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.

Mr. Robot, Season 1

Mr. Robot is an American drama thriller television series starring Rami Malek and Christian Slater. The series, created by Sam Esmail, premiered on June 24, 2015. The series also includes Carly Chalkin, Portia Doubleday, and Martin Wallstrom in supporting roles. Mr. Robot follows a computer technician and occasional vigilante hacker named Elliot Alderson. Elliot works for an IT security company called Allsafe. Allsafe contracts out to E Corp, or as Elliot calls them, “Evil Corp.” Evil Corp is a huge multinational technology conglomerate like Apple. Elliot is sought out by the mysterious hacktivist revolutionary known only as “Mr. Robot,” to join his group fsociety. Fsociety is an anarchist hacker group aiming to take down the “top 1% of the top 1%” and erase all debt.

The events of Mr. Robot are always shown from Elliot’s perspective, with voiceovers meant to explain his inner thoughts and feelings, as well as to explain more complex moments in the plotline of the show. From this, it is clear that Elliot is not the most stable individual. Elliot suffers from social anxiety, paranoia, and will occasionally hallucinate.He may suffer from schizophrenia. This sets up Elliot as a potentially unreliable narrator. However, as the show is universally shown from his perspective, we have no other option but to trust this possibly very unstable young man. Indeed, throughout the series, Elliot calls his own sanity into question, and his mental difficulties often complicate the plots of Mr. Robot and fsociety. You spend the entire time questioning what is real and what isn’t, and if Elliot doesn’t know, you don’t, either.

Mr. Robot uses this first-person perspective to its advantage. While most television series nowadays have the viewer as just that, a viewer, looking from the outside, from the outset of this particular series, you are firmly placed inside Elliot’s mindset as his “imaginary friend.” No matter what you may think of Elliot from an outsiders’ perspective, by being inside his mind, you aren’t in the front row seat, but a player on the stage.

The writing of this series is brilliant. By making you a part of Elliot, you are made responsible for some of his actions.Elliot adresses you throughout the show. There is a moment early on in the season where Elliot feels he’s gotten in too deep with fsociety and frantically tries to figure his way out. He’s told by a fsociety member “You don’t just get to walk away from this!”

This was a mistake. I gotta turn them in. Should I turn them in? Will I get into trouble? Shit, she’s right! I’m culpable now. No, we’re culpable. You’re in this with me, so start thinking of solutions, now!!!

Mr. Robot benefits from wonderful acting from the entire cast. Rami Malek, whom very few had ever heard of before this series, plays Elliot very well. Playing an emotionally detached nerd might sound easy, but the hard part is making him relatable as the series protagonist, while still making him creepy, which Malek does. You feel sorry for Elliot, and even though on the outside he’s creepy (let’s face it, the poor kid is creepy), you fully and utterly empathize with him. He also aces the frantic and delusional, borderline schizophrenic nature of the character. Elliot is forced by court order to see a psychiatrist after a particularly disturbing incident. This scene early in the first episode frames exactly what kind of character Elliot is.

Side note: Rami Malek’s eyes are that huge and bulbous, which is a good thing, considering the character is on the creepier side.

Christian Slater has been in somewhat of a career slump these past few years, maybe even decades. I’m not sure exactly when the slump started. I like the guy, though. He has hilarious occasional guest starring role on the hilarious and underwatched Archer as CIA agent Slater, and I feel as though My Own Worst Enemy was cancelled before it got a chance to be any good. If you will forgive that brief aside, here, Christian Slater reminds us why we all know his name, even though he hasn’t been in anything of note as long as I’ve been alive, it seems. The character of Mr. Robot has a sense of confidence, charisma, and tenacity, everything Elliot lacks. For such a dire and rather creepy show, there are moments of humor that normally originate from the sarcastic and witty Mr. Robot.

Mr. Robot also benefits from brilliant cinematography from Tod Campbell and Tim Ives. Like the series’ main protagonist, they use odd, yet effective framing choices while utilizing the also on point lighting to create a disturbing sense of claustrophobia and paranoia that compliments the overarching narrative. Mr. Robot has beautiful camera work, and I’m not the only one who thinks this.

The musical score for this series is also excellent and reminds me of this year’s hit Netflix series Stranger Thingsalthough this did come first. Like its cinematography, the series’ pulse-pounding electronic score serves to increase the feeling of delusional paranoia and hyperactivity that Elliot often feels. Composer Mac Quayle cites Risky Business as his inspiration; I see elements of Vanilla Sky, as well.

(Incoming tech nerd rant that doesn’t have anything to do with the review, but I am talking about it anyway.)

Mr. Robot excels at many things, nearly everything. The most impressive thing it excels at, for me, is the one thing that may end up turning some off from the show. Mr. Robot is a techno-thriller. It borrows elements from several different genres, but it mainly is a techno-thriller. Several shows don’t give a crap about technology and just throw together words they must have found on Google. The most glaring of these for me comes from an episode of CSI: NY that is legendary in tech circles.

None of this makes any sense. A GUI is a graphical user interface. Back in the 70’s, computer terminals used to be nothing but a blank black screen with a keyboard waiting for commands. You used to have to type “mail” to get to your (extremely basic and prehistoric) e-mail system. It was all based on very complex and specific command. If you didn’t know a command, there was a “help” command, which gave you a list of commands. Beyond that, you were screwed. In the 80’s (I’m pretty sure) came the advent of graphical user interfaces. You know how you clicked Chrome to get to the internet, and everything is accessible and simple for people who don’t know anything, to a certain point? Yeah, that’s a GUI. Visual Basic is a programming language that you actually can use to create a GUI, so they got that right. An IP address is a series of numbers, not unlike coordinates, that can show where a computer connected to the internet physically is, or track down the person who owns/uses it. Tracking an IP address is possible, what isn’t possible is basically everything else they said. You cannot create a GUI by yourself in a matter of minutes. It takes years of development from a ridiculous amount of programmers, and a GUI does nothing but let you click on icons. Even if a GUI did help you, which it doesn’t, you already have a computer, multiple in fact, with GUI’s in front of you!!! I’m not going to pretend like the writers did any research. All they had to do was ask the guy who designed the show’s title sequence (tech nerd) if anything in the script made any sense. Apparently, most TV shows don’t do that.

Mr. Robot does, though. In the first five minutes alone, the terms Tor browser, server, fiber connection with Gigabit speed, intercepting network traffic, portals, and routing protocols, and it’s all accurate and correct use of terminology!!! Believe it or not, this was the first thing I noticed before the cinematography, score, or anything. “Oh, my God! The words coming out make sense! This is amazing! These people know what they are doing! Thank You, Lord!” When I say “makes sense,” I realize for a number of you it might not, but do not worry. The accurate terminology is not a major part of the show. You don’t have to get anything to understand what is going on. You do have to understand the end goal of what people are doing, but that is explained to you through Elliot’s narration, mainly. The technical jargon is more or less there as a bonus for nerds like me, of which there are a lot. It is a show about hacking, after all.

(End rant)

Mr. Robot is a show about conspiracy, paranoia, anarchy, and insanity wrapped in a burrito of weird. Esmail has gone on the record stating that the series was influenced by such films as Taxi Driver, American Psycho, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, and Fight Club, as well as character development elements from Blade Runner and AMC’s Breaking Bad on how to correctly handle story arcs. I personally also see elements of the 1974 film The Conversation and 2004’s The Machinist. Drawing from all of this inspiration, Sam Esmail and Company have created a show that proves that a network channel like USA can still produce quality television given the right circumstances and level of freedom.

(What I mean by that is Mr. Robot is on a late night slot, so the characters can do hardcore drugs and swear and do things that you would find on a show like this without controversy; what’s weird is they don’t censor “shit” but they will censor an f-bomb, and they do that thing where they just mute the line of dialogue, so it’s super out-of-place, and yes, I believe all this “inappropriateness” is necessary, because drug use is central to the storyline, and people do swear in real life, it just depends on the social circle you find yourself in. No boobs, though, if that was a concern at all. USA Network let them go as far as they had to in order to make the series as effective as possible and preserve artistic integrity without going too far, is my point.)

All of this brilliance did not go unrecognized, and Mr. Robot deservedly went on to win a multitude of awards and praise from the computer security industryMr. Robot is currently nearing the end of its second season. I have yet to see any of it. You see, I got past the first five episodes of the first season, but fell behind, so I decided to wait, knowing about the deal with Amazon Prime, so I will most likely just wait for Season 2 to appear there in all of its fully uncensored glory. Mr. Robot is one of the best series on TV or otherwise (yes, top five, ranks up there with Netflix Originals) and I implore you to check it out. If you need any sort of further convincing, the opening scene alone had me hooked straightaway.

Go watch it, please.