Films in April

New Releases
Avengers: Endgame – I have written entire essays about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the individual films within it, and I could write at similar length about this one. But to do that I’d need to include spoilers and probably watch it another half dozen times. So I’ll keep it (relatively) brief and vague.
The biggest triumph of Endgame is that it stays true to the foundations of the MCU and the Marvel franchise as a whole. Yes, the stakes and scope are yet again take a step up from previous films (even the seemingly un-top-able Infinity War), but it never loses sight of the core foundations of characters, heart and fun. Somehow Endgame delivers not only a universe spanning plot and the conclusion of character arcs decades in the making, but it finds time for humour. It doesn’t even feel like it’s squeezing the humour in, it’s all completely entwined with the drama and the action, I’d be laughing, crying, gasping and cheering all at the same time. With the weight of expectations and quantity of stuff it needed to get through, it should have felt heavy; but the film had a lightness and elegance that in hindsight was missing from Infinity War. The only reason that the film really felt 3 hours long was because I made the mistake of drinking a large cup of tea before going in. Throw in an intermission and I would cheerfully have watched another couple of hours.
This is a film that I think any fan would be hard pressed to not like, because it was so clearly written for the fans. There were so many satisfying call backs and references that I found myself tearing up out of pure satisfaction. It’s not perfect, but given the scale of the ambition it was never going to be. I’m trying to resist thinking too hard about the mechanics of the plot because it may not stand up to interrogation. I suspect every fan will all have a couple of characters that they feel were under-served by either the film or the series as a whole, there are opportunities that have been missed and I almost need to grieve for those as much as for the arcs that were actually resolved.
I’ll often come out of these films wanting to go straight back in, but I think it may be a while before I can re-watch this one. I feel like I need to respect the film by allowing it to settle. I know the MCU is continuing, but Endgame marks the end of an era that I have absolutely adored and I need to allow myself some time to accept that ending. Just like when you finish reading a great book, there’s a sadness that there is no more, that almost feels like it overwhelms the joy that you had while reading it. “All good things must come to an end” and Endgame was a near perfect ending to a very good thing indeed.

The Highwaymen (Netflix) – The Bonnie and Clyde story from the side of the law is a great story that I can’t remember seeing done anywhere before. The film makers really committed to that perspective and the choice to have the criminal pair and their gang as little more than figures in the distance worked very well. The mixed feelings of people towards the criminals makes a really interesting backdrop to what would otherwise be a fairly straightforward chase movie. It’s great casting of Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson as the aging buddy-cup pairing. They are both charismatic actors playing to type, with Costner reserved and thoughtful, and Harrelson rambling and personable. They are immediately charming and believable as long standing colleagues who respect each other while also winding each other up. But somehow the film ends up being slightly less than the sum of its parts and it felt a little disposable, not really digging far enough into any of the issues to be satisfying. I was loading up wikipedia long before the film had finished to allow me to dig more into the events, people and issues of the time.

Unicorn Store (Netflix) – I think this was aiming for cute and whimsical but I didn’t settle into it enough to be charmed. The very thing that attracted me to it was unfortunately the downfall of the film for me – Brie Larson is a great actress but she was miscast here. I spent the whole film unable to work out what age the main character was supposed to be. I *think* she was supposed to be about 20, freshly dropped out of college and that would have just about worked for a coming of age film, someone who has chosen, or has been protected from having to become a dreary adult. But Brie Larson is closer to 30 and so I spent all my time feeling uncomfortable that she wasn’t getting the help/support/challenge she needed to deal with the real world appropriately.

Guava Island (Amazon) – I’m not really sure what this is. It’s 55 minutes long, so it’s not a feature film, but it’s a bit long for a short film. There are a few sections that felt like music videos. It has a slight other-worldly tone to it (eg the use of colour) that makes it feel a bit fantasy, but not quite enough for me to be certain. It’s mostly fairly light, but the end is quite dark. It feels a bit like a short film that got out of hand while they were having fun and the names involved could just carry it along to do what they wanted. It’s not bad, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I just couldn’t really get a handle on it.

New to Me
Shimmer Lake – This had been loitering at the bottom of my Netflix watchlist for ages and I had pretty low expectations, which led to a very pleasant surprise. It’s not the most expensive or the most polished of films, but it is a film that’s “enough” – funny enough, clever enough, speedy enough, original enough and satisfying enough. The trick the film plays with the time structure is a smartly delivered one that makes the film worth watching.

Northern Soul – Good grief this was a slog. I really had to force myself to keep watching and paying attention. I don’t quite know why it didn’t work for me, all the ingredients seemed ok and it’s had some solid reviews. I found myself bored by it all though, not engaging with the characters or their circumstances, or even really being able to track them. I didn’t feel the situations and cultures were really explained well enough for me to fully understand where everyone was coming from, it all just seemed a bit one dimensional and childish.

Kong: Skull Island – This was a lot better than I was expecting. Actually, “better” is probably the wrong word, I’m not sure that the quality was particularly good, with plenty of incoherence and predictability in the plot and some middling dialogue. But it was very entertaining, thanks to the great cast all having a lot of fun. The special effects were also impressive, giving a real sense of scale and solidity, and a true sense of character for Kong. It’s hardly the best film of all time, but it’s a fun way to spend a couple of hours.

The Children Act – This is a film of two halves. The first half is a very interesting legal drama combined with the presentation of an interesting conundrum in a relationship. Both aspects are presented with respect and thoughtfulness. I found it particularly satisfying that there was very little made of the fact that the main protagonist was female, the type of decisions she’s making, the power that she has is just presented naturally, not as any kind of gender issue. In fact, I suspect that the film would be largely unchanged if any of the roles were recast in different genders.
The problem is that the second half of the film drifted slightly off the beaten track and made less sense. It subtly switched from being an exploration of rational people with conflicting ideas, to people making more irrational and emotional choices. It’s not that it’s badly written, and it’s certainly not badly acted as all concerned give impressive performances, I just didn’t like it as much. I wanted the more intellectual debate which is much less commonly done. I was just less interested in the melodrama.

Hereditary – I was going to write that “I don’t like horror films”, but that’s not really true. I don’t like films that are just scary for the sake of being scary, but I do like films that are using scary elements to tell a story about really interesting people. Hereditary falls into the trap that I quite often see in horror films (most recently notable – Us) where the horror is handled well, the character development is fascinating, and then it screws it all up by trying to explain what was happening. If not for the final act of the film, this could be an award worthy exploration of grief and anger. Toni Collette is exceptional, as is Alex Wolff with the difficult task of playing someone emotionally shut down. There are moments and scenes which will stick in my memory for the utter horror and shock, with very impressive coordination of effects, acting, direction, editing and music all working together for maximum effect. But then it just didn’t stick the landing. I completely lost track of what was going on, the steps the characters were going through made no sense and the action started to overwhelm the time needed to watch the characters.

Trois couleurs: Bleu – There were moments in this film that I was spellbound by the beautiful images and the complexity of the central character. Sadly those moments were hugely outnumbered by times when I was bored, disengaged and even frustrated by the obviousness. Everything moved so slowly that I kept wondering if I was missing something, conspiracies and hidden complexity. But there wasn’t. Things that I think I was supposed to find arty (the fade to and from black in the middle of a scene, the loud music, the use of blue) I found far too pointed and the lack of subtlety annoyed me.

The House with a Clock in its Walls – Perfectly fine kid’s adventure film. All the nuts and bolts are there, but there’s a slight lack of spark, even Jack Black felt a little off his game, maybe too much exposition and acting to wade through and not enough improvisation? Cate Blanchett was the standout really, delivering a beautiful character that was eccentric but grounded, closed off but emotional, and lovely chemistry with the other characters. It’s worth watching the film just to see a true master at work, bringing her A game even if it’s “just” a kids’ film.

Fyre – This is a well put together documentary telling some of the story of the disastrous Fyre Festival. There are are a lot of different elements discussed in the film, raising questions and presenting evidence and counterpoint to most of them. As a project manager I almost watched this as learning and development as it demonstrates just how badly things can go wrong if simple elements of planning are ignored. The power of a charismatic leader, group think, optimism bias and the damage that “can do” attitudes can cause if not tempered with pragmatism. With that in mind I found it a little disappointing that the ‘ending’ was all focused on the financial aspects and revelation of the levels of fraud one of the leaders committed. That skipped over the shared culpability of the other professionals involved (and talking frankly to camera without taking a huge amount of responsibility) for the entirely predictable failure. It’s a fascinating case study, and I could frankly run training sessions using the content of this documentary.

An Inspector Calls – A classic that holds up to its status. It’s a well put together story, or collection of stories – each individually is fairly predictable, but the overall idea was quite elegantly done and I didn’t know, or really guess what was going on until near the end when it came as quite a satisfying realisation. The only problem I had was that the last few minutes felt unnecessary and it would have been a stronger ending if it hadn’t added a final additional resolution.

Loving Vincent – The technical and artistic achievement of this film is absolutely incredible. According to imdb every one of the 65,000 frames is painted in oils on canvas, painting and repainting 853 different canvases to make 853 shots. Watching the film is a completely unique experience and really does take the breath away from the opening credits to the closing ones. Using the style and techniques of Van Gogh to tell his story is inspiring. However, it did not actually work for me as a compelling film. The visuals and the audio never felt like they merged together, it never felt like the voices were coming from the people on screen. I don’t know whether it was just my brain failing to engage in the unusual style, or if it was something to do with the reduced frame rate… I just couldn’t settle. I found myself wanting to close my eyes and just listen to the voices, or mute the volume and watch the images. Maybe I should have just watched with the subtitles on. An incredible film making achievement, but sadly not one I liked.

On Chesil Beach – Interesting. This feels the kind of film that should be studied more than enjoyed, although I think if you were going to do that you’d probably be better going back to the source book. I wasn’t quite sure that I was getting the full experience with the film. The actors did a fine job portraying the emotions of all the stages of the story – the charm and connection of the early romance, the awkward nervousness of the wedding night and then the anger afterwards. But I’m not sure that the events and actions of the characters were quite fully earned. Aspects were hinted at, but almost off hand, fleeting possibilities that felt shoehorned in. After spending a fair amount of time showing the establishment of the relationship, it didn’t feel like an equal amount was spent on the fallout, leaving the film feeling unbalanced and incomplete.

Rewatches
The Martian – A good old science fiction disaster movie, like Gravity and Apollo 13 this is pure geeky entertainment. Great characters and cast, great story, great emotion, great action, great humour. I was on the edge of my seat, I wept messily, and laughed out loud – and the blending of that is near perfect, the film never felt ‘heavy’, everything was done with incredible efficiency of show don’t tell and the diary narration conveyed all the action and emotion effectively. The presentation of all the science was completely credible, but better than that it was joyous – the science was all interesting, fun and heroic – not dry excuses and technobable. There were sections that dragged a bit and it maybe got a bit too bonkers towards the end, but those are fairly minor niggles. I’ve watched it multiple times (and read the book) and the emotional impacts are barely dimmed, if anything it’s even more satisfying and is turning into one of my very favourite films.

Sideways – The film just about manages to find the sweet spot between sappy, funny, touching and arty, never once drifting too far into one area. The character’s leaped off the screen and seemed so natural in their conflicts and feelings that their pain and embarrassment actually hurt. The direction was beautiful managing to be arty without feeling forced. The theme of wine and the setting of the Californian vineyards opened up a landscape and world that I’ve not seen before and added another layer of interest onto the film. I was impressed that the ending was ‘right’ rather than necessarily what the audience wants – it ends at exactly the right moment and exemplifies the way that this movie never says more than it has to.

The Cabin in the Woods – I don’t really like slasher type films because they’re dumb. BUT when a smart slasher movie comes along I’m the biggest fan in the world, so Scream is easily my favourite horror series. Cabin in the Woods is like Scream. But better, because it’s written by Joss Whedon. It’s a film that manages to mock the genre while respecting it, and ask deep and meaningful questions while still being rollicking good fun.
I’ll dutifully avoid the spoilers because they’re not necessary to understand that this is a great film. It does both the horror and the smart stuff really well, with hilarious dialogue, edge of seat tension and startling jumps tripping over each other. The icing on the cake is the cast with Whedon stalwarts like Fran Kranz and Amy Acker teaming up with complete unknowns (some of whom are a lot less unknown now – Chris Hemsworth has done alright for himself) and the mighty Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – Absolutely brilliant! It reminds me a lot of LA Confidential, another great example of the genre, this time with a lot more humour. I laughed almost all the way through, particularly at the narrator. The cast are superbly charismatic and really exciting to watch. It’s fun, it’s different, it’s clever and it’s satisfying.

Up in the Air – I’m a sucker for a George Clooney film and this one was no disappointment. He is utterly charming in this (as in all things); even when he’s playing someone who on paper should be pretty annoying, he manages to make you care. There’s good chemistry with all the women around him, the romantic and the not, each relationship develops nicely through the film and everyone grows. I liked the style a lot with the little pieces to camera and the less-than-glamorous travel and locations. The ending threw me a bit, it’s not what I expected, but actually a really good choice for the film.

The Wedding Singer – It’s dated a little badly in places, making me flinch a couple of times, but the overall charm carry it through. The soundtrack alone is enough to make it worth watching, and Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler are enough to make it fun.

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Star Trek: Discovery – Season 2

I was unsettled by the first season of Discovery, unable to quite decide whether I liked it or not. I even watched it a second time before watching the second season and I’m STILL not sure whether it was good or not. I think if I can’t decide, it probably wasn’t; but the cast, spectacle and nostalgia for the franchise make it watchable. What did give me a bit more confidence was the series of shorts that were released between the seasons, which were not only very well written, but are eventually revealed to be quite important backstory for season 2.

Thankfully, that trend was continued and I’m a lot more confident in saying that season 2 was Good. It felt more like Star Trek, both in terms of the stories and the way the characters behaved. The crew actually felt like they were all pulling in the same direction and wanted to be there, that’s not a requirement for all series, but for me it’s a crucial part of Star Trek. Anson Mount as Captain Pike was the Captain that the crew and the show desperately needed – charismatic, leaderly, and fun. Trying to have the series without the Captain as the main character can work, but the Captain still sets the tone for the show. The set up for the first season didn’t work because Burnham was not only not in charge, but she was disconnected from everyone else. There was no one leading and bringing the ensemble together, they were just disparate people, few of whom really wanted to be there. In one of Pike’s first scenes he actually asked the names of the bridge crew and immediately the show became more about an ensemble of people. The ship was actually a real place.

Michael Burnham also finally felt settled in, she has found the crew and the position that she needs – she has responsibilities, respect and connections. From there she starts to come to terms with her family and her past. It felt a bit of a cheap trick at first to make her Spock’s never-before-referenced sister, but the complex relationship between Sarek, Amanda and Spock was interesting to see revealed. It also gave an emotional thread to the early episodes which were otherwise a bit random chasing mysterious red lights. Sonequa Martin-Green had some great scenes throughout the series and she’s a powerful leading lady creating a fascinating character. The setup for next season should provide plenty more interesting opportunities.

I’m still not convinced about whether the series really fits in with wider canon, even with the get out of jail free card that’s played at the end. To be honest, I’m not going to bother to look up what fandom thinks, I’m sure there’s a lot of well thought through analysis (and a lot that isn’t so coherent) but I don’t care that much. I guess that’s part of the problem with Discovery, I still don’t care that much. I look forward to the episodes each week, but I don’t feel particularly invested. I think that may be because of the way it sits in the middle of all the canon that makes it feel slightly irrelevant to the bigger picture. Future characters never mentioned Discovery, so it’s like the series is in a bubble. Making me care more about the crew as a whole is a good start though and the set up for next year looks like it has lots of potential for continued improvement.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe: Best to worst

I’m a bit of a Marvel fangirl, and there are few things we fangirls are better at than overanalysing what we love, and making some lists. So I dusted off the dvds and worked my way through all 20 films in order (I saw Captain Marvel at the cinema just before starting the project). The normal small print applies, this is my opinion at the moment of hitting publish. I reserve the right to change my mind in the future without any acknowledgement that I have done so. Broadly this is a list in order of preference not quality, there are a couple of films that I can objectively see are very good and I should put them higher, but I don’t like them so tough luck.

1) Avengers: Age of Ultron
Avengers Age of Ultron delivers everything I love about the superhero genre. It presents an incredible opportunity for huge, imagination defying stories, spectacular design and blockbusting action that completely immersed in the big screen spectacle. But the true strength is that at the heart of every good superhero story is a complicated character. It’s not Batman’s gadgets but his tragic past that make him fascinating, it’s not Superman’s powers but Clarke Kent’s humanity that make you care about him and it’s not Captain’s America’s serum that makes him a hero. So when you combine all the potential of the genre with Joss Whedon, the master of character and dialogue, you’ve got two things I absolutely adore.
The biggest strength of the film is the way Whedon connects action, character and dialogue together. It’s easy for these films to switch back and forth – here’s the narrative, here’s the action, here’s the funny bit. But every scene and moment in the Avengers multi-tasks. Personalities shine at every moment whether it’s exposition or action, every fight is interspersed with one-liners and character connections. Moments, glances and body language ripple through the film, I’ve watched it half a dozen times and found something new each time.
If I were going to try and be a proper critic, I’d acknowledge that the story is all over the shop, with some pretty big holes in it and tenuous connections to get from A to B. It is also VERY crowded, with by my estimate a dozen main characters and another 1/2 dozen supporting ones. But I think Whedon pulled it off. While I’d like to have spent more time with every character I didn’t think anyone was particularly short changed, everyone got a big chunk of development and had significant relationships across the huge web of characters. It’s not a perfect film, but I think it’s probably as good as it could be given the insanity of the ambition. At the end of the day it was a near perfect cinema experience – I was never bored, I laughed, I sniffled, I was on the edge of my seat and I came out with the biggest smile on my face in a long time,

2) Black Panther
It never ceases to impress me how each entry into the Marvel franchise manages to do something new and different, while still fitting into the overall framework. Black Panther’s uniqueness is around blending futuristic technology with African culture and history. It is also probably the most important of the MCU films with the huge cultural significance, it is absolute insanity that in 2018 it still needed to be ‘proved’ that a film by and about African and African-American people could be a success, but prove it it did. I recommend seeking out articles by people a lot more relevant than me to comment on that. What I can comment on is that the film was a huge amount of fun. I was gripped, amused, entertained and intrigued almost all the way through. I lost a little bit of focus during the final (inevitable) big battle, but even that had an impressive amount of character and emotion in it.

3) Iron Man
The start of a film franchise like no other and after 20 other films and 11 years, the first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe still holds up incredibly well. It sets the tone from the very start – big, bright, loud, flashy, witty and absolutely focused on character. It doesn’t have any huge moral rants like the X-Men, or the dark psychology of Batman, there’s no stupid love triangle like Superman or wailing teenage angst of Spider-Man. It’s just a bloke who’s very rich and builds himself a super-suit to get himself out of trouble. Robert Downey Jr is phenomenal and immediately brings a depth and complexity to Tony Stark, enriched by his relationships with equally vibrant supporting characters like Pepper, Rhodey, and even just the voice of Jarvis. It’s a huge amount of fun to watch, but that doesn’t mean that it’s without substance in story or message, just that they’re all blended together into a hugely satisfying watch.

4) Avengers Assemble
When this first came out the idea of bringing together Thor, Captain America, The Hulk and Iron Man seemed an impossible challenge. I’d been skeptical that it would be possible to bring this number of large characters together in the same place, but if anyone could do it, it would be Joss Whedon. And he did. Each character got a bit of time and there were plenty of combinations and groups that had interesting relationships. The Avengers has everything I want from a blockbuster – witty dialogue, fun characters, interesting relationships, cool toys, an understanding of its own ridiculousness and some really, really big action sequences. A massively enjoyable film from start to finish.

5) Guardians of the Galaxy
Guardians is perfectly aware of how silly the premise sounds, but rather than being apologetic or snooty about it, the film-makers completely embraced it. On one hand you’ve got a spectacular sci-fi construction, with battling alien races, conflicted characters and huge special effect setups. But on the other you’ve got a gloriously cheesy 70s/80s soundtrack embedded in the film and completely hilarious, irreverent dialogue. I laughed myself silly from start to finish of this film and the experience of sharing that laughter with a near sell out cinema audience is one I cherish. It was the kind of film that everyone just plain enjoys and you end up chatting to random audience members as you leave because you’ve all just shared something that you loved. Re-watching it on dvd does lose some of the excitement, and the plot sections plodded a little, but there are still sequences that made me laugh out loud and just give me an overwhelming feeling of joy. The soundtrack is on hard rotation and always puts a smile on my face.

6) Captain America: The Winter Solider
Each strand of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own tone and Captain America is about what it means to be a soldier. In the first film that was a more classic approach of guns and warfare, The Winter Soldier though is about the more clandestine side of things. Pairing good boy soldier Captain America with pragmatic spy Black Widow is inspired and the chemistry between them is sparkling and hilarious. Of all the super heroes, Captain America is probably the one that is most about what it is to be a hero – duty, honour, loyalty – all those things are to his core. This film challenges all of those and Chris Evans beautifully delivers the complexity of a man who doesn’t know his place in the world and tries to hold true to his beliefs while also acknowledging he has to adapt. The storyline is maybe a little convoluted at times, but then it’s a spy movie so it should be. This is a film that at first doesn’t really seem to fit with the whole MCU, a completely different style to Iron Man or Thor… but now that I’ve watched it in the sequence of the whole run, it really does stand out as one of the lynch pins for the whole arc and I’m very impressed at the overall storytelling that puts that in place.

7) Captain America: The First Avenger
I had low expectations of this film, a patriotic super-soldier didn’t seem that exciting. But I was actually thoroughly entertained by it. Maybe it was the “aw schucks” charm of Chris Evans, maybe it was the hilarity of Tommy Lee Jones’ deadpan delivery, or the utter joy of Hayley Atwell taking absolutely no crap. I felt Captain America did exactly what Iron Man succeeded in and Thor failed in – it took itself just seriously enough to not be daft, while not taking itself so serious it was sanctimonious. It really felt like this was a film about a real person, not about a ‘comic book hero’ in the simplistic sense, Steve Rogers felt like a fully rounded character with strengths and vulnerabilities, not an invincible emotionless automaton in a suit. Okay, the villain was daft and some of the set pieces were a bit explosion-tastic, but I cared about the characters and really enjoyed myself.

8) Ant-Man and the Wasp
This film is just plain FUN. I was utterly immersed from the first scene to the last, there was always something going on for the eye, the ear, and the heart; although the brain is probably best off if it takes a nap rather than listening to unconvincing exposition with every other word being “quantum”. Often I am bored watching fight scenes, but the creativity here had me watching every second and even wishing I could re-wind to catch more detail. I love how everyone involved plays with the ideas of shrinking and growing, fully exploring the potential. The characters are never forgotten and Marvel’s stunning casting strikes again, with all the characters falling somewhere in the middle of the hero-villain spectrum. It’s a nice change that it’s not the entire world being threatened, the more intimate stakes make a nice change and fit in the wider pacing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe perfectly. It was the perfect film to fill the gap between Infinity War and Endgame, in a way that Captain Marvel (further down the list) wasn’t.

9) Spider-Man: Homecoming
I didn’t bother going to see this in the cinema because frankly I was bored of going to see Spider-Man films. I eventually picked it up on dvd after being relentlessly told how good it was by people, and they were right. It managed to be a fresh take on the story and felt far more like an actual teenager than the previous ones did. It’s interesting how Tom Holland’s Spider-Man has been pre-embedded in the Marvel universe BEFORE getting his own film, and having Tony Stark appear in this film further grounds him so his character makes more sense and is both more accepting and more acceptable as a teenager with superpowers. Despite having so much weight above it, the film still felt fresh, original and vibrant and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

10) Thor: Ragnarok
Finally a Thor film that worked for me. The first two were a bit bogged down for me, all a bit “Shakespeare in the Park”. There were flashes of humour in them, but nowhere near enough to overcome some plodding plots. Post-Avengers-Thor is a much more interesting character making the most of the considerable comic talents of Chris Hemsworth while letting the dramatic elements be shown rather than said for a change. Loki, Hulk, Banner, Dr Strange and Valkyrie all have substantial supporting roles, each with a similar blend of humour and tragedy, although it’s Korg who steals the show at every available opportunity. While there’s some pretty heavy stuff going on in this film, it is primarily just fun.

11) Iron Man 2
I really enjoyed the first film and I really enjoyed the second. I like the fact that there’s no overhyped subtitle, it really is just Iron Man 2, everything that was in the first is in the second. The strength of these films comes from the scripts, yes the effects and action sequences are spectacular, but what brings the film to life is the banter between the characters and the very real feeling dialogue of people talking over each other. The film struggles rather more when the central characters aren’t there; any time spent with the villains just dragged and plot as a whole was a bit tedious, but it’s just fun to spend time with the main characters.

12) Iron Man 3
I thoroughly enjoyed this film. It was everything I love about comic book movies in general and Iron Man in particular – a mixture of laugh-out-loud humour, characters I believe and care about and some edge of seat action sequences. Iron Man excels at actually blending those elements together rather than just alternating them, meaning that I was completely engrossed from before the film logos appeared until after the end of the credits. The action sequence towards the end got a little hard to follow, particularly on the small screen, and if you think about it too hard some of the character actions are a little inconsistent, but for the most part, it’s just fun to watch.

13) Captain Marvel
Captain Marvel had a fair amount of challenge to it. In release timeline it comes in just before Avengers End Game which finishes up the the 20-odd movie arc of the first three phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But chronologically it sits almost at the start of the story, ‘introducing’ Nick Fury, Agent Coulson (both with some technically impressive, but still unsettling digital de-aging), aliens, superheros and several elements that will crop up in the earlier/later films. Plus (ridiculously) it’s the first Marvel film to be lead by a woman. Sadly all that pressure proved too much. If it had been allowed to just be a ‘little’ film in the same way some of the earlier Marvel films were, I think I’d have thought it was charming and fun. But it just felt a bit too weighed down. I spent most of the time trying to remember who the Kree were and what I already knew about Fury. The structure of the film didn’t really help that as it starts with a character who doesn’t remember her past and then tries to connect things up, so it’s all about looking for connections. Brie Larson is great – challenging without being annoying, powerful without losing vulnerability, and prickly but charming. The unexpected double act with Nick Fury was a joy. There was a lot that I should have loved about the film, but I came out feeling slightly underwhelmed and almost disappointed in myself for feeling that way.

14) Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War sets a new level of insanity for trying to merge characters and groups, there are about 2 dozen characters together, crossing genres and personalities. The gradual coalescence of the groups supports both characters and audience through the transition, personalities have mmoments to shine and key relationships can be established before it turns into a giant scrum. But there are casualties. Most characters get little more than a cameo, very few get anything resembling character development and some Avengers didn’t make the cut at all. The biggest casualty though is the plot. It’s a very rushed quest story with too many doodads and locations to easily keep track of. When watching in the cinema for the first time, it felt like an absolute roller coaster that pulled you through, but on re-watching on dvd the flaws were more obvious and frustrating.
In counter point, on first watch the film has the problem of knowing that it’s the first of two films, any early moments of possible success were obviously doomed and the weight of doom is oppressive rather than thrilling. However on re-watch, knowing how it goes it’s easier to appreciate the journey. The eventual ending was well judged I think, it felt both like a cliffhanger and a satisfactory end, which is a neat trick to pull off. I didn’t love this film as much as previous Avengers films, but that’s possibly almost all down to the fact it’s not the end, so it’s hard to come out feeling complete. I enjoyed it, but I wasn’t blown away with it. I felt it lacked the cohesion that the other Avengers films did, if felt like it was fighting with itself a bit trying to squash everything in, rather than blending humour, character, plot and action as effectively as the previous ones did.

15) Captain America: Civil War
First up, the film could just as easily have been called Avengers 3, and that might in fact have helped the balance of the film out. It didn’t really feel like a Captain America film, primarily for the huge number of characters, but more importantly because it felt like the more thoughtful elements that Captain America films have usually had were poorly delivered here. My biggest issue with the film was the contrivances. Characters and plots made no sense, they just went in the directions needed to get to the set pieces. After all the work done in the previous films to build characters, relationships and teams; it was all torn apart in an instant. No one talked to each other, no one discussed the issues, no one offered any counterpoints to arguments. After all the effort of all the previous films establishing the team and delicate relationships, it felt like a betrayal that the characters would just jump straight to punching each other.
There’s still a lot of good of course. There’s some great action sequences and lots of fun moments between different combinations of characters. The newer characters worked well and got some more depth. I particularly liked the very comic book look of many of the shots, with the iconic framing of characters looking like comic panels. This is the film I have the most problems with as a fan. It’s not that it’s a bad film, I just don’t LIKE it, I don’t believe, or don’t want to believe that the characters would behave this way to each other. It just makes me sad.

16) Ant-Man
It just didn’t work for me. It seemed to want to play up the absurdity but couldn’t quite stop taking itself seriously. Paul Rudd managed to find a balance for that most of the time, but most of the actors were trying to play it straight and didn’t quite work. I didn’t really engage with either characters or storyline and found the whole thing a bit of a trudge.

17) Thor
I think this film hovers very nervously on the border between entertainingly bonkers, and flat out terrible, and which way it topples is going to depend on your mood. The concept of Norse gods being real aliens with magic powers and an all powerful hammer is pretty daft, but I can’t help but think there was a better way to handle it than this. I think it either needed to be played completely straight, getting rid of the daft over-shiny armor and jokes, or going the other way and adding more self-mocking elements and reducing the melodrama. I think I may view the film more charitably now as part of the the whole MCU knowing the good work that Chris Hemsworth does in the future making Thor a much more interesting character, but here he bears the brunt of the hammy script with little opportunity to show his talents. Put this film up next to Iron Man and it’s a very poor comparison indeed.

18) Thor: The Dark World
There’s some absolutely sparkling dialogue in here. Really fresh, modern, quirky, witty, pithy and pointed stuff that various members of the cast deliver with a beautiful understatement that makes even the most simple of lines (“tada”) make you want to rewind just to experience their pure delight over and over. Then there’s the rest of the film, which is rubbish. It alternates ponderous legend filled plot with people/monsters/cgi-things thumping each other, neither of which held my attention in the slightest. The opening ‘prologue’ set the whole thing up to feel like a Lord of the Rings, but with all the cgi it never felt anything other than flimsy. It’s worth watching for the dialogue, but I wish the plot was better.

19) Doctor Strange
A film of missed opportunities. Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, except for the fact that he’s perfect casting because he’s basically been playing a small variant of Sherlock, so all you’ve really added is magic and a weird accent (that odd mid-atlantic, non-specific american accent that doesn’t quite work). Then the magic stuff. OK, it’s an interesting add on to the Marvel universe, but stop trying to explain it! There was SO much exposition, I kept getting bored. Then I struggled to really follow the action sequences, maybe it’s something about my eyes, but I found them too complicated, too fast moving and too layered to really focus on and get a hang of what was going on. On the plus side – Tilda Swinton was absolutely fantastic, the bickering between the wizards was fun and the “is this my mantra” line is possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard all year. But I think the rest of it was a bit mediocre, and it shouldn’t have been.

20) Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2
I really wanted to love this film. I loved the first one – for all that the plot was (literally) all over the place, everything else was just so joyful that I didn’t care. The characters, the dialogue, the SOUNDTRACK! Just happiness from start to finish. This one… just fell flat.
The opening sequence is all that the first one was – a weird musical pick that worked perfectly, a quirky approach to the classic superhero battle and I had the same smile on my face. But it didn’t last. The story turned into a trope and then didn’t poke fun at itself like the first one did, but instead actually took itself seriously. The one liners and inherent comedy of the group are still there somewhere, but got bogged down in the storyline. The final nail in the coffin – the soundtrack just didn’t have the same consistent foot tapping that the previous one did either. It was always going to be hard for this film to succeed as much as the first, as it had more expectations and completely lost the element of surprise, but it missed on so many fronts that I’m just slightly sad.

21) The Incredible Hulk
It almost feels like a cheat to name this the worst MCU film as it’s barely part of the universe, hovering somewhere between the 2004 Eric Bana film and the introduction of Mark Ruffalo in the role in The Avengers. The continued recasting of The Hulk leaves the character and the audience unsettled. Each performance is very different and makes it hard to mentally track that the events all happened to the same character. They came far too quickly to redo the foundations each time but without it and the solution here of covering half the foundation story during a rapid flashback sequence was confusing in the extreme, I had to double check that I hadn’t missed a film out. Maybe I’m just biased because I saw and loved Mark Ruffalo in the role before catching up on this film, but the casting of Edward Norton just didn’t work for me, he’s a very very fine actor but just not settled in the role. There’s also no real sense of The Hulk being a character in himself which is a complete missed opportunity. This one really is best forgotten.

Why I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Avengers Endgame is nearly upon us, and as a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe I thought I was entirely on top of all the plot strands, then I watched Captain Marvel and spent half the time trying to work out how all the plots tied together, particularly where the tesseract came and went. So I set myself the happy challenge of re-watching all 21 films in order. I then ended up with so many things to say that I’m spreading them across multiple posts, including my own ranking of the films. But this post is the gushing about why I love the MCU.

I heard someone on the radio comment the other day that they didn’t think any of the Marvel films had character development and I very loudly called them quite a rude name. I don’t think that statement could be further from the truth. These films are all about real people, with real feelings. They are complex individuals with strengths and weaknesses beyond any superpowers – ‘heroes’ who screw up, ‘villains’ with moral complexity and ‘sidekicks’ who steal the show. All those characters are then thrown together to bounce off of each other in even more complicated and evolving relationships.

Those characters are brought to love by an incredible collection of actors. According to this helpful list on imdb there are nearly 100 Oscar nominated actors in the MCU cast as a whole, and 18 winners. That speaks to the quality of the film making that can attract this caliber of actor (or maybe the size of the pay offers…) and that feeds round to the quality of the films and the attractiveness of the roles again. There are very few people in the MCU that haven’t headlined films of their own, even those that are playing secondary characters here. And that means that those secondary characters have as much depth as the stars. Robert Downey Jr is absolutely incredible as Iron Man, but put him with Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Samuel Jackson, Jeff Bridges, Sam Rockwell, Scarlett Johansson… and everyone builds to another level.

Just like their characters, the films are a blend of different styles, genres and tones. Each strand of the MCU, and even each film has a different theme, even almost a different genre to it. The Captain America films are about being a soldier – First Avenger is a classic war movie, while Winter Soldier is a more nuanced cold war thriller. Antman is a heist movie, Thor is swords and sorcery, Guardians is an 80’s sci fi romp, Captain Marvel a 90’s action film etc etc. That brings variety to the MCU as a whole, and leads to some really bizarre mashups when the characters collide.

All of that is down to an incredibly talented group of people. Of course you start off with great material from the Marvel universe, mostly led by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The Marvel characters and stories have always appealed to me more than the DC ones, they always seemed brighter, more optimistic and richer. The driving force behind the cinematic universe is Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios since 2007 and a producer on all the MCU films (and a few other Marvel films too including the original X-Men and Spider-Man trilogies). I can only guess at the mental juggling that’s required to plan and keep hold of all the MCU threads (let alone the tv series and other media streams) while also allowing the talents involved to have enough creative freedom.

Sometimes that engineering becomes a little too obvious. Aspects of plot and characters become too forced and can lose sight of the characters and the fun. Films can get bogged down in their own mythology and the ‘gubbins’ of moving the plot along with too much exposition, or too much hoop jumping. As cinematic spectacles they all hold the attention, but I found it very noticeable that watching at home my attention would often drift towards my phone screen during villainous monologues or drawn out fight sequences. Not all the writers and directors are able to blend the elements throughout and things can get a little formulaic.

The other problem I will confess to is over-fandom. There are very few characters in the MCU that I don’t like, even some of the villains are hard not to enjoy spending time of. But my affection means I don’t like it when my heroes do things I don’t agree with, and being realistic human beings, they often do things I’d rather they didn’t. I then start to lose my ability to rationally assess whether the writers are being lazy and miss-using my characters just to move the plot along, or if the characters would actually behave that way because they can be just as stupid, mistaken or unreasonable as the rest of us can. You’ll see in my ordering of the films that there are a few things that I just can’t get over.

The achievements of the series are impressive, the films have smashed financial records all over the place, they are a critical success and increasingly are breaking down idiotic cultural glass ceilings too. For me though, mostly it can be looked at a lot more simply, I love spending time in this universe. They make me laugh, they make me care, and they make me completely forget about the real world. How much more could you want?

The Umbrella Academy: Season 1

I un-enthusiastically loaded up netflix on Saturday morning with the intention to watch a documentary film that had been recommended to me. There was a big splashy advert for The Umbrella Company, and I thought that was probably a better choice to watch while consuming breakfast and the first cup of tea of the day, and I’d come to the documentary when I was a bit more awake. Spoiler alert – I never made it to the documentary, and instead just spent the whole day watching the 10 episodes of The Umbrella Academy with only a couple of pauses to seek food and fresh air.

Even though I’m not too keen on reading comic books/graphic novels, I’ve always been drawn to the superhero genre, and X-Men were my entry point. The Umbrella Academy is clearly a close relation of the X-Men (or a rip off if you’re feeling uncharitable) and therefore plays to similar themes of normal/other, identity, destiny and found families. The tone of Umbrella Academy is slightly more grungy though, a little bit steampunk, a bit more sweary and a lot less spandex.

The series is mostly set in ‘present day’, I think there was a specific reference to it being 2019, but there are no mobile phones, a slightly clunky fudge to prevent some of the problems being solved too easily. A diverse group of children, born under unusual circumstances and with a random set of powers, were purchased by an eccentric white rich guy, and trained in the titular academy to be a team of superheroes. Now they’re in their late 20’s, disillusioned and separated until the death of their adoptive father brings them back together. There are also a lot of flashbacks to them as children to gradually see how their upbringing made them who they are, and then there’s time travel, so we also get to see the future. The different threads can get a bit messy and hard to track at times, but if you let it wash over you, it actually hangs together very well. There are a few clunky transitions to flashback, but for the most part we never stay anywhere long enough to get bored or be put to sleep with exposition. It’s very much show, don’t tell.

The group of characters are well developed, both individually and with a complex network of relationships both past and present. I expected Ellen Page to be excellent, but the rest of the cast were unknown (until I imdb’ed and spotted that Klaus was actually Nathan in Misfits and I hadn’t recognised him at all!) and they all delivered nuanced performances as characters who’ve grown up under weird circumstances. I loved the family relationships and all the baggage bubbling barely under the surface and exploding at inevitably the worst times.

The plot is twisty and satisfying; I did guess the main twists quite a way in advance but it was still interesting to watch how they came through. The 10 episode format works well and I’m glad they went that route rather than a film which wouldn’t have given all the characters enough room to breath. There were a couple of episodes that dragged a bit in terms of plot, but there were still enough character moments to make them worthwhile. Not all the plot ideas really went anywhere and some big questions that were left unanswered, but hopefully that was deliberate to leave plenty of material for another season.

There’s creativity to the style as well that I liked. The direction and design, when at its best, was clearly drawing heavily from the comic book style. So much of the story and character in graphic novels has to be driven by the images, and that is carried over to the television series. There were scenes that I ended up rewinding just to fully appreciate the style, or to focus on a different part of the screen to see what other characters were doing, I must have watched the above scene half a dozen times, in just two and a half minutes it perfectly expresses every character, establishes the style and even gives you the layout of the house. It’s funny and sad and just perfect.

I went into this series expecting absolutely nothing and emerged 10 hours later completely obsessed with it.

Films in March

Us
With Jordan Peele’s second film I was expecting something similar to Get Out, so was slightly surprised to find a more classic slasher film than creepy psychological thriller. To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of the genre so am probably not the best person to review this film, but it seemed to me like a good example of the genre. The set up was solid, the characters vibrant enough, the bad guys suitably creepy and scary. I really liked the humour of it, watching it in a cinema there were a lot of laughs that were well placed to break the tension. The ending I thought was a bit ‘meh’, I’d almost rather they didn’t explain it at all as the back story just felt incredibly underdeveloped and improbable. Not really my kind of film, but well done (I think).

Disobedience
Rachel Weisz is an incredibly watchable performer, but the film as a whole is a bit of a slog. I never felt I had a good grasp of the orthodox Jewish community that was really at the centre of the film, and so I couldn’t really understand where the boundaries were that the estranged Ronit was pushing. It was just too slow to really hold my attention even with Weisz.

Velvet Buzzsaw
This was all over the place. There were bits of it that came close to doing something interesting, but then kept drifting back towards predictable and unimaginative, or just bludgeon you with the idea until it feel worn out. There are characters that set off in a direction and then lurch in a different one; great actors that are delivering in one scene and then phoning it in in another. There are some beautiful shots, but just like the way it is presenting the modern art world – it’s all surface and no substance.

The Usual Suspects
The first time I watched this film, many years ago, I didn’t really enjoy it because I didn’t know what was going on (almost certainly ‘cos I wasn’t paying attention). This time watching it, I didn’t really enjoy it because I knew what was going on. When you know the twist at the end the rest of the film is just not that exciting.

Books in March

Arthur C. Clarke – Rendezvous with Rama
Arthur C. Clarke was one of the authors who sparked my love of reading science fiction and it’s a toss up between him and Asimov for the title of most quintessential science fiction author. But I haven’t re-read anything of his in ages, and Rendezvous with Rama seemed a good place to start. It’s interesting coming back to it after reading many other SF authors, there are things which he does effortlessly, but aspects that I’m used to in more modern SF writing that’s completely missing. Clarke manages to near effortlessly get the story started and moving along, there’s hardly any pre-amble or scene setting, it’s all immediately there with no fuss and nothing but incredibly believable and grounded set ups. What’s less present though are the characters, each one is efficiently introduced for their purposes, but no time is wasted really getting into their feelings beyond what’s needed to explain their actions. They’re not cold though, they’re all clearly complex individuals who clearly have their own stories, it’s just that only relevant facts are shared. I will confess I struggled to keep track of the complicated geography and descriptions of Rama itself, which is weird because I remember Clarke’s ability to describe things being a lot better, so maybe I just missed something obvious. Clarke is always efficient, anyone writing this book today would have taken three times as many pages and left nothing to the imagination, but even with that sparsity Clarke still delivers tension, humour and a true sense of wonder.

Alan Connor – Two Girls, One on Each Knee
This is a book about cryptic crosswords, and is written in a style that will appeal to those that like cryptic crosswords, but becomes slightly tiresome for those that have a more casual interest. There’s a lot of material about the history of crosswords, their rules, how to solve them and even cultural relevance – but because it’s all broken up into small chunks and delivered seemingly randomly it can be a bit hard to follow. I always felt like I was brushing the surface rather than fully understanding any depth.

Stuart Turton – The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
This book sounded right up my street – a murder mystery at a 1920’s house party combined with a ‘weird’ element of bodyswapping and time loops. I was excited to start reading it and settled in to read a big chunk in one setting. But I struggled to get into it. And then I struggled to stay engaged. And then I started questioning things. Then I started picking holes in things. Then characters eventually started asking the things I’d asked hours ago. And then it was just a matter of plodding on to the end.
This is a first novel from the author, and even won the Costa Award for first novel, but I felt it still had a lot of work to be done. The mechanics of the ‘weird’ raised too many questions for me (what remained between timeloops, how the overlapping worked…) and I didn’t have confidence that the author knew the answers. Someone like Claire North does such an incredible job building her ‘weirdness’ and establishing the rules, that she’s set a high bar for me on how I expect things to be watertight.
The murder mystery elements were fairly solid though, with plenty of different characters, threads and branches interweaving into a complex net. In fact, I found myself repeatedly wishing I was just reading that as a straight story without the weirdness which over-complicated all the characters and twists, but I’m guessing that wouldn’t have sold so well.

Agatha Christie – Peril at End House
A very enjoyable outing for Hercule Poirot. I like that he’s played up as really quite obnoxious and annoying, it’s like the narrator of Captain Hastings is just rolling his eyes the whole time. The case is well plotted out with a couple of zigs and zags and although I guessed some of the elements quite early on, I was never certain and so continued to buy into different options as they also came up.