Saturday, 17 January 2015

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

GUNN, James, Dir., Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel Studios, 2014.

This film has been out for awhile and you’d think I’d have gotten around to it by now. In fact, it’s not really horror, so I feel absolved about taking my time overall; however, there are other issues which this movie raises and they’ve been niggling away in the background for so long that I feel I have to put them into words just so that I can get some rest.

(Another reason is that some friends of mine have decided that GotG is the best thing since sliced bread, and, in deference to them, I’ve tried many times to give it a break. Unfortunately, I just can’t get there.)

Admittedly, this film would have been a tough gig. All the other Marvel titles that have emerged over the last few years have a slick, updated feel to them, like they’ve at last been allowed to shed the ‘you know: for kids!’ label that’s been holding them back until now. Guardians of the Galaxy has always been a kids’ book, despite being infused with the sort of gravitas that Jack Kirby brought to the table in the form of such characters as Thanos and The Collector, and despite their being dragged into other bestselling titles such as the X-Men. The writers obviously decided therefore to ditch everything except the ‘70s start date - which informed the music and little else – and start again from the ground up. Each time I watch this film (and it’s been a few times now) there are a handful of jarring things that leap out at me and make me wince.

The first thing that sticks in my craw is the language. There are several word constructions in use at the moment which really gripe my cookies and this film hits all of them, with the result that I was grinding my teeth as the mayhem ensued. The first occurs in the character establishment phase on the “Abandoned Planet Morag” when our hero “Star Lord” (more mundanely known as Peter Quill) escapes after having secured the Orb (the McGuffin of the piece). Climbing out of the lower deck of his starcraft is Quill’s ‘companion’ Bereet, discombobulated by all the sudden fancy-flying. Quill forgets her name (sheesh!) and then says “Look, I’m not gonna lie to you: I forgot you’re here.” Grrr! Yes, ‘you’re’ is a valid contraction of ‘you were’ as much as it is the standard diminutive of ‘you are’. But, when you say one and mean the other, you have a problem with tense and this can confuse the audience. Am I alone in thinking that clarity should be the first order of business when making a special effects extravaganza?

And Star Lord’s verbal gaffs don’t stop there. He also starts sentences with the word ‘So’, which has become the latest in a range of verbal tics to replace ‘Um’. “So I was walking the dog the other day...’; “So I was saying to Larry this morning...”; “So I thought I’d start my sentence this way to appear as though we were already having a conversation...’ It’s annoying as all git out; there should be a law. And then there’s “...that good of a...” Boy, don’t get me started! Let’s take an example: “I’m not that good of a pilot”. See that ‘of’ in there? It’s unnecessary. Also, it sounds stupid. Just stop it.

Now, loaded down with all of this knuckle-dragger ‘English’, Peter Quill starts to talk in anachronisms. At one point, Gamora mentions that his spaceship, the Milano (where did that come from?), is “filthy”. Following this, Quill tells Rocket that with a black light, the inside of his spaceship looks like a Jackson Pollock painting. This is just gross, and Rocket reacts accordingly. I’ve discussed this gag with other viewers and most of them let this comment slide right by without getting it: I’m guessing it made it to the final cut of the film because most censors didn’t get it either (or were pretty sure that no-one else watching the film would get it and be offended by it). Now, it’s disgusting to realise that, with CSI lighting, the place you’re in is bedecked with 26 year’s worth of nocturnal emissions; it’s worse to realise that Quill is not embarrassed by the fact that Gamora can see this noxious coating; but it’s worse to have him crow about it by making a joke referencing a Twentieth Century artist, about whom as a child abducted from earth at the age of 9, he would know absolutely nothing. Ask any 9-year-old who Jackson Pollock is - see what happens. And to have Rocket – an alienget the joke? That noise you hear is the overly-stretched credibility of this scene irrevocably snapping.

At another point, Quill questions Gamora about the orb and compares it to several other cinematic McGuffins, thus creating a moment of hilarious (!) self-reference. The “shiny blue suitcase” line he drops is a nod to Pulp Fiction: if he was abducted from Earth in 1988, I’m pretty sure he would have missed that movie, unless alien renegades are savvy about pirating intellectual property from Earth’s Internet. (Which they may be, but without stating this fact in the context of the film at some point, it just looks sloppy.)

“Why not take a chill pill?” you might say; “It’s just a fun film – why so serious?” Well, that’s true - for the most part this film is fun; but it’s also sloppily-written. Working out that Pulp Fiction post-dates the crucial 1988 date in the movie’s timeline by means of a simple check of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), takes less time to determine than it takes to type “Pulp Fiction post-dates the crucial 1988 date in the movie’s timeline by means of a simple check of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb)”. It’s just not that hard. It is as easy in fact, as making sure that, in the opening sequence on “Abandoned Planet Morag” when you show Star Lord using a reptilian rat-thing as a microphone, you don’t intercut shots of him without the critter in his hand amongst those of him avec beastie. Oh, you stuffed that up too? So sad.

All I’m saying is, film-making should involve some level of concentration. Anachronistic references and anomalies stand out like a glitter-coated turd in a bunch of roses. And frankly, after three instalments of The Hobbit, I’m more than a little tired of slipshod, lacklustre, movie-making.

Let’s move on to characterisation. Within our group of heroes, only three of them are portrayed by actual real people. The two that aren’t – Rocket and Groot – are the best performers. Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista (Gamora and Drax the Destroyer, respectively) are weighed down with latex and body-paint and so start off on the back foot – pushing a characterisation through kilos of plastic is always a courageous process and not always successful (we can’t all be Hellboy). They do a heroic job though and, for the most part, it works. I say “for the most part” because here too, sloppy writing defines them and saddles them with some crappy penalties. At one point Drax calls Gamora a “green whore”, and I’m completely confused as to why he should choose this term. We’ve been set up to believe that Drax’s people are utterly literal, but up until this point in the action (and I’ve checked), Gamora has given Drax no reason to think that she’s a sex-worker, so why this pejorative term? I haven’t had my ‘objectification of women’ bell rung for awhile now and it was frankly disconcerting to find this film doing it. There's another Drax inconsistency at the end when Quill asks him to give a crap...but possibly other reasons stopped the director from following through with this.

I was also kind of wondering when these two would start living up to the hype. According to the exposition, they are supposed to be bad-ass fighters of wide repute: Gamora is a “living weapon”; Drax is “the Destroyer”. Their on-screen efforts were altogether ho-hum. Not bad, per se; just not very special. When you get right down to it, the Guardians are a pretty bog-standard superhero team: a leader, a technician, a healer, a sneaky fighter and a brick. They all have a speciality so it’s easy, as a scriptwriter, to play to their strengths for some hero moments, and then to play to their weaknesses, thus revealing their human sides. In this film, Peter Quill (is he Errol Flynn? Or Mike Myers from Wayne’s World? Just pick one, people!) is a poor leader, Gamora is not as good an assassin as her sister Nebula, and Drax gets beaten up. A lot. I kept wondering what Jim Lee of W.I.L.D.C.A.T.S. fame would have done with this crew...

The patchiness and lack of focus runs right the way through the whole film which, on the face of it, is spectacular to look at. Frankly, if I had spent so much time building these special effects, I would have demanded a better script to underpin them. There were some nice touches – the Xandarian star motif which shows up throughout the film; John C. Reilly’s character (“it’s okay to have a code name; it’s not that weird”); the soundtrack – but the rest was just fuzzy. Who exactly can pick up an Infinity Stone? Why weren’t the Guardians all just vapourised by it at the end? The answer is in there, but it’s buried; discussed in passing; blink and you’ll miss it. Like I said above, surely in a film like this, clarity is your first piece of business.

In the final analysis, watch this movie for the Laurel and Hardy comedic stylings of Rocket and Groot; boogie along in your seat to the funky soundtrack; but turn your brain off otherwise. Given that this comics title was pitched at kids back in the ‘70s, they’ve done a tremendous amount of work to make it appeal to adults in the 21st Century. Just not particularly grown-up adults.

And, to add insult to injury, after the credits they threaten us with Howard the Duck! Santayana said, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”. Marvel! Have you learned nothing?!

Two-and-half tentacled horrors.

Sunday, 11 January 2015


I’m lying on a floor; smell of dust and nylon fibres. There’s pain, but I haven’t worked out where it’s coming from just yet. I can hear people moving, furniture shifting with them. The brush of shoes on carpet, clothing fabric rustling. Open my eyes: it’s dark. There’re lights but they’re all fuzzy, spots circled in focuslessness. Someone looms, leans in. I can’t see their face, just a black halo around their head. Light walks in waves and walls, wobbles. Now there are two of these dark faceless angels, peering, coming close.

‘Jesus!’ says one of them. ‘What happened to his face...?’

Then I wake up.

Raining outside. Not heavy, but steady. The streetlight trickles against the walls. I let my fingers unclench, feel the sheets de-pressurise between them. That boom, boom, boom, is my heart - gone soon as I lift my head. Swing my legs overboard, let my feet hit carpet. Deep breath. Dream. That’s all.

There’s an echo’s ghost in the room with me; I wonder if the neighbours will complain again. Red blinking light: message on the phone. 4.32am. Garbage truck reverses, down in the street. Forget sleep. Call it a day and seize it...

I’m outside, feel like crap. Dark skies and distant thunder - rain letting up. Streets trickling with water, all the garbage washed clean. Cold wind makes me flinch and I head downhill into town.

Police on the phone: Carmody calling. Probably swallowed a gutful of pride to do that. Nothing I’ve done – they need my help. Again. Last time, Carmody yelled ‘That’s it! Forget this psychic crap! From now on, just straight-up police work!’ Something like that. But here we are again.

Am I psychic? If you believe that sort of thing. I have a knack. Someone told me that I have a “facility”, that I’m adept at reading body language, “micro-expressions”. Whatever. Maybe it’s instinct, or that my brain makes weird connexions from random data: I don’t try to analyse it too much. In case it goes away.

If asked, I say that I simply have a low bullshit threshold. People lie - about themselves, about others; to themselves, to anyone listening. They bolster their confidence; they talk themselves into it; they put pressure on people; they con and cajole. They leave the important bits out. I go through it all like a blowtorch through tinfoil. I’m immune to falsehoods; bluff-proof. But sure – if “psychic” floats your boat, let’s call it that. Sometimes I do; sometimes it’s my job.

I get to the intersection outside police headquarters. Waiting for the crossing light, the silver dawn slicing through the overcast, a guy in a heavy coat bumps my arm with his elbow.

‘This way, McKinley,’ he says. Taller than me, broader, with a close-cropped bullet-head. Maxton. The new guy. He points to a waiting car, door open.

‘So, the servants’ entrance?’

He smirks. ‘Too much Press on this one,’ he says; ‘Need you here on the down-low.’

Inside, the car is company-vehicle clean, anonymised and pine fresh. I’m a blot on the upholstery. Wish I’d taken the time to shower.

Wipers swish wet away from the glass. The police building rolls forward, monsters us, moves by. A dark gaping maw swallows us into its belly...

Carmody’s waiting in the corridor of the Records Department. Rumpled, balding, spectacle frames from the 80s. He almost growls when he sees me. Jerking a thumb over his shoulder he spits ‘Interview Room’ to Maxton.

‘What?’ I say cheerily: ‘no time for a coffee and some chit-chat?’

He glowers poisonously at me and pulls his phone from his pocket. Maxton leads the way.

The room has a desk with three chairs and a dusty old video player on a rolling frame with a monitor on top. Maxton hangs his coat and fiddles with the remotes while I stare at a stack of files on the desktop. The TV hisses snow, then a little green icon mutes it into silence.

‘So, how do you like to do this?’ The remotes clatter into a heap next to the files.

‘Do what?’ I say.

Maxton rubs his head briskly and offers an open palm. ‘I mean, is there anything you need to do to get ready? Meditate? Turn the lights off...?’

‘...Sacrifice a goat?’ I finish for him. I drag out the nearest chair. ‘Play the videos. Let me read. A coffee would be nice.’

Maxton blinks. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘sure. I’ll let you get into it...’

An hour-and-a-half later, I’m done. I’m swirling my plastic coffee cup around to try and dissolve as much sugar as I can into the dregs. I’m stalling, because I’d rather bill the City for two full hours than one-and-change. Maxton is fast-forwarding through the filmed interviews, watching the jerky figures spring and flicker across the screen. Suddenly though, I’ve had enough. The bare white walls and the bad lighting with its incessant hum are starting to make my teeth ache.

‘Right,’ I say, standing and pushing forward a folder, ‘that’s your man, this Reed guy.’

Maxton boggles at me. ‘Reed? No way.’

I stretch, rub my face and blink, trying to wake up. ‘Yes way. He’s your killer.’ I start getting ready to go.

Maxton grabs the folder and leafs through it in lumps. ‘But why? I mean, sure, he doesn’t have a watertight alibi for the attacks but, given his job and lifestyle, that’s a hard call anyway. What makes you so certain?’

‘What your boss pays me for – I know.’

‘What’s his motive?’

I wince. ‘This again? You guys are still with the “means, motive, opportunity” crap? He has means and opportunity – he doesn’t need a motive. He does it because he likes it. He does it ... just because.’

‘But he’s been completely forthright with us, helped us with our investigation...’

‘Yes because, if he didn’t, he’d look exactly like what he is – guilty. He’s playing you. He has you right where he wants you to be – convinced that he’s a nice guy.’

‘But why these people?’ Maxton’s on a roll, won’t let it alone, ‘what’s their connexion? Why choose to attack them?’

I sigh. ‘Maxton. This guy’s a burr. He’s covered in hooks just waiting to get snagged on something. This guy? He bumps into Reed and doesn’t say “excuse me”. This girl? He likes her hair colour. This one? It’s late and he’s got nothing better to do. He’s a psycho Maxton; whaddaya want from me?’

Maxton leans forward, elbows on the table. His eyes are wide. He looks at me; he looks at the files.

‘I don’t know,’ he says, ‘Carmody’s not going to like this...’

‘Screw Carmody. If he wanted me to make him feel good, I’d demand money up front.’

Maxton’s up, grabs his coat. ‘Let’s go tell him the news...’

We head down the corridor to the lift. The endless parade of carpet tiles, the fluoro panels, the conditioned air, all make me feel thin and unreal. I can’t tell what time it is. A couple of uniforms come out of the lift as we approach: backlit, I can’t see their faces and their hats make black circles above their heads – just like my dream angels. Maxton gestures to them. They smile and move away.

The lift doors bite home like a sideways mouth. I’m hoping I got this right. Carmody hates my guts but he’s got to acknowledge that I get his guys to where they’re needed. If I’m honest – and I’m always honest, at least to myself – I’d help them without being paid, but starving in a gutter is not my idea of a career prospect. My technique’s now honed, but I’ve paid for inexperience. One time, early on, I stalled for time, figured I’d ratchet up some extra cash with the Department. ‘I see a body of water,’ I said, playing mysterious. During the delay that caused, the killer – Alvin Lake – locked two girls in a Chevy and fed them through his scrap-yard metal compactor. Like Reed, he had means and opportunity. Like Reed, his motive was “just because”.

The lift pings and the metal doors slide open. Maxton shoulders forward and I stumble fuzzily in his wake. There are a lot of people here. No uniforms. Cameras. The grey light of the outside day. Carmody wheeling around, his face going red. Suddenly, Maxton’s got me in a bear hug, throwing me back into the lift. Lights follow us, excited voices, before the steel lips snack them off.

‘Shit!’ spits Maxton. He stabs a button and we descend again. ‘Shit! What was I thinking?’

‘Certainly not “avoid the lobby”’ I contribute, rubbing my shoulder.

He slumps against the wall. ‘Carmody’ll have my head for this,’ he groans.

I’m suddenly very tired and far from caring. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘tell him it was my fault; that I was grandstanding, trying to get my name in lights. He’ll buy that.’


‘Yeah. You’ll still get a dressing-down, but at least you won’t get fired.’

Maxton props his hands on his knees, lets his head hang down, gives it a shake.

‘Thanks man,’ he says, ‘I owe you.’

‘Just make sure Carmody pays me,’ I answer, ‘and we’re quits...’

Later at home, the news sites on my laptop are buzzing. “City pays Psychic to track Blind-Man’s-Bluff Killer!”; “Cops Clutching at Straws!”; “Detectives try Voodoo to catch Serial Killer!” My phone starts to ring but I let the machine take care of things.

The day wears on. The grey dawn passes into a grey night. There’s an open bottle of wine in the fridge along with an old pizza. Towards nightfall, I break out the iron, try to smarten-up a few shirts. I’m watching the news to see if they’re using a recent photo of me - thankfully, the mug shot they drag out is about eighteen months old. There’s a card game on tonight – gamblers don’t like playing with guys they think can read their minds.

The intercom chirps. ‘It’s Maxton’, blurs the voice at the other end. I buzz him in. Shrugging on a crisp white shirt, I fold back the cuffs and open the door, leaving it ajar. Soon, there’s movement in the corridor – the door swings wide. It’s not Maxton who enters. It’s Reed.

He leans on the door, closing it, panting from the stairs. He’s bleary, eyes red-rimmed, breathing booze. Arms go “zizz” as he moves them: cheap nylon jacket with “Security” across the back, dark squares on the upper arms and breast where patches have been erased. Lost his job. Excellent.

He pushes off the door, lurches into the room. I back around the kitchen bench. He jingles as his boots stomp the floor – below his gut slings a wide belt with steel rings dripping with things. Things like his gun. Handcuffs and capsicum spray. He clunks down a two-thirds-empty fifth of bourbon on the counter top.

‘Bastard!’ he breathes dangerously. ‘Cost me my job! Why? Why me?’

I walk slowly around the bench, hands raised, moving to the phone. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘you’re overwrought. Why don’t we take a breath and sort this out? Let’s call someone who can help...’ I pick up the iron as I go.

He pulls his gun, surprisingly quickly for someone in his state. I belt him on the head with the iron. He goes down, whacking his jaw on the counter-top. I pound his face a few more times for luck. Prodding clumsily with socked feet, I push the gun back into his holster, taking time to get it right. I grab some paper towel, take The Knife from the wall where it hangs, openly on a magnetic strip over the sink. Sadly, saying good-bye, I ease the handle into Reed’s nerveless palm.

Now the hard part. I use the cuff of my shirt to cover my hand as I unclip the capsicum spray from his belt. I take a deep breath, give myself a good hit to the face...


I’m lying on a floor; smell of dust and nylon fibres. There’s pain, but I haven’t worked out where it’s coming from just yet. I can hear people moving, furniture shifting with them. The brush of shoes on carpet, clothing fabric rustling. Open my eyes: it’s dark. There’re lights but they’re all fuzzy, spots circled in focuslessness. Someone looms, leans in. I can’t see their face, just a black halo around their head. Light walks in waves and walls, wobbles. Now there are two of these dark faceless angels, peering, coming close.

‘Jesus!’ says one of them. ‘What happened to his face?’

‘Back off!’ Another voice chimes in, approaching stench of dead-beach aftershave. Maxton.

‘Hang in there, McKinley,’ he says, ‘paramedics are on the way.’ He lifts my shoulders, cradles me.

‘Carmody’s pissed,’ he tells me, wiping away the tears streaming down my face. ‘He thinks you’re going to sue the City for us leading this psycho straight to you...’

I cough suddenly. I’m laughing inside because Maxton still thinks he pushed the button for the wrong floor. ‘Just make sure...he pays me...what he owes me,’ I croak.

‘You’re one in a million,’ Maxton smiles, then the paramedics are upon us.

They carry me away. I drift off to the Dreamlands. I feel cheated – this kill was unsatisfying. But it was practical; housekeeping; shoring-up and making-safe. Business before pleasure. The world opens up with possibilities - those dark angels have missed me again...