Thursday, October 27, 2011

Black Aggie: Washington DC's Haunted Statue

When I was a kid I had a thing for reading tales of allegedly true ghost stories. I kept going back to them, even though they terrified the hell out of me. Some of the stories popped up in several of the books I read, such as the Berkeley Square Horror, or the Borley Rectory, but one of my favorite stories appeared in only one book stocked by my local library.

It was the tale of Black Aggie, a statue that would supposedly come to life at night. The story, as I remembered it from the book, was that the statue was angel carved out of black marble and it served as a grave marker. Not long after it was put in place, tales about the statue began to spring up. People claimed that at night it would stroll about the cemetery or that it would blind you if you stared into its eyes at night. Grass wouldn't grow in its shadow.

Eventually the statue caused such a commotion that the family had it removed from the cemetery and donated to the Smithsonian Institution, who then hid it deep in storage, not wanting to take any chances of supernatural phenomena occurring if it were put on display. The book, the name of which I have sadly forgotten, had a single illustration of the statue, showing a black angel with glowing red eyes against a moonlight sky. If anybody knows the book this is from, please let me know, as I would like to credit it.

Unfortunately for years, that was all the information I had on the Black Aggie. It wasn't until the internet started to proliferate that I could find enough information to verify the story. Of course, the internet, being what it is, I found a good amount of versions of the tale that seemed to merge it with other urban legends. A popular one merged it with the story of the college student who took on a dare to spend a night sleeping on the statue's lap, only for him to be found the next morning dead of fright. (I'd usually heard the story told without the statue. The dare was that the student was dared to stick a knife in a grave plot. Something holds him to the plot and won't let go, and he dies of fright convinced that the dead body below was grabbing his foot, when in reality he'd stuck the knife through his pant leg.)

Eventually, through sites such as this, or this, I found more information that filled in some of the gaps of the half remembered story, and suggested there was some truth to it after all. For one thing, it turns out the statue was actually an unauthorized copy of another statue known as the Adams Memorial, (sometimes referred to simply as "Grief") The Adams Memorial was made in 1891 by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and commissioned by Henry Adams for his wife marion who had committed suicide. The original still resides in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C.

The unauthorized copy was made by Edward L.A. Pausch and purchased by General Felix Agnus for his family plot in Druid Ridge Cemetery, in Baltimore, Maryland. It was this statue that became known as Black Aggie, although according to Wikipedia, the legend sometimes was mistakenly attributed to another statue in Druid Ridge Cemetery that represented the greek fate Clotho. They are similar in appearance, and the Clotho statute is actually of an angel, which may account for Black Aggie being described as one in some versions of the story, such as the book I previously mentioned. However, as the Wikipedia article states, it isn't likely to be the statue of the legend because among other things, there's no reason for it to be named "Aggie."

The one fact I was glad to find on doing my research as an adult was that the part about the Smithsonian losing the Agnus Memorial in storage was false. In fact, the statue is currently on display in the rear courtyard of the Dolley Madison House on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. In 2008, I was passing through D.C. and decided to see the statue for myself.

Standing in front of the Dolley Madison House, at first glance it appeared that the courtyard was inaccessible from the street, due to the way the house was adjoined to the nearby buildings. However, it turned out the courtyard was rather easy to reach from the street. Starting in front of the house, just take a right on H Street, and then turn right under the first archway in the red brick building right next to it. If you're not looking carefully, it may just look like an alleyway or an entrance to the brick building but it leads right behind the Dolley Madison House.

The Black Aggie, in it's current setting looked more serene than terrifying. When I saw it in the courtyard, it was in the shade, nestled between several bushes (none of which appeared to have any difficulty growing around it.) I suppose at night it may have been a bit unnerving to walk past, but in the daylight, the statue, and the courtyard it sat in, looked like a nice quiet place to visit to ease a bit of midday stress.

When I went home that night, I did a bit more research on Black Aggie and the Adams Memorial that it was based off of. I thought about seeing the original Adams Memorial, but passed on that idea upon learning it was all the way in Baltimore. However, it turned out that there was a second, authorized replica of the Adams Memorial on display in the national gallery.

It seemed I wasn't the only person who was interested in the statue because when I asked the guard where the Adams Memorial was, he told me that I was the fifth person to ask about the statue that week and he wanted to know if it was mentioned in a book or something. I didn't really care to get into the backstory about Adams and Agnus Memorials, so I just told him I thought it was an interesting statue and moved on.

Oddly enough, the Adams Memorial, the one that didn't have any ghost stories about it, seemed creepy to stand in front of. It sat alone at the end of a hallway. I took a picture of it with my Holga camera, which seemed to exacerbate the creepiness factor of it when I got the photo developed, especially since the way the camera flash hit the eyes, it made them seem to glow a bit. Had I seen the real Black Aggie when I was kid, I would have simply thought it was cool statue, but had I seen the Adams Memorial, it would have certainly haunted my nightmares.

So I found an illustration from the ghost story book I mentioned, unfortunately the site didn't have any information about the book itself. If anybody recognizes the book from this illustration, I'd greatly appreciate it, as I'd like to credit that book for introducing me to this tale.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Top 10 Scary Movies

I felt the need to throw my hat in the ring for a Top Scary Movies list because every year I come across lists that mention the same old movies that aren't really scary at all. Personally, I'm still trying to figure out why the original Wicker Man is on so many lists, because it's not suspenseful or terrifying, and it's not like there's anything frightening about Britt Ekland dancing about naked. Yes, I realize I omitted a few genuine classics, such as Alien, but I decided to shed a bit of light on one or two you may have missed out on.

10. Silent Hill
Okay, it is based on a video game, but unlike most other video game adaptations, this one came out pretty good. In Silent Hill a mother named Rose wakes up in an abandoned town after wrecking her car. The town is covered in ash that falls like snow, the road she drove in on now leads to a gaping void,  her daughter is missing and at first the only other person she can find is a police officer who doesn't seem to grasp of what's going on.

This movie comes in at number ten because I'll concede that it won't be everybody's cup of tea. It's twisted and surreal, and it gets very strange very quickly. The town of Silent Hill turns out to be populated by religious fanatics who think Rose's daughter is some sort of evil, and every now and then the world becomes a darker, more twisted form of itself and bizarre creatures come out of everywhere to kill anything in sight. The whole atmosphere of the movie is extremely unconventional, and the monsters are are uniquely designed. Instead of goblins or demons, the creatures are faceless perversions of humans. The result is that the film doesn't visually fall victim to the usual horror movie tropes, and instead looks like unfamiliar territory. For that reason it's probably the closest thing I've ever seen on film that depicts what a truly unbound nightmare is like.

9. Joyride
You may have passed up on this movie when it first came out because it stars Paul Walker. You should check it out because it's co-written by J.J. Abrams. Steve Zahn and Paul Walker play brothers driving cross country who decide to play a prank on a random truck driver they started talking to over a CB radio. The driver doesn't take too kindly to their little joke. After the brother's pick up Paul Walker's girlfriend, the trio finds themselves relentlessly hounded by the driver no matter where they go.

Once the action gets going, it maintains the tension straight through the end of the movie. It may toe the line of plausibility every now and then, but there's enough suspense to get you to suspend your disbelief. As an added bonus for film buffs, the DVD of Joyride includes not just an alternate ending, but an entire alternate final act for the movie. The theatrical version is the best one, but it is fun to check out a version of the story that hits the same plot points but in a different way.

8. Nightwatch (1997)
There's several movies out there named Nightwatch. The one I'm referring to is the 1997 film starring Ewan McGregor. McGregor plays a law student who takes a job as a night security guard at a morgue. As if that weren't enough to deal with, it turns out a serial killer is at large, and the lead investigator, played by Nick Nolte becomes convinced that McGregor is the killer. McGregor, in turn, starts to suspect it may be his best friend, played by Josh Brolin.

This film does a great job of establishing how unsettling an environment the morgue is by starting with a scene where McGregor is shown the rounds he will have to make each night. When begins his first round of duty, you get a feeling of dread and isolation as you watch him go room to room, doing his check ins.

I would have put this movie higher on the list if the film spent most of it's time in the morgue, which I honestly found to be a creepier environment than the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. Unfortunately, as the serial killer investigation moves closer to the forefront, more scenes take place in the outside world and the solitary, confined mood dissipates as a result. On the plus side, the suspense picks up after the atmosphere dies down.

7. The Mist
Sometimes a B-movie premise can result in a top notch film when in the hands of a the right creative team. In The Mist, a story about a small town besieged by monsters becomes an allegory for the darkness of humanity due to the creative vision of Frank Darabont, who was most recently the show runner for season one of The Walking Dead.

We watch as the occupants of a small grocery store find themselves trapped inside when a strange, impenetrable mist rolls through town, and a man runs screaming into the store claiming that something in the mist is killing people. The monsters, which range from giant insects to carnivorous tentacles, do provide their share of scares, but the real horror comes when some of the people in the store start convincing themselves that they are being subjected to the wrath of God, and that the sinners must be sacrificed to the things in the mist. As the people whip themselves into a frenzy, you get a sense of the worst of human nature, made more terrifying by how convincing it feels.

6. Dawn of the Dead (2004)
This list would have been incomplete without a zombie movie, and there were many good choices but Zack Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead proved to be my winner. I almost picked 28 Days Later, but passed because that film's director, Danny Boyle, has another movie on this list. Shaun of the Dead was close as well, but while it's a great film, I wanted to go with one that was outright scary.

Zack Snyder's version of Dawn starts out with an intense scene of a zombie outbreak at its peak. It mellows out for a bit while the survivors hide out in a mall, but the threat of danger is always in the background. As the characters start to get too complacent in their hideout, all hell breaks loose. I'll admit it's more suspenseful than scary, but either way, at the end of this movie your pulse will be racing.

For purists who don't like the fact I picked this over George Romero's version, I'm sorry, but the remake had better pacing and a better balance of horror and humor. Also, it didn't have the heavy handed social commentary of the original. (Okay. Consumers are like zombies. We get it. Move on already.) As for those who thought I should have gone with Night of the Living Dead, just remember that Romero is more likely to get royalties from Zack Snyder's movie than the original Night. (Due to a legal technicality, the original Night is now in public domain.)

5. The Descent
The Descent is another example of a B-movie premise that turned out to be far better, and far scarier, than it had any right to be. A group of women go on a cave expedition only to find themselves hunted by a legion of subterranean creatures. It sounds like it should have "direct to video" written all over it, but writer/director Neil Marsall did a great job of crafting a thriller that slowly transitions from a tale of friends having a safe little adventure to one of everything going horribly wrong. It really plays upon the viewer's sense of claustrophobia, as the women realize they are hopelessly lost deep underground and are being slowly stalked by things they can't see. Like in the original Alien, the scares don't come as much from the monster attack themselves, but from knowing they're out there.

4. Fear(s) of the Dark
This movie might not be for everybody either, because it's heavy on the artsy side. In other words, it's French, animated and in black and white. Fear(s) is an compilation of short horror stories, interwoven with each other and is a film that almost certainly needs to be watched in the dark, alone, and late at night for maximum effect.

My one gripe with this movie is that they didn't re-dub the lines for the American release. Having to watch the movie with subtitles slightly ruins the creepy minimalism of some of the stories. However, some of the stories are so minimalist that there is no dialogue.

The stories range from very literal to very abstract, but none of them are about things jumping out at the viewer. Instead, you'll get a slow sense of dread that builds throughout the movie so that when the credits roll, you won't feel safe, but you can't put your finger on why.

3. Shallow Grave
As I mentioned before, I passed on including 28 Days Later on this list, only because director Danny Boyle's debut film was so much more intense. The first time I saw this, I had to double check that it wasn't a remake of a Hitchcock movie because I honestly didn't think any modern directors had it in them to make such an intense suspense thriller set in such a limited environment.

In Shallow Grave, a trio of roommates, two of them played by Ewan McGregor and Christopher Eccleston, decide to take on a fourth roommate. Not long after moving in, they find their new roommate dead with a suitcase full of money. Rather than going to the police, they decide to desecrate the body to hide his identity, bury him and keep the money. When it comes time to mutilate the corpse, they draw straws to decide who has to do the deed, and after the job is done, that lucky individual starts to lose it.

The tension buildup through this movie is slow, but unrelenting. Once the protagonists cross the line by getting rid of their new roommate's body, you as the viewer know that there will be consequences, but you don't know exactly what they will be. It's hard to describe the movie in too much detail without ruining its many twists and turns. The story doesn't rest on one big twist. Instead you watch the characters slowly descend into paranoia towards each other, causing them to behave in strange, unexpected ways. Shallow Grave may not exactly be a scary movie, but its suspense will definitely leave you on edge.

2. Session 9
Lets get this out of the way. Yes, this movie stars a pre-CSI: Miami David Caruso. Don't think that means Session 9 is at all anything corny. In fact, it's very much the opposite.

A team of asbestos removers gets a contract to clean out mental asylum in Maryland, but as they spend more time in the asylum their they start to unravel as individauls. In a way, Session 9 is a haunted house movie, but it isn't clear if there's anything supernatural at play. What is clear is that there is just something wrong about the asylum and that it's having an effect on the removal team.

Unlike the previously mentioned Nightwatch, this movie takes full advantage of its setting and keeps most of the action contained in the asylum, all of which builds up to a truly disturbing ending. It's worth mentioning that this film was actually filmed in a genuine abandoned asylum. The real life location has since been turned into a series of upscale apartments, which prompted one blogger to make a point of watching this cult horror movie in the building it was filmed in.

1. The Ring
The first time I saw this movie, I went in with little to no idea of what it was about. If you haven't seen it yet I almost don't want to reveal any of the plot to you so that you can go in completely unprepared. In my book, this is easily the most frightening movie to come out in the last decade.

I suppose what made this movie so terrifying is that it preys upon a fear that when you watch disturbing imagery, it won't just unsettle you. It can actually harm you. It definitely helps that the cinematography in this movie is simply incredible. Dreary, ordinary visuals are mixed with the surreal resulting in a movie that is both beautiful and haunting. Perhaps it's greatest strength is the way that it messes around with horror movie tropes, taking familiar scenarios and giving them unfamiliar twists.

What's most impressive about this film is that it manage to pull off genuinely scaring the hell out of the viewer with a PG-13 rating. It just proves that to be scary, a movie doesn't have to have buckets of gore.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Captain America

The mark of a good comic book movie is one that can remain faithful to it's source material while being equally as enjoyable to fanboys as it is to people who have no intention of ever picking up a comic book in their life. It was true for Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. It's been true for the Iron Man movies as well as Thor, and it's definitely true for Captain America.

Just as Thor was presented less as a super-hero movie and more as a fantasy/action movie, Captain America is treated more like a mash-up of a World War II movie and a sci-fi adventure. The film follows Steve Rogers (played by Chris Evans) as he goes from being a scrawny kid unfit for basic training in the Army to a true soldier going deep into enemy territory. In fact, one of this film's more impressive accomplishments is the way they work up to Captain America even being a costumed hero in the first place. The idea of a soldier charging behind enemy lines in full All-American regalia is realistically a bit absurd, but the film leads up to it in such a manner that it ends up working pretty well in the story, taking a few jabs at Captain America's roots as a piece of WWII propaganda, along the way.

Although the film is Captain America's origin story, it stands strong enough on it's own two feet. Even though by now everybody is well aware that this movie is among many that's a lead up to next summer's Avengers movie, this would be worth seeing even if it were stripped of all of it's Marvel Comics licensed characters. At heart, it's a tale of American soldiers going against a fringe science division of Nazis trying to use an ancient power source to power futuristic weaponry. It doesn't rely on you knowing anything about the characters going into the movie.

That being said, the producers made a point of taking advantage of the fact that The Avengers movie isn't just an idea being kicked around, but is fully into production. Instead of the quick references to other Marvel movies that were thrown about in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man 2, the wider Marvel universe plays a more prominent role in the plot. It doesn't rely on you having seen the other movies, but it builds upon the foundation laid before it. For example, there's an early scene that takes place at a 1940's version of the Stark Expo that was central to Iron Man 2.

Chris Evans is probably the perfect choice to play Captain America. Having already appeared in numerous other superhero/comic movies such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Push, and the Fantastic Four movies, it's about time he got the lead role in a major summer blockbuster. It's easy to be convinced that he's an honest kid who wants to do whatever it takes to serve his country. I was actually a bit worried about how good a job they would do with using special effects to make Evans look tiny as Steve Rogers before he is transformed into the super soldier, but for the most part they do a good job. Yes, there are moments when they get the proportions a bit wrong, but for the effect is mostly convincing enough that you forget Evans isn't actually a 90 pound weakling. Evans actually does such a good job at playing up the more humble aspects of Steve Rogers that after he transforms from scrawny kid to super soldier, it might take you a moment to remember that they used special effects to make Chris Evans look like a little guy, not the other way around. Even after he becomes the super soldier you still feel like he's the innocent kid from the start of the movie, just in a bigger body.

The rest of the cast is pretty top notch as well. There's a lot of well known faces such as Hugo Weaving, Stanley Tucci and a character played by Tommy Lee Jones who you almost want to see in his own WWII movie. There's also Toby Jones, who you might not recognize by name but have probably seen him in The Mist, Doctor Who or a bunch of other places you won't be able to figure out off the top of your head, and former Band of Brothers cast member Neal McDonough.

I'm not going to go as far as to say that if you only see one movie this summer, this should be it, but if you have found yourself highly selective of what's worth seeing in cinemas this summer, Captain America is well worth the money to see it on the big screen.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

It seems that the big trend among this summer's blockbusters has been to fix floundering franchises. X-Men: First Class revived a series that was growing weaker with each entry. The simplified plot of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides was a much needed antidote to the sprawling story in Pirates 2 & 3. Thankfully, Transformers: Dark of the Moon keeps the trend alive by avoiding becoming the train wreck that was Revenge of the Fallen.

A lot of things went wrong with Revenge of the Fallen. So much, in fact, that everybody from Shia LaBeouf to the executives of Hasboro were apologizing for it. The plot went all over the place. The juvenile humor of the first movie was taken to a new level. Then, of course there were the jive-talking Autobots that everybody involved with the production would probably like to forget. The producers listened to fan complaints and although Dark of the Moon and came back with something on par with the original Transformers.

The premise this time around is that the Apollo missons were really a front to research an alien ship that crashed on the moon. The film kicks off with a strong start, mixing actual footage of the Apollo 11 mission in with scripted scenes, calling to mind parts of Michael Bay's Armageddon. From there, it moves into a conspiracy story where we find out that for years the American and Russian governments have been keeping the crashed ship a secret from everybody, including the Transformers themselves. It's a strong enough premise that it would have worked outside of a Transformers movie, and using it for this movie shows that the producers had more in mind than "big robots fighting for 2 1/2 hours" this time around.

They also came up with a good storyline for Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), albeit a rather topical one. This time around he's a college graduate unable to find a job, driving a beat up old Datsun because his car is out saving the world. On the plus side he has a new girlfriend, played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and yes, she can act. Of course, once he does manage to land a nice, stable 9-5 job, he still manages to work his way to the front lines of the inevitable Autobot-Decepticon battle.

When you watch a Michael Bay movie, you can usually expect it to be about 2 1/2 hours long, and for that last hour to be one big action scene, and Dark of the Moon doesn't buck the trend. Unlike the finale of Revenge of the Fallen, which just felt like they were trying to cram as many explosions and robots into every minute, the climax of Dark of the Moon felt like something along the lines of Saving Private Ryan (you know... with robots). No, Michael Bay won't surprise you with an Oscar-worthy finale, but he does lock you into the battle and keeps the tension high.

There's still a fair amount of juvenile humor in Dark of the Moon, but it's toned down compared to the previous two movies. The overt racial stereotyping is gone, but there are still a few inappropriate sexual references. You'd think somebody at Hasboro would remind Michael Bay that PG-13 rating aside, it's still a movie based on a line of children's toys. The special effects also feel much cleaner than the other movies, so when the robots transform, it doesn't look as much like a big jumbled mechanical mess. However, the Transformers' designs could still use a bit of simplifying, at least for the Decepticons. They still look too complicated and alien, so it's a bit hard to tell the bad guys apart from each other.

Now, I didn't have any intention of seeing this in 3D, but I attended a free showing and didn't find out it was going to be in 3D until they were handing out glasses at the door. This almost prompted me to walk away and pay for a 2D showing, but I decided to stick around anyway.

I know it's a tired out complaint about 3D movies, but it's worth reiterating. It was just way too dim. When you watch a Michael Bay movie, you expect the sound and visuals to be cranked up past 11, but with the 3D glasses on, Bay's bright and brash visuals get seriously undercut. This might be alright if there was some big payoff to having everything in 3D, but there isn't. Aside from a spaceship flying about in the opening scene, there wasn't really any part where it felt like anything was added by seeing it in 3D. The effect was actually hardly noticeable for much of the middle of the movie. In fact, I was actually able to take the glasses off and enjoy parts of the movie without them perfectly fine, which i needed to do because my eyes were wearing out from the dimness. On the plus side, at least it wasn't headache inducing.

Overall, Dark of the Moon was a solid popcorn flick that delivers everything you should expect for a movie coming out for the July 4th weekend. It's fun, ostentatious and is the kind of movie you have to see in theaters at least twice, if only because your home theater system can't give you the fully audio-visual assault this movie calls for. I may not rate it as highly as the original Transformers, but it's definitely up there. If the producers can keep this up, hopefully we'll be seeing more Transformers movies in the future.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

X-Men: First Class

The X-Men movies are good again. Thank God. When the overkill that was X-Men: The Last Stand was followed by lackluster X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the X-Men franchise felt doomed. It seemed that we would have to wait years before the franchise was rebooted.

Thankfully, we only had to wait two years. Not only does X-Men: First Class fix the problems of the last two X-Men movies, it even manages to outshine X2. It's not clear if First Class is meant to be a reboot or just a retcon of the other films (there's more than a few notable changes to the backstory), but either way, it's a welcome direction for the film franchise.

First Class is about the origin of the X-Men team, and how Professor X and Magneto first meet. The story is set in the 60's against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so it should come as no surprise that this film takes itself a bit more seriously at times than the others in the series, especially since this film heavily focuses on the fact that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor. That's not to say that this is a meaner grittier take on X-Men. The grimness of Magneto's story is balanced out by the playfulness of the young recruits to the X-Men who both possess extraordinary powers, and no idea how to properly control them.

While it is a prequel, to the X-Men series, it avoids the pitfall the original X-Men movie fell into of feeling like little more than a prologue to a sequel story. First Class stands on it's own feet with a self contained story that doesn't rely on the audience being familiar with the previous movies, or the characters. The producers also took the bold step of framing it less in the context of a hero story, and more like an espionage thriller with a sci-fi twist.

I was impressed by how well the film developed the film's three main characters, Professor X, Magneto and especially the shape-shifting Mystique. In the other movies, Mystique was heavily featured but her character was never really explored past her being a mutant who hated humans. Here, we get to see her struggle with being comfortable with her naturally deformed appearance, and how it leads her to adopt the mindset of a villain. There's a particularly good scene in which she asks Professor X what he thinks of her as she really is, and the Professor does a poor job of trying to hide his prejudices.

Speaking of villains, Kevin Bacon and January Jones are both fantastic as First Class's villains, Sebastian Shaw and Emma Frost. The first time you see Bacon onscreen is as a Nazi scientist tormenting a young Magneto, and reveling in it. Bacon doesn't just let his portrayal rest on Nazi = Evil.  Instead, his character evolves into somebody much deeper that puts the X-Men and even world governments into a moral bind.  I had some concerns about January Jones because there have been times that I've seen her in Mad Men and other movies where her acting seemed a bit flat. In theory that shouldn't matter since the character, Emma Frost is supposed to be arrogant and indifferent, but Jones does make her character feel rather animated while staying true to her character's nature.

Overall, First Class feels far more balanced than the other X-Men movies, which often tried to cram fan-favorite characters into cameo roles at the expense of sensible plot development. First Class does boast a large roster of mutants, but the filmmakers decided to round out the supporting cast with lesser known (and more expendable) characters like Havoc and Azazel. Unless you're a comics purist who'd be put off by the filmmakers mucking about with the characters' ages (in the comics, most of the characters in the movie are young when Professor X and Magneto are old) you should love X-Men First Class.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Sucker Punch: Review

I don't often put a lot of stake in professional film reviews, but I had a sense something was up when Sucker Punch couldn't pick out enough positive quotes to make one of those ads where they say how much critics loved it. Still, I was too hyped up about this movie to not see it, so thankfully the poor reviews tempered my expectations.

I wouldn't go as far to say that Sucker Punch was a bad movie, but it was definitely a heavily flawed one. I wanted to like it because I'm a big fan of the director, Zack Snyder. The premise of the movie, in which a cast of hot women go from being damsels in distress to badass heroines, felt like it was something he came up with as a teenager and held off on making until the he earned Warner Brothers enough money that they'd let him do whatever he wanted. I mean that in a good way. It feels like somebody's dream product. The finished product is definitely more mature and polished than some teenage fanboy movie, but it's heart is still visible.

There's not any particular part of the movie that stands out on its own as bad. There's no groan-worthy dialogue or horrendous acting. By no means is the movie at all unwatchable, but the problem with Sucker Punch was that it's a collection of well crafted parts that don't work together as a whole.

There are three aspects to the story, and the first two actually go pretty well together. There's a strong opening and a good follow through. It starts with a young woman, known only as Baby Doll, who gets incarcerated in an asylum after she tries to kill her abusive step-father. Once in the asylum, she takes her mind into a fantasy world where she imagines she's a captive in a brothel, and invents a plan to escape with her fellow captives.

Everything falls apart when the third aspect of the story comes into play, which is made of the big action sequences that are splashed across the trailers and TV spots for this movie. The idea is that Baby Doll needs to acquire several items to make her escape. Her friends try to help her steal the items while Baby Doll dances to distract her captors, and her dancing is apparently something completely mesmerizing.

The audience never sees her dancing though, because once she starts moving her body, Baby Doll goes even deeper into a fantasy where the task at hand becomes some mad-crazy action scene that's symbolic of what they're trying to do. For example, the girls need to steal a lighter, so when Baby Doll starts dancing she imagines that they're stealing fire from a dragon.

I liked the idea of the heroine using an escapist fantasy to deal with the very real horrors before her, but the action scenes, where they're battling robots, monsters and steampunk Nazi zombies, were so out of scope of the rest of the story,  they just didn't feel like they belonged in the same movie. It also didn't help that the action scenes were directly tied to Baby Doll's dancing. It made what was supposed to be a metaphor just a bit too literal. The action scenes would have probably made for a great movie on their own, and they were definitely well made, but they just didn't work with the main story.

Also, it was hard to get my mind past the notion that the fantasy world Baby Doll comes up with while in the asylum is unmistakably a very male fantasy. Yes, the women in the fantasy are very much empowered, but it was hard to buy into the idea of a woman fleeing an abusive step-father by imaging herself as an erotic dancer who can take herself to a sci-fi/fantasy world where she and the women are led by a father figure type.

I did at least appreciate that Zack Snyder made nods to the works that inspired parts of the film, without resorting to full-on "borrowing." There's a bit of Walter Mitty, some Brazil thrown in the mix and an unmistakable helping of "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." Thankfully, Zack Snyder has enough respect for his audience to be up front about the last one, and not try to pull it on the audience like a twist ending we never heard before.

Overall, Sucker Punch is a well crafted movie that should have spent more time in the conception stage before actually going into production. It's easy to see how much worse this movie could have turned out. Tell most directors to make a movie starring chicks with guns and you usually end up with something like the Resident Evil movies. The movie Zack Snyder made could have been a lot better if he hashed out the balance between the various fantasy scenes. I get a sense of the movie that he had in his mind, but it isn't quite the movie that he ended up making.

Although disappointing, it had enough good moments to it that it didn't shake my faith in him as a director, and I'm definitely looking forward to what he can do with his upcoming take on Superman.