Sucker Punch a sprawling and convoluted action sci-fi fantasy is director Zack Snyder’s first “original” film in that it’s based on a script Snyder co-wrote (along with Steve Shibuya) and not a graphic novel or a previous movie. But to anyone who has seen Snyder’s two previous live-action films 300 and Watchmen it will feel awfully familiar: His now-trademark flourishes – gorgeous visuals elaborate action sequences a desaturated color palette a CGI-airbrushed “heightened reality ” abundant slo-mo and fatal self-seriousness – are all conspicuously on display.
It’s all there in fact in Sucker Punch’s opening sequence: a very intense and ultra-dramatic montage set to a haunting cover of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams" and slowed down to a crawl so that we may better admire every super-stylized detail of Snyder’s exquisite handiwork. It depicts a series of wrenching domestic tragedies that result in the film’s teenage heroine Babydoll (Emily Browning) being shipped off to an all-girls mental hospital by her malevolent stepfather (Gerard Plunkett) properly setting the stage for the ensuing melodrama.
To ensure Babydoll doesn’t act up again evil stepdaddy bribes a corrupt orderly (Oscar Isaac) into having the traumatized but otherwise mentally competent girl lobotomized without the required consent of the facility’s resident psychiatrist Dr. Gorski (Carla Gugino). The year is 1967 and lobotomies though still legal are exceedingly rare; as such they must wait five days for the local lobotomizing physician (Jon Hamm) to come and turn Babydoll into a very pretty vegetable. Which is more than enough time for her to retreat into a dreamworld and concoct a vivid fantasy in which she and four scantily clad mates – Rocket (Jena Malone) Sweat Pea (Abbie Cornish) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgens) Amber (Jamie Chung) – conspire to escape the brothel in which they’re imprisoned.
The meat of the escape plan calls for a series of quests in which Babydoll and the gang battle giant samurais World War I zombie troopers futuristic alien robots dragons et al – all while dressed in sleek variants of the archetypal hot chick Halloween costumes (sexy nurse sexy schoolgirl sexy sanitation worker etc.). The sequences are well-choreographed and visually stimulating but have very little connection to the plot – they’re more like beautiful and disposable diversions grandiose music videos in which Snyder is able to cram elements from a broad spectrum of pop culture influences from Hong Kong cinema and anime to Moulin Rouge and Heavy Metal without any apparent rules or logic to bind his fertile imagination.
All of which wouldn’t be so bad – honestly it wouldn’t – if Sucker Punch weren’t so punishingly maudlin. Nary a scene goes by in which some poor girl isn’t threatened or smacked or nearly raped. (All the women in the film are victims; the men with the exception of Scott Glenn's imaginary character monsters.) A movie with hot chicks and guns and orcs and robots and zombies should at the very least be fun. But Snyder’s film is dour and pretentious to the point of pain an overstuffed emo tragedy bracketed by ponderous voiceover about demons and monsters and how all of us have the weapons within us to defeat them. Or something like that. Sucker Punch is such a molten-hot mess that whatever Important Message it's supposed to convey ends up hopelessly garbled by the time the end credits roll.
In Red Riding Hood the age-old fairytale of a little girl who learns the perils of talking to strangers has been turned into a sort of supernatural harlequin murder mystery by Catherine Hardwicke director of the 2008 teen vampire flick Twilight. Though nominally a horror film its dearth of scares and potent strain of adolescent melodrama will inspire more comparisons to Stephenie Meyer’s bestselling saga than its director would probably care to acknowledge.
In this version the titular red-cloaked heroine played by doe-eyed Amanda Seyfried is given a name – Valerie – and cast not as the disobedient naïf we remember from the original fable but a headstrong and independent-minded young lady who would never fall for the tricks of some hairy beast masquerading as her grandmother. Although betrothed by parental arrangement to Henry (Max Irons) the respectable scion of a wealthy blacksmithing family her heart really belongs to Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) the darkly handsome town badboy whose chosen occupation woodworker apparently ranks far below blacksmith in the social hierarchy.
Valerie is inclined to run off with Peter but soon such inclinations must be shelved when her sister turns up dead the apparent victim of a wolf that has terrorized the residents of Daggerhorn the rustic medieval-ish mountain village in which the film is set (the exact setting and time period are kept weirdly indeterminate) for decades. The men of Daggerhorn resolve to avenge the girl’s death and slay the murderous animal once and for all but they appear hopelessly outmatched until Father Solomon (Gary Oldman) a blustery hunter/inquisitor with dubious religious credentials arrives on the scene. Solomon informs the beleaguered Daggerhornians that the wolf they are dealing with is no mere wolf but a shape-shifting werewolf with powers far greater than any of them had anticipated.
Even worse when the moon isn’t full he (or she) walks among them unnoticed in human form. Everyone is a suspect Solomon declares and soon Red Riding Hood evolves into a hokey whodunit filled with all sorts of unconvincing feints and red herrings. At the center of the mystery is poor Valerie in whom the werewolf seems inordinately interested. “Ohmigod you can talk!” she gasps when the werewolf first speaks to her telepathically – a line that got some of the loudest laughs in a film that is far too often inadvertently comedic.
Such is the danger of a film that treats such a subject as ridiculous as Red Riding Hood’s with such unrelenting gravity – melodrama curdles into gooey processed cheese. And this film is slathered with it. Which wouldn't be so bad if the subject matters were at least a little suspenseful but Hardwicke is unable to exact much terror or fright out of David Leslie Johnson’s too-tame script. (The film’s PG-13 rating doesn’t help.) What we’re left with is a gauzy romance that might have even ardent Twi-hard types rolling their eyes.
Beneath the glossy sheen of Zac Efron there exists the makings of quite a fine actor glimpses of which were seen in both the blockbuster comedy 17 Again and the indie drama Me and Orson Welles. His transition out of the Disney-fied teen-dream world and into more adult-oriented projects is a gradual uneasy one as is evidenced by his latest film the metaphysical drama Charlie St. Cloud which finds him perched squarely in between the two camps. Efron it appears is in that awkward stage.
In Charlie St. Cloud Efron plays the title character a carefree college-bound sailing star whose bright future is torpedoed when an awful auto wreck takes the life of his beloved kid brother Sam (Charlie Tahan). Charlie at the wheel of the car at the time of the crash briefly dies himself only to be wrested from a flatline by a particularly stubborn and spiritual EMT (Ray Liotta).
Years later Charlie’s body has made a full recovery but his mind remains plagued by some nasty after-effects of the tragedy. He’s given up sailing ditched his college plans gotten a job at a cemetery and taken up the habit of holding regular conversations with dead people — specifically his brother Sam with whom he meets daily in a forest clearing to play catch. Usually such mental deterioration coincides fairly closely with physical deterioration which is why you don’t encounter a lot of well-groomed paranoid schizophrenics on skid row. But Charlie has kept up with his workout and grooming regimens earning a reputation among the residents of his sleepy Pacific Northwest town as a sort of beautiful nutcase.
Unable to escape his all-consuming grief Charlie seems doomed to retreat further into isolation and despair until salvation arrives wrapped in a cardigan: Tess (Amanda Crew) a feisty pro sailor and no stranger to tragedy herself can see beyond Charlie’s unhinged persona to the sensitive troubled and irresistibly hot man that lies beneath. As their relationship deepens Charlie is increasingly torn between his imaginary friends and his real-life love.
It’s a noble aim giving tweens questions deeper than just “Edward or Jacob?” to contemplate and Charlie St. Cloud’s principal message “life is for living ” is a worthwhile one. But director Burr Steers having learned from the success of 17 Again clearly knows where his bread is buttered and so he takes care to sate the demands of Efron’s screeching fanbase by stocking the film with ample glowing shots of his star lovingly lit and clad invariably in a light blue solid color shirt and emoting against a picturesque coastal landscape. (Lest you think I'm exaggerating check out this studio-supplied promo clip featuring an interview with a shirtless Efron.) The awkward mix of existential drama and Abercrombie & Fitch commercial combined with a healthy dose of loopy Sixth Sense-esque supernatural shenanigans tossed in toward the end makes for an experience only the most fawning of Efron’s fans could enjoy.