Friday, September 30, 2016

Review: Nil on Fire

Nil on Fire Nil on Fire by Lynne Matson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't quite as jazzed with this book as I was with its predecessors, but I can tell you that it's not because there's any less action to go around. Far from it. My real issue, however, lies in the interjection of chapters that are meant to be from "Nil's" POV, focusing both on a number of new arrivals on the island and the island itself, who proves to be quite the diabolical genius loci. (That's the proper plural of that expression, right?)

That said, however, there's a nice array of characters new and old to go around (though I only wished we could have had more of Charley's and/or Thad's POV - I missed that from the first book), and of course all the action Matson's proven herself more than capable of serving us.

Sorry to see this trilogy go, but...ave atque vale, Nil.

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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review: Academ's Fury

Academ's Fury Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Continuing the Codex Alera series, Academ's Fury showcases even more of the rising tensions in Alera as certain Lords (and Ladies) conspire to overthrow the First Lord and plunge the land into civil war...and meanwhile, Tavi's studying, and proving that just because he's got no furycrafting powers doesn't make him any less of a man. In fact, because he has no furies to rely on, he's more in the eyes of some...and more dangerous for sure.

For a series supposedly based on two "dumb ideas," Butcher knows how to keep things seriously entertaining.

I'll be revisiting Cursor's Fury soon enough - sadly, it appears that my library lost all its copies at some point in the three or four years since I first read these books.

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Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Top Ten Tuesday: Fall 2016 TBR

Once again, Joey of Thoughts and Afterthoughts has given us an interesting "Top Ten Tuesday" post: his fall 2016 TBR top picks. Now I've just gotta share mine - including a few books that came out BEFORE this fall, but which I still haven't had a chance to read because my library's so slow to get any copies in...but oh well.

10. Rick Riordan - The Hammer of Thor

I don't think I'll ever leave the world Uncle Rick began with Percy Jackson.

Hope he's worthy.

9. Lynne Matson - Nil on Fire

I'm starting this one pretty soon, actually.

"So light 'em up up up..."

8. Leigh Bardugo - Crooked Kingdom

I liked Six of Crows because of how different (and Legend of Korra-esque) it was compared to the Grisha Trilogy. This book will be just as cool, I hope.

But I'm a bit bummed this is the end.
Unless there'll be a modern-day series too?

7. Tahereh Mafi - Furthermore

I can't resist a good Alice in Wonderland retelling.

Ransom Riggs isn't the only one to #StayPeculiar.

6. Danielle Paige - Stealing Snow

Or a good Danielle Paige book - and since this one retells The Snow Queen? Even better.


5. Sabaa Tahir - A Torch Against The Night

Got to read a bit of this at Costco a couple of weeks back. Looks really good so far...

Die, Commandant. DIE DIE DIE!

4. James Dashner - The Fever Code

Finally, the awesome Maze Runner prequel we all need to tide us over while we wait for the Death Cure movie...

Also, I hear Brenda's in this one.

3. Zoraida Córdova - Labyrinth Lost

Brujas. 'Nuff said.

Everyone's raving about this.
I will not be disappointed.

2. Sarah J. Maas - Empire of Storms

I've waited too long for this one, man.

Best cover image of Aelin yet, BTW.

1. Cassandra Clare - Tales from the Shadowhunter Academy

And it's a sin that it's taken so long to put these stories in print.

I'm a shameless Simon fanboy, now and forever.

What do you guys think?

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Review: Jerkbait

Jerkbait Jerkbait by Mia Siegert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Ten thousand people look my way
But they can't see the way that I feel
Nobody even cares to try...
-Styx, "Man In The Wilderness"

"Is there anybody out there who
Is lost and hurt and lonely too?
-Coldplay, "Square One"

Thanks to the Wattpad4 bringing Mia Siegert in for an interview a few weeks back, I was inspired to try this book out after learning what it has in common with my very own Red Rain - the lead characters are twin boys, with one (Tristan here, Alex in my book) being straight and one (Robbie here, Gabe for mine) being gay, and (I found this out from reading the book) the straight twin in each pair having a bit of an artistic streak, with an interest in writing - and let me just stand up and be counted as another guy who writes fanfic, in addition to original work.

There, though, the similarities do pretty much end, particularly in terms of genre. Siegert's twins are identical; mine are fraternal. I write urban fantasy, Siegert writes contemporary. Siegert writes Robbie's coming-out story; Gabe is already out by the time my story takes place. My book is a murder mystery full of comic-book movie references; Siegert focuses on sports and musical references. I write Alex and Gabe with a very close relationship (largely as therapy because I've long felt incomplete without a brother - and I almost had one, but that's a story for another time); it's pretty vital to Siegert's plot that Tristan and Robbie are pretty distant, at least at first.

But I'm not here to just parallel Jerkbait and Red Rain - I'd also like to talk about how much I relate to Tristan. Like him, I've got parents who don't understand his artistic leanings. Like him, I'm painfully inexperienced with romance, and have often been mistaken for gay by my parents because of it. And like him, I've had my moments of questioning my sexuality too (probably more so for me, though.) As for Robbie, well, I can't help but want to hug the poor guy every other page, in between his repeated suicide attempts and the trauma he suffers in the book's final act.

Don't be fooled by the page number given on this book's GR page - it's actually about 100 pages less than that, not even 250. Perhaps because it's so bite-sized, it feels like the plot takes a long time to get going, and then rushes to the finish line afterwards. Characters are Jerkbait's strength, as many of them prove quite dynamic (although in the case of Tristan and Robbie's aggravating mother, the character development she does get is too little too late, and it does nothing to endear her to me.)

Let's just say, though, that you'd do yourself a great disservice by not reading Jerkbait, if only for its uniqueness - and for its always-compelling exploration of the twins' relationship.

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Review: Falling Kingdoms

Falling Kingdoms Falling Kingdoms by Morgan Rhodes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've been seeing this series on store and library shelves for a while, and after years of not touching it (and a few months of serious Sarah J. Maas withdrawal while I'm painfully waiting for Empire of Storms), I've finally read this first book.

It does remind me a bit of A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of the surprisingly high violence level and focus on in-universe politics, with a touch of magic thrown in for texture. The book follows four primary characters, three of them being royals from two of the three kingdoms that comprise this nicely-built story world and one being a young man from the kingdom between the others, spurred to action because another royal shamelessly murdered his brother. The last of these, Jonas, is the most interesting, so it disappoints me just a bit that he goes underutilized throughout much of the book, with the various royals getting more focus. Cleo doesn't seem to add much to the story, and as for Magnus, I'm a bit creeped out by his attraction to Lucia...but then Lucia, she proves pretty surprisingly interesting about halfway through the book, when a big plot twist makes itself known.

So, for sure, I'll be picking up the second book...but I'm hoping for more Jonas, man.

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Saturday, September 24, 2016

Review: Chorus

Chorus Chorus by Emma Trevayne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This series...I dunno. It's got a cool twist on the dystopian genre as its premise, one that's actually had its own secret influence on my own writing with the concept of addictive music tracks. (Although my books, rather than try and emulate the idea of big business attempting to force musical drivel on the world for mind control - "Everything Is Awesome!"-style - simply make musical addiction a mental condition.) Unfortunately, I just can't get into these books like the premise demands, mostly because of the characters being virtually impossible to tell apart and the surprisingly paper-thin world-building.

I guess this series ends here, though? Oh well. I'm not planning on reading a third book anyway.

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Review: Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's been a while since I've read Codex Alera, so now that I'm also re-reading The Dresden Files, I figured it was high time I started re-reading Butcher's other big fantasy series as well. I forgot how exciting these books were, with all their elemental furycrafting fun and the pseudo-Roman politics at play. Everyone calls this the logical offspring of Avatar: The Last Airbender and A Song of Ice and Fire (even though the latter came out after this book and the former is in a medieval-inspired setting as opposed to ancient-Roman-inspired.) Everyone's not wrong.

Already I've got Academ's Fury waiting in the wings as well.

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Thursday, September 22, 2016

Review: The Siege

The Siege The Siege by Mark Alpert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The sequel to The Six no longer has The Six, but even with fewer team members, it's still every bit as white-knuckle a book as its predecessor. The sheer inventiveness of this bite-sized piece of awesome never stops, especially given that the enemy is such a dangerous AI always going all-out to tear our heroes apart by any means necessary.

After a couple of less-than-stellar other reads, I'm happy to say I've finally found another five-star story.

The best part? With that cliffhanger, this is NOT the end of the series. Not even close.

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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Review: The King Slayer

The King Slayer The King Slayer by Virginia Boecker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I liked the first book in this series, but this sequel left a lot to be desired. Other than a few isolated snippets of action off and on throughout the story, nothing much appears to be happening, and it was extremely hard to follow without needing to go back and see, "Wait, when did that happen again? Or was it in the first book? And why don't I remember that?"

Such a shame - this looks like such a unique series, like The Bone Season set way back in the past. But it's just not for me, I guess.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Review: The Third Option

The Third Option The Third Option by Vince Flynn
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Okay, so I really enjoyed the two prequel novels, but in comparison, the first two Mitch Rapp books that Vince Flynn wrote are long, sluggish, and seriously lacking in the action department. This book, in particular, has so little of Rapp, and so much of all the other, less interesting characters, that it might as well not even be a Rapp book. Honestly, I'm on the point of giving up on the series entirely, but knowing that Flynn's craft does appear to have improved over time, I'll at least give it one more book.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Coming Soon: Hurts Like Heaven

Sam Ayers, better known by her Wattpad name of @Whisperingwater, has done it again. She's designed me a new cover for the sequel to my ongoing SuperFlash KareBear (and Superman/Wonder Woman too!) fanfic, Adventure Of A Lifetime. That sequel goes by the name of Hurts Like Heaven.

Behold the two covers, side by side!

Why yes, they're both named for Coldplay songs. And why not? Coldplay's a great, great band, and don't let anyone tell you any different!

Plot details for HLH will remain under wraps for now. What I can tell you, though, is that it will be darker than its predecessor. Not to my usual degrees - no deaths - but at least one character will go into HLH suffering from considerable mental trauma. But not to worry - the theme of this book will be recovery, and that character will get the love and help they need.

And of course there'll be more BarryxKara feels, not to mention Supes and Wonder Woman being too gosh-darn adorable together.

I'll be starting work on this as soon as I finish AoaL. All good things come to those who wait, Pinecones, remember that.

Till next time...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.

Review: The Warrior

The Warrior The Warrior by Victoria Scott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dante Walker's story comes to a completely wild and crazy - and endlessly twisty - ending. I do mean "endlessly twisty," too, especially in the second half or so when everyone and their mother starts betraying and backstabbing to get ahead in this little supernatural war.

One thing I loved about this series overall is its occasional similarities to my own books - particularly the tendency to bring the dead back to life with supernatural powers a la Dead Like Me. Of course, this book just had to feature some exceptions to that rule, including my favorite character, whose death may or may not have been spoiled for me (didn't make it hurt any less, though.) What wasn't spoiled, however, was how much that character's death resembled one I wrote into the third book of my Red Rain series. Granted, my character died almost instantly from a light blade as opposed to taking hours to die after being stabbed by a metal one, but still. And then there were the scenes where Dante kept seeing people he knew and loved in his dreams - something that's become a huge part of my books too (although mine typically go for more Inception-style extended sequences.)

Bottom line, outside of Fox's very own Lucifer, there's really no better fictional demon available for mass public consumption than Victoria Scott's very own Dante Walker.

Ave atque vale to the once and future collector, liberator, and warrior.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

Review: Death Masks

Death Masks Death Masks by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The best way to describe this is with the original working title of the novel: "Holy Sheet." Naturally, of course, that proved to be a little too on-the-nose for the publishers, and in any case, it didn't exactly gel with the "same number of letters in each word" naming convention Butcher usually uses for the Dresden Files books. But hey, when the fabled Shroud of Turin is involved, let's just say it might interfere with Harry's usual policy of avoiding religion. (Not that it hasn't been interfered with before...)

So that ends the set of five Dresdens I've recently picked up at the library, although Blood Rites is already on its way to me. Coming soon!

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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Review: The Liberator

The Liberator The Liberator by Victoria Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second Dante Walker book took a little longer to read than I would have liked, and in the middle, it started to feel a little bit slow, with the plot not going places like I was hoping it would.

But then a favorite character of mine came back from the dead. And that was just the beginning of The Liberator starting to find its footing again. Dante may have a new job, and he may have love in his heart now, but he's no less dangerous for it. And the conclusion to this book is a seriously white-knuckle ride of crazy twists upon twists, until you realize the book's over and "OMG NO MY GOD WHY?!"

Coming soon, my review of The Warrior. I'm sure that one's gonna end this trilogy in style.

Oh, and if nothing else...there's more Max in this book, for which I'm very much grateful.

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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Review: Summer Knight

Summer Knight Summer Knight by Jim Butcher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even more misadventures in Faerie abound in this fourth Dresden Files book, with Harry learning that his fairy godmother has essentially sold his debt to another powerful Sidhe, the infamous Winter Queen, Mab. Ostensibly, she just wants Harry to help clear her name after a murder rocks the Summer Court...but of course, it's a Dresden book, so nothing is what it seems, and for all 400-plus pages, you'll be left guessing what the hell is coming next.

Guessing...and most likely guessing wrong.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

Marvel Monday: Grading What I've Seen

As a reader, writer, and fanboy, Marvel movies and TV shows are required viewing for me. I've not seen them all, but I will damn well do my best if it kills me. So, in honor of this Marvel Monday (unofficial and declared pretty much only by me though it may be), I'm going to give a long list of (mostly mini) reviews for all the Marvel stuff I've seen in my time.

Ready? Strap in.

Blade (1998) - B

The earliest Marvel movie that I've seen, to my knowledge, is also one of their most stylish and eye-popping - and one of their most bloody, of course, being a vampire movie. Perhaps not the most memorable story, but the set pieces alone make this worth a watch.

File:Blade movie.jpg
Hope to see Marvel reboot him soon -
and do him just as much justice as this movie.

X-Men (2000) - B

Another one of the big groundbreakers of superhero film, X-Men, combining always-timely social commentary with stellar acting, helped start a franchise that's had its ups and downs. This one was more on the former end of the scale, naturally.

Poster shows a big X with the skyline of New York City in the background. In the foreground are the film's characters. The film's name is at the bottom.
The pre-9/11 days.

Blade II (2002) - C

I don't remember much of this one, other than Norman Reedus was in it, and Guillermo Del Toro directed. It's not a bad movie on its own, I don't think, but unless you're a fan of either Reedus or Del Toro (or both - my friend Speedy just raised her hand), maybe steer clear.

Blade ,standing in front the viewer ,wearing his traditional black special suit and coat, with his sunglasses on his eyes, holds his sword ,and has dark white-purple cloud background around him with the face of an evil vampire, underneath the film's name, credits ,billing and below; Wesley Snipes' name.
I'll stop here with this series.
I've heard nothing good about Trinity.

Spider-Man (2002) - B+

Spidey's since become my favorite hero of all, but back when we only had Tobey Maguire in the title role and Sam Raimi directing, I didn't connect so well with him. That said, though, the first of Raimi's trilogy is undeniably a fun little movie, made of equal parts cheesy awesome (the visual style hasn't aged well, but it was always cartoony anyway) and large ham (Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin - dear God.)

Spider-Man, in his famous suit, crawling over a building, looking towards the viewer, below of him there is New York City and the film's title, credits and release date.
Also, Danny Elfman made the music.
Your opinion is invalid.

X2 (2003) - C

"X-Men United?" Sounds interesting enough. But I mostly remember this one for the Trailer Joke Decay of the team getting into that blue Mazda RX-8 in every single TV spot. The movie itself is long and pretty confusing (even more so, I think, than the series' later time-travel stories), so I don't quite understand all the acclaim this one gets. The actors' performances, though, are the movie's real saving grace.

Poster shows a big X, within which are the faces of the film's main characters, and in the center the film's name.
"I'm driving!"
"...maybe next time."

Spider-Man 2 (2004) - A-

Though not perfect, Raimi's second Spidey movie is far and away the best. Largely doing away with the cheesiness of its predecessor, this more serious sequel is pretty much exactly what the doctor (Octopus) ordered. And Maguire never performed better as Ol' Webhead than in that one scene on the el train (you know which one.)

Against a New York City background, Spider-Man hugs Mary Jane Watson, with a reflection of Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man's eye as Spider-Man shoots a web.
"So hold on loosely, and don't let go..."
Sorry. I couldn't resist.

Fantastic Four (2005) - C

The first time I saw this movie, I was in bed with a broken leg, and the pain was enough to distract me so much that I stopped watching and put on a video game instead. I did eventually get around to seeing what I hadn't seen already, but what I saw, while well-acted and well-visualized (and, in hindsight, far better than what came along in the reboot), wasn't the proper Fantastic Four movie the world's been waiting so long for.

The Four; Mr. Fantastic ,The Thing ,The Invisble Woman and The Human Torch are standing with their uniforms on the circled number "4" below them ,and the film's title ,credits and release date underneath them.
"Whoa, you're hot!"
"Thank you, so are you!"

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006): D+

The most expensive movie ever at the time of its release, and it showed in its immense cast and incredible special effects. (Signature scene: the moving of the Golden Gate Bridge.) Unfortunately, the movie itself proved too crowded and convoluted, leaving next to no breathing room. Perhaps it's for the best that, thanks to the series' later time-travel plots, this one's been retconned out of existence.

The poster shows Wolverine's claws unsheathed in front of a big X representing "X3". At the middle is the title while at the bottom are the production credits and rating.
Welcome to Alcatraz, everyone.

Spider-Man 3 (2007) - C

Like The Last Stand, this movie, the one that saw an end to Raimi's time in the director's chair for Sony's Spider-Man franchise, was extremely expensive and crowded with tons of characters. It wasn't as much of a hot mess as the internet will have you believe, though. Sure, the writing was iffy, trying and often failing to balance the campy tone of the first movie and the darker second, but the stories (especially that of Sandman) were still compulsively watchable. Spider-Man 3's real disappointment, however, was visual, between the infamous "emo hair" Peter and the dodgy CGI (though Sandman, again, was excellent.) At least watch it once, then after that bittersweet ending (perhaps the most so of any Spider-Man movie), thank God Andrew Garfield came along five years later.

Spider-Man in the rain in his black suit looks at himself in a mirror wearing the original suit, with the film's slogan, title, release and credits
The real reason this movie's so hated:
Venom. He wasn't done justice.

Iron Man (2008) - A

The start of a new era - the first phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe - and what better way to start than with Robert Downey, Jr. being the first Marvel star to really own his role like none before him? Not to mention the way this movie, in the end, subtracted the idea of secret identities - just one of many ways this movie was the next big groundbreaker.

Your daily reminder that AC/DC rules.

The Incredible Hulk (2008) - D

The weakest link of the MCU's first phase, this reboot of the not-so-beloved 2003 Hulk movie (I've not seen that one, and as for this one, I'm not entirely sure whether or not this one's a reboot or a sequel or what) is largely forgettable and mostly standalone, especially now that Mark Ruffalo's replaced (and outdone) Edward Norton as Bruce Banner. For MCU completists only; all others need not apply.

The Incredible Hulk poster.jpg
Even Tim Roth couldn't help this one.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) - F

Hard to believe this one was co-written by David Benioff of Game of Thrones fame. So were there supposed to be more of these Origins movies, or was this always planned as the first in a series of Wolverine spinoffs? Either way, this movie was laden with a plodding, dull script (how did Benioff go from this to GoT?), a distractingly dreary soundtrack, and bargain-bin special effects, proving to be the franchise's nadir (though thankfully, the prequels would help salvage it.)

A man with grizzly hair wearing a tank top shirt, with three metal claws in front of his face. Below his chin is the title "X-Men Origins Wolverine", the film credits and the release date, May 1.
And they sewed Deadpool's mouth shut.
How very dare you, Fox?!

Iron Man 2 (2010) - B+

A little bit darker than its predecessor, but with Jon Favreau still at the helm, there's plenty of high-octane AC/DC-soundtracked fun (and of course Robert Downey, Jr., being Tony Stark, Cracked's oddly convincing arguments that he's an Objectivist in this movie be damned) to go around. Though the movie does get hamstrung by a shockingly quick resolution to the "terminally ill Stark" subplot and by Whiplash, whose electric tentacle things look a tad too CG and whose Russian is, according to my junior-year English teacher (a native speaker), butchered to hell and back, it's also quite important for really helping set up The Avengers.

Tony Stark is pictured center wearing a smart suit, against a black background, behind him are is the Iron Man red and gold armor, and the Iron Man silver armor. His friends, Rhodes, Pepper, are beside him and below against a fireball appears Ivan Vanko armed with his energy whip weapons.
Let us not forget, though, Black Widow,
this movie's real gift to the world.

Thor (2011) - C+

The only really irritating thing about this movie is that it gets a lot more MCU importance than it might deserve, especially since its villain is also the primary villain in The Avengers. For giving us more of Agent Phil Coulson, and also Hawkeye, and Natalie Portman, the human side of this movie is a great one - though the characters are offset by the heavily Dutch-angled camera and overly stark cinematography (though at least it's a little less yellow than most desert settings.) As for the Asgardians, they kick ass with the best of them, and under Kenneth Branagh's direction, there's just the right amount of Shakespearean melodrama (I'm looking at you, Hiddleston and Hemsworth!) to keep things interesting.

Thor poster.jpg
Thor's first taste of coffee, though...

X-Men: First Class (2011) - B+

Ahh, now this is much more like it. After the disaster that was Origins: Wolverine, taking the X-Men franchise back in time to the sixties for a new series of prequels (I think it was originally meant as a trilogy, but there's already talk of a fourth one) was the shot in the arm the series needed. Recasting some of the more iconic roles with younger, but no less talented, actors was a major help, as was Matthew Vaughn's stylish direction.

The X-Men and the Hellfire Club walk towards the viewer. From left to right, they are Beast, Professor X, Magneto, Emma Frost, Moira McTaggert, Havok, Mystique, Azazel Salvadore, Angel and Sebastian Shaw. The background and its reflection on the floor form an "X".
And the biggest help of all:
This movie has Wolverine's best scene.

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) - A

The first movie to give us Chris Evans as the Star-Spangled Man With A Plan, as well as the first to show us Hayley Atwell as one of Marvel's brightest shining stars, Agent Peggy Carter, and - most importantly - the first in the most dynamic, most ever-changing, most consistently top-notch subseries of the MCU.

Captain America The First Avenger poster.jpg
Also starring:
The world's most feared Frisbee.

The Avengers (2012) - A+

Prior to this movie, all of Joss Whedon's previous work had been either on TV, online, or, in the case of Serenity, a low-to-mid-budget sci-fi actioner - in other words, all cult classics. His signature style, however, translated very well to this bombastic blockbuster - Marvel probably didn't realize they needed his gifts of wit and whimsy, and his command over viewers' heartstrings, until they saw his creation, The Avengers, perhaps the single most influential genre movie of the last five years - not only influential on future phases of the MCU, but on anything that could remotely rival it (DC's Suicide Squad being another good example, for instance.)

The dictionary definition of "geekgasm."
Now and forever.

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) - A

Everyone loves The Avengers, but as great as that one is, my favorite movie of 2012 was something a little smaller, and decidedly more personal. No more Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man - Andrew Garfield's performance, painting Peter as a charming but offbeat (and brooding, but not to excess) loner not only matches the character's more modern comic depictions (Maguire, I think, channeled classic 60s or 70s Spidey more), but also makes him infinitely more relatable. Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy only helps, being the brainy, strong-willed lady love every great hero needs (and a much better MJ than Kirsten Dunst's MJ.) Visually, the movie dips its toe into Nolanesque grittiness, but counteracts it by being, in places, even more shiny and slick than the MCU's usual Apple-influenced touch-screen aesthetic. And in terms of story, while not part of the MCU, it's clear, looking at this movie and its sequel, that Sony had plans for a complex, beautifully-fleshed-out new franchise going on. If only they hadn't gotten so trigger-happy later...

Spider-Man, wounded, is covered in a spider web with New York City in the background and as a reflection in his mask. Text at the bottom of the reveals the title, release date, official site of the film, rating and production credits.
"You seriously think I'm a cop?
Cop, in a skintight red and blue suit?"

Iron Man 3 (2013) - B-

The darkest Iron Man movie yet presents us with a Tony Stark who shows signs of PTSD following the events of The Avengers, and as he unravels psychologically, he starts considering the possibility that maybe he shouldn't be a superhero anymore. Of course, this is Marvel - superheroes don't just retire. It's always darkest before the dawn, as they say. Again, here's a movie that gets a ton of internet hate that it doesn't deserve (even the infamous plot twist around the Mandarin's identity, which helped remove some of the character's racist overtones from his earlier depictions.) It's only a new beginning for Marvel, after all - Phase Two of the MCU.

Tony, as Iron Man in his battle damaged suit sitting with water around him, while his house behind is destroyed. Stark's Iron Legion is flying, while the Marvel logo with the film's title, credits and release date are below.
For that fancy cliffside house,
someone's gonna get a hefty repair bill.

The Wolverine (2013) - C+

Logan goes to Japan in this spinoff, which, like First Class, really helped salvage the X-Men franchise after the abysmal Origins movie of 2009. Although not as good as the X-Men prequels released immediately before and after it (mostly due to some bad CGI work damaging the action scenes), The Wolverine remains a nicely diverting little time sink - and, with its mid-credits scene setting up Days of Future Past, there's a good little bit of payoff in the end.

The Wolverine posterUS.jpg
Fun fact: this one had a screenwriter
from Live Free or Die Hard.

Agents of SHIELD (2013-present) - A-


Brought to us with much hype by Joss Whedon, the flagship series of Marvel on ABC got off to a bit of a rocky start, relying heavily on procedural case-of-the-week episodes while very slowly building up its myth arc. By the end of Season 1, though, the series began incorporating plot threads from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, after which nothing would ever be the same again - as one character was outed as a traitor, and more soon came in to assist the cause of Agent Phil Coulson, back from the dead, and his talented associates. Season 2 focused brilliantly on the reconstruction of SHIELD and the introduction of Inhumans (the closest thing to the X-Men the MCU can have as long as Fox still owns the X-Men film and TV rights), and Season 3...well, that was when the show really shot into the stratosphere, especially in its intense second half, and especially-especially the white-knuckle "Fallen Agent" storyline, which (hard though it was to watch for Daisy Johnson fans like me) absolutely demanded to be seen - and tweeted - live. Next week, Season 4 premieres, promising a spin into the supernatural with an all-new MCU version of Ghost Rider. Bring it on.

Agents of SHIELD season 1 poster.jpeg
"Welcome to Level 7.
Sorry, that corner was really dark;
I couldn't help myself.
I think there's a bulb out..."

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 2 poster.jpg
I see what you're doing there, Ward.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 3 poster.jpg
Coulson's the official star, but as of now,
it's Daisy Johnson's show.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 4 poster.jpg
This could be the final season...but if so,
they're going out with a bang.

Thor: The Dark World (2013) - D

Humor helps keep this movie from completely collapsing into incurable mediocrity at times, but it's, sadly, about the only factor that does. No longer Branagh's piece of supernatural Shakespeare, The Dark World (which was kind of a bad choice for being the first MCU movie not distributed by another studio) is a limp, generic sequel that proves to be the weak link of the MCU's second phase, with little to no impact on later installments (other than maybe the upcoming trilogy conclusion, Ragnarok - and also Guardians, because its post-credits scene introduces the Collector.) Let's just say that if your movie's Agents of SHIELD tie-in episode (from the early days of the first season too, before the show really hit its stride) is more memorable and enjoyable than the movie itself, you're doing something wrong.

Thor - The Dark World poster.jpg
I bet this movie is why we won't get
Natalie Portman in Ragnarok. Shame.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) - A

Starting a tradition for Cap's movies to do something completely different each time, The Winter Soldier has our Star-Spangled Fish Out Of Temporal Water confront a deadly conspiracy decades in the making - HYDRA having spent years infiltrating the government at every level, including SHIELD, and now bringing a Cold War-era one-man army out of mothballs to help bring their deadly plans to subjugate America, and all of Western civilization, to fruition. Together with Black Widow and Falcon, Cap's got his hands full putting an end to this threat - but even after the movie's over, HYDRA's still out there, which is what Agents of SHIELD continued to deal with until well into its third season. This is the real peak of the MCU's second phase, the biggest game-changer yet.

Captain America The Winter Soldier.jpg
Although whoever photoshopped Nat
into overly-skinny oblivion ought to be
strung up by their short and curlies.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) - A+

By now, just about everyone who reads this blog - or any of my books - knows that The Amazing Spider-Man series are my favorite movies, and this one, Number Two, is my favorite movie of all time. Not only does this stem from its complex (but still comprehensible) multiple plots, but also from Garfield and Stone's preternaturally good chemistry as my OTP Peter and Gwen, the hyperdynamic visuals (only Avatar and Inception, and possibly Doctor Strange too, rival how mind-blowing this movie is to watch, especially in 3D), the hidden background details that take multiple viewings to pick up on, and an arachnid-worthy delicate, but perfect, balance between panic-inducing action, gut-busting humor, and weapons-grade feels. Most of the complaints about this movie basically amount to a feeling, similar to Spider-Man 3, of too many cooks in the kitchen - although I disagree, because this movie did a much better job of handling its multiple villains and their compelling story threads. (In any case, I'm more concerned about that issue afflicting Spider-Man: Homecoming, because that one's got no less than six (!!!) credited screenwriters.) 

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is criminally underappreciated, but its secret influences can be seen if you look hard enough - from the secret subway car lab in Person of Interest to Supergirl villain Livewire, and of course my own writing. I was working on the first draft of Red Rain when this movie hit theaters, and I noted a lot of parallels with what I'd already written (Electro, for instance, is Red Rain's main villain with a different elemental nightmare of a superpower) - and also packed later scenes with references to this movie and its predecessor, including to this movie's soul-crushing climax and to the concept of an artificially-engineered chosen one (easy to incorporate as a subtle parody of YA literary tropes.) Essentially, everything I write is a much-needed love letter to this mercilessly-shortened section of the franchise, which really should have been part of the MCU from the get-go.

Spider-Man upside down on the side of the OsCorp tower with the film's title, credits and release date below.
If Marc Webb could direct a Red Rain
movie with half the panache of this one...

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) - A-

Putting Bryan Singer back in the director's chair helped the X-Men series reach a new peak, acting as a sequel not only to First Class, but also to the original trilogy. It's a real apocalypse out there (even before the Apocalypse movie, which I haven't seen yet), and the only way to stop it is to send Wolverine (of course) back in time to the 70s to stop the development of the mutant-killing Sentinels. My dad, upon hearing the plot for this movie, thought they were ripping off Terminator - turns out the original "Days of Future Past" comic storyline predates Terminator by three years! The only thing that I didn't like about this movie was Evan Peters' Quicksilver - powerful he may be, and he makes a disproportionate impact for his limited screen time, but Aaron Johnson's version of the character in Age of Ultron is better-acted in my eyes. But with the time travel having hit the reset button on the more controversial parts on the franchise (up to that time), the X-Men could continue with a much more clean slate going forward.

Official poster
Another example of complex done right.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) - A+

Hard to believe Volume One of this now-storied space opera was expected to be the first real MCU flop...erm, not quite. Irreverent as hell, soundtrack-driven to the point where James Gunn has convinced me that "writing to the music" is the right way to go, and detached enough from the larger MCU to make it highly accessible to newcomers, no other MCU movie, not even The Avengers, feels as much like a labor of love as this one.

The five Guardians, sporting various weapons, arrayed in front of a backdrop of a planet in space with the film's title, credits and slogan.
"12 percent of a plan..."
Good enough for me, Star-Lord. ;)

Big Hero 6 (2014) - A+

Like Guardians, this excellent addition to the Disney Animated Canon is loosely (very loosely, actually) adapted from a super-obscure Marvel comic. Like Guardians, it was an unexpected smash hit, gobbling up well over $600 million internationally at the box office. Like The Amazing Spider-Man movies, though, this movie is not only pitch-perfect in its depiction of a lonely teenage genius, but also goes all-out in both the action-comedy and the dealing-with-the-loss-of-a-loved-one departments. (There's a reason why Big Hero 6 and Amazing Spider-Man 2 are my platinum standards for fictional feels.) My friend Speedy relates all too well to Hiro Hamada, and you know what? So do I. This movie came out at a dark time in my life, but seeing it in theaters helped me feel a lot better, and more capable of moving forward.

A big white round health robot assistant .
The best animated movie ever.
Don't let anyone tell you different.

Agent Carter (2015-16) - A

Filling in on ABC's Tuesday night schedule while Agents of SHIELD was on hiatus during its second and third seasons, Agent Carter gave us more Hayley Atwell in the plucky, underappreciated title role - though to describe her as such does her a great disservice. More super than any of the modern-day agents on its parent series, Peggy Carter will not, cannot, and does not stop until the day is saved, arses are kicked, and names are taken. Whether she's working in New York to clear Howard Stark's name or in LA to find out who's using experimental tech to create a bigger, badder weapon than the A-bomb, you want Carter on the case. No question. Sadly, low ratings led to Agent Carter getting cancelled by ABC after two seasons, but I'm still holding out hope for further cameos, whether on Agents of SHIELD (even though that one could get cancelled too, God forbid) or in movie prologues like that of Ant-Man.

Agent Carter Season 1 poster.jpg
Glamorous and dangerous.

Promotional poster for the second season of Agent Carter, featuring Hayley Atwell as the titular character.
West Coast, look out.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) - A-

Once again, this movie proves how much the darkest corners of the internet can rage over anything. A definite, though slight, come-down from its predecessor, the only real flaws of Joss Whedon's final Marvel effort that I can see are its occasional over-reliance on CGI and its way of throwing too much crap to the wall and seeing what sticks. But hey, it's Whedon, so the quotable wit and sucker-punch action are absolutely not lacking - and, so far, it's the only movie in which we've seen Aaron Johnson's excellent Quicksilver, the best speedster that didn't come from The Flash. I'm thinking he's the Whedon Author Avatar for this one (three guesses why), which is precisely why he's so endearing, even if he starts out working against the good guys. And on the bad guys' side? James Spader's delightfully over-the-top motion-capture performance as Ultron makes him the most classically unforgettable villain in MCU history.

Avengers Age of Ultron.jpg
Stark. Does this look like
"peace in our time" to you?

Ant-Man (2015) - A

Following in the footsteps of Guardians, Ant-Man delivers a lighthearted, smaller-scale (literally!), and mostly standalone diversion from the rest of the MCU - not to mention a rare glimpse at superheroic Marvel happenings on the West Coast as opposed to the East. (As a Bay Area resident, this movie, being set in San Francisco, would've been required viewing for me anyway.) Also like Guardians, it was expected to be a flop, owing largely to its somewhat troubled production (Edgar Wright having quit as director, and Joss Whedon having seriously praised his original script before other writers got their hands on it) and its relative obscurity in the Marvel canon. But while not a billion-dollar earner like one of the Avengers movies (or the third entries for both Iron Man and Captain America), Ant-Man deservedly earned enough money to warrant Marvel rearranging their Phase Three schedule to include a sequel.

Official poster shows Ant-Man in his suit, and introduces a montage of him starts to shrink with his size-reduction ability, with a montage of helicopters, a police officer holds his gun, two men in suit and tie and sunglasses and the film's villain Darren Cross is walking with them smiling, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang, Michael Douglas as Hank Pym and Evengeline Lilly as Hope van Dyne with the film's title, credits and release date below them, and the cast names above.
"Hi, I'm Scott!"

Fantastic Four (2015) - F

I saw this one on opening day with my sister and cousins, and by the time the negative reviews poured in, it was too late to change our plans. At the time, we agreed to generously grade it a C at best, but over time, I've come to realize how much it was really an F, for "fiasco." The actors tried their best, but the behind-the-scenes battles between the producers and director Josh Trank ruined what could have been a great (if far grittier than its source material) superhero movie. Not only was the movie a visual disaster, but the body horror came across as Trank trying too hard for grimdark, and I'm pretty sure Simon Kinberg et al. didn't write the screenplay as erratically paced as the final product turned out to be. Many people complain that the more recent X-Men movies, as well as The Amazing Spider-Man, were written as empty cash grabs so other studios could keep those film rights out of Marvel's hands, but this one's a very blatant case. If only someone at Fox could have smelled the train wreck coming and gotten the studio to cut their losses...well, hopefully now the rights will revert back to Marvel and they'll finally get FF right.

The Four standing in front of the viewer, with the film's title toward them and release date below them with a destroyed city behind them.
Such a talented cast, wasted. :(

Deadpool (2016) - A+

Oh fuck yes! Fox may have horribly screwed up with Fantastic Four, but at least they (or, at least, Kinberg Genre) were smart enough to keep that one separate from the X-Men franchise. Not separate, though, is this wild and crazy tale of the Merc With A Mouth, with Ryan Reynolds finally getting the chance to play him properly. Just try and stop him from breaking balls, skulls, and the fourth wall with hilariously reckless abandon. Go on. I dare you.

Official poster shows the titular hero Deadpool standing in front of the viewers, with hugging his hands, and donning his traditional black and red suit and mask, and the film's name, credits and billing below him.
#ManCrushMonday: Ryan Reynolds.

Captain America: Civil War (2016) - A

These days, the original Civil War comic storyline has gone down in infamy for its reliance on contrived conflict and its overly political nature. By making this movie more personal for Cap and the rest of the Avengers, and making the machinations responsible for their conflict personal for its understated villain Zemo, Captain America: Civil War proves a superior adaptation, especially when the viewer is drawn in (by viral marketing, of course) and asked to choose a side. (#TeamCap, of course. "The safest hands are still our own.") And, of course, this movie has the added bonus of introducing a number of new characters for Phase Three, from the incredibly nuanced Black Panther to Tom Holland taking over from Andrew Garfield (who I still maintain is the best one) as Spider-Man, presenting an all-new, excited-fanboy incarnation of the web-slinger. Yes, all the Marvel movies are setting up for what comes next at this point...but keeping the excitement building is the right way to go, I think.

Official poster shows the Avengers team factions which led by Iron Man and Captain America, confronting each other by looking each other, with the film's slogan above them, and the film's title, credits, and release date below them.
Still waiting for them to unite again.

As you can see, I'm not done fanboying anytime soon.

Till next time, Pinecones...

Remember - Denis Leary is always watching. Always.