Film Reviews, Reviews

Sucker Punch Review: I Hate Zach Snyder

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Beware of spoilers if you haven’t seen this yet. Also beware of anger. Lots of anger.

Sucker Punch came out in 2011 and I saw it a couple of years after. I’ve been thinking about it recently and I’ve only just been able to put into words quite what I think about it.

The plot is slightly convoluted but definitely interesting: Baby doll is committed to an asylum by her evil stepfather who pays off a corrupt official to have her lobotomized. In her head Babydoll creates a fantasy world where she envisions the asylum as a strip club/brothel where she teams up with four other girls to escape before she has to meet the High Roller, a wealthy man who has ‘bought’ her. Every girl has to dance, and it turns out that Babydoll’s dancing is hypnotising to men. The girls use this as a distraction while they steal the items they need to escape. We never see Babydoll dance; instead we see a post-apocalyptic fantasy/sci-fi world where the girls fight through armies of robots and literal dragons to get the fantasy representation of the items they need to escape the brothel. The film switches frequently between layers of the story, and each version of events parallels the other two.

There’s a lot about the film that I really like. The action sequences are great, and I like the multi-levelled plot even if it is a little up itself. The general idea of girls working together and empowerment is great. If this film had played itself straight then I could even have accepted the skimpy outfits (I would have rolled my eyes a lot, but it’s hardly anything new and the film’s based on video games, so what do you want?) and I would have probably enjoyed it. The problem is that the director, Zach Snyder, claims that this is the ultimate feminist film.

When faced with accusations of sexism in the way he dressed his female characters Snyder threw back this:

Someone asked me, “Why did you dress the girls like that, in those provocative costumes?” And I said, “Well, think about it for a second. I didn’t dress those girls in the costume. The audience dressed those girls.” And when I say the audience, I mean the audience that comes to the movies. Just like the men who visit a brothel, [they] dress the girls when they go to see these shows as however they want to see them.

I’m not entirely sure what he’s trying to say here, but it seems to be his slightly pretentious way of saying that the characters are only dressed like they are because that’s what the audience wants to see, and it’s the audience projecting the sexuality they want to see on to the girls. I remember reading an interview (although I can’t find it now) where Snyder claimed that the people who thought the film was overtly sexual were of the same ilk as the men who frequent the brothels in the film. Basically, if you interpret the women as sexual, you’re projecting your own debauched sexual perceptions onto them and don’t you feel stupid and dirty now you disgusting pervert.

This argument is bullshit. No Snyder, the audience didn’t “dress the girls”, you did (or at least the wardrobe department under your direction). The film purposely uses traditionally sexualised imagery – girls in short skirts and tight crop tops, pigtails, the name ‘Babydoll’ – in a sexual context – a brothel/strip club – with camera angles designed specifically for the male gaze – hello panty flashes and between-leg shots – and then tries to turn around and tell the audience off for interpreting these things as sexual. Don’t get me wrong, I get what Snyder thinks he’s trying to say: that these things shouldn’t be inherently ‘immoral’ and that not everything that women do or wear should be sexualised. I’m totally all for this message! It’s just that there’s a huge difference between subverting a trope to a get a point across and just doing the thing and claiming that it’s a critique. Someone filmed all those upskirt shots, Snyder, and it wasn’t me.

It’s not the point he’s trying to make that I don’t like; I’m all for women in both film and real life wearing whatever they want as they kick robot butt. What really rubs me up the wrong way is Snyder’s attitude. When people said that they thought the film was sexualised, he threw his head back dramatically and cried that ‘People just don’t understand my art!’, and even went as far as to suggest that the people who didn’t like the film were perverted idiots. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if people weren’t ‘getting it’ then he probably communicated his message badly – really badly.

However, the outfits aren’t even the thing that made me really angry. There’s so much more.

Not on the ‘unnecessary sexualisation’ track but definitely on the topic of ‘Zach Snyder doesn’t know how to tell a story’, it also pulls a ‘twist’ ending where the film tries to claim that the protagonist is actually Sweet Pea because she survives to carry on the story, suggesting that Snyder doesn’t understand basic narrative concepts; the protagonist is the main character, the one that drives the story i.e. Babydoll. Sweet Pea survives, sure, but only because of Babydoll’s actions and sacrifice that form the entirety of the plot. Sweet Pea has barely any screen time and does very little other than argue with Babydoll. Survival does not a protagonist make. This is a very mild complaint compared to the others, but it still irritated me a lot.

On a more severe note: obviously the women are constantly under threat of sexual violence with several attempted rapes for multiple characters (but they’re definitely not sexual beings guys), which is an unfortunately common thing in fictional media. It’s a disgusting and unnecessary shorthand for disempowering a female character that shows up in stories that really don’t need it, and this film is particularly guilty of fetishising it; a lot of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that the girls are under constant threat of assault, and you almost anticipate the moment when it will happen. A large part of the plot is the build up to the unwanted encounter between Babydoll and the High Roller who she has been ‘sold’ to, and this is literally what Babydoll is fighting to avoid.

This leads me on to the thing that angered me the most: the High Roller. In the theatrical cut he’s curiously omitted, and the film ends up making very little sense. What happens to Fantasy!Babydoll after Real!Babydoll’s lobotomy? How does her meeting with the High Roller turn out? What’s up with that doctor? Despite the fact that the film is practically incoherent without it, however, I think I’d really rather watch that version than the extended cut which includes a proper meeting scene between Babydoll and the High Roller. The reason? It’s disgusting.

Babydoll is captured, accepts her fate and goes to meet the High Roller who has ‘bought’ her. She expects a rape; however, he’s gentle with her and talks to her like a human being. He has no intention of raping her, but instead he’ll wait until she comes to him willingly. The scene is painted both by the film itself and the actors and directors as a love scene and as Babydoll finally owning her sexuality. Babydoll has found a man who doesn’t seem to want to hurt her. Awww, how sweet.

But we seem to be forgetting the tiny fact that this man has literally bought her virginity. He basically says to her “You’re going to sleep with me, but you’re going to enjoy it. Also, I totally own you.” Does Snyder just completely not understand what rape is? Just because it’s not violent doesn’t mean it’s consensual! He may not be going to take her by force, but other than when it happens Babydoll has absolutely no choice in the matter: she will sleep with him. How is it possible for Babydoll to consent to a man who literally bought her? WHY DID YOU DO THIS SNYDER?

So please, if you’re going to watch this film, do so with a critical eye. Enjoy the baddass action scenes. Enjoy the multi-layered plot and the connections between the worlds. Enjoy Oscar Isaac’s face with his stupid moustache. Hell, even enjoy the skimpy costumes; that’s what they’re there for after all. Just please, never call this film feminist.

And Zach? If we ever meet in real life, we’re going to have words.

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Film Reviews, Reviews

La La Land Review

Beware of spoilers!

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I went to see the current darling of Hollywood with my housemates last night. If you haven’t come across La La Land then I don’t know what to say to you, other than to ask you what it’s like under your rock. It’s been everywhere, and has blasted onto the awards scene with 200 nominations including for 14 Oscars – tied for the highest number ever with Titanic and All About Eve – and has rave reviews from both critics and viewers in one of the few cases where the two seem to agree. I went into the cinema quietly hopeful; true, there was no way that it could possibly live up to the hype, but it had several things going for it as far as I was concerned. I love musicals, I’d heard the cinematography was amazing (a passion of mine), and it starred Emma Stone, who holds a special place in my heart ever since Easy A. Should be great, no?

Well, no.

I realise that I’m in the minority in saying this, and I’m in no way trying to tell people what they should and shouldn’t like. If you loved it, great. You clearly saw something I didn’t, and feel free to keep on loving it. I really wish I could join you; I so wanted to love this film and it had so much potential, but there were just several major stumbling blocks that prevent me from joining the parade all the way to the Oscars.

I feel like if La La Land had committed to its concept then it could have been good, but in reality it was just messy. Stylistic choices were made just for aesthetic purposes and cluttered and confused things. The mood switched between quirky and ‘deep’ so quickly it gave me whiplash. It didn’t even feel like it had committed to being a musical: after opening with a huge musical number the film gets bored and wanders into romantic-drama territory before remembering that it’s supposed to be a musical and shoehorning a song in at the end. Admittedly those songs are quite good, although there are only a couple I’d want to hear again, but I feel like if a film’s going to be a musical then it has to be a musical. La La Land seems to want to be a musical because that’s quirky and different, and because musicals are Oscar Bait.

In fact, La La Land seems to do a lot of stuff for quirkiness’ sake. The opening number is a good example of this; it comes across as more a series of stylised ideas than a cohesive sequence, and this just gives the impression that it’s just showing off. Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with showing off in film – Tarantino’s movies are nothing if not hugely self-involved and I still love those – but I get the impression that Damien Chazelle confused being ‘different’ with being ‘clever’. The cinematography is ‘clever’, the dialogue is ‘clever’, the message is ‘clever’. It’s like that one hipster friend who dresses well and takes nice photos but is generally insufferable and won’t stop criticising your music taste.

General consistency issues and self-important quirkiness aside, La La Land has potential. There are some nice moments in there, even if they’re sparse and disconnected, and it does manage to evoke the atmosphere of some classic musical films, so props to it for that. But there is one error, one major failing that ruins the whole film (for me at least), that La La Land is guilty of: the characters are fundamentally unlikable.

This really is the sticking point for me when people talk about how much they love the film. I came out of the cinema completely unable to comprehend how people liked, let alone identified with, these people. Mia, played by Emma Stone, has no discernible personality beyond A) wanting to be an actress and B) being Emma Stone, which is normally something I love, but unfortunately silly faces and dancing is not enough to make up for a character who is less than two dimensional. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is the embodiment of everything I hate: rude, obnoxious and incredibly pretentious (it’s possible for people to just not like jazz, okay?!), and I can totally understand the ‘white saviour’ criticisms levelled at him for his belief that he can single-handedly save jazz. Their problems are very much middle-class white people problems, and while I’m not saying it’s impossible to feel sorry for struggling actresses and musicians it’s more difficult when they’re living in really nice apartments, going to huge parties and just moaning all the damn time.

The characters are just a series of all of the worst tropes from romantic comedies. They bitch at each other in place of flirting, then have a musical number together and are suddenly madly in love. Instead of actually showing them being a good couple, they have a montage of them doing clichéd romantic things. Worst of all, they’re absolute arseholes to everyone around them because it’s ‘quirky’. Sebastian gets Mia’s attention by blasting his car horn until she comes out of the house (people in the cinema were actually laughing at this, while I was considering what heavy object I would use to bash his head in). Mia’s even worse: she runs out on a dinner with her boyfriend and family because she realises that she’d rather be on a date with another man – a date she made while still dating her boyfriend, no less – abandoning her boyfriend with no explanation and definitely no proper apology.

The more I think about this film the more I dislike it, which is actually quite an achievement. I sat in the cinema waiting, desperately hoping, for it to get better, but it just…didn’t. If you haven’t seen it and you think you might then definitely go, but make up your own mind about the film. Sometimes I do have to wonder if critics have seen something in a film that I haven’t, or, as seems more likely in this case, watched an entirely different film altogether.