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“Luke Cage” Season 1 Spoiler-Free Review

Powerful, Relevant Themes Weighed Down by Boring Storytelling

marvels-luke-cage-season-oneAfter his debut in 2015’s Netflix series Jessica Jones, iconic Marvel Comics hero Luke Cage stars in his own eponymous show from the streaming service. With a more relevant than ever focus on black lives and community violence, Luke Cage finds itself empowered by resonant themes and simultaneously hampered by some poor storytelling choices.

Set in Harlem, New York, and following the life of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) – a bulletproof and super strong African American man who is trying to make sense of his life and powers – Netflix’s Luke Cage is just as much about one man trying to do what is right as it is about a community being pulled between good and evil. And into this struggle come crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), arms dealer Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), and NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick).

As a whole, Luke Cage is strongest in its themes and characters and often weakest in its narrative and action. From the get go, the series hones in on its most powerful ideas, many of which are encapsulated in the character of Luke himself. From stunning tragedies early on in the show to powerful speeches concerning the value of black lives (Colter’s speech at the end of episode 2 concerning Crispus Attucks is incredibly moving and is possibly the emotional highpoint of the entire season), it’s clear that Luke Cage and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker have many important things to say about today’s society. However, these themes slowly move to the background as the season progresses, switching focus to the main storyline and its action sequences, neither of which are strong enough to suitably replace the powerful metaphors found at the series’ beginning.

Continue reading ““Luke Cage” Season 1 Spoiler-Free Review”

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“Stranger Things” Season 1 Review

Riveting Characters Meet Nostalgic ‘80s Mysteries

stranger-things-netflix-posterNostalgia for the ‘80s and its best loved stories has been running high in the last few years. From reappraisals of movies from the decade to both modern music and filmmaking that emulate the style of the decade, modern pop culture is in the midst of a love affair with the decade.

Into this atmosphere arrives Netflix’s Stranger Things, an eight-episode television series created by The Duffer Brothers that is not only set in the ‘80s, but takes narrative, character, and reference cues from the decade’s fondly remembered films. A hypnotic synth score recalls the works of John Carpenter while the central quest into the unknown is both scary and charming in a way that was often best captured by films of the ‘80s. But while the pure surge of nostalgia may be the initial draw for many fans, what Stranger Things does even better than lovingly transpose the techniques of the ‘80s is to tell a story that is so good that it does not need its nostalgic elements in order to succeed.

Set in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana, in 1983, the disappearance of a young boy named Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) sets off a chain of events that see the boy’s mother, Joyce Byers (Winona Ryder), his brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton), Police Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour), the boy’s friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo), and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), and Mike’s sister Nancy (Natalia Dyer), search for answers. Their quests lead them to the discovery of a monster from another dimension, a shady government agency, and a mysterious young girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who possesses psychokinetic abilities. Like a blend between Steven Spielberg and Stephen King, Stranger Things balances a sense of wonder with a sense of terror while anchoring its many mysteries in fantastic characters.

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“Daredevil” Season 2 Review

A Powerful, If Uneven, Return to Hell’s Kitchen

daredevil-season-2-reviewAfter a premiere season that tracked the evolution of its titular hero, Marvel’s Daredevil returns to Netflix with its second season, a gripping journey into the dark heart of Hell’s Kitchen in New York. But with a bigger cast of characters than ever and towering expectations to live up to, Daredevil finds both new strengths and weaknesses in its second season.

After the events of its first season, blind but superpowered lawyer Matt Murdock (Charlie Cox) prowls the streets of Hell’s Kitchen as Daredevil by night while fighting in the courtroom by day. But new threats arise in his neighborhood, including the lethal vigilante known as The Punisher (Jon Bernthal), his former girlfriend Elektra (Élodie Yung), and a mysterious organization looking to seize control of New York from the shadows. Facing greater dangers than ever, Matt must reevaluate his entire life while trying to protect the people he loves.

In its first season, Daredevil showed that there was a place for grim and mature content within the generally brighter Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to its complex themes, bursts of shocking violence, and somber tone. That precedent continues into its second season, even when the superheroics and costumes have become brighter and less grounded.

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“The Spectacular Spider-Man” Animated Series Is One of The All-Time Great Superhero Stories

Originally airing from 2008 to 2009 for two seasons, The Spectacular Spider-Mancartoon series’ end was a result of Disney’s purchase of Marvel Comics. But with characterization true to the spirit of the comics, incredibly intelligent storytelling, and fantastic action, this is quite simply one of the greatest interpretations of everyone’s favorite wall-crawling superhero and the strongest in any medium outside of comic books. This is the type of series that proves both the power of the character of Spider-Man and the unique strengths of animated series in the realm of superheroes.

Created by Greg Weisman and Victor Cook, this is a series that simply gets what is special about Spider-Man and his world. As a whole, The Spectacular Spider-Mandraws its influences from the Stan Lee/Steve Ditko era of Spider-Man comics, which introduced the hero and focused heavily on his time as a high schooler balancing school life, relationships, and heroism. That wide-eyed sense of discovery blends with the burden of responsibility to create a Peter Parker that evokes what has been loved about the character for more than 50 years. Voiced here by Josh Keaton, Peter really feels like the character has jumped off the comic page and is swinging across your TV screen in animated form. He has all of his strengths and weaknesses, charisma, and depth, which makes him an endearing character to all ages of viewers.

While the series tracks the early days of the hero, it doesn’t waste precious time redoing an origin that everyone knows by heart already, although it is touched on in flashback near the end of Season 1. Instead, the series leaps into action with Peter already patrolling New York as the Wall-Crawler and then introduces his villains one by one, even bringing some into the series far before they become super powered in order to give them more history and personality. Every villain and supporting character that longtime fans love are here, including Gwen Stacy, Harry Osborne, Mary Jane Watson, Doctor Octopus, Venom, Green Goblin, Sandman, Rhino, and many more. But despite that vast supporting cast, The Spectacular Spider-Man knows how to balance its focus for continuously satisfying storytelling and variety in focus.
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“Ash vs Evil Dead” Season 1 Spoiler-Free Review

After three cult classic horror movies, decades of dormancy, and a reboot no one wanted, The Evil Dead series returns from the dead in the Starz Original Series Ash vs Evil Dead. With star Bruce Campbell back in his iconic role and fresh life injected into the franchise, it’s a series that know how to give fans everything that they want and more, even when its dedication to expanding the franchise winds up in some dead ends.

Ash vs Evil Dead picks up 30ish years after the original Evil Dead Trilogy with hero Ash (Campbell), who once survived multiple nights in a cabin in the woods being attacked by a demonic force, being dragged back into the battle against the Deadites and the forces of evil unleashed from an evil book known as the Necronomicon. Teaming up with reluctant warriors Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) and Pablo (Ray Santiago), Ash heads out on the road to fight evil with detective Amanda Fisher (Jill Marie Jones) and the mysterious Ruby (Lucy Lawless) on his trail.

As a movie trilogy, Evil Dead morphed from film to film, changing from gruesome and serious splatter fest to wacky gory hijinks to comedic adventure. Together, they create an overall tone that is associated with the franchise as a whole, even though it is never completely encapsulated in a single movie. Here, the Starz series and showrunner Craig Digregorio look to capture that tone in a consistent and holistic manner from episode to episode, with massive gore and campy laughs standing side by side across the season. Thanks to the work of franchise creators Sam Raimi (who directed all three films and the series’ pilot episode) and Rob Tapert, that tone is successfully executed, which is one of the biggest reasons behind the series’ success. As a whole, this is a massively welcome return to the franchise that fans have voraciously loved for decades with just enough fan service to please but not become tired. That said, the series is still executed well enough as a standalone to appeal to those who are brand new to the world of Evil Dead. From the very first episode, which is easily one of, if not the, strongest episode of the season, it’s clear that Evil Dead is back in full force. Continue reading ““Ash vs Evil Dead” Season 1 Spoiler-Free Review”

The Best of Entertainment in 2015

The year 2015 brought as many highs as it did lows in the world of pop culture. For every Mad Max: Fury Road, there was a Fantastic Four. Thankfully, the highs were most often higher than how low the lows were. Best of all, there were just as many amazing pieces of original entertainment as there were revivals of well-known properties. No matter what your tastes are, 2015 had something special for you.

This year brought pieces of entertainment that both appealed to my long-standing loves of various franchises and genres, as well as those that expanded my taste into new and exciting areas. The following are my personal favorites from the world of film, television, comic books and more! Have your own top choices? Let me know in the comments section below!

Favorite Movies

Mad Max: Fury Road – The rebirth of the Mad Max franchise in Fury Road wasn’t only a powerful return to the post-apocalyptic world of creator George Miller, but a revolutionary action film that provided unparalleled visceral thrills and surprisingly deep storytelling. Using precision directing, imagination run rampant, brilliant characters, and moving acting, Miller’s Fury Road is simultaneously the film equivalent of a metal guitar solo that melts your brain and an ancient parable that reflects today’s societal issues. This is the type of film that can only come from an entire team working at the top of their game and the result is a redefining action film that transcends the confines of the genre to become something even more. Read my review here and read my analysis of thefilm’s use of the heroic cycle here.

Paddington – Taking a decades-old children’s book series and updating it for the modern era could be a recipe for disaster along the similar lines of the modern Smurphs and Alvin and the Chipmunk movies. Instead, writer/director Paul King’s Paddington is one of the most heart-warming and charming films in ages. With a story that uses both the lovely humor of author Michael Bond’s stories and a modern parable about immigration, the story of a young bear from Darkest Peru who has travelled to London in the wake of a tragedy is pure movie magic. This is a film for everyone that charms, deeply moves, and tells a surprisingly important story for today, all with a character who you’ll love to pieces from the very beginning. Read my in-depth piece on the Paddington’s immigration message here.

What We Do In The Shadows – A vampire mockumentary from director/writer Taika Waititi and co-writer/actor Jemaine Clement, What We Do In The Shadowsis the funniest film of the year by far. Taking two genres that have been given more than enough screentime in the last few years – vampires and found footage – and elevating them both to a whole new level, this comedy film focusing on a group of vampire roommates living in New Zealand is a brilliant piece of character-focused comedy that lovingly deconstructs the vampire mythos while never once feeling like it’s treading old ground. From virgin sandwiches to swearwolves, this is a new comedy classic. Read my review here.

Creed – The Rocky franchise has been through many ups and downs over the years, but writer/director Ryan Coogler has breathed new life and a new direction into it with Creed. Not only does the Michael B. Jordan-led franchise take the best of the series and give it a fresh and modern interpretation, it stands on its own as a powerful and emotionally-charged tale that stands toe-to-toe with the original. Led by powerhouse performances by both Jordan and the returning Sylvester Stallone, Creed is something truly special in an age of reboots and cash-grab remakes – it’s actual, meaningful art. Read my review here.

Ex Machina – Easily the smartest sci-fi film of the year, writer/director Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is a perfect example of everything the genre can do when it has an intelligent point to make. Centering around a Turing test of an artificial intelligence, Garland’s film revolves around fascinating ideas that are explored in ways that slowly unravel like a mystery. Anchored by three stellar performances by Oscar Isaac, Alicia Vikander, and Domhnall Gleeson, Ex Machinais a truly intelligent thriller that appeals to everything I love about science fiction. Plus, that dance sequence is something amazing. Continue reading “The Best of Entertainment in 2015”

The 15 Best Episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Starting with the 2008 computer animated movie, the television series Star Wars: The Clone Wars explored the war years between Attack of the Clonesand Revenge of the Sith. While the film was met with poor reviews, the series that resulted quickly became loved by fans of Star Wars.

Over the course of five seasons (and a half-finished sixth season that was left incomplete due to the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm), The Clone Wars shifted from kid-focused fun to dark, epic, and mature storytelling.

Spearheaded by Dave Filoni and a crack team of writers, directors, and animators, the series breathed real life into the prequel era, a trilogy that left most fans of the franchise bitter and burned. But the quality of the series took the concepts of the battle between The Republic and The Trade Federation and explored them in ways that were far more fascinating, deep, and action packed. It also made characters like Anakin Skywalker actually interesting and real, as well as introduced some fantastic new characters into the franchise.

The following 15 episodes are the best of the best of The Clone Wars. Whether you are a longtime fan of the franchise or are just getting into Star Wars, these stories will show you the power of the series and can stand toe-to-toe with the best of the franchise. Continue reading “The 15 Best Episodes of Star Wars: The Clone Wars”

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“Jessica Jones” Season 1 Review

After establishing a new subset of the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the first season of Daredevil on Netflix, Marvel Studios unleashes their newest hero in her own titular series, Jessica Jones. A hardboiled and traumatized detective, Jones (Krysten Ritter) is a new breed of hero in the often bright and shiny MCU. With a realistic and stark focus on sexual abuse, trauma, and addiction, Jessica Jones easily tackles the most mature subject matter from the studio to date.

Thankfully, creator Melissa Rosenberg and her team have been able to translate author Brian Michael Bendis’ comic book series Alias, where Jones first appeared in Marvel Comics, into a thrilling and deep series that handles its sensitive and painful topics with aplomb. While not every single aspect of Jessica Jones is a success, the overwhelmingly excellent execution mixed with powerful subject matter and easily one of Marvel’s best live action heroes to date makes the Netflix series a rousing success and a welcome break from much of the studio’s fare.

From the very start, the mature content and tone of Jessica Jonesdifferentiates the series from the typical superhero media seen today and keeps more in line with the ideas first presented in Netflix’s Daredevil series. As the series progresses, serious thought and time is devoted to the exploration of rape and the trauma it causes on survivors, with the additional time afforded by the series’ length allowing Jessica Jones to go in depth and wrestle with the extremely difficult subject matter.

It’s an incredible balancing act that could have been disastrous if done incorrectly, but the show’s success when dealing with these matters is most often its strongest points. The result is a haunting piece of noir storytelling that satisfies through its blend of heroics and pathos-laden narrative.
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It Never Truly Ends for a "Community" Fan

After close calls, cast member departures, cancellations, and online renewals, Community has just finished its sixth season, its first on the Yahoo! Screen website/app. And it may be its last.

Maybe. Probably. Maybe.

For a devoted fan of the show since Season 1, being a follower of the tales of Greendale students-turned-alumni-turned-teachers-turned-savers, it’s been a long and emotionally resonant journey. While Community burst onto the scene thanks to its metatextual nature and ability to simultaneously skewer and pay loving homage to all types of genres, it’s the bleeding heart at the center of Dan Harmon’s creation that truly made fans devote themselves to a show about a community college. Harmon created something that is honest, real, and full of love because he spilled his heart out through his creation. When that connects with someone, it connects deeply.

From the very start, Community has been about a group of misfits who grow up and find meaning in their relationships with one another while muddling through the uncertainty of life at the worst (and most lovable) community college ever attended. While Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) has been the central character throughout it all and most exemplified the pain and sacrifice that comes with growing as a person and learning to truly care about other people, every character has been just as important along the way.

Abed (Danny Pudi) transitioned from a boy completely removed from reality and interpreting everything through movie references to someone who understands his own difficulties but excels by using them positively. Annie (Alison Brie) matured the most evidently, going from naive high school grad to self-assured and focused woman pursuing a career in criminology. Troy (Donald Glover) gave up his childish distractions for the chance to become a man, even if it meant leaving everyone behind. Britta (Gillian Jacobs) remained defiant and often unaware, but became a more stable and kind person along the way. Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) went from a woman trying to pick up the pieces of a broken life to someone who embraced inner strength and fierceness for the good of everyone. Dean Craig Pelton (Jim Rash) embraced his weirdness and turned his unhealthy love for The Greendale 7 into something productive and positive. Of course, others like Pierce (Chevy Chase), Ian Duncan (John Oliver), Buzz Hickey (Jonathan Banks), Elroy Patashnik (Keith David), and Frankie Dart (Paget Brewster) saw growth that may have been stunted by more limited runs on the show. However, they still added something special to the group and the overall ideas of Community. And Chang (Ken Jeong) cycled through all manner of insanity along the way.

Of course, Community is a sitcom, meant to entertain and surprise with each individual episode. And the show did that time and time again, delivering entries that stand on their own and are infinitely rewatchable. But it’s the beating heart underneath it all that made each one even better.
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Daredevil on Netflix Review: Episodes 7-13

After covering the first half of the brand new season of Daredevil on Netflix, I continue my review of the latest and darkest entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And if you thought that the first six episodes were gritty, shocking, and violent, then you’re about to be blown away with what happens in the final seven. It’s clear that Daredevil is a show that is willing to take some chances and go to some very dark places. For the most part, the back half of the season is a rousing success, although there are some minor stumbling blocks along the way to the show’s triumphant finale.

Be warned if you have not finished Season 1 of Daredevil, there will be plenty of spoilers

After the end of episode 6, it’s clear that the show is now ramping up into the inevitable confrontation between Matt Murdock and Wilson Fisk, as well as anyone else who may seek to take down The Kingpin. However, there are some strangely slow pieces to the back half of this season, as the show takes its time getting to the final showdown. That’s not to say that there are glaring weaknesses here, but when some characters hem and haw about their decisions to take down Fisk, it grows frustrating over a longer span of multiple episodes.

While Daredevil is a strong mix of the superhero and crime genres, it’s clear that this is a Marvel Studios production. Of course Daredevil and Kingpin are going to have one final fight at the climax of this season. But because there are 13 episodes, we all know that it won’t happen until the end of the final entry. The time spent getting there can feel like the wheels are being spun just a bit too obviously, especially during the 11th and 12th episodes – “The Path of the Righteous” and “The Ones We Leave Behind.” Thankfully, the momentum of the season as a whole and the strength of each character propels the series through these duller moments.
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