The See It or Skip It Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase Two

Note: If you haven’t read my guide for Phase One, I recommend you do so before looking over this post. You can read it here.

In case you need a refresher: the purpose of these posts is to streamline the viewing experience for all the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe before the big event known as Avengers: Infinity War releases. This is designed primarily for people who want to see Infinity War, but don’t want to slog through eighteen films to catch up on backstory. In See It or Skip It, I’ll tell you which films you must watch and which ones are safe to skip.

At the time of writing this intro, it’s just been reported that Avengers: Infinity War, originally slated for release May 4th of this year, has had its release date moved up a week to April 27th. It may only be one week sooner, but because March just started that makes the film feel closer than ever. So I finally kicked it into high gear and finished writing this post for Phase Two.

PS: If you haven’t already, go see Black Panther. You really don’t need to know anything about any of the other movies to enjoy it. It’s really, really good. Plus, if you don’t see it now, you probably won’t get to see it before Infinity War releasesJust saying.

Right, let’s get started!

Iron Man 3

Iron man 3

Synopsis: Tony Stark is suffering from PTSD following the events of The Avengers. It doesn’t help that a mysterious terrorist known as the Mandarin is giving him a hard time as well.

Importance to the MCU: Tony’s arc in this film is both a followup to The Avengers a prelude to his motivations in Age of Ultron, but that’s really the only important thing about this film. There’s also the usual bits regarding his relationship with Pepper, but that’s about it. By now you already know whether or not you love Iron Man, so if you care about seeing the full extent of his character arc or you just want to see more stuff blow up, you want to watch this. Otherwise, you’re not missing too much.

Verdict: Skip it, unless you want more Iron Man or want to see some character development.

 

Thor: The Dark World

thor 2

Synopsis: When a race known as the Dark Elves return, Thor must take up his hammer to defend the nine realms once again. Also, Loki is back!

Importance to the MCU: Like its predecessor, Thor and Loki’s sibling rivalry (strained more than ever after The Avengers) is the best part of the film. The film also introduces another one of the Infinity Stones which, coincidentally, will play a large roll in Infinity War. And yet, neither of these make the film essential. A certain plot thread left hanging at the end of the film is resolved almost immediately in Thor Ragnarok (located in Phase Three) so you won’t be too lost if you skip this one.

Verdict: Either or. If you watched the first film and want more Thor and Loki, you might as well. Otherwise, you can skip this.

 

Captain America: The Winter Solider

winter-solider

Synopsis: As if getting adapted to the year 2014 wasn’t hard enough, now Steve Rodgers has to contend with a dangerous assassin known only as The Winter Soldier. Fortunately, he’s got some friends both old and new to help out.

Importance to the MCU: If you only watch one solo film in Phase Two, make it this one. The film changes the status quo of the MCU and nothing is the same afterwards. Plus, it’s one of the best films in the MCU to date and a spectacular action film in its own right.

Verdict: See it. Absolutely see it.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

guardians of the galaxy

Synopsis: In this intergalactic journey, Peter Quill a.k.a. Star Lord, finds himself allied with assassin Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, a genetically engineered raccoon named Rocket, and a humanoid tree named Groot. And then things get crazy.

Importance to the MCU: Guardians is the second Marvel film to take us beyond Earth (Thor being the first). We see a little more of big baddie Thanos (you know, the guy we’ve been building to) and Gamora is the first character we meet with a direct connection to him, though that’s not a focal point of this film. There’s also another Infinity stone introduced and we get a little more background on just what they’re about. While the plan is for these characters to finally unite with the Avengers in Infinity WarGuardians is far removed from pretty much everything that’s been happening in the MCU thus far. If you decided to skip to Avengers: Age of Ultron, you wouldn’t miss anything. All this stuff will come into play later.

Verdict: I’d say see it…at some point before Infinity WarThe movie is a blast and you’re going to want to know what the Guardians are about when they show up in Infinity War, but you don’t need to watch it right away.

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron

age of ultron

Synopsis: Tony Stark tries to make the world a safer place with his new Ultron program. Instead, Ultron becomes sentient and, well, you do the math. The Avengers must band together once again to save the world, this time with the help of the Maximoff twins: Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.

Importance to the MCU: It’s an Avengers film, so it’s important by default. We meet new characters and the team itself is fundamentally changed by the film’s end.

Verdict: See it, of course.

 

Ant-Man

ant man

Synopsis: Fresh out of prison, Scott Lang gets swept up into a heist devised by Dr. Hank Pym. His role involves donning the Ant-Man suit, which allows him to do exactly what you’d expect.

Importance to the MCU: This film is a lot of fun, not least of all because it’s basically a superhero heist film. However, for the purposes of this post, I can’t say it’s essential. Ant-Man makes an appearance in Captain America: Civil War, but his powers are pretty self-explanatory and he’s fun to watch even without much context. I can’t tell how important important he’ll be in Infinity War just yet, but I’m confident in saying you’ll learn all the basics about him in Civil War.

Verdict: Worth watching, but not essential prep for Infinity War. Skip it.

And that’s it Phase Two! Let’s look at all the films we’ve labeled as See it thus far:

Iron Man
Captain America: The First Avenger
The Avengers
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Guardians of the Galaxy (at some point before Infinity War)
Avengers: Age of Ultron

That’s only six films out of the twelve we’ve examined thus far, so your prospective viewing time has been cut in half. The next post will focus on Phase Three, and that’s going to be tricky for a few reasons: 1) this is the most current Phase; 2) The importance of some films are uncertain because they feature brand new characters and we don’t know how big their roles will be in Infinity War; and 3) There are still three more films slated for release in Phase Three following Infinity War‘s release. So I’m not sure if I’ll be making a post for Phase Three before Infinity War is released or after its release so that I can truly say which films are important. Either way, expect to see it soon.

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The Good Bits: January 2018

I didn’t have a ton of new stuff to write about in the first month of the new year, so you’ll on this month’s edition you’ll find write ups for an album I like but don’t love, a film from May 2017, and a book that was okay.

 

Music:

Machine Head, Catharsis (Nuclear Blast)

MachineHead-Catharsis

Machine Head’s new album Catharsis has proven to be pretty controversial. With each song that dropped before the album’s release, reactions from fans and publications ranged from confused to enraged. Now it’s here, and reviews have been brutal. Why? Well, Machine Head is one of the best modern metal bands out there. They had a hot start in the 90’s, fell to the wayside in the early 2000’s when they went nu metal, and then entered a renaissance with four brilliant albums including The Blackening, now considered a masterpiece, especially by yours truly. But all bands go through a series of highs and lows, and now that the band has released an album that can’t match up to its predecessors its been the subject of scorn. Here’s my take: no, I don’t think Catharsis is one of Machine Head’s better albums, but I also don’t think it’s the horrendous train wreck fans and reviewers are claiming it is.

I actually quite enjoyed the first couple tracks. “Volatile” gets things moving quickly and the title track is pretty good.  They all sound like Machine Head and what’s more they all sound like good Machine Head. It’s tracks like “Triple Beam” and the much derided “Bastards” that have caused so much disdain, and I can understand why. The former is a nu metally song with some good riffs, but the lyrics about a drug deal gone wrong are…kinda weird. Lyrically it’s not something you’d expect from the likes Machine Head. “Bastards”, meanwhile, is even more bizarre: a punky, Dropkick Murpheys type song that sticks out on the record like a very sore thumb. It’s not bad per se, it just doesn’t fit with the rest of the album.

Really the album’s biggest issues are cohesiveness and length. Lots of songs like those mentioned above take the tone of the album in a whole different direction. It’s also 75 minutes lone with 15 tracks, which is entirely too long for my taste. So, why’s Catharsis on The Good Bits if there’s so many flaws? Because I love Machine Head, and I had a good time listening to this album even if I don’t think it’s one of the band’s best. Time will be the true test just like everything else, but I’m still willing to give it a few more spins.

 

Film:

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians of the galaxy 2

This is the first Marvel film I neglected to see in theaters since Iron Man 3but not because I didn’t want to see it. Luckily for me, it’s on Netflix, so I got to sit down and watch the sequel to the film that everyone was sure was going to Marvel first big misfire but instead turned out to be a funny stylish sci-fi romp that also repopularized Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” and other songs that came out some 35 years before Marvel’s target audience was even born. I heard that Vol. 2 was more of that same, and it is for the most part: lots of jibs between the main characters, humor that leans hard on the PG-13 rating, big colorful action sequences, and more classic music. But you know what? I think I like this film even more than the first, and I couldn’t tell you exactly why. It might be because we got to see and learn more about minor characters like Yondu and Nebula. It might because Kurt Russell is fantastic as Ego a.k.a. Peter’s father. Or maybe it’s the part where an entire planet’s armada of spaceships doubles as an arcade game. Whatever the reason, I got a little more out of this one. The first Guardians was a great surprise no doubt, but there was something about Vol. 2 that gave it a bit more heart. Maybe it’s because they used “Father and Son” by Cat Stevens at the end.

 

Books:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

the road

I have such mixed feeling on this book. On the one hand, it’s a little too prosy for my taste. On the other, the prose works for the kind of story McCarthy is trying to tell. It kind of reminded me that, as a writer, you shouldn’t be afraid to eschew conventions if it’s what your creative drive is telling you what to do. And I admire and respect all that and there are parts where the descriptions are beautifully haunting and, hey, maybe I’d like one of McCarthy’s other books better. Overall, however, I can’t say I loved it, and I think that’s less to do with novel and more with my particular reading tastes. I thought of writing about the movie above in the “Films” section (I watched it almost immediately after I finished reading) but it’s a pretty straightforward adaptation of the book. If anything, The Road taught me that you really don’t have to always read the book before the film, and that’s admittedly an important lesson.

 

Currently Reading:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

ready player one

Remember that whole bit I just spewed about not needing to read the book before seeing the film? In my defense, I’ve had Ready Player One on my reading list for quite some time and decided that since the film comes out next month it was time to grab it. And holy hell, I’ve only got about 100 pages left. This had been a really quick read so far thanks to the novel’s fast paced thriller plotting nature, ending almost every chapter with a stinger that has you itching to turn the page despite the fact that it’s 2AM. More on this one next month.

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The Best Bits: 2017 feat. Bee

Here it is: the best of the best from 2017. The list of albums is comprised of music from every genre. If you want to see the purely metal/rock top 10, you can find it on Metal Insider (spoiler: it’s not that different).

I also did things a little differently for the best films of 2017. My wife and I watched 26 new movies last year, so I decided why not reflect on all of them together? You’ll find our thoughts, both good and bad, on all those movies as well as our individual top 5 films of the year. Hope you enjoy.

Top 10 Albums of 2017:

1. Mutoid Man, War Moans (Sargent House)

mutoid man 

There was a lot of good music this year, but nothing stuck with me quite like Mutoid Man’s second album. It’s fast, catchy, and the most fun I’ve had with an album in a long time. Every track is a winner, especially the slower, sobering finale “Bandages”.

 

2. Steven Wilson, To the Bone (Caroline)

steven wilson 

I’m a Steven Wilson fanboy through and through, but album after album he’s proven there’s a reason for that. I wasn’t sure how To The Bone was going to match up to 2015’s sublime Hand. Cannot. Erase., but it’s another winner in Wilson’s stellar discography.

 

3. Trivium, The Sin and the Sentence (Roadrunner)

 trivium

I’m a long-time Trivium fan, but I’d be lying if I said I loved their more recent releases. That said, The Sin and the Sentence is everything that I ever loved about Trivium in the first place. High school Matthew would be very happy with this album.

 

4. Elder, Reflections of a Floating World (Stickman)

elder 

I tried to get into Elder a few years ago, and it didn’t take. But the strange sonic journey that is Reflection of a Floating World has me ready to take a dive into the band’s back catalogue.

 

5. Ghost Bath, Starmourner (Nuclear Blast)

ghost bath 

Moonlover was my favorite album of 2015 and has since become one of my favorite albums of all time. I wasn’t sure Starmourner was going to be a worthy followup. I’m glad I was wrong.

 

6. Ne Oblvisicaris, Urn (Season of Mist)

ne obliviscaris 

Ne Obliviscaris’s first two albums were good, but they didn’t grab me with such immediacy as Urn. I let the album repeat as soon as it was over.

 

7. Leprous, Malina (InsideOut)

Leprous-Malina

Leprous continue to release meticulously crafted music. Einar Solberg is proof that someone in metal does have the voice of an angel.

 

8. Astralia, Solstice (Aloud Music)

astralia

I discovered Astralia last year while looking for instrumental post-rock music that I could work to. Their new album is a soundscape of soothing atmospherical tracks that can take you places if you let it. “Farewell and Encounter” features a spoken word passage that makes the album that much more gorgeous.

 

 

9. Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore)

bell witch 

This 83 minute single track album is the most moving piece of music I’ve listened to this year. It’s not for the impatient or faint of heart, but it is one hell of a journey.

 

 

 10. Iron & Wine, Beast Epic (Sub Pop)

iron and wine

Sam Beam has crafted another winner with Beast Epic. It’s a perfect melding of all the different sounds that Beam has weaved together on previous releases, from the upbeat poppier tracks to the contemplative acoustic passages.

 

Honorable Mentions:

Anathema, The Optimist (Kscope)
TWRP, Ladyworld (Self-Released)
Converge, The Dusk in Us (Epitaph/Deathwish)

 

Thoughts on 26 Films from 2017:

1. Fifty Shades Darker

Matt: It’s just like its predecessor: decent cinematography and soundtrack, but boring and sexless. The best thing I can say about it is that there’s only one more to suffer through.

Bee: Better than the first one, but only barely. Still holding out for them to adapt The Boss series.

 

2. Get Out

Matt: I feel like horror films are better now than they’ve ever been, and Get Out is proof of that. Take a bit of Rosemary’s Baby and mix it with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and you get one of the most important films of the year ripe with tension as the mystery unfolds.

Bee: Horror movies have always been well posed for weaving in social commentary. Get Out is nothing anyone would call subtle, but the humor and skill keep it from being too ham-fisted. Instant classic, and one I have already rewatched.

 

3. Logan

Matt: Logan marks the end of an era in bittersweet but awe-inspiring fashion. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart both showed up with some of the best acting of their careers and newcomer Dafne Keene has a bright future ahead of her. This was without a doubt my favorite superhero film of the year.

Bee: I’m going to be honest, I didn’t find the plot to be anything special, but that’s excusable because the acting in this film is nothing short of genius. Stewart is fantastic and heartwrenching as always, Jackman will make you weep for all the watered down Wolverine movies of the past, and Keene delivers nothing less than a jaw-dropping debut.

 

4. Kong: Skull Island

Matt: A campy, ridiculous, 70’s tinged monster flick might not offer much we haven’t seen before, but it’s a whole lot of fun. If watching Kong smashing monsters in the face with a tree trunk turned baseball bat isn’t enough for you, John C. Reilly and Samuel L. Jackson should keep you entertained.

Bee: This was one of those odd movies that I walked out of the theatre loving, but the more I thought about it the more issues I had with it. It wastes its strong talent, offers little to no character development, and is utterly predictable. That being said, it’s gorgeous, and has a giant gorilla fighting…skeleton lizards? If you liked Pacific Rim you’ll likely enjoy this.

 

5. Beauty and the Beast

Matt: I can’t say that any of the Disney live-action remakes have blown me away, but they’re certainly very well crafted. Beauty in the Beast is much the same with new workings of its memorable score and an admittedly impressive rendition of the original film’s famous ballroom scene.

Bee: A perfectly passable re-envisioning of a classic. The CGI was a little over the top for my tastes, but I have a rather biased love for practical effects. Worth a watch, but in no way touches the original. Except Luke Evans, he can stay.

 

6. The Circle

Bee: The first half of the movie does a great job of setting the stage for an eerie dystopia run by Google, but ultimately fails to provide satisfying follow-through or conclusion to the themes it introduces.

Matt: The movie has a great cast and teases a decent build up, but it all ends up feeling far too on the nose. It all kind of ends with a shrug rather than a poignant statement on technology in the world today.

7. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Bee: BOY do they play fast and loose with a lot of the mythology here, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t enjoy every moment of this movie. Good world-building, great cast, beautiful sets, stellar soundtrack, and Charlie Hunnam is just fantastic.

Matt: This is not a film for Arthurian purists, but it is a solid action adventure film. Its stylish action set pieces and anachronistic tone provide enough entertainment that any moments of head scratching over the plot can be overlooked.

 

8. Alien: Covenant

Bee: Better than Prometheus. Fassbender continues to be the strongest part of this reboot. I’m hesitant to see how the series will unfold, but for now I’m still invested.

Matt: Ridley Scott proves once again that he knows how to shoot horror and how to make a movie look damn good. It’s not a particularly inspired entry; an Alien movie can only go so many ways. Still, Fassbender holds it all together with his dual performance, so it’s worth showing up for him if nothing else.

 

9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Bee: Better than I expected. Watch this movie for the music, stunning visual effects, and ship battles versus plot and character development and you’ll have a good time.

Matt: It’s not an amazing film and it’s not as good as the first three (never saw the fourth), but it’s not bad. The Pirates movies certainly know how to deliver unique action set pieces, and this one’s full of them.

 

10. Wonder Woman

Bee: A true beacon for the genre. This movie, more so than any superhero film to date, left me feeling hopeful and inspired. Gal Gadot has proved all of my initial concerns wrong at every turn and I couldn’t be happier.

Matt: It’s been long overdue, but a Wonder Woman film is finally here and it delivers on every level. The “No Man’s Land” scene will go down as one of the most iconic superhero movie moments in history, not least of all because it represents what we all want from a hero like Diana: hope in the face of overwhelming odds and the resilience to overcome them.

 

11. The Big Sick

Matt: A genuinely hilarious romantic comedy that manages to touch on many different subjects surrounding family, race, and cultural expectations. Kumail Nanjiani is brilliant and delivers a warm balance of laughs as well as heart.

Bee: Heartfelt, hilarious, and honest; this is my kind of comedy. A romantic comedy that is actually grounded in reality, and for all its dramatics feels genuinely relatable. I can only hope that the success of this film leads to more of this kind in the future.

 

12. Baby Driver

Matt: The best action film of the year bar none. Director Edgar Wright has another winner in his already stellar filmography. Featuring slick editing, a killer soundtrack, and some of the best car stunts you’ll ever see, Baby Driver is high-octane action at its finest.

Bee: A classic example of the plot summary is not doing the movie justice. More character driven than a heist movie, more emotionally grounded than a car chase movie, more glued-to-your-seat than a drama, this movie hits it out of the park any way you look at it. My pick for best of 2017.

 

13. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Matt: Spider-Man’s in the MCU, and while the idea of rebooting the character again after five years may give cause for eye-rolling, don’t be fooled. This is a light-hearted and funny superhero film that captures what Peter Parker and Spidey are all about. Plus, Michael Keaton absolutely steals the show as the villain Vulture.

Bee: As a card carrying member of the Toby Maguire is the best Spiderman club, this wasn’t half bad. Holland more than carries the physical requirements of the role and, while his Spidey currently lacks some of the characteristic snark, it’s a refreshing take on the role. A fresh take on both Aunt May and MJ were welcome shake-ups, and Keaton’s Vulture is one of the most engaging Marvel villains in recent memory.

 

14. War for the Planet of the Apes

Bee: Not my personal favorite out of the three, but an ultimately satisfying and well orchestrated conclusion to a truly magnificent trilogy. If you are at all a fan of visual effects, these movies are a must.

Matt: The conclusion to the Apes reboot trilogy manages to sidestep the “underwhelming third movie” curse. The mo-cap performances, led by Andy Serkis, are as captivating as ever and Matt Reeves’s direction is masterful.

 

15. Dunkirk

Matt: Christopher Nolan delivers yet another winner in this trim, tense World War II film. The driving focus on survival keeps you locked in from the get-go and even though the film’s subject involves defeat it doesn’t miss the chance to feel inspired by the time the credits roll.

Bee: Now I’m certainly not what anyone would call a Nolan fan-boy but the man knows how to tell a story. In an age where violence and shock value are used as selling points, he proves you don’t need copious amounts of blood to tell a gripping war story. Tense, well-paced, with just the right balance of emotion, I’ll have to admit Nolan earned his praise for this one.

 

16. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Matt: The plot of the film doesn’t offer up anything spectacular, but the prologue and opening chase sequence are some of the best and most entertaining use of special effects I’ve seen this year.

Bee: Bland plot but goodness this movie is pretty and fun. Great special effects, gloriously extravagant chase scenes, and Rihanna as a morphing space blob burlesque dancer. What’s not to love?  

 

17. The Dark Tower

Bee: Out of all the Dark Tower installments “The Gunslinger,” which provides most of the material for this movie, should have been the easiest to adapt. Instead it’s a hard-to-follow mess which unacceptably alters the core of its main characters. Just read the book.

Matt: I’ve waited a long time for this film. While it’s great seeing Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey bring two of Stephen King’s most famous characters to life, The Dark Tower is a drab, soulless action film. If they try adapting this again, I hope lessons will be learned.

 

18. Logan Lucky

Matt: I can’t tell you how much this movie surprised me in all right ways. It steeps itself in southern culture, particularly NASCAR, but leans on smart writing and intriguing characters rather than relying on the overdone self-parody we’re so used to seeing. Plus, Daniel Craig steals the show with one of his best roles yet.

Bee: I never would have expected a comedy-heist movie centered on blue collar Southerners and NASCAR to be one of my top movies of the year but here we are. Surprisingly subtle acting paired with a tight plot and genuinely interesting characters make for a refreshing and enjoyable view.

 

19. It

Matt: It is a better horror film than it is an adaptation; it’s a great fun to watch, but some changes were made that left me scratching my head. Still, the kids are all great and the camaraderie built between them is well depicted. This is probably the best you could do when adapting a book as long and as detailed as It.

Bee: Much more a coming of age film and much less a horror film, but not in a bad way. The kids are all fantastic, Bill Skarsgard is horrifyingly mesmerizing as Pennywise, and I can’t wait for the second installment. Fans of Stranger Things would love this.

 

20. American Assassin

Bee: Whether you’re watching it for the explosions and gunfire, Dylan O’Brien’s forearms, or for Michael Keaton being, well, Michael Keaton, you’ll have a good time. Ultimately forgettable, but an enjoyable watch.

Matt: This is one of those action movies you’ll flip to while watching TV and leave there because nothing else is on. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Michael Keaton is great fun and the action itself is done well enough to keep you watching.

 

21. Blade Runner 2049

Bee: It was long, it was slow, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the ending, but I would watch it again which is a large improvement from the first movie.

Matt: Watching this film is what I wanted to feel like watching the original Blade Runner. Beautiful cinematography and a palpable atmosphere weave in and around this film, spearheaded by a stellar Ryan Gosling, and delivers a sci-fi epic that may be long, but makes for quite the experience.

 

22. Thor: Ragnarok

Bee: Passably enjoyable, but I ultimately don’t feel that it offers much to the franchise. Cate Blanchett is laughable as one of the most cardboard cutout villains in the MCU. The Hulk is reduced to a comedic sidekick. Wake me up when Black Panther opens.

Matt: Definitely the best of the three Thor films. Thor finally gets to be the star of his own movie (as opposed to Loki) and while upping the comedy might not jive well with some, I enjoyed the many laughs mixed in with the crazy effects driven action.

 

23. Murder On The Orient Express

Bee: A fantastically over the top murder mystery that left me guessing until the end. Kenneth Branagh is lavishly flamboyant as always, and it was a treat.

Matt: Well filmed, well cast, and serves as a great reintroduction of Agatha Christie’s famous detective. Here’s hoping we get more movies with Kenneth Branagh and his killer moustache.

 

24. Justice League

Bee: Worth seeing just to watch Diana unapologetically roast Bruce. Ezra Miller is utterly brilliant as The Flash. The movie is a mess, but the characters and cast are solid, and I’m tentatively looking forward to more.

Matt: The mix of Zack Snyder’s and Joss Whendon’s two styles doesn’t really work and Superman’s return isn’t as triumphant as it should’ve been, but the film is fun all the same. Seeing these six heroes on screen together still made me giddy.

 

25. The Shape of Water

Bee: Pure beauty. This will not be most people’s cup of tea, but every single thing about this movie is artfully done. Guillermo continues to create some of the most unique and moving stories of his time, and watching Doug Jones continues to be a thing of magic. Not an Abe Sapien origin story. Sorry.

Matt: A wonderfully mature fairy tale bound together by a touching romance between a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) and a fishman (Doug Jones). This is Guillermo Del Toro at his finest.

26. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Matt: Rian Johnson delivers a watershed film for the Star Wars saga. It does everything a sequel to The Force Awakens needed to do and the constant subverting of expectations offers brilliant results. Mark Hamill delivers his best performance yet and Carrie Fisher’s final performance makes the viewing that much more emotional.

Bee: Everything the middle child of a trilogy should be and then some. Perfect balance of bittersweet victories, satisfying character arcs, and the best lightsaber fight scene since Episode I. Grab a snack because it’s a long one, but trust me, you won’t mind one bit.
Top 5 Films of 2017:

Matt:
1. Logan
2. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
3. Dunkirk
4. Baby Driver
5. The Shape of Water

Bee:
1. Baby Driver
2. Wonder Woman
3. The Shape of Water
4. Logan
5. Logan Lucky

 

Favorite TV Show:

Godless

godless

This limited-series on Netflix is a violent and gritty western, but it’s the great acting and characters that kept me hooked. A tense build-up and a satisfying conclusion makes for one of the best westerns I’ve seen in a long time.

 

Favorite Book:

It by Stephen King

It_cover

So I’m a few years late on this one. The sheer depth and detail King invests in his characters and the town of Derry, Maine makes for an unforgettable experience and one that was hard to leave behind.

 

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The Good Bits: December 2017

Happy New Year and all that. Here’s what I was up to at the end of 2017.

Music:

No new music this month actually. I’ll put up my best music of 2017 soon.

 

Film:

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Last Jedi

the-last-jedi-theatrical-poster-film-page_bca06283

I loved The Last Jedi. It did everything that a sequel to The Force Awakens needed to do: character development, revelations, new characters to meet and planets to explore, callbacks to previous films that softly stoke the fires of nostalgia without getting out of control, and a whole lot of emotional payoff. But what strikes me most about this film is its meta narrative. While the film certainly contains story elements of two of its predecessors (namely The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), there are many moments that don’t play out the way you’d expect, and while these moments may be jarring at first, you can look back and see that the film has been telling you to watch out all along. There are two very important lines spoken in the film’s trailer: “Let the past die” and “This is not going to go the way that you think.” This speaks mountains about the film’s intent as it dangles familiar story beats in front of the audience before yanking them away. Expectations are subverted left and right, and the result is a Star Wars film that is both familiar and unique, knowledgable about its past while keeping its eyes on the future. I knew I would love the film, but now I think that after repeated viewings it has the potential to be my new favorite film in the franchise (right now it’s the original, a.k.a.  A New Hope). No, I’m not joking.

Ah, but I know why you’re really here: you want to know what I think of all the controversy and divisiveness. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably seen The Last Jedi already and have already decided that it’s either one of the best films in the franchise or that it’s on par with the Star Wars Holiday Special, meaning it was horrible. Now, I’ve posted about a lot of films on here these past two years that lots of people hated (Batman v. Superman and Suicide Squad to name a few) and I’ve understood the divisive critical reaction to these films for the most part. But the sheer vitriol being lobbed at The Last Jedi simply astounds me. It’s one thing to say “I dislike these things about the movie” and a whole other thing to say “It’s a dumpster fire and needs to be removed from canon.” I understand that by bringing this up I’m just drawing more attention to the backlash, but it’s much too big a topic now not to be ignored. I really don’t feel like going through every single contentious point in the movie and arguing about it on this post, so if you’ve got something you want to ask/argue with me about, by all means comment or message me. I’m all ears.

At the time of writing I’ve seen the film twice and I can confirm it’s not a fluke; I loved The Last Jedi the second time as much as the first. Really, the only thing I’m disappointed about is that Johnson isn’t going to be finishing out the trilogy with Episode IX. But that’s still a ways off and at least he’s getting the chance to make his own trilogy soon. For now I intend to bask the in brilliance of the latest entry in the Star Wars saga for years to come.

 

The Shape of Water

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Guillermo del Toro has a thing for creating fascinating creatures from giant bottom of the sea dwelling kaiju to blood soaked ghosts of the murdered variety. This time around, we have a spindly fishman that will remind many del Toro fans of Abe Sapien from the Hellboy films or else Creature from the Black Lagoon. But this isn’t a superhero film nor is it a horror film; The Shape of Water is a weird, entrancing mature fairytale that is sure to leave a few people scratching their heads, but will nevertheless delight viewers with spectacular acting and visuals.

In the early 1960’s, Sally Hawkins plays a mute woman working in a secret government facility because Cold War. She meets one of the top secret projects: an amphibious creature known as the “Asset.” What follows is something akin to a Beauty and the Beast-type tale, but there’s more to it than that. The “beauty” is a mute, which means for some people she’s just a pretty object that walks and acts human, but isn’t quite on their level. Then there’s her two closest friends: a black woman and a gay man. And the antagonist is a manly, American Christian Colonel who has a hard on for ladies who know when to shut up and did I mention this takes place in the early 1960’s? The questions “who’s the real monster” or “what makes you human” aren’t new to films of this nature, but The Shape of Water follows through in such a beautiful, mystifying manner that you’ll drop all comparisons as you watch the central romance unfold.

 

Books:

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

the alloy of law

The original Mistborn trilogy introduced me to the brilliance of Brandon Sanderson’s writing, specifically his approach to world-building, magic systems, and subverting fantasy tropes. Naturally, I was happy to return to Sanderson’s world with the first novel in what has become known as the Wax and Wayne series set some 300 years after the events of the original trilogy. If you’ve never read Mistborn, it’s sort of like X-Men only there’s a finite amount of powers and they’re not an allegory for homosexuality. People can push or pull on metal or manipulate people’s emotions by “burning” metals, and those are just a few. Sanderson makes this system even more interesting by introducing cause and effect when it comes to certain powers. For example, one may push a metal object like, say, a coin away from them with ease and sent it flying in the air. But if one pushes on a metal object heavier than them, they will be pushed back.

The most exciting thing about re-entering the world of Mistborn is the new possibilities presented. Part of the fun of the original trilogy was seeing how characters with allomancy found new ways to utilize their powers and how they effected the world. That’s still a big part of The Alloy of Law, which not only presents the tricky factor of how the powers interact with new technology (namely guns and bullets rather than swords and daggers) but also how these powers evolved over the course of 300 years. I had lots of fun seeing the powers I remembered, but there was plenty of new interesting stuff to suggest all new mysteries saved for future books. Compared to the original trilogy, which dealt with overthrowing an evil empire and systematic oppression, this series is starting off on a smaller scale and is lighter in tone. The characters are entertaining and though they spend a lot of time exchanging jibs or quips they’re far from two-dimensional. There’s enough backstory surrounding the three main characters to suggest many different plot threads to explore in future books, which I will of course delve into after I get my hands on Oathbreaker.

 

Currently Reading:

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

the road

This has been on my list a while as one of those “read it before watching the movie” books. And so far…it’s okay. McCarthy’s style isn’t really to my taste, more focused on prose than story or dialogue. That’s not a bad thing in of itself; Station Eleven, another post-apocalyptic novel written by Emily St. John Mandel, is a wonderfully written book with an even balance of plot and prose. The Road so far certainly has beautifully written passages, but then I occasionally get distracted the non-linear flow or the lack of punctuation marks such as quotes for dialogue or apostrophes (he spells “don’t” as “dont” and “can’t” as “cant”). I’m halfway through, so I’ll finish it, but so far it’s just okay.

 

Currently Watching:

Godless – Miniseries on Netflix

Actually, I’ve already finished watching this but it’s the most recent show I’m “currently watching.” Godless is a western miniseries, and a damn good one too. It primarily focuses on a criminal known as Frank Griffin (Jeff Daniels), a woman harboring an injured outlaw, and a town populated almost entirely by women. There’s a great build-up over the series’ seven episodes as backstories are explored and relationships are developed and it ultimately delivers a satisfying conclusion. Perhaps most impressive is that while Godless doesn’t do anything drastically different or groundbreaking with the western genre, there’s enough subtle subversion and feminist overtones to distinguish it from the crowd.

 

Currently Playing:

Doom (Xbox One)

Finally got my hands on Doom at Christmas. Best shooter I’ve played in years.

 

Middle-Earth: Shadow of War (Xbox One)

I’ve only played a bit of this one. I’ll probably go full-force after beating Doom.

 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

I picked this up again so I have something to play while my wife plays Assassin’s Creed: Origins. It’s still as wonderful as I remembered.

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The Good Bits: November 2017

November was stuffed, so much so that it’s been a slow process getting this all written up. Also, I’ve posted by Top 10 albums of 2017 on Metal Insider, so go ahead and check that out. That particular list is mostly reserved for metal music, so there will be a slightly different albums of the year list when I make up my Best Bits of 2017 post in January.

 

Music:

Converge, The Dusk In Us (Epitaph/Deathwish)

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I got into Converge late in the game. The band was already highly revered and respected when their 2012 album All We Love We Leave Behind released. I was interning at a radio promotion company and everyone, not just metal department, was practically jittering with excitement over the new album. I was hesitant at first, believing based on what little I’d heard that the band wasn’t my cup of tea. But I finally sat down and listened to the album from beginning to end. Then I saw Converge live. Then I found myself plowing through their back catalogue and came to understand what I’d been missing. Of course, I became a fan before a five-year gap between albums, the longest yet for the band. And while I’ve enjoyed the many other acts associated with members of the band (Mutoid Man, for one), I’ve kept a watchful eye out for Converge’s next release. Now it’s here. And I’m happy.

“A Single Tear” gets things started just like any other Converge album: an energetic opener that grabs you by the shirt and tosses you into the melee. The standouts for me are “Under Duress”, one of the heaviest slabs of music to grace my ears this year, and the title track, a much slower, quieter track that acts as a haunting intermediate before the other half of the album begins.

 

Bell Witch, Mirror Reaper (Profound Lore)

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This is not an easy listening album. Even some metalheads might not take to this album so quickly. The album is a single track that runs over 80 minutes long. That’s a very long runtime compared to any album, let alone a single track. It came out back in October and I gave it a listen then let it steep. Now, I’m listening to it again at the time of writing. It’s a fascinating album that doesn’t put forth any infectious energy or hooky riffs/lyrics. It’s a heavy, slow (and I do mean slow) and haunting album that creeps upon your mind like a thick fog before engulfing you completely. It’s almost meditative in nature with droning guitars and vocals that stretch for miles on this monolithic journey.  All this from the just the two-members that make up the band named Bell Witch.

 

Ninja Sex Party, Under the Covers Vol. II (Self-Released)

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Last year, Ninja Sex Party released Under the Covers to exuberant reception from both NSP and Game Grumps fans, myself included. Vol. II features more covers of well-loved 70’s and 80’s hits that fans of the first album will just eat up. The standouts are “Africa”, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”, “Heat of the Moment,” and “Rocket Man”. Like the last album, it’s worth noting this album might not offer much for people not already fans of NSP or GG. They’re great covers but I could understand why someone would listen to “Limelight” and think “Okay, but why I don’t I just go listen to Rush’s original instead?” Still, everyone enjoys a good cover, and I enjoy this one even more than the first.

 

Film:

Thor: Ragnarok 

thor

The Thor films are often regarded as some of the MCU’s weaker movies. They aren’t bad (I happen to like them) but compared to the likes of other two trilogies for Iron Man and Captain America, they aren’t held in the as high regard. Part of the problem is that Thor isn’t usually the most interesting character in his own movie. Seriously, the reason most people went to see Thor: The Dark World was for Loki. Some people will tell you Natalie Portman ruined both movies (which I think is kind of unfair but whatever) and some will simply say that they’re both just boring CGI fests compared to the visceral action from the Cap movies or the dazzling visuals of Guardians of the Galaxy. So director Taika Waititi stepped in and delivered a movie that addresses most of those complaints: Thor is very entertaining, Portman’s character has been written out, and the visuals have been punched up by borrowing from the sci-fi nature of Guardians. Oh, and the Hulk is in it.

The only MCU movie I’ve yet to see is Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, but I think I can still safely say that Thor: Ragnarok is the most comedic film in the MCU thus far. It’s loaded with in-universe jokes and Chris Hemsworth demonstrates excellent comedic chops. You might hear some people say it’s almost too funny, but that’s going to kind of come to down to how you feel about the MCU overall, as many of its films (Spider-Man: Homecoming, Ant-Man, Guardians) are packed with humor. I personally enjoyed it all and it never detracts from all the actions, of which there is a lot. The much touted Thor vs. Hulk fight is great and a flying vehicle sequence at the end of act 2 is an entertaining culmination of the zany sci-fi/fantasy visuals and action.

Though Hemsworth’s Thor was given much-needed attention, the rest of the cast shines as well: Tom Hiddleston can still play Loki in his sleep; Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is appropriately Jeff Goldblum-y; Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner/Hulk finally returns to the fold (and hopefully building up to a satisfying concluding story arc in Avengers: Infinity War); Tessa Thompson is thankfully getting into more and more films and kicks ass as Valkyrie; Cate Blanchett is a great villain (even though Marvel still can’t seem to make their one-off villains compelling enough); Idris Elba’s Heimdall gets more to do this time around; and director Taika Waititi’s role as Korg will be a long-lasting fan favorite. My biggest criticism of the film is reserved for the only character I did not mention: Karl Urban’s Skurge. This is because Skurge might as well not be in the film at all and is a waste of Urban’s talent. His arc (bad guy questions whether or not his boss is actually chill) isn’t very compelling and he never really interacts with the main characters. So he’s just kind of there, occasionally being funny and touting two M16’s. But that’s a minor gripe; Thor: Ragnarok is the best Thor film and succeeds in being more than a mere stepping stone to Avengers: Infinity War.

 

Justice League

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By now you’ve probably heard that Justice League is awful, that it undoes Wonder Woman‘s massive summer success, and that the future of the DCEU is uncertain. Well, I’ll admit that the last of those statements is probably true; there’s no telling what Warner Bros. is going to try to pull next in order to get ahead of Marvel. However, as far as the movie itself goes, I had a good time with it. Maybe not as good of a time as Batman v Superman, but there was enough fan service to geek out over and entertaining action to say it’s really not the dumpster fire everyone says it is.

A lot of the appeal lies in what you’d expect from a team-up movie. Seeing all these legendary heroes on-screen for the first time got me all giddy and the banter is both humorous (see also everything Barry Allen says) and even subtly poignant on occasion (see also Cyborg’s origin/Diana’s past). You can see where Joss Whedon had an influence on the writing here. Everyone does get their individual moments to shine, though the impact of those moments varies from character to character. We’ve spent more time with Bruce and Diana compared to the other members of the League, so their conversations have a bit more weight behind them. Barry is grounded in the comic relief category, but Ezra Miller is just a joy to watch so you don’t really mind. Cyborg is interesting, not least of all because even he doesn’t know the extent of his powers. Aquaman gets some cool moments but is probably the most underdeveloped character. Superman is kind of a mixed bag: his inevitable return (uh, spoilers? I guess?) is a big moment in the film but doesn’t have quite as much of an impact as you’d hope for. But his appearance in the final battle is satisfying nonetheless. Also, I LOVE the Danny Elfman soundtrack. Hearing the classic Batman and Superman motifs (from the 1989 and 1978 films, respectively) is a real treat.

Speaking of Superman, this brings me to what I consider the film’s weak point: visuals. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the whole Henry Cavill mustache controversy, but suffice it to say he had to grow one and couldn’t shave it for reshoots because contractual reasons, so they CGI’d it out. So Supes looks kinda weird when he first comes back. Also, I’m not sure if it was Whedon’s influence or what, but I’m not as big a fan of the look of this film compared to BvS. It feels a bit more like Wonder Woman combined with Avengers, which isn’t bad per se, but I just really liked Zack Snyder’s vision from Man of Steel and BvS better by comparison.

I don’t know how I’ll feel about Justice League a year from now, but for now it’s a fun ride that I and many others have waited a long time to see on the big screen. As I’ve said for prior films: see for yourself and form your own opinion.

 

Murder on the Orient Express

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So I’ve never read Agatha Christie, but I’m certainly interested in doing so after seeing this film. One of the best things about Murder on the Orient Express is that it doesn’t try to be something it’s not. It’s not loaded with action, the violence is minimal, and there’s only a hint of sequel bait which, considering how many Hercule Poirot books there are, seems like an appropriate inclusion anyway. I’ve seen some reviews criticize the film for doing too little, citing that it doesn’t do anything new with its source material and that there have already been other adaptations, implying that this one is needless. But to that I say…why fix what’s broken? As I said, I haven’t read the book, but if the film truly doesn’t do anything different with the famous mystery, isn’t that a good thing? It’s a handsome looking, well-crafted adaptation of a novel from 1934 that has the goal of pleasing modern audiences, many of whom are probably unfamiliar with Poirot or Christie. There’s a world-famous detective, there’s a murder mystery, the mystery is solved. It is all put together in a crisp, lovely looking package and tied together with an eccentric and entertaining performance by star/director/producer Kenneth Branagh.

 

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

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Here’s a summer film that I didn’t get the chance to see in theaters (I’d already been to a bunch of films in July). It’s a shame I missed it for two reasons: 1) I went out a bought a copy of the comic Valerian and Laureline to prep for the film and 2) such a visual spectacle would’ve been even better on the big screen. If you’re not familiar with the source material, Valerian and Laureline is a French series of science fiction adventure comics that had a profound influence on more famous works like Star Wars. The main characters are agents that travel through space and time, which is a perfect excuse for some crazy sci-fi set pieces. They also have a will-they-or-won’t-they romance arc. Now, I’ll be upfront: the plot itself isn’t revolutionary and the two leads won’t amaze you but they’ll get the job done. The real stars of the film are the gorgeous, incredibly imaginative visuals and action sequences that will have you thinking “Now this is why we use CGI.”

Remember how Avatar was a full of great technological achievement but the film itself was completely forgettable and the only reason you remember it existed is because we’re getting four more movies that no one asked for? This is the film you wanted Avatar to be. You will actually remember this movie and you’ll lament that we’re not getting four more of these instead. The film opens with great visual storytelling and Valerian and Laureline’s first mission is one of the most mind-blowing chase sequences I have ever seen. No, I’m not kidding. Another one of the movie’s best parts comes from someone you might not expect: Rihanna. She steals the show for a good 20 minutes as a shapeshifting dancer and the only negative is that she wasn’t used more.  This is probably the most underrated film of 2017 and if you’re a fan of Star WarsStar Trek, or if the idea of a visually stunning sci-fi romp sounds appealing to you, give this movie a try.

 

 The Invitation

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I don’t usually write up movies I watch at home anymore unless they’re from earlier in the year (see Valerian above) or they’re really good. In this case, The Invitation, a 2016 horror-thriller, is really good. A man and his girlfriend go to a reunion to spend an evening with a bunch of old friends. The awkward thing is that the reunion is being hosted by the man’s ex-wife and her new boyfriend in their old house. What follows is a brilliant slow burn that will have you enraptured as you learn about the lead characters and their backstories, just waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m hesitant to say more because if you’re interested in this gem, you’ll want to go in knowing no more than what I’ve already described. Suffice it to say it’s one of my new favorite horror films.

 

Currently Reading:

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

the alloy of law

Not much more to go on this one. I should be able to finish it off with a few good long reading sessions.

 

Currently Watching:

Marvel’s Iron Fist Season 1

Okay, this show is not the horrible piece of shit everyone has claimed it to be. At worst, it is simply inferior to its predecessors. I find Danny Rand’s origins to be as mysterious as Jessica Jones, especially since there hasn’t been an episode dedicated to flashbacks as of seven episodes in.

 

Currently Playing:

Darkest Dungeon (Mac, PC)

I’ve been wanting to play other games but I find that I am continually being drawn back to the Hamlet.

 

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The See It or Skip It Guide to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase One

The Avengers: Infinity War trailer dropped last week, and it’s set to be not only one of the biggest films of 2018, but one of the biggest superhero films ever. For the uninitiated, this film is going to bring together every major superhero introduced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the Avengers to the Guardians of the Galaxy to Spider-Man in order to fight an intergalactic being known as Thanos. The franchise has been building up to this battle ever since Thanos made a post-credit appearance at the end of the first Avengers film in 2012, so this is all a pretty big deal.

But here’s the rub: what if you’ve only watched a few of the Marvel films? Worse yet, what if you’ve never watched any of them at all? How are you going to make sense of all that Infinity War has to offer? I remember talking to a friend at work who decided to watch Captain America: Civil War after having seen only the other two Captain America films. Naturally, she was a bit confused. And it got me thinking: despite overwhelming success of the MCU, it can be hard for the uninitiated to just dive into it when so many of the films ask the audience to call upon events of something that happened five or six films ago. Plus, not everyone has the time or desire to slough through (counts fingers) eighteen films before Infinity War releases.

So I thought I’d make a guide to help prospective viewers, be they lost or new, fast-track the MCU by explaining which films to see and which films to skip. Keep in mind, this list isn’t just based on if the film is good or not (though that’s certainly a factor). It sorts out which films are vital for understanding big crossover events like Infinity War and which films can be skipped while missing only minor events so that the viewer doesn’t have to watch eighteen different films.

To prevent information overload, I’ll start with Phase One, then make posts for the other Phases as we get closer to Infinity War.

Oh, and always remember to watch the credits all the way to the end!

Iron Man

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Synopsis: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), head of Stark Industries, is taken prisoner by a terrorist group who force him to build a weapon for them. Instead, he builds a suit that can blow stuff up very, very well.

Importance to the MCU: This film kicked off the MCU, so obviously it’s pretty important. Tony Stark is an Avenger and makes the most film appearances out of any other character in the MCU. The film also introduces a few important reoccurring characters such as love interest Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), the AI known as J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany), and (briefly) Nick Fury, director of S.H.E.I.L.D. (Samuel L. Jackson).

Verdict: See it. It’s a great movie and it’s the first of many, so why wouldn’t you?

The Incredible Hulk

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Synopsis: Bruce Banner accidentally exposes himself to gamma radiation and becomes the Hulk. Naturally, the military decides it has to kill him even while Banner seeks a way to cure himself.

Importance to the MCU: Minimal. Most people know the Hulk is and what his schtick is by now, so you’re not going to be lost in futures films. Only one other character apart from Banner appears again in a future film, but he’s not important enough that you have to see this. Plus, Mark Ruffalo ends up replacing Edward Norton in The Avengers anyway. Tony Stark makes a post-credit appearance, but you can look that up on Youtube if you really want to.

Verdict: Skip it. It’s not a bad movie, but unless you really love the Hulk, it’s not necessary.

Iron Man 2

iron man 2

Synopsis: Tony Stark faces several challenges in this sequel including: 1) a decline in health, 2) business rivals, and 3) Mickey Rourke.

Importance to the MCU: Iron Man 2 is not looked upon favorably compared to its predecessor, but it does introduce two other key players in the MCU: Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow and James “Rhodey” Rhodes a.k.a. War Machine (yes, I know he was in the first film, but he was recast, so this is more or less a re-introdcution). That being said, these characters get enough screentime elsewhere that seeing them in this film isn’t essential.

Verdict: If you really love Iron Man or want to see Black Widow’s debut, you can certainly watch this film. Overall, however, it’s a skip.

Thor

thor

Synopsis: As punishment for messing with the Frost Giants, Thor, crown prince of Asgard, is sent down to Earth stripped of his godly powers and his hammer. Meanwhile, his brother, Loki, is making plans to take over Asgard.

Importance to the MCU: This is kind of a mixed bag. On the one hand, Thor is an Avenger and his brother Loki is the main villain of The Avengers, so their relationship is pretty important. Other characters such as Odin (played by Anthony Hopkins) are important as well and the world of Asgard is fun to look at. The plot is so so, however, and not terribly important in leading up to The Avengers.

Verdict: Either or. If you’d like more character background, think you’ll get confused, or you just have heart-eyes for Chris Hemsworth and/or Tom Hiddleston, I say see it. On the other hand, if you’re really eager just to get to The Avengers, I’d say you can skip this film. Both Thor and Loki are introduced in The Avengers in such a way that you get an idea of who they are and what they’re about without seeing this film.

Captain America: The First Avenger

Captain-America-The-First-Avenger

Synopsis: Set in 1942, Steve Rogers is a kid from Brooklyn who wants to go fight in the war. Problem is, he’s got a big heart in a little bitty body. But when he’s selected for a super-soldier experiment, he gets ripped enough to do battle with a group known as Hydra, headed by Red Skull (Hugo Weaving).

Importance to the MCU: This is probably the most important solo film in Phase One of the MCU. It sets up an arc for Captain America that extends through future films, all the way up to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, and it features the Tesseract, the central McGuffin in The Avengers. It’s also a good movie to boot.

Verdict: See it, no question.

The Avengers

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Synopsis: When Loki attempts to take over Earth, a group of heroes must stop him. These heroes are: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye.

Importance to the MCU: Considering its the first big crossover event of the MCU and the whole reason every film studio is trying to make some expanded universe nowadays, I’d say the importance of The Avengers is pretty self-explanatory.

Verdict: See it. Duh.

Well, there you have it. Out of the six films in Phase One, only three of them are absolutely essential viewing: Iron ManCaptain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. The other three are completely up to you. Next, I’ll sort out the Phase Two movies and, after the release of Black Panther, I’ll make a post for Phase Three ahead of the big event that is Infinity War.

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The Good Bits: October 2017

This month was heavy on the music. And the music itself was heavy.

Music:

Enslaved, E (Nuclear Blast)

enslaved

Enslaved’s brand of progressive black metal has always intrigued me. They have such a wide, diverse catalogue, as they ought to fourteen albums into their career. I first started listening to them right before 2012’s acclaimed RIITIIR released, and I had no idea where to start. I dived into a few albums that spanned the years 2003 to 2012 and caught them live while on tour for their previous album In Times. Now, with the release of E, I find myself much more familiarized with Enslaved’s penchant for experimentation while still maintaining their distinct style and sound. So can I say with certainty that this is one of their finest albums to date. The album’s six tracks are laden with atmosphere, particularly the opener “Storm Son”, kicking off with floaty, melodic guitars and keyboards that you wouldn’t normally expect from a black metal record (unless you’re familiar with the likes of Ghost Bath or Deafheaven). There’s no shortage or riffage either, especially on “Sacred Horse” and “The River’s Mouth”. If you were looking to give Enslaved a try, this album is as good a time as ever to give ’em a shot.

 

Ne Obliviscaris, Urn (Season of Mist)

ne obliviscaris

I must admit that while I enjoyed Ne Obliviscaris’s first two studio albums, I haven’t gone back to them all that much. However, with the band’s third album, I found myself ready to dive back in as soon as the record was over. The band sound as tight as ever with playing that is both technical and well-crafted. Tim Charles’ violin is still an integral part of the band’s sound, weaving melodic passages amidst the chugging guitars. “Libera (Part I) – Saturnine Spheres” and “Libera (Part II) – Ascent of Burning Moths)” make for one hell of an intro to the album, offering up an impressive slice of what more is to come on Urn. If you’ve never heard Ne Obliviscaris before, those two tracks will tell you all you need to know. The album’s centerpiece is the nearly twelve minute “Eyrie”, though it somehow feels far shorter than that. Speaking of length, the album is the shortest the band has released thus far, clocking in at 46 minutes whereas Portal of I and Citadel clocked in at 72 minutes and 48 minutes respectively. Prog metal songs tend to get overlong; it’s just the nature of the genre. But Ne Obliviscaris deliver a tight package that goes just long enough and leaves room for you to give it another go.

 

Trivium, The Sin and the Sentence (Roadrunner)

trivium

It’s been a while since I’ve loved a Trivium album. Shogun came out nearly ten years ago and is not only my favorite in their discography, but it’s one of my personal favorites of all time. Nothing they’ve release since then has really had as much of an impact on me. That’s not to say it’s all been bad or anything: In Waves is heavy as hell with some great cuts and I appreciated the experimentation of Silence in the SnowVengeance Falls had one or two good tracks, but it doesn’t rank high up there for me. Now we have The Sin and the Sentence, and I know everyone else had been saying it, but this is the best they’ve done since Shogun.

In my experience, Trivium albums tend to follow this pattern: 11-12 tracks, a really solid first half, a few tracks in the latter half that are somewhat lesser, and then a strong finale. The Sin and the Sentence pretty much follows this patter to a T, and that’s a good thing. The first five tracks are rock solid, offering up all the virtuosic instrumentation, big catchy choruses, and primal screams from Matt Heafy that you’d expect. What’s more, each track feels different from the pummeling opening of the title track to the sing-along passages of “The Heart from Your Hate.” It’s easy to pick up the lyrics, which act as the glue to stick the song in your brain, not letting go until you go listen to the album again.

 

Archspire, Relentless Mutilation (Season of Mist)

archspire

Sometimes the only thing faster than technical death metal is the rate at which it becomes boring. So many bands try to be the fastest or the most brutal and as a result you end up with music you feel like you’ve heard one too many times before. But every now and again you get a band like Archspire who put out an album that makes you go “Fuck, that’s brutal.” Relentless Mutilation is the band’s third album and it’s a fast, mean piece of work. One area of the band’s music I wasn’t expecting anything from was the vocals because, let’s face it, these days it feels like you can get any old growler or screamer to front your band. But man, Oli Peters sounds like the death metal Seji Tankian. He’s not here to let the instrumentalists have all the fun; he’s also here to throw down, and throw down he does. What’s more, over the course of the album’s crisp 30 minute runtime, I found that the songs actually sounded distinct from one another. Look, I’m really not trying to be that guy that says “all metal songs sound the same”, but my god I need at least a pinch of variety sometimes. So, thank you Archspire for giving me a reason to appreciate TDM again.

 

Film:

Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049

In the age of endless remakes, revivals, overdue and unwanted sequels, the old irrelevant question still rings: “Is it as good as the original?” But if I had to answer that question regarding Blade Runner 2049, I’d say “Yes, and then some.” I loved Philip K. Dick’s Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep? but I think it affected my viewing of Blade Runner, the film upon which it is based. Don’t get me wrong I definitely like it; the sets, effects, music, and atmosphere are all top notch and still hold up very well today. But there were a lot of intriguing things found in the book that the film omitted. Plus, when you put off seeing a movie so revered for so long, I think there’s always a chance you’re going to be at least a little disappointed that it’s not the greatest film ever made, however silly that may sound. Fast forward to the Denis Villeneuve (ArrivalSicario) sequel however and I’ll tell you that this is how I wanted to feel watching Blade Runner. That may sound sacrilege but…meh.

2049 does itself a great service by not relying too heavily on its predecessor. An opening crawl tells you the basics of Blade Runner‘s world and what’s happened in the thirty years since the original. It more or less keeps you informed if you haven’t seen the first film too. Yes, Harrison Ford reprises his role as Deckard, but it’s a pretty small role compared to the screen time of other characters. Seeing the first film is recommended of course, but if you do go into this film blind, Deckard’s part of the story is really the only time you may be a bit lost. Really, if you’re going to show up for anyone, show up for Ryan Gosling because he’s brilliant in this. Everyone in this film does a great job, from Jared Leto’s suitably creepy turn as the head of the Wallace Corporation to Ana de Armas, a holographic wife for Gosling’s character.

The film’s plot is consists of Gosling’s character Office K slowly unravelling a big mystery. And I do mean slowly. If there’s anything that will turn someone off this movie, it will be the 2 hour and 43 minute runtime. It’s not a fast paced film and it takes its time letting things unfold. This is less of a film focused on plot and more about enveloping you in its world, much like the first. Speaking of the first film, 2049 definitely looks and feels like its predecessor, and theres something so enjoyable about seeing things like vehicles or buildings from the first film depicted with modern cinematography, kind of like watching the new Star Wars films. This film has lingered in my head since I saw it and I’m eager to see it again (even though I’ll probably be watching it by myself).

 

Gerald’s Game

gerald's game

I recently came to the realization that if I continue to hold off on watching a movie because I haven’t read the book first, I’m going to miss out on a lot of movies because I read damn slow. So I watched Gerald’s Game, a Netflix film based on the Stephen King novel, and I liked it even more It. It’s a basic sounding premise: a couple goes on holiday to a lake house to try and spice up their sex life which, of course, involves handcuffing the woman to the bed. Unfortunately, her husband drops dead of a heart attack, leaving her cuffed to the bed with no one around. What follows is the woman’s mind slowly unravelling, unearthing memories and thoughts long repressed, seeing frightening things that may or may not be real. It’s fantastic psychological horror and the fact that its kept to such a small scale makes it even better. Carla Guigino deserves a lot of credit for delivering a performance mostly spent in a nightie and handcuffs, and Bruce Greenwood is eerily hilarious. I don’t know how many other Stephen King adaptations Netflix is planning to churn out, but if this is the kind of stuff they’re delivering I say give us more.

 

“Shocktober” Watchlist:

Last year, my wife and I made a Halloween watchlist for October and we continued that tradition this year. Films in bold are first time viewings for me.

Pet Semetary 

Because there hasn’t been enough Stephen King in my life already.

An American Werewolf in London

A weird film, but a good weird.

 

The Conjuring 2

Still one of the best horror movies.

Coraline

Delightful.

 

The Thing

I tried to watch for the “eye glint” that supposedly tells you who is/isn’t “the thing”, but I didn’t see it.

Shaun of the Dead

Finally got the wife to watch this one.

 

The Strangers

I haven’t watch this since it came out over nine years ago. Still good.

 

Books

It by Stephen King

It_cover

For little over three months I chipped away at Stephen King’s 1,100 page horror behemoth. Somewhere in the middle I went to see the newest adaptation that is now one of the highest-grossing horror films of all-time. Now, my journey through Derry, Maine has come to a close…until the the film sequel eventually comes out. When it does come thought, it’s going to have a lot to live up to, so much so that I’m not completely sure how they’re gonna do it. But hey, I’m here to talk about the book, which is either one of Stephen King’s finest or a bloated slog depending on who you ask. Of course, I find myself in the former category.

First thing: the length. While I was reading this book, I thought of another long hefty sized book: Les Misérables. Much like in Victor Hugo’s brick-sized masterpiece, It has a large cast of characters both major and minor with backgrounds and histories that are explored in great depth. If you’ve read King before, you’re familiar with this aspect of his books. Also like Les Mis, some of those stories and histories appear to have little to no bearing on the main plot. Now, when it comes to the actual act of writing, I’m all for brevity, but I wasn’t bothered by the sheer amount of time devoted to fleshing out the two of Derry. I think I owe that to all the fantasy I read, where world building and fleshing out seemingly irrelevant persons or histories is par for course.

Next thing: the scare factor. Creep-up-your-spine atmosphere is what I’m coming in for when it comes to horror stories/novels. Let me tell you that there were three or four points in the book where I got those goosebumps and said “Oh, no” out loud. One of those times wasn’t even about Pennywise/It. It was actually about one of the childhood bullies who is, uh, incredibly fucked up for lack of an elegant term. That’s the thing that people seem to get wrong about this book, including the film: it’s not all about the creepy killer clowns. That is not the scary apart (I mean, unless you really are pants-shittingly scared of clowns, and I’m sure people are). The horror is found in being a child and not having grownups take you seriously. The horror is found in being an adult and finding that you’re no longer in your prime. The horror is forgetting. Forgetting everything.

 

Currently Reading:

The Alloy of Law by Brandon Sanderson

the alloy of law

This time last year and the year before I was finishing up reading on of the tomes from Sanderson’s brilliant Stormlight Archive series. The third book is out this month, but I’ve decided to hold off on that for now and instead return to the Mistborn series that got me and many others started on Sanderson in the first place. It’s a much shorter novel than either It or the two Stormlight books, and I’m nearly halfway through already.

 

Currently Watching:

Sons of Anarchy Season 5

Two more episodes left.

Stranger Things Season 2

Well, technically I finished watching it two weeks ago but I thought I’d include it here anyway.

Outlander Season 2

I gave up on trying to read the books for this series as well. Which I think is good, because I think I enjoy the show more anyway.

 

Currently Playing:

Darkest Dungeon (PC, Mac)

My god, this game saps up so much of my time.

 

Alien: Isolation (Xbox One)

I have never been so frightened while playing a video game in my whole life and it’s great.

 

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