TV Review: Luke Cage (2018)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

The second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot like the first season in that it has some remarkable high points that make it compelling television, yet is mired with so many writing, storytelling, and acting flaws.  I find myself rooting for Luke Cage to be the stylish, yet socially conscious drama that examines the problems of contemporary Black American communities through the lens of superhero tropes it wants to be, and constantly disappointed when it fails.

Let’s focus on the good first:

Acting – there are once again some excellent performances that help carry this show.  I’m particularly impressed by Theo Rossi as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez who really came into his own in a bigger role this season, and his troubled friendship with Comanche is especially well acted.  I was kind of hoping that Shades wouldn’t so much turn good by the end of the season, but at least become a “frenemy” who works with Luke, which I suppose is still possible in future episodes.

The new antagonist John “Bushmaster” McIver played by Mustafa Shakir is also a good addition.  Bushmaster’s Ahab-like obsession gets kind of ridiculous, so it’s a credit to Shakir that he does so well with the convoluted writing and characterization.  Bushmaster is a brutal and cruel character and yet I was really able to feel empathy for him, and again was kind of hoping he would be redeemed and ally himself in some way with Luke.

Other good performances include: Reg E. Cathey bringing gravitas to underdeveloped role as Luke’s father, James Lucas. Chaz Lamar Shepherd provides a humorous spark as Raymond “Piranha” Jones.  And Rosario Dawson is good as always as Claire.  Alfre Woodward tends to get melodramatic as Mariah this season, but it’s still Alfre Woodward, who is always worth watching.

Direction – The show has a distinctive style of cinematography and staging that I really enjoy.  The show’s makers do a good job of choreographing fight scenes, and filming even simple conversations from intriguing angles. It’s also really good at just showing Harlem, and making Jamaican Crown Heights look distinctively different.

Music – Live performances at the Harlem Paradise are a highlight of any Luke Cage episode.  This season we get to see Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Faith Evans and Jadakiss, KRS-One, and Rakim, among others.  The music used to score the episodes is also universally well-selected and suited to the scenes and stories.

And I’m surprised to say this, but Danny Rand’s guest appearance actually worked well.  Danny and Luke have good chemistry, and if this was a trial balloon for a Luke Cage/Iron Fist spin-off comedy/action/drama, I’m all for it.

And now the bad:

Gratuitous violence – a crime drama is going to have it’s fair share of violence, but Luke Cage seems to revel in depicting it this season, particularly in a key scene of a massacre in a Jamaican restaurant.  Not only does the camera linger on the most gruesome aspects, but the entire scene is replayed as a flashback in the next episode! In a media environment where Black bodies are often seen as disposable, it’s particularly troublesome to see this done in a show that is supposed to be empowering.

Inconsistent characterization – A lot of the characters seem to have their motivations shift constantly to whatever the plot needs them to do.  This is especially true of Luke Cage is constantly said to struggling with things – his father, Claire, being a hero – and then having those struggles easily resolved or dropped until they’re needed again to create “drama.” The apparent heel turn he takes at the end of the season really feels like it came out of nowhere.

Misty Knight was one of the best characters of the first season, but here her story arc is that she’s a renegade cop reacting against the bureaucracy.  Except for most of the season, everything she does makes her look like a really crappy cop, which makes the character look stupid rather than heroic.

Finally, there’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tilda Johnson, Mariah’s estranged daughter.  She goes from compassionate doctor to dupe to righteously angry to femme fatale on whatever whims the plot needs her for.  Could be she’s a bad actor, could be bad writing, probably both.  Regardless, Tilda’s entire story arc is a wasted opportunity.

Repetition – All throughout the season entire scenes take place that give us the exact same information revealed in earlier episodes.  And the speeches – God help us, the speeches – that are repeated again and again. Luke musing on being a hero, Mariah preaching about family first, and Bushmaster relentless tirades on revenge.  The repetition just makes them look ridiculous rather than thoughtful.

Failure to heed the writing advice of “show don’t tell” – Both the inconsistent characterization and repetition are partly the result of the writers wanting to tell the audience things rather than show them.  For example, we’re constantly told that Luke is going through internal struggles, but are rarely shown this excepting a few good scenes such as his fight with Claire early in the season.

So those are my thoughts on a mostly good show that frustrates because it could be a great show.  The final episode of the show felt really out-of-place with the rest of the season, almost as if it were the opening of the next season rather than the conclusion to this season.  I don’t know where they’re going with Luke becoming a crime boss or if that’s a show I even want to watch, but I guess I’ll find out if and when season 3 is released.

 

TV Review: Luke Cage (2016)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2016
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

Luke Cage is a Marvel series about a man in Harlem with bulletproof skin and superhuman powers who reluctantly becomes a vigilante hero. Unlike Marvel movies, the series has a lot of space to breath allowing characters space to grow and creating an atmosphere steeped in the culture and history of Harlem. It’s more violent than I typically enjoy in my entertainment but the absence of nonstop action-adventure also makes the scenes of violence more pointed and realistic. There’s also some brilliant acting. Mike Colter holds his own as Luke, but his supporting cast really make the show. Simone Missick plays Misty Knight, an idealistic NYPD detective trying to cleanup the neighborhood, Rosario Dawson plays Claire Temple who basically has super nursing skills and acts as friend and mentor to Luke, and Mahershala Ali plays Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a nightclub owner and an organized crime leader. And then there’s Alfre Woodward, who is wonderful in everything she plays, as Mariah Dillard, a city councilor and cousin of Cottonmouth who wants to improve Harlem, but is not above looking past and even encouraging Cottonmouth’s criminal activities. The show also has terrific music with live performances by artists Raphael Saadiq, Faith Evans, Charles Bradley, Jidenna, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, and Method Man (the latter has an extended cameo that is hillarious, albeit absurd).

I felt the season was strongest in the first 6 episodes which almost feel like there own story arc with a new season starting in episode 7. The mood and the atmosphere of Harlem was especially strong in these episodes, and Luke Cage’s story intersected with social problems of the carceral state, violence in Black communities, and gentrification of historically Black neighborhoods. The latter half of the season is more action-adventure oriented, with increasingly silly plot twists, and overall feels more, well, comic book-ish. The biggest problem is that Cornell Stokes is replaced by a new antagonist who is nowhere near as well-developed or acted (more on that below).

WARNING: SPOILERS IN THE REMAINDER OF THIS POST.

The sixth episode ends with Cornell Stokes arrested and the story arc seemingly complete, but hints that police and political corruption will make it harder for charges against Stokes to stick. We seem to be set up to explore that outcome in episode 7 when in a shocking twist, Mariah brutally murders Cottonmouth, and the opportunistic Shades helps her pin it on Luke Cage. This would seem to set up Mariah as the main antagonist, but she actually fades into the background for many episodes, which is a shameful waste of Alfre Woodward, Netflix! Instead, a new villains emerges in the form of Willis “Diamondback” Stokes, played hammily by Erik LaRay Harvey, who is supposed to be the brilliant arms dealer behind the crime organizations of Harlem, but comes of cartoonish as he spouts bible verses and basically just kills everyone for no good reason. Diamondback is just not as compelling a villain as Cottonmouth and the back end of the season suffers for it.

Movie Review: Paris is Burning (1990) #atozchallenge


This is my entry for “P” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z. Some other “P” documentaries I’ve reviewed are Pete Seeger: The Power of SongProhibition, and Punk’s Not Dead.

TitleParis is Burning
Release Date: August 16, 1991
Director: Jennie Livingston
Production Company: Academy Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Filmed in Harlem in the 1980s, Paris is Burning captures the intersection of poverty, race, sexuality, and gender identity.  The focus of the movie is the balls held in Elks Lodges and YMCAs in Harlem where participants “walk” to win trophies in a variety of categories.  An older participant tells the balls began as drag performances where participants wore Las Vegas-style showgirl attire, but have since grown to contain a bewildering number of categories including business attire, military dress, High Fashion Winter Sportswear, and “realness” – that is the ability to pass as a straight person.

Participants in the balls are members of Houses, a surrogate family for LBGTQ people who’ve often been disowned by their blood relatives, or as on interviewee states “a gay street gang.”  But the Houses do not fight with fists or knives, but on the floor of the balls where they try to bring honor to House LaBeija, House Extravangza, House Pendavis, and House Ninja, among others.

Candid interviews with participants – black and Latin American gay men and transgender individuals – show how the balls and houses provide them with security and support to be themselves and been seen for who they are.  The film is both heartwarming and heartbreaking in the little victories and great prejudices the interviewees experience.  The ball being a place where one can “be whoever you want to be” is a positive, yet in many cases the participants are emulating a wealthy, white culture that would never accept them, and frankly one not worthy of being emulated.  One of the interviewees, a trans woman named Venus Xtravaganza so perfectly presents herself as a blonde, preppy teen not unlike those I went to school with in Connecticut.  Yet during the time of filming of Paris is Burning, Venus is horribly murdered, most likely a hate crime against her as a transgender person, and something that is an ongoing threat to black and Latin transgender people 28 years later.

This documentary about a subculture most people wouldn’t otherwise know anything about has left quite a cultural legacy.  Terms defined in the movie like “throwing shade” have become mainstream and the style of dancing at balls known as “voguing” of course became the source of a big hit song for Madonna. The sad thing watching this movie decades later is that many of the people feature in the movie have since died, and did not gain anything materially from the film, nor did they get to see the effect it had on mainstream culture.  The film stands as a memory of a time and place and a vessel that gives voice to people who would not otherwise have been heard.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

This entire movie was an education and I expect it will be quite illuminating for most viewers.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

I like this movie and think it is a well-intentioned tribute to the ball culture of the 1980s, and as all good documentaries it gets to the heart of what it means to be human. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it is very controversial and some criticize the movie for exploiting the participants and for cultural appropriation.  The feminist bell hooks wrote Is Paris Burning in response to this documentary.

Source: I watched this movie on Netflix streaming.

Rating: ****

Concert Review: “Weird Al” Yankovic


“Weird Al” Yankovic at the Apollo Theater, March 23, 2018.

Special guest: Emo Phillips

I’ve liked “Weird Al” Yankovic since I was a child.  I’m not perhaps a diehard fan, especially compared with the people I sat next to on Friday night who sang along with every word.  I’ve long appreciated that Weird Al is more than a novelty, but a talented musician, one who can effectively write and perform songs in multiple genres.  I’d also heard that his live shows are terrific so I’d been wanting to attend.  The Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour features shows in intimates settings without props and costumes and focusing on songs Weird Al wrote instead of parodies, so I felt this was the perfect opportunity to appreciate his work as a musician.

It also provided an opportunity to attend a show at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem.  And of course my first show at the Apollo is for the whitest (and nerdiest) performer ever, which I feel a bit guilty about, but I did appreciate the photos and plaques honoring the legendary jazz, soul, R&B, and funk performers who made the Apollo famous.  The theater is gorgeous in the neo-classical style of early 20th century performance spaces.  I had a great view of the stage from my front row balcony seat, albeit at 6’1″ I felt that the seat and foot space was designed for a significantly shorter person.

“Nature Trail to Hell” was played in blood-red light.

As promised, Weird Al and his four-man band performed Yankovic originals, including many style parodies which are a pastiche of a particular artist’s music.  The highlights for me were “Mr. Popeil,” a tribute to “seen on TV” gadgets in the style of the B-52s, and “You Don’t Love Me Anymore,” a tender ballad about a young man who’s getting hints that his relationship is ending after his partners repeated attempts to kill him.  I was also impressed by the light design that matched the music and the mood – blood red lighting for the slasher film promo “Nature Trail to Hell,” and swirling paisleys for the trippy Doors-inspired “Craigslist.”

The tender ballad “You Don’t Love Me Anymore”

Weird Al concluded the set with a medley of his most well-known song parody lyrics set to the tunes of entirely different songs (for example “Eat It” was sung to the Unplugged version of Eric Clapton’s “Layla”).  It was all very meta but fun.  For an encore, they played a rocking, straightforward cover of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” Al introduced the song by saying that after decades in the music business he’d finally learned how to play guitar, and this would be his live performance debut on guitar (I don’t believe either of those things are true).  The gag was that when it came time for the guitar solo, Al simply strummed a single, unfretted string.  For the finale they played the beloved sing-a-long, “Yoda.”

It was a fun night, and I’d definitely see Weird Al again should I get the chance. I found the setlist from online sources. Note that the “drum solos” were short and deliberately unimpressive.

Setlist:

  1. Dare to Be Stupid (Grateful Dead version)
  2. Close but No Cigar
  3. Generic Blues
  4. Mr. Popeil
  5. Nature Trail to Hell
  6. Craigslist
  7. Dog Eat Dog
  8. My Own Eyes
  9. Your Horoscope for Today
  10. UHF
  11. I Remember Larry
  12. Drum Solo
  13. Jackson Park Express
  14. Young, Dumb & Ugly
  15. You Don’t Love Me Anymore
  16. Bass Solo (theme from “Barney Miller”)
  17. Albuquerque
  18. Drum Solo
  19. Eat It / I Lost on Jeopardy / Amish Paradise / Smells Like Nirvana / White & Nerdy / I Love Rocky Road / Like a Surgeon

Encore:

20. Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young cover) (First time Weird Al played guitar on stage)
21. Yoda

Weird Al’s guitar solo on “Cinnamon Girl.”

See also: Music Discovery: Weird Al

Book Review: Strivers Row by Kevin Baker


AuthorKevin Baker
Title: Strivers Row
Narrator: Thomas Anthony Penny
Publication Info: HarperAudio, 2006
ISBN: 9780060195830
Other books read by same author: Paradise Alley and Dreamland
Summary/Review:

This is third in a series of books known as the City of Fire, where Kevin Baker delves into the drama of everyday lives among the ordinary, working class communities of historical New York.  The books are always richly detailed and well-told.  This time the story is set in Harlem in 1943 against the backdrop of World War II and racial tensions ratcheting up.  This story is framed around two main characters: the Reverend Jonah Dove who feels unworthy of his leadership role compared with his legendary father and is sometimes able to pass as white, and a fictional version of Malcolm Little who would become Malcolm X.  Choosing Malcolm X for a character in a novel is a daring move, especially since Baker takes liberties with the timeline of his discovery of the Nation of Islam.  But overall both his characters are rich, flawed, fully-human, and have a feeling of authenticity.  The novel is peppered with historical events and the characters reactions to them.  Like the previous two novels – Paradise Alley which ended with the Draft Riots and Dreamland which ended with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire – Strivers Row culminates in a major event in New York City, this time the Harlem Race Riots of 1943.  I think Baker did a better job overall with the previous two books, but this is an entertaining and though-provoking novel

Recommended booksThe Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley
Rating: ***