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: Jessica Jones (2018)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I’m not much interested in superhero origin stories, and this whole season is basically a backdoor origin story for Jessica Jones. <HUGE SPOILER ALERT> In this season we learn that not only did Jessica’s mother, Alisa, survive the family’s car crash, but also has powers stronger than Jessica’s and has rage issues that turns her into a mass murderer.  The whole season is uneven and poorly plotted, although I think there are good episodes in the beginning and the end, with a muddle in the middle. While the first season was good at metaphorically good at exploring the ideas of the entitlement of men and the trauma of sexual abuse, this season does a poor job of trying to explore addiction and mental illness in a similar way.  The motivations of a lot of characters, especially Trish and Alisa, just don’t make a whole lot of sense. And Jeri Hogarth’s story seems to be it’s own tv series, one that is intent on showing that a lesbian woman can be a leering creep just like a man, especially in the bizarre episode where Jeri indulges in hookers and blow. Meanwhile, Jessica goes from hating to loving her new super in another incredulous subplot. It’s a good thing that there is a team of terrific team of actors to make all this bad writing bearable.

TV Review: The Defenders (2017)


Title: The Defenders
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

Following up on watching Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, I decided to watch this crossover miniseries because Marvel requires you to watch every single damn thing to have the background for the next thing.  It’s good to see Jessica and Luke working together, although a little disappointing that they seem to be supporting characters to the other two members of the team.  One of them is Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, who is a rich kid with a bad tattoo. He seems to be a dumb character with a dumb superpower and every time he’s on the screen the script gets dumber.  Much more interesting is Matt Murdock – a.k.a. Daredevil – a blind lawyer and devout Catholic with a ambiguous relationship to his superpowers.  I might look into watching his show.

The funny thing about this series is that it seems to pick up for Jessica Jones just after her struggle with Kilgrave, with her apartment still severely damaged and her not taking on private detective work.  Meanwhile, Luke has had time to move to Harlem, have everything that happened to him in season 1 of his own series, and spend a not insignificant time in prison.  Despite these inconsistencies and the shortness of this series, the show is brave enough to set up the plot for each of the four characters to naturally get involved in the mystery and only come together to fight their foe at the end of episode 3. Then they spend much of episode 4 getting to know one another over a meal at a Chinese restaurant.

The villain in this series is well cast, Sigourney Weaver playing Alexandra, the leader of the Hand, a group of people seeking immortality.  Weaver is always calm and measured with impeccable fashion sense and even her hair is never out of place.  This sets her apart from the more cartoonish villains of other Marvel stories, and when she finally gets angry, it really means something.  The other great part of this series is the way in which the supporting characters of the four individual series are brought in to work together.  Sometimes they commiserate over dealing with a super person in their life, sometimes their complementary skills work together to advance the plot.

This series is no masterpiece of television and it has a lot of flaws, but it is a fun gathering of local superheroes saving their city with their combined abilities in a series of action sequences, and sometimes thoughtful, quieter scenes.

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2015)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

This Marvel tv series picks up with the titular character working as a private detective and dealing with PTSD through avoidance and alcohol abuse.  Jessica Jones has super strength but has abandoned being a hero due to her guilt and trauma, yet still tries to help people in her own way.  The arc of the series relates to the return of the major cause of her trauma, Kilgrave, a man who can control minds who held her captive for six months and caused her to commit murder.

I watched Luke Cage previously and the two shows have a lot in common with their main character coming to terms with their troubled past and making good use of the powers that they never asked for.  They’re also similar in that they do a great job of creating a mood, focusing on the interpersonal relationships, and taking time to let the story breathe.  At least in the first half of the season, but much like Luke Cage, the later episodes of Jessica Jones get too connected to their comic book origins and become just a little silly and overdone.  There’s also far more gore and brutal violence than I prefer to watch.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about this show. Krysten Ritter puts in an excellent performance as Jessica Jones, seemingly dead on the outside, while boiling over on the inside.  Rachel Taylor plays her adoptive sister Trish Walker, a child star turned talk show host who displays her own form of strength and determination. Ritter and Taylor play well off of one another.  David Tennant is terrifyingly creepy as the evil Kilgrave, and I resent that I’ll never be able to watch him in Doctor Who the same way again. I knew Luke Cage appeared in this show, but didn’t realize he played such a significant role, and it’s interesting to see how Mike Colter plays a supporting character differently than when he’s on his own show.

There are some highs and lows in this season, some ridiculous coincidences, and some side plots that don’t seem to go anywhere, but it was good enough to be worth checking out the second season.

 

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: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)


TitleThor: Ragnarok
Release Date: November 3, 2017
Director: Taika Waititi
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The third Thor movie (I haven’t seen the other two) and the 17th Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bonkers romp in superhero fantasy tropes. After Odin’s passing, Thor and Loki (kinda) need to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesied destruction of Asgard. They get sidetracked to a planet of garbage that is home to gladiatorial combat hosted by the Grandmaster. There they team up with Hulk and a drunken but still badass Valkyrie to finally make their way to Asgard to fight off Thor’s previously unknown sister Hela and her army of the dead.

This movie is defined by its bizarre tangents and the humor of the unexpected. The regulars – Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, and Mark Ruffalo – all dive into their parts, enjoying the opportunity to something more with their characters. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious as the Grandmaster, Tessa Thompson is a terrific Valkyrie (I hope she’s a returning character), and Cate Blanchett is appropriately over the top in her evilness, and disarmingly sexy while doing so.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)


Title: Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Release Date: April 4, 2014
Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

This is the second Captain America movie and the ninth in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  The MCU works best when it adapts it’s superhero movies to different genres, and this one attempts a political conspiracy thriller, as Steve Rogers and his cohort uncover Hydra’s long-term plot to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. With one of the more streamlined casts in the MCU oeuvre ,Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff  and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury get a whole lot more screentime, and thus more interesting things to do with their characters.  This movie also introduces Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson / Falcon, an interesting character who in retrospect doesn’t get enough attention in the following movies.  Sebastian Stan returns as the Winter Soldier (aka brainwashed Bucky Barnes) and doesn’t do much more than shoot and punch, but it does give a background to Bucky’s role in future movies. The plot of this movie is well done, but there’s a lot more firing machine guns and blowing stuff up than I find interesting. More isn’t always better even in an action movie, but the Russos have a workman-like approach that lacks the artistry of some other MCU directors.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)


TitleAnt-Man
Release Date: July 17, 2015
Director: Peyton Reed
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Ant-Man is the 12th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, introducing Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), Hank Pym (Michael Douglass), and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) into the MCU.  This may be the best “origin story” movie of the MCU and one of the funniest as well.  Lang is an idealistic cat burglar trying to stay clean after a stint in prison so he can reconnect with his young daughter.  Pym cleverly recruits him into putting his heist skills to work by introducing him to the Ant-Man suit and the ability to communicate with ants (this is not a movie for myrmecophobics!).  Pyms estranged daughter Hope helps with training Lang while also working with Pym’s rival Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

There’s some interesting digital manipulation in a flashback scene at the beginning of the movie that brings back the appearance Michael Douglass of the his 1980s peak.  Douglass is rather hammy in his acting though.  However, Stoll is far worse,  as even for a comic book villain there’s absolutely no nuance to his portrayal as anything other than an evil psychopath.  Rather unoriginally, Pym and Cross’s story is basically a recreation of the first Iron Man movie.

Luckily, there’s Paul Rudd there to make things interesting and funny.  The concept of a “shrinking person” exploring a world where microscopic things are now giant is not new, but in this movie it’s filmed well with a lot of whimsy and attention to detail.  Pop culture artifacts such as Siri, Thomas the Tank Engine, and the classic Disneyland attraction Journey Thru Inner Space make interesting cameos. Michael Peña steals every scene he’s in as Lang’s former cellmate and member of his heist crew, Luis.

I look forward to seeing the sequel this summer, especially since it will rightfully be expanding Lilly’s role as an equal partner.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Reviews: Doctor Strange (2016)


TitleDoctor Strange
Release Date: November 4, 2016
Director:  Scott Derrickson
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Since I seem to be watching all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies lately, I may as well watch Doctor Strange even though the concept looks … unpromising.

Here is my liveblog of Doctor Strange.:

  • Hey! His  name is “Strange” and he’s a doctor!
  • And Benedict Cumberbatch has an American accent!
  • He still acts just like Sherlock though. I guess they couldn’t find an American actor who can do extremely arrogant and extremely talented.
  • That physical therapist who gave away information in his former patient totally violated HIPPA.
  • So Kamar-Taj is in Kathmandu, but there are no Asian people there?
  • On the other hand it’s quite believable that Tilda Swinton holds all of the ancient knowledge.
  • Dr. Strange deserved to be punched out of his body for touching a woman without consent .
  • This trippy sequence in the astral plane should totally be adapted as Instagram filters.
  • WiFi password, ha-ha!
  • Ah, here’s an Asian person in Kamar-Taj, and it’s a severe librarian named Wong. I think I have a favorite character.
  • The Cloak is the real hero.
  • Okay, those are pretty cool visuals in that fight scene in the Rubik Cube version of New York.
  • Could he really just walk of the street and straight into the surgery at the ER?
  • The Ancient One is pretty dang preachy in her death scene.
  • So Strange and Mordo completely swap their opinions of the Ancient One and her connection to the Dark Dimension in a matter of minutes.  Maybe she should have preached to Mordo as well.
  • Ooooh, a backwards fight!
  • And now Doctor Strange must fight off the Giant Pollen Monster.
  • So who first came up with the idea of a repeating time loop to resolve the crisis: Doctor Strange or the Doctor Who episode “Heaven Sent?”
  • Nice Infinity Stone name drop there, Wong.  Always good to promote upcoming crossover spectaculars.
  • Ha ha, the credits contain a warning about distracted driving.

So, it was an entertaining bit of fluff, although I don’t think it can overcome the racial issues of it’s source material, and many of the tropes used are overly familiar.

Rating: **1/2

Previously Reviewed:

 

 

Movie Reviews: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


Title: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Release Date: June 28, 2017
Director: John Watts
Production Company: Marvel Studio
Summary/Review:

The first Spider-Man solo film in the MCU dispenses with the origin story – praise be – especially since that was probably already covered in the 6 other Spider-Man movies this century. I can’t speak for those other movies since I never saw them, but I think Tom Holland does an excellent take on the dorky teen trying balance his every day life with exploring his new powers, and knowing that he’s capable of bigger things after being exposed to the Avengers.  Michael Keaton, decades after he was Batman, plays a compelling villain, a blue-collar worker who gets rich by illegally salvaging alien technology and is not too keen on Peter Parker getting in the way.  This movie has just the right balance of humor, heart, and action sequences, and I think it’s the best MCU movie alongside Black Panther. I hope in the next Spider-Man movie they further explore Peter’s Mets fandom and have him take on The Wall.

Rating: ****

Previously Reviewed: