Thursday, August 29, 2013

Iron Sky (quickie)

Next up in our recommendation series, we have Iron Sky which happened to be suggested nearly simultaneously by the great Daniel Spicer as well as my friend Andrew, so a big thank you to them. I'm so glad they brought this movie to my attention because it's exactly where my head's been at recently. This is a comedy science fiction from Finland, and, to be frank, it is very, very silly. I wasn't confident I would like this going in since the genre combination was sort of too good to be true, the trailer made it look like it was trying too hard, and, well, you can never really trust the Finnish, can you? But Iron Sky had me giggling to myself before the credits even began. If you were unaware, the movie is about Nazis who traveled to the moon at the end of World War II and who have been living there ever since, planning their invasion of Earth. Yep. Moon Nazis. But it's more than just a hilarious premise, there's political satire throughout (mainly aimed at the United States) which works rather well with more parallels than differences between the Americans and the Nazis.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Lives of Others (review)

It has been far too long since I reviewed something made outside of the ubiquitous Hollywood machine, and thanks to a recommendation from my friend Alex (who also recommended Zardoz) I now have the pleasure of bringing you a review of The Lives of Others. This is the second movie in what will be a short series of reviews of movies recommended by my friends and family (the first being Sunday's review of Sucker Punch). The contrast between this German feature and my previous review is quite unfair: while The Lives of Others succeeds where Sucker Punch fails, the latter at least tried to do something new. Whereas Sucker Punch is just one well-intended failure in a sea of much worse action/thrillers, The Lives of Others belongs to the best of the best of foreign film.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sucker Punch (review)

Style? Certainly. Substance? We'll see.

So... this movie. My wonderful sister Michelle recommended it to me, and while it won't make it onto any of my "Favorite Whatever" lists I'm definitely glad I watched it. On the one hand, the film is far from perfect and its thematic inconsistencies make any comprehensive reading of the film almost impossible. On the other hand, it not only manages to illustrate some interesting theoretical concepts rather well, but also the division it created between its fans and its critics points to a similar division between film theorists and how they view the possibility for a feminist cinema.

Sucker Punch's plot has been compared to Inception's for its use of different levels of reality, and while the two movies have very different agendas (and varying levels of success) I think the comparison might be helpful for those who haven't seen the former. We begin at the base level of reality with a woman only known as Babydoll (Emily Browning) being imprisoned in a mental institution by her abusive father where the corrupt orderlies are bribed into giving her a lobotomy. Immediately before the lobotomy is being performed, we enter the second level of reality where Babydoll is instead trapped in a brothel with four other women (Sweet Pea, Rocket, Blondie, and Amber). In the brothel, Babydoll performs erotic dances for customers during which we enter the third and final level of reality which I'll refer to as Babydoll's fantasy. The rest of the movie oscillates between these two levels until the very end when we return to the first.

The plot of the movie revolves around a mystery quest Babydoll is given when she first enters her fantasy realm. She is told by an unnamed character credited as "Wise Man" that she must collect a set of items which will allow her to escape the brothel and, by association, the hospital. She manages to recruit the other four girls, but the items become increasingly more difficult to obtain as the brothel owner's (the hospital orderly's) suspicions grow. Eventually the women are caught, and while facing the punishment of the brothel owner it becomes unclear whether they will be able to succeed in their mission.

Babydoll about to be lobotomized.

Sucker Punch was perhaps the most controversial, polarizing movie Hollywood has seen in the past couple of years. According to Metacritic, the movie received an average review of 33%, whereas RottenTomatoes shows that 23% of the movie reviews were positive (>50%). User-submitted data on these sites shows another trend, however, with only 27% of Metacritic users and 32% of IMDb users giving the movie a negative review. What's going on here? As an amateur reviewer myself, I tend to resist the idea that the critics are the only ones who understand how bad the movie is and the amateur reviewers are simply dazzled by the bright lights and pretty colors (especially considering critics can't agree on why the movie is bad, and the few that gave it positive reviews tend to accept its criticisms and argue that it's good nonetheless). While the movie's vagueries may have left room for amateurs to project nonexistent depth where professionals perceive vacuity, Sucker Punch is far from devoid of meaning.

One of the main reasons this film has divided its audience so significantly is its relationship to feminism and the portrayal of the feminine body. The story revolves around five young women who rarely wear substantial clothing and who otherwise fit a variety of traditional male fantasies. That said, I want to argue that there are two distinct ways to watch Sucker Punch, and that while the first option (dismissing the film as sexist) is certainly easier, the second is supported at least as well by the text and is much more interesting and theoretically rigorous.

The first reading of Sucker Punch stems from the basic surface understanding that the movie objectifies the women in it by portraying them as overly sexualized. While this may seem too simple to some (especially followers of so-called lipstick feminism), it does have its roots in traditional film theory. The most widely known essay on the subject is easily Laura Mulvey's "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema". Mulvey argues that cinema offers mastery over what it presents, and thus that erotic portrayal of the female body works to marginalize women: "In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness."

This is how the movie opens.

There are a couple of problems with this reading of the movie, however. First, it seems to ignore how self-aware and metatheatrical the film is. Not only does the movie open with curtains being drawn back, a clear indication that we are about to watch a movie about movies, but Sweet Pea also points out how ridiculously oversexualized Babydoll is the moment we enter the brothel. Second, more recent developments in film theory (Mulvey wrote her famous essay in 1975) have shown how earlier film theorists limited understanding of Lacan created a theory with minimal basis in reality. As Todd McGowan explains in the introduction to his amazing book The Real Gaze, these theorists relied largely on one essay (the "mirror stage essay") which was written before Lacan had fully developed his theory of the gaze. As Lacan expanded his theory, the gaze grew from something active concerning mastery into something passive but potentially subversive. McGowan argues,

In Lacan's conception of desire, the gaze is not the vehicle through which the subject masters the object but a point in the Other that resists the mastery of vision. It is a blank spot in the subject's look, a blank spot that threatens the subject's sense of mastery in looking because the subject cannot see it directly or successfully integrate it into the rest of its visual field. This is because, as Lacan points out, the gaze is "what is lacking, is non-specular, is not graspable in the image." Even when the subject sees a complete image, something remains obscure: the subject cannot see how its own desire distorts what it sees. The gaze of the object includes the subject in what the subject sees, but this gaze is not present in the field of the visible.*

The gaze is a "blank spot", it is "lacking" and "non-specular", and it is the point at which the subject's "own desire" is registered in the image. If you've seen the movie maybe you already know where I'm going with this. In Sucker Punch, the dances performed by the women in the brothel are never shown, and instead what we see is an obvious fantasy scenario in which the girls fight off dragons, Nazis, etc. These lacking portions, these absences, are the precise location of the gaze. If the scenes in the brothel are representations of man's attempt to (visually) master these women, then these missing dances are the point "that resists the mastery of vision" not only diegetically (they are using the dances to escape from their subjugation) but literally (the objectifying gaze of the audience is repeatedly denied the pleasure of witnessing the dances). This creates a space which not only liberates the women from the men in the movie, but also from the men in the audience.

In theory. In practice, I don't think Zack Snyder really pulled it off. He left too many ambiguities, too many unanswered questions, too much for the audience to decide for themselves. The central problem with this reading is that during these very spaces where the women are supposed to be resisting the male gaze, they're be objectified simply in a different way. They're running around a fantasy land still ruled by men (the "Wise Man" has to tell them what to do) and still as scantily clad as before. While there's certainly strong potential for an emancipatory feminist politics within Sucker Punch, it's not enough to counteract the fact that for almost 2 hours you watched some girls run around in little more than their underpants.

Further reading: I was inspired to think more critically about Sucker Punch by reading this article. While I don't agree with all the arguments it makes, I think it's pretty solid and certainly written & thought through more competently than a lot of "scholarship" I've seen about this movie.

*McGowan, Todd, The Real Gaze, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, 2007

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Collateral (quickie)

After my last unsuccessful attempt to find a fun action film with Tom Cruise, I decided it was time to revisit Collateral, a movie I hadn't seen since its release in 2004 but which I remembered fondly. I wasn't disappointed.This is easily the best screenplay I've seen from Stuart Beattie (the man responsible for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra as well as the characters in the Pirates of the Caribbean series) as it controls the tension pretty well from start to finish. The characters are enjoyably quirky (Cruise is a pretty friendly and understanding sociopath while Jamie Foxx's cab driver bets his fairs which route will be fastest) instead of the flat caricatures films like this tend to rely on. The characters also work well thanks to phenomenal performances from both Cruise and Foxx as well as a good supporting cast in Mark Ruffalo and Jada Pinkett Smith. The reveals are all perfectly timed so that first you think maybe Cruise's assassin is serving some sort of higher cause, then you realize that he's definitely just a crazy hitman, and finally you realize who his final target is going to be.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Elysium (review)

Sharlto Copley should've been second billed.

Elysium (2013) is Neill Blomkamp's (District 9) newest sci-fi romp and was at the very top of my list of movies I wanted to see in theaters last night. I couldn't help liking District 9 despite its flaws and I was excited to see where the director would go with his next effort. While Elysium is far from perfect, it was definitely very fun and didn't disappoint even in the face of my moderately high expectations.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Jack Reacher (quickie)

The first word that comes to mind is "disappointing". Jack Reacher isn't a bad movie, it's just not great, and there are so many more movies out there in this genre that are doing it better. In the interest of full disclosure, I did go into this movie thinking it would be an action movie when it's more of a detective mystery. Maybe this is my fault, but not only was it marketed as an action movie, it also doesn't do all that well as a detective story anyway. There's a lot of excess that could have been trimmed which makes the movie feel slow or boring at times, and on the other hand there are some scenes that could have been added to make the story feel more complete and to make the antagonist feel more menacing. Where there is action it's well executed and will get your heart going, and some of the atmospheric police procedural stuff works, but the ending feels a bit abrupt and some of the story's loose ends aren't tied off effectively. Otherwise the acting is solid and I think if it had simply been rearranged a little it would have worked better.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Boy and His Dog (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

Love it.

Well, that's it folks. 70's Sci-Fi Week is over. I hope you've enjoyed reading as much as I've enjoyed watching and reviewing. For our last review we have a recommendation from my good friend Evan. Whereas yesterday's Zardoz is incredibly enjoyable but in a way not everyone might be able to appreciate, I think A Boy and His Dog is probably the most enjoyable film I've reviewed this week which should be accessible to most everyone. It's also the only film this week that's truly character-driven, making it for me the closest to, you know, an actual movie (sorry plot-driven movies, I hope we can still be friends).That's not to say there's no action, it's just balanced really well with character development and exposition. If you see none of the other movies I review this week, see A Boy and His Dog.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Zardoz (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

Brace yourself.

70's Sci-Fi Week is almost over, so I decided that for the weekend I would do films that have been recommended to me. The first recommendation comes from my good friend Alex (who also recommended the majority the music I listen to while I write), and of course it had to be Zardoz. While it's easy to take the basics of its plot structure and say that this movie isn't all that different from many other films of the era, there's really not a lot out there that I've seen that can compare to the bizarro, pseudo-philosophical, drug-induced vision Zardoz brings to the screen. There's something unique about Zardoz, and while I definitely don't think it's for everyone, it does have the potential to offer both genuine laughs and head scratching alike. Judging by the tagline ("Beyond 1984. Beyond 2001.") it seems to be aiming more at being thought provoking than being an incredibly roundabout comedy, and to some extent it succeeds. In the end, Zardoz is so all over the place that the only thing I can say for sure if that I'm glad I watched it. So, thank you Alex. Maybe I can convince some of you that it's worth a try.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Dark Star (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

Pay no attention to the space surfer.

Fair warning: as we approach the weekend, these movies and the reviews that accompany them are only going to get wackier. Dark Star is John Carpenter's debut feature film, and was originally a student film until being picked up by oddball horror producer Jack H. Harris. Carpenter created the film with Dan O'Bannon, the man who wrote the screenplay for Alien, making this the closest I'll get to serious, classic 70's Sci-Fi. Which is ironic because this movie is so very, very silly.I know I say this a lot (Soylent Green), but honestly if you can stand the awkward acting and the occasional lack of background music you should really just go see this movie. At only 82 minutes running time it's well worth your while, and if you keep reading I'm probably going to ruin all the jokes, and what's worse I'll probably make a fool of myself trying to take the movie seriously. If you like John Carpenter or you want to try a new approach to comedy then definitely give this one a shot.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Black Hole (review) 70's Sci-Fi Week

One of the most beautiful theatrical posters out there.

Alright, it's Thursday and 70's Sci-Fi week is already half over (you better believe I'm going into the weekend), so I thought it was time for me to review what I consider the most visually stunning of all the films I chose for the week (Saturday's movie is also "visually stunning" but in a totally different way). Since The Black Hole also has the latest release of the chosen movies it sort of makes sense that it's the prettiest, but some of the beauty comes simply from great angles and other technology that was available for the others. This is also without a doubt the campiest (although definitely not the weirdest) of the movies, which I guess makes sense since they seem to have spent more of their money in the art department than anywhere else.