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)

Apollo 13 Movie Review

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Review:

Tom Hanks has had an almost universally stellar career, but he was knocking it out of the park even more than usual in the mid-90s. Philadelphia in ’93, Forrest Gump in ’94, and Apollo 13 in ’95 – outstanding!

Based on the true story of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission in 1970, this film, which also stars Kevin Bacon, Gary Sinise, Ed Harris, and Bill Paxton, remains one of the most gripping and moving films about outer space ever made. The performances are outstanding throughout. I find it especially inspiring as a tribute to the power of human ingenuity to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, but it also has a great deal to say about the power of the human spirit.

My rating:4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

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Ant-Man Movie Review

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Review:

This review contains minor spoilers.

Marvel’s latest film, Ant-man, is formulaic and predictable (even down to some of the lines of dialogue), but entertaining. Like many Marvel films, it is at its best during its humorous moments and action sequences. I especially enjoyed the final fight between Ant-man and Yellowjacket, which made clever use of a child’s train set. The use of the actual ants was also pretty cool.

Some of the other scenes were too talky (sadly, Peggy Carter’s brief appearance was among these) and the occasional attempts at emotional depth were fails all around. Frankly, I never felt attached enough to any of the characters to care about the emotional pain they felt over their dead/imperiled/estranged wives and daughters. Yawn.

The romance, such as it was, was tacked on to a degree that was actually ridiculous. Coming so fast on the heels of the disastrous Bruce/Natasha in Age of Ultron, I’m tempted to say that Marvel should just give up on romance entirely – its best films, including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers, are notable for having little or no romance at all. Though I am fond of Tony/Pepper and Steve/Peggy, nearly all of Marvel’s most interesting and best-written relationships are canonically platonic friendships (i.e. Steve & Bucky, Clint & Natasha, Tony & Rhodey) or family relationships (i.e. Thor & Loki), not romances. Most of the romances are bland at best. Ant-man‘s romance didn’t even manage to qualify as bland: it was so minor and added so little to the film that it would have been better to leave it out entirely.

However eye-rolling it was, the romance was so minor it doesn’t really deserve to have the longest paragraph in this review. My bigger beef with the film was that it sidelined Hope (and almost completely erased Jan), who was experienced and competent, in favor of (essentially) a random guy off the streets. This is not exactly an uncommon trope, but it felt especially irritating in light of the continuing failure of Marvel to make a Black Widow movie, or any movie with a female protagonist, until Captain Marvel, which isn’t projected to be released until 2018.

Overall, I’d put Ant-man about on par with Thor as an intro solo film (though lacking the benefit of a virtuoso performance comparable to Tom Hiddleston’s Loki) – enjoyable, but not something I’m likely to rewatch over and over.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Mad Max: Fury Road Movie Review

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Review:

Note: This review contains spoilers.

Wowie zowie, counting Cinderella and Age of Ultron, I’ve now seen THREE movies in theaters this year, which may be more than I’ve seen in the previous three years combined. It’s tough getting to the theater when you have a toddler and no babysitter! However, now that he’s in daycare three days a week it’s a lot easier, even though I still feel kind of weird going to the movies in the morning.

Cinderella was a treat for my daughter and Age of Ultron went without saying, thanks to my current Marvel obsession, but Mad Max: Fury Road I went to see for political reasons. I’ve never seen the original Mad Max or either of its other sequels and the trailers for the current sequel/reboot looked weird in a way that was off-putting to me, so before its release I really had no intention of seeing it at all, let alone shelling out seven bucks to see it in theaters. But then the film opened, and people started saying stuff like this about it:

I didn’t expect to see the best female character in an action movie I’ve seen in over a decade.

(Source)

the heroic characters in fury road are literally–LITERALLY, I’M NOT IN ANY WAY EXAGGERATING–fifteen women and tom hardy. i can’t believe this is a movie i saw with my eyes in the year of our lord 2015.

(Source)

The most violent death in the movie was the death of the Bechdel Test, which they dragged behind the car the entire time.

(Source)

The whole movie is about a group of women fleeing toxic patriarchy only to realize that the only way to escape is to topple that system.

(Source)

I like to vote with my pocketbook for stuff, and better female representation in film (especially action and sff) is something I feel pretty strongly about, so clearly I needed to re-evaluate my previous stance on seeing the film!

In fact, Hollywood, I’m going to say this explicitly, just to be sure I’m not misunderstood: I decided to spend $7 bucks to see Mad Max: Fury Road in theaters despite originally having almost zero interest in it because you gave us a movie with a badass female lead who was never sexualized or thrust into an unnecessary romance or love triangle, as well as so many supporting female characters that the Bechdel Test became completely irrelevant. Thank you. I honestly didn’t think you had it in you.

Though I wouldn’t describe Mad Max: Fury Road as groundbreakingly feminist, it hit a lot of feminist notes dead-on in a way that threw many other films and TV shows into kind of stark relief for how much worse they are. For example, one of the things that stood out to me, as someone currently trying to decide whether I want to continue watching Game of Thrones or not in light of its tone-deaf treatment of rape as a trope, was the fact that even though the film makes it 100% clear that the “wives” (several – possibly all? – of whom are pregnant by the revolting Immortan Joe) are escaping a life of sexual slavery and rape and will be subjected to more of the same if they return, their abuse is never shown onscreen and thus is never made titillating or voyeuristic in the way violence – especially sexualized violence – against women so often is in Game of Thrones and (to be fair) many, many other films and TV shows.

Moreover, although the women are treated as objects by Immortan Joe and the other male leaders of the Citadel – and they rebel explicitly against this treatment with the repeated line “We are not things” – the film also balances this treatment of its female characters by making it clear that men are also used as objects. Max himself is literally used as a living blood bag for part of the movie, and though the “warboys” might initially seem to have higher status than either Max or the wives, it’s clear that they are, in fact, regarded as nothing but cannon fodder by the higher status men. As The Verge points out, “When [warboy] Nux encounters the “wives,” they’re the ones who end up trying to help him — not because of women’s civilizing influence, but because they already understand how rigged the system is.”

Aside from the refreshingly feminist themes of the film (bonus points for the subtler environmentalist messages as well), the action scenes were also fucking incredible. The movie is essentially an extended car chase and it reaches new and impressive heights in the art of controlled chaos. As Unfogged points out (I recommend the whole post, which also includes a funny smackdown of the MRA boycott of the film):

The new Mad Max movie may be the most guy movie ever made. The plot is literally Tom Hardy (Mad Max) and Charlize Theron (Furiosa) rescue scantily-clad supermodels. If you asked me when I was 15 to list movie ideas, the list would have gone something like: scantily-clad supermodels, 18 wheelers, guys getting shot, guys getting blown up, fist-fights on top of an 18 wheeler, guys with chainsaws, guys getting run over by 18 wheelers, guys with guitars that shoot fire, and cars crashing into 18 wheelers and blowing up. This list is basically the script for Mad Max: Fury Road. The only thing missing is a helicoper piloted by velociraptors crashing into an 18 wheeler. But there’s always the chance of a sequel.

Though probably not to the degree of a 15 year old guy, as a woman with a weakness for the Rule of Cool, this is the sort of movie that makes me really wish I had design skills – any design skills – because my god, does it look like the design team had fun. Kudos on the awesomely spiky demon cars in particular, though the flame throwing guitar should not be overlooked. The cinematography was also stunningly beautiful, especially the scene as they’re racing towards the dust storm.

On the less pleasant side of things, there was some pretty gross body horror stuff, which is largely what originally turned me off the film after seeing the trailer. I don’t handle body horror very well at all, and there were a couple scenes that made me cringe and hide behind my hands.

Other than that, my only complaint about the film was that there were some poor music choices. Mad Max: Fury Road has relatively little dialogue and a couple of the few scenes with anything approaching a monologue had rather melodramatic music that made the lines seem way more on-the-nose than they would have with something a little subtler and more understated.

The lack of dialogue does, however, give lots of opportunities for some pretty impressive acting with body language and eyes, something I’ve become more attuned to since being bowled over by Sebastian Stan’s work in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Both Hardy and Theron are equally impressive here.

Overall, one of the best action films I’ve seen.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

More commentary I’ve enjoyed:

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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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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.

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)

Man-Eaters of Kumaon Book Review

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Review:

A really well-written and fascinating memoir by Jim Corbett, one of the world’s greatest big game hunters, about his experiences tracking and killing man-eating tigers in India, including the infamous Champawat Tigress, who killed 436 people in Nepal and India before being shot by Corbett in 1907. Although I’m an avid hiker, my tracking skills are basic in the extreme and it was really fascinating getting a peek into the mind of a great tracker like Corbett. The amount of information he could pick up from something as simple as a footprint or tuft of hair was mind-blowing. There’s also quite a bit of interesting information about tiger behavior and habits.

As somebody who is morally opposed to big game hunting, there were a few chapters I found sad and depressing to read, because several of the hunts he discusses in the book were in pursuit of tigers who were not man-eaters and who he killed due to their large size or a similar factor that I don’t consider justification for murder. (Later in life, he apparently had a change of heart and refused to shoot any tiger that was not a proven man-eater, as well as lobbying for the creation of India’s first national park to protect tiger habitat.) However, the chapters on the man-eaters were thrilling reads.

Given the era and society in which he lived and wrote, I was pleasantly surprised by Corbett’s sympathetic treatment of both the poor Indian villagers he was trying to protect and the man-eaters themselves. There were several very moving passages about the courage of some of the tigers’ victims and would-be victims and their families and neighbors, including a brave young woman who chased after the Champawat Tigress with nothing but a sickle after it carried off her sister. Corbett also treats the tigers with respect and explains the factors that made them into man-eaters, with harsh words for his fellow hunters when he discovers bullet wounds that disabled but did not kill the animal, forcing it to turn to easier, human prey.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

The Redwall Series Review

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Review:

The Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, was one of my favorite series when I was growing up. Although I don’t remember for sure, I think I was about 8 when I stumbled upon Mossflower by accident in the library one day. By the time I was a teen, my brother (also a fan) and I had accumulated a whole shelf full of sturdy hardcover Redwall books, many of them dogeared from re-reading.

The series takes place mainly in and around Redwall Abbey, a sanctuary for woodland creatures such as mice, squirrels, moles, hares, and badgers. They clearly need such a sanctuary, because they’re constantly getting attacked by one foul band of evil-doers or another. High adventure ensues, and I’m warning you now, Brian Jacques is a master of cliffhanger chapter endings, so these books are very hard to put down once you start! For this reason, despite their length, they’re a great choice for reluctant readers. Though I wasn’t a reluctant reader myself, I remember receiving the third book, Mattimeo, for Christmas the year I discovered the series and being extremely proud of myself because I finished the whole thing – nearly 500 pages – in a single marathon reading session on the living room couch, while the rest of the family celebrated Christmas around me.

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In addition to being great adventure stories, the series has a lot of humor, and I also credit it with developing my early appreciation for great food descriptions in literature. The descriptions of the feasts are scrumptious. As an adult, I appreciate the many positive role models it contains for both boys and girls.

Eventually, the books started blurring together and becoming more repetitive, or maybe I just outgrew them, so I ultimately stopped reading in my late teens at book 11 (Marlfox), while the series eventually stretched to 23 books by the time of Jacques’s death in 2011. Despite this, I retain a big soft spot for Redwall Abbey and its furry inhabitants. They were some of the defining books of my childhood.

My favorite Redwall books include:

Mossflower

The prequel to Redwall, and the book that first hooked me on the story.  Martin the Warrior teams up with the woodland creatures to overthrow the cruel rule of the wildcat Tsarmina and found Redwall Abbey.

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Mariel of Redwall

A young mouse maid must save her father from pirates. Mariel is one of the best of many great female characters in the Redwall series.

Salamandastron

This book focuses a lot on the badgers of Salamandastron and features another of my favorite Redwall heroines.

Martin the Warrior

More of Martin’s exciting backstory. I won’t lie, I cried like a baby over a certain scene.

The Pearls of Lutra

My favorite of the later books I read.

The series can be read chronologically or in order of publication:

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Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Movie Review

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Review:

I don’t think of myself as being a big fan of Westerns in general, but ironically enough, two of my all-time favorite films are Westerns. Since they both happen to be written by the same guy, it might be more of a William Goldman thing than a Western thing, but even so, I probably shouldn’t discount the genre quite as much as I tend to do.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is one of my parents’ favorite movies and is probably second only to My Cousin Vinny in the frequency with which it’s quoted at family get-togethers. Based loosely on the lives of real-life outlaws Butch Cassidy and Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, it’s one of the greatest buddy comedies ever made, and is loaded from start to finish with laughs, mainly from its witty and memorable dialogue. Paul Newman and Robert Redford are in their prime, both as actors and heart-throbs (luckily, the film is color, so you get the full effect of Newman’s incredible baby blues), and there are also some enjoyable action sequences.

A well-deserved classic and must-see film.

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

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