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.

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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.

The Haunting of Hill House: Season 1

I was looking for something that would be a satisfying, but un-challenging box set for a weekend of dreary weather, mild illness and catastrophically low motivation. The Haunting of Hill House turned out to be a near perfect fit for my needs.

This series delivers a number of fundamental horror principles very solidly:

1) Is it supernatural or not? The twists and turns play out very nicely over the 10 episodes, supported by characters holding different positions and in turn evolving their thinking as the audience does. If you see the monster in the first 5 minutes there’s no mystery, just a battle for survival. But if you spend hours not sure whether the monster exists or if people are crazy, that’s far more interesting.

2) Family dynamics are the real horror. As much as this is a story about a haunted house, it’s a story about a haunted family. The series follows a sibling group demonstrating how differently people can respond to trauma, and how those differences can tear a people apart and bond them together. The individual characters are all complex individuals and played by actors more than capable of demonstrating their depth; while the connections and conflicts between the siblings are equally complex and fascinating.

3) Stuff that’s festered is more scary. I’m not just talking about some of the ickiness, but also by tracking two major timelines, and flashing back occasionally to key points in the intervening period, it allows you to see the huge, life changing impacts that events have. Being scared and getting over it is one thing, but when it’s shaped the characters lives for decades, that’s really scary. The plot and interweaving of the timelines was carefully done and I rarely felt frustrated to be pulled from one to the other.

Overall, The Haunting of Hill House is a very satisfying and solid horror series. It’s not without flaws, I struggled early on to track who was who, particularly tracking the children to their grown up counterparts, and there were a fair number of classic horror story problems whereby people often did dumb things that pushed the bounds of credibility. But that’s almost part of the genre itself. The series uses its running time well and leaves just the right amounts of closure and unanswered questions. A great binge watch for a dreary weekend.

Books in January and February

Those of you paying attention will have noticed that in January I didn’t share my usual monthly digest of what I’d been reading, that’s because it was a rather embarrassing tally of just two books. I thought I’d make up for it in February, but frankly that was an even more pathetic count of just one book. This is mostly due to the fact that I’m working in a different office at the usual, and rather than a nice 2 hours each day on tubes to power through books, I have an unpleasant 2 hours driving slowly on clogged up motorways. That’s doing wonders for my podcast backlog, but not much for the reading list.

T Kingfisher – Swordheart
Another great book from T Kingfisher. There’s something incredible substantial about her characters – the way they speak, act and think just feel like fully realised individuals that are interesting and fun to spend time with. If I look at it objectively, I think there are some weaknesses in the storyline – maybe a little too much plodding between events and dragging things out. But as the characters are so nice to spend time with, I really don’t mind just sitting in a wagon listening to them talk. I really do adore her work.

Claire Evans – The Fourteenth Letter
A book that’s basically absolutely fine. There’s nothing to complain about, but also nothing to get excited about. The characters are engaging enough, but at first there are too many and then they don’t seem to really go anywhere; the plot moves along sufficiently, but lacks any real depth. I found something a little off though, it starts off quite easy going, gradually introducing some mysterious elements, but that light tone never quite hardens despite some very violent and disturbing subject matter. Maybe it’s that disconnect that left me feeling completely nothing about the book.

Martin Edwards (editor) – Silent Nights – Christmas Mysteries
A nice collection of mystery stories that are vaguely Christmas themed. By nature of short stories, particularly mysteries there isn’t much scope for developing characters and rich pictures, but the Christmas themes immediately give a little more richness. Some are very predictable, some are ridiculously improbable, but they’re all satisfying enough for a cold evening curled in an armchair.