Carry On Book Review

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Review:

Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review

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Review:

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Avengers: Age of Ultron continues the Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s string of really watchable and entertaining superhero films, but had more serious problems than its predecessor, The Avengers.

Age of Ultron picks up about a year after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, with the Avengers attacking a HYDRA base where Baron Strucker has been hiding Loki’s magical scepter from the first Avengers film, as well as practicing human experimentation in an attempt to create more “Enhanced” humans with special powers. The Avengers successfully recapture the scepter, but Tony Stark gets whammied by Scarlet Witch, one of Strucker’s Enhanced, and decides to use it to create an artificial intelligence to protect the world from alien attacks like that on New York in the first Avengers movie. Precisely how he manages to convince Dr. Banner that this is a good idea remains somewhat unclear to me, but needless to say, it all goes to hell when the artificial intelligence – Ultron – gets online and promptly decides that the only way to really bring peace to Earth is to get rid of the Avengers and most of humanity.

Not a great plan, Tony.

Not surprisingly, given that we are talking about a Marvel film written by Joss Whedon, the highlights of the film were the impressive action sequences and the snappy dialogue. The opening attack against Strucker’s base in Sokovia had blatantly obvious CGI and green screen shots and was a little disappointing, but most of the others were outstanding. I particularly enjoyed the battle between Hulk and the Hulk Buster “Veronica,” which had a lot of funny remarks by Tony, and the final battle, which was full of spectacular visuals, especially the circular shot as the Avengers defended the core.

Whee!

Joss being Joss, there were also lots of laugh out loud lines throughout. He’s a master of snark and I love snark.

My biggest problem with the film was that, unlike the first Avengers film, it seemed like a placeholder rather than a natural progression. The Avengers tied together the various threads of the solo movies from Phase 1 and brought everyone together into the Avengers Initiative; Age of Ultron just seemed like it was filling in while we wait for Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War. It kind of rehashed Cap’s character development in The Winter Soldier (and not as well or as subtly), and Tony Stark’s in Iron Man 3 as well. Any development Tony went through in the course of Age of Ultron itself was more or less negated because he made his biggest mistake while whammied by Scarlet Witch and was then vindicated by Thor when he tried to repeat the same fucking thing that got them an Ultron problem in the first place. (How he got Banner to go along with the same terrible idea TWICE is even more of a mystery to me.)

In a minor preview of Civil War, Tony and Cap fight when Cap catches Tony trying to create the SECOND artificial intelligence, but as soon as Thor steps in in support of Tony, they’re all buddy-buddy again despite the fact that Tony went behind the team’s back not once but TWICE and in the process created something that literally tried to extinguish humanity. Like, what? It could have been a perfect set up for Civil War and instead we got Cap joking about whether an elevator could lift Mjolnir (which, yeah, funny, but still) and telling Tony he’ll miss him.

The only real progression identifiable at this point is the apparent resurrection of S.H.I.E.L.D (which, after the events of The Winter Soldier, Cap goes along with why, exactly?) and the creation of Cap and Black Widow’s New Avengers, but both of these take place at the very end, and aren’t really tied in with the rest of the movie much at all, unlike in The Avengers, where the creation of the original Avengers team was the entire point of the film.

Other notes:

  • Wow, I really, really hated the Bruce/Natasha. Egad. I went in determined to be open-minded about it, because despite being a Clint/Natasha shipper, I am also a multishipper and am rarely truly OTP about my OTPs (I love me some Steve/Bucky/Natasha, for one) but man. It was written horribly, from their actual dialogue together to the blatant lampshading by Cap and Laura, and it dragged down every scene it was in.
  • Bruce and Natasha’s characterization in general was a total mess. Bruce himself (as opposed to Hulk, who did have that great fight with Veronica) existed only as Tony’s doormat and Natasha’s love interest in this film. Natasha had more evidence of personality than that, at least, and despite Scarlet Johansson’s pregnancy during filming, she also had several great action scenes, most notably the one where she saved the whole world by stealing Vision’s body from Ultron. So at least we got that much. But far too much of her screentime was taken up by her pursuit of Bruce, which might have been okay if it had been better written, but instead landed her with several lines that made me actually groan out loud with how awful they were. So that sucked, because Bruce and Natasha are two of my favorite characters and I thought Joss wrote them both pretty well in The Avengers, so I really wasn’t expecting them to be so awful in Age of Ultron.
  • It was especially ironic given that Joss’s stated reasoning for not doing Clint/Natasha (as Marvel apparently originally planned) was because he wanted to show that men and women could have platonic friendships. But Natasha already has a well written and close platonic friendship with a man in the MCU. With Cap. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier it’s pretty obvious there’s some attraction between the two of them, at least on his part (the bikini line, his reaction to the kiss on the escalator, etc.) and she essentially offers herself to him in the car with her line about “Who do you want me to be?” But when he says “How about a friend?” they make a mutual decision to be friends, and personally, I thought it worked wonderfully for both characters. Far better than the blatant and totally unsubtle “Oh, and by the way this is Clint Barton, my BEST FRIEND” business in Age of Ultron.
  • I don’t even know what was going on with Thor. His storyline seemed like it got A LOT cut out of it and was kind of confusing and disjointed as a result. However, I did love his interactions with Cap in particular – adorable! And they had some really cool moves together with the shield and the hammer.
  • It was nice to see Clint get so much more to do, given that he spent most of The Avengers brainwashed. He had some great lines and I liked how he kind of took the twins under his wing.
  • Laura was a pretty bland and generic Supportive Wife, but she wasn’t actively offensive like the Bruce/Natasha, so I was okay with it, although all the stuff at Clint’s farm seemed a little unnecessary and more like (yet another) blatant statement that CLINT AND NATASHA ARE NOT TOGETHER, OKAY? rather than anything actually relevant or useful to either plot or characterization. I’m baffled why Joss Whedon fought to keep the farm scenes in the film, since they really didn’t add anything to the story that couldn’t have been accomplished in other ways, especially since it came at the cost of cutting out so much of Thor’s subplot that what was left made little sense.
  • Also, Pepper Potts on a farm? Really, Tony? Are you even listening to the words coming out of your mouth?
  • For that matter, I don’t 100% understand why Cap and Tony were so crazy about the farm at all, given that they’re from Brooklyn and Manhattan respectively. On the other hand, it did give us the spectacle of Cap chopping wood in a tight t-shirt (and ripping a log in half with his bare hands) so I ain’t complaining too much.

  • I was pretty meh about Vision on the whole, but the hammer reveal was well done and got gasps in my theater, including from me, despite being spoiled in advance.
  • I ended up liking the Maximoff twins quite a lot and hope we’ll see more of both of them.
  • I also liked Ultron quite a bit. He was much funnier than I expected.
  • I’m glad the hammer wobbled for Cap. I think he probably could pick it up if he really wanted to.
  • I heard about the running “language” gag before seeing the film and was deeply confused, because Cap was in the fucking Army, you can’t tell me he doesn’t swear. Joss has tended to write Cap in the past as if he has a really big stick up his ass – a stick nowhere in evidence in his solo films (I think he may actually be the character who’s sworn most onscreen in the entire MCU) – so I thought it might be more of the same but it worked better onscreen than I expected because Tony’s reaction (and Cap’s embarrassed response to his teasing) implied that he was surprised Cap said it because Cap actually swears all the fucking time. Which is much more in line with my headcanon! (There’s a funny ficlet offering one plausible explanation for why Cap said it in the first place.)
  • Also, did Whedon imply Cap is a Yankees fan? Are you kidding me? I don’t even follow baseball, but even I know a Brooklynite from the 30’s would cut out his own tongue and eat it for dinner before saying anything complimentary about the Yankees.
  • Overall, though, I thought Cap was better written than he was in The Avengers, although the lack of Bucky was glaring at a couple points. It was never really explained why Cap was taking down HYDRA with the Avengers while Falcon was off looking for Bucky, given that it was the exact opposite of Cap’s stated priorities at the end of The Winter Soldier. It also seemed odd to me that his vision from Scarlet Witch was focused on his PTSD and inability to leave the war behind, neither of which is really much of a revelation for anyone who watched The Avengers or The Winter Soldier. Or for him, either, I don’t think. (Though maybe that’s why he had so much less of a reaction to his vision than the others did to theirs?) Given that the visions seemed to focus on fears and regrets, I would have liked to see some reference to the fact that he just recently discovered his best friend in the world spent 70 years being tortured, brainwashed, and used as a killing machine, even if they couldn’t get Sebastian Stan for any new footage.
  • Also re: Cap’s vision, it was a little weird to me that the vision suggested that Peggy thought either one of them would ever be capable of leaving the war – she certainly didn’t leave it, as we saw in Agent Carter and with her founding of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, I’m not gonna lie, that beautiful, happy smile Cap gave her as they started to dance made my heart melt.
  • I was so happy to see the Jewish tech guy from The Winter Soldier who wouldn’t send up the helicarriers that I squeaked loudly enough to get a funny look from my neighbor.
  • The Winter Soldier was essentially a political thriller with superheroes and I didn’t really go into Age of Ultron expecting it to be as politically astute as that, but dammit, I expected more than we got! Tony’s desire for “a suit of armor around the world” has so many implications given the current debates (both in the real world and in the MCU) about freedom vs security, the military-industrial complex (I’m old enough that I immediately thought “Strategic Defense Initiative,” and Tony and Bruce are BOTH older than I am, so did that expensive clusterfuck just not happen in the Marvel universe?), and American hegemony, yet the implications were barely explored. Cap had one good line about the futility of pre-emptive war and that was about it.
  • I liked that the Avengers repeatedly made efforts to evacuate civilians to safety. It seemed like a deliberate thumbing of the nose at DC’s Man of Steel, and it definitely made them more sympathetic by comparison.
  • It’s pretty cool that the New Avengers are two black men, two women, an artificial intelligence, and Cap. Much more balanced than the original lineup. 🙂

Overall, a highly entertaining film, but it lacked some of the depth and heart of previous outings in the Marvel universe.

And now the wait for Captain America: Civil War begins!

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Additional Reading:

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

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What’s Your Number? Movie Review

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Review:

So, one of the side effects of falling into a new fandom is that I start hunting down previous works from the actors and creators in question and since I skipped the wading pool and dove straight into the deep end with Marvel (thanks, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), that left me with some interesting dilemmas. I didn’t feel ready to brave Sebastian Stan’s filmography quite yet (Kings is on my to watch list, but most of the rest is borderline terrifying), so that inclined me more towards starting with Chris Evans. His best is supposed to be Snowpiercer, which is also on my to watch list, but I wasn’t really in the mood for something so dystopian today, so instead I settled on What’s Your Number? as a starting point for several logical and carefully considered reasons. In no particular order:

  • I thought the trailer looked kind of cute despite the movie’s 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
  • It checks off back catalogue boxes for several other Marvel actors in addition to Evans, including Anthony Mackie (Falcon) and Chris Pratt (Peter Quill), plus it has Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock, Love Actually, etc.), Zachary Quinto (Spock in the Star Trek reboot), and Blythe Danner (Meet the Parents).
  • I’ve heard good things about Anna Faris but had never seen her in anything before. (Actually not 100% accurate – apparently she was in Brokeback Mountain? But I can’t for the life of me remember who “Lashawn Malone” was.)
  • It has Chris Evans in nothing but a towelchris-evans-shirtless
  • And Chris Evans taking a bath large
  • And Chris Evans playing the guitar in his boxers
  • And also Chris Evans playing strip basketball (and losing) 

(Looking at those gifs, it occurs to me that I’m having a hard time remembering the last movie I saw that had this many female gaze moments, though not exclusively so, as Anna Faris spends quite a bit of the movie in various states of undress as well.)

Anyway…

For any of you who have managed to progress past the gifs and want to know what I thought about the film, I was actually pleasantly surprised. Given the aforementioned 23% rating, I expected it to be a lot dumber than it was. I mean, yeah, it was predictable, but I’m not sure I can name a romantic comedy that isn’t. It’s not a genre that you go see to get blown away by the innovative storytelling, you know? You go see romantic comedies to laugh and smile and be entertained, and What’s Your Number? did just fine on that front.

The story follows a young woman named Ally Darling (Faris) who gets dumped by her boyfriend and fired from her job shortly before bumping into a previous boyfriend (Pratt) who’s turned his life around completely and gotten engaged to a gorgeous engineer. She enlists the help of Colin Shea (Evans), her womanizing neighbor and a rare male example of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (apparently now genderbent to Hot Whore-ish Dream Guy?), to track down more of her previous boyfriends and reconnect in the hope that one of them might be “the one” after all.

Faris was as charming as I’ve heard she was and the charisma and chemistry that she and Evans both exude as actors really carried the film. They had lots of really adorable moments together and for the most part, I thought the film did a pretty good job of staying solidly on the cuter side of the cute-crude line. There were some exceptions and also some physical humor that seemed a bit out of place, but not to the point of being offensively bad.

I also liked the subplot about Ally’s family and specifically her relationship with her sister Daisy, who’s getting married and understandably stressed out about their divorced and dysfunctional parents. Their mom is a classic narcissist and their dad is Twitter-obsessed and married to a woman who looks younger than his own daughters – I kind of wanted to give both Ally and Daisy hugs and send them off to /r/raisedbynarcissists for some therapy!

But really, let’s be honest here, what can I possibly say about this film that will persuade you to watch it better than this?

 

Enjoy, ladies.

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My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

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Agent Carter Series Review

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Review:

I absolutely loved the character of Peggy Carter in the Captain America films, and was delighted to hear that she was getting her own show. It took me awhile to finally sit down and watch it (the fact that ABC offered only episodes 4-8 on their streaming website didn’t help matters, thanks for nothing ABC), but I finally finished the series yesterday.

I thought the show’s greatest strength was its characters. Like I said, I love Peggy Carter and it was great to get to spend so much time with her. Dum Dum Dugan’s guest spot in episode 5 was a treat as well. (I’ve always wished Captain America: The First Avenger had more Howling Commandos and less Red Skull.) I also loved Jarvis, Angie, Sousa, and even Dottie, and while I can’t say I liked Thompson, I found his character pretty interesting and one of the most complex in the show.

The plot didn’t wow me as much. Peggy’s efforts to clear Howard Stark’s name, the stuff about Leviathan and the Battle of Finow, the info about the early days of the Black Widow program – all were interesting but suffered a bit from lack of emotional engagement. For example, we know Howard’s name will be cleared because he and Peggy are going to found SHIELD together, so there’s no real urgency there. I was also annoyed in several episodes by smart people making inexplicably stupid mistakes just to advance the plot. (I’m looking at you, Howard Stark. Although not only at you.)

Despite the lack of emotional engagement for much of the series, they did successfully turn it on full blast for the finale, which made me tear up not once but twice, watching both Howard and Peggy have to come to terms with losing Steve Rogers and move on without him.

Despite its weaknesses, Agent Carter was a fun and entertaining show to watch, and a bunch of the action sequences were good. There’s a post (several, actually, but that’s the most detailed) going around Tumblr that points out that Peggy’s fighting style is pretty similar to Steve’s, to the point that it’s likely she taught him how to fight, which is a nice new bit of headcanon.

I hope it gets renewed for a second season.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

PS – If you like fanfiction, I have some good Peggy fics listed on my Steve/Bucky recs page, including Steve/Peggy, Steve/Bucky/Peggy, and gen.

Cinderella (2015) Movie Review

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Review:

It’s spring break, so I decided to take my daughter out for a mother-daughter date and see Disney’s new live-action Cinderella movie. I’m not even a big fan of the Cinderella story, but I spent most of the film with a big sappy grin plastered across my face, so clearly it did something right.

It’s refreshingly old-fashioned, feel good filmmaking that sticks pretty close to the story as laid out in the classic 1950 animated film, but smartly borrows from Ever After (the best Cinderella adaptation, imho) to have Cinderella (Downton Abbey‘s Lily James) and the Prince (Richard Madden of Game of Thrones) meet before the ball. This allows the Prince (here called Kit) to demonstrate a personality – something he totally lacked in the animated film – and Cinderella to make an emotional rather than purely physical connection with him, both of which give the love story much more emotional resonance than the animated version.

The live-action Cinderella also spent more time establishing Cinderella’s family and happy childhood than the old animated film, which I also liked because the emotional speech by Cinderella’s dying mother (Hayley Atwell, aka Marvel‘s Agent Carter) as she urges her daughter to “have courage and be kind” gives the film a more active and meaningful message than “a dream is a wish your heart makes.”

On the other hand, while Cinderella takes initiative into her own hands on several occasions in her attempts to fulfill her promise to her mother, the film did make a baffling and annoying slide back into passivity at the end, when she is locked in the attic and the narrator informs us that she neither knew nor cared who the men in the courtyard below were and basically was prepared to live the rest of her life on her happy memories of the ball. Even the 50’s Cinderella was crying and trying to help the animals release her, but this one just stands at the closed (but unlocked!) window and sings sadly, and it’s the MICE who think to open it and let her voice be heard. Like, really?

Despite that brief moment of feminist cringe, I enjoyed this adaptation more than most. For the most part, it was smart enough to keep the good and change the bad aspects of the original story. I was also impressed by the sumptuous visuals. As far as acting, the standout was Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, naturally, but I thought everyone did fine with their roles. Holliday Grainger of The Borgias and Sophie McShera of Downton Abbey looked like they had a lot of fun as the step-sisters, and I was surprised to find that Derek Jacobi had a role as the King. He was much less buffoonish than his animated predecessor and had an especially touching scene with Kit after the ball.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

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Hawaii Five-0, Season 1 Review

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Review:

This reboot of the classic 70’s show Hawaii Five-O had major issues with excessive product placement and glamorizing police brutality from the start, but it was fun enough to overlook the problems for awhile. Unfortunately, towards the end of season one, there were several plot developments that annoyed me to the point that I never returned to the show for season two and season one remains the only season of the show that I’ve watched.

But, issues aside, Hawaii Five-0 really was fun, and there were a couple episodes that rank pretty high on my list of most entertaining individual episodes of television that I’ve ever seen, so if you’re looking for some slick, shiny, action-packed entertainment, you could do a heck of a lot worse. The eye candy is also ridiculous. The Hawaiian scenery is so gorgeous that it might as well be an advertisement for the Hawaiian tourism bureau, and the cast….

Well, let’s just all thank God for Alex O’Loughlin’s willingness to take off his shirt and leave it at that. Daniel Dae Kim, Scott Caan, and Grace Park round out the main cast and they aren’t exactly painful to look at either.

As someone who loves a good Bickering Couple, the relationship between O’Loughlin’s Steve McGarrett and Scott Caan’s Danny “Danno” Williams was also a major highlight of the show. It only takes a couple episodes for them to go from wanting to punch each other in the face to full-on heterosexual life partnerhood, complete with Danno drawing hearts in the air at Steve as he’s being taken away after an injury. I am not even kidding. Watch this:

It’s worth watching the show for their carguments alone. In fact, their bromance was so blindingly obvious even CBS got in on the fun:

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Enlightenment Series Review

Review:

The Enlightenment series, by Joanna Chambers, is an entertaining m/m romance trilogy set mainly in 1820s Edinburgh. Although the covers are a little more in-your-face than I like (thank goodness for Kindles!), the series caught my attention because of its strong reviews on Goodreads, and despite some mixed feelings in book one, I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.

The main character is David Lauriston, an up-and-coming lawyer from a farming family. Although he lacks the family connections and personal wealth of many successful men of his profession, his strong work ethic and intelligence catch the eye of a prominent Edinburgh lawyer who becomes his mentor and friend. Unbeknownst to his coworkers, however, David’s workaholism is partially to keep himself too busy to give in to his illicit attraction to other men. Raised in a religious family, David is full of self-loathing for his “unnatural” desires, and drinks too much in an attempt to dull the shame and guilt he feels for his periodic “lapses.”

This all starts to change when he meets Lord Murdo Balfour, the handsome and wealthy younger son of an Earl, who is as unapologetic about his homosexuality as David is tormented. After a chance meeting at an inn, they are unexpectedly thrown together again in Edinburgh. Though Murdo prefers to avoid “repeat performances” and David prefers to avoid sexual encounters with other men completely, the two find themselves unable to deny their growing attraction to each other.

Like One Indulgence, the Enlightenment series is a fairly typical Regency(ish) romance, just with two men instead of a man and a woman. The sex scenes were steamy and well-written, but as I mentioned above, I was a little conflicted about the romance in the first book, because Murdo behaved a bit too much like a standard romance hero for my taste – too mercurial and prone to acting angry and even aggressive over things that would have resulted in less angst and fewer misunderstandings for all if they’d just been talked out calmly. (To be fair, David’s tendency to put his foot in his mouth when trying to discuss anything resembling feelings and relationships with other men couldn’t have helped.) However, Murdo mellowed out in the second and third books and showed a more vulnerable side, and I found them more enjoyable.

All three books have interesting subplots concerning the social and political changes of the time, as well as actual historical events of the period. I found the second book’s portrayal of King George IV’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822 to be especially interesting, and also enjoyed the subplots involving Elizabeth Chalmers, the daughter of David’s mentor.

Trigger warning (click to view): The series does contain depictions of period-typical homophobia, m/f spouse abuse, and references to past rape.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

One Indulgence Book Review

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Review:

I’m on a bit of a roll with m/m romance this week, aren’t I? One Indulgence, by Lydia Gastrell, is the first pure romance, with no fantasy, mystery, etc. elements. It’s essentially a classic Regency romance, except with two men instead of a man and a woman.

The plot revolves around Henry Cortland, the new Earl of Brenleigh, who is determined to fulfill his duty to marry and produce an heir, but first wants – just once – to experience his long-suppressed and forbidden desire to spend a night with a man. A one night stand with a stranger goes better than he could ever have dreamed, and he’s all set to live off the memories forever, but the stranger, Lord Richard Avery, isn’t quite so willing to let him go. Richard is tired of casual relationships and wants a deeper connection. With Henry, he’s convinced he’s found it, but first he has to convince Henry.

The book opens with a VERY hot scene, and I can kind of understand the complaints of some reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads when Henry and Richard then proceed to barely touch for most of the next ~200 pages. However, I thought it was realistic, given Henry’s situation and personality, and anyway, you don’t read Regency romance of any persuasion expecting characters to be constantly hopping in and out of bed with each other.

I enjoyed the book quite a bit, and since it seems to be a planned series, there are several side characters I’m hoping to see more of, particularly Richard’s Aunt Margarette and Samuel Shaw. I guessed the twist with Shaw before it was revealed, and it was very sad to compare Richard’s opinion of the adult Shaw with Henry’s memories of the boy, so I hope he’ll be able to find more closure (an apology from Henry would be a good start) and reclaim some of his boyhood kindness in future books.

One minor and mostly irrelevant complaint: the guys on the cover look NOTHING like I pictured either Richard or Henry and it’s actually distracting me as I write this review. Henry’s blond curls and beautiful blue eyes are frequently mentioned in the book, and I see neither curls nor baby blues on either of those men. Why do so many covers seem to be designed by people who’ve never read the book?

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Little Big Man Movie Review

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Review:

Back in my college days, I once had to write a paper on exactly what Little Big Man gets right and wrong about Cheyenne life. There was quite a bit of both, as I recall. Despite its flaws, however, I think Little Big Man deserves a lot of credit for being one of the first films to give a sympathetic portrayal of American Indians and their cultures, and more importantly, to give a human portrayal of American Indians and their cultures. The Indian characters experience the same depth and range of human emotions as the white characters, and include both “good” and “bad” characters. In contrast to their frequent portrayal in many earlier films as stern, bloodthirsty, and savage and in many later ones as solemn, mystical, and wise, the Indians of Little Big Man even have senses of humor!

Despite several prominent Cheyenne characters, the film itself does follow a white man named Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who is captured as a boy and raised by the Cheyenne. Crabb takes a somewhat Forrest Gump-like path through all aspects of Wild West society, from being “saved” by a fire-and-brimstone preacher after being re-captured from the Cheyenne to becoming a snake oil salesman, gunslinger, drunk, and muleskinner for one General George Armstrong Custer. The real historical events depicted (again, with varying degrees of accuracy) in the film include the Washita Massacre, the death of Wild Bill Hickok, and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It’s an entertaining, well-acted, and frequently hilarious movie, but hard-hitting in its depiction of the genocidal campaign against the Cheyenne and their fellow Plains tribes, and you may want to keep a hanky handy for certain scenes.

Note: This film shouldn’t be confused for a biography of the historical Little Big Man, an Oglala Lakota.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Book of Enchantments Review

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Review:

Book of Enchantments is a collection of short stories by Patricia Wrede, author of my all-time favorite children’s fantasy series, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles. It really shows off her versatility as a writer, as the stories are written on a variety of themes and in a variety of styles. Unfortunately, I don’t own a copy and it’s been awhile since I read some of the stories, but as best as I can remember them, here are my thoughts on each:

  • Rikiki and the Wizard – This is set in the shared world of Liavek, which I am unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. It was originally published in The Players of Luck.
  • The Princess, The Cat, and the Unicorn – I was already familiar with this story due to its inclusion in The Unicorn Treasury, but I’m very fond of it, so it was nice to bump into it again. It’s set in the same Enchanted Forest as the one in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, but doesn’t have any of the same characters. However, the story is very similar in style and tone to the series, with another unconventional princess trope-busting her way through an encounter with a unicorn.
  • Roses By Moonlight – A fantasy about fate and choices inspired by the story of the Prodigal Son.
  • The Sixty-two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd – A humorous story about a young woman whose family is cursed with lycanthropy. It was originally published in A Wizard’s Dozen.
  • Earthwitch – I honestly can’t remember this one.
  • The Sword-Seller – This one is set in Andre Norton’s Witch World, which I’m also unfamiliar with, so I didn’t get much out of it either.
  • The Lorelei – As you can probably guess, this is a story about the Lorelei myth of Germany. I remember enjoying it, particularly because it has a teenage girl rescuing a boy, rather than vice versa.
  • Stronger Than Time – A melancholy Sleeping Beauty AU in which the Prince didn’t come.
  • Cruel Sisters – A retelling of the same legend told in Loreena McKennit’s The Bonny Swans.
  • Utensile Strength – A funny story featuring Cimorene, Mendanbar, and Daystar (among others) from the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, as well as the Frying Pan of Doom. (Comes with a recipe for Quick After-Battle Triple Chocolate Cake.)

In general, I prefer Wrede’s humorous stories to her more serious ones, so I’d say my favorites were “The Princess, The Cat, and The Unicorn,” “Utensile Strength,” and “The Sixy-Two Curses of Caliph Arenschadd.” However, I enjoyed most of the stories. Like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, it’s also great feminist fiction – nearly all of the stories have female protagonists, with a variety of personalities and skills. There are also several nice depictions of supportive female family relationships and friendships, as well as some that are more dysfunctional.

Although several of the stories (especially the Enchanted Forest ones) are suitable for younger audiences, I’d say most of them are better for young adult and adult readers, rather than children.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)