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“When I Left Earth”: The Simple Childhood Trauma of “Guardians of the Galaxy”

This Saturday, to mark the release of Captain Marvel, I will be discussing Guardians of the Galaxy on The 250, the weekly podcast that I co-host discussing the IMDb’s Top 250 Movies of All-Time. However, I had some thoughts on the film that I wanted to jot down first. You can listen to the podcast here.

Twenty-one films in, there is a solid argument to be made that Guardians of the Galaxy ranks among the very best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Variety has consistently ranked Guardians of the Galaxy the best film in the shared universe on its own frequently updated list. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the film is ranked joint sixth (but on the fourth tier) of Marvel movies in terms of review aggregation. On a list that included non-Marvel-Studios-properties, MetaCritic ranked the film as the fifth best of the top fifty Marvel films released in the twenty-first century. It landed in the same position on a similar list compiled by Peter Bradshaw for The Guardian. It ranked second on the list compiled by The Independent. Although such a metric is hardly absolute and academic, it is also one of the longest-enduring Marvel films on the Internet Movie Database‘s top 250 movies of all-time.

Similarly, the film endures in popular culture. It is arguably one of the most influential blockbusters of the past decade. It was notably the first film to have its soundtrack top the Billboard album charts without an original song on it. Although directors like Martin Scorsese and Richard Linklater had defined the “jukebox soundtrack”, Guardians of the Galaxy turned it into a standard for blockbuster films. Somewhat ironically, given how James Gunn’s career has since developed, Guardians of the Galaxy is a film that seems like the template for the modern wave of blockbusters like Suicide Squad or even Kong: Skull Island. These are massive tentpole films that consciously wear their weirdness on their sleeve.

At the time, this seemed strange. Guardians of the Galaxy was a fringe property before the film was released, largely unknown to audiences outside of comics. The film does not even adapt the “classic” team line-up, relegating them to a cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2. Instead, the team depicted in Guardians of the Galaxy was drawn from Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning’s well-loved but under-appreciated twenty-first century run. More than that, the film was to be helmed by a director who had developed his trade working at Troma and whose career included oddities like Slither or Super. The star was a supporting actor on a well-liked-but-not-breakout sitcom. The biggest names were voicing a talking raccoon and “his personal houseplant-slash-muscle.”

As such, the film’s status as a breakout hit and cultural phenomenon seems strange. What is it about Guardians of the Galaxy that endures, that elevates it in the popular memory ahead of other superhero films (and other Marvel Studios films) like Captain America: The First Avenger or Ant Man or Doctor Strange? It’s in interesting question to contemplate, particularly when Guardians of the Galaxy comes with so much of the baggage of those middle Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rewatching the film in hindsight, there is a lot of clunky exposition and unnecessary detail, a host of elements that exist to set up other movies (like Avengers: Infinity War) rather than serving this individual film. This is the film that properly introduced Thanos and the Infinity Stones, after all.

It is perhaps to the credit of Guardians of the Galaxy that it works well enough in spite of the demands of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that it is the rare Marvel Studios film that feels entirely sure of itself and its own identity. Despite all this continuity and all of these connections, Guardians of the Galaxy is structured by Gunn and credited co-writer Nicole Perlman as a very simple allegory beneath all the talk of “Celestials” and “the Nova Corps”, between trips to “Xandar” and “Morag.” At its core, Guardians of the Galaxy never loses sight of what it’s actually “about” beneath the trappings of comic book lore and the spectacle of a twenty-first century blockbuster. It is the story of a young boy who responds to a massive trauma by retreating into a world of fantasy.

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Non-Review Review: Wilkolak (“Werewolf”)

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2019. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Werewolf is pretty solid “Nazisploitation”, those sorts of genre (usually horror) pieces that play off the imagery and reality of the Second World War.

Werewolf is certainly stronger than other recent examples of the genre, such as Overlord. Focusing on a group of children Holocaust survivors who find themselves menaced by a pack of feral dogs from the camp, Werewolf is a story about trauma, violence and victimhood. It is a film about how these things self-perpetuate, and how these cycles of abuse need to be broken. Writer and director Adrian Panek frames this story through the lens of horror.

This certainly makes sense. The Second World War and the Holocaust were a trauma on a global scale, but most obviously on the European continent. The concentration camps were build outside of Germany, spreading the horror across the region. Poland was home to six extermination camps, something that leaves an indelible mark on a region. Werewolf navigates this trauma through  familiar horror movie staples; the orphans in the gothic mansion, the haunted woods, the allegorical monster, the group that threatens to fracture and fray under pressure.

The only real problem with Werewolf is that it’s simply not scary enough to work as a horror movie.

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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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My 12 for ’18: “You Were Never Really Here” & What You Never Really Saw

It’s that time of year. I’ll counting down my top twelve films of the year daily on the blog between now and New Year. I’ll also be discussing my top ten on the Scannain podcast. This is number eight.

The premise of You Were Never Really Here suggests a certain type of film.

Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe. The audience learns very little about Joe explicitly through exposition of dialogue, his back story and motivations suggested by quick cut flashbacks. As with a lot of You Were Never Really Here, director Lynne Ramsay understands something that may seem counter-intuitive to cinema, the notion that what is unseen might be as important as what is explicitly shown. Joe hunts down paedophiles and rescues children from their clutches.

That description suggests a thriller or an action movie, rooted in visceral and tangible violence. It might work as a direct-to-video exploitation film starring some actor with which mainstream audiences have no familiarity. It might also play well as a Liam Neeson release in early January, something akin to an even grittier Taken. At the more extreme end of the scale, it could play like a cousin to Joel Schumacher’s weird and overlooked 8mm.

What is so refreshing about You Were Never Really Here is that it doesn’t play like any of those, and is instead very much its own thing.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Memorial (Review)

Memorial is a great example of Star Trek: Voyager doing a generic Star Trek story.

The episode has a very basic premise that allows for the construction of a science-fiction allegory, the kind of storytelling associated with the franchise dating back to early adventures like The Devil in the Dark or Errand of Mercy. Despite its unique premise and set-up, Voyager had largely embraced the archetypal mode of Star Trek storytelling in its third season. A lot of Voyager episodes feel very broad and very generic, and could easily be adapted for another series – whether inside or outside the franchise.

The real devil in the dark.
Spoiler: It’s us.

There any number of episodes that are not rooted in the specific premise of Voyager, that could easily have been reworked or reinvented for another crew at another point. The Chute was a harrowing story about the horrors of mass incarceration and its capacity to turn people into animals. Nemesis was a meditation on killology, in the way that militaries turn soldiers into killing machines. Scientific Method was a treatise on the horrors of animal testing. Random Thoughts was paranoia about “political correctness gone mad” translated into forty minutes of television.

Memorial belongs to a very specific subset of these episodes, something of a bridge between the more generic Star Trek storytelling to which Voyager aspires and a slightly more specific area of thematic interest. Voyager is a series very much engaged with the idea of memory and history, perhaps befitting the Star Trek series that straddles the twentieth and twenty-first century. Episodes like Remember, Distant Origin and Living Witness are all archetypal Star Trek stories, but they are built around ideas of particular interest to Voyager.

The past never remains buried.

As the title implies, Memorial belongs to that very specific subset of episodes. It is easy to imagine a version of Memorial starring James Tiberius Kirk, Jean-Luc Picard, Benjamin Lafayette Sisko or Jonathan Beckett Archer. It is a generic Star Trek episode that could work with any crew, perhaps meaning something slightly different in each context. (On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, it would be an “O’Brien must suffer!” episode. In fact, Hard Time is quite close.) However, it is an episode that engages overtly with ideas that are of great interest to Voyager.

Memorial is about the importance of memory and history, even in a world where time seems to have lost all meaning.

Standing watch over history.

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Star Trek: Voyager – Survival Instinct (Review)

Survival Instinct marks the beginning and the end of Ronald D. Moore’s involvement with Star Trek: Voyager.

Moore had been one of the most influential writers on Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Moore had famously been drafted into the Star Trek franchise with no outside experience; The Bonding was based upon a speculative script that he wrote, and he had been invited to join the staff when The Defector proved that he was not a one-script wonder. Moore had inspired producer Michael Piller to open the franchise to speculative scripts, a decision which led to the recruitment of writers like Bryan Fuller and Rene Echevarria.

Drone warfare.

Moore had consistently pushed the envelope in terms of what Star Trek could be. Several of Moore’s scripts feel like trailblazers, expanding the storytelling language of an established science-fiction franchise; the Klingon-centric script for Sins of the Father, the quieter character drama of Family, the epic scale of Redemption, Part I and Redemption, Part II. Paired with Ira Steven Behr on Deep Space Nine, Moore really pushed the boundaries of what Star Trek could be; Soldiers of the Empire looked at life on a Klingon ship, In the Pale Moonlight stretched (and maybe broke) Star Trek morality.

All of the other writers on Deep Space Nine chose to bow out gracefully with What You Leave Behind, to part ways with the franchise having provided their own unique take on the Star Trek mythos. However, Moore was convinced to migrate across from Deep Space Nine to Voyager. There are any number of reasons why Moore might have chosen to stay when writers like Behr and Echevarria chose to take their exit; Moore was the longest continuous-serving writer on the Star Trek franchise to that point. In terms of second-generation Star Trek, only Rick Berman could have claimed to have a deeper impression.

Armed and dangerous.

Moore arrived on the sixth season of Voyager and immediately looked to make his mark. Like Brannon Braga, Moore had always been an extremely productive Star Trek writer. He was typically credited on six or seven scripts in a season of The Next Generation and Voyager, while also scripting Star Trek: Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. Although not credited on the script, Moore was actively involved in the back-and-forth over the script to Equinox, Part II. He scripted the second episode, Survival Instinct. He was working on the story to third, Barge of the Dead.

And then the unthinkable happened. Like so much of Voyager, Moore’s arrival proved to be something of a false dawn. In early July 1999, Ronald D. Moore left Star Trek. This was within a month of the broadcast of What You Leave Behind, and nearly three months before the premier of the sixth season of Voyager. Even before Moore and Braga elaborated upon the particulars of what had happened, it was clear that something had gone disastrously wrong.

What We Left Behind.

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Non-Review Review: Brigsby Bear

Brigsby Bear is a sweet, if slightly uneven, ode to the act of reclaiming problematic art.

The concept of Brigsby Bear is simple. James Pope is a twenty-something-year-old manchild who has grown sheltered from the outside world, living with his parents in a converted shelter locked away from the world. James’ only interaction with the outside world is through the internet, where he maintains contact with fans of the only show still broadcast on the airwaves, the eponymous anthropomorphised bear.

Bearing his soul.

However, one day James discovers that this is all an elaborate lie, that the world does not work the way that he thought it did. Brigsby Bear is positioned at the centre of this betrayal, with James discovering that the show was never what it appeared to be. As James struggles to come to terms with the reality of his situation, he finds himself struggling to make peace with the bear at the centre of these amateurish and endearing morality plays.

Brigsby Bear suffers from tonal issues, struggling to balance the darkness at its core with the whimsy on its surface. However, the movie plays as a compelling study of trauma and recovery, of the power of fannish obsession, and the art of taking back art that has been tainted or undermined by subsequent revelations. Indeed, Brigsby Bear is arguably more relevant now than it was when it was produced.

“Disney are really going to extremes to stop me leaking details on The Last Jedi.”

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