USA 2011  Directed by: Zack Snyder  Written by: Zack Snyder, Steve Shibuya  Produced by: Deborah Snyder, Zack Snyder  Cinematography by: Larry Fong  Editing by: William Hoy  Music by: Tyler Bates, Marius De Vries  Cast: Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, Oscar Isaac, Carla Gugino, Jon Hamm, Scott Glenn

They say if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself. And in this day and age, with advanced technological support, it has become truer than ever. I’m sure Zack Snyder would be the first to agree, and eagerly trying to prove he can keep up with his peers such as Christopher Nolan, by making “Sucker Punch.” I personally don’t necessarily see Snyder as a filmmaker, but rather a hyper-action visual artist. His detail in composition, lighting, and movement is borderline impeccable, and usually always aims at one thing – a mind/eye devouring feast. And each of his films is a work of art.

Adding to his usual roles, Snyder directed, produced, and co-wrote “Sucker Punch.” But whereas pieces like “300” or “Watchmen” had been visually and verbally outlined, and simply needed a loyal adaptation, SP manifested from the pit of Snyder’s creative blender. And this is where it hit a speed bump.

The trouble with making ultra-stunning effects is they can easily become your crutch rather than a style. And the audience expects you to raise the bar each time, but that simply can’t persist, because all of Snyder’s bells and whistles jingled and jangled in his earlier pictures, which gave him notice in the first place.

With a blank canvas, Snyder painted a world of Baby Doll, a young woman (although she looked 14 in her Japanimation-fashioned outfit and makeup) desperately trying to survive and escape the insane asylum that she was committed in by her malicious stepfather. It seems, in this dark and dingy institution, only pretty young females are the patients. And even the head psychiatrist is a busty eastern European seductress played by the always sumptuous Carla Gugino. Through her guidance, Baby Doll finds herself able to bend the cruel reality into a spirited fantasy, fighting her way, along with her inmate patients, through Japanese feudal times and WWI Germany, and eventually to freedom. Sometimes there were dragons, other times futuristic robots. But at all times, girls were kicking bad guys’ asses, while in killer heels, dangerously short skirts and deadly décolletages. And?

The entrance to the fantasy world was always accompanied by a song played out in the room and Baby Doll’s irresistible dance that would set all the men in a trance, allowing the other girlie inmates to do their business – collecting items that would piece together the steps for all of them to escape. Till the end, we never saw what her dance actually was; it was always through the expressions of the men that we knew her moves were mesmerizing. And even though the color schemes and costumes contrasted between the two worlds, one element seemed to remain constant amongst the characters – really long eyelashes. Why?

If a film/story can be depicted by a genre of music, “Sucker Punch” would be a techno-trance maxed out on decibel levels. The action almost never seizes, and never quite allowed any downtime to peel back any layers of the characters. And yet, the actions almost always stayed at the same level, too – never really advanced the game from previous scenes. Sometimes, the fight sequences were caught too closely by the camera that was obviously placed on a lawn mower, giving way to vertigo and light reminder of last night’s dinner. This repeated several times throughout the show. What for?

In the end, through the psychiatrist’s final analysis, “Sucker Punch” concludes that the key to setting us free in this cruel world is…us. Really? Is that it? Can this be the punch-line to this episode? Did Snyder really go through all that pain to reveal a message that could be found inside a fortune cookie? I guess the audience got suckered in this one. Snyder needs to get back to what he does best: visualization – dust off his ego and hang up his writer’s hat, for awhile. And let’s hope his new installment of “Superman” will fly a bit higher, under the producing wings of his multiple-hat-wearing peer, Christopher Nolan.









USA 2011  Directed by: Prachya Pinkaew  Written by: Kevin Bernhardt  Produced by: Frank DeMartini, Peter Safran, Daniel Bernhardt, Tom Waller, Avi Lerner  Cinematography by: Wade Muller  Editing by: David Richardson  Music by: Robert Folk  Cast: Kevin Bacon, Djimon Hounsou, Jirantanin Pitakporntrakul, Ron Smoorenburg, Abhijati Jusakul, Sahajak Boonthanakit, Byron Gibson, Creighton Mark Johnson, Weeraprawat Wongpuapan, Suteerush Channukool

I am not sure if the phrase “highly anticipated” applies to Prachya Pinkaew’s US debut. First of all, it’s not a phrase I’d use as I have never been fond of his sketchy direction in the first place – frankly speaking, most of his movies are only watchable because of some fine action scenes and outstanding martial arts display; as movies, however, they are generally sub-standard. Secondly, when has the US debut of an Asian director ever been a revelation? Right. Last but not least, when has a US B-movie that is shot more or less entirely in Asia ever been any good? Well.

So everything points towards a disaster, not even taking into consideration that Mr. Pinkaew now has to work with real actors, not stuntmen, something like a real script (featuring real English dialogue) and cater to an international audience that expects more than a niche Muay Thai show. But as positive thinking is a virtue I have tried to look forward to ELEPHANT WHITE, primarily thanks to the unspoken promise of another memorable performance by Kevin Bacon, and possibly Djimon Hounsou. Now how did that all turn out?

Let’s begin with the screenplay: ELEPHANT WHITE is a solid action drama (or so it seems at first) about an assassin who is hired by a Thai businessman to avenge the murder of his daughter by slave traders, injecting some initially welcome touch of exoticism and mysticism along with authentic locations and local flair to boost the film’s sweaty atmosphere. As long as all that contributes to the story, place or character development that’s fine with me. Thing is, the script quickly ups the ante and deviates from the actual story, indulging in kitsch and melodrama instead, focusing more on triggering all sorts of emotions than on a believable storyline (even though the final twist is meant to render much of what happens in the movie a “mystery” (which by then however is completely revealed and explained).

Add to that a relationship between the main characters that remains largely incomprehensible and is defined through some seriously clumsy dialogue and action scenes that never make sense. The script relies on an intangible past, and it eventually all comes down to Curtie Church in need of weapons and Jimmy The Brit supplying them, for reasons only Mr. Bernhardt knows.

While revealing no huge immediately detectable formal issues (other than Mr. Pinkaews previous films, which suggests that the American team has significantly contributed to the film’s hygienic factors and taken Mr. Pinkaews work to a hitherto unknown, albeit not exactly high level) ELEPHANT WHITE however has astonished me with a so far rarely seen repetition of largely identical chapters: again and again Church gets himself new weapons from Jimmy, assassinates the bad guys, works on his “relationship” with Mae, needs more and different weapons, and it all starts all over again.

ELEPHANT WHITE is not unentertaining, has some good moments and features some serious shootouts and other action sequences, but what exactly is its point? I’ve been digging a lot, but there is simply no story here, unless you count Church’s relationship with Mae and its implications as a somewhat relevant “love story”. Apart from that we see an unfortunately disappointing performance from Mr. Bacon, who is speaking with a very fake and very exerted English accent while otherwise giving me the impression of being mentally absent throughout his scenes; a key idea and surprise ending that is by far less clever than it thinks it is; and a revenge plot that is thin as paper, or better, is nothing but an initial reason to send Church on his spiritual journey.

All things considered, ELEPHANT WHITE is basically a half-assed blend of ANGEL HEART, BANGKOK DANGEROUS, Hong Kong Action flicks and Thai martial arts. I am not sure what the mission was really, but it is safe to say it wasn’t accomplished. Also, Mr. Pinkaew doesn’t do his country a favor by replicating the same old clichés any foreign director would have gone for as far as Thailand is concerned, while on the other hand never developing a signature style or having any noticeable impact on the story or its visualization.

ELEPHANT WHITE is a mediocre action drama that could have been better but most certainly never ever really good no matter what – not with this sort of script, director and acting. When the dust has settled all that remains is a B-movie that will have a very hard time to find an audience.




USA, GERMANY 2011  Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra  Written by: Oliver Butcher, Stephen Cornwell  Produced by: Joel Silver, Leonard Goldberg, Andrew Rona  Cinematography by: Flavio Labiano  Editing by: Timothy Alverson  Music by: John Ottman, Alexander Rutt  Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella, Bruno Ganz

From the trailer, “Unknown” looked very much like a reprise of Liam Neeson’s last espionage film, “Taken.” The setting, the weather, the color, the fashion…all represented a clear reminder of the fast-paced, Bessonesque hyper-flick. Whereas “Taken” had a very small, personal agenda that took Neeson’s character on a rampage, “Unknown” aimed a bit too high, and left somewhat a dry taste on the palate.

“Unknown” tells a tale of an undercover agent who’s lost his memory in a taxi accident. Upon waking up from his coma, he believes he was his cover, Dr. Martin Harris, who’s in Berlin to join an exclusive event with his wife (obviously also an undercover agent, played blankly to a T by January Jones). En route to finding out his true self, Harris traces back to the immigrant taxi driver named Gina (Diane Kruger), who had left him after the crash. Gina’s involvement to Harris’s recovery was the slack crutch that sloppily carried the story – offering Harris a rundown apartment to crash because he had no credit or ID; a dingy club to hide when they were being chased by hit-men; saved Harris’s life just in time by running down and crushing not only one, but two bad guys, and finally a happy Hollywood ending by walking away hand-in-hand with Harris into their new life.

Hollywood clearly wanted to create a new sub-genre – action movies with aged thespians, and supported by an overwhelmingly talented cast that could have walked through the script in their sleep, or needed a holiday break between serious films and picking up awards.

Of the lineup, Bruno Ganz’s “ex-spy in need of purpose” was oddly introduced to Harris by an awkward nurse that cared for him while he was comatose in the hospital. Why did a nurse even know a spy from the cold-war era was beyond me. And, when Ganz heard the death of the nurse, he just waved it like she had it coming. (Okay, maybe there should have been a background check on that lady. Another movie maybe, moving on.) Ganz produced a fantastic character that smoothly obtained the pieces for Harris. His character had an air of righteousness without the ego, and knew the fine line that crosses through good and evil. Even in the face of an unbeatable nemesis, the director of Harris’s spy shop, he elegantly drops a sachet of cyanide into his tea and collapses into his enemy’s embrace, the ever suave yet Shakespearean Frank Langella. This was a gentle reminisce of the golden era of spy sparring. But we are in the 21st century, and what’s needed was some nonsensical action. Hence, punches, karate chops, and a fast car chase, backwards. Here was the first hint about Harris’s real background – a street car-racer.

The action of the film was too close for comfort, literally. Almost all scenes had the camera up the actors’ noses and armpits, and car wheels’ axles and exhaust pipes. Was it necessary, well, maybe yes, because the film sometimes seemed so low budget (due to a star-studded cast) that no cash was left to shoot full sets or prop the camera properly on anything stationary. And, few attempts at CG effects were richly rewarded to the freshmen computer specialists at the local county technical school.

Finally, after Harris is made aware of his true identity – an international spy set to assassinate a middle-eastern prince and a biologist – he quickly regains his optimism and skills to redeem his wicked self. And, upon the credits’ rollout and the most stunning shot of the whole film – the Berlin train station under a blanket of snow – one quickly settles into the comprehension that Hollywood wishes to remind us, every once in awhile, just how short our memories are for such films: the Bourne trilogy, “Memento,” and especially, “Total Recall.” But, in the age of Youtube and digital downloads, you can assess that “Unknown” would quickly settle onto the shelves of unmemorable.