Severance Package

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The Belko Experiment is the sort of premise that, unless it has an immaculately talented director behind the wheel who could balance it all, could almost only go in one of two directions – it could either be a broad comedy doubling as light satire or it could be a cold harsh and cruel picture that’s a tense watch, though not a hard watch. I don’t think a movie with this many pieces that would make us go “but how the fuck does THAT work logistically?” could survive trying to play things too straight-faced and serious.

And so James Gunn’s screenplay for The Belko Experiment ends up a double-edged sword, in how it does have a broadness to it in the mystery behind its central location – an apparently outsourced office for Belko Industries all the way in Bogotà, Colombia that is outrageously guarded with military-grade weaponry and prison looking concrete gates on the outside, though still seeing the need for indoor security headed by the casual Evan (James Earl). The also ridiculous logic behind employees agreeing to painfully implanted trackers or the building of steel doors to cover up the entire building could like wise not be entirely taken straightfaced without being a total wink at how far people are willing to go to be offered any position, though that’s just too general here already. And especially when a voice on the loudspeaker (Gregg Henry) announces to its employees that they must kill each during an allotment of time or they will utilize the explosive trackers to kill many more. It’s not hyucks, but it’s got heightened distance. If anything, the only element of the film that doesn’t seem to have an actual business atmosphere analogue is how all of the management heads, including COO Barry (Tony Goldwyn), are former military with heavy combat experience, thus having a head up on the men and women beneath them that they can kill, but overall it’s an unsubtle portrayal of competitive work environments except with physical violence instead of the downsizing and staff cuts.

And so, Gunn’s script able to sell these with enough humor behind it desperately wants to be something of a comedy and satire. Indeed, the film even includes in its large ensemble many of Gunn’s regular actors, such as Henry, his brother Sean, and Michael Rooker (Gunn remains a producer on the film and I’m sure he was slated to direct at one point). There’s also one very recognizable comedic character actor in the form of John C. McGinley. So humor is in the idea of this movie to especially sell the commentary of cutthroat office atmospheres.

And unfortunately, director Greg McLean is just not funny.

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Mind you, McLean is actually a wonderful idea for a movie about the brutality of others desperately shedding each others’ blood and as a result The Belko Experiment ends up working very capably as a thriller. It should be no surprise that the director of the nihilistic and overwhelming Wolf Creek is able to carry this movie’s stakes and horrors (though I’m not certain I’d call this a horror movie). Not enough to make this into a nailbiter, but given the amount of familiarity the premise of “put people into a room and make them slaughter each other in order to make a statement” at THIS point in the decade, it’s amazing to have any amount of tautness in the atmosphere at all.

And to be quite real, McLean certainly feigns in the direction of some amount of irony. It’s hard to deny that in how editor Julia Wong uses the occasional Spanish covers of classic rock tunes such as “California Dreamin'” into a rhythm for which our hearts jump on each shot and axe to the face (Wong, easily the movie’s best weapon, also has a way of utilizing cuts just at the moment of a body part giving way to the film’s not-quite-severe gore – enough to let us see the ugly viscerality of it and sell it before she cuts to the next element of the scene leaving it still fresh in our mind when we move on).

That honestly leaves the cast themselves to be guided by McLean to turn into sweaty and harried blood-covered beings who have two particular types – those who can’t grapple with this kill-or-be-killed environment or those who are eager to just step all over their peers – and the cast, mostly fronted by either John Gallagher Jr. or Melonie Diaz (as the unfortunate new recruit) all know how to turn their bodies into collapsing alarms of panic. And once again McLean, Gunn, and Wong structure all this material into several diverging storylines so that we can capture enough of the characters to make it hurt more when we see their grisly demise, the same sort of multi-narrative angle Battle Royale perfected with the premise beforehand.

Basically, it’s not reinventing the wheel and I can’t figure out anything within it that makes it a must-watch. But The Belko Experiment is not anything less than a decent bloodletting thriller as well, short enough not to outstay its welcome and shallow enough to prevent the nihilism within it from ruining our day.

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We Can Jack Up Our Prices on Two-Time Galaxy Saving.

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I’ve been struggling to write my pained angry review of Beauty and the Beast partly because I have no way to not turn everything all around to the injection of Daddy Issues and that is, at best, just a couple of scenes.

James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is proving to be a tougher time as it is loaded to the brim with Daddy Issues and, while this was a shocker even before the trailers with Kurt Russell’s reveal as Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt)’s father Ego showed up (given Yondu’s very last lines in the first movie), I’m not 100% certain it felt organic to the film. Largely because Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 means backpedaling a lot on the relationship growth between the central group: Starlord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper, motion captured by James’ brother Sean Gunn, who also gets a live-action role as a space pirate Ravager), and Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) are almost all pushed backwards into feeling more like people who just met each other than a team who had their fair share of trials together. This is most severe on Rocket, whose retrograde is how the plot kicks off, but it’s also lessened by the fact that Cooper is just a fantastic voice actor in the role and sarcastic and biting things to say are like a second language to him. Can’t say the rest about most of the other cast members – the energy in both Pratt and Bautista’s comic element seems to be draining, but they put up a good fight and Diesel’s voice is at this point so altered he feels like a practical non-entity. Saldana at least gets more to work with in Gamora’s continued feud with her cyborg adopted sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) (with its own amount of ties to daddy issues), but it’s tough to keep yourself engaged in that story when one of the characters is a stern and terse figure and the other is written as a one-emotion character of rage. Which is not to see Saldana and Gillan can’t make their arc work, but it doesn’t make for compelling cinema.

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That’s a lot more words than I intended to open with ragging the hell on a movie that I actually walked out enjoying and liking. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may have not known the proper way to bring back its characters, but it’s actually some of the most impressive visual work Marvel has done since the first movie came around. The bold and bright color palette design of the first movie is now bolder and brighter and yet still balanced by the hands of Scott Chambliss, even when it’s complete blocks of one shade like the gold of the Sovereign throne room and the wonderous kaleidoscopic fauna of Ego’s… well Ego’s home world, I will stick to in order to avoid spoilers for people who aren’t fans of the comic. And this in itself is home to some wonderfully kinetic comic book framing by Gunn and cinematographer Henry Braham, which in turn lends themselves to the most creative fight scenes the MCU has brought us this side of Captain America: Civil War. A zippy arrowflight shown via closed-circuit television, an opening monster battle out of focus in the background as Baby Groot dances along to the best soundtrack he could. Yep, there is now a second Awesome Mix with songs I am compelled to say I overall prefer to the selections in the first movie’s Awesome Mix – Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”, Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” (which was on the soundtrack to my high school angst), and Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me” – but I’m not so sure about how its used in the film. A lot more inorganically (like the character developments) and sometimes blatantly recycled or out of place (“The Chain” appears in one scene it doesn’t need to and the movie cuts the song before it reaches its awesome climax) and yet there are moments like the aforementioned arrow battle that it works like magic or Rocket’s ambush of Ravengers using traps and guerrilla tactics. Basically as an aesthetical delight, this movie delivered some and more on feeling like the trailer to Thor: Ragnarok thought it was gonna be the first zany and bouncy MCU film.

And then there’s still the fact that not all of the characters are a wash. Sure, Michael Rooker is not playing Yondu, but instead a version of Space Merle, but the extended screentime in the presence of Space Merle and the new ties he has with the Guardians (and chemistry with Rocket) is wonderous thing (generally, getting a closer look at the Ravagers culture appeals to the punk in me). Kurt Russell has moxy enough to believe that he and Pratt could be related while turning his charm levels up high for when the movie is expects him to about face as a character. And Pom Klementieff is the best possible new discovery as Ego’s cute socially awkward empath Mantis, who seems to have stolen all of Bautista’s oblivious humor and yet is generous enough to make the two actors a perfect odd couple to share the screen with together. Yeah yeah yeah, she’s a Born Sexy Yesterday, but a fun and unsexualized version.

It’s weird to admit I was dreading this as a simple retread (and it IS) and sure it does not earn its 130 minute runtime, but it is the most fun you could have being recycled another storyline and isn’t it enough to ask we have a good time? If Marvel can keep things at that level like Vol. 2 and Ragnarok promise, I can see myself getting tired of the “same-old comic book movie” criticisms.

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