Tag: zoe saldana

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2


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.

The Book of Life


The Book of Life (2014)
★ / ★★★★

“The Book of Life ” is written so blandly by Jorge R. Gutiérrez and Douglas Langdale, the rather unique animation—the characters looking blocky and very marionette-like—is overshadowed by a screenplay that challenges the audience to keep their eyes open. One would think that because the animation looked so distinct, the material would strive to be more compelling or unique, full of surprises. This is not the case and thus the picture is not only a big disappointment, I felt like it was a waste of film.

La Muerte (voiced by Kate del Castillo) and Xibalba (Ron Perlman), leaders of the Land of the Remembered and the Land of the Forgotten, respectively, make a wager involving three childhood friends. Maria (Zoe Saldana) has won the hearts of both Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) but she must eventually decide who she wishes to marry. La Muerte thinks that Maria will choose Manolo while Xibalba believes Joaquin has it in the bag. Who will Maria choose?

I felt no passion writing that last paragraph because the story is as standard as it sounds. There is no excitement in the story because right from the very beginning, we suspect who Maria will choose ultimately—and she does. And while the script does show good qualities of each man, there is still a lack of tension or drama because there is an obvious and constant leaning toward one character both in terms of character design and what he stands for. We never believe that Maria would ever choose the alternative.

Listening to renditions of various songs from pop culture is like enduring the sounds of nails being scraped on a chalkboard. A tip: If one were brave enough to offer a rendition, it should at least be as good or better than the original material. Otherwise, it comes across laughable, lazy, and out of nowhere. It appears as though a lot of effort is put into making the picture, so why didn’t the filmmakers take a chance and create original songs?

The idea is to make money, right? So let us Look at Disney animated films. Despite mediocre efforts, like Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s “Frozen,” because more than a handful of songs are either endearing or memorable, sometimes both, it made a lot of money. Sometimes the songs themselves can sell a movie. Yes, part of the game is to make money but another part is to get people to actually see the work. The animation here, solely from a visual standpoint because I had not seen anything like it before, is worth seeing.

Genuine comedy, subtle cues, and creativity are drowned by mindless action, from bulls charging at a matador to bandits terrorizing a small town. It is difficult to care about what is happening because we never grow close to the characters. Other than wanting to marry the girl, Manolo and Joaquin do not seem to have a specific motivation that everybody can relate with at one point or another. We deserve much better than this.

Guardians of the Galaxy


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.

Colombiana


Colombiana (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

In 1992, when young Cataleya (Amanda Stenberg) was only five years old, she witnessed the assassination of her parents (Jesse Borrego, Cynthia Addai-Robinson). Her father wanted to stop working for Don Luis (Beto Benites) but leaving the organization was simply out of the question. Equipped with natural athleticism, street smarts, and a bit of luck, Cataleya was able to escape her country and seek refuge in the United States to live with her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis). When he asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, she said she wanted to be a killer.

Based on the screenplay by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, “Colombiana” is engaging during the action scenes but when it shifts its focus on the human drama, it comes across like a tepid spin-off of a great television show. Although Saldana plays a very watchable heroine, her presence is not enough to make up for the picture’s more noticeable inadequacies.

The scene of young Cataleya running from gangsters—in the streets, inside homes, and on roofs—is most enthralling to watch because the chase consists only of images and score, alongside minimal usage of sound effects. Add the decreasing distance between the little girl and the men with guns, it is impossible not to root for the child. In other words, the director is aware that he need not do too much to the viewers that there is suspense on screen.

Fifteen years later, Cataleya (Zoe Saldana) becomes involved in the contract killing business run by her uncle. Unbeknownst to him, however, Cataleya is responsible for the murders of people connected to Don Luis because she hopes to get his attention. This left me feeling confused about half the time. Why go through all the trouble when she suspects that Don Luis still lives in the same country? To me, it is obvious: the man will not dare to leave country because he has the greatest influence in Colombia. Our protagonist is a smart woman with excellent instincts. It would have made more sense if she had returned, did a bit of investigation, and systematically narrowed down the gangster’s location.

Due to the material’s lack of logic, the situation provided above being one of the half a dozen examples, it is difficult to process all the happenings as more than a mere set-up to inject more sadness in Cataleya’s life. And of course she there is a subplot involving a boyfriend (Michael Vartan). The relationship is written in such a cheesy at times that I wondered if the lead character might have been better off as a college student in her twenties and slowly figuring out what is important to her than a woman so driven by revenge that she is willing to make unnecessary sacrifices.

“Colombiana,” directed by Olivier Megaton, has plenty of ideas but about half of them need to be excised so that Cataleya’s redemption arc has a chance to come into focus. Why not dedicate more scenes between Emilio and his niece? Both have experienced losing persons they loved. Instead, their interactions are reduced to secret meetings in a library or a laundromat.

Star Trek Into Darkness


Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

In order to save the destruction of a planet with primitive inhabitants, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) and his crew must render a volcano inert prior to eruption via cold fusion. But the success of the mission hinges on the denizens of Nibiru not seeing anything that will irrevocably change their beliefs and way of life. As usual, Kirk is unable to abide by Starfleet’s directives completely, this time for moral reasons, and so he is demoted to First Commander. But not for long. A man named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) executes an act of terror in London.

Colorful, thrilling, with surges of humor when least expected, it is difficult to deny that “Star Trek Into Darkness,” directed by J.J. Abrams, has a very high entertainment value. I was regaled by it mostly because something is often galloping across the screen. It is strongest, however, when the action takes a backseat and the screenplay allows the characters to catch up to one another–and we to the plot while being reminded of the actors’ chemistry–through conversations. The kinetic action pieces are impressive but only a few are indisputably memorable. Such an imbalance is not present in its predecessor.

I relished the interesting villain. Harrison is wonderfully played by Cumberbatch, exuding the right amount of intrigue and menace often simultaneously. I appreciated that Cumberbatch is willing to make his character look ugly by scrunching up his face, for instance, in the attempt to express a small percentage of rage that his character compartmentalizes. There is great drama whenever Kirk and Harrison duel with words and mind games, the former always finding himself trying to catch up to an opponent who is consistently ten steps ahead. We know that Kirk’s usual tactics–being brash and relying on luck–will be ineffective against this mysterious enemy.

When Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) fight, it is refreshing and funny; when they are affectionate, one is likely to wish to get out of the room. I craved a more meaningful exploration of their relationship. With Spock, half-Vulcan and half-human, always being so logical and not attuned with his emotions, surely Uhura is more frustrated than what she is shown to be. Instead, at times she comes across moody rather than someone who is genuinely concerned about the relationship she values.

One of my favorite scenes in the previous film involves Kirk and crew diving through the atmosphere and onto a drill’s platform that is only about twelve to fifteen feet in diameter. Here, it offers something similar–and more daring–as Kirk and another character are ejected from the U.S.S. Enterprise to a neighboring ship. To enter the latter, they must fit through a hole that is barely six feet in diameter. Before getting to the entrance, though, they must make their way through debris while traveling at high speeds. I shifted in my seat out of worry, dread, and excitement. I imagined Spock’s voice declaring the possibility of failure each time something goes terribly wrong.

“Star Trek Into Darkness” reaches some emotional high notes. Most interesting is the father-son relationship between Kirk and Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood). When the camera is up close on the actors’ faces during their characters’ quieter moments, such as the scene that takes place in a bar, one can get a glimpse of a universal relationship. This one just so happens to take place in a future full of sensational space adventures.

Many of us have at least one person in our lives who believes unconditionally in our ability to break the barriers and make a difference. But, since they are often there to act as a safety net when we fall, there comes a point when we end up taking that person for granted. I think that is key in Kirk’s evolution. Since he is still learning, surely there are more adventures to be found just beyond the next horizon.

Star Trek


Star Trek (2009)
★★★★ / ★★★★

While investigating reports of lightning storms in space, U.S.S. Kelvin, a Federation vessel, is attacked by a gargantuan Romulan ship. Nero (Eric Bana) demands the U.S.S. Kelvin’s captain (Faran Tahir) to reveal the location of Ambassador Spock. Meanwhile, George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) is assigned to oversee and ensure safe evacuation of the ship. As luck would have it, his pregnant wife (Jennifer Morrison) goes on labor.

Infused with wild energy, charming performances, and an imaginative script, “Star Trek,” directed by J.J. Abrams, made me pay attention to a franchise I had no interest in whatsoever. It understands the art of intrigue. While names like “Kirk” and “Spock” are easily recognizable names, it is a curiosity–to non- or semi-fans anyway–how these characters so opposite in personalities will learn to set their differences aside and form a team that saves lives both human and alien.

After a moving opening sequence, a parallel is immediately established between James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto). They struggle to keep their emotions in check, an element that they must learn to reroute and control if they were to successfully become leaders and partners in the U.S.S. Enterprise. As a child, it is suggested that Kirk has a lot of anger due to not having a stable father figure. Over time, he drinks and gets in trouble with the law. Meanwhile, Spock is bullied for being a half-blood, his father a Vulcan and his mother a human. His anger for being considered less than festers within.

Despite the non-stop action after revving its engine and flying into the depths of space, the script has enough humor to keep it grounded, from Jim pursuing Uhura (Zoe Saldana), an ace xenolinguist, to physical stunts that go awry somewhat or completely off the rails. The comedy usually functions as release during the more intense sequences. The scene involving three characters diving through the atmosphere and attempting to land on a drill that works as a signal jammer has an excellent balance of thrill and laughter.

The more overt visuals are spectacular, but I was most impressed during the early scenes that take place on Earth. I liked the way a flying cop vehicle feels so right chasing a kid driving a car clocking in at over eighty miles per hour–with the Beastie Boys blasting from the speakers, no less. There is also a bar where humans and aliens can go to have drinks. A feeling of integration, I think, is crucial if we are requested to buy into a universe where humans can time warp and explore various alien worlds and cultures.

It might have benefited from establishing a more interesting villain. Nero does a lot of snarling and bossing around but at times I was bored by him. The talk about his planet and family–yada-yada-yada–get old after a short while. Not once do we see him step off his ship and actually do what he needs to be done. If I wanted to hear more yelling, I would rather watch more in-fighting within the U.S.S. Enterprise, the power struggle between Spock and Kirk.

“Star Trek,” written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, emphases how disparate characters come together to form a team that we, as intelligent audiences who care about motivations as well as stellar sci-fi action, can stand behind and root for. We remember the adventures not because things explode–since those are a dime a dozen–or implode–less common–but because we understand and feel the chemistry among the key players.

The Losers


The Losers (2010)
★ / ★★★★

“The Losers” was titled as such because five members of the CIA (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Chris Evans, Idris Elba, Columbus Short, Óscar Jaenada) were framed by a voice on the radio named Max (Jason Patric) whose goal was to obtain a new generation of weapons in order to generate a worldwide war. The CIA operatives, after everyone believed they were dead, took refuge in Bolivia (and acted as, well, losers) until they met a woman (Zoe Saldana) with plenty of resources who wanted to hunt down and kill Max. “The Losers” is anything but boring because action sequences were abound. I liked its energy, its reckless abandon in terms of sticking with realism, and even its (very) lame jokes. What I despised with a passion, however, was the fact that it was never really clear on why Max wanted the five CIA agents dead. Since Max was supposedly smart and had a lot of money, why were the five men so special or so threatening? If he had kept the five in the dark in the first place, then he wouldn’t have a problem with achieving his goals. Furthermore, his ambition to obtain a weapon and eventual world domination felt like it was something out of an “Austin Powers” movie. Not for a second did I believe that he was menacing or remotely intelligent because he kept making ridiculous voices. I found his right-hand minion (Holt McCallany) a more believable villain. What could have made this movie more interesting was if it had given the five main characters more heart. Since it was based on a comic book series by Andy Diggle and Jock, it would have been nice if the movie had given us an extra dimension to explore instead of just the typical revenge story. Three of the five had families and the picture could have explored what it meant for them to survive. I wanted them to be torn between their loyalty to their team and their families. As for the romance between Morgan and Saldana, although they looked together and they had undeniable chemistry, I did not feel tension between them. Since Saldana’s character had a malleable sense of loyalty, I kept waiting for the movie to be one step ahead of me when it comes to delivering the potential twists. It was painfully obvious and eventually I just could not wait for it to end. Directed by Sylvain White, “The Losers” is like pop rocks candy. Once it enters the mouth, it’s explosive and we are able to feel strange and fascinating sensations. However, once the explosions die down, we all know that we’ve consumed nothing but empty calories.