One summer when I was about ten, I was called to the stage by a small-time magician known as Uncle Ted. He hosted a weekly horror movie on TV called “Uncle Ted’s Ghoul School.” Between scenes and commercials he’d do tricks, tell jokes, and invite the kids watching to come down to his magic store. The infamous Bill O’Reilly was the local news anchor back then, and he’d write jokes for Ted’s show. How the mighty have fallen.
Uncle Ted was a tall man with a big handlebar mustache who always wore a fez. He was my idol. And here he was, calling me up to the stage to help him with a trick. I was to hold a cloth bag with a handle (a little like a small butterfly net). He tucked a red scarf into the bag, helped me hold the handle tighter, and then pulled the scarf out again, only now it was bright blue. (By the way, you can see Ted do a variation on this trick in this video on Youtube.)
At the end of the trick, he turned to me. “You didn’t see any funny business. Right, kid?”
“Right? Of course not!” And all the kids in the audience broke into wild applause.
The thing is, I had seen some funny business. When he grabbed my hands to make sure I was holding the handle tightly, he twisted the handle. And I’m sure my eyes went wide when I saw a hidden cloth compartment inside the bag flip to the other side, revealing the hidden blue scarf.
Yes, I knew magic was trickery, but I thought it would be a little slicker that that.
Which brings me to the movies.
Don’t make me. Please. I’m begging you. Don’t. make. me. see. Sucker Punch. When I started this blog, I thought I’d have fun skewering bad movies and celebrating the few good ones. What better revenge on Hollywood’s theft of my ticket money than to eviscerate the offending movie? But even I have limits.
A bad movie is an act of misdirection, the kind of thing a magician does. With the right hand, he points at the left, where he’s apparently just place a quarter. In fact, the quarter is hidden in the right. But the pointing finger draws the attention away from the right. Misdirection. In movie terms, you distract the audience from the nonexistent plot by cranking up the volume of the soundtrack. Hide the low talent of the actors by never letting them speak more than a sentence or two at most. And throw in as many CGI effects as possible—a few explosions, a couple of cars flipping through the air, a robot killing machine here and there. And in the end, the hapless audience member doesn’t know where to look, eyes jittering from one corner of the screen to another. As the credits roll, he staggers out of the auditorium convinced he’s been entertained when really he’s been bamboozled. You didn’t see any funny business. Right, kid?
Sucker Punch is about a young woman who loses her mother and suffers terribly at the hands of a wicked father/stepfather/guardian. When she exacts her revenge, she’s thrown into an asylum, where more bad things happen. A woman with a fake Russian accent tells her that reality can be whatever she wills it to be. And with the help of a wise man, she sets off on a quest to free herself from the prison of reality. At least that’s the story as laid out by the trailer. Which world is real, which unreal? And who really cares?
Is it unfair to review a movie based on its trailer alone? Not when the trailer gives away the whole story, even alluding to the “surprise” ending. And besides, check the title of this piece again.
At one point in the movie—or at least in the trailer—our hero, Baby Doll, drops from a great height, only to land kneeling on one knee, on pavement . . . that cracks from the force of her landing. She looks up calmly, ready to do battle. What are this woman’s knees made of—Titanium? I’m so tired of this cliché. The first time I saw it, Wesley Snipes was doing the one-knee landing, in Blade. I was impressed. Since then, it’s been done to death. I’m putting Hollywood on notice now: find a new way for the hero to make an entrance. OK? Don’t make me come out there.
What else does Sucker Punch give you? Vast animated cityscapes of destruction, monsters, robots, a mish-mash of historical periods, winged creatures . . . in other words, the usual nonsense, though more of it. The real stars of such movies aren’t the actors or the story; they’re the animators. At this point in movie history, they must be recycling the same code. What else would explain the number of times we’re made to watch the one-knee landing in movies like this?
Shouldn’t movies tell you something about the world? About the challenges of living? And since when do those challenges include a seventy-foot-tall samurai warrior? Maybe I just don’t live in a tough enough neighborhood.
Years after I shared the stage for that one brief moment with Uncle Ted, I was in a play with him. He was cast as my father. We had a long rehearsal period. Whenever Ted wasn’t on stage, he was up the street at the bar. It became my job to run up and drag him back in time for his next entrance. After weeks of this, one night when I was about to vault up the street to the bar, the director held up her hand and said, “Don’t bother.” From then on, another actor played my father. He was great. The play went off without a hitch. But from time to time, I can’t help thinking of Uncle Ted hunched over his beer in the dark of the North End Tavern, wondering where the magic went.
When I consider the endless reel of crap that comes out of Hollywood, I wonder, too.
P.S. Hats off for the late, lamented Sidney Lumet.