Author Archive: Alex

Black Panther (MCU 16)

This film.

Really.

Everything about this film is wonderful.

I firmly believe T’Challa is one of the greatest MCU heroes. He is confident, without being cocky. He is humble when appropriate – in the face of Shuri’s genius, for example – and he is righteous; he wants the best for his people and he is willing to change when he’s shown a better option. He is a better man than Tony, or Thor, or even Steve (maybe he’s excused for having been wrenched 70 years into the future). I am devastated there will be no future Boseman Black Panther.

Of course, a great hero doesn’t automatically make a great film. Happily, everything else about this film is also excellent. Including – contrary to some other MCU films – Killmonger/ Eric Stevens, who is an amazing antagonist. He has an entirely appropriate personal reason to be furious at T’Challa and his family… and it’s tied in to an entirely understandable political reason, which makes everything that much more devastating. I think the notion of Wakanda never having intervened throughout history is troubling, and should be troubling. Eric’s bitter ‘bury me in the sea with my ancestors’ is a powerful strike at Wakandan serenity; at the idea they are righteous to have isolated themselves. Eric is one of the great opponents of the MCU because he is a genuine reflection of T’Challa: a product of his upbringing, a fearless warrior, passionate about what he believes is right… and he’s not wrong, about wanting to support oppressed peoples. Frame this slightly differently and Eric becomes the hero. And that helps make this film amazing.

Other things that make this film amazing: M’Baku. I love everything about him. Shuri, and Nakia, and Okoye, and Ramonda – fabulous characters, who exist in their own right. Shuri is probably my favourite; she’s a fearless Q-style character who knows exactly who she is and how she wants to be and I love her attitude. General Okoye is also fantastic; her loyalty to her nation and her fearlessness and her disgust with that wig. Plus, it was only on this viewing that I realised: the queen’s headdresses, but especially the one when T’Challa comes home, must be based on the Nefertiti bust now in Berlin. It’s glorious.

I love the costuming and the music and everything about the visual appearance of the film, too. Honestly if I had to choose between this and Captain Marvel… I would be in trouble.

The one problem I have with the film is that it promotes the idea of ‘might is right’. That’s the sole reason for fighting for the right to be king. Yes yes, you need to be a warrior to be the Black Panther… but it’s still a problematic way to confirm your ruler.

Also some of the fights are too long, but that’s not a surprise any more.

Doctor Strange (MCU 15)

(We chose to skip Spiderman; I don’t think it adds much to the MCU.)

This film is very, very silly.

Firstly, Benedict Cumberbatch’s accent. Very silly.

Secondly, the CG. It’s a bit too in love with some of the effects. And they just get a bit… kiddy-kaleidoscopic.

Mostly, I think it feels uncomfortable with the mystical nature of what it’s trying to do. With the exception of the Thor movies, the MCU is resolutely science fiction – it’s drugs or radiation or tech. Even the Thor movies kind of try to skip over the fantastical elements of being gods – I know they use the Bifrost and so on, but Thor himself tells Jane that what she’s talking about (Einstein-Rosen bridges etc) is just another word for… . What Thor can do is just an ability, not so much being a god. Here… while, yes, there’s a bit of vague handwaving about the multiverse, this is trying to be all mystical while simultaneously (it seems to me) being a bit embarrassed about that.

The movie isn’t a complete loss. It has Chiwetel Ejiofor. And Benedict Wong. And Mads Mikkelsen as an entirely acceptable villain.

I do not, though, like Steven Strange. He’s an arrogant twat without Tony Stark’s redeeming features of a) a good line in snark, b) attempts to genuinely do better, c) Pepper, d) Mickey Rourke (ok, that might be rectified in the sequel), and e) tin suits rather than an uppity cloak. Also, his facial hair is ridiculous.

The cloak is actually another thing that’s ok about the film. But there’s a bit too much playing up its ?sentience, which as a result got old faster than it should have.

I don’t mind Tilda Swinton in the role as the Ancient One, considering the position in isolation. I do have a problem with the fact that the film made the character “Celtic” (whatever that means) rather than from [somewhere in the Himalayas], as the comics portray her (him) – given the initiate school is actually in Kathmandu, that seems a bit off.

The film is necessary within the context of the “Infinity Saga” – we need to know what the Time Stone can do, and that it’s protected. I feel like it could have had a better vehicle than this.

Captain America: Civil War (MCU 14)

Weirds me out every time that this is a Captain America film, rather than an Avengers one. Clearly the focus is on Steve and what he will do in order to save Bucky… but there’s so much of everyone else that this is definitely more of an ensemble film.

And I know the character has to be introduced – but did there have to be quite so much Tony-meeting-Peter Parker?

Overall I do really like this film. It’s a bridging film, like Age of Ultron, but it’s less annoying because it fits better into the ongoing narrative: while it might have been logical for Tony to want to create AI, it hadn’t really been flagged before Ultron; but finding and saving Bucky has been driving Steve for ages. Also, as with most of the other films, the fight scenes are Just. Too. Long.

Except for the airport fight. That one is awesome: displaying the different skills of each of the fighters, pointing out the seriousness of the split in the Avengers, and some nice snark too. I really like Spiderman here, and Scott Lang makes so much more sense having seen Ant-Man. Of course, this fight is also heartbreaking, to see friends and allies against each other – pitting their knowledge against each other, as well as their skills. I think especially pitting Wanda against Vision; that’s the worst.

Another favourite part of this film is Sam and Bucky together. They are so jealous of each other’s friendship with Steve. I can’t wait for the tv show. It’s going to be hilarious.

I also really like the fact that all of the events here are a direct result of Age of Ultron. That the Avengers do actually face consequences for the events of Sokovia is both dreadful and necessary. I’m thinking mostly of Zemo, here, and his compulsive need for revenge. His brilliant ability to manipulate people and to organise all the parts of his plan would be less impressive if it were for a lesser motive.

On the other hand, I am… troubled by the Sokovia Accords. I think they make sense, yes, and I can understand wanting to have some sort of control over ‘enhanced individuals’. Trying to actually make that work is a completely different thing (witness SHIELD), and I agree with a lot of Steve’s arguments. But that’s not even addressing one of the big issues: we all know that Tony, and Rhodes, and Natasha, and Clint, and Scott, and Sam, all have no need to sign the Accords, right? They are not enhanced. They just have access to tech. Otherwise… are they getting all graduates of the Red Room to sign? All assassins?

Anyway, there’s a lot more to this film, of course. It puts some of our heroes underground, and splits up beautiful friendships, and makes a lot of people suspicious about superheroes. One thing that’s not ok is Steve kissing Sharon Carter. Just no.

Finally, perhaps the greatest things this film does is introduce Black Panther. T’Challa is one of the very greatest characters in the entire MCU canon. I will entertain no arguments at this time.

Ant-Man (MCU 13)

And now we get to the first MCU movie we haven’t seen! I am, clearly, a pretty big fan of superhero movies, but… we didn’t even think about seeing this one at the cinema.

I mean. Ant. Man. Really?

Even when I saw it was Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd!

I mean. Ant-Man. Just… nah.

However! How wrong I was!

Yes, Ant-Man is indeed in some ways very silly. The name is definitely silly. But within the MCUverse, shrinking in entirely logical as a concept, and that’s something you just have to go with.

Interesting thing I was considering while watching: Tony chooses to be Iron Man; Thor is born as Thor; Steve chooses to be Captain America. Bruce, Natasha, and Scott all to some extent have their identities thrust on them – in very different ways, of course, and I’m not suggesting there’s an equality in their experiences. But it is interesting to consider how they come to their positions (which gets even more interesting when you consider Sam Wilson vs Bucky).

Anyway. Michael Douglas is wonderful as Hank. Really every minute he’s on screen is just cool. Paul Rudd is delightful as Scott Lang, and I should never have expected anything else. I knew nothing except what I gleaned from the Avengers films about Scott before this; the film made him entirely relatable and entirely appropriate to the position of Ant-Man. Evangeline Lily is great as Hope and since I didn’t even realise she was in this film, everything she did was unexpected and wonderful.

I was fascinated to see that this does slot into the larger Avengers ‘verse – and I hadn’t expected it: a newspaper about Sokovia, breaking into Avengers HQ, selling tech to Hydra… it kinda required Avengers background knowledge, which I think is interesting for a theoretically standalone movie, but I suppose there’s an expectation that no one will go see this who isn’t invested in Avengers in either film or comic incarnation.

This definitely does have its silly elements, but they’re ones I enjoyed, overall. Michael Pena is fabulous as Luis – I love him in The Martian and he’s very different here but still has that superb timing that makes all of his lines a joy to watch. The other numbskull crims are very silly but play their part. “Yellowjacket” is actually a pretty ordinary villain; the real opponent in the film is time, and Lang learning to trust himself and Hank and Hope. It’s not exactly an original narrative – not-really-a-criminal has chance to redeem himself largely for the sake of child – but it was played well enough I was happy to go along. I was very glad it didn’t dwell overlong on how Lang got to the point of burglary; nor that there was any suggestion of his getting back together with Maggie. Instead, the suggestion is Maggie and Paxton will give him room in Cassie’s life, without giving up their own space, which is entirely appropriate. Also, Hank’s reaction to Hope and Scott kissing is entirely appropriate.

This was way more enjoyable than I had expected and makes me happily anticipate Ant-Man and the Wasp. I’m still not sorry I didn’t spend the money on cinema tickets, though.

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.