Monuments Men, The (2014)
★ / ★★★★
Frank Stokes (George Clooney) has managed to persuade the president of the United States that victory against the Nazis in World War II would hold less meaning if some of the greatest achievements known to man—pieces of art such as sculptures, paintings, tapestries—end up being destroyed or forever lost. So, a group known as the Monuments Men, comprised of seven scholars that range from art collectors, architects, curators, are sent to Germany to collect and protect works that have been stolen.
The heart of “The Monuments Men,” based on the screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, is in the right place but it is not a good movie. Perhaps most problematic is that the men that the material urges that we remember and appreciate are not painted as very interesting people. Although they are played by big names—Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville—none of them are able to do anything with a script that lacks intensity and focus.
In an attempt to inject some sort of personality in the group that tries to acquire countless invaluable artwork, the members are given lines, would-be jokes, to utter. Less than few work because there is almost always no attempt at building up the punchline. Or maybe too obvious a comedy does not have room in the subject matter that is WWII. Millions of lives were lost during that time and yet the main characters look like they are on vacation. They do not look dirty enough, desperate enough, traumatized enough especially since their lives are supposed to be in constant danger.
The score is overbearing and annoying to the point where the audience is taken out of the experience. When someone is starting a speech, one can bet that the melodramatic score will start in about five seconds. Why does Clooney, the director, feel the need to give some sort of signal on how the audience should feel? Since he helped to helm the screenplay, it gives the impression that he is not confident with his own material. It is an elementary miscalculation—one that is expected from a filmmaker who is directing his or her first feature. Clooney ought to have known better.
The picture is confusing at times. The Monuments Men are paired up eventually and sent to various parts of Europe to collect stolen art. However, after spending about three to four scenes apart, they are quickly back together. The picture gives an impression that traveling from one place to another, especially in times of war, is incredibly easy. We all know that this is not the case. Thus, the whole charade comes off silly and we are never convinced that any of the men are ever in any real danger—even though not all of them live by the end of the movie.
What “The Monuments Men” is missing is complexity. Its subjects put their lives on the line and yet we never learn anything particularly compelling about them. More importantly, it lacks courage—the courage to dig deeper than ill-executed jokes and really hone in on the meaning of preserving culture. I worked in a gallery. I like art. But if someone who may not necessarily feel strongly about art watches this movie, he or she will likely not be convinced why, to some, art should hold equal importance as human lives.
Eyes of My Mother, The (2016)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Alfred Hitchcock once said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Here is a horror film that abstains from showing violence but it is horrifying all the same. Instead, it relies on images before and after a particular action is taken—for instance, an individual with a weapon approaching a cowering target, a pool of blood being wiped off the floor, a cow’s head sitting on the kitchen table. By excising the act of violence completely, the picture leaves plenty to the imagination. In fact, it gives the viewer the opportunity to imagine something worse than what had actually occurred. Thus, in a way, an argument can be made that this picture uses horror films we’ve seen before to its advantage.
Equipped with intelligent writing and assured direction by Nicolas Pesce, “The Eyes of My Mother,” beautifully photographed in black-and-white, tells the story of a young girl named Francisca (Olivia Bond) who witnessed the murder of her mother in their farmhouse. (Diana Agostini who plays the mother gives a magnetic performance despite her limited time on screen.) Unspooling over several decades, we observe how Francisca’s crippling loneliness, combined with the fact that neither of her parents has taught her that moving on is an essential part of life, shaped a void of a person, completely detached from what is right and what is wrong. And because she has a severely limited moral compass, if she had any at all, it makes the character more fascinating—and terrifying. To Francisca, another human being is equivalent to the cattle she must care for a time… then having to kill it.
Notice how silence is utilized as an overwhelming presence in the farmhouse. There is no score serving as a signal to what we should expect or how we should feel. There is no soundtrack that booms suddenly before or after a violent clash. Instead, sounds like the rustling of the leaves, drawers beings opened, a wheelbarrow being dragged through the woods are amplified. Meanwhile, when characters speak, it sounds as though their voices are just a bit muffled—contrast to the sharp, defined sounds of objects making contact on surfaces. Is this how it is like to live inside Francisca’s body? Is this how she processes the world around her? Or is it that the writer-director wishes to keep us off-balance, a way to keep us on our toes for the next plot development?
Kika Magalhães plays adult Francisca with such an alarming intensity, I could not keep my eyes off her. I admired how she interprets the character. For example, notice how Magalhães makes the decision to make Francisca move slowly when by herself. When the character is sitting in the kitchen with a plate of food in front of her, there is a lack of pleasure in Francisca’s interaction with her meal; there is no energy in the way she maneuvers the utensils; there is, however, a blankness, a far away look, in her eyes. Her skeletal frame moves about the house but her spirit, it seems, had been buried, rotten away alongside her mother’s mutilated corpse.
Austere and disturbing, “The Eyes of My Mother” commands an unrelenting vision and precise execution. So many modern horror films aspire to be messy, loud, gratuitous—especially when violence is employed. This picture takes on the opposite approach: it is clinical, disquieting, every object in each room has its rightful place, there is a detachment amongst all human interactions. It is so grounded in reality that there comes a point where we remind ourselves that somewhere out there, especially in the isolated areas of the country, is a Francisca, waiting.
★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film with great potential to explore the depths of loneliness when a young couple (Maika Monroe, Matt O’Leary) vacationing in Iceland wakes up one day and learns that everybody is gone. The hotel, the streets, the shops, the tourist spots in the country—all empty, dead silent. Even phone calls to their loved ones back home go unanswered, texts receive no reply. But the picture is a disappointment because the plot fails to take off in an interesting or surprising direction. Instead, we spend most of the time watching this couple either flirting, which eventually lead to an embrace or a kiss, or looking sad and claiming they miss home.
Perhaps the screenplay by Geoffrey Orthwein and Andrew Sullivan, also co-directors of the film, is meant to function as a metaphor for romantic relationships and the hardships that come with years of having to live together. Upon Jenai and Riley’s discovery, we learn about their personalities, where their interests lie, their perspectives about life and death, what it means to them, personally, to really live rather than simply enduring each day. In some ways, they are opposites and these lead to scenes that are mildly interesting; the material is at its best when there is friction between the characters, when they are angry and wish to scream at one another. Most unfortunate then is the two being forced to make up so quickly after a fight that tension dissipates just when we suspect it is finally going to take a turn.
There are a few highlights in terms of imagery. For instance, when the duo stand in the middle of streets which should be teeming with people, vehicles, noise, and all sorts of activities, the absence of hustle and bustle is so eerie. When Jenai and Riley are out in nature, the camera takes the time to allow the audience to absorb the beautiful environment. It captures images of the soil, the glaciers, the plant life—we get an impression of how chilly it must be when the performers shiver a little between their lines. It is in these naturalistic moments that the picture shines.
Less impressive is its so-called poetic lyricism clearly inspired by Terrence Malick pictures. No one can do Malick but Malick and this one tries so very hard only to come across as a cheap, pale imitation. When the ambitious yet delicate score swoons, it is more distracting than enlightening or involving. There are numerous occasions when the music is so overpowering that the dialogue is completely drowned. I wanted to know exactly what these people are saying to one another in the midst of a potential global crisis and yet the score remains present. I got the impression it is a picture that is afraid to be silent—strange because the plot begs for silence, meditation, contemplation.
“Bokeh” takes on the subject of survival. Eventually, food in stores will run out. Electricity is not unlimited. Clean water will become an issue. This would have been an avenue worth exploring deeply, but the writer-directors consistently swipe it on the side and reintroduces it only when convenient. Clearly, the screenwriters needed to have excised the fat off the material and sorted out which plot points are truly worth exploring.
Alien: Covenant (2017)
★★ / ★★★★
Considering that Ridley Scott helmed “Alien,” one of the most memorable and craftily made sci-fi horror pictures in the last fifty years, one has a certain level of expectation coming into “Alien: Covenant,” a disappointing prequel to the masterful 1979 classic and a sequel to “Prometheus,” a widely misunderstood but intriguing attempt to extend the series’ mythology.
In an effort to deliver scares designed to impress the modern masses, Scott’s signature techniques, like employing long takes even—or especially when—it’s unnecessary and playing with extended silence to build a sense of mystery and/or dread, are missing here. As a result, one gets the impression that the work could have been made by any other filmmaker who understands what makes horror movies marginally effective but not yet have a specific voice of his own.
For instance, when several crew members of the colony ship Covenant, led by Oram (Billy Crudup), decide to explore a planet after receiving a radio transmission, the picture does not bother to genuinely establish a sense of place. There is a line uttered by one of the characters, pointing out that they haven’t encountered or heard any animal after already having walked several kilometers, but aside from this creepy detail, everything else about the setting looks generic, CGI forests for miles, could have been any forest on Earth. On top of this, the images look dark, bleak, desperate to come across as atmospheric. I felt no interest in exploring this place. I craved for the aliens to appear finally and pick off the characters in the most gruesome ways imaginable.
There are more than ten crew members and only one of them is borderline worth rooting for. Surprisingly, and not in a good way, it is not Daniels (Katherine Waterston), clearly the heroine of the film, one who must undergo an evolution from a background personality to one who is supposed to lead her team in the foreground as the possibility of them becoming alien hosts escalates. Instead, it is Tennessee, the chief pilot of the Covenant—a person who stays on the ship for the majority of film. He is played by Danny McBride, a performance so natural and convincing that I caught myself feeling glad that I found a new side to his talent.
Daniels’ arc is forced and unconvincing. Later in the picture, as she goes head-to-head against an alien, I found the script to be bland and predictable in its attempt to make the heroine tough and resourceful. The supposed one-liners fall flat; they do not work because the character’s evolution is simply not there. While Waterston is capable of summoning the necessary emotions when required, the screenplay by John Logan and Dante Harper fails to establish a protagonist who is able to think on her feet or one who commands a fascinating way of thinking, of being. It merely relies on the established template of the final tough girl.
“Alien: Covenant” showcases different forms of the alien and some of the kills are truly horrifying. Disappointingly, however, the material fails to create a balance between imagination and brutality, violence and contemplation—clearly one of its goals because the subject of meeting or surpassing one’s creator becomes a recurring theme. Here’s to hoping that Scott, if he were to craft another installment in the series, would aspire to make a film that would impress him as an artist first… and then the audience. He needs to follow his instincts rather than what he believes the viewers want from his work.
Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
The silly action-comedy “Keeping Up with the Joneses,” written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola, has a strategy all too apparent when it comes to comedies these days: It relies solely on the charisma of its four leads to carry the audience from beginning to end. It is a lazy approach, almost offensive, and I wished that more effort were put into the script because the leads try the best they can to work with subpar material. The picture offers a few chuckles—not because the material is funny but because the performers commit so much that at times they manage to elevate deadly dull lines toward something marginally amusing—but this is not enough to warrant a recommendation.
Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher play Jeff and Karen, a married couple living in the suburbs whose love life has lost its spark. Even when their kids are away in summer camp, they’d rather watch television than go out and experience something new for a change. When a worldly, highly attractive, polished couple, Tim and Natalie (Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot), move next door, expectedly, Jeff and Karen gravitate toward them since the new neighbors appear to be exciting people. The Joneses, as it turns out, are government operatives and their move to the sleepy suburbs is merely a cover to track and prevent an illicit exchange.
For an action-comedy, it is quite odd that there is only one extended action sequence. Predictably, it involves a car and flying bullets but I found some joy in a highly familiar template. The material works best when Fisher, Gadot, Hamm, and Galifianakis are in the same room—the more cramped, the better. There is an innately amusing element in putting four big personalities in a limited space. However, looking closely into this sequence, notice it is mostly composed of reaction shots done in a studio. Thus, we never fully believe that any of the characters are in danger despite the rain of bullets and the vehicle moving a hundred miles per hour—backwards.
There is one fresh idea that I thought the writers should have taken farther than they did. Within the first fifteen minutes, Karen suspects that there is something off about their new neighbors. For a while, the script gives the impression that the characters—or at least one character—will be smarter than those we’ve encountered in similar movies. Fisher stands out among the four because I believed that she can be both intelligent and silly—a challenging line to straddle that only a few performers can pull off convincingly. So, it is quite disappointing that once the Joneses’ true motivations are revealed, the most promising character proves to be ordinary. Notice she is much quieter post-reveal, almost fading into the background.
“Keeping Up with the Joneses” plays it too safe when it actually needs to take risks because successful action-comedies are all about taking chances, whether it be in terms of story, character development, the wild situations the protagonists end up finding themselves in. Clearly made for mass public consumption, perhaps a movie like this might have done well in the late 1990s, but these days it is substandard. It is too dilute to be palatable.
★★★★ / ★★★★
There’s something incredibly sinister going on in the seaside village that is composed of only adult women and young boys. “Evolution,” directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, is a most daring and controlled horror film, so muted in sound, color, and dramatic parabola that a number of its images will certainly be seared in my mind for quite some time. Unless a film Renaissance occurs, a movie like this will never be made in America. See for yourself.
While swimming in the ocean on his own, Nicolas (Max Brebant) sees a corpse of a boy lodged between the rocks. Terrified by what he had come across, he rushes home and tells his mother (Julie-Marie Parmentier), hoping that some help would be summoned to acquire the body from underwater. Instead, the mother responds with a certain calm. From the look on her face, we suspect she knows exactly what’s going on. Nicolas suspects this, too.
The images are crippling in austerity. Notice the lack of decorations in the house. There are no pictures on walls or tabletops, there is no television or radio, not even books or musical instruments. The food served looks gray, gooey, as if worms were taken directly from the ground and served in a stew. One looks outside and every house looks exactly the same. Even the women look alike and they all wear the same dress. One looks at the village as a whole and it is surrounded by rocks and dirt. There are no trees, or dogs, or cats, not even a hint of laughter when boys play. The exposition is precise and efficient. The rest of the picture functions on this level.
We actively form evolving hypotheses about what might be occurring. For some reason, despite the fact that they look and act perfectly healthy, the boys are told they are sick and so every time they go to bed, they must drink medicine—four drops of dark, mysterious liquid mixed with about thirty milliliters of water. Their mothers watch them drink the entire mixture. Even the wildest hypotheses might not hold a candle against what’s truly taking place. When the screenplay by Lucile Hadžihalilović and Alante Kavaite finally unveils its dark secrets, it takes advantage of our experiences with modern horror films.
We grow comfortable because we are convinced we know the whole story and how it might reach a resolution. Some of us might even envision a specific ending. In order to subvert our hopes and expectations, the picture’s pacing becomes slower, almost meditative, nearly static later on. This is not the kind of story where a hero or heroine comes to rescue the children. This is not even a story where the child who makes a discovery finds himself trying to save his friends.
It is easy to imagine that filmmakers with less imagination, discipline, and freedom would have turned the third act into a telling of evil getting its comeuppance—such a cheap and tired avenue for the audience to reach some sort of catharsis. It’s because in horror films, we’ve seen potential being squandered too many times. Not here. Here is a film that looks evil in the eye and doesn’t blink. We feel our hopes for a much-needed happy ending wither away in place of growing uneasiness and despair. Cronenberg would be proud.
Colony, The (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★
Jeff Renfroe’s “The Colony” excels in establishing a bleak but convincing setting in which the entire planet is covered in ice and the remaining human survivors are forced to live underground till the next thaw. It could have been yet another action-focused sci-fi picture, but what allows it to stand out among the genre, despite its imperfections, is its willingness to take its time so were given a chance to imagine living in the reality of its characters through its eye for detail.
Notice how it gives us a tour of the outpost, also known as Colony 7. While lesser films would likely have relied solely on narration and it would be up to the audience to trust in the words of its central protagonist, this picture employs images alongside the words. Outside the outpost, we take notice of the extent of the ice, the height of the snow relative to the dilapidated buildings, the howling of the treacherous blizzard. Inside the outpost, we visit rooms and each one serves a specific function. For instance, one is dedicated to researching and growing plants. Another is a space full of rabbits. Characters discuss how none of the rabbits would mate—a critical challenge since food shortage looms. And then we visit another place where a woman (Charlotte Sullivan) uses satellite feeds to search for an area without ice.
As expected in survival stories, there are disagreements among members on how to continue living their lives as a small society. Briggs and Mason, played by Laurence Fishburne and Bill Paxton, respectively, are two forces that collide. Through them, we learn a bit about their colony’s rules. For example, when a person catches the common cold or flu and he or she does not get any better, the sick individual gets a choice: to be shot point-blank or to take a long walk in the snow—the person is supposed to die either way. Mason disagrees greatly with the current rules, he considers mutiny.
The plot is driven by an investigation of Colony 5, an outpost many miles away, after Colony 7 receives a distress signal. Again, the film employs details of the landscape and landmarks, what characters wear and how they look after walking for miles on a frozen planet. It makes the walk interesting and efficient—there is never a dull moment when something new is presented constantly, whether it be about the state of the world, a character’s history or state of mind. We are enveloped in this universe and so it is easy for us to invest in the story.
Perhaps the picture’s Achille’s heel is the final act. It comes across rushed, cliché-ridden, showcasing numerous gaps of logic. Take note of what happens to the children who are lead underground during the attack, for instance. For a movie that employs deliberate pacing to establish a specific sense of place and time, the approach is thrown out the window for the sake of standard shootouts. Although the film is ultimately worth our time, I wished the final fifteen minutes remained loyal to its original strategy.
In Bloom (2013)
★ / ★★★★
“In Bloom,” written and directed by Chris Michael Birkmeier, is yet another LGBTQ picture that just had to end in a tragedy in order to win the sympathy of the audience. It is a cheap shot and it should not be tolerated. And on top of a miscalculation of an ending, the screenplay is devoid of any intrigue, interest, or sexual chemistry among the main players. Overall, the film fails to leave a mark in the gay and lesbian-themed movie landscape.
Kurt (Kyle Wigent), a pot dealer, and Paul (Tanner Rittenhouse), a clerk in a grocery store, are living together and in a long-term relationship. They enjoy each other’s company and have deep feelings for one another, but lately there are small hints that maybe what they share is beginning to feel a little stale. When Kurt meets Kevin (Adam Fane), he is tempted to explore outside of being in a committed relationship.
The dialogue is dead dull, from the scenes that take place in a house party to the one-on-one conversations between Paul and Kurt. There is a sameness in the way just about everyone speaks and so we never really buy into the characters. Instead, we recognize lines that must be recited because the paper demands they be said. Thus, there is no emotional or psychological heft that accumulates. The material fails to genuinely engage.
This is a problem because there are a few scenes during the former half that show the couple simply being together. We get the impression that they are young but never do we believe that there is a maturity to them, an important ingredient that is likely to convince us that the relationship might in fact have a future. Not once did I feel compelled to root for them to get together in the end. However, the material gives the impression that we should without it giving us excellent reasons to consider the alternative.
There is one character that is potentially interesting. Jake Andrews plays Eddie, Paul’s co-worker who just might hold feelings toward him. While the performer does not break any new ground in terms of how to make the character fascinating, Andrews does inject a certain level of shyness in Eddie that makes us want to pay attention. One wonders how sweet the film could have been if the writer-director explored how Paul sees Eddie and vice-versa. Paul is not at all attracted to Eddie.
Another problem involves the framing of temptation. Other than the fact that Paul finds himself to be physically attracted to Kevin, there is no other information provided that makes us want to know them more, together as well as separate people. Paul is simply drawn as the cute drug dealer and Kevin is the agent, mostly of unknown motivations, that catalyzes the schism between the couple.
I’m tired of watching LGBTQ movies of such poor qualities. There are a lot of stories out there worth telling—stories that reflect real life and real struggles. Here, although what is happening is supposed to feel realistic, just about every event lacks a level of practicality at such an extent that the film as a whole eventually loses power. Ask yourself this: If you really cared about someone who happens to be dealing drugs for a living, wouldn’t you have a serious conversation with them about possibly getting into another line of work? Here, such a discourse is pushed under the rug.
Invitation, The (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
The independent thriller “The Invitation,” written by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, excels in building and complementing the requisite tension and slow as molasses pacing prior to the reveal as to what is really going on. It is the kind of movie best undertaken with minimal exposure to its plot and premise because just about every detail counts.
Simply know that there is a dinner party hosted by Eden (Tammy Blanchard), along with her new husband (Michiel Huisman), and it is meant to be a reunion among old friends. They have not seen each other in two years. Her ex-husband, Will (Logan Marshall-Green), is also invited. They had a young son whose death triggered the end of their marriage. Soon Will begins to suspect that is something wrong with the dinner party.
With a dialogue-heavy first half, it is required that the characters are interesting and equipped with specific, defined personalities. The picture is quick to establish a sense of familiarity and camaraderie; we get a real impression that they are aware of each other’s histories rather than simply having a dozen actors sharing the same space and uttering lines. Each of them is given a chance to say or do something memorable.
As the story moves forward, we, too, become suspicious not only alongside Will but also of him. Clearly still grieving over the death of his son, the house triggers a lot painful memories, thoughts, and emotions. Because the screenplay is efficient in getting us to the point where we must question everything we are hearing, seeing, and feeling, is it possible that since we are experiencing the plot mainly through Will’s eyes, his mind is fractured and that is why we, too, are becoming to get paranoid? And if he really is a reliable conduit, what is the explanation when it comes to the strange details he notices around the house?
Director Karyn Kusama shoots and directs the film with an air of detachment. Although we get to know the characters, whether it be through a game in which they confess a personal story or through normal, every day conversations over drinks, the approach is never intimate. We learn tidbits about them but we never relate—at least not all that deeply. So, we never fully invest in them—which, I think, is the point because somewhere in the back of our minds, something suspect or sinister is lurking just underneath the pleasantries.
I wished, however, that Kusama decided to hold back on employing flashbacks and hallucinations. Although there are not too many of them, and the director gets a chance to play with different lighting and awkward camera angles, they are enough to disrupt the momentum at times. There is a subtle way to communicate trauma or grief without relying on such tropes—which is found so often in bad horror pictures.
The material would have been much stronger, and fresher, if Marshall-Green had been instructed to come up with a specific set of behaviors—which do not necessarily have to be odd or stand out to such an extent that it becomes obvious Will is damaged in some way—to convey his inner turmoil. The likes of Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Patricia Clarkson are masters when it comes to taking on such a technique. By embracing more dramatic elements, this already satisfying mystery-thriller might have been improved noticeably.
Always Shine (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
There are plenty of movies that are willing to explore the sunny side of friendship and too few attempt to put a magnifying glass onto its darker corners. Here is a film that aims to look into the envious and jealous feelings one feels due to a friend’s success. Only it is most unfortunate and frustrating that it runs out of steam about two-thirds of the way through, the third act so painfully standard in its efforts to show one’s guilt and shame.
Mackenzie Davis and Caitlin FitzGerald star as Anna and Beth, respectively, who decide to go on a weekend getaway to Big Sur to catch up and bond. Both are actresses. Although Beth has been booking numerous roles lately, Anna cannot seem to book a job. It has gotten so bad lately that Anna’s finances are in turmoil. She hints she may not even have a place to live when they return to Los Angeles. Director Sophia Takal makes the correct decision to employ as many close-ups as possible because just about every exchange is telling of those involved.
This is no ordinary thriller in that it does not show violence. Violence is talked about, it is in the way words are wielded like daggers, and it happens off-camera or just out of the shot. Noticeable is the film’s level of control. Observe how the camera is unafraid to keep still, especially when conversations turn into disagreements which inevitably heat up to a boil. And when the camera does move, we grow anxious that someone being talked about under a negative light might be listening all along.
Davis and FitzGerald are quite mesmerizing to watch not only because the camera is tightly fixed on their faces. It is in how they project their characters’ emotions, how they utter their lines, how they play with silence and breathing. I admired how they are able to juggle several emotions within a span of seconds. I felt as though Anna and Beth are both emotionally intelligent, proficient when it comes to reading between the lines. Excitement comes in the form of us wondering whether one is aware of what the other is really saying.
The third act is pedestrian, boring, not worth anybody’s time. The manner in which it communicates guilt or a broken psyche is annoyingly similar to too many mainstream films’ ideation of such mental states. We get the impression that perhaps the writer, Lawrence Michael Levine, does not know how to end his story in such a way that is loyal to his story’s central thesis. As a result, he chooses a route often traversed—most uninspiring because the setup seems willing to explore new territory.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
If one’s expectation is simply to be entertained, then “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” directed by James Gunn, is a winner, but those expecting to be surprised a second time by the breakout series featuring unlikely heroes is equally likely to be somewhat disappointed. It isn’t that the film is more of the same. After all, it does travel into uncharted territory in terms of the lineage of our sarcastic central protagonist Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). However, such exploration comes across as superficial, cursory, undercooked, even forced at times. Subtle dramatic moments is clearly not the picture’s strong suit.
Humor is found in every pore of the film and it is most welcome when it breaks moments that are supposed to be dead serious. To me, this is the attitude that defines these characters, why they are worth following: they may be good at what they do but they never take their tasks one hundred percent seriously. There is almost always room for messing around, for jokes, for verbal sparring. And when there isn’t, they make room. The ability to laugh at themselves and at one another is in their DNA. Gunn never loses track of this idea.
The action sequences are heavily driven by visual effects. Although I’m still not a fan of its pavonine explosions and obviously computerized spaceships, notice how scenes never linger on the action. Instead, it makes the habit of showing what goes on inside of the ship as our protagonists respond to the turn of events. It gives the impression that the filmmakers are aware that dogfights in space is not their forte, but such a thing must be delivered because it is what the audience expect. At one point I wondered if one day we would ever watch an installment in which there is no space duel whatsoever.
The camaraderie and chemistry among the Guardians is the most exciting ingredient. We want to be a part of this group because they tend to say exactly what we might think given a set of information. One of the surprises in this film is it provides time for us to understand characters we did not get to know that much in its predecessor. Drax (Dave Bautista), the brawniest member of the group who is ever unable to detect sarcasm, and Nebula (Karen Gillan), Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) angry sister and determined rival, stand out here. With a few simple lines but convincing performances, I was especially moved by Nebula and Gamora’s relationship. Gamora and Peter’s romantic relationship, on the other hand, is played out. I felt it didn’t go anywhere new or interesting.
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” takes the series in a forward direction because it attempts to make the characters grow in ways neither they nor we expect. While such efforts are not always successful, the dynamics of the group and the distractions they get into are so amusing at times that its flaws, in a way, come across as refreshing, even endearing. While big strides would certainly have made a better film, sometimes little steps is sufficient. I do hope, however, for “Vol. 3” to deliver a more defined, more formidable final villain.