Thursday, December 22, 2011

Last but not beast -- Beastly (2011)

Squarely aimed to appeal to Twilight fans looking for more Paranormal Teen Romance, Beastly is a modern retelling of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “Beauty and the Beast” set in a posh New York prep school. While the idea of taking a classic fairy tale that has already received a pretty definitive update and melding it with pretty girls wanting sullen boys seems colossally wrongheaded, Beastly honestly isn’t as bad as it could be. That’s not to say that it’s not absolutely gosh-awful, because it is, but it’s gosh awful in exactly the right ways and wraps in a wonderfully slight 86 minutes, making for a delightfully gaudy and trashy slice of “teen” entertainment, as perceived entirely by marketing.

Beastly, as its title suggests, follows the story of the Beast, played by Kyle Kingston (Alex Pettyfer), an obscenely wealthy and vain son of a famous, parentally-distant newscaster (Beastly’s angle is to blame Kyle’s jerkwad nature on his daddy issues, which it works tirelessly in the first half of the movie before dropping entirely in the second). Kyle wins the presidency of some thinly-described school club, and celebrates by publicly humiliating the piercing- and tattoo-laden school “witch,” Kendra (Mary Kate Olsen. Yes, that Mary Kate Olsen), for being a pug-fugly heifer-face, or something to that effect. Kendra responds by turning the pretty boy Kyle into an equally piercing- and tattoo-laden creature of so-called ugliness, though by allowing him to keep his washboard physique and slender build, Kendra effectively makes Kyle a Suicide Boy.

Billboard Dad, this ain't.

Of course, Kyle and his father will have nothing to do with his new, alternative look, and he’s given a private condo overlooking the Hudson, so that he may be spared the humiliation of being seen by other, equally-shallow classmates. In fact, the only person who showed Kyle any non-fake affection before his transformation is the humble, down-to-earth Lindy (Vanessa Hudgens), who attends the prep school on scholarship, tipping the audience off that, because she’s not of privilege, she’s an actually decent human being. Kyle seeks Lindy out and saves her from a murderous drug dealer, letting her stay under his roof until the whole thing blows over. At first, Lindy doesn’t take to him, and balks at his attempts to buy her affection with increasingly-expensive gifts, but as he opens his heart to her, she begins to see his kinder and gentler side, and then it’s all over but the crying (which a friend of mine actually did during our most recent viewing).

You may have noticed my many oblique references to the many material goods featured in the movie. This is because Beastly is, first and foremost, lifestyle porn. I was honestly blown away by the constant name-dropping of expensive brands like Dolce & Gabbona, Prada, and more, as well as the pie-in-the-sky wealth on prominent display by nearly every character, including and up to Kyle’s sky loft condo, which must cost more in one month than I make in one year.

Love conquers all, especially if you're a bad boy with Jay-Z levels of expendable income.

The second thing Beastly is, or wants to be, is a movie about the Teen Experience; it valiantly attempts to punch up its workaday screenplay with modern, “hip” flourishes, and could not sound more forced if Diablo Cody stuck her head in midway through and began rambling on about Sonic Youth and her hamburger phone. Characters—grown characters—arbitrarily start speaking in “teen”-sounding neologisms (describing someone as “tool-y), and several important, plot-related shots are predicated on text messages, darting across the screen in a see-through montage promising dramatic heft (“Can’t be there 2nite. :(” The heart reels).

Combining white privilege, American teenagers, angsty romance, and wrapping it in a fairy tale guise sounds like the most surefire recipe for disaster that Man could possibly invent, but for some twisted, indefensible reason, it kinda worked for me. The over-the-top wealth and gratuitous “teen” vernacular works well with the fairy tale story, helping solidify the notion that the whole movie is a folk tale, but a modern one. Beastly doesn’t feel anymore “real” than Beauty and the Beast must have sounded to its original audience, but its heightened, exaggerated telling works well for the story, in the same way a pet-stained rug can, in the right venue, straight-facedly be presented as modern art.

In the weirdest, peanut-butter-and-sardines way, Beastly kinda, sorta works, though having a few drinks before viewing can't hurt.

In terms of the acting, there’s nothing abrasively “bad” about Beastly, though I’m certain there’s little that can be truthfully described as “good.” Both Pettyfur and Hudgens bring little insight and depth to their characters (beauty isn’t the only thing skin-deep), but their aggressively bland performances truly, honestly contribute to the above fairy tale stylization. More active and altogether interesting are Kyle’s blind tutor Will (Neil Patrick Harris) and live-in maid Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton), who both act as cyphers for Lumiere and Mrs. Potts from the Disney version, respectively. Since both actors realize that most of the audience will not care one iota for their collective existence, they give comically broad performances that don’t necessarily gel well with everyone else in the movie, but still entertain nonetheless.

For reasons my brain will never, ever feel good about, I actually enjoyed Beastly, in a sort of avante garde, tongue-in-cheek way. I will never own it on DVD, and my enjoyment and recommendation comes with a big ol’ asterisk, but if seen for what it is (or, perhaps, what it isn’t), Beastly is a satisfying, amusing exercise in the realm of so-bad-it’s-hilarious filmmaking.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Now groove, sucka! -- Sucker Punch (2011)

In Sucker Punch, the main protagonist suffers from a dissociative identity, in one moment occupying the persona of a 1920s bordello girl, and in another, becoming a badass super soldier garbed in fetish-y schoolgirl gear. How interesting, then, that the movie also suffers from a dissociative identity, unable to decide if it wants to be a look into the struggles of an oppressed young woman rebelling against the system, or an elaborate effort to see how much stereotypical nerd-wank director Zack Snyder can cram into the space 110 minutes, which is easily twenty minutes longer than it should be.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. For Sucker Punch certainly isn’t the worst film I’ve seen this year, and, at a stretch, “works” the way I think it intends to. When all is said and done, though, Sucker Punch simply doesn’t satisfy me, and what should be a fantastic piece of escapism instead glides past my interest like a sparrow into a closed window.

The main plot of Sucker Punch concerns Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young woman put in a mental institution after the death of her mother by her slimy, sleazy stepfather (Gerard Plunkett). Stepdad bribes an orderly (Oscar Isaac) to have her lobotomized in five days’ time; that the orderly is only too happy to oblige is because, I dunno, video games didn’t exist in the 1950s and he needs a break in the monotony every once in a while.

After a yet more exposition, the setting changes, revealing that the mental institution is, in fact, a 1920s bordello, and Babydoll is the new arrival. Babydoll is told that she is to work in the bordello, dancing until the High Roller (Jon Hamm) comes for her in five days’ time. After a set of lessons, Babydoll discovers that her dancing is so wildly captivating, it locks everyone watching into a trance, and she soon uses her newfound abilities to concoct plans of escape. Helping her along the way are overprotective Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish), tomboyish Rocket (Jenna Malone), sweetheart-type Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens), and introverted Amber (Jamie Chung).

They're like the Spice Girls, but with more heavy artillery. And misogyny.

What makes Sucker Punch unique, and what comprises its entire hook, are Babydoll’s dances themselves, which are not actually shown to the audience, but are instead interpreted as a series of elaborate fantasies involving World War I trenches, bipedal mechs, towering castles, zeppelins, zombies, Vulcan cannon-wielding samurai. It’s an impressive cocktail of otaku imagery, and the film’s biggest draw.

On paper, Sucker Punch looks like a breezy, breathless mash-up of everything Zack Snyder thought was cool when he was twelve—an empty-headed thrill ride meant to blow away the audience with its eclectic universe and bombastic action. In execution, though, it buckles under the weight of its own mythos, laboring far too long on affairs in the bordello, and generally acting as though the audience did not attend for the express purpose of watching a fishnet stocking-clad B-52 pilot shoot a dragon in the face with a small-arms handgun.

Seriously, for a movie that sells itself as a fantastical voyage into a patchwork quilt of fan service, it spends a healthy chunk of time (too much, in fact) on the plight of Babydoll and her four cohorts. Ironically, even with the extended character moments, the film’s treatment of Babydoll and co. never becomes meaty enough to become emotionally invested in; each girl has only one or two personality traits, and are difficult to distinguish between after a spell, leaving me to differentiate between them by their different hair styles.

None of the central cast makes much of an impression, creating confusion when they become buried under a mountain of CGI.

Hell, even the much-vaunted fantasy sequences are hard to get worked-up about after the novelty is worn out, due to its lifeless execution. Tearing through a wave of Helgastian soldier with the help of steam punk gadgetry and Modern Warfare-style guns-with-scopes should be damn invigorating, but instead feels tired, drifting from one shot of mind-bending action to another in the sleepiest was possible. Without the ability to sell themselves as fun or entertaining, the movie’s bread and butter—its set pieces—end up feeling like so much cinematic masturbation.

Which is a shame, because the action and scenarios are all outstanding ideas. Perhaps it’s because I, like Snyder, was also once a twelve-year-old boy, and can appreciate how Awesome is the notion of throwing together so many disparate elements of nerdy iconography. And while I feel like the fantasies could have been more exciting, Snyder does a good job of keeping the action clear, refraining from the jump-cuts and shaky-cam that many contemporary action flicks use as a crutch.

The film's over-the-top, nonsensical style is commendable, whenever it isn't suffering from its milquetoast action.

I also can’t fault Snyder for what he wanted to accomplish with the bordello bits, either. Wall-to-wall CG shots of pretty girls using martial arts and heavy firearms could get pretty tedious, pretty fast, and I dig the literal notion of creating a fantasy in order to cope with a difficult situation, but most of the chatter about escape and the High Roller drag the movie down like so many pounds of cinder blocks. Ultimately, Sucker Punch turns into one big game of Why So Serious, plodding where it should be springing, and effectively sucking the joy out of what should be a bats@%# crazy good time.

In truth, perhaps that’s the reason why I’m most frustrated by Sucker Punch. This is a movie I should be hard-wired to like, but its desire to be both a dour character study and phantasmagorical action flick bogs it down. Perhaps it’s worth renting in order to experience the film’s many flights of fancy, but don’t be surprised if you start inventing coping-fantasies yourself.