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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs. Pick of the Week: New. Sucker Punch, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle




Sucker Punch (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Zack Snyder, 2011  (Warner Bros.)

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 and 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 the 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 that 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, 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 stepdad, will be erased.

More danger abounds at the asylum, in the person of sadistic orderly Blue Jones (Oscar Isaac).  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 the 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 crash out.

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.

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. Snyder has a very classy cast — these actresses have impressive dramatic credentials, and they’ve done lots of 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.) 

Extras:  Both the theatrical and extended cuts of Sucker Punch; Featurettes; 12 Walk-ons with Zack; Storyboards; Galleries; Motion comics.

“If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle” (Three and a Half Stars)
Romania: Florin Serban, 2011 (Film Movement)
We are in a youth detention center — a prison for young men — in Romania: a harsh, sterile, barren place of barracks and fields and metal fences, with a view of the road lying beyond the gates, where the cars pass by. The day has begun; the air seems light, cool.
Silviu , a handsome, brooding youngster and a target of the other prisoners and jailers, is due to be released soon, in two weeks. But something is festering inside him, something dark, maybe dangerous, and somehow connected with his mother (Clara Vodu) and his little brother. Something else pulses within Silviu’s temples, beats inside his chest, helps keep him increasingly disturbed and impatient. Dreams of romance and freedom are triggered by a pretty young social worker, Ana (Ada Condeescu) who comes to interview the prisoners, to whom he is strongly attracted, and whom, Silviu thinks, may be responding to him as well.
So, inside Silviu, the prisoner soon to be released, beats a heart full of love, and a heart full of hate. As the day drags on, we can sense that something is awry, that something very bad may happen, very soon. In Silviu, in the prison, in the jailers and prisoners, something will ignite. Something will explode. Someone may escape. Someone may love. Someone may die. And outside the prison walls, the cars keep passing by.
Florin Serban’s chilling film “If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle,” based on the play of the same name by Andreea Valjean (“U cano Vreau sa Fluier, Fluier” in Romanian), was inspired by real incidents and real prisoners, in real youth detention centers (Craiova and Tichicesti) in the very real country of Romania. The young prisoners in the film are real prisoners (Silviu is a remarkable performance by George Pistereabu), and that helps account for the film‘s extraordinary semblance of physical truth: the way the barracks, halls and the fields by the fences, seem so familiar, the way the boys seem so true, so beaten and believably hostile.
The movie’s emotional truth comes from these young actors and also from the non-prisoners who play Ana and the prisoner director and Silviu’s mother. Every minute of the film strikes a chord, feels like a slice of time, a piece of life — or a time bomb, ticking away.
Romania is the only country I can think of treated by some film critics as a moviemaking auteur (or maybe a maker of auteurs) all by itself. It would be interesting to read a deep essay documenting how and why the current renaissance took place, how films like Cristi Puiu‘s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristian Mungiu‘s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and Corneliu Porumboiu‘s 12:08, East of Bucharest came to be, why a filmmaking style that seems to owe so much to Italian neo-realism and the Czech New Wave evolved and flourished in a country that had previously been one of the most tyrannical and suppressed in the Eastern bloc.
Whatever the artistic springs that fed it, If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle (the title is a taunting and self-flagellating cry of false freedom), is a major prize winner too, taking, among other awards, the Grand Jury Prize at Berlin. I’m unaware of any extensive release here, but it is now available though from Film Movement (browse, an excellent mail order company that offers new international art films each month, in the manner of the old book clubs. Except that you can’t return the films, as you sometimes could the books. Don’t worry. You won’t want to. (In Romanian, with subtitles.)
Extras: Short film Kiss (Netherlands, Joost Van Ginkel, 2010) (Three stars). A soldier and his son prepare for leavetaking; a lyrical anti-war piece; film notes by Serban and others; filmographies.
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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon