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April 13, 2011

I’ve seen it all

It was clear, based on the kick-ass trailers that started showing in theaters last fall, that Zack Snyder’s latest effort, “Sucker Punch,” was going to be the greatest narrative film of all time. It had everything the perfect movie would need: Giant Samurai robots! Nazi zombies! A ginormous fire-breathing dragon! And sexy young women in mini-skirts, wielding swords and machine guns, mowing down the various threats with apparent ease.

Say what you will about any other movie ever made, “Citizen Kane,” “Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” whatever; there is not a single one of them that wouldn’t have benefited from the addition of either a fire-breathing dragon or a hot blonde in pig-tails, deftly handling a machine gun. Not one.

So what if the reviews have been lousy? They’re all wrong. They just don’t “get it.” Why do these people want their movies to “make sense”? Isn’t it about time we abandon the expectation that narrative films embrace logic? Expecting movies to make sense is kind of like expecting a bird to fly. I mean, like an ostrich or a penguin, you know, one of the many, many kinds of birds that don’t fly. It’s like that. Expecting something like that would be stupid.

So what if “Sucker Punch” isn’t really “fun”? Assuming that entertainment will be “fun” creates a dangerous precedent. A lot of things we do by choice aren’t fun, like going to school or work, visiting people, having a picnic or taking a nap. Watching “The Sorrow and the Pity” isn’t “fun,” but nobody has ever panned that great documentary about the Holocaust for failing to be “fun.”

“Sucker Punch” is purposefully dark because the subject matter is very, very serious. It is apparently about how beautiful young women are sometimes sent to live in mental hospitals where their fates are determined by unscrupulous guards who can have them lobotomized by faking a doctor’s signature. This is merely the latest in a grand tradition of what we might call “Women in Captivity” films. (There is probably a genre section dedicated to these movies at your nearby video store.) They seem to exist to raise awareness about how institutionalization creates unspeakable misery. These movies are never much fun to watch, but it is important that they are made to make sure we remain mindful of the dreadful injustices that take place behind the closed doors of our local insane asylums.

The (former) masterpiece of the genre was 1948’s “The Snake Pit,” which featured Olivia de Havilland as a troubled woman who is sent to an insane asylum by her husband. She has a really bad time of it, but she is helped by a sympathetic psychiatrist, played by Leo Genn, and she got nominated for an Academy Award for it, so she probably didn’t really mind so much.

Two years later, the women’s prison classic “Caged” (1950) told the story of a young woman (played by Eleanor Parker) sent to the penitentiary for being an accomplice in an armed robbery. Despite the best efforts of a sympathetic warden (played by Agnes Moorehead), she suffers at the hand of a cruel matron and becomes a hard-nosed-con. This one is actually kind of fun to watch, especially if you like watching good people turn into criminals.

Another classic of the genre is “Reform School Girls” (1986), which features Wendy O. Williams (from the punk band, the Plasmatics) as Charlie, the bully, and Sybil Danning as the warden. Like “Sucker Punch,” this one is more about the main character trying to escape from the facility, and it is pretty dull, although the shower scenes liven things up a bit.

What sets “Sucker Punch” apart from all those other movies is the way the girls deal with being in such an awful place. First, they pretend they are in a brothel and that they are the “entertainment” for the various customers, but then, just like in that one movie, “Inception,” they go into other dreams within the brothel dream; this is where they fight the giant robot Samurai, the Nazi zombies, the dragon and some other robots. I can’t even invent a reason why they would do anything like that, but I think that’s why it is so brilliant; they didn’t bother to explain it, either.

For further consideration: You can find a clip of the closing credits featuring a cover of Roxy Music’s “Love is the Drug” on YouTube.