe is fast guitars, ear-wormy melodies, lyrics that could only come from a man with a thesaurus on hand at all times, and of course those trademark vocal harmonies (a.k.a. the "Oozin' Aahs").  Frankly, if you've heard one BR album you've heard most of them, putting aside the fact that they have been slightly evolving over their 30 year history.  And then there's the odd experimental record that they release, which I love and punks rip apart for not being punk enough.

"No Control" is frequently cited as one of their best records, though I don't agree by a long sight.  It's smack in the middle of their "classic" period, between "Suffer" and "Against the Grain", and all three albums have variations on the same sound.  Honestly, I think Bad Religion got more interesting when they began experimenting and writing more than one kind of song, but punks tend to hate change and BR have always been sadly weak against peer pressure.

All the same, there's some awesome music here.  "No Control" marks the full flowering of Bad Religion's vocal harmonies, and it's honestly got some of the best group vocals that the band ever recorded.  I can imagine that it really knocked listeners on their asses back in 1989, as it knocked me on mine in 2001.  Yet I rarely listen to it today for a few reasons, chief among them the crummy production.  The vocal harmonies are mixed well, but nothing else is.  Greg's lead vocals are performed well but buried in the mix with the guitar lines in a big tinny messy stew.  The bottom end essentially doesn't exist, and the bass might as well not be there except in one or two tracks.  Worst of all, the drums are almost inaudible when anything else is playing. 

The drum problem is exacerbated by how ridiculously fast the songs on "No Control" can be.  I know that conventional wisdom says that Bad Religion are only good when they play fast, but conventional wisdom also says that creative songwriting is "selling out".  When a band plays this fast they need crisp, clear production like Slayer had on "Reign in Blood".  When you can't even pick out the drums, it all becomes an admittedly candy-sweet buzz or hum.

This combined with the fact that this album feels like it's only 15 minutes long means I don't frequently spin it.  But randomly choosing "No Control" today had the benefit of reminding me why I liked it in the first place.  Greg Graffin turns in one of his career best songs with "I Want to Conquer The World".  The lyrics are cynical yet ridiculously fun to scream along with in the car: "I wanna conquer the world / Give all the idiots a brand new religion" "Do away with air pollution and then I'll save the whales / We'll have peace on earth and global communion".  This one song has created many new BR fan all on it's own.

At the same time, Brett Gurowitz comes up with the first classic "Mr Brett" song in "You", showcasing his off-kilter, more personal lyric style married to a melody that shifts constantly and carries the listener to all kinds of places.  "Henchman" is another masterpiece, blasting out more tempo and melody changes in a single  minute than one would think possible, leaping out of the speakers from the first note to shake you violently.  And the sudden harmony burst in the bridge of "Anxiety" was the moment I truly realized that I loved Bad Religion.  It's so unexpected and perfect that I don't think the band has ever bettered that one moment.

So "No Control" really is a fine record.  Personally, I'm more likely to spin "Suffer", as that album is more crisply produced and consistent.  At the same time, the importance of this disc in the band's history can't be denied, and more Bad Religion is almost always a good thing.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

On Chris Brown and Something About Music or Whatever.

Apparently the Grammys happened this year, regardless of their increasing irrelevance.  Then again, I shouldn't be too dismissive of them.  While nobody seems to really care about who got what award, everyone sure seems to care about how much other people hate Chris Brown. 

Chris Brown, by the way, is a woman-beater.  That much is not really in dispute.  He's also an accomplished and talented vocalist.  Certainly, he's not the first talented musician who has been arrested for beating their significant other.  Hell, name a felony, and there's probably a few well-known celebrities who have committed it.  For the most part, we hear the news stories and let them go.  Why do some people's reputations stick around?

Quick!  Name a musician who once assaulted their woman! Chris Brown... Bobby Brown... Ike Turner...  The only times that we tend to consistently identify a celebrity as evil is when they are a domestic abuser whose victim is also a beloved celebrity.  Do you think anyone would remember any of those cases if they had beaten someone that nobody heard of?  Nope.  But because we get all choked up about poor Rihanna, it sticks around.  I'm not saying Rihanna shouldn't have our sympathy, and she has certainly received it.  But why bother getting all sanctimonious about putting Brown on some sort of eternal blacklist when so many other celebrities don't get nearly the same coverage?

It's not like Chris Brown constantly writes songs about how much fun it is to beat up women.  And if I stopped ever buying CDs from anyone who's ever done anything I don't approve of, then I'd have to sell most of my music collection.  Heck, most of the time that people do terrible things, nobody ever finds out.  So let Chris pay off his debt to society like everyone else and let's move on.  Just don't go on a date with him.  And instead of sitting around concerning ourselves with the personal lives of celebrities why don't we just enjoy their art and live our own lives?

Saturday, February 4, 2012


KMFDM are a group that I always felt should be more popular, i.e. something you'd hear on the radio.  I suppose since industrial goth clubs don't run radio stations, there's your reason.  For those not familiar with the band, they've pretty much defined industrial dance since their beginnings in the early 80's.  If you've ever been to a goth club, you've heard KMFDM spun by the DJ when the mood gets too gloomy.  The band's sound is dark and scary, but their songs are so much fun that they are a certain type of person's ideal pop group.  Part of the fun of KMFDM is their attitude, as they fully embrace being a package with an ironic glee.  Their album covers all look the same (just with a different illustration), and they make it a point to almost exclusively use album titles with five letters for no good reason.  They embrace fascist imagery openly, and write an awful lot of songs that are just about KMFDM and how you need it, whatever it is.

The problem with KMFDM is that they put out an album about every six months, and they're all pretty much interchangeable.  While it is indeed funny that the band knows this, and openly declares many of their albums to be unnecessary (but you'll buy them anyway), it does mean that I can't really be bothered to follow them regularly.  Surprisingly, their new album "WTF?!" is pretty damn essential.  While I haven't listened to any of their albums since "NIHIL" too carefully (and haven't really cared about any of them deeply except the great "ANGST"), this disc makes me wonder what I've been missing out on.

One listen to the single "Krank" should perk up your ears.  I must say I've never heard a KMFDM album with production quite this good, and the song is a perfect rave-up with a typically sloganeering hook ("KMFDM is the drug for you!") that made me feel right at home.  But soon the album's true agenda becomes apparent: This is a very experimental effort.  While some of this band's albums could just be put on shuffle and keep a dancefloor moving pretty well, "WTF?!" doesn't quite fit that bill.  Many of the songs blend into one another, mostly because they're all so shifty and hard to pin down.  For example, the stunning "Lynchmob" at one point quiets down to the point that the drums dissappear(!), leaving Sascha quietly, melodically singing over a piano line.  Somehow, the beat never gets lost, and when the beat drops back in, it's devastating.

I wouldn't call "WTF?!" a concept record exactly, because it revisits themes that are pretty standard KMFDM territory.  Still, it holds together far more cohesively than I ever would have expected from the band.  The prevailing theme is that the minority (however you want to interpret that) has been oppressed by it's leaders long enough, and KMFDM rebel forces are going to take back the world for the people.  Each song seems to approach this from a different angle.  By the end, there's a tangible sense of the inevitability of a popular uprising, along with the potentially frightening possibilities of violent revolution.  Again, not exactly a plot, but it works.

Good thing KMFDM has the musical goods to back this stuff up.  It's also nice that every few songs they throw in a blatantly catchy single to keep the audience hooked.  A lot of this can be attributed to vocalist Lucia Cifarelli whose more feminine, melodic style offsets longtime KMFDM ringleader Sascha Konietzko's agression and coldness perfectly.  While Sascha keeps the war effort churning with frightening blasts like "Panzerfaust", Lucia is the seductive face of propaganda, luring the listener in further.  On "Rebels in Kontrol", she delivers an aggressive but irressistable rap performance that I would not have expected from this group.  Her shining moment is "Take It Like a Man", which sounds unmistakably as though Madonna had decided to become a dominatrix.

The most shocking moment is the parting shot "Death & Burial of C.R.", probably the scariest possible rendition of the supposed children's rhyme "Who Killed Cock Robin" that could ever be performed.  Beware falling asleep to this record because this song will give you nightmares.  At the same time, I really admire the band's balls in going this far afield from their usual style.  I's legitimately creepy, not just a cheap scare.  Thematically it works as well, because such a grim, death-focused poem is the perfect coda to an album about revolution.  Who would have thought KMFDM would ever make me think this much?