Archive for March 28, 2011

So — what really happened in Roswell, New Mexico in 1947? Was it a UFO crash? A weather balloon, as the government later stated? Or something else entirely?

Well, don’t look to 1998’s quasi-documentary Six Days In Roswell for any answers. But that doesn’t mean this bizarre Borat -prototype isn’t all kinds of fun.

The Minneapolis-based brains behind the Trekkies documentaries thought they’d take a look at the world’s largest annual UFO festival as part of their ongoing (although it seems to have stalled out in recent years) cinematic examination of the more bizarre corners of Americana, and the result is, in fact, a pretty solid hoot, yet never degrades its subject, which is rather welcome in the TFG household since my wife and I are firm believers that there is, indeed, something out there. Still, even we’ve got to admit that the flying saucer crowd contains its fair share of eccentrics, and while they get plenty of screen time here to make their case, the filmmakers (specifically director Timothy B. Johnson, producer Roger Nygard, and “star”/host Rich Kronfeld), while never going out of their way to make these folks look — you know, normal — resist the easy impulse to point fingers and portray them as being freaks and losers. Mostly you get the feeling that the folks who head down to Roswell over the July 4th holiday every year are eccentrics with a passion, and surely the world could use a whole lot more of them and a lot fewer corporate-ladder-climbing yuppie assholes.

Rick Kronfeld is our “point of entry,” so to speak, to the whole UFO crowd — he’s essentially portraying a character “based on an exaggerated version of himself” (for instance he doesn’t really still live at home with his mother, doesn’t work at the non-existent “Gopher Pride” electric-power-strip manufacturing company, etc.) and his whole raison d’etre for going down to Roswell is because he wants to be abducted by aliens and that kind of thing just never happens here in Minnesota.

The rest of the film essentially consists of his “in-character” interviews with folks down there and explorations of the various activities that make up the annual UFO festival. Respected UFO researchers like Stanton T. Friedman and Budd Hopkins are allowed to (briefly) make their cases, but mostly he just talks to regular folks, and you come away feeling that the average “UFO nuts” is, essentially, somebody just like you and me — who happens to believe they were abducted by aliens.

Now, how much of this set-up is “for real” and how much is purely staged is a good question, and that’s where the DVD commentary with Johnson, Kronfeld, and Nygard comes in handy. They lay out exactly what’s what in no uncertain terms (and do so in a very entertaining manner), but definitely watch it through first without the commentary and then listen to it to see what you as a viewer may have gotten right and wrong (some of it’s certainly obvious, but other things — such as the fact that they actually went to Roswell two consecutive years, for both the big 50th anniversary shindig in 1997 and again in 1998 — is much less apparent).

And on the subject of DVD extras, the fine folks at Synapse Films have loaded this one up with goodies. Not only do we get the aforementioned commentary, but there are also trailers for the film, a “making-of” featurette, a slew of deleted scenes, and an intriguing selection of earlier works (often of the home-made-when-they-were-kids variety) from Messrs. Johnson, Kronfeld, and Nygard, to boot. As far as the technical specifications go, the full-frame transfer (this was shot on 16mm and blown-up to 35mm) and stereo soundtrack are both just fine.

All in all, Six Days In Roswell is a blast. A certain Mr. Baron Cohen definitely owes these guys a debt of gratitude, but unlike his films, this one never slides into snide condescension of its subject matter, and never becomes more about the “star” than the events he’s observing. Okay, so it’s not an actual documentary per se — it’s still pretty damn honest.

Zack Snyder is the closest thing we’re likely to find to an answer to the question “what would happen if you gave a 12-year-old kid $100 million and a movie camera?” And that’s not really meant as an insult. Read on and I’ll explain —

First off, let’s state the obvious here —Sucker Punch looks great. It might be the single-most impressive CGI spectacle Hollywood has produced to date. It’s quite the feast for the eyes, as are most of the young starlets who populate the cast.  This marks Snyder’s first non-adaptation cinematic work (and he co-wrote the screenplay, as well), but that doesn’t mean it’s anything like being what could even loosely be called “original.” Instead, it rips off anything and everything in sight rather than just sticking with one source. The most obvious influences are Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, but our guy Zack borrows freely from a whole smorgasbord of material that runs the gamut from Moulin Rouge to Argento’s Suspiria to his own previous work (there’s a funeral scene highly reminiscent of Watchmen, for instance). Mostly Sucker Punch is just concerned with looking cool, and it could care less about breaking new ground.

The story, on some level, wants desperately to be a mind-fuck, but it’s not fooling anyone. When our erstwhile heroine Baby Doll (Emily Browning) is committed to a suitably wretched-looking mental institution by her physically-and sexually-abusive stepfather (who wants her late mother’s chunk of the will for himself, naturally), she is immediately plunged into some sort of ill-defined “alternative therapy” program run by mysterious Eastern European matron Dr. Vera Gorski (the always-gorgeous but frankly supremely untalented Carla Gugino) that just doesn’t work out for her and it’s quickly decided she needs a lobotomy. As she’s restrained in the psychosurgical chair and facing the needle and spike, she completely disassociates from the situation and we’re plunged into a dreamworld scenario where she and fellow mental patients Blondie  (Vanessa Hudgens), Rocket (Jena Malone), Amber (Jamie Chung) and Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) are part of a dance troupe/brothel in some undefined locale at some equally- undefined period in time. Baby Doll’s dancing, though, takes us into a dream-within-a-dream level that triggers her escape into all kinds of hyper-fantastic scenarios that form part of a five-part quest to locate the items she and her fellow detainees will need to make their escape from either the bordello or the bughouse (take your pick). Scott Glenn serves as the David Carradine stand-in who sends them on their quest and pops up in each of the double-imaginary scenarios to share such nuggets of corn-pone wisdom as “never write a check with your mouth you can’t cash with your ass” and “to those who have to struggle for it, life has a flavor that the contented will never know.” These dream-within-a-dream set-ups provide thereal visual “meat” of the film, as the girls are sent on missions ranging from slaying a baby dragon while trying to avoid its mother to confronting zombie Nazis re-animated by the pwoer of steam. Each is a supreme exercise in lush eye-candy excess, and Snyder obviously has a blast topping himself as the film goes along.

The big event all the girls are being prepped for is the appearance at the club of a mysterious figure known only as “The High Roller,” who just happens to look exactly like the guy giving Baby Doll her lobotomy (it’s Jon Hamm of TV’s Mad Men, in case you were wondering), and so we’re heading towards some sort of full-circle resolution whereby the dreamworld of the bordello, the double-dreamworld of the quest, and the real world of the House on the Hill all come together. Will the girls escape? How will they do it? And will all of them make it?

Look, I haven’t had time to dig through all the reviews out there pertaining to this flick yet, but I can just imagine how both traditional and more “revisionist” feminists are going to react to this one. The former camp will decry the flick’s perceived obvious sexism while the latter will “celebrate” its story of female “empowerment.” In truth, both camps are wrong in my view, because I honestly don’t get the feeling that Snyder is trying to make much of any political point here at all. He just wants to make a movie that looks really cool, has some good-looking babes kicking all kinds of ass, and ends on some sort of “you can do it no matter what if you really try” standard-issue self-help-ism.

And that’s why, goofy as it may sound, I can’t help but respect the guy for what he’s done here. First off, he points out, albeit unwittingly, the double-standard that exists in Hollywood — when Tarantino rips off everything in sight, it’s called an “homage,” yet when Snyder does it, then it’s “unoriginal” and “derivative.” And while the pretentious cineastes out there argue over what he’s supposedly trying to say, those of who know the score can kick back and laugh just like Snyder himself is probably doing.

Don’t get me wrong — this is actually one of the most personal multi-million-dollar blockbusters you’re likely to see. It’s just that Snyder’s personal vision doesn’t extend beyond making a movie that looks really fucking awesome. In a way, Sucker Punch reminds me of Jack Kirby’s seminal Fourth World comics opus, minus the social and political commentary that Kirby’s work was infused with (in other words, this ain’t nearly as deep by any stretch) — both are examples of what happens when a grown adult with a pubescent boy’s imagination is given free reign to just tell the kind of story they want, and providing the audience with visual spectacles galore is first on their agenda (I know, I know — Kirby eventually had his nuts cut off by DC as the Fourth World saga unfolded, but that’s another matter for another time). The sheer, unbridled glee Snyder goes about his business here is a joy to behold, and makes for one hell of a good time.

A reviewer on the IMDB recently stated that Sucker Punch is the cinematic equivalent of giving a 12-year-old kid the keys to his dad’s liquor cabinet. I fully agree.The reviewer’s point, though, is that’s why Sucker Punch, well, sucks — and that’s where he and I part company. Rather, I think that’s why it’s so unpretentiously, jubilantly awesome. Hollywood gave Zack Snyder $100 million and he took it and pissed in their face. He may not have a lot to say, but the way in which he says it takes real guts and the whole flick oozes devil-may-care brashness. Snyder just plain doesn’t seem to give a damn about doing anything but making the coolest-looking CGI extravaganza possible, and if that’s not your cup of tea, he’s not shy about telling you to fuck off.  That kind of self-assured bravado is something I’ll always respect. What Sucker Punch lacks in brains, it more than makes up for in sheer balls.