Marvel’s Luke Cage: Season 1 (Spoilers)

Marvel’s Luke Cage premiered on Netflix on September 30th, 2016 with 13 episodes. It is the fourth overall installment in the Defenders franchise following the first season of Daredevil, the first season of Jessica Jones, and Daredevil’s second season. Luke Cage follows the titular hero in Harlem after being featured as a major player in Jessica Jones. Luke Cage is a wrongfully convicted man who was sent to Seagate Prision and subjected to horrible experiments that gave him super strength and unbreakable skin. Cage escaped and has been a fugitive from justice ever since. The series stars Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali (Remy Danton from House of Cards), Simone Missick, Theo Rossi, Erik LaRay Harvey, Rosario Dawson, and Alfre Woodard.

Luke Cage has been working two jobs in New York City’s iconic Harlem neighborhood, insisting to be paid in cash. He works one job as a janitor in Pops’ Barber Shop. Pops is a reformed ex-con who’s shop has turned into a safe haven for street kids, doing whatever he can to help them stay off the street. He is a father figure to many, including Detective Misty Knight, Cage himself, and even Cottonmouth, to some extent. Cage’s second job is as a dishwasher at Harlem’s Paradise, a club owned and operated by Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, a crime boss that runs drugs and guns in Harlem. He is covertly alligned in a conspiracy with his cousin, City Councilwoman Mariah Dillard. Dillard is currently working on a series of ambitious new housing projects with the goal of bringing Harlem back to its former glory, each named after famous black heroes, most notably Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the famed Boston Massacre for what would become America. (I put that in there just to brag that my US History class is teaching me things.) Dillard embezzled city money to back Cottonmouth’s huge gun deal with Latino crime lord Domingo, as well as an extensive renovation of Harlem’s Paradise.

Dante is a bartender at Harlem’s Paradise who is friends with Chico and Shameek, two of Pops’ young charges. They stage a raid of the weapons deal, ruining Domingo and Cottonmouth’s partnership. Shameek kills Dante when Dante panics. Chico does not have the stomach for this, and literally throws up after seeing Shameek brutally kill Dante. Shameek and Chico split the money. With his dying breath, Dante calls Cottonmouth’s crew and gives up the two teens. Shameek is captured and brutally murdered by Cottonmouth himself.

This murder, as well as the junkyard shootout, come to the attention of NYPD Detectives Misty Knight, a street-smart and brilliant detective who played basketball after hearing her father and Pops argue over the sport constantly when she was a child, and her partner, Detective Rafael Scarfe. The night of the initial raid, Knight was working undercover at the Harlem’s Paradise, where she began a rapport and an immediate sexual relationship with Cage.

After Shameek’s murder, the terrified Chico returns to Pops for protection. The big-hearted man is angry and saddened at Chico’s recklessness and stupidity, but still accepts the boy with open arms after a tearful reunion. Pops, through Cage, attempts to set up a meeting with Cottonmouth to negotiate the money for the boy’s life. The barber shop in Harlem has always had respect, no matter who’s side you’re on. “This place is Switzerland.” Cottonmouth, who has respect for Pops, agrees to the meeting. Chico was spotted in the barbershop, leading Cottonmouth’s lackey Tone to shoot up the barbershop, killing Pops and wounding Chico. Cage shields a young boy in the shop with his own body. This action, Cage’s lack of an explanation, and the fact that he has been at the center of everything, leads to suspicion from the two detectives. Cottonmouth throws Tone off the roof, enraged at his “executive decision.” Despite the fact Tone went against Cottonmouth’s wishes, Cage holds the unstable crime boss responsible and swears to even the score.

Luke Cage is another extremely unique and interesting addition to both the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large as well as Netflix’s growing catalogue of excellent original series. Jessica Jones was able to have a progressive and thoughtful conversation about sexual assault, domestic violence, and the nature of mental illness (specifically PTSD) without any politicizing of the subject. Luke Cage does much of the same thing with black culture. Luke Cage is the most stylized of Netlix’s Original Series so far, with overt references and homages to various 70s blaxplotation films. Shaft, the works of Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained is overtly referenced, with the series taking obvious stylistic cues from both Pulp Fiction and the underrated Jackie Brown). 

While Jessica Jones chose to approach its subject matter on a metaphorical basis, Luke Cage is very direct in its message concerning black culture in America. Cottonmouth wants money and power, believing that to be the thing people notice about others, especially African-Americans. Mariah and Cage, however, believe that respect is the single most important thing a black American could have. Like Jessica Jones, Luke Cage is able to send a powerful and thoughtful message without becoming preachy or political. Luke Cage is as much of a story about the city of Harlem and Black America as it is about Cage vs. Cottonmouth.

Luke Cage not only pulls from black culture in terms of visual style and dramatic themes, but also musically. Luke Cage has the best soundtrack in a Marvel feature since the catchy 80’s-infused tunes of Guardians of the Galaxy, but Luke Cage is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Featuring hardcore rap courtesy of artists like Method Man and Wu Tang Clan, as well as R&B from Raphael SaadiqFaith Evans, and Charles Bradley, not to mention countless other notable artists from prominent genres , Luke Cage features a catchy, specialized, yet diverse number of songs that compliment the themes of the series and will stay in your head for some time, and I even neglected to mention the great theme tune.

Overall, if I had one criticism of the series, it is concerning series lead Mike Coulter. His performance as Cage in Jessica Jones was rather impressive, but Coulter seems a little wooden in his own series. Though certainly not bad, I feel that there are some aspects of his performance that leave much to be desired. On the other hand, Mahershala Ali is an excellent villain and an excellent actor. Theo Rossi’s performance as the mysterious “Shades” was also very impressive, and Alfre Woodard is a force to be reckoned with.

Luke Cage is ultimately proof that you can make good TV out of anything. Luke Cage as a character is, at his core, simply a nigh-invincible black guy with super strength. That could wear thin very quickly, but showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker realized this, and decided to make Luke Cage about so much more than the man himself. Though not good enough to break my unwavering favorable bias towards its cousin series Daredevil, Luke Cage is highly entertaining, highly addictive, well-made, and another solid addition to the Marvel/Netflix team up; by the way, it crashed Netflix. This only makes me more excited for Iron Fist, and has me hoping for Heroes for Hire somewhere down the line.

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Westworld (Pilot) [SPOILERS]

Westworld is a science-fiction psuedo-Western mystery drama television series created by Jonathon Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. It is based upon the 1973 film of the same name by Michael Crichton. The series stars Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton, Jeffery Wright, James Marsden, Luke Hemsworth, Simon Quarterman, Anthony Hopkins, and Ed Harris. Westworld premiered on October 2nd. I have been anticipating the series for quite some time, and it is finally time to see if my high expectations can be met.

Taking place some time in the future, Westworld is a hyper-realistic theme park populated by lifelike androids called hosts. Regular programming updates occur, managed by head of the Programming Division, Bernard, the successor to the brilliant and enigmatic Dr. Robert Ford, the creator of both the Host androids and Westworld itself.There are also updates to the main narrative of Westworld, managed by the arrogant but creative Lee Sizemore. Theresa Cullen is the Operations Director of Westworld, working closely with Bernard to deal with any malfunctioning Hosts or other developments. Hosts that are either outdated or begin to malfunction are sent to cold storage. Bernard is usually able to fix the bugs and send them back into rotation. Westworld Hosts begin to experience a number of bugs and glitches. Bernard discovers that these glitches are due to Dr. Ford’s “reveries.” These reveries are subtle gestures Hosts use that make them seem more human and lifelike to the guests. Hosts have their memories purged regularly, but Dr. Ford discovered a way to access them, creating a subconscious of sorts. The updated Hosts are all killed in a robbery orchestrated by the team and rolled back.

Meanwhile, we follow Delores, a Host in Westworld. She wakes up every morning and goes down to the station (where guests arrive) and normally, barring any interruptions by the guests, encounters Teddy, another Host and the love of her life, who arrives on the train with the guests every morning. A peaceful day with Teddy is interrupted by The Man in Black, a sadistic and mysterious guest with a hidden agenda, who spends the episode searching for answers to his unknown query. The Man in Black ruthlessly murders Delores’ father, mother, and Teddy, and presumably rapes and kills Delores. It is possible and probable that guests kill the Hosts, but Hosts cannot, due to their programming, bring harm to any living thing, even a fly. Hosts kill other Hosts all the time. One of the Hosts glitches out, killing several other Hosts in a psychotic rampage. Throughout the episode, Delores must deal with the turmoil in her life caused by the glitched out Hosts and the mysterious Man in Black. Of course, she has no memory of these events after being killed.

The film on which the series is based is a rather straightforward narrative about AI gone bad with hidden depths. Westworld as a series is so much more than that. Instead of AI gone bad, we are presented with an Asmovian tale of the android Hosts and their benevolent and omnipresent masters behind the scenes. Delores is the series’ de facto protagonist, as it seems. You end up caring more for the Hosts than you do about the humans, who are presented in a more antagonistic vibe, though you can understand and empathize with everyone’s perspective. as well. The Hosts have thoughts, beliefs, emotions, much like humans, but they are treated as tools. Peter, Delores’ father, discovers a picture of a guest from the real world, which causes the android to have nothing less than a complete and utter breakdown.

In the film, the robots go bad in a big way, but I don’t think that is what the series will focus on. We are one hour in, and there are already many questions, both philosophical and narrative ones, that need to be answered, questions about the nature of reality, the nature of artificial intelligence, ethics when it comes to technology, and humanity’s reach exceeding its grasp. Westworld is truly a work of narrative brilliance.

The acting in Westworld is flawless. Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, Jeffery Wright, James Marsden, Ed Harris, and Louis Herthum are all great. Westworld has a budget of $100 million. With this massive budget, series creator, writer, and director of the pilot episode, Jonathon Nolan, is able to create a believable Westworld, and a believable future, as well. Subtle visual effects were used to make the actors seem more robotic.

Westworld is as intense as it is philosophical. The events that occur in Westworld itself are brutal, violent, and vicious. The series is as much a straight western as it is a sci-fi. To me, the most important question isn’t what’s going on with the Hosts at large, but what is up with the Man in Black? What does he want, and why is he torturing and slaughtering Hosts to get it?

Speaking of black, Westworld showed off its musical stylings and cinematic flair in one very interesting and engrossing scene. Using an orchestral cover of Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, the saloon robbery is possibly the most notable scene of the entire episode.

Featuring a score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi, the music of Westworld is as haunting as it is addicting; it is another wonderfully constructed piece of the wonderfully constructed puzzle that is this series.

Westworld’s premiere episode had the network’s highest viewer count since True Detective in 2014, drawing in 3.3 million viewers. It is already well on its way to being HBO’s flagship series following the soon-approaching end to Game of Thrones. This excellent revival of an excellent film is certainly a must watch for me, and it should be for you, as well. The pilot episode is free to stream right now. As for any further reviews, I will most likely wait until the season is over to share the entirety of my thoughts on it, I just felt it necessary to get the word out, because this show is awesome and it can only get better.

Narcos: Season 1

Narcos is a Netflix Original Series that first premiered on August 28th, 2015. It is a collaborative venture between Netflix and the Spanish television network Telemundo. Narcos is a semi-biographical crime serial concerning both the rise and fall of famed Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar as well as attempts by both the American DEA and Columbian officials and law enforcement officers to capture Escobar. Narcos was created by Chris Brancato, Carlo Bernard, and Doug Miro, with the series primarily being written by Brancato. Famed Brazilian director José Padhila directed several episodes of the series, as well as serving as executive producer. The series stars award-winning Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar, and Boyd Holbrook and Pedro Pascal as Steve Murphy and Javier Peña, respectively, two DEA agents embedded in Columbia with a mission to take down Escobar.

Wagner Moura is best known for starring in José Padhila’s Elite Squad films. The 2008 film was a critical and commercial success, becoming somewhat of a cultural phenomenon in Brazil. Its 2011 sequel holds industry records as the highest-grossing Brazilian film of all time. In an extremely ironic twist, the two films star Moura as an incorruptible and experienced captain in Brazil’s paramilitary police squad, BOPE, Brazil’s answer to Columbia’s Search Bloc.

Narcos has a disclaimer that the show is based upon real events, but some names have been changed and altered. It is true that Steve Murphy, Javier Peña, and several other characters are simply composites based on real people, but I was still surprised at how much of the events featured in the show were, in fact, accurate. Narcos opens with a title card:

Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There’s a reason magical realism was born in Columbia.

Not to spoil it for you, but Pablo Escobar was a ruthless, borderline crazy guy. The things he did to get his way, to bend people to his will, they are quite literally too outlandish to believe, but they happened. Narcos is compelling based upon its source material alone, but it goes even further than that.

Narcos has a lot of talent behind it. The standout cast member has to be its most important one, Wagner Moura. As someone who speaks a laughable amount of Spanish, some of his acting skill feels a little lost in translation, as do the majority of the non-English speaking actors in this series, but there is no denying Moura is extremely effective in this role. Pablo Escobar, as he is portrayed in this series, is at times extremely empathetic, and at times a downright terrifying, reprehensible monster. Moura steals the show here. I should mention that this series is very much a bilingual production, with the majority of the actors speaking Spanish when appropriate while still being able to speak fluent and clear English when the need arises. I sincerely and non-sarcastically appreciate the fact that the series makes me feel like I accomplished something with my three years of high school Spanish and extensive knowledge of extremely basic pronouns, nouns, and adverbs.

That is not to say the rest of the cast does not do a great job, as well. Boyd Holbrook, who had small roles in film up until this point, is very convincing. Serving as both narrator and protagonist of this series, Steve Murphy’s quest to catch Escobar turns into a dangerous obsession, so much so that there are points in the series you feel he is losing a part of himself the deeper he goes to catch Escobar. The weird thing is, while binge-viewing this season, I personally didn’t ever see him as going too far until I took a step back and thought about it. Even though you cannot compare the two shows at all, like Elliot in Mr. Robot, you as an audience member are inclined to see events of the series from the narrator’s (in this case, Murphy’s) perspective, even though their perspective may not always be the best one.

A question that comes up in Narcos throughout the series is “How far are you willing to go?” Columbia in the late-80’s and early 90’s was a virtually lawless country that made the American Old West look like Candyland. It is described by some as being Hell on Earth, and in many ways, it was. Because of people like Pablo Escobar, the War On Drugs is no longer simply a forceful saying. Things in Columbia got so bad, the Search Bloc was formed. The Search Bloc was a real, public, officially sanctioned paramilitary organization that comprised Columbian military personnel with the express directive of taking out the Medellin  Cartel. The Search Bloc carried out operations with near impunity. I should also mention that capturing targets wasn’t really a thing with the Search Bloc, it was mainly a death squad. The series’ first episode opens in medias res with a raid carried out by the Search Bloc based upon intelligence provided by Murphy. The raid gets rather bloody and civilians are killed. The camera pans over the carnage as Murphy asserts that he has no regrets and calmly explains that he is not a bad man before the action turns back in time to show how this all began.

What I just described to you might seem jarring, and it is, but by the time the action gets back to the nightclub shootout, you understand that Columbia at the time needed extreme measures like the Search Bloc. Like I said, in Columbia, it’s clear that the War On Drugs wasn’t just a strong saying. Stuff hits the fan very, very, very quickly in Narcos; men, women, and children end up direct casualties of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, and at that point, you don’t have time nor the luxury to consider the political or moral ramifications of extreme actions against the men responsible. This all takes a rather dramatic toll on Murphy’s morality, his beliefs, and his relationship with his loving wife, Connie, who has gone to Columbia with her husband. This is where I feel Narcos shines. You are eased into the fight against Pablo slowly but progressively until you, like Murphy, find yourself “all in.”

Another interesting character in Narcos is Colonel Horacio Carillo, the fictionalized leader of the Search Bloc based upon real-life General Hugo Martinez, played by Maurice Compte. Carillo is first introduced as an associate of Javier Peña upon Murphy’s initial arrival in Columbia. Carillo is as incorruptible as he is ruthless in his pursuit of Escobar. Seemingly the only honest cop in Columbia, Carillo wastes no time in introducing the “fresh meat” to the harsh reality of Columbia. Relentless in his pursuit of justice, Carillo, who has seen too many people slain by the cartels, never seems to bother with morality in his pursuit of justice; under no circumstances will he stop until Escobar and his people are imprisoned or, preferably, dead.

Javier Peña, an experienced agent who has been stationed in Columbia for some time, and who long came to terms with the reality of the War On Drugs, serves as Murphy’s guide throughout the series. Played brilliantly by Pedro Pascal, the charming Peña provides some organic levity throughout the darkness of Narcos while also being nearly as dedicated to the job as Carillo is.

In addition to a rock solid narrative, Narcos also benefits from impressive cinematography by Mauricio Vidal and an excellent musical score by Pedro Bromfman. The score combines Spanish folk with what seems to me to be somewhat of a hard-boiled mystery feel. It is very good, and the theme song, Tuyo, will get stuck in your head. It is a forgone conclusion. I have no idea what the lyrics are saying but it hasn’t left my head since.

Narcos is an extremely addictive and very well-made biographical crime serial and another solid addition to Netflix’s ever-growing catalog of original content. Season 2 recently premiered on September 2nd, 2016 and was renewed for a third and fourth season soon after. With a total of 20 episodes now available, Narcos is definitely worth a weekend of your time. I have yet to start Season 2, but be assured you will have my thoughts on it ASAP.