Avengers: The Age of Ultron (2015)

age of ultron poster

One question that was frequently asked after the first Avengers movie was “why is this character fighting alone? Where are the other Avengers?” Here, we kick off with just that: the gang back together, kicking Hydra butt.

There’s little love for this middle-est of movies, but I enjoyed it fine at the time and more than that now. Now, it’s clear to see what this movie sets up for the future: Wakanda, vibranium, Ulysses Klaue? Ah, Black PantherThanos and the Infinity Stones and Gauntlet = Infinity War / Endgame. How Hulk ends up in RagnorokAnd the bickering between team members is going to walk us straight to Civil War.

But, we still need a movie now, and while this serves well as a bridging between Avengers and future outings, it still has plenty of character development and action.

I’d argue, as ever, Tony Stark is at the heart of this. He’s still traumatised from going through the wormhole in New York, and when new character Scarlet Witch shows him his worst fear – and ooh, is that scene going to be important come Endgame?! – his reactions are both too much, but understandable. Attempting to create a future that does away with the need for the Avengers, his creation, Ultron (wonderfully voiced by James Spader), goes a bit Skynet, seeing the ultimate goal of peace needing a bit of destruction first. Oops.

We also get to see Steve Rogers accepting that ‘the man who went into the ice’ isn’t necessarily who he is now. There is a brief mention of the ‘quest’ from the end of Winter Soldier, making it feel like we’ve not forgotten everyone’s in the middle of something, although events are now more pressing elsewhere.

Perhaps the lack of love for this stems from how tied in it is to everything else. You kind of need to have seen Winter Soldier to understand why SHIELD is in disarray, and the Avengers are now a thing by themselves. The character stuff only makes as much sense when you’ve followed their stories so far.

Of course, not everything is spot on. Personally, I only ‘got’ the whole Nat/Bruce thing when she explicitly explains her interest. And I still hate hate hate the way she talks about being unable to have children and being a ‘monster’ for it – huge misstep in tone. Other revelations are a bit cliched, and there are several scenes that really needed a lot more time to make sense (e.g. Thor’s vision) but which were trimmed for an already over-long movie.

Still. I do love the series, and this is a core slice of that. We also get great scenes like everyone trying to lift Mjolnir (‘mew mew’ forever!) during a party, and a baddie I really like, actually 😉

Released: 23rd April 2015
Viewed: 22nd April 2019 (most recently)
Running time: 141 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7.5/10

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

guardians of the galaxy poster

You’d think by the 10th movie in the MCU I’d’ve learned to trust them. But this was yet another brave-or-stupid move I was so wary of: welcome to ‘Marvel Cosmic’, where we leave behind the thin veneer of ‘reality’ and plunge headlong into a galaxy of talking racoons, walking trees, and aliens with brightly hued skin tones.

On the day his mother dies, Peter Quill is picked up by alien Ravagers, miscreants who loot across the galaxy. However, the tone of the piece is yet to be revealed. We catch up with Peter – aka Star-Lord – 20-odd years later, as he lands on a desolated planet. Where he proceeds to put on headphones, filling the cinema with a tap-along 70s classic, and we watch in disbelieving amusement as he dances along, kicking alien reptiles out of the way and even uses one as a fake microphone. What?!

Knowing nothing about the comics or the characters going in to this – and I had won early preview tickets, so there was no word of mouth either – this one just utterly surprised and delighted me. It doesn’t take itself seriously at all, and the laughs come thick and fast. There’s still a bucket load of action, and omg but it all looks so spectacular. It even manages to pull on a few heartstrings.

It’s also both a completely different feel from the MCU to date, but important in that overreaching mythology that’s only growing as the series progresses. It’s here that we get the first real explanation of the Infinity Stones, after Thor 2‘s post-credit scene confirmed that both the Aether and Tesseract are two of those. We see more of Thanos after his few previous cameos, so this, I feel, is where the whole Infinity Arc is really getting going, and where so much is set up for Infinity War and Endgame.

But most of all it’s just fun. Drax’s inability to understand metaphors. The snark of Rocket – so so good when we all thought a talking, CGI racoon was never going to work. And a walking tree creature with a three word vocabulary? Melted the heart, utterly.

I’ve heard someone suggest the Avengers are the Beatles, and the Guardians more the Stones (no pun intended?) – but they’re as much the Monkees, tbh. And with the soundtrack kicking ass, this movie just rocks 🙂

Released: 31st July 2014
Viewed: 24th July 2014 (prize!) / 18th April 2019 (most recently)
Running time: 121 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 9/10 – pure joy, and so unexpected at the time – and completely rewatchable again and again!

The Power – Naomi Alderman

power cover

“The shape of power is always the same; it is the shape of a tree.”

What if… women developed the ability to generate electricity, enough to shock or even kill. Such a power would surely tip the gender balance – men no longer dominant. How would civilisation adapt?

This is a very cleverly told story, one that is ideal for dissection in a book group. And just a really gripping read. It starts off full of intrigue – what ifs and how and what next – but gets darker and darker.

I can imagine men and women reading such different things into this book. For men, it’s a chilling dystopia, a horror scenario. For women, though, as things get worse it’s less and less fiction and more “yup, this is what it has been like throughout history to be a woman”. Fear of being physically overwhelmed and hurt or raped. Treated like the lesser half of the species; a commodity, or a plaything. I’d love to think a man might read this and realise that this is not some far flung fiction – this is a slice of what it’s like to be female even in the modern age. I was about to say, maybe not on my doorstep – but you know what, pretty much everywhere. Being lucky not to experience the extremes of this gender bias doesn’t mean it’s not happening.

And yet, this isn’t just a feminist book, or a political book. And it’s not all women = good, men = bad. It has as much to say about religion, and history. And yes, power and its corrupting influence.

The framing chapters are excellent, too: letters between two writers (Neil and Naomi), discussing this semi-fictional history of the ‘time before the cataclysm’. The book is then split into a countdown: 10 years to go, 7, 1… What will happen? How?

It wasn’t an easy read – it made me angry, some scenes are extremely shocking (no pun intended!) – but it was indeed a powerful one.

Kindle: 331 pages
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 17th February – 16th March 2019

My rating: 8/10

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

alita poster

When Dr Ido Dyson (Christoph Waltz) finds a cyborg head/heart in the junkyard under the world’s last sky city, he applies his technical expertise to connect it to a new cyborg body. When then girl opens her eyes, she has no memory of who or what she is – time to go explore the world!

Iron City, where our tale is set, lies beneath the only remaining Sky City, a place where many dream of escaping from their working class poverty, servicing the elite above. Shady things go on under the banner of ‘earning’ a trip up; one supposedly sure-fire way is by winning the brutal MotorBall game.

Into this oft dark but always fantastic world, we get to view everything through Alita’s naive eyes. As she slowly begins to have flashbacks, often triggered by violent moments, she starts to realise that she is not what she seems. But, is she an enemy or an unlikely ally? Who are the real villains in this unequal world?

If that’s not the best description I’ve ever managed to write, I’m going to say that it’s not the easiest film to describe. I will heap praise on the visuals, and on the world building (although that comes from the manga, I presume). The CGI to bring an anime-esque, massive-eyed Alita to life is excellently done, if occasionally a bit disturbing.

The world building here is absolutely the best thing about the movie. Cyborg-ism has become commonplace, with really only the brain needing to remain human. Some go for limb replacement to help their jobs, other more shady types are walking around in brutal robot bodies. It’s perhaps more odd that there are as many ‘meat sacks’ as there are still left.

However, a problem lies in the fact that the story is a bit all over the place. Alita’s discovery and introduction to the world are handled well, but obviously not enough action – so we’ll throw in the brutal ball sports. And some vigilantism. And some cyber-kidnapping. And mysterious power structures. And. And. And.

Overall it felt a bit like the film makers loved this world, but didn’t quite know what story to focus on. As a result, nothing comes through strongly, making a bit of a surprisingly bland overall effect. Which is utterly a shame, as a smaller tale showing us just part of this world could have been far more impactful than the odd bursts of drama, action, and tension, that don’t wholly fit together or produce a coherent narrative.

Of course, actually having an ending might have helped the story immensely. As it is, we finally get a bit of momentum going far too near the end – and then it stops. I mean, the film just stops. Clearly they’re expecting a sequel, but I’m not entirely sure it’ll ever arrive.

Released: 6th February 2019
Viewed: 16th February 2019
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 7/10 – 6 at most for the story, but bonus marks for the visuals.

The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi

consuming fire cover

“Years later Lenson Ornill would reflect on the irony that his time as a religious man would be bracketed by a single and particular word.”

The Collapsing Empire was one of my favourite NetGalley finds – so much fun to read, and introducing me to an author I immediately wished to read more from. The story was intriguing, too: in the far future, humanity has spread throughout the stars by means of wormhole-like ‘flow’ paths between planets and habitats that would otherwise take months, years, or longer to travel between. Long cut off from Earth after the collapse of that particular flow, it seems as if other, depended-upon trade routes are also starting to disappear.

Following on from that, we once again join Emperox Grayland II now dealing with what could be the biggest upcoming disaster in any Emperox’s rule. First hurdle: convincing anyone else that the threat is real. Meanwhile, power struggles between ruling houses continue, taking more deadly and downright nasty twists. And on the end of a newly-opened flow, it could be that a long-cut off scion of humanity may not have been destroyed when their link to civilisation was…

I didn’t find CF quite as much fun as CE, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read. Lady Kiva is a bit more reigned in this time, although still a lot of fun. Cardenia is coming into her own. However, the scale of the story takes precedence over characterisation a little. There’s also a bit of ‘middle-book’ syndrome, in that this needs both the preceding and – omg, I have to wait HOW long!?! – sequel.

Still, a very recommended book/series. Even if one bit just made me think ‘Brexit in space’ – argh!! 😉

Kindle: 336 pages / 22 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: The Interdependency book 2
Read from 5th November 2018 – 4th February 2019 (due to receiving excerpt ARC of first few chapters and had to wait to get my hands on the rest, not because I wasn’t enjoying it!)

My rating: 8/10

Mute (2018)

mute poster

Sci fi from the man (Duncan Jones) behind Moon (2009) was all I needed to make me want to watch this. Then the damning reviews starting coming in, and I paused my plans. Fortunately, bad reviews can sometimes make me want to know ‘how bad can it be?’ because in this case, I think they were off the mark!

Leo (Alexander Skarsgård) is the titular mute, unable to speak after a horrific childhood accident, and unwilling to undergo corrective surgery due to his Amish beliefs. Still, he’s happy enough working as a bartender and spending time with the lovely Naadirah – until she goes missing. Leo’s search for his missing girlfriend takes him to darker and darker corners, encountering an increasingly bizarre set of characters.

To say the movie is far from perfect is an understatement, and I can sort of see why some people didn’t take to it at all. The narrative is twisting and the pace snail-slow. But that sort of worked for me. I loved the Blade Runner-esque visuals and world-building. The downright weird characters fascinated me, not least as the cast was fantastic – Paul Rudd, Justin Theroux, an unrecognisable Robert Sheehan – often playing very against type. Their stories start to intertwine, then go off on tangents, then draw together again, in ways that obviously some people hated, but which held me utterly intrigued. Not knowing where on earth this movie could be going was very part of the appeal.

The ending is not as strong as it could have been. But the journey wasn’t half bad at all, despite those negative reviews!

Released: 23rd February 2018
Viewed: 12th January 2019
Running time: 126 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 7.5/10

The Delirium Brief – Charles Stross

delirium brief cover

“It’s twenty past ten at night and I’m being escorted through the glass-fronted atrium of a certain office building in central London.”

Following straight on from events in The Nightmare Stacks, I’m delighted to say we have Bob Howard back as main narrator! Welcome back, Bob 🙂

It really makes a difference – I’ve been a little meh over the last couple of books (starting with Annihilation Score) but this hit the spot much more for me.

Of course, it’s hard to say anything about the plot without huge spoilers for previous books, but suffice to say the extra-reality threats that have been hinted at throughout the series are in full force. The threat level has risen over the course of eight books, and by this point the stakes are as high as can be.

What can go more wrong than tentacled horrors from the deep, or god-like horrors from other dimensions? What about an all-too-realistically dippit government disbanding the agency that stands between us and Them??

If I had to pick fault (and it’s a review, it’s half the point), then to be honest I really wasn’t keen on the sex-as-recruitment stuff; I dunno, it just felt lazy and icky. There’s a tricky path to be trod through the last chapters, as the operation is split into three missions, and we jump back and forth between the three in an almost-too-much fashion.

Overall, though, I really enjoyed this and felt that it was Laundry Files back on form. And best news? I’m about to start the next book to find out the fallout from signing deals with devils…!

Paperback: 435 pages / 11 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: The Laundry Files book 8
Read from 19th-29th December 2018

My rating: 8/10