Iron Fist – Not Such A Master of Kung Fu!

marvel-iron-fist-netflix

Regular readers will know me as an unabashed fan of the Marvel franchises, heck I’ve even been known to say kind things about Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. This act alone, while possibly wiping out any standing I have as a critic, should firmly place me as a fully-fledged Marvel geek. I carry my F.O.O.M. card proudly.

So it’s with a heavy heart that I have to label Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix their first real misfire.

So full of problematic elements it’s kind of difficult to know where to begin, but let’s start with an issue common to all the Marvel/Netflix shows: folks, it’s just too darn long! The first four or five episodes are a genuine slog to sit through, it’s the first Marvel effort I’ve had to convince myself to continue. All of the Netflix shows have suffered from this, eight or at most ten episode seasons would make things feel far more palatable. It’s possible a shorter season would have made Iron Fist more entertaining but then there would still be… well, Iron Fist.

Boy oh boy, the showrunners make Danny Rand, A.K.A. Iron Fist, tough to like. Brash, entitled, aggressive and… well, I’m not quite sure what else he’s supposed to be. There’s a final moments line about Iron Fist becoming a shining beacon in the darkness, yadda yadda, but by this point we’ve sat through thirteen episodes of him generally acting like a complete ass to everyone around him with only a few glimmers of anything nice from star Finn Jones shining through.

And, Marvel… come ON!! Thirteen episodes of Danny Rand wandering about in a hoody is just plain dull. Audiences are now so well versed in the Marvel world that we’re quite happy to accept masks and long johns… Thor and Doctor Strange even wear capes. Without the costume this frequently comes off like just another straight-to-DVD action flick. The costumes are what makes the characters visually distinctive, so please stop wussing out when it comes to getting your characters to suit up!

Finally, for a series about a legendary, mystical kung-fu dude, the fight choreography was unforgivably dull. There wasn’t a single sequence with the gusto or panache of Daredevil season one’s hallway fight or season two’s stairwell scrap.

There are still pleasures here, including Rosario Dawson’s Claire Temple, an increasingly important thread in the Marvel Netflixverse (ouch) and the nods to the wider universe are fun – not to mention vital since Iron Fist leads to the forthcoming all-star mash up show, The Defenders. Good value is also provided by Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup’s Meachum siblings, whose arcs are infinitely more interesting than that of Jones’s Rand (who pretty much remains an ass throughout).

But these few pleasures are unfortunately outweighed by a storyline that’s too afraid to let the crazy elements of its central character through, and so it ultimately lands with a dull thud instead of a kick to the groin.

Sorry Marvel, you know I love you, but Iron Fist felt more like a limp slap.

Advertisements

The OA -A Metaphysical Triumph!

oa

When Netflix drooped the trailer for their new show, The OA, last week, it raised a lot of questions. Happily, by the climax of the eight episode show, the creators are happy to answer some of them, leave others hanging, and gift you with a whole bunch more.

Created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, in their third collaboration together (after the films Sound of My Voice and The East, both well worth seeking out, by the way), this tells the story of Prairie (Marling), a young woman who returns home after disappearing several years before. That she was blind when she vanished and returns with sight is only one of the many mysteries explored across the series.

The OA asks big questions, explores wild concepts but never strays away from emotional truth. In fact it’s an amazingly affecting story and its climax left me in floods of tears (for a number of reasons I’ll avoid for the sake of spoilers). Suffice to say I needed to sit and quietly process what I’d experienced before starting this review.

It’s a bold, smart story, subtly creepy, a psychedelic head-fuck, desperately sad and astonishingly hopeful all rolled together in one tour de force of script, casting, directing and acting.

Allow yourself to be pulled along by it and you’ll be enveloped in a philosophically challenging, emotionally captivating drama unlike anything Netflix has produced to date.

Now that issue of allowing yourself to be pulled in is an important one. In this post-truth age of ever deepening (and often fully justified) cynicism, The OA could be seen as frequently skating close to thin ice. To get maximum effect from Marling  and Batmanglij’s story you will need to loosen up and go with the flow. Do so and you’ll be rewarded with a truly exceptional experience, occasionally frustrating but wildly ambitious and wholly satisfying.

Let’s have more from Marling and Batmanglij please, Netflix, because The OA is an absolute triumph!

The OA – stranger things on Netflix

the-oa

It’s always nice when something comes out of the blue and surprises you. Such is the case with the new series from Netflix, The OA.

The extremely atmospheric and downright creepy trailer for this series has just dropped and it pretty much guarantees that I know what I’ll be doing this coming weekend.

Very little is known about the show, and the press release from Netflix only serves to whet the appetite even more:

From Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, the visionary filmmakers behind Sound of My Voice and The East, comes a powerful, mind-bending tale about identity, human connection and the borders between life and death. The Netflix original series The OA is an odyssey in eight chapters produced in partnership with Plan B Entertainment, Netflix and Anonymous Content. The groundbreaking series offers audiences a singular experience that upends notions about what long-format stories can be.

The eight-episode season stars Marling, Emory Cohen, Scott Wilson, Phyllis Smith, Jason Isaacs, Alice Krige, Patrick Gibson and Brendan Meyer. Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Sarah Esberg produce for Plan B Entertainment and Michael Sugar for Anonymous Content, alongside Batmanglij and Marling.

If you react to this trailer in the same way I did, I guess I’ll be seeing you on the couch next to me come Friday…

Iron Fist, The Defenders and… Sigourney Weaver!

iron-fist

With Luke Cage seemingly another success for Marvel and Netflix (albeit one receiving more of a mixed signal from critics – and I mean regarding its dramatic qualities, rather than the absurd non-argument about the wonderful diverse cast coming from dull witted racists), excited viewers have been looking towards their next fix for binge watching from this team.

And this weekend at the New York Comic Con, the companies have dropped two fabulous pieces of information. First up, the first, full teaser trailer for Iron Fist (which finished filming just yesterday).

There’s been some discussion from fans of the comics that this might be the show to veer furthest away from its four colour origins, but for those concerned with such things (and you can count this author among those) the signs are encouraging in this latest and more revealing trailer. Full on kung fu action? Check. Dragon tattoo on his chest? Check (Though if he gains that tattoo by fighting with a giant, fiery dragon, a la the comics, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle). Glowing fist of power? Check and double check.

As you can see in the trailer, “The Final Defender Arrives” which leads to the other major morsel dropped by Marvel, that the villain for the big team up series, The Defenders, featuring Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist, is none other than Ripley herself, Sigourney Weaver.

The thought of these superb characters coming together in one, big Netflix-tastic mash up is enticing enough, but the knowledge that they’ll be squaring up against La Weaver is enough to make this must see TV already.

Iron Fist drops March 17th, 2017 while The Defenders is expected to drop later in the year. I’ve already booked my place on the sofa for both!

Sweet Christmas arrives early with Luke Cage (No Spoilers)

netflix-luke-cage-trailer-01

Riding the crest of a Blaxploitation wave, Luke Cage was created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin, John Romita, Sr. and George Tuska (with help from Roy Thomas). It’s taken a long time for one of Marvel Comics’ most important black heroes to reach the screen, but boy has it ever been worth the wait.

With this latest series from Netflix, the cooperation between the two companies has really hit a creative peak. Featuring often lower key (but always entertaining) superheroics, touching on hot button topics to give the drama satisfying depth, and with a top notch cast (highlighting beyond due but very welcome diversity, which also extends to the production team behind the cameras), Luke Cage comes in both barrels blazing and feels as unstoppable as its titular hero!

We’re introduced quickly and confidently to the cast of characters – central to which is Harlem itself, given far more of a distinct personality than Hell’s Kitchen in Daredevil and Jessica Jones – in a relatively slow burn first episode, in fact the pacing throughout is charmingly classical, there’s no tearing through ADHD storytelling – everything proceeds at an even, steady tempo, giving characters time to live and breathe and allowing us to understand or care about each one. By about the third episode this approach really starts to pay dividends and then with episode four giving us a revised version of Cage’s origin from the comics, suddenly everything seems to click into place and you realise you’re hooked for the rest of the run. It’s an approach that will give this show long legs and I suspect will play well for repeated viewings (and yes, this is definitely a show that will stand up to more than one watch).

As I mentioned earlier, the cast is uniformly excellent. Colter is magnificent, striding through the episodes like a powerhouse (or even a “Power Man”, a neat in-joke used several time in early episodes – a name used by Cage in the comics), completely owning his show – all quiet dignity with fire and steel just below the surface. Cage is morally conflicted, enough to ensure there’s more than a single layer to enjoy, but at his core he is filled with a sense of righteousness and acts on that until the world forces him to step out of the shadows.

In one scene midway through the season, Cage eulogises the death of a neighbourhood friend and in doing so, gives a stirring speech to rival the kind usually given by the likes of Captain America. Cage is firmly established here as not just as man who will do whatever it takes to get the job done, but as a man to look up to, a hero.

For old time fans longing to see Cage in his traditional comic book outfit of metal headband and yellow blouson, let’s say you won’t be entirely disappointed (though you’ll be glad it doesn’t hang around long – some comic book conceits don’t translate to film). That’s just one of many nods to the character’s four-colour origins and to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s also a stronger sense here of the Netflix shows slowly coming together, as we gradually head towards the eventual team-up series, The Defenders (in fact, now we’re only waiting for the last of the key characters to be introduced, in next year’s Iron Fist).

They say a hero is only as good as his or her enemies, and Luke Cage has some great villains. These aren’t pantomime, moustache twirling cardboard cut-outs, however, Mahershala Ali and Alfre Woodard (as Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes and Mariah Dillard) are nuanced people, misusing the tools of power and money, both of who believe themselves to be the hero of their particular story. There are great fireworks here, not only between them and Cage, but between each other, and we’re allowed to feel empathy towards them as much as we’re allowed to find their actions repugnant. It’s this kind of layering which elevates drama and what helps to make these shows so engrossing. Cottonmouth and Mariah are fine additions to the Netflix rogue’s gallery established by Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk and David Tennant as Killgrave. Ali brings a lizard-like cunning to Cottonmouth and Woodard is sharp and brittle, making it as pleasurable to spend time in their company as with the lead character.

Simone Missick gives us a great Misty Knight, another name which will send frissons of glee through comic book readers, her resolve in the law becoming increasingly conflicted by both the corruption she sees around her and the growing issue of superhuman vigilantes. In fact, she’s so good I’d be interested to see her go onto her own show (and be given the bionic arm she sports in the comic books). There are more than strong suggestions that Knight is already “enhanced”, so the rest wouldn’t be that huge a leap.

On the downside, this still suffers from an overlong running time. Like all of the Marvel/Netflix shows to date it’s at least three or four episodes too long. A more sensible eight to ten episodes per season would really have helped every show, and Luke Cage suffers from some narrative diffusion in later episodes (and a less effective villain) in the season’s second half.

Luke Cage is also gifted with a fine soundtrack, with both its funky as heck, 70s soul-inspired music score as well as excellent diegetic and non-diegetic use of soul, r ‘n’ b, blues and hip hop – the sequence of Cage rampaging through one of the bad guys’ stash houses set to Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Bring Da Ruckus’ is particularly inspired and indeed, kickass rousing. I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be whooping as Cage smashes his way through armed henchmen using a ripped off car door as a shield. I know I was.

And let’s not beat around the bush here, this is an important show for Marvel, the diversity behind the scenes and onscreen is both vital and energising. The show takes the time to bring in real world issues that affect a community like Harlem, and doesn’t shy away from wider issues of race, diversification and bigotry. It’s all handled deftly and intelligently, mixed in well with the superhero antics.

Marvel TV is already streets ahead of its cinematic kin in terms of diversity, having already headlined its first female lead we’re now given Marvel’s first headlining person of colour (and yes, I know we’re getting Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies, but Netflix will probably be on second seasons of their two shows by the time the films are released). These things are important. They matter. More so than ever in a world where a candidate for the U.S. presidency can openly spout invective of racial hatred. The fact that Marvel hit the target with superb dramatic productions each time is the icing on the cake!

Showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker has done something I wasn’t sure was going to be possible, he’s continued the upward ascendancy of the Marvel/Netflix productions and, Sweet Christmas, he and his talented cast and crew have given us the best version of Luke Cage we could ever hope to get.

My Favourite Scene – Spaceship Porn (a Star Trek anniversary special)

star-trek-the-motion-picture-02

Sometimes when watching a movie, one scene can bring that entire film to life, or give you a sense of ownership of that film (or of being owned by it) even when all your critical senses might be fighting against you. This article will be the first in an occasional series where I look at the scenes which do that for me. And today, in honour of the 60th anniversary of Star Trek, I’m going for a doozy!

Released in 1979 and directed by filmmaking great, Robert Wise, Star Trek: The Motion Picture carried a lot of baggage and continues struggling with much of that baggage today.

In the wake of the astonishing box office and cultural success of Star Wars, Paramount Pictures finally gave the greenlight to a long gestating relaunch of their own science-fiction franchise, one which would bring to the big screen the much-loved cast of the CBS TV series, cancelled a decade before.

With a (for its time) astronomically huge budget of around $46 million, mixed reviews from the critics (who found the film ponderous and lacking in the sheer verve of George Lucas’ blockbuster) and less than expected earnings from cinema audiences, the film was considered a failure by some.

Regardless of what might be seen as its failings, there is a scene early in the film so audacious that I can’t help but fall in love with this lopsided puppy every single time.

The story is set some unspecified period of time after the TV show’s five year mission. As a result of a huge, galactic something making its way grumpily towards Earth, wiping out everything and some unfortunate Klingons in its path, a now desk-bound, pen pushing Admiral Kirk (William Shatner, of course) fights his way back into the command seat of Starfleet’s greatest spaceship, the U.S.S. Enterprise.

Transporting up to a station orbiting above the Earth, Kirk is greeted by his old Engineer, Commander Scott, or Scotty with the suspect accent as we know him better (still portrayed by James Doohan). As a plot point, this is done because the still-being-refurbished Enterprise is having some technical issues and its own transporters are out of order (leading to the icky death of some clumsily rematerialized crew members later), however it’s also done to give Star Trek: The Motion Picture its single greatest scene.

Scotty takes Kirk across to the Enterprise in a small shuttlecraft and both Kirk and the viewer are given tantalising views of the refurbished ship, ablaze in a sea of lights, in a drydock floating in space. The filmmakers referred to their look for the Enterprise as “an ocean liner in space”, and they really hit a home run with it.

As the shuttle draws nearer to the Enterprise, we become Kirk, viewing his beloved spaceship for the first time in years. Jerry Goldsmith’s quite beautiful, rousing and romantic music score underlines both the majesty of the starship and the huge emotions welling up inside Kirk.

At first they move outside the drydock’s frame, flirtatiously teasing us with the beauty inside, the Enterprise’s porcelain curves hidden behind steel and metal. Then Scotty swings the shuttle out wide, letting the drydock’s lacy underwear fall away, revealing the spaceship in all its naked glory.

Scotty cruises the shuttle all around the docked Enterprise allowing Kirk (and us) an intimate view of the ship’s beautiful body, he glides between the wide nacelles like he’s parting the legs of a woman prior to making love, then in an absolute crescendo of visuals and music, he eases the shuttlecraft closer… closer… to the docking port on the Enterprise. The film reaches an almost literal sexual climax as the shuttlecraft enters the Enterprise, joining as one.

Kirk looks at his friend and with a satisfied post-coital tone says, “Thank you, Mr Scott.”

Make no mistake about it, this scene is pornography, plain and simple. It’s hardcore porn that satisfies several fetishes – it’s spaceship porn, special effects porn and out and out Star Trek porn. It shows off the Enterprise lovingly, lustily, it luxuriates in the expertise and skills of the artists and technicians who bring the scene brilliantly to life and it wallows in the characters of Scotty, Kirk and his spaceship amour, the Enterprise. It’s filmed exactly like a love scene, long, sensual shots, music rising and falling with Kirk’s (and our) growing arousal.

The whole scene (from Kirk’s arrival on the space station to the final vehicular penetration) is almost seven minutes long, it serves next to nothing in terms of plot function (the points it does cover could easily be carried elsewhere, and with greater brevity) and in fact, it could be argued that the sequence stops the whole film dead in its tracks. I’d certainly struggle to argue with that.

And yet… the whole thing is played with such breathless devotion to its various fetishes, and with such candour at its intended aims, that what should leave me impatiently drumming my fingers instead has me grinning from ear to ear like a lovesick fool.

It’s pure folly to leave this scene intact, but it’s such a thing of confident and giddy fearlessness to subject a cinema audience to this lust in space that all you can do is surrender to its spunky charm and go with the flow.

After this scene, the film can happily take me wherever it wishes to go. Maybe to even boldly go…

Welcome back, Jean-Claude Van Johnson

JCVJfinal

There are certain sentences you never expect to find yourself typing, one of those being: the funniest show on TV right now is executive produced by Ridley Scott and features 1980s action movie star, Jean-Claude Van Damme.

But there it is. One of three new comedy episodes aired by Amazon for their pilot season, the fate of the shows will be determined by the responses they receive, and I can only hope that by spreading the word like this, I’ll be helping Jean-Claude Van Johnson go to a full series, because it’s something quite special.

The story posits that Van-Damme has been appearing in B-grade actioners for years simply as a smokescreen for his real job, a covert ops agent. The episode opens with him in the midst of ennui-riddled retirement, gliding around his magnificent home on a Segway and microwaving Pop Tarts.

A chance encounter with the love of his life at a pop-up ramen restaurant sees him hankering to get back into the field, but age has taken its toll and he’s no longer quite the splits-capable Muscles from Brussels  of younger days.

Van Damme has eased into a fine and often remarkably subtle comic talent, providing laughs big and small, frequently at his own expense, and the writers and producers have garnished their star with some finely observed and detail-driven humour (note the parade of dog photos he walks past in his living room, or the name of the community that houses his mansion – Circles On The Point – literally, going nowhere). That the episode ends with a reworking of the theme song from 1970s sit-com Welcome Back, Kotter is perhaps the final topping on this Belgian waffle.

If this goes to series (and you should all go out and watch this now, then write to Amazon, your local broadcaster, MPs, doctors, vets and anyone else who’ll listen to your pleadings), I hope it continues to mine the rich seams of self-depreciation and even poignancy that run deep throughout the pilot.

And really, who doesn’t want to see Jean-Claude get out of the house more to beat people up!? Or get beaten up himself, as is likely the case here.

Welcome back for the first time, JCVJ.

Netflix’s Power Man & Iron Fist get real!

heroesforhire-610x395
As an avowed Marvel Comics geek from way, way back (heck, I was even a member of F.O.O.M. – the Friends of Ol’ Marvel fan club – in the 1970s, and still have my membership card), I’ve been following the rise of Marvel’s film and TV properties with great excitement and enthusiasm. The fact that their productions are of a high standard has pleased me all the more.

After the huge success of the Netflix Daredevil show (the second season was given the green light virtually hours after the first one dropped to big ratings for the channel), it was genuinely thrilling to see them pushing ahead with some of Marvel’s lesser known properties.

Jessica Jones also proved to be a hit, and now here we are with trailers for not only Luke Cage but also Iron Fist. We’ll speak more of these guys after you’ve feasted your eyes on the trailers:

 

Cage, created in 1972 by Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.(with help from Roy Thomas), and Iron Fist (AKA Danny Rand), created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane in 1974, were attempts by Marvel to capitalize on the Blaxploitation and Kung Fu crazes, but were later paired up as Power Man & Iron Fist – Heroes for Hire.

So it’s genuinely thrilling to see these second tier characters emerging to digital life (in the shape of Mike Colter and Finn Jones), especially as both look set to kick some major ass. I’m now hoping we’ll see Marvel dig a little deeper and give us major productions for Forbush Man and Frog Man (try Googling them) or, dare I even whisper it, Howard the Duck (after his cameo in Guardians of the Galaxy)!

Meanwhile, Luke Cage drops on September 30, 2016 and Iron Fist hits sometime in 2017.

UPDATE: As if that wasn’t enough excitement from Netflix for one day, we’ve also been treated to the first teaser (set to Nirvana’s Come As You Are, no less) for The Defenders, the show which will see all their characters team up. It’s a Marvel-icious overload:

 

Stranger Things – More King Than King

stranger-things-homages

The Netflix series that flew in pretty much under the radar and is now the water cooler show of the summer feels like one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever – even though the author has nothing to do with Stranger Things.

Of course the eight part series doesn’t just reference King, there are a lot more ingredients mixed into this charming concoction – everything from Alien and Aliens, John Carpenter movies (plus a massively Carpenter-inspired score, by Kyle Dixon & Michael Stein), The Gate, The Monster Squad, Blow Out, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scanners, Videodrome and a whole lot more. It’s also a love letter to the 1980s movies of Steven Spielberg, particularly E.T.; The Extra Terrestrial and The Goonies, as well as to the decade itself (during which the show is set).

But most of all, the film calls back to Stephen King books, films and TV series such as Firestarter, The Tommyknockers, Stand By Me and many more. Creators/co-producers and directors Matt and Ross Duffer get to the heart of what makes King’s work so successful, by giving us ordinary, down-to-earth (and decidedly blue collar) characters who we come to care for. It seems like a simple trick, but it’s one that proves elusive to many.

When 12-year-old Will Byers vanishes, his mother, Joyce, becomes frantic and tries to find him, while the local Police Chief, Jim Hopper begins his own investigation. The very next day a mysterious girl with strange abilities appears. These events soon start to involve others in the small town, including a dark government agency with their own agenda involving these two children.

The casting here, by Carmen Cuba, deserves special mention and is superb. The children give really likeable and heartfelt performances, with special mention going to Millie Bobby Brown, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin and Finn Wolfhard.

Every character gets moments to shine, and even those we’re supposed to dislike get real moments of humanity. The biggest exception to this is chief antagonist Dr. Martin Brenner, played by Matthew Modine (channeling David Cronenberg in Clive Barker’s Nightbreed, perhaps?), who remains cold and unknowable. I’m not certain if this is a deliberate choice of the production but it serves to leave something of a hole at the centre of things.

Of the adults, both Winona Ryder, as Joyce, and David Harbour, as Jim Hopper, give very strong, anchoring performances. Hopper really is the quintessential Stephen King protagonist, the cracked and frayed working man who becomes heroic despite his frailties.

Mixing horror and science fiction with big dollops of humour and heart (the relationships between the four central children are not only relatable but warm and very funny, and there are some real tear-inducing moments between them), Stranger Things, despite a small, niggling feeling of anti-climax, tells a mostly satisfactory, self-contained story – though I’m sure its surprise success will have many viewers calling for more – and there are certainly enough threads left hanging.

While there’s nothing startlingly original here, the way these ingredients are prepared feels both fresh and familiar, and the show is a hoot for those who know and love any of the productions I’ve mentioned (or just the 1980s) but more than stands on its own feet to provide a summer surprise which will keep you glued to your sofa.

King himself took to Twitter to praise the show, saying “Watching STRANGER THINGS is like watching Steve King’s Greatest Hits. I mean that in a good way”, and if it’s good enough for the master of horror, well…

Summer is Coming – Game of Thrones Threatens Vacation Industry.

jon-snow-resurrected

The entire summer vacation industry came under threat today when HBO announced that Game of Thrones season 7 would move its broadcast date to summer 2017.

Hoteliers, package airlines and sun lotion manufacturers expressed dismay at the announcement. “I felt a great disturbance in the Force,” said a spokesperson for them, quoting the wrong franchise “As if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.”

“Now that winter has arrived on ‘Game of Thrones,’ executive producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss felt that the storylines of the next season would be better served by starting production a little later than usual, when the weather is changing,” said Casey Bloys, president, HBO programming, completely ignoring the pain inflicted on so many people. “Instead of the show’s traditional spring debut, we’re moving the debut to summer to accommodate the shooting schedule.”

Adding insult to injury, the producers have also announced the final two seasons would be considerably shorter, consisting of approximately six to eight episodes each. Quite how the world will deal with this double blow and whether or not vacation related industries will ever recover remain to be seen, but it certainly looks like our vacation tans will be lacking for the next two summers.

Source: Variety