Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sucker Punch


(Warning: spoilers included)

Marketed as ‘Alice In Wonderland with machine guns’, it is easy to see the instant appeal of Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. Hot girls defying gravity and nature’s ugly gene, slicing and dicing their way through proverbial Nazi steam punk thugs should be an instant recipe for success.

The story itself is simple: a platinum blonde girl named Babydoll deals with the sudden and suspicious loss of her mother when her evil stepfather devolves into taking advantage of her. Baby doll refuses, but her younger sister is murdered by the evil stepdad and Babydoll is taken to an insane asylum to await a lobotomy to hide her stepfather’s sin.

Let me get my bias out of the way before I continue: I am a big Zack Snyder fan, having loved both 300 and Dawn of the Dead, and I respect his take on Watchmen to the point of considering it to be an improvement on lackluster source material.

As with all things visually-based, criticism abounds about story, acting and the meaning of anything beyond shiny images. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy a great visual feast (Inception) as well as a shallow action flick (The Expendables) so I’m not necessarily coming into Sucker Punch expecting a decent story. ??Dealing with dragons, Nazis, planes, and mechanical samurai, Sucker Punch uses the fantasy realm to explore real-world pain and suffering, with the intent to escape and fight back. The motif of fighting back against evil is not an uncommon theme in Snyder’s work (see 300). All of the elements are here for an awesome cinematic experience. With that out of the way, Sucker Punch is a good—even great—film up until the ending.

Yes. I will be spoiling it. Stop reading it now if you value not having the story lobotomized against your will.

Oops. Oh well. Onto the spoilers.

The traditional elements of a Disney fairy tale are taken to the next level, dealing with sexual abuse, insanity, lobotomy and the world’s oldest profession. Thematically, Sucker Punch is darker than Shutter Island and far more bleak and disturbing. Dealing with emotional trauma and one’s desire to escape from evil in the world, Snyder has crafted an emotionally compelling, visually triumphant action fantasy that embraces it’s fantastical roots only to forcibly uproot them by the final ten minutes.

It is impossible to review this film without mentioning the ending because of the narrative and philosophical implications. Frankly, a vast majority of the film takes place within the split second before and AFTER Babydoll is lobotomized. In her mind, she concocted this magnificent scheme within multiple worlds to escape, only for it to be entirely inside her own head. She is lobotomized right on schedule, thus presenting a fatalistic flow that significantly undermines the entire film. However, within the real world, there is evidence that someone did escape, which appears to be a balance to the fatalism. To be fair, the lobotomy has been foreshadowed significantly throughout the story, but the manner in which it is presented doesn’t connect with the film. In the world, there are multiple endings, and it appears that the filmmakers chose the worst of all worlds.

All of that said, Sucker Punch is not as bad as the critics smeared it to be, but I believe the ending fundamentally destroys any fun or emotional or spiritual impact that the film had going for it. Effectively, the ending reduces the film to a nice, emotionally detached screensaver, which is sadly what I wished would not happen.


Monday, March 21, 2011

The Lincoln Lawyer

I really want to begin this review with the oft cliché joke about Matthew McConaughey’s seemingly inability to appreciate the art of wearing a t-shirt. But, frankly, if I had those abs, I would parade them like it was New Years. So I can’t complain.

Thank God those abs don’t make an official appearance in The Lincoln Lawyer. Based on the novel by Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer revolves around a lawyer named Mick Haller (Matthew McConaughey) who works from his car, a Lincoln town car. One day, a rape and assault charge on an alter boy playboy named Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) brings an unwelcome amount of complexity to a seemingly open and shut case.

The biggest potential threat to the film was Matthew McConaughey. I say this with respect towards his past several starring roles, which have been predominantly romantic in nature and I suspected that this trend would continue. Thankfully, I was wrong. Mr. McConaughey carries the film with charisma and ease, giving us a complex look at a seemingly simple shady lawyer. From the very first frame, we think we have Mick Haller all figured out—that is, until we see him outside the courtroom. In private, he drinks to excess and shows glimmers of a lost conscience. The heart and soul of the film resides in him, and he carries it professionally and finds revival.

The biggest compliment I can give the film is that, despite a meager ending, the screenplay briskly carries itself with wit and purpose. Each scene reveals something new, the beats are concise and personal, traces of information streaming in with each passing moment. Couple this with solid acting all around (William F. Macy in a superb yet underused role) and you have two of my usual cinematic gripes already taken care of.

The very theme of defending potentially murderous people is a cliché as old as calling a film contrivance a cliché, but what The Lincoln Lawyer does is something else entirely different—instead of relying on said cliché, it brings forth a fascinating question. “How does a man with something to lose represent a potential criminal, and do so convincingly and without betrayal?” My complaint in regards to the question is that the film is content merely to provide a question without any sort of exploration.

This may seem like another pet peeve, but I relish these sorts of moments in art when you have real characters visibly grappling with something that is monumental and potentially deadly to all involved. To see such an interesting idea exposed and not dealt with did put a damper on my enthusiasm.

Beyond the brisk pacing, stellar acting and solid screenplay, the biggest disappointment for me was the ending. Bringing in several unnecessary twists as to “resolve” everything in fact made everything so neat and tidy that I lost interest ten minutes before the film ended. Thus, the final ten minutes were boring and uninformative. Ending on a higher note earlier would greatly reduce this problem and be more consistent with the established pace of the film. With all said and done, what was I saying about Matthew abs? Oh, right. Happy New Year’s


Monday, March 14, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles review

By N.R. Ahern


As with all alien invasion films, it begins with a bang. Through the patchy smog and suffocating traffic, Los Angeles is as popular with the intergalactic community as a college student in Cancun during Spring Break. When mysterious (to the characters, not the audience) meteors strike the ocean outside Santa Monica, Los Angeles suddenly becomes the favored vacation spot for a whole host of extraterrestrial tourists whose favorite pastime is a little carpet-bombing on the side.

In the fray we have SSrt. Michael Nantz (Harvey Dent—err, Aaron Eckhart), a traumatized marine looking to get out and begin a new life. Pulled back in by the short hairs, Ssgt. Nantz must find a way into warn-torn Santa Monica to save trapped civilians before the Air Force bombs Santa Monica back into the Golden Age of Hollywood. Thus, time—and humanities expiration date—are on the line.

Battle: Los Angeles wants to be different. The problem is, we’ve seen the beginning before: shaky-cam archival stock footage designed to express exposition in the same way one would have Morgan Freeman give a voice over monologue. The cinematography echoes District 9 and anything directed by Paul Greengrass, except the shot composition is amateurish and distracting, often zooming in and out for no apparent reason other than to add “tension.” Couple this with kinetic editing that doesn’t last on a shot long enough to give you any memorable detail and you have an exhausting and aggravating technical grievance.

One of the most intriguing parts of Battle: Los Angeles was the aspect of psychological warfare on the part of the aliens. When the marines enter Santa Monica and encounter resistance, it is unusually quiet. The tactics of the aliens—hiding and distracting marines with otherworldly noise—worked extremely well. Especially with the aliens maintaining the high ground. From a tactical perspective, the film worked incredibly well. Crawling through the ravaged suburbs, the intensity is palpable and often intensely engaging struggle to stay alive against an unknown enemy.

Though saddled with inane dialogue and a less-than original character, Eckhart makes Ssgt. Nantz empathetic enough for us to give a gnat’s fanny whether he lives or dies. Channeling fierce loyalty and intelligence, his performance stands out beyond his faceless fellow soldiers (Ne-Yo, Michelle Rodriguez) who are simply there to scream, shoot and run away.

Battle: Los Angeles tries to put a unique spin on the alien genre by combining the “end of the world hysteria” of ID4, the war tension of Black Hawk Down and the shaky-cam of District 9. However, while the film matched my expectations in the thrilling department, it failed in fully executing the technical capabilities and resorted to cheap clichés of the screenplay variety. In many ways, this film is a disappointment. However, for a film to give aliens tactical advantage and intelligent reasons for an invasion, this deserves praise. So. I welcome all extraterrestrial life to come to Los Angeles to join us in an epic Spring Break. Just stay out of the water and try not to breathe too much.

The review can be read at:


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Always go with the Guild

So since my original post of Oscar picks I have changed several times. Nothing too drastic, but you can't really make truly educated estimates as to who will win at the Academy until the week of the Awards and until the different film guilds have given their awards out. The people who vote in the Academy are all guild members, so their awards are always the most indicative of what will win at the Academy. This year was no exception.

My final picks to win in the major categories were:

Colin Firth for Best Actor

Christian Bale for Best Supporting Actor

Natalie Portman for Best Actress

Melissa Leo for Best Supporting Actress

Toy Story 3 for Best Animated Film

Roger Deakins for Best Cinematography (Wally Pfister received the Award)

David Fincher for Best Director (Tom Hooper received the Award)

The King's Speech for Best Picture

The Social Network for Best Adapted Screenplay

The King's Speech for Best Original Screenplay

In total I was right in 15 of the 19 nominees that I finally predicted. Go with the Guild. It's almost always right. So there weren't any major upsets this year. It's always more exciting when something crazy happens. Oh well, The King's Speech rules. The long run will show that it wasn't a very important film, just like Ghandi and Chariot's of Fire. But tonight its The King of the World.

Here is the original post for comparison:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Three Qualities of Filmmaking: M. Night Shyamalan

Three qualities that make a film outstanding for me are, visual design, the ability to surprise the viewer and the development of a situation that suggests what it is to be human. Visual design is ever present in a movie and it should make the movie you are watching unique. You need to be able to look at a character in a movie as a real person and not just as part of the movie. It is also important to surprise the viewer because if you don't the movie is more likely to feel stale.

[SPOILER WARNING for The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, The Village, and Lady in the Water]

I believe that M. Night Shyamalan as a director does all these things. With M. Night Shyamalan he takes well used ideas as the back drop for the story of his movies and focuses on the people and how they deal with the conflict. In his ghost story the The Sixth Sense he focuses on a boy and his mother and the struggles they have because of his ability to see the dead. In Unbreakable he skillfully highlights the good intentions of a super hero who can save others but struggles to save his marriage from falling apart. In his movie entitled "Signs" he uses an alien invasion as the backdrop of a family’s struggle to accept to the seemingly senseless death of the wife and mother. Each movie is set in natural settings familiar to the average person: An apartment complex, the countryside, a farm. He takes the mundane and adds a unique dimension to it and he makes it feel perfectly natural. He takes chances with his movies that most directors would never even consider. Like Hitchcock, he shows you only what he wants you to see. For example, The Village is not about creatures living in the forest. Instead its about the fear that they represent. Therefore you never see the creatures clearly. He uses colors in his movies to signify different things, The color red was used in The Sixth Sense to signify death. A similar concept is used again in The Villiage where the color red is the color worn by the creatures. In "Lady in the Water" he uses the changing hair color of the mysterious woman Story to draw you into her emotions. For example, at one point in the middle of the film her hair color is dark red which signifies her growing fear and frailty. In Unbreakable after David Dunn realizes his purpose he goes to a subway station in order to find evil people. He has the ability to touch other people and see their past. The different people he touches have brightly colored clothing and the person that David Dunn confronts is wearing orange. Orange is a warning color. The character of Elijah wears purple through out most of the film. Purple signifies royalty and the main character has the name of a major prophet in the Bible. This is meant as a red herring in a sense because it makes you think that Elijah's character is good and was "chosen" to help David Dunn. This helps to create the surprised twist at the end when we discover that Elijah was responsible for the deaths of thousands. In "The Village" the people wear yellow. Yellow signifies cowardice. M. Night Shyamalan uses colors in his films as a method of subconscious story telling. He uses the associations that the different colors bring to mind as a form of unspoken exposition. He also uses them to get your attention in order for you to see what he wants you to see or not see.

M. Night Shyamalan tends to have in his movies mulitple subplots that don't seem to have any bearing on the main plot. Like in "Signs" he has a subplot for each family member, each one seemingly random. But in the end each one combines together to solve the conflict. He also does this in Lady in the Water with an even larger group of people. He tends to challenge traditional plot conventions or he re-invents them. "The Sixth Sense" starts out feeling like a horror film and with the ghosts as the villains. But in the end the only villain is fear. In Lady in the Water there is a certain point where the main character, Cleveland Heap, finds direction from a fairy tale. At the end of the movie the viewer realizes that the movie is the fairy tale.

"The Sixth Sense" gives a few examples of what it is to be human. For example, the character of Cole Searer is afraid of the unknown (the ability to see dead people). But when he comes to accept the unknown (that the dead people want to use him as a conduit to communicate to their family members) he's not as afraid as he was before. As humans we tend to fear the unknown but when we come to understand it we learn to accept it, though some fear remains. Another example is the character of Malcom Crowe. He's dead but he's not aware of it. He ignores all the signs that lead to that conclusion because he doesn’t want to accept it. As humans we tend to ignore warning signs and negative things to make ourselves feel like things are ok. In "Unbreakable" David Dunn is the sole survivor of a horrible accident. He can not understand why this happened to him, so he turns to the Church. He feels like he has a purpose, but he doesn't know what it is. As humans when we go through a life and death situation we tend to head towards God. We also generally feel a longing for something but we can't always figure out what it is. Then we feel that there must be a reason we are alive. This also carries over to "Lady and the Water".

M. Night Shamalan tells the stories of his films through his use of color, surprising plot development and through messages that the average person can relate to. Most of his movies have twist endings but they never feel false or added on. Many critics have tended to put him in a box , they claim he started out good with "the Sixth Sense" and got better with "Signs" . Then most critics hated the "Village" and a few even began to suggest that his earlier movies were not really as good as they had thought before. I personally think his movies take place on a very human level. They are about normal people who deal with unusual challenges. These people are flawed or damaged yet they make it through the hardship better off then they were before. He makes movies that challenge the viewer to reconsider their assumptions and he challenges story telling conventions.

[Note: This is actually a paper I wrote for an Art of Film class I took a few years ago.]

Sunday, February 6, 2011

What it takes to be number 1

"Winning is not a sometime thing; it's an all the time thing. You don't win once in a while; you don't do things right once in a while; you do them right all the time. Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.

"There is no room for second place. There is only one place in my game, and that's first place. I have finished second twice in my time at Green Bay, and I don't ever want to finish second again. There is a second place bowl game, but it is a game for losers played by losers. It is and always has been an American zeal to be first in anything we do, and to win, and to win, and to win.

"Every time a football player goes to play his trade he's got to play from the ground up — from the soles of his feet right up to his head. Every inch of him has to play. Some guys play with their heads. That's O.K. You've got to be smart to be number one in any business. But more importantly, you've got to play with your heart, with every fiber of your body. If you're lucky enough to find a guy with a lot of head and a lot of heart, he's never going to come off the field second.

"Running a football team is no different than running any other kind of organization — an army, a political party or a business. The principles are the same. The object is to win — to beat the other guy. Maybe that sounds hard or cruel. I don't think it is.

"It is a reality of life that men are competitive and the most competitive games draw the most competitive men. That's why they are there — to compete. To know the rules and objectives when they get in the game. The object is to win fairly, squarely, by the rules — but to win.

"And in truth, I've never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart, didn't appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head to head combat.

"I don't say these things because I believe in the "brute" nature of man or that men must be brutalized to be combative. I believe in God, and I believe in human decency. But I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious."

-Vince Lombardi

Once upon a time, many decades ago the Pittsburgh Steelers quite literally meant nothing to football fans. They were awful. For four decades they stunk up the NFL. And during that time the Green Bay Packers dominated. During the 60s they won 5 NFL Championships, the last three consecutively which happened to include the first two Super Bowls. Also those last two NFL Championships were contested between the Packers and the Cowboys. They were extremely close games between very good teams. But both times Lombardi beat Tom Landry, then went on to win the first two super bowls and the Lombardi trophy came into existence. If the outcomes had been slightly different that trophy would've been called the Landry trophy.

The next decade two teams would dominate that competition. One of them was the same: the Cowboys. The other was a new comer to the NFL Spotlight: the Steelers. The Cowboys would go on to play in half of the super bowls of the 1970s, losing 3 of them. Two of those loses came to the Steelers. And the Steelers would become who we know they are today: the most dominant team of the Super Bowl Era.

This year's super bowl is really special because history will be made. Either the Steelers will be the first to win 7 Super Bowls or the Packers will be the 4th franchise to win 4 and have a grand total of 13 NFL Championships, won over the course of the three major eras of NFL history. Either way the outcome is epic. And its all happening on the Cowboys home turf, following one of the worst seasons in Cowboys history. And the Packers had to go through their arch rival Chicago Bears to get here. The only way it could've been more dramatic as if the Steelers had to play either the Ravens or Browns in the AFC Championship game.

These three teams are not truly rivals in the regular sense of the word. They don't play each other that often. But when they do alot is at stake. Three superbowls have been contested between the Cowboys and Steelers. Each time a significant milestone was at stake. The first time in 76 it would determine which franchise would be the third to win two superbowls. The Steelers won. Then again in 79 it would determine which franchise would be the first to win 3 superbowls. The Steelers won again. Then in 1996 it would determine which franchise would be the second to win 5 superbowls, and finally the Cowboys were victorious. But since then the Steelers have won two more superbowls and the Packers have also won another superbowl, and the cowboys have clearly been struggling. What these three teams are competing for each year is not really what other teams are competeing for. Each one is held to a high standard, each one has national attention fixed on them. Each one is severly hated and deeply loved. Each one is in one way or another the greatest Franchise in NFL history. And each one isn't really competing for a Superbowl each year, they are really competing for Greatness in general. And in one way or another each of these three teams has their reputation on the line today. But make no mistake this is one of the most important Super Bowls ever. I hope it's a great one.

I am a true blue cowboys fan, and no matter who wins today it will sting. But they don't call us the cryboys for nothing. The wins are exhuberant and the losses are heartwrenching, they don't do anything small in Texas, as can be shown by how this first Dallas hosted Super Bowl looks to be. This was supposed to be our year. We were supposed to be the first team to play at home for the Super Bowl. But our season went into the toilet pretty quickly. The stakes couldnt' have been higher and we totally choked. And now our only real rivals for the claim of America's Team are playing in the Super Bowl we were supposed to be playing in, on our homefield. But this is such a great end to a crazy season that its hard to be upset.

Before Super Bowl XIX Ronald Reagan performed the coin flip via Satelite from the oval office. And he gave the nation the perfect football prayer:

May everyone do their best,
May there be no injuries,
May the best team win,
And no one have regrets.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Top Ten Most Sublime Rock Songs

I think these are the most sublime rock songs ever produced. They aren't all terribly significant but they all perfectly embody good rock music. Plus they're all awesome!

10. Fade to Black (1998) by Apocalyptica

9. Disarm (1993) by The Smashing Pumpkins

8. Sweet Child o' Mine (1987) by Guns N' Roses

7. Comfortably Numb (1979) by Pink Floyd

6. (Don't Fear) The Reaper (1976) by Blue Oyster Cult

5. Hotel California (1976) by The Eagles

4. Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) by Queen

3. Stairway to Heaven (1971) by Led Zeppelin

2. Layla (1970) by Derek and the Dominoes

1. All Along the Watchtower (1968) by The Jimi Hendrix Experience