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Non-Review Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen is a deeply weird film, and not in a good way.

The basic structure of the film is a feel good narrative of a character coming to terms with his post-traumatic stress disorder. Mark Hogancamp was beaten almost to death by a group of Neo-Nazis outside a bar, for nothing more than mentioning that he liked to wear women’s clothes. Mark has retreated into himself, creating a model village called “Marwen”, an anachronistic Belgian village from the Second World War. The town is home to a toyetic doppelgänger for Mark, the heroic “Hoogie”, who finds the courage to fight Nazis despite his losses.

The toast of the town.

The arc of the film is very obvious from that premise, with a number of other details sprinkled into the script to provide stakes and momentum. Nicol, an attractive redhead dealing with the loss of her son and a stalker ex-boyfriend, moves in across the way and connects with Mark. At the same time, the sentencing of the criminals who attacked Mark is fast approaching, and Mark needs to read his “victim impact statement” in open court. There is also a suggestion that Mark is wrestling with addiction, having to careful ration his painkillers.

All of this is fairly standard prestige picture stuff, providing Mark and the audience with a very clear journey across the film and offering a potentially hopeful conclusion to Mark’s journey. This is all very hokey, but it could work. It is a very earnest narrative, but director Robert Zemeckis is the kind of storyteller who knows how to make those sorts of narratives work. Forrest Gump is a beloved classic for a reason, no matter how clumsy and hokey it might be.

Mark his words…

However, Welcome to Marwen chooses to elaborate upon its stock upbeat triumph-over-adversity template in a number of frankly bizarre ways. Welcome to Marwen flails wildly between genres, pivoting from earnest and overwrought melodrama to absurd fantasy to lazy comedy on a dime. The issue is not that Welcome to Marwen doesn’t cohere as a film, the issue is that many of the individual scenes within the film struggle to find a consistent tone from one minute to another.

Zemeckis is a skilled enough craftsman that the film impresses on a purely technical level; the dolls tilt into the uncanny valley on occasion, but there is every indication that this is intentional. However, on a purely narrative level, Welcome to Marwen feels like it was put together by a twelve-year-old who had only read about how movies work.

Hoogie’s heroes.

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106. Fifty Shades of Grey (#-91)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with Marianne Cassidy and Grace Duffy, The Bottom 100 is a subset of the fortnightly The 250 podcast, a trip through some of the worst movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Sam Taylor Johnson’s Fifty Shades of Grey.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Darkling (Review)

There is something to be said for the pulpier side of Star Trek: Voyager, the aspect of the show that plays like a cheesy sci-fi b-movie.

Brannon Braga is very much the driving force behind this aspect of the show, as evidenced by his scripts for the belated Cold War body-swapping horror of Cathexis or the psychological nightmare of Projections or the trashy psychedelic terror of Cold Fire or even the weird evolutionary anxieties of Threshold and Macrocosm. These sorts of episodes often feel like they belong in a late night movie slot reserved for forgotten horror flicks from the fifties and sixties. Of course, Braga is not alone in this; episodes like Meld and The Thaw also fit the pattern.

Blurred lines.

Blurred lines.

Of course, these episodes do not always hit the mark. Charitably, it could be argued that they land about half the time and misfire spectacularly about one third of the time. However, there is something strangely compelling about these episode. They feel distinct from what audiences expect from Star Trek. Even if they are arguably just an extension of late Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes like Sub Rosa or Genesis or Eye of the Beholder, they feel like something different from the show’s more conventional “let’s do archetypal Star Trek” plotting.

Darkling is an episode that doesn’t quite work, but which is oddly endearing in its dysfunction. It is a ridiculous central premise executed in a deeply flawed (and occasionally uncomfortable) manner. However, there is something weirdly compelling about wedding the show’s science-fiction premise to gothic horror through the fractured psyche of a computer program.

Patchy.

Patchy.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Blood Fever (Review)

Blood Fever is a strange and dysfunctional episode.

By this point in the third season, Star Trek: Voyager has abandoned any sincere attempt to develop or define its own identity. Instead, the series has committed itself to being the most generic Star Trek show imaginable. In many ways, this represents a disappointing betrayal of an interest premise and a fascinating cast of characters. In other ways, this allows the show to focus on telling archetypal Star Trek stories like Remember or Distant Origins or Living Witness, stories that deal with broad themes through science-fiction allegory.

Tunnels of love.

Tunnels of love.

In its strongest moments, Blood Fever feels like it wants to be that kind of classic Star Trek metaphorical exploration of contemporary society. In many ways, Blood Fever is an exploration of contemporary attitudes towards sex and sexuality, of the damage that can be wrought by sexual repression on levels both personal and societal. It is building upon the idea of pon’farr as introduced by Theodore Sturgeon (and refined by D.C. Fontana) in Amok Time, as the volcanic eruption of sexual desire following years of repression.

Unfortunately, Blood Fever lacks the courage of its convictions. The script feels like a victim of the same social mores that it seeks to critique, either unable or unwilling to talk about sex and sexuality in a manner that is suitably candid. As a result, Blood Fever ends up a muddled and ineffective piece of television that seems unwilling to call out its characters and which inevitably builds towards a tired rehash of an iconic Star Trek scene. Waiting seven seasons for this must be very unsatisfying.

Droning on.

Droning on.

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Star Trek – The Mark of Gideon (Review)

This July and August, we’re celebrating the release of Star Trek Beyond by taking a look back at the third season of the original Star Trek. Check back every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the latest update.

The Mark of Gideon is in many ways a direct counterpoint to Whom Gods Destroy.

Both The Mark of Gideon and Whom Gods Destroy have what might charitably be described as “major logic problems.” Both episodes were produced on a tiny budget, with those constraints bleeding through into almost every frame of the finished production. Both stories engage with the idea of utopianism as an essential ingredient in Star Trek storytelling. Both episodes are very much third season episodes, in terms of production and construction and storytelling.

Viewing screen on.

Viewing screen on.

However, Whom Gods Destroy manages to turn all of these elements into an ambitious mess. Although far from the strongest episode of the season, or even a half-decent episode of television, there is an endearing charm to Whom Gods Destroy that carries the episode far further than it should. In contrast, The Mark of Gideon is dead at arrival. It is an episode with a striking premise and set-up that has no idea where to go from that starting point and so meanders limply and lifelessly through forty-five minutes of television.

It also offers a pretty reprehensible vision of the franchise’s utopia.

This is an accurate representation of the third season's viewing figures.

This is an accurate representation of the third season’s viewing figures.

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Star Trek: Enterprise – Rajiin (Review)

Next year, Star Trek is fifty years old. We have some special stuff planned for that, but – in the meantime – we’re reviewing all of Star Trek: Enterprise this year as something of a prequel to that anniversary. This August, we’re doing the third season. Check back daily for the latest review.

Rajiin is not as bad as Extinction. So there’s that.

Rajiin continues the pulpy theme that runs through the third season of Star Trek: Enterprise and into the fourth. There is a sense that the writing staff are cutting loose with a collection of decidedly retro science-fiction tropes that they found in the old storage cupboard. The third and fourth seasons have a gonzo energy to them, with elements like the reptile!Xindi and the evil!alien!space!Nazis feeling like ideas that escaped from the types of magazines where Benny Russell used to work.

"Captain, my scans report that she does have Bette Davis eyes."

“Captain, my scans report that she does have Bette Davis eyes.”

At its best, this new storytelling freedom allows the show to cut loose with ideas that would have made Star Trek: The Next Generation or Star Trek: Voyager blush. The show would never have attempted episodes like Impulse and North Star in its first or second season. Even if the episodes are not flawless, they have an energy and vitality that was sorely lacking in the first two years of the show. It feels like the writing staff are really having fun with the concept, playing with the sort of goofy ideas that they never would have attempted a year or so earlier.

Of course, there is a flip side to that coin. The biggest misfires of the third season are generally rooted in that pulpy storytelling style. Extinction was effectively a “lost race” story that felt like a throwback to colonial narratives about explorers in exotic parts of the world. Rajiin is the story of an alien seductress who our hero rescues from slavery, only to use her womanly wiles to seduce the crew for a sinister purpose.

"Hey, Kirk got to do this all the time!"

“Hey, Kirk got to do this all the time!”

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The X-Files – Milagro (Review)

This July, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the sixth season of The X-Files and the third (and final) season of Millennium.

The teaser establishes the mood quite quickly. It is a rather striking opening sequence for an episode of The X-Files, focusing on a writer staring at a blank page. The sequence cuts through time as the writer searches for inspiration, trying to take his cue from the index cards helpfully arranged on the wall. Eventually, the writer makes a grand gesture. He reaches into his chest, and pulls out his heart. It is a very effective opening sequence, one that makes it clear that Milagro will not be a normal episode of The X-Files.

The sequence also makes it clear that Milagro will not will it be a subtle piece of television. The teaser is not a particularly elegant metaphor, but it is an effective one. What is writing but tearing out a piece of yourself? Sometimes you have to wear your heart on your sleeve; sometimes you have to put it on the page. The teaser to Milagro is a very earnest piece of work from Chris Carter, a clear acknowledgement that what follows is a deeply personal piece of work.

Burning heart...

Burning heart…

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