The Mermaid, the Witch, and the Sea

I’m really sad that I didn’t enjoy this more. In theory, the ideas are all great: mermaids as an extension of the Sea; the Sea as a larger-than-humans entity with real awareness; witches who tell stories; pirates; a feisty young noblewoman; genderfluid characters and multiple races and discussion of imperialism and colonialism!

Sadly, the execution does not quite match the ambition.

It felt like there were too many ellipses. Too many gaps where it seemed like the author skipped a step in the narrative – it was in her head but it didn’t make it to paper. I’m pretty sure there was at least one mention of the storm having passed, with no prior mention of the storm. And this applied to some of the characters and relationships, too. Evelyn and Flora are both pretty well-developed characters, but their relationship really isn’t. Mermaids are explained – how they exist – and this is probably my favourite part of the whole book; but witches aren’t, nor how their magic works (is it innate? can anyone learn? no idea).

Moving between Evelyn and Flora as POV characters was fine – it made the narrative much more interesting than just one perspective, given the context. But all of a sudden introducing new perspectives quite late in the story was just weird, and put me quite off balance; and not in a good way. One of them made sense, narratively; it could have been added much earlier and would have added interesting complexity to the whole thing. The other, though, felt utterly superfluous.

On a positive note, the issues brought up in the story are dealt with well, and that’s something I was impressed by. This is a world dominated by a Japanese-influenced culture (kimonos, etc); they have largely taken over the known world (this is another problem: there are these portentous ‘oooh, the Red Shore‘ comments, without much explanation of what that place is). The brutality of colonisation and imperialism are bluntly on display and are an essential part of the world – not gratuitously, but as reality.

Excellent ideas; I was engaged enough that I kept reading the whole thing; ultimately, not very satisfying.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (MCU 12)

This is a weird movie. Not that the narrative is odd, or that the characters are out of character, or anything like that. No; it just feels… like a bridge.

It’s a far-too-long prologue for everything else that’s to come.

It took me a while to figure that out, and now I’ve got it in words it makes complete sense of my feelings.

I’m not saying it’s all bad. Not at all. The good things:

  • I love James Spader. Have done ever since Stargate. No, I haven’t seen Boston Legal, but I have seen The Blacklist. I think he was a great choice for Ultron: he doesn’t have a booming megalomaniac voice (well, not naturally) – which is kind of the point.
  • Hawkeye has been a bit of weird character for several movies and we finally get some context for him and some nice character moments, especially with Wanda.
  • I like Paul Bettany, although I’m kinda unconvinced by Vision at this early stage.
  • In the context of the later films, the fact that pre-existing rifts just get worse here is interesting – and also shows that they are fundamental issues which apparently none of them were adult enough to have a proper discussion about?
  • Fury.
  • Every moment involving Thor’s hammer.

However.

  • The Hulk / Iron Man fight is Just. Too. Long. Get on with it already. We get the idea! Move the narrative along!
  • I understand the point in the narrative but I find Wanda’s manipulation of people’s minds deeply, deeply unsettling. This isn’t a negative of the narrative, but it’s not something I enjoy watching.
  • Thor’s whole dip in the pond thing. It seems so completely outside of the narrative. Its sole purpose is to set up Thanos, and have Thor be the catalyst of Vision’s creation. But it really doesn’t fit.
  • I hate, I hate, everything about Natasha’s discussion with Banner about whether they can run away together. I hate it. I hate Banner’s assumption that Nat’s only reason to run away with him is to have a cosy house with kids. I hate the suggestion that not being able to bear children somehow makes Natasha monstrous. This scene infuriates me.
  • And finally, I am unconvinced by Ultron himself, which is completely devastating for the film. The idea that someone moves from ‘save the world’ to ‘destroying the world is the only way to save it’ isn’t a new one, and thorough villains can even make a pseudo-logical explanation for why that’s true. But Ultron’s leap from saviour to destroyer is too fast, largely unexplained, and… just frustrating. It’s relying on the notion that AI must automatically be evil (otherwise why destroy Jarvis at the outset?) rather than properly demonstrating how a baby AI gets to that point (because let’s be honest, if you were an AI, wouldn’t you be tempted to destroy humanity and start over?).

So the film creates Vision, shows us Thanos, properly flags “infinity stones”, solidifies serious rifts within the Avengers, and gets Wanda on their side.

Like I said. It’s a 2.5-hour prologue.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2 (MCU 11)

This film is way better than the first one.

I am prepared to accept that I am a sap (ha), because: baby Groot is the best thing about this film. And Yondu is a close second. Also Kurt Russell. Fight me.

Baby Groot: yes, I find the dancing adorable. It’s fabulous CG – and mostly the emotion is in the eyes, I guess – and I don’t care how manipulative it is. He’s hilarious. Utterly predicable but the bring-me-my-fin scene is fantastic. The opening credits are some of the best I’ve seen; and the way every other character loves him is adorable.

Yondu: probably one of the most compelling side-characters of the series. He gets a genuinely epic arc in this film and I love it.

Kurt Russell: finally an antagonist who makes GotG worthwhile. And, please note, another actor playing (mostly) against type. Although when you hear that a character’s name is Ego there should be very little surprise when he turns out to be a galactic-sized douche. I love everything about Russell’s performance here. I love that he starts out as the heart throb, and that he morphs into the elder statesman who is still approachable and then turns out to be a magnificent megalomaniac.

This film was a lot of fun to watch the first time – and unlike the first one, still completely holds up. Quill is still an arrogant, self-righteous ass with few redeeming features except for his love of his mother. But Gamora is awesome (again/still), I love Mantis, and Nebula has a much bigger and more interesting role here. The soundtrack isn’t quite as epic – or maybe it just isn’t such an extravagant gesture as it was in the first film – but the use of “Tusk” was magnificent.

Maybe this works better for me because the narrative is more … contained, I think. More personal. In the first one the Guardians all fall into it, and – except for Gamora – none of them really have any skin in the game. They just fight because they basically have to. Here, it’s personal, and I think that makes the characters work better; more believably, perhaps; it makes me care more. (Also, see previous comment about a better antagonist.)

Also, the cameos. Sylvester? Ving? MICHELLE YEOH?! (And Ben Browder, who… actually with this audience maybe people will know him, thanks to both FarScape and Stargate SG:1.) Plus THE HOFF.

Guardians of the Galaxy (MCU 10)

This is… a weird film.

Like a lot of other people, when it first came out I really, really liked it. I liked the soundtrack (which must have cost a mint); I liked that it was so different from everything else to date; I liked that it was funny!

Now I feel… a little different. Partly this is an emotional reaction to Peter Quill, which is largely framed by his stupidity in the later Avengers films. And watching this film, it’s completely obvious that that later stupidity is absolutely part of his character from the get-go. Which is fine storytelling but doesn’t make me like him any more. There’s a level of arrogance that matches Tony Stark without being offset by Stark’s intelligence (which is not necessarily a mitigating factor; see previous comments about liking Stark being problematic), or his self-awareness, or – frankly – his flare.

The film itself is a bit odd. It has probably the most traumatic opening of any MCU film – certainly of the films so far – and then all of a sudden, Quill is dancing through the rubble of an alien planet. That’s pretty weird. This is also the film where we properly meet Thanos, and find out about infinity stones, and that’s absolutely key to the overarching narrative – in this oddball, eccentric film! On reflection that seems like a bizarre choice. I guess it speaks to the inherent cohesion of the entire universe – or something.

I think Bradley Cooper was a great choice to voice Rocket, and I definitely continue to enjoy the raccoon. A super weird character (thank goodness there’s no more than 5 seconds of Howard the Duck) who manages to display a whole swag of emotions, largely courtesy of a tree. Because again, let’s be honest: Groot is also a super weird character. Don’t get me wrong: I love Groot, and getting Vin Diesel for this point continue to amuse me no end. The most poignant moment of the whole film is given to a tree! (Djimon Hounsou has probably the funniest line, which is just his “who?” at Peter “I am Starlord” Quill). Zoe Saldana is excellent, and brings a nice ambiguity to Gamora; her “I am going to die surrounded by idiots”? – I FEEL IT. Dave Bautista is… well. Drax. Not much you can say about him.

Unfortunately, the same can be said for Lee Pace’s Ronan. I don’t know Pace’s other work much (except as Thranduil, which hardly counts), but he was just… wooden, here. I suspect that, like Christopher Eccleston as Malekith in the second Thor, this can largely be attributed to the overwhelming makeup. But Ronan was a boring villain, with vague and largely unexplained motivation, and I just didn’t care that much. Which is always a problem when the narrative revolves around omg it’s [insert villain] we must stop him!!

Glenn Close swearing, though, is pretty great.

Simply: Sabrina Ghayour

I received this as a review copy from the Australian publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s available now; RRP $39.99.

I own all of Sabrina Ghayour’s cookbooks. Her first, Persiana, is one of my favourite cookbooks ever. Every book has been produced beautifully, and every recipe I have tried has been great. This new book is no exception.

Ghayour is Persian by background, and having grown up in Britain she brings a (ugh, buzz word) fusion to cuisines that really works. I recently started following her Instagram account, and the enthusiasm that appears in her descriptions of the recipes comes through there, too. She’s a delight.

The idea of a ‘simple’ cookbook is a perennial one; it’s come around again recently, it seems to me. I was a little surprised that Ghayour got into it – not that her other recipes have ever been that hard, but that it seemed an odd genre for her to get into. But actually, this does fit: she’s into encouraging everyone that they can cook, that doing so doesn’t need brand new, hard to get, and fresh-or-lose-it ingredients every time. She’s a big fan (from her Insta account) of using pantry essentials really well. Of course, her pantry isn’t necessarily mine; but once you’ve bought sumac or tahini (which, let’s be honest, actually are always in my pantry), you’ve got them and you can keep using them.

Anyway! The recipes are once again easy to follow, and every recipe I’ve tried has been a hit. Baked sweet potato chips with za’atar were great; beans with tahini and preserved lemon is inspired and I want to do beans like this forever. Carrot with pistachio, dill, and lime; baked butternut that’s then mashed with yoghurt and chilli and dill… and absolutely fantastic felafel. And that’s just the vegetables! Variations on chicken kebabs, and kofte, and the solution when my veg box has a full celery: lamb, celery and parsley stew (yes, when I ask for 100g of parsley, I meant it. It didn’t even make a dent in the parsley thicket). I haven’t had a chance to cook any dessert yet, but: white chocolate, pistachio, and raspberry tiramisu. Nuff said.

The book is divided into Effortless Eating; Traditions with a Twist; The Melting Pot; Something Special (sticky peach and halloumi skewers!!) and Cakes, Bakes, and Sweet Treats. I am keeping this book out on the counter to keep cooking from over the next … I dunno, six months?

Highly recommended. An excellent introduction to Ghayour’s style of cooking and recipe writing.

Captain America: Winter Soldier (MCU 9)

From here, a lot of these films start to… blur together a bit. Not that they are indistinguishable, as such, but I forget which aspects of the overarching Avengers narrative happens when. Because in some ways this film seems more like an Avengers than a standalone Captain America film.

You can watch the Iron Man films almost independently of the franchise. Yes, the third one has some reliance on the audience knowing what happened in New York… but it does have flashback that give you some sense of what happened. The first two Thor movies don’t require knowledge of the rest of the franchise, really; again, really only in understanding Selvig, I would argue. And you also don’t need to know about Thor or Iron Man to understand the first Avengers film.

But here… without a sense of what SHIELD is, without a sense of the role Fury plays and how disillusioned Steve started to be in the first Avengers… you’re a bit lost. And going forward: without a knowledge of who Bucky is, and the world-shaking events of this film, the rest of the Avengers movies don’t really make sense.

None of which is necessarily a problem. It’s just interesting to note.

Additionally, this feels a bit less of a standalone Captain America and more… well, not quite an ensemble; but certainly Natasha is significant, as is Sam Wilson (YAY SAM). Maybe Rhodey manages this in the third Iron Man, but not before; and there’s no equivalent in the first two Thor flicks.

This is also the film where things start to get grittier. Yes Coulson was sad; yes the first Captain America is a war movie – but while it’s not quite a full-on WW2 movie in the classic style, it’s pretty close. This, though: it’s starting to feel like a grim, gritted teeth, relentless punch-em-up film that I don’t really like. It doesn’t quite get there; there are redeeming features that lighten the atmosphere a bit, and demonstrate alternatives to just straight-up fistfights. But not that many. This film feels too long not because of the narrative but because the fights Just. Go. On. Yes, they’re well choreographed; yes, they signal just how serious all of this is; yes, to see Steve equally or over-matched is distressing. But really. Cut a few minutes from every fight and it would be a tighter film.

Were we spoiled for the Winter Soldier’s identity from the trailers? Probably; I can imagine those who make decisions wanting the presumed emotional drawcard. That moment you first see his face properly, shadowed, in Pierce’s kitchen, is splendidly dramatic. And I do like Sebastian Stan. I also really like Robert Redford – like Ben Mendelsohn, playing against type brilliantly. I remember being deeply shocked when I realised what was going on.

The first Avengers changes the world by making aliens and superheroes something everyone knows about. Winter Soldier changes the world by removing the SHIELD security blanket, and threatening the integrity of that patriotic rock, Steve Rogers. No film in the franchise chronologically after this can ignore that.

Thor: The Dark World (MCU 8)

Some thoughts:

Any movie that requires such an extensive prologue to set up the premise of the film is… already heading into dubious territory. It’s barely even framed as “dad telling a story” which would have been better – the first one has Thor and Loki as kids, so why couldn’t this have been a bedtime story for them growing up? This would also have given a little more context to Odin and/or Frigga as parents, which would have been good, too.

Slapping is never ok. Ever. Not even if it’s a wee lady slapping a large gentleman. It’s not funny and it’s not ok.

Darcy, though, does continue to be both funny and ok. Happily, we also get more Rene Russo as Frigga in this one than the first, and she was great! with a sword and all! Christopher Eccleston, however, was utterly wasted. It could have been anyone in that makeup and with the dialogue. What an utterly lacklustre villain.

And speaking of lacklustre: Natalie Portman was fine, but Jane was… well, basically a sexy lampshade. For a film that purports to revolve around her, she has essentially no agency; she is an object, not a subject. The ether infects her; Thor takes her to Asgard; Odin dismisses her; Frigga protects, Sif steals, and Thor and Loki con Malekith into taking it out of her. What does she do? Um… freak out at a lunch date… actually she does do some Science Stuff at the end. But not much else. Which is disappointing.

As with the first Thor, I was interested to see how much more of a fantasy this feels, rather than SF which the other films do. Basically it’s a portal fantasy, with the Bifrost – and then Consequences of the Amazing Convergence – as the portals. For all it’s designed on a more epic scale, the narrative itself somehow… doesn’t feel it. I think I just don’t care that much about the nine worlds, because although we are introduced to them in the film, I have no emotional connection. I barely care about Asgard.

Two final things that are good about this film: it begins a commentary on genocide that is continued in the third Thor, and I had forgotten it was already here. Honestly, you could blink and miss it… but it is there. And certainly Odin isn’t a great and magnanimous ruler, here, which I think the first one tried to convince viewers of.

And then there’s Selvig. Whose running around in the nudes is played for laughs, basically, right up until he points out that he had a god in his head, and maybe it’s not so unreasonable that he’s having trouble adjusting to ordinary society.

Iron Man 3 (MCU 7)

… is also pretty good, you know? More problematic in some respects than previous films; possibly including some aspects that just make this a solid no for some viewers (completely fair).

The main problem with this film is the depiction of disability as something that needs to be fixed. Don’t get me wrong – I can get behind someone with an amputated limb having power fantasies of it growing back and being stronger than ever, etc. But this doesn’t come across like that to me (she says as an able-bodied person; please, feel free to disabuse me). But the VP seems to be on Aldridge’s side precisely because he wants to ‘cure’ his granddaughter(?) – because, the implication is, she’s not ok in a wheelchair. And that’s all really problematic.

For me, though, the good includes:

Guy Pearce. Just that. That’s most of what I have to say. The man’s kind of an Australian Gary Oldman: a chameleon. And he’s great.

More Don Cheadle is always good.

Ben Kingsley and what they did with the Mandarin: I was so worried about the name of the character, and had nightmarish visions of what it might be like in a modern film. But what they did! Making it an examination of the manipulation of media (which is only more relevant now) was brilliant.

Actually addressing the issue of PTS. It’s focal but dealing with it isn’t – which is a bit problematic since it seems on one level to suggest that you just ‘work it out’ (literally, as a mechanic); however, the suggestion that The Great Tony Stark would have anxiety attacks after New York is wonderful – and probably a brave choice, given that I feel like American films still make ‘Vietnam War veteran with PTS’ a pitiable and/or criminal figure.

The child. As a rule, I loathe when films insert children into narratives like this, because they are almost universally corny and awful. My touchstone for when it works is Lex and Tim in Jurassic Park: they are actually a part of the narrative, they interact with the narrative but don’t overwhelm it, they are not overwhelmingly cheesy, and the actors are fine. Harley, too, fits this bill – and of course, the film seems to be quite consciously flipping the stereotype I loathe (“but I’m cold…”). What makes me weep is that the actor who plays Harley went on to play the example I use at the other end, for where children are just awful in a film: Jurassic World.

Finally, I loved the end credits, too – they so clearly signal that this is the end of the focus on Iron Man (which actually isn’t true, given later films, but at least puts to rest the possibility of further Iron Man films).

Avengers (MCU 6)

And so, in six movies (chronologically), we get three of my top 5 MCU films. Not a bad hit rate.

Ah, this film. There is definitely a level of nostalgia… which is stupid because 8 years is not enough for nostalgia – you would think – but maybe because, despite all the bad things the team deals with, this feels like such an upbeat film overall? with the snappy dialogue especially. And things just get so gloomy and sad for all of them, later on. Yes, of course Coulson’s death is hard; but I also know that Tahiti is a magical place… and it’s about the whole vibe of the film. It’s such a joy to see this core of the team all together, even knowing where it’s all heading. To see them butting heads (literally and figuratively), but also figuring out how to work together. To see aspects that will be picked up throughout the franchise – Thor’s hammer/ Capt’s shield/ Tony’s power pack, for instance.

I have Issues with Joss Whedon these days, but it must be said that he knows how to write witty repartee. And I really like that aspect!

This is our intro proper to Hawkeye – and I both like him more, in this, than I did initially… and also got angry all over again at the way his turn to Ronin was treated – and our absolute first intro to Mark Ruffalo as Banner/Hulk. Apparently the Edward Norton Hulk should be considered canon? I just cannot. I watched Eric Bana’s turn as Bruce many years ago, and I thought he was good – Bana has a wonderful way of being both heroic and human (why yes, he is Hektor for me now and always, thanks for asking). Norton… just no. Does not work in my head at all. Cannot. Ruffalo, though: inspired. Gentle and science geek, and doesn’t look ridiculous as a green ragemonster.

One thing I really noticed is that this is beginning of Steve Rogers breaking. Yes, he ignored Tommy Lee Jones in the first film, that was knowing that he wouldn’t be putting anyone else in harm’s way, and it was for Bucky, which is always a driving factor. Here, though… he explicitly distrusts a commanding officer, and that distrust is proved appropriate, which is new. And ends up leading to a lot of later consequences. Poor Steve.

The other thing I noticed is just how ill Loki appears at the start of the film. He looks haggard – terrible bruising around his eyes – he looks so tired and worn. And much older. Which speaks to the presumably difficult months he’s had since letting himself fall off the Bifrost. And almost makes me feel sorry for him.

I love this film. It’s not perfect, but gosh it’s good.

Thor (MCU 5)

This is one of the films that I wasn’t sure of, going back. It’s been a while since I saw it, and I just wondered…

Everything about this film is fine. Hemsworth is pretty good (although gosh a decade is a long time); Portman is great, actually; Hiddleston is fine. Idris Elba is always wonderful, as is Jamie Alexander. And Kat Dennings as Darcy and Stellan Skarsgaard can help me with my research any time. Also the criminally underused Rene Russo.

There’s just something about the film that feels … odd. Or off. Especially coming on the heels of Iron Man.

I think that, compared to those (internally) earlier movies, Thor – and Thor – feel… naive, somehow. Matched against the cynical, world-weary but still philanthropic Stark, Thor feels… young. Arrogant – or proud? – although at least theoretically committed to doing what’s right; and naive, even innocent. And still so much in his father’s shadow (which, actually, is very much a Tony thing too. OMG how much of the MCU is actually about fathers?? Wait, I don’t want to think about that too much or I might get really sad). The film itself is an example of how the MCU films are allowed to have their own aesthetic, matching the different aesthetics of the comics (I assume); and I think this more fantasy-oriented feel does feel jarring, coming after the very-high-tech, very modern, Iron Man – and even Captain Marvel.

The plot is nothing exceptional; it’s fine as an introduction to Thor and his world. I had forgotten what we learn about Loki and his relationship with Thor; it felt simultaneously like a lot and too little. The one thing I did notice and appreciate greatly is that right from the start, it’s unclear whether Loki is being devious for the sake of evil, or because it’s his nature to be a trickster. Does he know that he’s revving Thor up about their father, and is he doing it for nefarious purposes, or… not? There’s so much about Loki that is vital to however many films, and I think some aspects of him remain unknowable. At the same time: it is clear he loved Odin and Frigga, and that his world being shown to be a lie is the catalyst for most of his later actions.