Monday, May 22, 2017

Current Reels: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Fights an Ego-Centric Future

Quill gets introduced to his father's "perfect" world
Marvel's fast-talking, sarcastic group of space weirdos are back to take on the greatest threat to the galaxy yet - narcissism.

James Gunn returns to the director's chair to bring together the intergalactic hellraisers once more in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2. In this roundup, viewers begin to get a sense of what makes all these characters tick.

Set to the tunes of Peter Quill's "Awesome Mix Volume 2" given to him by his mother, viewers are tossed into the action from the get-go. This time around, the Guardians are on the run from a haughty and vengeful race of aliens known as "The Sovereigns" that are hellbent on creating a perfect human being. When all seems lost, our favorite antiheroes are unexpectedly delivered from their fate by a deity named Ego, who reveals to Quill that he is his long-lost father. Thus begins a battle of the flawed versus the supposedly flawless, and the disastrous effects of focusing too heavily on the "selfie".  

What makes the Guardians so compelling is they are all works in progress; each one of them on the mend from some past trauma. These are no mere caricatures, but full-fledged beings that have their own cultures, planets, and stories to tell, which make them interesting and relatable - even if they are assholes sometimes.The double-edged sword of a sequel from a writer's standpoint is on one hand, there's no "gear up" needed since the viewers are already familiar with the characters and the universe. On the other, it is trickier to grab the audience's attention from the start without a built-in plot springboard. James Gunn and Dan Abnett (who is also the writer for the Marvel comic) elaborate on the diverse cast's hopes and fears and their relationships with one another, while leaving plenty of time for snappy comebacks and good old fashioned space shoot 'em ups. 

The continued theme running through both Vol. 1 & 2 (which you can read more in my review of the first movie here) is family is what you make of it. I was gratified to see the stories of Nebula, Gamora, and most notably, Yondu (my personal favorite) expanded upon. We learn more about Yondu's past with the Ravagers, his relationship with Quill, and his own personal demons. He goes through hell, but on the plus side, gets a serious upgrade to the most deadly of mohawks! We even get treated to a cameo of the greatest underdog of all - Sylvester Stallone, playing Stakar Ogord (basically space Rocky) who banishes Yondu for misunderstood misdeeds. A weaker script would've taken the easy route with Nebula (played by the impeccable Karen Gillan, best known as companion Amy Pond in Dr. Who)  and reduced her complexities hinted at in Vol. 1 into a cold-blooded villainess. Instead, the story explores further her relationship with her sister, the inscrutable Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and we learn of the atrocities she suffered at the hands of her father, Thanos.

Yondu, Rocket and Groot get in some dude bonding time
What makes this second serving all the more enjoyable is it never takes itself too seriously. Ego waxes philosophical on the 70s classic "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" by the one-hit wonder band Looking Glass (fun fact: this tune fueled the writing of this review). Poop and dick jokes abound. The only true weakness with this feature is certain gags that worked in Vol. 1 are stretched to the breaking point in Vol. 2, reducing what could have been big laughs to mere chuckles - for instance, the sequence of Baby Groot continuing to bring back the wrong item to Rocket and Yondu would've been just as funny with three fewer items. Drax calling the newcomer Mantis "ugly" when he really means "beautiful" got old pretty fast. And as adorable as he was, I could've done with less gratuitous use of Baby Groot.

The sets, effects, action, and makeup are all of the top-notch quality we have come to expect from Marvel blockbusters. What sets Guardians ahead of the pack is the solid storytelling around themes that we can all relate to -family, belonging, and the quest for self-love, which make for a satisfying - if on occasion, emotional -  big-screen experience.

Jackaroo sez: Despite the need for thoughtful pruning of tiresome gags, Vol. 2 succeeds in reminding us, in the words of another 70s classic, "We all need somebody to lean on."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hong Kong International Film Festival Spotlight: "Beast Cops" Reflects on the Human Condition

Gordon Chan, right, director of Beast Cops at HKIFF
 During the 41st annual Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) held his past April, several films were shown as part of a series called "Paradigm Shift: Post-97 Hong Kong Cinema." The late 90s were an important crossroads for filmmakers post-handover, when Britain officially transferred power of Hong Kong over to the People's Republic of China and ushered in a new era of cinema focusing on local culture and history. I was lucky enough to see Beast Cops on the big screen and speak briefly to one of its directors, Gordon Chan, who also wrote and directed Fist of Legend with Jet Li, another of my personal favorites. A thoughtful dramedy about the human condition cleverly packaged as a cop thriller took home Best Picture and Best Director (Gordon Chan and Dante Lam) in the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1999.

The disheveled trio of ordinary heroes

For someone living in Hong Kong, it was an unexpected delight to recognize many of the scenes that were filmed in my neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui (pronounced Jim-Sa-Joy) on Kowloon island. What elevates this film from a boilerplate cop drama into a thoughtful commentary about human existence is a script that combines light-hearted humor with philosophical musings about life and love, and how even the most flawed of characters can be a true hero.

"I wanted this film to be, ultimately, hopeful," said Chan after the screening, who was kind enough to answer a few burning questions of mine. "The studios wanted a comedy, but I wanted it to be more than that - a reflection on the human experience."

The story centers around Tung (Anthony Wong), a disheveled, out of shape street cop with dubious morals. He mostly cares about reeling in a paycheck and staying on the good side of gang leader Fai, known as "Big Brother." However, circumstances change when Big Brother goes on the run after a hit on a business rival goes wrong, and puts his trust in Tung to keep his territory on the up and up. To make matters worse, Tung finds himself having to show his new boss, fresh-faced Michael Cheung (Michael Wong) the ropes of the neighborhood without implicating himself. Worlds begin to collide as Cheung falls hard for Big Brother's abandoned girlfriend Yoyo (Kathy Chow), a hard-as-nails madame, and their relationship quickly becomes exclusive. Meanwhile, Pushy Pin (Patrick Tam), one of Big Brother's underlings, attempts to move up in the ranks, taking advantage of his old boss's absence.

Mr. Chan's autograph!
While the high-octane action sequences are visceral and well-timed, much of the film centers around Tung and Cheung facing the challenges of daily urban life - finding an affordable place to live (no easy task in this city), and dealing with the comings and goings of unscrupulous roommates, particularly Skinny Sam (Sam Lee), Tung's sex-addicted colleague; the travails of relationships. The cuts from one scene to the next are sudden at times, lending itself to uneven pacing, but not to such a high degree as to take away from the overall enjoyment of the storyline.

It is in the quiet moments where the story holds its true power. The desperation on the face of Tung when the married woman he has been having an affair with tells him she is going back to her old life without him, stating she doesn't love him. "But I love you," he mutters softly as she slinks back into the night, and the shadows of the evening fall around him like a curtain addressing the end of a final act.The profound sadness on Skinny Sam's face when his presumed date shows up with her husband, and he motors away with the bouquet of flowers still attached to the backseat.

The climactic, bloody brawl finale between Tung and Pushy Pin is satisfying on a raw, primal level as well as from a cinematography standpoint. Instead of the buff, young Cheung taking down the crime boss, Chan chooses to have the every-man do it because it has been his responsibility from the beginning. Tung is not superhuman - far from it - and the audience feels empathy as he psyches himself up for the confrontation in his car with the aid of alcohol and some dubious-looking pills. The fight is shot from a variety of standpoints; through broken fluorescent lights, down dingy alleyways, through the blurred vision of our unlikely hero. Knives are brandished, blood flows, and inwardly I found myself cheering for Tung as this washed up cop finds the true grit inside to put an end to this cycle of crime once and for all.

SPOILER ALERT: Chan shared with me that Tung was originally supposed to die, but he felt that would've changed the tenor of the movie completely, which I agree with. "I wanted to send a message of hope," he said. Perhaps hope not only for the characters in his story, but for the city of Hong Kong.


Jackaroo sez: At its essence, Beast Cops is a story of highly flawed characters that ultimately see the best potential in themselves and in one another. While the pacing is uneven at times, the film's payoff in the final scene more than makes up for any of its minor inadequacies.