Author Archive: Alex

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.

Iron Man 2 (MCU 4)

THIS FILM.

It’s not quite the Platonic Ideal of Captain Marvel, but. Well. It’s definitely in my top 5 MCU films.

And it’s not just because of Sam Rockwell. Not… entirely, anyway.

It is definitely problematic that a narcissistic, arrogant man like Stark is so compelling as a character. I think partly it’s his self-awareness that helps this. Also, what I noticed on this viewing – perhaps more than any other time – is just how much of his behaviour in this film is driven by the knowledge that he is, in fact, dying. I don’t think I had fully appreciated that before. I continue to love watching his genius at work, and the fact that he is perfectly willing to take a sledgehammer to walls in order to build – what? a synchrotron?

I continue to like Pepper. I like that the development of her character makes sense – also driven by a desire for getting things right, at heart – and that she was perfectly capable of cutting off from Tony when it was clear that he was going in a bad direction. And then there’s Rhodes – now played by Don Cheadle, and maybe it’s just because he’s been Rhodes for longer than Howard had the chance but Cheadle really IS Rhodes for me. There’s something that he brings to the character – understated determination and resilience, and humour, that I really love.

Far, far more than Obadiah, the villains really make this film. I do not love Mickey Rourke as an actor, but as Vanko here he is magnificent (“I vant. My boid”.) It’s just such an off-the-wall character – out of proportion, an exaggerated and distorted vision of Stark himself, as shown by Vanko making an arc reactor in his own version of a cave – and all of his actions are outrageous. He’s so much fun to watch. And then there’s Justin Hammer. Truly, any opportunity to watch Sam Rockwell cut a dance move is all right by me. Everything about Hammer’s character is such a spectacular cringe: he wants to be the exaggerated vision of Stark and he just. Never. Will. Be. Calling Stark Anthony! Trying to sleep with a woman who slept with Stark! Copying his weapons! Oh Hammer. You’re terrible.

Another thing that makes this film is the soundtrack. I am not the biggest AC/DC fan, but it works in this context. As with Captain Marvel, all of this comes together with a fact-paced narrative with an appropriate number of explosions, chases and well-choreographed fight scenes to make a really great film.

This makes it sound like I’m mostly here for the characters, but that’s not true: the story is great! Genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist goes on self-discovery trip that nearly destroys the people around him and is nearly brought low by psychotic Russian genius-poor-convict-revengenut!

Also, Scarlett Johannsen in some of the most ridiculous outfits a woman has been compelled to wear while pretending to be “from Legal” or while being an assassin. Plus a cold, tired, take-no-shit Fury, who really can’t be having with Stark’s nonsense.

I am so ready for Avengers. I don’t mind watching Thor first, but… I am so ready for Avengers.

Captain Marvel: MCU 2 (internal)

I guess it would be foolish to call any movie perfect, but Captain Marvel comes pretty close to the Platonic Ideal for me.

Brie Larson is fantastic: has the comedy timing when required, serious and distressed and determined when required… I read about how she went up with female fighter pilots to get a sense of what it was like being in the cockpit, which is awesome. And I love the character of Vers/Carol: always committed to what’s right but not so fanatical that she can’t accept when her truth is challenged. An excellent friend; balancing compassion and ruthlessness (looking at you, Yonn Rogg); her persistence as a child and young woman make me so happy. Also, THAT COMMENT to Yonn Rogg at the end makes me SO HAPPY every time.

I adore that this film has no romance. Don’t get me wrong: I am totally here for romance in my stories; ask me why I like Empire Strikes Back so much. But so often when the focus of a story is a woman, romance gets shoehorned in as if audiences can’t cope with a woman not having men fall over her, or her over men (and let’s be honest, it’s usually hetero). So it’s refreshing to have a female hero with male and female friends, but no hint of romance.

The friends! Maria Rambeau is awesome – the right mix of courage and guts with appropriate trepidation (going into space in a vehicle not designed for it…) – what a great best friend; just falls back into the friendship after six years of anger and grief. Monica is also cool and I look forward to seeing her as a hero in her own right. And Fury… well. Fury. I adore that we got a younger Fury in this film, to see where he was before the Avengers Project really blew up in his face. And maybe it’s a bit tacky but I love the jokes about his eye throughout the film.

Then there’s Ben Mendelsohn. MENDO. Playing brilliantly on the expectation that he plays a villain – inspired casting! – I think the writers did a really great job with the character of Talos, and Mendo fulfils it wonderfully. Why would I want to turn into a filing cabinet?

AND Annette Bening! Such a delightful cameo; I know it mucks with the comic canon to have her as Mar Vel but ask me how much I care.

The mid-90s setting is hilarious for someone of my age; the Blockbuster always sets me to reminiscing about getting 5 weeklies for $10, and the awesome responsibility of getting an overnight rental. The flannel, the NIN tshirt, the waiting for the modem to connect… and of course, the music. What a soundtrack. I’d forgotten about Elastica and “Connection” before seeing this; back in heavy rotation now. Aside from Guardians, this makes the best use of music of any MCU film.

All of the characters and the setting work together with a really great narrative. The contrast between the high-tech Hala and what looks like a very low-tech Earth is pretty funny; the gradual reveal of Carol’s past and the truth about the Kree is paced beautifully; there are a good number of chases, well-choreographed fight scenes, and explosions. Like I said: Platonic Ideal for me.

Oh, and I forgot Goose. Sorry Goose. Who’s a good pussy cat, eh?

MCU 1 (well, 2 for us)

We got Disney+; we decided to rewatch the MCU; we decided (after watching Iron Man) to watch in internal chronological order.

Thus, we went back to Captain America: The First Avenger.

This is… not my favourite MCU. It’s fine. It’s a solid war film. And that’s what this is: a WW2 film. It’s Where Eagles Dare without Richard Burton, but with weird ray-guns and a disfigured villain (because that’s such a novel idea; see: every James Bond film ever).

This is actually one of the positives about the MCU. The Powers That Be haven’t insisted that every film have exactly the same feel; Iron Man and this film are very different. And so they should be! They’re telling different stories, and Rogers and Stark are very different men, and so on.

The film is: little guy doesn’t like bullies, undergoes radical transformation, becomes a ripped Chris Evans… manages to stay the virtuous little guy in a buff bod, and punches villains. Don’t get me wrong, I do think Chris Evans is great in this role; as an Australian I can say that he seems to fill a very particular idea of American masculinity (which, ahem, given the period of this film, is remarkably like the Nazi version of Aryan…).

I love Stanley Tucci in the minimal time he’s given; I would watch Tommy Lee Jones in basically anything (fight me if you don’t like Space Cowboys); Hayley Atwell is excellent, of course. And Sebastian Stan is fun, and it does make me excited about re-watching the Winter Soldier stuff. Hugo Weaving is a marvellous scenery-chewing villain, and Toby Jones is also fantastic.

Having seen the rest of the films, this feels like such a prequel in many ways. It sets up Cap’s personality – his quirks, his doggedness, his reasons for the at times holier-than-thou attitudes that so pisses off Stark; and of course, the dedication to Bucky. Which is integral to all that is to come, and the depths of which I had probably forgotten when I watched Winter Soldier last time.

I didn’t love this film, particularly, but it does make me excited for what’s to come.

Iron Man: MCU 3 (well, 1 for us)

We’re however far into lockdown 2.

We have however long left until things even begin to be ‘normal’.

And so we have caved. We have subscribed to Disney+. Partly for The Mandalorian… partly for the MCU.

And so, we have begun The Epic Rewatch Of The Entire MCU (movies only).

(We love Agents of SHIELD and look forward to catching up on the season/s we haven’t seen yet, but I have zero intention of rewatching the whole lot. Also, I watched the first couple of eps of Agent Carter, and it just didn’t work for me.)

Initially, we planned to go on production order, and so:

Iron Man

We’ve probably seen this three or four times, I guess? Of the individual-focused films, Iron Man would have to be my favourite set. I haven’t seen this in a while and I did wonder whether it had aged.

The answer: nope.

Downey Jr is still marvellous to watch as Tony. Tony is an unpleasant, arrogant, wilful, privileged, and selfish man, who actually begins to change through the movie. The fact that he is also a mechanical and theoretical genius makes his other traits more frustrating, for me – but yes, I still like him overall. Yes, this is a problem. I really liked the cave-construction part of the film, and the fact that it’s clear Tony is no Elon Musk; he can actually make stuff. He’s a Tesla rather than an Edison; a Robert Hooke or Robert Boyle. In fact one thing I really like is the somewhat-reality of the iterative nature of making the suit: that it’s not perfect, needs refining, etc. (And looking forward, the way that this progresses for Tony’s character is truly fascinating.)

Everyone else in the film is also great. Jeff Bridges is outrageous as Obadiah; Terrence Howard is fine as the long-suffering Rhodes; yes, I like Paltrow as Pepper, too. The pacing works, the soundtrack is infectious, the graphics still look fine to my eyes (which may be slightly rosily-hued, who can say). It was delightful to see people who carry on through the whole set – especially Coulson, of course, and Fury in the end-of-credits scene; and Iron Man’s musical motif, too.

Overall, this is a film that really stand up.

————————————————————

… as foreshadowed, after we watched this, we reconsidered our viewing order. We’ve decided to go internal chronology, which means we go back to The First Avenger and Captain Marvel next, rather than moving straight to Iron Man 2. So that will be fun.

The Gurkha and the Lord of Tuesday

I have a question. And that question is, what the heck was I doing this time last year that I didn’t rush out to get myself a copy of this novella? Because it really can’t have been that important. I didn’t even know what it was about! I just can’t quite get my head around that; what a failing on my part. Still, thanks to WorldCon and whoever mentioned it on a panel, I finally got my act together and I inhaled it pretty damn quickly.

At some unspecified point in the future – definitely a ways into the future, but not so far that humans are off colonising the far reaches of the galaxy – Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Mars, the Red King, the Lord of Tuesday, Most August Rajah of Djinn, wakes up. Turns out he has been asleep for a rather long time, and things have changed. Wandering through the Himalayas trying to figure out what’s going on, he comes across Bhan Gurung, a Gurkha living fairly contentedly, it seems, by himself in a cave. Melek Ahmar is disconcerted by Gurung’s lack of servility but makes use of his knowledge about the modern world – like the existence of nanobots, and that there is a city nearby, Kathmandu, which might be ripe for him to take over; after all, a great king like him needs subjects. Melek Ahmar and Gurung go to Kathmandu and… things progress from there. Poorly, for some people; certainly sideways for a number of them. It turns out Gurung has ulterior motives; and things aren’t quite what they seem in Kathmandu – although the fact that it is run by an AI, allocating karma rather than money as currency, isn’t a secret.

There’s a lot going on here. Melek Ahmar, the Lord of Tuesday, himself has a lot going on; all sorts of references to Greek and Egyptian and I think Hindu? mythology/ ancient history that make me long for a prequel story about the dastardly deeds of Ahmar’s youth. The slow unravelling of the story behind Kathmandu, and why the world runs with nanobots, is superbly paced and very exactly revealed, until it all finally slots into place. The same with Gurung and the revelation of his character, his story. And the story overall is a joy to read; a variety of characters and their interactions, a setting that’s sketched more than detailed but nonetheless brought to life, and a pace that keeps it all rolling along.

This is one heck of a story. I’ll be getting hold of the two other novels Hossain has out, and looking out for more.

Flyaway

Bettina lives in a very small town with her mother somewhere in the outback. It’s an area of farmers and hard scrabble and everyone being in everyone else’s business; they’re a long way from everyone else. Her father and brothers have been missing for some time, but Bettina’s life seems to be going its own quiet, easy way, until something comes along that starts a disruption. And then she chooses to follow where that disruption leads, becomes (re)acquainted with two of her peers, and goes on the sort of literal and figurative journey that means you can never properly go home again.

Like most Australians, I am a city/suburbs person. Like slightly fewer Australians I have spent some time “in the bush” although never for especially extended periods (days and weeks, never years). For all that much of the (white) Australian apparently has this romantic notion of, or attachment to, “the outback”, that’s not the reality for most people – who’ve never spent long periods outside of a large town, never worked on a farm (I’ve visited but not worked), don’t really know what it’s like away from streetlights.

All of that is, I think, an interesting backdrop for coming to this novel. I definitely think Australian audiences will come at it differently from, in particular, an American one. For Australians, the fact that Jennings did in fact grow up in a rural area will be an important part of trusting her insight and the way she sets her story up; it certainly was for me. Not that someone like me couldn’t write a story about an outback town and have it work – but I trust Jennings and her observations because I assume she is writing at least partly from experience.

Jennings calls this an “Australian gothic.” I did not study the gothic genre at uni, when most of my friends did; it has never especially appealed to me as a genre. I think, in my head, it comes too close to the aspects of horror that I dislike; I don’t enjoy being made to feel uncomfortable. So I can’t speak to the accuracy of the gothic label – although there were definitely bits where I felt uneasy, and was put in mind of the stories we used to tell each other as kids, about things like the Min Min lights and other such things.

There are many things to love about this book. Firstly, the structure. The narrative proper is interrupted every second chapter by the insertion of a story-within-a-story. These might be told by someone who’s present, or be second or third-hand. Their connection to present events isn’t always obvious, but always becomes so. And they’re generally linked to some piece of folklore, or apparently superstitious warning, that might be straightforward to ignore during daylight but becomes less so at twilight. This was an intriguing way to flesh out the story, and also contributed to a sense of … disconnect; of things not working exactly as they should, because the narrative isn’t straightforward. It left me feeling unbalanced, like I wasn’t sure things were happened as I expected.

Secondly, the art. Jennings is probably most well known in Australia, and indeed overseas, for her art – which isn’t entirely fair since she’s written and had published any number of short stories; but her book covers, in particular, have had a fair bit of notice, and justifiably so. It’s her own artwork on the cover, which is awesome; there are also fantastic pieces at the start of every chapter, and on the folded covers. They make me particularly happy to own this in hard copy.

And thirdly, of course, the writing and the story itself. Publishers Weekly describes it as “spellbinding, lyrical prose”, Kelly Link says that her prose “dazzles”, Holly Black that it is “exquisitely rendered.” All of that. Jennings evokes a particular feeling of Australia – the space, the dust, the sun, the trees, the oppressive expanse – that made me glad I was reading this in my nice suburban house (even if it is during lockdown), and not while out camping, because I think that being in the bush while reading it might have been just too much. It would have made it too… real. So the setting works brilliantly; and the people do, too. My nan moved to a small town after marriage when she was 20 years old; into her 70s some of her peers still treated her as new to the place. Small towns can have delineations that strangers don’t see – I’ve heard the stories of Catholic and Protestant areas in teeny little Victorians towns – and that’s brought to the fore here, too. And then there’s the folklore, and the uncomfortable sense that maybe more is going on beneath the surface than is immediately obvious…

I really hope Flyaway gets a lot of notice, and from a wide-ranging audience. A lot of Australians will enjoy it for the way it plays with notions of “The Australian outback” – and frankly it’s just gorgeous.