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Review: Marvel’s Luke Cage: Season Two

Luke Cage’s second season is alternately bland and thrilling, formulaic and insightful.

2.5

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Marvel’s Luke Cage: Season Two
Photo: David Lee/Netflix

Early in the second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage, the titular superhero’s estranged father, Reverend James Lucas (the late Reg. E Cathey, in his final role) is rehearsing a sermon about his son. “They talk about him like he’s Jesus,” the reverend says. “Magazines are calling him the Bulletproof Black Man, with Barack’s easy smile, Martin’s charm, and Malcolm’s forthright swagger.” It’s a generous assessment, as Luke Cage (Mike Colter) is hardly a font of charisma. Colter portrays him with a quiet intensity, but the character can often scan as emotionally vacant. When he’s simply living, rather than angrily pounding on enemies, Cage is a physically imposing blank slate.

Like the reverend’s sermon, Luke Cage frames Cage in relation to real-life black iconography so as to emphasize his stature within his community. This season references Jean-Michel Basquiat and Barack Obama and features cameos from Gary Clark Jr. and Ghostface Killer. The show’s vibrant Harlem setting, like its pulsing hip-hop soundtrack, is affirming by design—a means of waking audiences up to black excellence. But at other times, Luke Cage seems obliged to make its protagonist into a symbol of tragedy. His usual outfit—a hoodie, often bullet-riddled—aligns him with a specifically tragic vision of blackness: profiled, treated like a menace, targeted, gunned down.

Cage is refracted through the show’s prismatic view of black America, and given a number of distinct roles that seldom overlap. From moment to moment, he’s either a community leader, a reluctant icon, a conflicted role model, a brutal avenger, or an aggrieved son. As season two begins, Cage is broke. Friends urge him to accept sponsorship deals with apparel companies, and so he grapples with the prospect of selling out. It’s not a groundbreaking dilemma, but it leads to one of the season’s most indulgent and playful moments, in which Cage hosts the equivalent of an N.F.L. pro day, running the 40-yard dash and performing broad jumps in front of Nike executives.

But Cage is soon faced with more pressing problems than his bank account, namely a Jamaican gangster, Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who arrives in Harlem ready for a violent takeover of the neighborhood’s criminal enterprise. Simultaneously, Cage’s father attempts to re-enter his life, effectively driving a wedge between Cage and his girlfriend, Claire (Rosario Dawson). Bushmaster is a terrifying villain, brutal and gifted with formidable powers of his own, but Cage’s personal drama is consistently more engaging, providing glimpses of the hero as a human rather than a mishmash of timely symbols.

Cage is at his most interesting when rage penetrates his aura of cool. He’s overly brutal when dealing with a domestic abuser, and that scene becomes unnerving—hard to watch but equally as hard to look away from—as his power becomes more impressive as he comes unhinged. Elsewhere, an argument with Claire turns tragic after Cage punches a wall, altering their relationship in an instant; the scene continues at a somber pitch after this show of violence, with the couple quietly assessing what just happened. Whereas Cage’s conflict with Bushmaster is ultimately implausible and inconsequential, these scenes between Cage and Claire feel urgent and real. They present Cage as out of control but also at his most human: a man struggling to curb his impulses, knowing the ugliness he’s capable of at any given moment.

When Bushmaster arrives on the scene, Cage quickly tables his personal troubles and reassumes the role of hero on a formulaic collision course with a supervillain. Bushmaster aims to wrest control of Harlem from Mariah Stokes (Afre Woodard), who, coincidentally, wants to go legit. She sells her gun business to the ruthless Jamaican, leaving her defenseless when she realizes that his beef is also personal: Her family cast his out of the city decades ago. The conflict between Stokes and Bushmaster has the debasing effect of making Cage into a gangland mediator, and only when Stokes proposes to hire Cage for protection is the situation imbued with any complexity, as Cage must weigh protecting Mariah, and by extension Harlem, against Bushmaster, even if it means choosing sides between two criminal masterminds.

The series smartly rations Cage’s screen time, as he doesn’t have much to say and isn’t always compelling when saying it. Other characters emerge as worthwhile complements to our hero: Misty (Simone Missick), who lost her right arm last season, acclimates to her new and unfortunate situation, and Stokes’s attempt to go legit yields its own dramatic moments, including a surprisingly affecting twist involving two of her top henchmen. Of course, the story must eventually return to Cage, and it does so with an inconsistent view of the man. Is he a reluctant hero who didn’t ask for his superpowers and the responsibilities they entail? Or is he a poster child for all of Harlem, wearing a Black College Fund hoodie and blaring Wu-Tang in his earbuds while disarming drug dealers? The answer to those questions seem to change on a whim, seemingly dependent on who Cage is sharing a scene with.

The show’s uneven portrayal of Cage can be attributed to its understanding that, as a black superhero in a historically black neighborhood, his mantle encompasses a multitude of different roles. He’s an ambassador and lawless vigilante. His personal desires are in direct competition with his obligations as a celebrity and role model. The Netflix series struggles to coalesce those roles and present Cage as one coherent, if conflicted, person; instead, we see different iterations of the hero from episode to episode. It’s a flaw that makes for a season of Luke Cage that’s alternately bland and thrilling, formulaic and insightful—which is to say, as variable as Luke Cage himself.

Cast: Mike Colter, Simone Missick, Rosario Dawson, Alfre Woodard, Theo Rossi, Mustafa Shakir, Gabrielle Dennis, Justin Swain, Jeremiah Craft Airtime: Netflix

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Review: Black Monday: Season One

Black Monday dabbles in farce, social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view.

2.0

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Black Monday: Season One
Photo: Erin Simkin/Showtime

The first episode of Showtime’s Black Monday begins with sobering title cards which promise that the series will eventually reveal the reason for the disastrous 1987 stock market crash. But while it might eventually offer real insight into Wall Street malfeasance (only the first three episodes were made available for review), Black Monday quickly establishes a set of alternate priorities: comic caricatures of excess, an unceasing cavalcade of references to 1980s popular culture, and occasional poignant character portraits that, in such a farcical context, appear jarringly out of place.

Black Monday revolves around a small, roguish, and fictional investment firm headed by an insatiable hustler, Maurice (Don Cheadle), who outsmarts rival traders and whose confidence can seem intoxicating. He’s a ruthlessly efficient carnival barker, lording over a kingdom populated by strippers, misogynists, and homophobes, where cocaine and finance crimes are abundant. Indeed, his behavior and milieu are so exaggerated that attempts by creators David Caspe and Jordan Cahan to engender sympathy for Maurice—by revealing his deep emotional vulnerability, or giving him a humble backstory—lack emotional resonance. Black Monday mines humor from its Wall Street cesspool and Maurice’s extravagance, but those two components eventually undermine whatever goodwill the character might inspire.

Black Monday dabbles in farce, simplistic social commentary, and character study, without managing to establish a coherent point of view toward its subjects or their universe. With its eye toward greed and materialism, the series recalls The Wolf of Wall Street, while its breezy pace and comedic flourishes bring to mind The Big Short. Ultimately, it lacks the well-honed moral perspective of either of those films, but it doesn’t commit to the nihilistic reverence of a series such as HBO’s Veep either. Stranded between earnestness and cynicism, Black Monday seems to exist merely to remind us of events that once occurred, and people who once existed.

A screenwriter who appears in the second episode to see if Maurice’s story might be worthy of Hollywood provides a clue for how the series might eventually focus itself: The writer decides that Dawn (Regina Hall), the top broker at Maurice’s firm, is a more fitting figure for adaptation. Indeed, Dawn, as a black woman attempting to crack into an industry which is largely white, male, and insular, is the most plainly sympathetic character in Black Monday. Hall excels as the feisty and competent broker, whose barbed repartee with Maurice provides some of the show’s most heady dialogue. And in the brief moments when the series illustrates the daily indecencies and biases Dawn suffers, even in a humorous light, it manages to derive some actual pathos, and a sense of stakes.

The humor in Black Monday is super-concentrated, laden with witty wordplay and quick retorts. One typical punchline comes when a broker (Horatio Sanz) realizes that the Nintendo game Duck Hunt is not, as he had assumed, titled Da Cunt. Dick jokes abound, and large swaths of an entire episode are devoted to a cartoonish cocaine bender; very little of the show’s humor is original, but even the most simplistic jokes are elevated by familiar, funny performers like Sanz and Paul Scheer, who deliver reliably well-timed line readings.

Such comedy, even when immaterial to Black Monday‘s specific Wall Street milieu, is consistently effective, and the series succeeds as an absurdist reminder of the excesses of the ‘80s. Yet results vary when the writers endeavor to expand on their cartoonish portrayal of Wall Street. By attempting to ground the characters of Dawn and Maurice, and ostensibly working toward some insight into a historical event, the series does occasionally adopt a patina of gravity, or hint at some crystallizing perspective. Mostly, though, such gestures toward a coherent point of view or clear direction are underdeveloped, as the series rushes for another joke or reference, and in the process comes to resemble Maurice himself: exciting and articulate, with little but fool’s gold and hollow promises to sell.

Cast: Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, Kadeem Hardison, Eugene Cordero, Horatio Sanz Airtime: Showtime, Sundays, 10 p.m.

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Review: True Detective: Season Three

Season three of True Detective plays to the first season’s strengths, but it also feels like an admission of defeat.

2.0

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True Detective: Season Three
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO

In the third installment of HBO’s anthology series True Detective, creator Nic Pizzolatto opts to play to the first season’s strengths: multiple timelines, occult undertones, partnered detectives shooting the philosophical shit while they drive down the road. Even the backwoods setting—this time, the Ozarks—evokes the desolation of the Louisiana bayou that was so evocative in the show’s debut. Viewers might have figured these trappings for series hallmarks had the second season not so consciously distanced itself from them, so it’s hard not to view this return as an admission of defeat, a resignation to the limits of Pizzolatto’s personal storytelling toolbox.

But the familiar elements don’t totally dull the crime show’s construction as a character piece. This season’s protagonist, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), is haunted at every stage of his life. In 1980, it’s by the Vietnam War reconnaissance detail that got him the nickname “Purple Hays” and the tracker skillset he now channels into his job as a police detective. In 1990, it’s the reopening of the case at the center of the season: the disappearance of two young children. And in 2015, while grappling with dementia, he’s haunted by the life he’s lived, as it all seems to slip through his fingers. What’s left of the unhappy memories has become his strongest connection to the life he once had. He’s looked inside himself and come out disturbed by how much his insides are tangled around this one case—this fixed point in history.

Hays is a little bit gone a lot of the time, his emotions as bottled up as most of his thoughts. His eyes come alive when his mind is working through something, and they go dead when he’s angry. He’s too buttoned up for the showy soliloquys of a character like Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle from True Detective‘s first season, yet he’s no less conflicted; the three-timeline setup shows the evolution of Hays’s thought process, as he goes from shunning the past to desperately clinging to what he has left.

Despite the occasional line like “I’ve got the soul of a whore,” Pizzolatto has reined in most of his worst instincts as a writer. He gives (some) space to the development of a female character in schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), but he never strays too far from Hays and the mystery that comes to define the man’s life. The initially welcome focus on Hays, however, continues much longer than the character—or even Ali’s nuanced performance—can ultimately sustain. Large swaths of the season drag as a result, seemingly begging for a more engaging mystery or some other character to latch onto in an equal capacity, or even the pulpy excess of True Detective‘s second season. Dementia quickly begins to feel like a cheap ploy to ensure that certain plot revelations deliver maximum dramatic impact, as well as an excuse to dabble in hacky hallucinations like a room filled with Vietnamese soldiers or an obnoxiously cryptic vision of Hays’s dead wife.

Beyond the preoccupation with time and memory, Pizzolatto does seem to be grasping at something larger than Hays’s personal journey. He just never, at least in the five episodes of the new season made available to critics, seems to find it. The true-crime book that Reardon wrote about the case, for example, promises a look at the crime’s social impact, but True Detective‘s grasp of those broader implications is tenuous at best. In the first two episodes, director Jeremy Saulnier seems to abide with a pleasingly detailed look at the town. People take down Halloween decorations, kids ride bikes and shoot firecrackers near the ranger’s tower, a man hoards trash in a cart. Saulnier has an eye for the Arkansas scenery, as his sedate camera movements frame characters within doorframes and trap them between people’s shoulders. Hay bales sit like behemoths in the mist.

Once Saulnier departs, however, he takes that initially captivating sense of place with him. The things that seemed, at first, like flavor for small-town life end up as mere pieces slotted neatly into the mystery. Pizzolatto relegates the crime’s repercussions to broad portrayals of angry mobs. He makes sporadic, go-nowhere stabs at addressing poverty and race while the series begins to coast through familiar territory. Perhaps Hays will come to terms with the ghosts of his past by the show’s end, but the third season doesn’t suggest True Detective will ever quite reckon with its own.

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Ray Fisher, Mamie Gummer, Josh Hopkins, Scoot McNairy Airtime: HBO, Sundays, 9 p.m.

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Review: Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it represents the best and worst of Black Mirror.

2.5

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Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Photo: Netflix

The opening shot of the Black Mirror interactive film Bandersnatch informs us that the story takes place in 1984, the dystopian resonance of which is a bit on the nose. But this is Black Mirror, after all. The show’s formula has relied on various immediately recognizable cultural reference points placed in the context of a speculative high concept. What if Gamergate types could use MMORPGs to replicate consciousness? What if those military robots from Boston Dynamics go rogue and kill everyone? What if streaming and gaming technologies constitute a surveillance network that offers the illusion of choice in a society of creeping totalitarianism?

That last question drives at least parts of Bandersnatch. The film flashes back to the personal-computing and home-gaming revolution to offer a critique of Netflix, its own streaming platform, as a kind of dissimulating game. The ostensibly innocent everyman at the center of the story is Stefan (Fionn Whitehead), an aspiring programmer working on a computer game adaptation of the choose-your-own-adventure novel Bandersnatch by the fictional author Jerome F. Davies. Like Philip K. Dick, Davies saw his interest in free will, technology, and psychedelia notoriously slide into paranoia, dissociation, and delusion—and in ways that, of course, will have import for the film’s plot.

The viewer makes choices for Stefan as he prepares to pitch a local game developer, Tuckersoft. The first choice presented to the viewer, for example, is whether Stefan eats Sugar Puffs or Frosties for breakfast. The inconsequentiality of such initial choices recalls the tired “butterfly effect” trope, as clearly these banal decisions determine our initial path toward the story to an unknown degree. It’s not the only place in which Bandersnatch edges toward the simplistic, but these early choices function like a video game tutorial, which corresponds more interestingly with the film’s themes.

Gradually, Stefan transitions from unaware main character to unwilling avatar of the viewer’s decisions. Tuckersoft offers to publish his game, and as he copes with the months-long process of writing it, we’re asked to decide how he handles the stress: whether he wrecks his computer, pounds his desk, opens up to his therapist (Alice Lowe), or takes his frustration out on his meek father (Craig Parkinson). Stefan begins to suspect that he isn’t in total control of such actions, and this suspicion is encouraged by his new acquaintance, Colin Rockman (Will Poulter), Tuckersoft’s legendary bad-boy game designer.

The wiry, bleached-blond Colin represents the unlikely prophet archetype created by cyberpunk and hacker culture, his transcendent coolness coded in the terms of ‘80s cultural capital: Whereas Stefan listens to mainstream pop like the Thompson Twins, Colin listens to Depeche Mode and Tangerine Dream. Colin also appears to be tapped into a higher reality, as in the film’s most memorable scene, in which he explains to Stefan during an acid trip his Daviesian/Dickian theory that reality is actually made up of the sum of several different branches of reality. His and Stefan’s world, his theory suggests, is little more than a game, a repeatable simulation dependent on a system of rules outside of their control. Depending on the story path the viewer chooses from this point, this system is run by a demon called pAX, a government program called P.A.C.S., or a computer program called Netflix.

Netflix, Bandersnatch reflexively proposes, is one big choose-your-own-adventure story, in which we are presented with a bounty of options construed as our own idea (“Because you liked…”). A streaming service like Netflix, a medium of proscribed choices, offers an experience that’s more like a game than a narrative, and games offer only the illusion of free agency. It’s a fitting point to make with Netflix’s first truly interactive film, but as with many episodes of Black Mirror, there’s also something fairly obvious and one-dimensional about it—or perhaps the problem is in the presentation.

Writer Charlie Booker and director David Slade attempt to manage the potential tediousness of Bandersnatch‘s metatextuality by making the film about metatextuality itself, but in many branches of the story they lapse into using self-reflexivity as a facile punchline. For one, trying to confront Stefan with the reality of his situation leads to a dead-end joke of a conclusion concerning Netflix viewers’ demands for action. Whenever viewers access such a concluding scene, they’re presented with the option of returning to a pivotal decision and pursuing a different path, but each of the five main endpoints feel more like a metatextual short circuit than a completed pathway.

It’s not so much its pat technophobia, then, that makes Bandersnatch unsatisfying. In the tradition of great sci-fi anthology shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, Black Mirror‘s stories are often effective without being subtle. At their worst, they merely recapitulate omnipresent popular anxieties, but at their best they compel critical reflection on the technologies that structure our lives. Whatever assemblage of parts make up an individual viewer’s experience of Bandersnatch, it will likely be a mixture of both.

Cast: Fionn Whitehead, Will Poulter, Alice Lowe, Craig Parkinson, Asim Choudhry, Tallulah Haddon, Jonathan Aris, Suzanne Burden, Jeff Minter Airtime: Netflix

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