From the somewhat obscure to the kickoff of the summer blockbuster season has been the trend of my movie-watching week. Here are the films that I saw this past week:
One of the most prolific directors working in Hong Kong, Johnnie To has his latest film set in a hospital where a surgeon doctor (Wei Zhao), a potentially crooked cop (Louis Koo), and an armed robbery suspect (Wallace Chung) form three pegs of an unpredictable triangle. The movie spends an hour setting up clues to what we know could amount to a tense climax. However, it also meanders with other surgery scenes that may be effective in a medical drama, but interrupt the buildup of suspense in this one. The slow-motion action scene at the climax, while overdone (especially by the standards of director To, who usually directs controlled explosions of violence), is rather impressive in how the camera tracks and glides through all the characters in a hospital room during a shootout to ultimately create an odd Yin-Yang effect. It also culminates a key theme of what we can and cannot control in our circumstances. As a suspense piece though, I was left wandering a few times to be completely effective.
The Lost City of Z (2016) – dir. James Gray
Director James Gray (We Own the Night, Two Lovers) takes on his most ambitious project in telling the true story of Lt. Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who led an expedition to Amazonia in the early 20th Century in hopes of finding civilization in what he called the City of Z. Gray specializes in exploring characters who uneasily try to traverse between two worlds, one familiar and the other unfamiliar. Here, he explores this theme with an intriguing middle-gaze balancing between the risks and dangers of the unknown and the complacency of high-class British society. With clarity and visual detail, the movie maintains this thematic approach in showing a British man seeking proof of an undiscovered culture in the lands of Amazonia. In telling the story, however, there is a great deal of fictionalization of the history (my friend, Stephen Morton sent me this helpful article on the artistic licenses the movie takes). However, until the haunting final shot, the movie provides a vivid and engrossing account of a mysterious adventure.
Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (2017) – dir. James Gunn
For every summer since 2007, the summer movie season has been kicked off with a superhero movie and 2017’s starts with this one. While it cannot capture the magic of the first one, partly because you can’t give the jolt of surprise twice, this sequel comes pretty close. All the characters, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are back from the first and their wisecracking jokes are still very funny (especially from Drax, who is a riot in this one). The movie also nicely adds a few characters played by 80s icons such as Kurt Russell and a few others I will avoid mentioning, which is in keeping with the 80s cultural nostalgia the film banks on for much of its humor. While the plot drags a little bit compared to the first one (particularly in the middle section), I was pretty much sold that I would like this one from the opening where Baby Groot dances to Electric Light Orchestra’s Mr. Blue Sky while all his adult team members are fighting a gigantic monster in the background. A side observation: with the presences of Vin Diesel, Kurt Russell, and a former WWE wrestler, and what ultimately turns out to be a family story, is this series edging closer to a space version of a Fast and the Furious movie?