Belko Experiment, The (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
Despite an intriguing premise, horror-thriller “The Belko Experiment,” directed by Greg McLean, fails to take the necessary risks in order to, at the very least, match its wild plot that promises B-level gory fun. Instead, like run-of-the-mill mainstream attempts within the genre, it employs violence for violence’s sake. One gets the impression that the filmmakers believe they are being daring when the camera employs close-ups on skulls cracked open. One would be better off watching videos of real-life autopsies. At least they’re educational.
There is not enough social commentary when it comes to office politics and how cutthroat it can be. While the material spends a few minutes to introduce characters we either will root for or against, not one is particularly compelling. Perhaps most problematic is the couple in the center of the story. Mike (John Gallagher Jr.) and Leandra (Adria Arjona) get one repetitive scene after another either being cute or checking in to see if either is all right. Neither Gallagher Jr. nor Arjona has the skill to make something out of a lackluster script. Those who are experienced with the horror genre are likely to guess that at least one of these two is the final survivor. Yawn.
I got the impression that James Gunn made concessions when it comes to what the movie should really be about in order to make the picture more digestible for the masses. To me, it should be about order versus chaos and yet characters end up being categorized simply as good or bad; whether they are willing to take a life or not for the greater good, initially, and, eventually, for themselves. It does not treat the audience as people capable of processing subtlety. It entertains by means of simplifying nearly everything in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
The look of the picture is standard. There is appropriate use of lighting when scenes take place under fluorescent lights, in dim underground locations, atop the high-rise roof where open space is seen for miles but there is no escape. The visual effects are minimal, which I found to be appropriate in a movie like this, and the cinematography captures how offices of a large company might look like. Over time, however, one notices a flatness when it comes to the overall look and feeling of the images and the emotions they create. This is because the plot moves forward but the story remains stagnant. For a picture clocking in at less than ninety minutes, it feels closer to two hours.
Its biggest mistake is not answering questions the characters and viewers deserve. That is, what is the purpose of the so-called Belko experiment? It leaves a bitter taste in the mouth when a mediocre picture proves how mediocre it is by pulling out before giving us an answer—any answer—for the sake of a potential sequel. It reeks of pathetic desperation.
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.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
★★★ / ★★★★
Just when I thought plots that have something to do with the destruction of a world or a universe are beginning to taste disgustingly stale, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” directed by James Gunn, arrives at the party to offer a slightly stilted spin on what we have learned to expect from modern superhero movies. No, its place is not alongside the best of Marvel movies—the likes of Bryan Singer’s “X2: X-Men United,” Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” and Joss Whedon’s “The Avengers”—but the picture is goofy, energetic, and colorful fun from top to bottom.
Because its characters are so different from what the Marvel-verse has put forward thus far, they are instantly one of the more memorable of the bunch. Consider the diversity of their appearances: a wise-cracking raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a multipurpose tree (voiced by Vin Diesel), a muscle head (Dave Bautista), an orphan with green pigmentation on her skin (Zoë Saldana), and a human abducted from Earth the night his mother passed (Chris Pratt—a perfect fit for the lead role). But the material does not simply rely on its characters looking different. Each is given a defined personality so when they clash it is interesting and when they get along there is emotional resonance.
Its strength is not the action sequences. They are relatively standard which makes the final third feel especially drawn out and boring at times. While the special and visual effects are beautiful, the final battle is almost weightless—which is odd because an endangered civilization is supposed to be at stake. Another reason why it does not work is because the residents of Xandar remain distant—we learn very little about their customs, culture, attitudes, or way of life. Thus, when the planet is threatened, we are not moved. We are aware that Xandarian lives would be lost but the level or significance of the loss remains up the air. At least with other works that involve Earth being destroyed, we are able to relate immediately.
Its strength is not in the representation of the villain either. Ronan (Lee Pace) is supposed to be this fearsome figure who has killed millions or even billions—including worlds. When intergalactic beings hear his name, they cower. But, to me, he is a big, bad bore. We learn one thing about him: Just like any typical growly villain, he craves power. But why is he interesting? The screenplay does not address this question and it is a most critical miscalculation. As a result, he is forgettable.
Why not write a villain like Loki, someone who we cannot help but wonder what he is thinking (or scheming) every time he is in front of the camera? The most powerful villains are not necessarily the best villains. The best villains are the most intelligent, most cunning, those who we love to hate but love nonetheless. In a way, the best villains tend to define our heroes. Take a look at Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” with respect to Batman and The Joker’s twisted symbiotic relationship.
So what is the picture’s strength? That would be the moments in-between. I loved it when a character would break into a dance in the middle of an event that is supposed to be dead serious. The bantering among the characters are wonderful to listen to not only because of the words in the script but because they capture the tone, mood, and pauses exactly right. And just when we think a romantic connection is going to happen between the green-skinned lady and our central protagonist with a penchant for ‘70s hits, it takes a left turn—and then another sudden left just when we are starting to get comfortable.
“Guardians of the Galaxy” works because it knows how to flirt with the audience. In some ways, it is a parody of Marvel movies that came before—but not so bloody obvious about it that we are taken out of the experience completely. Instead, it establishes a universe that is silly but serious enough that we can respect and look forward to more frolicking off-beat adventures.
★★ / ★★★★
Frank (Rainn Wilson) suspects that his marriage is in trouble. His wife is not as loving and energetic as usual. A couple of days later, she leaves with a drug dealer, Jacques (Kevin Bacon), and becomes a tester for the most recent drugs he has acquired. Frank turns to God so he can find a way to get his wife back. After dreaming that he has been touched by God, he comes to a conclusion that he is going to be a superhero, The Crimson Bolt, whose job is to punish evil doers, from people who cut in line to pedophiles.
“Super,” written and directed by James Gunn, is intended to be a comedy with an edgy dramatic undertone, but I found myself pitying Frank more than rooting for him. Acknowledging that feeling is important. How can I laugh at someone and derive pleasure from the images being relayed if a part of me hopes for the protagonist to seek serious professional help?
I saw the lead character as a broken man who just cannot accept that his wife no longer wants to be with him. Since his psychological break goes untreated, the sadness that accumulates in his mind and heart becomes an unmitigated anger. This man chose a wrench as his alter ego’s main weapon. He bashes people’s heads with it until their skulls crack and bleed to death. I failed to see Frank as The Crimson Bolt the superhero; I saw Frank as The Crimson Bolt the psychologically untreated person who desperately needs someone to talk to and possibly in need of medication.
There is one scene, however, that I found really amusing. We all have had the pleasure to line up at the movies–sometimes outside in the cold–after we have paid for our ticket. After waiting for what seems like an eternity, people who think they are privileged or special suddenly decide to cut in line. Frank is unable to put up with it so he decides to leave his position, dresses up as his superhero alter ego, and punishes those who have no sense of respect for those who actually take the time and have the patience to line up just like everyone else. It is funny because it touched upon feelings that we can all relate with and the fantasy of coming up to those who butt in and “punishing” them is realized. Instead of the comedy relying on Frank acting crazy, the comedy is attributed to the situation. By watching that scene, in a way, he becomes our alter ego. It ceases to feel as mean-spirited.
As the picture goes on, Libby (Ellen Page) comes to learn Frank’s extracurricular activities. She figures he can use some help so she embraces the honor of becoming his sidekick. As Boltie, she lusts for violence and laughs at the people she injures. When Frank and Libby discuss what being a superhero means, despite the irony that they aren’t, it works. The two actors feed off each other’s energy: Wilson is more brooding and introspective while Page is more like an unstoppable wildfire. But when the duo turn into The Crimson Bolt and Boltie, once again the maiming, bruising, killing become the source of humor.
I understand that “Super” wants to do something different by piling on bloody violence, dark humor, and psychological breakdown. On that level, I appreciated the effort. But as a whole, the violence feels so gratuitous. Toward the end when people’s limbs are being cut off and bodies are being blown up to smithereens accompanied by colorful comic book subtitles, I wondered how it is different from torture porn. The message becomes, “This is violent! …But it’s fun.” Actually, no, it isn’t. At least not to me.