A very short review of the pilot for “Iron Fist” (2017)

They said that Netflix’ “Iron Fist” (2017) was bad.  They were … mostly right, at least as far as I can tell from the pilot.  I’d rate the first episode a 4 out of 10.

This episode was a thinly scripted collection of common tropes, cluttered with clunky exposition and weird, improbable plot points.  (A friendly homeless man helps the hero by googling key information for him on a stolen iPhone?)  The show even managed to be briefly boring in parts.

“Iron Fist” has the depth and hastily concocted story of an 80’s primetime action show.  But I don’t mean that in a fun, nostalgic way, I mean it in a bizarre, awkward way.  I was actually reminded of Mystery Science Theater 3000 lampooning 1984’s ninja groaner, “The Master.”  In fact … don’t “Iron Fist” and “The Master” have a similar story setup?  There are some weird parallels, if you think about it.

Look … it wasn’t all bad.  The fight choreography was actually damned good.  I don’t know if that was actor Finn Jones performing the Kung-Fu, or a stunt double.  But it was believable and a lot of fun to watch.  It was nicely shot, too — the vibrant visuals had an appropriate comic-book feel, and were better than those that I would expect from this show’s companion series, “Daredevil” and “Jessica Jones” (2015).

I also submit that Jones is great in the role of the titular hero.  He’s a decent actor, he’s well cast in the part, and I find Danny Rand to be a surprisingly likable protagonist.  I just hope that “The Defenders'” new team-up places him in the hands of a better set of writers.

 

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A review of Season 1 of “Jessica Jones” (2015)

Netflix’ “Jessica Jones” (2015) is easily one of the best things in the Marvel Cinematic Universe; I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.  It’s smart, it’s funny and it’s extremely dark — I don’t want to spoil too much by revealing the modus operandi of Season 1’s villain, but his manner of destroying his victims is utterly disturbing.  (I’ve mentioned before how his powers seem like a plot device from a Stephen King novel.)  Although this series excellently retains a “comic book” feel (due in part to its episodic format), its story elements frequently feel like something out of a John Carpenter film.  And, although I know I’m repeating myself yet again, this Hell’s Kitchen niche of the MCU feels like its chosen stage for horror-thrillers.

The cast is excellent.  Krysten Ritter is perfect as the titular, hard-drinking, antihero private detective.  Mike Colter is nearly as good in the role of Luke Cage, another low-level hero in the Marvel universe.  Colter’s talent is evident by the fact that Cage could so easily come across as a one-dimensional character.  (And, Jesus, doesn’t the guy look the part?)

The story’s villain, Kilgrave, is played by fan-favorite David Tennant.  (Yes, the name “Kilgrave” is stupid and is lifted from the comic book source material.  Its silliness is lampshaded in the series several times by other characters making fun of it.)  Tennant is an actor I’ve abhorred in the past.  There was no logical reason for it — there used to be just something about his voice and his face that made me cringe.  It was a running joke for a while among me and my female sci-fi friends.  (Good Lord, how the ladies adore that man.)  My admittedly irrational dislike of the man even detracted from my enjoyment of the otherwise quite enjoyable 2011 “Fright Night” remake.

He’s phenomenal here.  He’s perfect for the part, as Ritter and Colter are for theirs, and he was alternately menacing and quite funny.  (He has perfect timing and line delivery, as Ritter often does.)  I really liked watching him.

“Jessica Jones” might succeed more than any other MCU property in terms of dialogue and character development — although the “Iron Man” and “Daredevil” series also do great work there.  (It’s a tough call.)  The show also seems to flesh out the MCU into a kind of “lived in” universe in a way that other Marvel properties usually haven’t — by creating detailed, three-dimensional protagonists out of characters that have no superpowers whatsoever.  They’re not “sidekicks” (a trope that the script that slyly winks at); they’re realistic characters that affect the plot.  When one or two actually appear to develop superpowers toward the end of the season, the consequences are unexpected and dire.  (There is a truly kickass Easter egg here that will please longtime readers of Marvel Comics.)  Furthermore, Jones, Cage and most of the other characters have power sets that pale in comparison to M.C.U. heavy hitters like Thor, the Hulk or the Vision. The result is that the MCU feels more … integrated and nuanced, with a blurrier line between superheroes and everyday people.  I liked that a hell of a lot.

The show is not entirely without its failings.  Despite what I said above about the show’s attention to ordinary characters, I still think it went a bit overboard here.  The character of Malcom (nicely portrayed by Eka Darville) began as a hugely interesting supporting character.  So, too, did other residents of the heroine’s apartment building.  It was a nice touch that expanded the show’s scope and depth … until the law of diminishing returns kicked in.  By the end of Season 1’s 13-episode arc, I felt that they’d received far too much screen time.  The support group that one character attends started out as an intelligent subplot, but then eventually grew tiresome.  (Again, I’m being necessarily vague here to avoid spoilers.)  Towards the finale, I actually felt that these minor characters were padding the plot and dragging down the narrative.

Which brings me to another criticism — the narrative’s length.  This is yet another show that I felt could be edited down a bit.  As much as I loved Tennant here and found Kilgrave to be an interesting villain, I’m not sure that Jones’s conflict with him warranted 12 52-minute episodes.  This could have been abridged to eight or ten, I think.

Another criticism I had of “Jessica Jones” was its fight choreography.  For a show that succeeds on so many levels, the action sequences were sometimes surprisingly poor.  Why do brawls between superpowered individuals include so much polite (and bloodless) grabbing and throwing?  Especially when a single punch or kick could easily kill or incapacitate an opponent?  The answer, of course, is that those kinds of melees are easy to film, with minimal training for the actors.  It’s especially noticeable here because this show’s sibling, “Daredevil,” has fight choreography that is some of the best I’ve ever seen.  (If you’re curious, then search for “Daredevil stairwell fight” on Youtube sometime.)

The rudimentary effects were usually even poor when depicting the title character’s “jumping” scenes.  (She has super strength, so she can virtually “fly” short distances by literally jumping.)  These shots looked like something out of a primetime 80’s action show.

All in all, though, this was indeed a great show.  Don’t shy away from it, as I initially did, because you’re unfamiliar with the title character.  It’s among the best that Marvel has to offer.

 

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“You call her Doctor JONES, Doll!”

God damn, Netflix’ “Jessica Jones” (2015) looks like a great show.  I finally got around to watching the complete pilot episode, due to my interest in the upcoming “The Defenders,” which features the character.  And “Jessica Jones” was frikkin’ terrific.  I’d rate the first episode a 9 out of 10.

At first, there were aspects of the pilot that annoyed me.  We’re told virtually nothing about the origin of the title character’s superpowers, and not much about the powers themselves.  They’re also a fairly generic power set, as far as I can tell.  She has enhanced strength and agility and … that’s it?  So she’s a low-grade Superman or Spider-Man, more or less?  We also learn somewhat little about what looks to be the series, antagonist, Kilgrave, played by David Tennant.  We see Kilgrave only briefly, in flashbacks that seem reminiscent of post-traumatic stress disorder.  (These are sometimes weirdly delivered, for a show that is otherwise well directed.)  He has mind-control abilities that resemble the “push” ability seen in Stephen King’s “Firestarter,” as well as my favorite short story of all time, “Everything’s Eventual.”

But … hell, this was just an extremely good show.  For starters, Krysten Ritter is perfect as the wisecracking anti-heroine.  She’s funny; she’s got great, dry line delivery; and she’s a decent actress.  (I know that the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s more powerful heroes rarely visit Hell’s Kitchen, but I’d love to see her trade quips one day with Tony Stark.  She couldn’t beat him, but she’d come closer than anyone else.)

The script is good enough to make her a likable character, and the story itself is scary and compelling.  Considering the plot-driving capability of the show’s villain this … looks like it could become a King-style horror thriller.  Between this show and “Daredevil’s” bloody second season (2016), I’m starting to understand that Hell’s Kitchen might be the MCU’s stage for more horror-type stories.  And I’m fine with that.

 

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Publication Notice: Quail Bell Magazine features “Graceless Ravens Envy You”

I am honored tonight to share here that Quail Bell Magazine has kindly published a poem of mine, “Graceless Ravens Envy You.”  You can read it here:

“Graceless Ravens Envy You”

Quail Bell Magazine is a Richmond-based multimedia literature and arts journal “that explores the imaginary, the nostalgic, and the otherworldly through the highest quality creative and journalistic content.”   It really is a wonderful and unique online periodical, and I encourage you to check it out.

“Graceless Ravens Envy You” first appeared at Dead Snakes in 2015.

 

“Alien: Covenant” (2017) is a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness.

I am part of a happy minority where “Alien Covenant” (2017) is concerned — I keep hearing about “meh” or negative reactions from my friends, but I quite enjoyed it.  I’d rate it a 9 out of 10.

No, this second installment in the “Alien” prequel trilogy doesn’t bring much new to the table.  It often seems like a collection of common tropes, and borrows a bit from previous films in the franchise — especially the first movie in 1979.  Some aspects of it — like a predictable and slightly gimmicky development late in the story — even feel like horror movie cliches.  (I am doing everything I can to avoid spoilers, so forgive how vague I’m being here.)  “Alien: Covenant” isn’t groundbreaking, and it isn’t destined to be called a “classic.”

Here’s the thing, though — all of the movie’s common tropes are exactly what make fans happy.  Think about it … if you had to name two “Alien” movies as unique or the most divergent, they might be the heady, ambitious “Prometheus” (2012) and the baroquely experimental “Alien: Resurrection” (1997).  Whatever their failings, both of those movies deserve points for creativity.  And they are among the three films that fans hated the most.  (The third here is the smartest and most underappreciated installment, 1993’s brilliant “Alien 3.”)

With “Alien: Covenant,” Ridley Scott gives fans exactly what they were clamoring for — a frightening, gory, space-based horror film with creatively designed monsters and some nasty surprises.  It very much returns to the tone of the first film.  It is even jarringly darker than “Prometheus,” which was defined partly by its moments of cautious optimism.  And, more than any other sequel, it seems directly inspired by the grotesquerie of H. R. Giger’s original, nightmarish monster designs.  I feel certain this movie would have received the late artist’s blessing.  (I could name a certain scene and an excellent surprise story development, but I won’t.)

Michael Fassbender shined in his two roles here.  (He not only reprises his role as the android, “David,” but also portrays a newer model, “Walter.”)  The rest of the acting was roundly good too.

I also found the movie nice and scary.  I, for one, don’t think Scott’s direction of action scenes here is perfect.  (They are harder to follow here, for example, than his beautiful arena melees in 2000’s “Gladiator.”) But they were still effective.

So this return to form made me pretty happy.  I didn’t want another muddled attempt at profundity like “Prometheus.”  Nor did I want a winding, bizarre, arthouse-horror tale like “Resurrection” — that movie was like a poorly written, drug-fueled comic book.  I wanted a first-rate sci-fi horror show with lots of monstery goodness, and that’s what I got.

If I had to pick a criticism of “Alien: Covenant,” I’m surprised to have to point to some less-than-stellar CGI.  This was something I noticed from early trailers for the film, and I’m surprised I haven’t heard another reviewer mention in it yet.  One scene rendered a title baddie about as well as a modern video game, albeit a good one.  Another’s depiction of an upright “neomorph” seemed … fairly bad.  (Fans of decent creature features shouldn’t despair, however — there are still some outstanding monster moments, and no small amount of accompanying gore and goo.)  Have I just become spoiled by the amazing dinosaur effects of 2015’s “Jurassic World?”  I don’t think so … I suggest that the otherwise lamentable “Alien: Resurrection,” with its combination of CGI and practical effects, had far better creature effects than this newest outing.

Of course I recommend this movie.  Maybe I should only do so with the caveat that I am (obviously) a huge fan of the series.  It has been said that I’m easy to please, too — I actually gave a glowing review to “Prometheus” shortly after its release, before wiser minds pointed out to me its sometimes egregious flaws.  (A friend of mine shared with me one of those “Everything Wrong With” videos that CinemaSins produces … it’s a hilarious webseries, but it sure will dull the shine of some of your favorite movies, lemme tell ya.)  Your mileage may vary, especially depending on how much you enjoy horror movies, as opposed to more general science fiction.

Oh!  There is a mostly non-sequitur postscript that I can’t help but add here … yet another one of my movie prognostications was flat out wrong.  It isn’t a spoiler if it’s a far-out prediction that didn’t happen, so I’ll go ahead and share it here … during one of the ads for “Alien: Covenant,” I could swear I heard a character call out the name “ASH!!!!”  (I’ve evidently started hallucinating at the start of mid-life.)  I predicted that the new and robotic Walter would turn evil, and actually become the android named Ash in the 1979 original.  (And why not?  Androids do not age, and a web-based prologue for “Alien Covenant” suggests their faces can be easily swapped out.)  I further predicted that the more human David would be pitted against him in order to save humanity somehow from alienkind.  (These things do not happen.)

I still think that’s a pretty clever idea, though, even if I only accidentally arrived at it.  It would be great if that happened somehow in the planned “Alien: Awakening.”

 

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Do not see “Tank 432” (2015)

[WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS A MINOR SPOILER FOR THE FILM.]  “Tank 432” (2015) is alternately boring and confusing.  To be fair, its surreal story aspects are necessary to the plot, but I don’t think that redeems the movie much.

Don’t let the poster’s image of the tank and the soldier fool you — there’s a little bit of action as the film opens, but most of the movie takes place inside the titular abandoned tank, which remains stationary throughout most of the story.  (The protagonists are trapped inside it by a jammed door. )  Thereafter, the unease and claustrophobia they feel are soon felt by the audience.  Maybe that suggests skilled film-making on a certain level, but it certainly doesn’t make for an entertaining viewing experience.

The film is quite slow.  Furthermore, writer-director Nick Gillespie appears to assemble the components of several mysteries as subplots, and then leaves those smaller mysteries with little in the way of an explanation.

I’d rate this movie a 1 out of 10, and that’s only because Rupert Evans is a very good actor.

 

 

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A short review of “Split” (2016)

For much of its running length, I was considering writing a review for “Split” (2016) that rated it a perfect 10.  (I am an unabashed fan of M. Night Shyamalan, no matter how reviled he is by other Internet commentators.)  I love the way he frames his shots, I love his dialogue, I love his stories, and I love the strange way he can make a slowly paced film nevertheless absorbing.)

And “Split” looked nearly perfect.  James McAvoy handed in a tour-de-force performance as Kevin, a man with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  (Yes, I am aware of the clinical controversies connected with whether the disorder even exists — I was a psychology student many, many years ago.  I think we should suspend whatever disbelief we have for the purposes of enjoying the movie.)  McAvoy plays his role to perfection.  His “Dennis” persona is particularly frightening, and “Barry,” one of the “good personalities” he portrays, is surprisingly endearing and sympathetic.

Playing off McAvoy wonderfully are Betty Buckley as his gentle psychiatrist and Anya Taylor-Joy as one of three teenaged girls kidnapped by his nastier personalities.  The talented Taylor-Joy was also perfect in her role.  (I last saw her 2015’s “The Witch” and she was also in last year’s “Morgan;” I’m gaining the impression that this promising young specializes in cerebral horror-thrillers.)

I would rate “Split” an 8 out of 10.  It suffers a bit, I think, from two missteps toward the end.  One, this taut psychological thriller takes an ill-advised turn into dark fantasy.  I thought it was amazingly good as a thriller grounded only in the real world — it was far less so with the later jarring story elements.  (I do realize why Shyamalan made this creative decision, and you will too, after watching it and then reading up on it.)  But I still think that this would have been a perfect film if the majority of it focused on McAvoy’s personalities either aiding or misleading his psychiatrist, with Taylor-Joy’s fate hanging in the balance.

Two, this film seemed to suffer from the too-many-endings syndrome that people often associate with Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings” movies.  We seem to have one denouement that works quite well, then a second that should have been re-shot and re-scripted.  And then there’s another plot strand finally addressed … but it is played so subtly that I’m not even sure I got it.  And this isn’t even counting the significance of the movie’s final line, which works as a fantastic framing device.

About that line … if you’re a Shyamalan fan, then you simply must watch the film until it’s very end, as the camera pans through the coffee shop.  You’ll love it.