Tag Archives: Zoe Saldana

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

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy

I hadn’t initially planned on watching the latest Marvel entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a strange turn for the multi-billion-dollar film franchise into less grounded, more childish territory with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree. Word of mouth that reached me all said it was “OK” or “Pretty good,” though I was astounded by the number of positive reviews I saw online, including an incredible 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, probably the best movie of the year (let’s face facts here), only got 91% (about 9% too low), I knew it was only right for me to lay down some dough to watch Guardians on the big screen.

My verdict trickles closer to the word-of-mouth reviews I personally encountered, which is that it’s pretty good, definitely better than original expectations (from the time I saw the trailers), but not quite as good as the glowing reviews it’s been receiving. It’s solid popcorn entertainment, plenty of fun, frequently funny and always engaging, though ultimately still a second-tier franchise when ranked among its peers in the Marvel universe.

The core of the story is virtually identical to The Avengers — a bad guy teams up with another bad guy (with resources) to get their hands on a powerful object, and the only people who can stop them is a team of heroes with different strengths and conflicting personalities. The first half introduces the characters as they “get to know each other,” so to speak, and in the second half they learn to work together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Sound familiar?

Instead of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk (plus Black Widow and Hawk Eye), we have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) — a wise-cracking, smart-aleck human thief abducted by aliens as a child; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) — a green humanoid alien surgically enhanced by her father and the film’s antagonist to be a killing machine; Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista) — a powerful pink humanoid alien with lots of scars/tattoos and bent on revenge; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — a CGI talking genius raccoon made from lab experiments; and Groot (Vin Diesel) — a CGI tree-like humanoid with lots of special abilities but a limited vocabulary.

It’s not the Avengers, but this bunch is still pretty solid team where each member plays off the others really well. Chris Pratt, all buffed up for the role, is a larrikin whose sole remaining connection to Earth is his cassette walkman and classic mixtapes, a gag the film executes wonderfully without milking it. He’s no slouch, but his main purpose is to play the human character we can connect with and to provide the laughs. Zoe Saldana, having played a blue alien in Avatar, goes green this time, and she’s the straight face of the group, while David Bautista is the hothead/meat-head with a broken heart. What surprised me were Rocket and Groot, both of whom I thought were going to be lame, but instead they probably turned out to be the film’s most likable characters. Considering the overall tone of the film, a talking raccoon and a walking tree didn’t feel out of place at all.

The supporting cast is also formidable — Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou, with Michael Rooker (Daryl’s hillbilly brother from The Walking Dead) as Star-Lord’s mentor, and The Hobbit elf Lee Pace as the destructive villain, Ronan the Accuser, who is no doubt powerful but somewhat lame because of his typical (boring) motivations.

The best way to describe the film’s general feel is cheeky and exciting. Apart from the introductory sequence, none of the film is based on Earth, meaning it’s all crazy alien business we don’t have to take too seriously. Overall, the film’s laugh quotient isn’t as high as I expected, especially because the humour is sometimes obvious and geared towards younger/dumber audiences. I personally thought there could have been more wit and sharper jokes, though it’s still frequently amusing enough to make the film a fun ride.

The action is varied and visually spectacular — largely thanks to superb special effects we tend to take for granted these days. It’s not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, though it’s clever, creative and amusing enough to be plenty of fun.  And importantly, it feels as though the action never stops. Even when there’s no fighting there are always people walking, in the forefront or in the background, and if they’re standing still it’s because they’re on a speedy spacecraft. It gives the film a frenetic pace that never seems to slow.

The disadvantage of this film compared to The Avengers is that the characters themselves, as great as they are, don’t generate any excitement. With The Avengers, much of the attraction comes from the concept of putting all these fantastic superheroes together. With Guardians of the Galaxy, however, most viewers outside of hardcore fans won’t know who our heroes are, meaning more time has to be spent building them up from scratch. The Avengers superheroes already have cache entering the film, whereas here they have to earn our trust and affection. On the other hand, the advantage of this set-up is that there are no expectations or baggage. We expected The Avengers to deliver; no one really expected much out of Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing it to pleasantly surprise. Full credit has to go to director James Dunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in taking what was probably an experimental franchise — a year before the release of The Avengers 2 — and turning it into such a good-natured, family-oriented hit.

I’ve seen some people write that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than The Avengers, but that’s just borderline insaniquarium. Calling it “Baby Avengers,” however, would be doing the film a disservice. It is what it is: two hours of top-notch popcorn fun that’s quickly forgotten as soon as the credits roll (or in this case, the conclusion of the crazy post-credits scene).

3.75 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 7

Dark Shadows (2012)

dark shadows

During my 9 month studying at Cambridge between 2008-2009, the only extra-curricular event I attended without being invited is a session about Dark Shadows, the cult American gothic soap opera from the 1960s. I didn’t know anything about the show at all, but it was about TV/entertainment and it had a horror slant to it, so I figured it was good enough for someone bored out of their mind from reading law textbooks all day. So on that afternoon, I saw an episode of the show, and heard that a movie version was in the works directed by Tim Burton, and of course, Johnny Depp. I thought it had potential.

Fast forward to last year, and Dark Shadows the movie was finally here, with Depp as the protagonist vampire Barnabas Collins and Eva Green as his jealous ex-lover. The all-star cast also features Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley.

Though technically a horror, Dark Shadows intended to be a campy comedy about a vampire locked away for two centuries before being released in 1972. Most of the jokes, therefore, stem from Depp’s clueless attitude towards the “modern” world and the people who inhabit it, kind of like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man.

Unfortunately, while not horrible, Dark Shadows was rather lame and elicited few chuckles. It was pretty to look at, but the whole film was a tiring affair with obvious gags and not a lot of life (and I don’t mean that as a joke because vampires are supposed to be dead). To be fair, it was always going to be a difficult task to make a film based on a 60s TV show, but in this case it had me wondering whether they completely wasted their own and everyone else’s time. There just wasn’t anything inspiring or memorable about it. Encino Man was so bad it was awesome. Dark Shadows isn’t anything.

2 stars out of 5

The Words (2012)

the words

A seemingly interesting film that really doesn’t say much in the end. Bradley Cooper plays (like he does in Limitless) an impossibly handsome but struggling writer, who finds a riveting manuscript he decides to pass off as his own. But of course, he was never going to get away with it, and must face the consequences, including answering to his wife, Zoe Saldana.

To make matters more complicated, Cooper and Saldana’s story is actually a book written by Dennis Quaid, and he’s unveiling the story at a public reading. Meanwhile, there’s Olivia Wilde, an attendee at the reading who gets cozy with Quaid but can’t figure out how much of the story is autobiographical. And to really mess with you, when Cooper is confronted by the real author, he is told the story of how the manuscript came to be.

On the surface, The Words looks like three-tiered a morality tale, a story within a story within a story that tells us it’s naughty to steal someone’s work. And for most of the movie, I was hoping it would turn out to be something really intelligent and thought-provoking. But eventually I realized that it was just a bunch of contrived plot tricks masquerading as a clever movie, one that never really provides any answers or a satisfactory conclusion.

That said, as I kept hoping to be impressed and was curious about the questions the film raised, I was completely engaged for the majority of the film’s 96-minute running time. Unfortunately the payoff was a huge disappointment, but at least it wasn’t boring.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: Ironically, the film was accused of having ripped off a German novel (true fact).

The Five Year Engagement (2012)

The_Five-Year_Engagement_4

I thought The Five Year Engagement looked like a pretty “meh” film from the trailers, to be honest, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised by how funny, warm and genuine it felt.

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel, who have amazing chemistry in this, are a couple who get engaged but then for various reasons are unable to marry and keep extending the engagement (for guess how long?). From work to deaths to misunderstandings and mishaps and temptations, the engagement just keeps going and going. I thought it would get tedious after a while but somehow director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) keeps it interesting by varying things up with jokes couples can relate to, plus the occasional bit of wacky or random humor.

It’s one of those films where you’re likely to find yourself rooting for them to stay together because the leads and the characters they are playing are so likable and they make such a sweet couple, but at the same time the circumstances make you wonder whether things are just not meant to be. As a result the film’s tone is infused with a sense of bittersweet melancholy — that mixes unexpectedly well with the light humour.

I wouldn’t call it an excellent film, but The Five Year Engagement is certainly one of the better rom-coms of the year.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Babymakers (2012)

babymakers

This was another attempt to cash in on the adult comedy market with a crude, outrageous jokes, but according to Wikipedia the film made about $8,000. I don’t think it’s that bad, but it’s not particularly funny and there’s nothing really helping it stand out from the rest of the pack.

Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) and Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation) are a couple trying to get pregnant without much luck. Schneider discovers that his boys aren’t exactly swimming but remembers that he used to donate regularly to the local sperm bank years ago, when his boys were more capable swimmers.

But for some reason the bank won’t budge and Schneider intends to break in to steal his “stuff”, along with his buddies and a “professional” played by the film’s director, Jay Chandrasekhar. Craziness ensues.

Sounds like a fun premise — a heist film where the bank is filled with something other than money — and I have to admit there were moments when The Babymakers elicited a chuckle here and there. But the humour was too sporadic and was overshadowed by all the gross-out stuff that was completely unnecessary (sperm plays a large role, as you can imagine) and frankly not all that funny. And the film just trips and falls flat on its face by the end.

I like Olivia Munn from watching The Newsroom and she does have some comedic chops, as does Schneider, but sadly The Babymakers’ few good jokes were lost in a sea of crap ones.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Columbiana (2011)

Apparently, allegedly, supposedly, Columbiana was originally envisioned as a sequel to The Professional (otherwise known as Leon), you know, Natalie Portman’s debut as a pre-pubescent assassin wannabe who is rescued and taken in by a super lone assassin played by Jean Reno.  It’s kind of got cult classic status now and is a personal favourite of mine.

But let’s face it, even though it will get the fanboys all hot under the collar, the idea of a grown up Natalie Portman who has fulfilled her dream of becoming an assassin was always going to suck and piss all over the legacy of the original film.

And so I’m glad they didn’t go down that route.  Instead, Columbiana as a similar premise, except with Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek, The Losers) in the lead role as a little girl who is determined to become an assassin after her family is wiped out by drug lords in Columbia and she escapes to America to live with her uncle.  Fast forward a few years and Saldana has become the real deal — a super svelte, sexy, kick-ass assassin who is intent on tracking down and annihilating all those involved in her family’s demise.

As an action film, Columbiana does produce some thrills and clever ideas.  Saldana looks the part and, because the film is co-produced and co-written by Luc Besson (the man behind The Professional), the style is slick and has that unique “Besson feel” to it — I’m thinking classics like The Fifth Element, Nikita, Taken, Taxi — all films he has been involved with in some capacity).  The gun fights, hand-to-hand combat and in especially the chase scenes are all done extremely well.

That said, when all said and done, Columbiana will likely go down as one of the more forgettable Besson-related films.  There’s just nothing in this film that feels fresh or special, and the storytelling by director Olivier Megaton (Transporter 3 — and said to be at the helm of the much anticipated Taken 2) leaves a lot to be desired.  It was choppy and uneven and simply not engaging.  I actually got a bit bored during the slower scenes.

But I will say that I found the action-packed scenes of Columbiana enjoyable when I was watching it.  As a Zoe Saldana vehicle and popcorn movie, it delivers, but don’t go in expecting a whole lot more.

2.75 stars out of 5

End of Year DVD Blitz: Part I

I’ve been watching too many movies lately and I don’t have the time or energy to review them one by one…and hence, here is my ‘End of Year DVD Blitz’…Part I!

Do you remember when Jonah Hex seemed like a promising film?

Jonah Hex (2010)

 

I remember when I first saw the trailer for this comic adaptation starring Josh Brolin, Megan Fox and John Malkovich and thought it was going to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year.  And I waited and waited for its release until the entire film vanished in a puff of smoke and never made it Australian cinemas.  Somehow, Jonah Hex, a film that cost $47 million and featured three big stars, went straight to DVD.

After watching this fantasy western, I can see why.  Jonah Hex, the titular character, is a scarred hero who is after revenge and killing bad guys.  Megan Fox plays herself as a crackwhore.  Even John Malkovich couldn’t save this mess of a film, which was all over the place, confusing and unengaging.  There were some visually impressive elements, a few good ideas and several valiant attempts at action sequences, but on the whole Jonah Hex was an uneven failure, which is a shame considering how much promise it appeared to have.

2 stars out of 5

Lots of great posters for Pandorum, but this is my favourite

Pandorum (2009)

Here’s an underrated sci-fi horror that few may have heard of, but it’s a good one for hardcore fans.

Not an entirely original premise — Earth is running out of natural resources and send a colony of humans to the only Earth-like planet they’ve found in the galaxy.  But as usual, something goes wrong, and when Ben Foster and Dennis Quaid wake up from their hypersleep (or whatever it is), the ship has become a dangerous survival ground.

Pandorum works well as a dark, atmospheric and thrilling sci-fi action horror.  It’s entertaining, frightening and sickening, and it’s made stylishly, with good performances (including from German babe Antje Traue and MMA star Cung Le) and special effects all round.

Some might find it derivative or a bit ‘out there’ for them, but for me, it’s exactly the type of film that I can really get into and enjoy.

4 stars out of 5

The Japanese poster for this movie made it look fairly good

Tekken (2010)

The first ever game I got on my PS2 back in the day was Tekken.  I never thought it was a great game, but I was still intrigued when I heard that Americans had decided to make a film about it.  Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat — I don’t know what possessed me to watch this one, but I guess I deserved what I got in the end.

Tekken was horrible horrible.  Horrible.  It stars a British, half-Asian martial arts guy by the name of John Foo, who decides to enter  the ‘Iron Fist’ (in Japanese that’s ‘Tekken’) tournament for revenge.  His mother is one of the ladies from The Joy Luck Club (Tamlyn Tomita) and his love interest is the lovely Kelly Overton (mostly from TV), also a contestant in the tournament.  And one of the bros from Bros (Luke Goss) is his ‘sponsor’.

There was basically no plot, just a bunch of okay-choreographed fights and guys and girls looking pretty.  The script, seriously, was like a ninth grade school project.  The acting was awful, but I blame a lot of that on the dialogue.  Except for John Foo.  In a world where everyone spoke in American accents, including his mother, this guy couldn’t even make an effort to disguise his distinctive British bite.

No wonder Katsuhiro Harada, director of the video game series, tweeted that he thought the film was a piece of crap.

1 star out of 5

 

You're the loser

The Losers (2010)

Another comic book adaptation, one that didn’t look particularly interesting to me.  However, The Losers is fun, and it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than popcorn entertainment.  I read that the film drew comparisons to The A-Team, but I actually thought this was better.

Yes, it’s silly, over the top, and the characters take themselves way too seriously, but the action is good and the laughs are decent — plus there is one saving grace, which I will get to shortly.  The Losers stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen), Zoe Saldana (Avatar) and Chris Evans (Push), and the absolute standout — Jason Patric, who is simply hilarious as the villain.  I haven’t seen Patric in such terrific form since that sauna scene from Your Friends and Neighbors, which I have taken the liberty of posting below.

The Losers is a slightly above average comic book action movie, but including the extra half-star just for Jason Patric, I’m gonna give it 3.5 stars out of 5

There’s going to be at least two more instalments in this DVD Blitz.  At least.  Stay tuned.  Anyway, here is Jason Patric from Your Friends and Neighbors.


Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

How do you follow up the highest grossing movie of all time?

Spend 15 years and more than $230 million dollars to make a technologically groundbreaking blockbuster!  Well, that’s exactly what James Cameron did with his latest sci-fi action masterpiece: Avatar.

In one word, Avatar is a ‘spectacle’.  Do yourself a favour and watch this movie in 3D because it is an unbelievable experience.  While I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the special effects were entirely ‘photo-realistic’, it was pretty darn close.  My wife thought some of the computer-generated characters and creatures were partly built with models and make-up (as opposed to 100% CGI), and I’m sure she wasn’t the only one.  The computer-generated alien world was stunningly beautiful, and at times it was impossible to tell whether it was real or not (because some of it was real and filmed in New Zealand).

Without giving away too much of the plot, Avatar is set in a futuristic world on a distant planet called Pandora.  The title is apt but I won’t say anything more than that.  I was very disappointed with the previews, which, as always, gave away waaaaay too much.  Avoid them like the plague.  The film is predictable enough as it is without a start-to-finish synopsis of the entire storyline.  And besides, it really kills the ‘wow’ factor.

Avatar is the first genuine 3D film that I’ve seen.  The purpose of the 3D is to enhance the movie experience, not to act as a gimmick.  In movies like The Final Destination 3D or My Blood Valentine 3D, the 3D was all about making things fly at you at every opportunity, and it gets old quickly.  But in Avatar, it’s there to bring an amazing fantasy world to life, and it really works.  You become immersed in it.  You start to believe it is real.  The excitement becomes more exciting.  The thrills become more thrilling.  The characters become more believable.  It works.

New Aussie superstar Sam Worthington plays the lead character Jake Sully, and it’s easy to see why Cameron picked him (and recommended him for Terminator Salvation) out of thousands of ‘unknowns’ at the time.  He has this unassuming quality about him – an easygoing, down-to-earth disposition that makes it easy for you to root for him.  The rest of the cast is also solid – Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang as the imposing Colonel Miles Quaritch.  Each hold their own, though at the end of the day none manage to steal Worthington’s thunder.

I believe the critics have been less harsh with Avatar than they were with Titanic, though there are certain to be cynics out there.  Yes, it’s easy to point to the character designs and say they are a rip-off of the Smurfs (!).  Yes, the dialogue and jokes are cheesy (though some of it is intentionally tongue-in-cheek), it has stock-standard secondary characters, and the plot is entirely predictable.  And yes, it has the audacity to contain thinly-veiled but uninspiring messages about the environment, nature, and political greed (in particular American arrogance and self-righteousness).

But none of that really matters.  Don’t look too far for a deeper meaning when watching Avatar – just enjoy it for what it is – an awesome, utterly spectacular movie experience.  The action sequences, especially the lengthy final climax, are sure to go down as some of the greatest ever.  Despite being almost 3 hours long, I never once looked at my watch – my trusty yardstick for how enjoyable a film truly is.

Just days into its release, Avatar is doing exceptionally well, and may lead to the development of planned sequels, though I’m not sure that’s such a great idea.  That being said, I am already planning a second helping of Avatar – this time, of course, on IMAX!

4.5 stars out of 5!