Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Frankenstein & Sucker Punch

I visited the Palace cinema twice in two days (Sunday and Monday) for two somewhat different kinds of entertainment, despite them being broadcast in essentially the same medium.


Not a film – a filmed version of a play; England's National Theatre have done a series of these over the last few years – I saw their Hamlet (which was brilliant) a few months back – and they seem to be successful enough to be continuing with them.

This particular production was a stage adaptation directed by Danny Boyle (director of one of my all-time favourite films, Trainspotting, and winner of the Best Director Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire) and starring Johnny Lee Miller (also from Trainspotting) and Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock Holmes in the brilliant BBC tv series, Sherlock. One of the more unusual aspects of the production was that Cumberbatch and Miller would alternate the roles of Frankenstein1 and the creature on different nights.

I'd seen it advertised, but I hadn't decided for sure that I was going to see it, but one of my friends mentioned it was on and that she was interested in going to see it; I spoke to a few other people and we got a group together to go. We'd heard that the version with Miller as the scientist and Cumberbatch as the creature was the better of the two, so we decided to see that one.

And it was awesome. It was done at the The National in London, which is an absolutely stunning space with a multi-part revolving section with elevators, which allows for very fast scene changes. They'd created a kind of chandelier out of hundreds of light bulbs, which were used throughout to create some of the most impressive dramatic lighting I've ever seen; they were also able to create amazing fire, fog, rain and snow effects.

The performances were also exceptional. I liked Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, but here he demonstrates just how talented a physical performer he is. Likewise, I've never seen Johnny Lee Miller do much beyond Trainspotting and the few scenes from Eli Stone that I caught.

Overall, it was a intense and captivating production, and definitely worth seeing. I would have liked to get to a session of reversed-role version, but time and budgetary constraints demanded otherwise. Obviously it's not as good as seeing it live, but it's better than not seeing it at all.

1Despite what popular culture might have told you, Frankenstein was always – in the original at least – the name of the creator, not the created; the latter's official name is 'the creature'.

Sucker Punch

Despite the seeming tidal wave of negative reviews this film had received, I was determined to go see it anyway, simply because I like what the director, Zack Snyder, has done in the past – namely 300 and Watchmen.

It is the story of Babydoll (Emily Browning2), whose stepfather commits her to an insane asylum and bribes one of the orderlies to forge the doctor's signature to have her lobotomised in five days. However, in Babydoll's broken-from-reality mind she is not in an asylum, but instead a brothel, where she and a troupe of girls perform dance numbers to entertain patrons.

It gets even stranger after that point, as Babydoll, when dancing, goes to yet another fantasy world where she is a sword-and-gun wielding superhero. After her first journey into this world she is given a quest to obtain four items which, when obtained, will give her her freedom. Then, when back in the brothel-world, she recruits the assistance of four of the other girls to aid her in the tasks, which she has five days to complete.

Apologies if that doesn't make a lot of sense, but that – more or less – is the plot.

So, we follow Babydoll and her stripperiffic3 offsiders through a set of adventures more reminiscent of levels of a videogame than a film – they battle steam-powered, Pickelhaube-adorned German soldiers in WWI trenches; dragons and orc-like warriors; and futuristic robots on a distant planet before it all ends.

And – if it's not already clear – it doesn't really work. While the central concept – escaping into a fantasy world to cope with an unpleasant situation – is not an unreasonable (albeit not a wildly original) one, in this instance it's not given enough from the other aspects of the story to make it satisfying.

When the first 'shift' in reality occurs – from the asylum to the brothel – it just happens, without any kind of attempt at an explanation; was it from the sedatives, or the stress or something else entirely? Ditto with the shift into (for want of a better term) the game world, which just kind of happens.

If we'd been shown she was an avid reader of sci-fi and fantasy – not hard to do; a brief scene with a bookcase in the background would have done it – it would have helped. Had the shifts in reality been something Babydoll had to understand and take control of, a gradual process rather than a sudden jump, it would have been much more acceptable.

Without these kind of anchoring concepts, it felt (to me at least) like there were parts missing, and that's something that I find difficult to overcome my annoyance toward. When you add to that the distinct lack of depth to most of the characters (two of the other girls get somewhat of a backstory, but no-one else does), and the more contentious issues, which are discussed far more intelligently than I could manage in this blog post, you get some serious distractions.

It didn't, however, undermine the experience completely. Snyder is a brilliant director of visual effects, and there are some brilliantly conceived – and even more brilliantly realised – action scenes; there are a few zoom-in/zoom-out transitions between the worlds that are so well done they're seamless.

Basically, it's a superficially interesting film without much depth – which I would mostly attribute to the fact that Snyder co-wrote this one himself when, prior to this, had mostly worked at adapting existing stories. And it looks like while he's a talented director he's either not much of a writer or, at the very least, is one who needs to spend more time on his scripts or get some help.

Incidentally, his next film is yet another reboot of the Superman franchise, Man of Steel; since I've never been much of a fan of that particular character, I'm going to wait and see what the reviews say (fingers crossed it's 'no tights', since that's what I really dislike) before I decide.

2It was a bit disturbing to see her in this kind of role, given that I still think of her as Violet Baudelaire from the film adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
3Yeah, that's another TV Tropes term. It's pretty self-explanatory, but you can always check out the entry here.

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