Thursday, March 31, 2011

Opposite ends of the spectrum: "Jane Eyre" and "Sucker Punch"

After several failed attempts to make it to the theater (please stay in Boston one more week, Of Gods and Men, I'm on my way), I managed to sneak in two viewings, and they were different, to put it mildly. One was an adaptation of a classic novel, and the other quickly revealed itself to be the wet dream of a 13 year-old anime/video game love trapped in a man's (and director's) body.

**I've also fallen woefully behind on the 30 Day Movie Challenge. Expect a massive catch-up post by the end of the week.

Jane Eyre - dir. Cary Fukunaga:

A brief disclaimer: I haven't yet read Bronte's classic novel. However, whether or not Fukunaga's film (from Moira Buffini's script) is faithful or not, the director's second film is a moody success, if a bit on the minor side. Opening somewhere in the middle of the story, we meet Jane (Mia Wasikowska) straggling across an empty, rainy English landscape. And from these opening moments, Fukunaga establishes his "bold new vision" (quoth the trailer) of Bronte's classic, and it really works. The first shot of Jane is practically a silhouette, appropriate considering how much of the color is infused in the sets and costumes. Fukunaga's film is sparse and generally un-romanticized, yet feels complete and quietly captivating.

And even though it's obvious that some sections of the novel have been trimmed or cut altogether, there's a steady, constantly engaging feeling that arises from the unhurried pace. Key to all of this, of course, is Ms. Eyre herself. Having successfully launched herself into the American conscience in Tim Burton's Eyesore in Wonderland 3D, Ms. Wasikowska is actually able to show off her capabilities as a leading lady here, and she does so with understated skill. I can't speak to whether or not she lives up to previous cinematic Jane Eyres, but she's certainly a damn good one, and her ability to communicate so much in the nuances of her performance, rather than through histrionics, is one of the film's greatest strengths. Matching her is Michael Fassbender as the conflicted Rochester, with whom Ms. Wasikowska has surprising chemistry. A conversation after Jane saves Rochester from small fire in his room, shot almost entirely in shadows, achieves a spectacular level of intrigue and hinted romance that is darker and sexier than anything Megan Fox (or her interchangeable counterparts) has ever done on screen.

Fukunaga's film also benefits from a roster of smaller roles (Jamie Bell, Sally Hawkins, Judi Dench), striking cinematography, and a delicate and dark score from Dario Marianelli (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement). However, despite its strengths, there are a few unfortunate missteps that even someone who hasn't read the book will be able to see. While Fukunaga's choice to open in the middle of the story works, when he returns to that point in the story, he lingers for too long, repeating too much footage as if he wanted to reach a specified run time by any means necessary. And in trimming down Bronte's work, certain scenes and character developments come across as too quick. When Mrs. Fairfax (Dench) mentions that Jane has been working at Rochester's mansion for three months, the revelation comes as surprise, as there's nothing resembling a transition to give us a feel for the passage of time. Similar events populate the rest of the film, to minor detriment. Yet while it isn't a masterpiece, or the new definitive silver screen "Jane Eyre," Fukunaga's second film establishes him as a diverse and daring director, one whose strengths far outweigh his shortcomings.

Grade: B/B+

Sucker Punch - dir. Zack Snyder:
I said that the two films in the post were on opposite ends of the spectrum. However, now it's time to see how extreme their opposition is. Having won legions of fans and haters with his first two films (300 and Watchmen), Mr. Snyder's latest film (his first non-adaptation) will likely only increase the passion with which people love or hate his work. Co-writing and producing an entirely Snyder-riffic vision, Sucker Punch can best be described as a CGI-flooded, faux-feminist clusterfuck of epic proportions.

It opens with surprising strength, in a silent intro/set-up as we meet Baby Doll (Emily Browning). After her mother dies and leaves her everything in her will, Baby Doll faces the wrath of her evil stepfather, who tries to rape her younger sister. After unsuccessfully shooting him (and killing her sister), Baby Doll is put in an insane asylum, where the head doctor is paid off to give her a lobotomy. While there, she meets a group of other girls, also wrongfully locked up, and they set out to escape. Kind of.

In a truly pointless bit of plot design that only serves to muddle the plot, Snyder inserts a second level of reality, before jumping off to his fantastical action set pieces. Here, the asylum is a front for a dance hall, where the inmates are made to perform erotic dances for wealthy male patrons. However, when Baby Doll dances (which we never see, because that would be sexist...unlike all of those shots of Baby Doll's legs and panties...), she imagines herself in a series of battle scenes. Translation, she's imagining herself imagining other things. This alone is enough to make Sucker Punch structurally non-sensical, and things don't pick up from there. The action scenes have their moments, but since we know it's all imaginary, there's no weight to any of what happens. It's just stuff. Really flashy, pixelated stuff. Granted, small moments of violence work, but without anything in the story or character departments to act as support, Snyder's fantasy collapses in on itself.

As for the cast, there isn't really much to it acting wise, although Abbie Cornish and Jena Malone try their hardest (a movie entirely about the two of them would have been much stronger). Browning, the film's lead, however, is something of a blank, while Jamie Cheung and Vanessa Hudgens smile, look worried, or cry while Oscar Isaac goes horribly over-the-top as the villainous Blue and Carla Gugino prances around delivering every line with a campy Polish accent. Jon Hamm shows up for no more than 2 minutes tops, projecting cool but getting absolutely nothing to do. Jon Hamm is a valuable resource, Mr. Snyder, please don't waste him. But worst of all is simply Snyder's insistence that this is something "deep" and empowering for women. That description couldn't be further from the truth. What's really here is the ultimate cinematic wet dream for fans of anime and/or video games who will likely continue to have to pay to be in the presence of beautiful women throughout their lives.

Grade: C-/D+


Tom Clift said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Clift said...

I think it's pretty telling that we both compared SUCKER PUNCH to a wet really is just an unfocused if sometimes sexy mess. I disagree that the second level was pointless - I think it had a VERY specific point: to show girls in their underwear. This obviously didn't do anything to serve the plot (what plot?), but I think without that level the movie would have lost a lot of the "sexy girls" aspect of its "sexy girls fighting cool shit" premise. Which is really the only reason the movie even exists…it CERTAINLY doesn’t exist to empower women.

I also agree that the opening was very strong. Most of the best parts of the film were those set to music like that…probably because there was none of that atrocious dialogue.