FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #9: Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch”

This week, Glenn and Daniel get in touch with their feminine side and have their minds and eyeballs assaulted in equal measure by Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. YOU are in control. YOU have all the weapons you need to survive this discussion. Click Play below to find out what this level has in store for you (22:53).

[may contain some NSFW language]
(Part 1 – 13:23)

(Part 2 – 9:30)

FilmWonk ratings: 1/10 (Glenn), 6/10 (Daniel)

    Show notes:
  • Music for this episode is an cover arrangement of “White Rabbit” from the Sucker Punch soundtrack.
  • In this episode, I refer to my review of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones, which I hold in slightly higher regard after seeing this film.
  • You might notice I’m out of breath at one point – we had to pause recording to deal with a noisy kitty, which involved running up and down a couple flights of stairs. Unprofessional, I know. But the cat has been fired.

Listen above, or download: Sucker Punch Part 1, Part 2 (right-click, save as).

Greg Mottola’s “Paul” – An overstuffed road trip

For some, Paul might provoke a sense of nostalgia. It is chock full of so many elaborate and perfectly executed pop culture references that you’ll spend far more time knowingly chuckling than actually laughing. It has all the ingredients of a solid road-trip comedy – Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost) are a pair of unabashed nerds who take an RV across the American Southwest in search of gorgeous scenery and all things UFO. Halfway to Roswell, they run into an honest-to-goodness alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen). Oh, and did I mention that Pegg and Frost, the beloved comedic duo from Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, also wrote the screenplay? And that they secured director Greg Mottola, whose last film made my Top 10 of 2009?

With all of these players involved, I am baffled as to why Paul is staggeringly unfunny for most of its runtime. The first 15 minutes, in which we get to know Graeme and Clive, are downright tedious. Pegg and Frost have their usual rapport, but their naturalistic banter is saddled with an overabundance of scatological humor and enough gay jokes to overwhelm Adam Sandler. Pegg and Frost’s relationship definitely got stronger as the film went on, but this first act was bad enough that I found myself wondering if, in a world where I hadn’t seen their prior collaborations, I would have bought them as friends at all.

Nonetheless, the film becomes truly enjoyable as soon as Rogen enters the picture. Rogen’s voice performance is hilarious and raunchy (like Rogen himself), and the repartee between Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (which allegedly contained a great deal of improv) is definitely where Paul is at its strongest. And that’s just what this film needed! Bring these giants of geek comedy together, and just let them be funny with each other. Instead, there were far too many scenes that dragged on for just a bit too long in the service of gags that aren’t nearly as funny as the movie thinks they are. When Paul brings a bird back to life with his E.T. mind-magic and then eats it, I chuckled (at least, I chuckled when I saw it in the trailer). But did it merit such an awkward pause in both story and comedic timing? Not at all. And there were a dozen other gags that felt just as expendable.

I’ve omitted some characters thusfar. Jason Bateman plays Agent Zoil, the ruthless man-in-black who is doggedly pursuing Paul. And I must say – this is one of Bateman’s finest performances. Bateman is the consummate straight man in every comedic project, and to see a straight-man who is heavily armed and committed to tracking down and killing every comedic character in the bunch is frightening and hilarious. Kristen Wiig is also in the mix as Ruth, the daughter of a Christian fundamentalist, and quasi love interest for Graeme. I don’t have much to say about this character – mocking religious nuts is pretty passé (and a bit too easy), and Ruth and her dad were perhaps the most extreme indications that this script was written by a pair of Brits who only had an eye for American caricature. The film simply felt overstuffed with both one-note characters and underused comedic talents (including Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio, Jeffrey Tambor, Jane Lynch, David Koechner, and one more I won’t spoil), who had very little to do with their brief screen-time except make the audience wonder why they showed up.

The most frustrating thing about Paul is that there seems to be a truly great road-trip adventure film at the center of it. Pegg, Frost, and Rogen (and eventually Wiig) are an affable group, and the wide open spaces and scenery look gorgeous (can’t go wrong with the American Southwest). Blythe Danner shows up as Tara Walton, the adult version of the little girl who first discovered Paul’s crash site, and I must say – this is a backstory that deserved more screen time. This film teases the kinds of strong relationships found in E.T. and Close Encounters, but seems too timid to actually embrace them. Every time it comes close, it wastes time on a throwaway line or shot-for-shot scene remake of one of those films instead. Comedy cannot survive on referential gags alone, and Paul‘s focus on them is entirely to its detriment.

FilmWonk rating: 4.5 out of 10

Sidenote: Kudos to the effects team that designed the alien Paul. This was a perfect fusion of reality and CG character design, on the same level of realism as District 9, but with a much more cartoonishly designed alien (which makes it even more impressive).

George Nolfi’s “The Adjustment Bureau” – All according to plan

When I saw the trailer for this latest Phillip K. Dick adaptation, I was intrigued, but mostly disappointed. To see the film squander its high-minded concepts of fate, free will, and strangers in suits in the service of what seemed to be just another “us against the world” romance seemed like a profound waste of time. We see Matt Damon, an able presence in any film, once again showcasing his four-minute mile, this time with an out-of-breath Emily Blunt in tow, and the film seemed like little more than a chase thriller saddled with superficial overtones of meant-to-be amour.

It’s the story of New York State Congressman David Morris (Damon), who meets the girl of his dreams in ballet dancer Elise (Blunt), but never gets her last name or phone number. The besuited members of the Adjustment Bureau, guardians of fate the world over, go out of their way to ensure that the two never meet again. And why? Because “the Plan” says they’re not supposed to be together. But when Adjuster Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) dozes off on the job, the two star-crossed lovers meet and form an instant and irrevocable attraction, prompting higher-ups Richardson (Mad Men‘s John Slattery) and Thompson (Terence Stamp) to come in and set the world back on track.

David’s inadvertant glimpse at the Adjusters in action has cosmic consequences, leading to a multitude of lengthy deliberations about fate and free-will. These discussions are probably where Dick and Nolfi’s carefully-crafted dialogue is at its strongest, striking just the right balance between existential technobabble (“We’re seeing some shifting confluence tides!”) and adept worldbuilding. In addition to the discussions, there are plenty of foot-chases wherein the Adjusters show off their uncanny ability to flit between any two locations via doorways. This is a mechanic we’ve seen before, in both Pixar’s Monster’s, Inc, as well as The Matrix Reloaded. I regret to invoke that first Matrix sequel, but The Adjustment Bureau feels in many ways like a spiritual successor to that film. It has a similarly controlled and constructed reality (complete with its very own Agents), but unlike Reloaded, manages to philosophize without becoming overly self-indulgent. The foot-chases increased in length and complexity, and I actually found myself getting bored with them as the film went on. Its parallels to Reloaded became so striking at this point that I thought the only way the film could end was with David and Elise pleading their romantic case in front of the Architect (or “The Chairman”, as he’s known in this film).

I won’t spoil how the film ends, but I will say I found it mildly satisfying. It was a brave choice to focus on such a seemingly conventional romance (and give us not one, but three meet-cute scenes), but the undeniable chemistry between Damon and Blunt managed to justify it even as each leap forward in time made it less and less coherent. Blunt’s performance is striking, but her character exists as little more than an object of beauty and desire, her appeal explained solely as a product of her masterful skill in the art of ballet. Damon, meanwhile, is given a great deal more to work with as a would-be politician as well as a romantic. He delivers a speech that the film’s fictitious journalists rightfully refer to as “electrifying”, and has a number of fantastic scenes debating fate and free-will with the always enjoyable Terence Stamp. If the film’s romance offers one great disappointment, it’s that Elise is never given any say in the matter- indeed, she’s never even given a chance to understand what’s going on, and pays a great emotional price for it. While David knows he’s risking his life and defying his fate to be with her, Elise is simply caught in an on-again, off-again romance with an unreliable politician, and comes along for the ride simply because it feels right.

The romance aside, the film’s most fascinating character might just be Harry (Mackie), the Adjuster who’s had just about enough of manipulating people’s lives. Mackie gives an adeptly understated performance. Even as he delivers the bulk of the film’s exposition, he remains aloof and otherworldly while clearly feeling a measure of compassion for the people he’s manipulating.

In the end, The Adjustment Bureau is an adept rendition of unoriginal ideas, and that might just make it worth watching. Its grand questions about fate vs. free will are doled out at about the right pace – just as I began to wonder how the present world (or indeed, the past century) can be explained as a delicate web of clockwork predestination, the film offered what can at least be deemed a plausible excuse. In this world, God (or “The Chairman”) appears to be quite fallible, or at least willing to indulge in the kind of experimentation that inadvertently brings about the Dark Ages or the Holocaust. The film sidesteps the contradiction between omnipotence and omnibenevolence by never quite presuming either. The Adjusters aren’t all-seeing or all-knowing (despite their frequent claims to the contrary), and film’s resulting deity is neither a hands-off Deist type nor an ever-present micromanager that makes everyone’s dreams come true. The Bureau’s specific interest in David is never quite explained, but any success he might achieve will come at a significant personal cost.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10