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New Escapist Column! On How “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” Updated the “Star Wars” Template For a New Generation…

I published a new In the Frame piece at The Escapist this evening. With the announcement that Will Poulter has been cast in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3, it seems like a good opportunity to take a look back at Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

The Star Wars franchise was a frequent point of comparisons in discussions of the original Guardians of the Galaxy. However, it’s arguably the sequel that engaged most heavily with the core themes of George Lucas’ work. In particular, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was a story about fathers and sons. However, it is notable for taking that archetypal and generation-defining story, and filtering it through a twenty-first century lens. In doing so, it was a valid companion piece to both Blade Runner 2049 and Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

249. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – Indiana Summer 2021 (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn, Tony Black and Darren Mooney, The 250 is a (mostly) weekly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users. New episodes are released every Saturday at 6pm GMT.

This time, wrapping up our Indiana Summer, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

In the midst of the Red Scare, veteran archeologist Indiana Jones finds himself embroiled in a Communist plot involving Area 51. The mystery inevitably spirals outwards, the explorer finds himself roped into another adventure that reunites him with his lost love Marion Ravenwood and offers surprising revelations about the adventurer’s family.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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“Anything Goes!” The Curious, Qualified Appeal of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom”…

This August, the podcast that I co-host, The 250, is doing a season looking at all four Indiana Jones films as part of our “Indiana Summer.” This week, we’re looking at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and I had some thoughts on the film.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom occupies an interesting space in the cultural consciousness.

Released as a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film was generally considered something of a disappointment. Despite a higher profile and a higher budget, the film grossed slightly less than its direct predecessor. The reviews were generally unkind. People Magazine decried the movie as “an astonishing violation of the trust people have in Spielberg and Lucas’ essentially good-natured approach to movies intended primarily for kids.”

A bridge too far?

Many of those involved with the film seem to have accepted this criticism and taken it to heart. Kate Capshaw quipped that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom only really endured because it was packaged as part of trilogy re-releases, joking, “Thank goodness it’s a three-pack, or we wouldn’t have made the cut.” Spielberg was already apologising for the movie in the pre-release publicity for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, admitting, “I wasn’t happy with the second film at all.”

To be clear, there are a lot of valid criticisms of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It would almost be a cheat to concede that the film “has not aged well”, as that would imply that its portrayal of the Indian subcontinent was not horribly dated on its initial release in the mid-eighties. However, accepting and allowing for these very real problems, there is still something interesting and engaging about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It’s not a movie that is appealing in spite of its darkness, but one that is appealing precisely because of it.

Fortune and glory.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is a messy and brutal movie. It’s angry and it’s unpleasant. However, it is interesting for precisely that reason. It stood out in the context of Steven Spielberg’s career at the time because Spielberg had cultivated an image of himself as a wholesome and wondrous filmmaker. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom marks the first real challenge to that image, perhaps paving the way for the director’s later forays into darkness and cynicism with movies like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, War of the Worlds, Munich and more.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feels like the work of Steven Spielberg at his most unguarded, cutting completely loose and working through a lot of stuff. It’s a very candid and very explicit film, lacking a lot of the polish and the cleanliness of Spielberg’s other major works from around this time. That’s what makes it such a fascinating artifact.

“Why did it have to be snakes?”

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228. Interstellar (#29)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guest Andy Hazel, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar.

Cooper is a former astronaut who has resigned himself to life on a farm, raising his two children Tom and Murph. However, when the fates align to send Cooper back out into space, he finds himself faced with the terrible choice to leave his kids behind with no idea of when – or even if – he might return.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 29th best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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224. Höstsonaten (Autumn Sonata) – This Just In (#192)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with special guests Phil Bagnall and Ronan Doyle, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Ingmar Bergman’s Höstsonaten.

Eva invites her mother Charlotte to visit. It has been seven years since the mother and daughter last spoke. What initially seems like a welcome reunion quickly boils over as simmering resentments rise to the surface and the pair are forced to reassess their relationship to one another – and themselves.

At time of recording, it was ranked the 192nd best movie of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Escapist Column! “The Shining” and the Perfect Haunted House…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last Friday. Because it was Halloween and because of the release of Doctor Sleep, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to take a look about at The Shining.

The Shining is my favourite horror movie ever. It is one of my favourite films ever. It is the rare piece of work that offers something new every single time I sit down to watch it. As I’ve thought more and more about it over the years, I’ve been drawn to the way in which the power of the Overlook is one of scale. It is big enough that it can serve as a fun house mirror to the anxieties of America itself, but also intimate enough that the familial anxieties of the Torrance family can play out within it. It is both large enough and small enough to work as the perfect haunted house.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Amazing.

Non-Review Review: Pet Sematary

The horror in Pet Sematary is primal and ancient, both literally and figuratively.

The tropes that power Pet Sematary were already familiar and old-fashioned by the time that Stephen King published the book more than a quarter of a century ago. Indeed, there are extended stretches of the novel when Pet Sematary feels like a game of Stephen-King-related mad-libs: a dash of paternal anxiety here, a sense of existential dread about the American wilderness there, a familiar older character to provide exposition thrown in, and a climax where everything gets very brutal very quickly.

“You just take a left at the Pet Seminary.”

Even beyond the sense of Pet Sematary as a collection of familiar Stephen King elements blended together, the novel riffed on familiar genre elements. There was more than a faint whiff of The Monkey’s Paw to the basic plot, the story of a seemingly wondrous device that could resurrect the dead only for the person responsible to realise that their beloved had come back “wrong” – or, as Jud helpfully summarises, that “sometimes dead is better.” (The novel alluded to this more directly with the story of Timmy Baterman, which is consigned to a newspaper clipping in this adaptation.)

Writer Jeff Buhler, along with directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer, clearly understand that appeal. The script for Pet Sematary makes a number of major alterations to the book’s plot, but most are logical and organic, rooted in the realities and necessities of cinematic storytelling more than the desire to change things for the sake of changing them. For the most part, Pet Sematary revels in the old-fashioned blend of Americana and horror that defines so much of King’s work, the mounting sense of dread and the decidedly pulpy sensibility.

The purr-fect villain.

Pet Sematary only really runs into trouble in its third act, and this is arguably a problem that is carried over from the source material despite the major branching choices that the script makes leading up to that point. The issues with the third act are not those of character or plot, but instead of tempo and genre. In a weird way, these third act issues make Pet Sematary feel like a spiritually faithful adaptation, carrying over something of the essence of the book, for better and for worse.

Pet Sematary is at is strongest when building mood and mounting dread, when offering its own shading on the familiar iconography of a haunted and untamed wilderness. Pet Sematary is at its weakest when it is forced to shape that dread into a more conventional horror movie climax.

Shades of grey.

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“It’s About Family”: Why Are Modern Blockbusters So Preoccupied With the Notion of Family?

“It’s about family” has entered the cultural lexicon, usually delivered with a grim Vin Diesel bass.

It is, of course, a cliché to suggest that the Fast & Furious franchise is “about family.” Of course they are about family. Dominic Toretto never stops talking about how it is “about family.” The entire heart of the film franchise is that it’s “about family.” It arguably has been from the start, with the simmering attraction between undercover cop Brian O’Conner and Mia Toretto in The Fast and the Furious. In that first film, Brian doesn’t merely befriend the criminal that he is supposed to catch, he becomes family with him. The two men become (ironically) something close to brothers-in-law as much as brothers-at-arms. Over the course of the series, Dominic offers such pearls of wisdom as “you don’t turn your back on your family” in The Fate of the Furious.

Family runs through the film franchise. Owen Shaw, the villain of Fast and Furious 6, is revealed to be the brother of Deckard Shaw, the villain of Furious Seven. The series hinges on soap opera plot dynamics like amnesia and betrayal, all of which emphasising the importance of these familial ties in mapping out the world that these characters operate. However, “family” is more than just a word that drives the plots of these movies, as much as those plots can be said to exist. It is also an important thematic element. The films frequently feature extended sequences at family gatherings, such as barbecues and parties. (Indeed, the franchise seems to evoke almost a Pavlovian response between the words “family” and “Corona.”)

However, while the Fast and Furious franchise is perhaps the franchise most overtly and obviously committed to the theme of “family”, and certainly the film franchise with the most frequent articulation of the concept, it is far from the only example. Modern cinema, particularly modern popular cinema, seems obsessed with the notion of family. In particular, contemporary big budget films are very much engaged with the idea of “found family” much more than biological family. It is interesting to wonder why modern pop culture seems so fixated on the idea of “found family”, to the point that it dominates so much cinematic real estate.

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115. Roma – This Just In (#–)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and with special guests Aine O’Connor, This Just In is a subset of The 250 podcast, looking at notable new arrivals on the list of the 250 best movies of all-time, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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Non-Review Review: Instant Family

The biggest issue with Instant Family is one of identity.

Is Instant Family best approached as a broad feel-good comedy that deals too glibly with serious and deeply affecting issues, or is it an earnest drama that too eagerly punctuates its heart-tugging beats with gags that play loudly the gallery? Instant Family never quite seems to work this out, bouncing quickly from one extreme to another without any sense of internal cohesion. Instant Family often seems unsure of the tone that it wants to hit, which means that it can never maintain a consistent tone for more than a scene or so.

Kids also make great human shields.

To be fair to Instant Family, it is possible to deftly balance the demands of comedy and drama. There are countless great films that balance on a knife-edge between the two extremes, most notably the work of directors like Woody Allen or the Coen Brothers. While there is obviously some debate about how skillfully they pull off this balance, it is also a key ingredient in contemporary Oscar contenders like Vice or Green Book. It is entirely possible for a film to make the audience both laugh out loud and cry softly at the same time. Pixar is very good at this.

The issue with Instant Family is one of speed and extremes, how much ground it tries to cover in navigating the space between funny and moving, and how quickly it tries to cross that space.

Family matters.

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