Tag Archives: James Gunn

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy was a huge surprise hit in 2014, one that I enjoyed a lot but didn’t love as much as most. It was fun, quirky, referential and vibrant, with a fantastic cast that catapulted Chris Pratt to superstardom. Naturally, this made me concerned about the inevitable sequel, Vol, 2,  because I knew it would be facing unreasonable expectations and must find ways to rekindle the magic of the original while also coming up with something fresh.

For the most part, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 lives up to the bare minimum of expectations without doing much more. It builds upon the mythology of the first film, giving us a new adventure with a more personal slant, further opportunities for character development and building team chemistry, and still plenty of nostalgia and irreverent humour to put a smile on our faces. Like its predecessor, Vol. 2 was a fun couple of hours, but it also did not wow me in the way the best Marvel films tend to do.

Set no long after the events of the original, the Guardians of the Galaxy — Peter Quill (Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (voiced by Badley Cooper) and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — are now working together to fight an inter-dimensional monster at the behest of the Sovereign race, basically a bunch of uptight people in gold paint led by the statuesque Ayesha (Aussie Elizabeth Debicki). When the Guardians fall out of favour with the Sovereigns, Quill’s adoptive father Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hired to capture them. This leads to an encounter with Ego the living planet (Kurt Russell), a celestial being who reveals himself as having a connection to Quill. By Ego’s side is Mantis (Pom Kleentieff), a socially awkward girl with emphatic powers and antennae on her head.

Guardians has a different vibe to the other Marvel films because of its unabashed wackiness and irreverent tone. Groot and Rocket aren’t supposed to work as characters, but they do because of the superb writing and direction of James Gunn, whose talents are again on full display here. With bright colours, well-choreographed comic book space action, likable characters, fast and furious jokes, classic 80s music, and the cuteness of Baby Groot, Vol. 2 is a light and fun popcorn experience.

The cast is of course fabulous. Pratt looks very comfortable as Quill and spews out a bunch of witty wisecracks, though the majority of the comic relief this time goes to Drax, especially in his interactions with Mantis. And while cute doesn’t usually do much for me, Baby Groot does have a few nice moments. Yondu gets a bigger role this time and Rooker really shines by giving the character a lot of heart. Bradley and Saldana provide more of the emotional punch this time around with their character arcs, in particular Gamora’s relationship with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan).  That’s already a great cast, and I haven’t even mentioned legends Kurt Russell and Sylvester Stallone (who has a cameo), in their first reunion since Tango and Cash 28 years ago!

That said, I do have quite a few issues with Vol. 2. For starters, while I did laugh quite a few times at the gags, I found the humour a lot more hit and miss this time around, with some of the jokes coming across as too obvious. The biggest issue I had, however, was the actual plot, because it feels like not much actually happens. There’s a long lull after the Guardians encounter Ego, and I actually found myself a little bored by some of the slower sequences during this phase. It just didn’t feel like there was enough substance to justify a 136-minute running time.

So yeah, though I wasn’t disappointed in Vol. 2, I was hoping for a bit more. In terms of quality and entertainment value, the drop-off from its predecessor is not huge, but at the same time it felt like a somewhat safe sequel that does not go beyond to deliver what could have been a special experience. Instead, it’s just a solid albeit unspectacular continuation of the story.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Belko Experiment (2017)

I had heard a lot about this mysterious, low-cost movie (US$5 million budget) called The Belko Experiment last year, primarily because of the big name attached: James Gunn, director of the smash hit Guardians of the Galaxy movies. It wasn’t until I saw the movie that I realised it actually wasn’t directed by Gunn (who wrote the script), but by Aussie Greg McLean, best known for Wolf Creek. Nevermind.

I didn’t really know what to expect from it, given that its premise is not exactly one we haven’t seen before — a group of people forced into a game of kill or be killed. After Battle Royale and more recently The Hunger Games, another film with the same idea feels somewhat risky, though to Gunn and McLean’s credit, The Belko Experiment manages to distinguish itself through the confined office setting and a distinct horror slant.

The characters in the film all work for a branch of a massive but vague nonprofit company called Belko Industries on Colombia. On this day, after all the local hire are sent home, the company building is suddenly locked down, after which a voice through the loudspeaker begins to dictate the rules of a deadly game. At first, of course, most don’t take it seriously, but soon they realise — through a method requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief — that they better start killing or they will die gruesome deaths.

The Belko Experiment is not as memorable as Battle Royale or as epic as The Hunger Games. That said, it’s a nice little movie that’s both scary and fun. Credit goes to James Gunn for keeping the script swift and tight. At just 88 minutes, the film has a great pace and effectively introduces a whole bunch of characters on the run without excessive exposition. It doesn’t take too long before the ball gets rolling and by then you already have a good sense of the key characters and their relationships and dynamics. At no time was I confused about who was who and what their agenda was.

The cast is another strong point. Led by protagonist John Gallagher Jr (I know him best from The NewsroomHush, and 10 Cloverfield Lane), the ensemble features plenty of recognisable faces delivering powerful performances, in particular Tony Goldwyn (Scandal) as the boss in charge, John C McGinley (Scrubs) as a creep, Adria Arjona (Person of Interest), Owain Yeoman (The Mentalist) as a torn family man, Michael Rooker (Yondu in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a repairman, and James Gunn’s younger brother Sean Gunn (Kraglin in Guardians of the Galaxy) as a stoned cafeteria worker. There are a lot of characters in the movie, and quality performances help the important ones stand out and rough up the edges of what would have otherwise been stereotypes. For me, Goldwyn — with his mix of charm and intimidation — was the clear highlight.

McLean’s directorial style meshes well with Gunn’s script. For those who have seen Wolf Creek, you’ll know McLean has a knack for the visceral, the violent, and the primal. You get all of that in The Belko Experiment, along with well-crafted tension and dashes of timely black humour. The tonal shifts are not perfect, but the film mostly does a good job of balancing the horror and the humour.

Unfortunately, The Belko Experiment is still somewhat a missed opportunity. For all the intrigue, tension and crafty violence it pulls off in the first two-thirds, the final act resorts to cliches we’ve seen all too often. I don’t know how else it could have played out, though I know I would have welcomed a bolder route that offered more surprises, not just shocks from the extent of the violence. I also felt they could have set up more enticing showdowns between characters by creating additional sources of conflict earlier on.

On the whole, however, The Belko Experiment still turned out to be better than expected. It’s not a memorable entry in the genre or a concept that makes us think deeper, but it’s certainly a sharp, well-made horror-thriller that scares and entertains without taking itself too seriously.

3.25 stars out of 5