‘Marvel’s Luke Cage’ Review

Harlem’s reluctant hero and a great supporting cast combine to produce Marvel’s finest work yet.  9.5/10

The easiest way to differentiate Marvel’s latest collaboration with Netflix from typical superhero fare is to watch the dramatic standoff between the titular hero (Mike Colter) and the crime lord, Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes (Mahershala Ali) at a church service.  They don’t obliterate buildings trading punches, but instead trade visions of what it means to be a member of this historic community.  The two men aren’t surrounded by millions of dollars in CGI effects swirling toward the heavens; they’re presenting a philosophy on how one can overcome hopelessness to get into heaven one’s self.

With 24 hours news channels and the internet streaming the deterioration of America’s own story of race relations, the current climate provides both a challenge and an opportunity for Marvel Studios’ first superhero property starring an African-American.  How far could it go to appeal to a wide audience without ignoring the front page headlines.

Marvel’s Luke Cage is more than up to the task of addressing these issues, while also producing a highly entertaining drama that is a step above their already acclaimed slate of Netflix series that includes Daredevil and Jessica Jones.  While those series were both solid ventures in telling specific stories around those characters, Luke Cage seems as though it’s part of a larger cinematic universe, while also addressing the real-life questions on what it takes to be a good man up in today’s morally complex world.

Picking up five months after the events of Jessica Jones, we find Luke working under the table both as a dishwasher in Stokes’ Harlem Paradise nightclub and sweeping hair-clippings in Henry ‘Pop’ Hunter’s (Frankie Faison) barbershop.  Deemed the ‘Switzerland’ of the neighborhood by its owner, the shop is supposed to be a sanctuary from the violence and enmity of the streets.

It’s not long, though, before circumstances require Cage to confront Cottonmouth’s hold on the neighborhood, not only by opposing the common street violence and graft, but also the more uptown criminal activity represented by Stokes’ cousin, Maria Dillard, played by Alfre Woodard.  Waiting in the wings is a sinister figure called Shades (Theo Rossi), who represents a mysterious party known only as Diamondback, a looming off-camera presence through much of the 13 episode run.

Cage’s vigilante status brings him into conflict with the local police, represented by Detectives Misty Knight (Simone Missick) and Rafael Scarfe (Frank Whaley), who wonder why so much of the chaos that seems to be engulfing Harlem always involves one strangely indestructible man.  Knight’s arc is a major one in the series and Missick is a revelation as the best supporting character Marvel has produced to date, almost matched by Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, who is given much more screen-time than she received in her 3 previous outings with Daredevil and Jessica Jones.

Colter gives a wonderfully intense performance as a man who has been betrayed by the system at every turn, yet will not allow his past to provide an excuse to avoid his conscience.  The villains of the piece, while not asked to carry as much of the load as Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk or David Tennant’s Kilgrave, are complex multi-dimensional characters who work as part of a larger story without dominating the screen-time.  That’s why you’ll find yourself having as much fun when Cage is on the screen as you do when Stokes, Dillard and Shades are scheming to take down a bulletproof man.

Music plays a large role, not only from a character development standpoint, but also in setting the mood for and providing the rhythm of the story.  Every episode is named after a Gang Starr song, and the show features a number of musical set-pieces featuring everyone from Method Man and the Wu-Tang Clan to Raphael Siddiq and the Delfonics.

If there is one fault to be found, it’s the usual stumble of the Marvel shows, which is that the series could have been pruned to 10 or 11 episodes. This would have tightened up the pacing, but it’s less of a sin here than it was in Daredevil or especially, Jessica Jones.

In a year where the worst excesses of the superhero genre appeared on the big screen, and even the better works were either parodies such as Deadpool, or well-produced more of the same, like Captain America:Civil War, Marvel should be proud that it can produce a new look and a fresh story featuring a man who embodies the idea of a hero.

We will be reviewing the first 7 episodes of Luke Cage on our podcast available October 3rd.

‘Narcos’ Season Two Review

A tighter focus ratchets up the intensity of Pablo Escobar’s final chapters.  10/10

The first season of Narcos was a sprawling historical drama, taking viewers on a journey that began with the birth of the Columbian cocaine trade in the 1970’s, through the heights of Pablo Escobar’s campaign of terror during the first Bush Administration, and finally, his mock imprisonment and subsequent escape from his personally designed luxury prison.  Covering almost 15 years of history in 10 episodes provided no shortage of dramatic twists and turns with which to hook viewers on to the story of a mid-level thug who would become one of the world’s richest men.

That said, with this incredible wealth of material, it was surprising that the writers from the first season, led by showrunner Chris Brancato, allowed the story to reach all the way to Escobar’s escape from La Catedral in 1992, a mere 17 months before his story ends.  After experiencing the rise of Escobar, the pursuit and slaughter of some of his closest (and most colorful) associates, as well as a campaign of narco-terrorism that will hopefully never be matched, would there be enough story left to be told for Season Two to keep our attention?  Was Brancato leaving the cupboard bare for new Executive Producers Jose Padilha and Eric Newman?

The answer is a resounding no.  One of the few faults to be found in the first season was that, with so much history to cover and minutiae to explain, it suffered from the weight of Murphy’s narrative exposition which was necessary to keep viewers from getting completely lost.  With Season Two, the shorter timeline actually works in the show’s favor, allowing for a more intimate study of the drug lord on the run and the rippling effects of the chase on both those who aided and pursued him.  Once you’ve viewed all 20 episodes of Narcos, it will seem as though the first 10 are merely the prologue to the real story the series is telling, which is that of a man who is feeling the past close in on him from every direction.

Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal return as DEA agents Steve Murphy and Javier Pena but, with the U.S. Government prioritizing the capture of Escobar in an election year, are now just part of a larger team that includes a new ambassador to Columbia, a DEA superior to keep them in line, and a CIA presence, delightfully portrayed by Eric Lange as agent Bill Stechner.  One definitive improvement made this year is that by minimizing Murphy’s family life that had earlier been such a large part of his arc, the spotlight is shared more equally between the two agents. Viewers are left to wonder how many of their principles will be left by the time they get their man.

Rounding out what are nominally the ‘good guys’ (though even Pena questions this at times) are the Colombian President, Cesar Gaviria (Raul Mendez), Vice-Minister Eduardo Sandoval (Manolo Cardona) and an increasingly obsessed Colonel Horacio Carrillo (Maurice Compte).

Still, all of the law enforcement forces arrayed against him may not even be the biggest threat to the renegade drug kingpin.  On the other side of the law, the Cali Cartel, which was only hinted at in the first season, can smell blood and begins to move around the pieces necessary to eliminate their rivals in Medillin once and for all.  They’re aided by the Judy Moncada, the widow of Escobar victim Kiko and a narco in her own right, as well as some very unlikely allies who will eventually become the bloodiest thorns in Pablo’s side.

Wagner Moura continues to be fantastic in the role of Escobar, a constantly simmering stew of cunning and rage, always keeping one step ahead of all his enemies.  After his experience in La Catedral, he is newly committed to his wife, Tata (Paulina Gaitan), his children and his mother Hermilda, which permits us to feel a sliver of sympathy for an otherwise monstrous human being.  Though his empire has shrunk, he is still aided by a loyal group of sicarios, among them familiar faces such as Blackie, La Quica and Velasco, and, as always, the people of Medillin who continue to regard him as a hero for the common man.

Where the tighter focus really pays off is the time spent with taxi driver Limon (Leynar Gomez) and his friend Maritza (Martina Garcia).  Whereas before we had only fleeting glimpses of this war’s effect on the average Colombian, now there is time to explore how two heretofore innocents can have their lives upended by even minimal contact with a man like Pablo Escobar.

In our review last season the biggest outstanding question was whether or not this manhunt could keep us interested for another whole season.  Not only do these 10 episodes provide a relentless buildup of tension and suspense that, despite the inevitability of its ending, will keep any fan of the first season enthralled, but they also allow for more depth to the show’s characters, increasing the stakes for all.

We will be reviewing each episode of Narcos Season 2 on our podcast beginning September 4th.

‘The Get Down’ Review

Once “The Get Down” finds its wings, it soars.  8.5/10

Saturday Night Fever wasn’t released until December of 1977, meaning that during the events of Netflix’s latest new series the disco genre was still predominantly limited to the Black, Latino and gay communities in a few urban centers.  This looming explosion in world-wide popularity provides an ironic backdrop to the story that’s told in the first half of what will be a 11 episode arc to be completed in 2017.  Because even as the style is about to hit its peak and make John Travolta, the Bee Gees and Studio 54 household names, a less polished, more genuine musical art form is gestating in the South Bronx that will outlast its predecessor by 35 years and counting.

The heart of Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” – he produced the entire series and directed the first episode – is the story of two teenagers with dreams of escaping New York’s roughest borough.  Through their eyes, we experience both the natural symbiosis and increasing friction between the nightlife of gaudy discotheques and the nascent underground subculture of hip hop.

Mylene Cruz (newcomer Herizen Guardiola) wants to be the next club diva, joining the likes of Donna Summer and the fictional Misty Holloway on the other side of the river, and leaving what seems to be the perpetually burning ruins of her neighborhood behind.  Standing in the way is her pastor father (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) who is willing to let his daughter use her angelic voice in the service of the Lord, but believes that dance music in 1977 is an instrument of the devil.

Ezekiel Figueroa (Justice Smith) has a natural talent for poetry, but, as a beautiful sequence early in the first episode explains, has been left orphaned by drug violence and lives with his aunt and handyman boyfriend, Leon.  He would be ready to let the systemic forces arrayed against him keep him down, if not for his love for Mylene and the hope that they can make a life outside of the Bronx.

These two desires, Mylene’s for fame and Ezekiel’s for her love, kick off the plot of the first episode where, to gain her favor, Ezekiel attempts to find a rare remix of her favorite record and by doing so, crosses path with a legendary graffiti artist and aspiring DJ, the wonderfully named Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore).

As these teenagers attempt to prove the truth behind the title of the first episode “Where there is Ruin, there is Hope for a Treasure”, in the background larger forces are affecting theirs and the city’s future.  Predominant among them is Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz, (Jimmy Smits) who is working behind the scenes to improve both the lives of his community and his own financial situation by delivering votes in the hotly contested New York mayoral primary between Abe Beame and Ed Koch.

The first episode is right out of the Australian director’s playbook.  Bright colors, outlandish fantasy-like sequences and exotic narrative choices bring back some of the joy of watching his work for the first time, but can at times, seem a little off-putting considering how otherworldly the Bronx of this period already looked.  Clocking in at over an hour and a half it also takes too long to get to the titular world of The Get Down and may put off some viewers who prefer their flash of the Grandmaster variety, rather than that of Moulin Rouge.

The series settles down after it’s pilot, almost to a fault, as the next few episodes only rarely display the quirkiness we saw non-stop in the first 90 minutes.  Still, the scenes are always shot beautifully, the story is compelling and the main characters and supporting cast so likable that it’s worth getting through the exposition to embark on this journey with them.

When The Get Down really begins to soar is, appropriately enough, at the beginning of its fifth episode “You Have Wings, Learn to Fly”.  Picking up from a cliffhanger, this and the sixth episode combine all the magic of the pilot with the narrative focus of the middle section.  Guardiola and Figueroa provide about as magical a 5 minutes of television as you’ll ever see, one wordsmithing his way out of a jam, and the other singing to the heavens.  This short sequence seems to inspire the cast and writers to bring these first six episodes to a more than satisfying conclusion.

The Get Down was an incredibly expensive proposition for Netflix, coming in at more than 10 million dollars per episode, and in the early going, there was a risk of it falling more in line with Marco Polo than Game of Thrones.  But this story, just like the upstart musical genre whose birth it is depicting, is showing sparks of brilliance that give great hope for the future.

We will be reviewing each episode of “The Get Down” on our podcast starting on Tuesday.