Monday, March 28, 2011

On Sucker Punch: Zack Snyder, Pop Art, And The Title Of Auteur

Pop art
Noun - A form of art that depicts objects or scenes from everyday life and employs techniques of commercial art and popular illustration.

Noun - A filmmaker, usually a director, who exercises creative control over his or her works and has a strong personal style.

With SUCKER PUNCH limping through this weekend, ultimately not only losing to critical negativity but also the top box office slot, much has been said not only about the film, but about its director, one Zack Snyder.

However, I don’t quite think that the discussion has been framed correctly.

Formed in the ‘50s by the writers behind the iconic Cahiers du Cinema, Auteur has become the word with which many film critics and historians have connected with the highest quality of art, and the highest rank of artists. Placed alongside names like Bergman, Hitchcock, Fellini, and the like (or unlike, as the theory would be inspired to say), the title of “auteur” has not only signified an artist with a singular title, but also, one who makes the purest and highest quality of art.

Zack Snyder, as much as one person may appreciate his work, doesn’t quite live up to that billing.

That said, the title of auteur fits right at home next to his name, and in quite an interesting way.

Seemingly inspired by the iconic art movement, where as a name like Olivier Assayas may be the “Punk Rock Auteur,” Zack Snyder is the film world’s pop art iteration of the title.

Snyder embodies through his work, particularly SUCKER PUNCH, a film that for all intents and purposes distills Snyder’s style into a potent potion of misunderstood filmmaking, the idea of pop art. A movement started as a response to consumerism, pop art and pop art artists use previously used materials (and in Snyder’s case, genre tropes, more on that in a moment), removes it from its respective context, and subverts it, in whatever way the artist feels works best.

For Snyder, while he may not use previously used images (I’m thinking something like Godard’s LE HISTOIRE(S) DU CINEMA), he ultimately uses many concepts, tropes, or ideas from the public conscience or genre conventions. Take the first true action set piece in SUCKER PUNCH, particularly the trench sequence. Using almost Kubrickian-style tracking shots, the action is seemingly ripped straight out of a film like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, where nameless and literally faceless villains are being shot in various ways, explosions surrounding the camera and the person it follows, and a claustrophobic sense of enclosure.

Snyder, in many instances, is the opposite of a Kubrick style filmmaker. The best signal of this dichotomy is this. While you can literally tell both a Kubrick and a Snyder film from its contemporaries, where a director like Kubrick is ultimately inspired by his own work, Snyder is the polar opposite. There is a moment within A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, where you see a copy of the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY soundtrack sitting in the record store. This is a single that Kubrick had given up being influenced by the past, and instead is now fully his own filmmaker. However, Snyder appears to be the opposite. Even in his choice of source music, it’s rarely ever the original piece (even the Smashing Pumpkins track used in the trailer for WATCHMEN is a neo-rehash/remix of a previous track, with its own history, given its use in a Schumacher BATMAN film), but instead some sort of remix or cover.

Take the opening of SUCKER PUNCH for example. Using a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams,” the asylum where our lead is placed (The Lennox House) is named after the band’s lead singer, Annie Lennox. It’s little notes like this, that prove while Snyder may not be the world’s most gifted filmmaker, there is truly not a single filmmaker like him.

Overall, say what you will about his films, but director Zack Snyder is as true blue an auteur as there is around. Take a single frame out of any of his films (sans DAWN OF THE DEAD, a film that looking back now, is a much more intriguing film given Snyder’s follow-ups), and you will be hard pressed to name another filmmaker that could have shot them. SUCKER PUNCH is a wonderfully interesting distillation of not only concepts that the director has been working through throughout his career, but also his style. A visually arresting, if horribly paced, look at creativity, the freedom it instills, and free will as a whole, SUCKER PUNCH is also the cinematic manifestation of an artist working through his own mind, and everything that makes it up.

He may not be (and truly isn’t) the greatest of filmmakers, but when it comes to auteur theory, he holds the pop art flag proudly.

Friday, March 25, 2011

[REVIEW] - Sucker Punch

While I’m not quite sure he’s the type of filmmaker the originators of the concept known as Auteur Theory dreamed would have fit the bill, it goes without saying that director Zack Snyder does just that.

At least it should, after sitting down and watching his latest film, the action packed fever dream that is known as Sucker Punch.

Chock full of every aspect of a Snyder film that makes up a Snyder film, ranging from empowered women to the discussion of free will, Sucker Punch is the cinematic manifestation of what in writing circles is known as the “vomit” draft of a piece. Getting down everything that Snyder’s 14-year-old brain could put down onto celluloid, it’s been polished into a visually striking, if not perfectly paced, look at free will and the ability that art has to truly free anyone and everyone.

Best described as the proverbial wet dream for director Snyder, Sucker Punch may seem like simple eye candy including dragons, scantily clad blondes and 20 foot tall metallic samurai, but it’s far, far more.

The film follows a young girl, Baby Doll, who is institutionalized by her awful stepfather after the death of her mother, and accidental death of her little sister. Shown a way to retreat to an alternate reality, she learns to not only cope with her past, but make it so her future is a lot more free. Teaming up with a foursome of fellow inmates in the asylum, they head out to attempt and escape the facility and the evil people who run it.

While he may not get any screen time, the film’s biggest star is the man behind both the medium and the message, Snyder.

Coming at an interesting point in the director’s career (after a relatively overlooked animated feature in Guardians Of Ga’Hoole, and before his take on Superman), Sucker Punch looks, feels, and even sounds like the manifestation of everything that Snyder stands for as a filmmaker. Visually, the film ooze’s Snyder’s style. Featuring copious amounts of slow-motion, the film is a candy colored piece of pop art that while it may seem a bit disjointed, is held together firmly by the duct tape that is Snyder’s direction. Using great editing and clever (if a tad bit overused) camera tricks, the viewer flows into and out of each specific world or reality without much of an issue or much confusion. Great action set pieces are all throughout this film, featuring some really well done action choreography, and more so, great use of geography during these set pieces. The viewer rarely feels confused within a fight sequence, and while there are a few brief flubs (particularly near the end), it’s overall really well done, and adds a lot of depth to the film.

Same goes for his use of themes, some new to the director, but some not so much.

At its core a film about free will, the themes of this film may shove a bit too hard into the viewer’s face come the film’s final moments, but it’s an absolutely thrilling look at both free will, and the ability for art to lead to freedom. Before retreating to her alternate universe, Baby must hear music, so that she can dance, which is her transport to this new world. From there, she’s as free as one can get. It’s this freedom through performance or art, that makes this writer think that this film is much more than just a candy coated fever dream with a penchant for short skirts and bullets. Also, the film as a whole plays very much like a personal film for Snyder, who as a filmmaker, comes off as one who simply uses the medium to free himself and the thoughts that he has. It’s a really interesting film that doesn’t harp on its themes too hard, leaving the door open for those to simply enjoy the action, or dig quite deep if one so chooses to.

And it helps when you get such entertaining performances as the ones Snyder has gotten here.

Primarily a female led cast, the on screen star of the film has to be Emily Browning, who may not ultimately be asked to do all that much (her performance comes off as a tad bit one note), but gives a really convincing, and ultimately emotionally engrossing performance. There is something about her and her performance that just truly draws the viewer in, and it has nothing to do with the style of dress that Snyder has her wear. It’s ultimately a really interesting narrative, and benefits greatly from the help of this really fantastic performance.

Being the only real bit of masculinity in the film, Oscar Isaac is enjoyably menacing and just downright despicable here as the evil Blue, the ring leader of things behind the scenes. He’s such an awful guy, that while it may seem like a chance for Isaac to Robin Hood-style ham it up, he gives it this slight level of brooding evil, that it really works. Again, it’s quite one note, but it works for the film as a whole.

And then there is Baby’s crew. Led by the second in command, Sweet Pea, the supporting cast here includes Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens and Jamie Chung. Cornish and Malone are the best of the bunch, playing the sister team of Sweet Pea and Rocket. Both give really fantastic performances, and play as the neo-emotional core for the film, particularly when the proverbial crap hits the fan. The final act is very much centered on their relationship, and it’s both believable, and really moving. Hudgens is wasted here, as is Chung, both of which are relegated to the closest versions of eye candy the film really has cast wise. Carla Gugino plays Dr. Vera Gorski here, and is arguably the film’s weakest link, giving a really cartoonish performance, one that didn’t necessarily have to be what it ultimately ended up being. Silly accent and everything, the performance just felt a bit too cartoonish, and for a film like this, that’s saying a lot. Finally, Scott Glenn and Jon Hamm both give tiny performances here, the former being the most charming, and the biggest breath of fresh air.

That said, the film isn’t without flaw.

Overall, while the film as a whole is one that works both aesthetically and intellectually, the film does have a few issues. A few set pieces here have some issues with pacing, which as a whole seems to be an issue with the film holistically. The film is not without engaging aspects, but it’s these brief lapses in overall pacing (I’m looking at you end of second act/start of third), that really takes the viewer out of the film. Also, near the end, the film’s themes begin to be told to the viewer, instead of simply shown through the narrative as a whole. Toss in a few poor performances, and the film is much more mixed than one would previously have hoped.

However, it’s tough to say that these flawed ultimately effected my experience.

Overall, while it may be so in spite of itself, Sucker Punch is an awe inspiring visually charged piece of filmmaking that is wholly original, and wholly Zack Snyder. From a soundtrack chock full of fantastic remixes and covers to a style that takes things like samurais and ogres, tosses them into a blend, and then uses the remnants as paint to toss on this canvas, Sucker Punch is a piece of modern pop art from the modern day pop art auteur. An interesting look at free will and art, the film may ultimately be deeply flawed, but to say that it’s not an engaging and truly deep piece of filmmaking would be to do this film a great disservice.

Far from perfect, Sucker Punch doesn’t truly try to be. It’s a rough, in your face piece of filmmaking, and one that, if you give it a chance, will leave you talking, not only about what the hell you just saw visually.

GRADE ------ B

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