Short Reviews from this Year’s Halloween Binge

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Some short reviews of Halloween-themed binge watches from this year (which isn’t over yet, obviously).

Horror is at once my least- and most-favorite genres. I don’t like stuff that too gross or gory. I’m not a big fan of torture, or grime, or people being torn apart. Misogynistic torture porn is my least favorite sort of movie. Spooky, evocative supernatural stories might be my favorite.

Anyway, this is what I’ve watched so far this year. And I’m sending this out as a first draft, so please forgive any awkward phrasing.

I am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House (Netflix streaming): A quiet, understated ghost story about a timid live-in nurse who comes to care for a horror writer with dementia. She slowly comes to realize that the author’s most famous work may not have been fiction, and that her house might be haunted. There’s not a lot of story here, but there is a lot of quiet dread.

The Shining (Netflix streaming): Kubrick’s horror classic still holds up today, and it does so without a lot of shadowy figures in dark rooms. King himself was unhappy with this adaptation because he wanted an everyman actor to play Jack Torrance, because to him it’s a story of an average man who loses control. King thought Jack Nicholson was too much of a wild man, and famous for his role in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. But this is Kubrick’s story, and he’s got other things on his mind. Brilliant film, full of unforgettable moments.

Ringu (library dvd): Somehow I’ve missed this up until now, but I confess that I admired it more than I enjoyed it. There are, as far as I can tell, two sorts of ghost story. One where the main purpose of the story is to uncover a hidden truth, and one that doesn’t have a hidden narrative to uncover. The Shining was the latter, while Ringu is the former. That hidden narrative was interesting enough, but it didn’t feel solid.

The Sixth Sense (Netflix streaming): Everyone talked about the twist ending of this show, but what really makes this movie work is that it has two twists. The first is spoiled by that famous four-word line of dialog, and it takes a long time to get there. Still an enjoyable movie, though.

1408 (library dvd): A haunted hotel room is a fine idea for a story, but this whole thing feels expensive but uninspired. I enjoyed it while I watched it, but I’ve already forgotten most of the story.

Kwaidan (Netflix dvd): A big hit at Cannes in 1965, this anthology of ghost stories is very long and very beautiful, in a lavish studio technicolor way.

The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix streaming): Probably the scariest thing I watched this year, and I loved it. The combination of kids in danger, sound design, and continually building tension made me turn it off, more than once. After the first few episodes, I felt acclimated to it and was happy to binge to the end. Loved it, except the end. Honestly, the ending was pretty much a betrayal of the first nine-and-a-half episodes. But the rest of it was ::chef’s kiss::

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (Netflix streaming): I never watched the sitcom or the various cartoons, and I never read the comics, so I put this one on my queue solely based on the strength of the trailer. The show aims high, mixing horror and comedy and a bit of camp, which is not an easy tone to hit. It has a great cast, sharp writing, and it amazing to look at.

Ash vs The Evil Dead season 3 (library dvd): Speaking of difficult tones that are hard to get right, this third season of Ash vs the Evil Dead works like gangbusters, introducing Ash’s daughter, and losing some of the convoluted plotting off the earlier seasons. Even Lee Majors makes a brief return. I said above that I didn’t much care for gore, but I make an exception here. They don’t always get the tone right, but but they get it right enough that I can stick with it. It’s a shame the show was cancelled, but what a send off. I loved it enough to take a chance on the dvd commentary (which I regretted, as usual).

Constantine (Netflix streaming): There’s a lot of money and energy and charisma behind this, but it just doesn’t hold up.

Frailty (library dvd): Axe murder is one of the horror tropes that I try to avoid as much as possible, because it’s usually an excuse for fake gore, and I’m not a fan. But this movie turns the camera away at just the right moment, leaving the focus on the murderous father on a mission from God and his relationship with his sons. Super effective and very creepy.

It (2017) (library dvd): There are a few problems with this film, especially the way they treat Beverly as a plot device. But it has tremendous energy and a fantastic balance between youthful camaraderie and the threats surrounding the kids, whether supernatural or not. The structure was so solid I did a beat sheet for it. Now I just need to find time to break it down farther.

Ganja & Hess (library dvd): This is art-horror from the early seventies, a vampire movie directed by a Bill Gunn, a black playwright, actor, and director who also plays a supporting role here. Like a lot of older artsy movies, it tries the patience at times, but it also thwarts every genre expectation (in a good way). The original film was butchered by a distributor who wanted to show a blaxploitation film, but it’s been restored to the 110 minutes it’s supposed to be. Worth seeing, mostly because it’s different and an under appreciated classic.

The Night Stalker (my own dvd): One of the few movies I own. It has problems, but the structure is perfect, and it deserved to be a huge hit when it first aired. I watch it every year, and still love it.

Salem’s Lot (1979) (my own dvd): Far superior to the 2004 version, this simplification of Stephen King’s original novel still has chills, even 40 years later. My wife didn’t think much of it, since much of the staging and performances are dated, but revisiting it over the summer convinced me to pick up a copy of my own, and I’m glad I did.

The Transfiguration (Netflix streaming): Another art-horror film, this time one that combines the vampire story with hood dramas. The protagonist is a fourteen-year-old boy in Harlem who is obsessed with vampires and blood-drinking. This is another slow, quiet film, without much in the way of supernatural elements. I’m glad I saw it, but I probably won’t watch it again.

He Never Died (Netflix streaming): Like Kwaidan, this isn’t exactly horror, but it’s close enough to qualify. Henry Rollins plays a sort of immortal vampire, but one who feasts on flesh as well as blood. And he’s lived for so long that he has pretty much given up on life. Then he discovers that he has a daughter, and his quiet, controlled life begins to spin out of control. The movie is funnier than it sounds, with Rollins giving a quiet, droll performance, but it looks like that miniseries about the character will never happen.

Interview with a Vampire (Netflix streaming): This holds up much better than I expected, possibly because it’s a period piece that feels so grounded in its period. Few things become dated as quickly as a child actor’s performance (see Salem’s Lot above) but not Dunst. But the real strength of this film is the relationship between Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise. They’re great together.

Hereditary (Netflix dvd): Probably the second scariest thing I’ve watched so far this year. It felt a little confused, but it was one of a number of stories where the protagonists were threatened by spells and magic rather than traditional monsters or hauntings. Great performances, with a whole bunch of scary images at the end that I don’t think I’ll ever forget. It’s not often that I see horror films that make magical rituals or other spell casting work, but boy, does it.

The Ritual (Netflix streaming): This one combines a ritual magic story with a lost-in-the-woods monster story, and is mostly getting good word of mouth based on its unusual (and highly effective) monster design. The monster is not the real appeal, though. It’s the mounting tension and inexplicable threats the characters face.

The Wailing (library dvd): The third and final film about horror driven by magic spells, and this one had my wife and I guessing until the very end. Who is trying to do harm? Who is trying to help? It’s a longish film and starts off as a sort of horror comedy, with a buffoonish protagonist. As it progresses, shit gets more and more serious, and the buffoon turns into something else. I don’t think the film was playing fair 100% of the time, but I still loved it.

Evolution (library dvd): A quiet piece of French body horror about children in an island community who are being experimented on by their “mothers”. It’s weird and unsettling, filled with long quiet moments and blank, staring expressions. I liked it, but sometimes I thought it was deliberately trying my patience. Art/body-horror, if you can believe it. Side note: the ocean is creepy.

Slither (library dvd): This James Gunn horror comedy isn’t as funny as I remember it, but it was still pretty great. It’s hard to believe this was a huge flop that scared filmmakers off horror comedies for years. Nathan Fillion was his usual charming self, but some of his dialog could have been sharper. it was Elizabeth Banks and Michael Rooker that really make the film work. We could stand to have more alien invasion horror.

The Endless (Netflix streaming): A bunch of people have recommended this to me, but the sound mix made it hard for me to hear. I’ll have to try again another time, maybe when I have a chance to really crank the volume.

The Monolith Monsters (library dvd): I’ve seen this several times over the course of my life, and it was nice to revisit. It’s the only black and white show on this year’s list, which is unusual for me, but I really love the central conceit, about mindless alien stones that petrifies people.

Stranger Things (Netflix streaming): Oh hey there’s this sci-fi horror thing on Netflix you might have heard of. It’s pretty great. I’ve watched it a bunch of times, but every time I put it on, I end up getting hooked.

The New Iron Fist Trailer is Fine When It Needs to be Great.

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Here’s the first trailer for S2 of Iron Fist, and if I’m being honest, I don’t love it.

It’s not terrible, not like the trailers for S1 (“Where did he learn martial arts?”) but S1 was so terrible that I wanted this to blow me out of the water.

It doesn’t. It’s a competently staged fight with an interesting viewpoint trick, it’s clear that the filmmakers know how to show Finn Jones fighting, but the visuals aren’t interesting. The location isn’t unusual. The enemies are, what, a few muggers?

That’s not going to wash away the bad feelings from S1.

I’ve heard that the fight footage they showed at SDCC was exceptional, and that everyone who saw it is really hopeful about this new season. See: https://io9.gizmodo.com/holy-crap-iron-first-season-two-actually-looks-really-1827712069

It’d be nice if that extra footage was online right now.

Yeah, I know Iron Fist is problematic, but he was pretty new when I first got into comics at that impressionable age, so he was all over the comics. I have a soft spot for the character, and I want to see him done well. With luck, that extra footage will make its way online and we can all be impressed.

“I don’t want to be what they made me.” A Review of Jessica Jones S2

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When I finished watching the second season of Jessica Jones (the first time through) I tweeted this:

Now that I’ve seen it all the way through three times does my opinion still hold up?

Yep!

Spoilers! Continue reading

“We’re not in a prophecy.” “Let the past die.” “I’m scared.” Three short reviews

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I think that, if I group my reviews together, I can keep them short. So I’m going to try that.

Bright

Everyone who creates a fantasy with a contemporary setting has two major issues they need to address. Okay, it’s more than two, but as far as I’m concerned, these are the biggest.

First, the stakes are bullshit.

Second, monsters are not effective stand-ins for victims of injustice.

The first is pretty straight forward, I think. In the normal course of things, I care as much about who becomes the next arch-duke of the sewer goblins as I do about whether some complete stranger I’ll never meet is going to wear a blue hat or a green one. It’s made up. It’s not connected to me. I just don’t care.

Worse, when fantasy has a contemporary setting, the plot is always about *preventing* some terrible event. If the heroes aren’t fighting like hell to keep a mcguffin out of the villain’s hands, they’re doing their best to break up a ritual. That makes the most dangerous consequence the characters are facing into a threat that’s never realized.

That’s why, when I was planning Child of Fire, I set it in a small town where the villain is the main source of jobs for the locals. Hammer Bay will die off if the heroes end the bad guy and they lose all those jobs. That’s a stake that people understand and care about. (Also, the ritual happened long before the story started.)

Bright, at least, avoids the shitty ritual climax, but it still trots out a bunch of folderol about a Dark Lord who will return if the villains can blah blah with the mcguffin. It never happens. I knew it wouldn’t happen. I didn’t care.

And do I really need to explain that second pitfall? You don’t illuminate human injustice by dehumanizing the victims of injustice. It’s even sketchy to do it to the perpetrators of injustice, although there are ways to make that work. But the victims? No. Just, no.

As for the movie itself, it’s not good. The end is dull. The beginning is unpleasant because of that second pitfall above. The middle is buoyed by a few interesting action scenes but too much of it is too dark.

The first time I heard Netflix was going to make a Will Smith movie about a cop with elves and orcs, I thought they meant Law & Order: Angmar. That would have been interesting. Once I heard they were going to set it in modern LA I knew it would be crap.

The Final Jedi

I’ve been calling this film by the wrong name on Twitter as a joke, and now it’s begun to feel more right than the right one.

Seeing it a second time was a smart choice on my part (pats self on back). Having the ending spoiled, and knowing who was going to succeed, and which elements that I was originally rooting for turned out to be terrible, made the intent of the film much more clear.

I wonder how many people, conditioned to cheer on the hotshot pilot and the bold plan, were prepared for the way that plot line turned. The more I think about it, the more I suspect that some viewers’ disappointment lay in that unexpected feeling of futility and dismay.

It still feels a little long, but I liked it much more a second time.

The Punisher

I’ve seen this show three times now, and I’m more impressed every time. It very much wants to be divorced from the MCU that it’s nominally a part of, and frankly, that weakens it. It’s hard to imagine these villains in this particular setting operating without trying to recruit superpowered people or acquire high-tech weapons. And frankly, that’s what I was hoping to see.

The show gave me something else: a military/spy thriller about a CIA coverup combined with a drama about veterans and PTSD. And it was beautifully shot and acted.

I’d suggest a few of the roles could have been cast better. The actress playing Medani has the worst accent of all the non-Americans playing New Yorkers, and the guy playing Billy isn’t physically frightening enough to match Bernthal’s Frank Castle. He looks more like a successful divorce lawyer than a
deadly killer.

What’s more, unlike most of these Netflix Marvel shows, the pacing is solid. Not breakneck but there are no episodes that feel like treading water.

Turns out, it’s a solid show, but not a Marvel show.

Mohawks, Barrel Fires, and a Few Nice Shots: a highly qualified defense of episode 7 of STRANGER THINGS 2

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This post contains spoilers for the second season of STRANGER THINGS 2. You should only read it if:

a) You have already seen the show
b) You actively like spoilers
c) You enjoy discussions of storytelling but have no interest in this particular show.

Moving on: episode seven, is widely regarded as the weakest episode of the entire show, for good reason. It steps away from the setting we, the audience, are invested in, and it drops all of the regular characters except one: Eleven. (I should start calling her “Jane” but I’m not ready to move on.)

Do we care about Kali and her band of punk murderers? We do not. Kali herself has a few nice moments, but the rest of the group never gets a chance to be funny, or charismatic, or to have a worthwhile goal the audience can root for. Their dialog isn’t clever or witty, either. They make fun of Eleven’s clothes, for god’s sake, by singing “Old MacDonald”.

The members of the gang say they’ve been “saved” by Kali, but that’s something that needs to be shown, not told. If you can’t actually show why these punks are so dedicated to her–and all it would take was to show Kali using her power to calm someone’s panic attack or withdrawal symptoms–then it seems that the real reason they’re with her is that they really enjoy is robbing and killing people.

And no cutesy slow-mo walk is going to make that palatable.

As 80’s nostalgia, it’s dumb and also pernicious, on the level of an episode of QUINCY, ME.

Frankly, STRANGER THINGS has always played with the other people’s ideas. The whole show is an homage of one kind or another, but those old tropes are either actively pleasant (like the boys riding their bikes around the neighborhood) or their given an interesting tweak (see: Steve Harrington). Kali’s gang has zero interesting tweaks, and all the barrel fires and in-jokey graffiti in the world can’t make them pleasant.

Authors like to encourage newer writers to steal anything they like, because each writer’s individual voice will make these old tropes their own, but this episode proves that’s not always true.

But why talk only about the episode’s flaws?

First, there are a number of lovely little storytelling moments that elevate the show above the schlock it’s mining. Not just the steadicam single shot that turns 180 degrees to show both the gang’s pov and the cops’ pov or the edit from Kali’s face reflected in the van’s window to Eleven’s in the bus window, but a bunch of smaller choices, too. Each little edit from the moment Eleven sees the picture of Ray with his kids to the moment she TKs the gun from Kali is perfectly structured. Brava to the director.

Second, the show gets some much needed girl-to-girl time.

One of the problems with STRANGER THINGS is that its female characters are so isolated from each other. The women and girls on the show are surrounded by dudes and maybe a mother. Eleven has Mike and his pals. Max has those same boys and her step-brother. Joyce has her sons and Hopper. Nancy has Steve and Jonathan.

I’m convinced one of the reasons fans had such a strong reaction to Barb was that, aside from being a sort of Everywoman among all the TV-beautiful actresses, she was half of the only woman-to-woman peer relationship on the show, and that’s not something they can afford to throw away.

The scene with Kali and Eleven on the roof is a moment that the show needed: a scene of bonding and caring between female characters. They had an opportunity to revisit that at the beginning of episode nine when Max met Eleven, but they shrugged it off for an understandable but unwelcome moment of jealousy. (If season 3 doesn’t open with Max and Eleven as the best of friends, I’ll be seriously disappointed.)

This episode was also a mentoring moment. The show has routinely showed how much stronger Eleven’s powers were becoming, but with Kali she managed the leap that justifies the climax.

Third, it provides space for an unexpected escalation of the stakes.

Most of us watching these Netflix miniseries recognize by now that the climax is spread across the last two episodes, and the big oh shit! moment comes at the end of the episode just before that climax.

STRANGER THINGS 2 thwarts that expectation in a pleasant way. I was genuinely startled by the end of episode six, when the baby demogorgons begin to climb out of the hole, and there’s Chief Hopper looking incredibly vulnerable in his hospital scrubs.

It’s a nice cliffhanger, arriving as it does an entire episode early, and all of episode seven leaves us dangling off the cliff. Personally, I enjoyed the anticipation, but I would have enjoyed it more if ep seven had been a little stronger.

Fourth, it expands the world and sets up Kali as the villain for season three.

The show wisely opened the second season with the gang on the run from the cops, then Kali’s nosebleed and tattoo. That it later fumbled those elements doesn’t negate their importance in continuing and expanding the story. Eleven can’t be the only test subject in this world, and the others can’t be duplicates of her.

Season three will need to introduce other kids with tattoos and powers (all of them little girls, if they’re smart), and it will need Kali as one of the villains. Establishing her as a betrayed sister in this season was a good move.

Besides, you can mine a lot of terrifying moments out of a horror show where people can’t trust their own senses. Season three can’t get here fast enough.

So, to sum up: the episode had a lot of necessary and worthwhile elements, but was hobbled by the thoroughly ham-handed way it handled the supporting characters. Definitely a weak moment, but still interesting.

“You have nothing but a war inside you.” Final Punisher trailer and premiere date

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The show airs on Nov 17, which is less than a month after it was announced. I wonder if Netflix is hoping to build anticipation by delaying the release day announcement as long as possible.

Not that it matters, since I’ll be binge-watching it on the first day, and I won’t be watching previous Punisher movies to get myself in the mood.

Here it is:

One thing I didn’t realize at first was that this is the same day the new Justice League movie premiers. Marvel is literally counter-programming DC’s big gamble. And as much good will as DC/Warner earned with their Wonder Woman movie, I’m not all that excited about it. I hope it’s great, but I suspect it’s not.

One quibble about the trailer: nothing that I noticed suggested they are going to introduce superpowers into the series. If they don’t, that would be a huge mistake. It’s one thing to have a 13-episode action miniseries. That can be a lot of fun if they manage to vary the fights: context, situations, resources, etc.

But how much more fun would it be if they threw in a scene where Castle has to take on someone who’s bulletproof? Or someone who can regenerate?

All I’m saying is that the MCU is full of untapped resources. Put that shit on screen.

[Added later: Comments off because of a deluge of spam]

“Are They Expecting You?” “Not Like This.”: The Rehabilitation of MCU’s Danny Rand

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The Defenders came out last Friday on Netflix and a lot of people continue to kick Finn Jones for his portrayal of Danny Rand. While I understand audiences hated him in the first season of Iron Fist, I want to argue that Jones was not at fault, and that his performance in The Defenders proves it.

First of all, if you hate the idea of Danny Rand as a “mighty whitey” racist stereotype (and who could blame you, he is), The Defenders isn’t going to change that. He’s still the rich white kid who returned from a magical ancient Chinese city with a superpower that proves he’s the best.

But just as Dr. Strange tried to blunt the racist aspects of that character’s origin by turning The Ancient One’s monastery into a home for people from many continents, The Defenders tries to do the same for K’un Lun. The five immortal bigwigs in The Hand aren’t just enemies of K’un Lun, they were cast out centuries ago, and they’ve been trying to get back home ever since. What’s more, they’re a multi-racial group, including actors Babs Olusanmokun, Ramon Rodriguez, and of course Sigourney Weaver.

Is The Defenders trying to recast K’un Lun, which looked like a vaguely Asian never-never land in S1 of Iron Fist, into something less offensive? It seems so, and that’s a choice that should have been made from the very start.

Should the show have cast an Asian-American as magical martial arts hero Danny Rand? Sure, but considering how things turned out, I’m glad they didn’t.

Here’s why: S1 of Iron Fist had massive problems. It was shoddy and trite. The dialog was a godawful wreck, and no one seemed to understand what they needed to do to make Danny likable. But all of that could have been shrugged off if they’d paid real attention to the fight scenes. Instead, the martial arts was rushed and sloppy, then edited until it was impossible to enjoy. The whole thing was a mess.

And Finn Jones took the heat for it. Audiences didn’t care that he wasn’t the one choreographing the fights, they just blamed him for what they could see. And they didn’t care that he was put into trite situations and given on-the-nose dialog, they were annoyed by the character and blamed the actor.

Casting an Asian-American actor wouldn’t have changed the limited time allotted to rehearsing fight choreography, and it wouldn’t have made Danny’s conflicts with the Meachums any more subtle. Fans blame the lead, no matter who he was, and that would have gotten ugly. An AA actor would have taken all the heat that Jones got, plus he would have had jerks accusing him of being an affirmative action hire.

That feels like a dodged bullet.

Which brings me to The Defenders, and Finn Jone’s role in it. It seems to me that the showrunners have made a concerted effort to make Danny someone the audience can like, and they don’t do it by remaking him into a generic hero guy. They do it by taking the character from S1 of Iron Fist and letting him grow.

They also let him be badass in his fight scenes.

To address the latter first, Danny gets a fight in each of the first three episodes, and to be honest, the very first one in the prolog of the pilot, isn’t a winner. It’s dark, has lots of edits and frankly made me worry about the show.

In the second, he fights Luke Cage, and it’s the first genuinely fun fight scene. It’s played for humor, but there are real stakes, too, and even though Luke shrugs off all of Danny’s attacks (except the last) it’s shot and choreographed in a way that makes Danny look quick, graceful, and dangerous.

At the end of the third episode, the show brings all four heroes together for their big (obligatory) Netflix hallway fight. It’s no surprise that it starts with Danny fighting by himself, and that it’s a terrific scene. After all the shitty fight scenes in Iron Fist, it was great to see the character cut loose.

Later, when Matt Murdock enters the fight, he’s just as cool but with an entirely different fighting style. Where Daredevil has a boxing/MMA sort of thing going, Iron Fist has old school wu-shu body turns, sweeping kicks, and roundhouse punches. It makes a nice contrast between them.

Unfortunately, once you get to the fight scene that opens episode five, the shots are cramped, the action confused, and Danny’s choreography not nearly so distinctive. It’s even more evidence that much of what we like about the characters comes down to the writers and directors.

As for Danny personally, at the start of the season, he’s the same guy at the end of Iron Fist: still fighting The Hand because it’s his sworn duty/destiny, even though he doesn’t really understand why. Still tormented by the fact that he left K’un Lun unguarded, and that The Hand attacked while he was away. Still telling everyone he meets that he’s “The Immortal Iron Fist, sworn defender of K’un Lun.”

He still hasn’t accepted that the life he’s led, with its mystical cities and dragons, is so far outside the experience of most people that they just can’t accept it.

But the events of the season, especially his interactions with the other heroes, change him. He’s often played for laughs, still telling everyone his origin story (which the other characters don’t want to do), and still young and impetuous.

He’s learning, though. His story arc for the whole season has him stepping away from a personal vendetta and moving toward the sort of heroism that Luke and Matt embody. He’s also given a bunch of fun, light-hearted moments where he either bonds with the other characters or they deflate his portentousness a little. He’s not a perfect guy, but he’s not the annoying twerp from his own show.

I get that people hold an animosity to the character based on both the character’s racist underpinnings and the awful first season of his own show, but judging by my Twitter timeline, slamming Danny Rand has turned into a competitive sport.

All I say is: if you’re going to watch The Defenders (and if you like superhero stories, you should) do it with an open mind, even if you feel burned by season one of Iron Fist. With new showrunners, new writers, and new choices, it’s worth seeing this new take on Danny Rand, especially since he gets a lecture from Luke Cage on his own privilege, and he takes it to heart.

I want to write a review of the show, but I never seem to make time for reviews anymore. I always have too much to say and not enough free time to type it all out. Maybe soon.

“It’s Complicated”: A Brief Review of IRON FIST

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Originally, I was going to call this review “I don’t even know what I’m doing or saying until it’s taken the wrong way” but that’s too long for an auto-share on Twitter, and it’s only said once, while the characters in IRON FIST say “It’s complicated” a bajillion times.

So this is going to be a brief review, as promised, although I usually have more to say about stories that don’t work than stories that do.

The first thing I’ll say is that, while the show is not great, it’s better than its Rotten Tomatoes score would suggest. (It’s 18% from the critics, although the audience gives it an 83, which is a solid B-.) It’s not even the worst season of Marvel/Netflix made so far, which would be S2 of DAREDEVIL. Like that season, it has some terrific performances, compelling characters, and real tension. It also has genuine problems.

First, as I mentioned before, put me down as someone who thinks the show would have been better (and better-received) if they’d cast an Asian-American actor as Danny. This isn’t a criticism of Jones; I think he does good work with what he’s given here, but the show would have been deeper and more complex with that change.

Second, like every Marvel/Netflix show, they don’t quite have enough story for 13 episodes, and it feels a bit padded. With JESSICA JONES (the best of the shows, imo) that padding is near the end where the pace should be building. It’s smart of IF to do what LUKE CAGE did, and slow things down at the start.

Because apparently every one of these shows needs padding somewhere. I’m hoping an 8 episode season of DEFENDERS will do away with this entirely.

So the early episodes are repetitive, and while it makes sense for the Meachums to have Danny committed, did we need an entire episode for that?

Third, it seems a strange choice to put a hero like Iron Fist into yet another neo-noir storyline, but once we get past the obligatory acknowledgement of his identity, momentum begins to build and the plots surrounding the supporting cast take shape.

Fourth, the general consensus is that Colleen Wing is a great character. That’s not wrong.

Fifth, a lot of folks are hitting Jones because the fights aren’t what we’d hope for in a show about a mystically-powered martial artist, and Jones isn’t a martial artist. But then, neither was Charlie Cox before he was cast as Daredevil, and neither was Keanu Reeves when he was cast in THE MATRIX.

What those actors did have was time to practice the choreography. As Jones has said in interviews, sometimes he only had 15 minutes before the shoot to learn the fight scenes, and you are not going to get good action scenes. They needed to give the action the attention it needed, because with a hero like Iron Fist, it’s not something you can half-ass.

Even worse are the action scenes that are badly framed and shot. I can understand dimming the lights to disguise the stunt doubles, since Danny Rand doesn’t have a mask or giant Jessica Jones hair, but we still want to see what’s happening, and see it clearly.

The fight in the hospital records room is perhaps the worse of the lot (and it comes so early in the show). It’s choppy, fake, and routinely violates the 180 rule, making it hard to follow. Later fights work better.

When the second season comes (and I’ll bet one no-prize that it’ll happen) they’ll need a show-runner willing to give the action scenes the time and energy they deserve.

Sixth, Marvel/Netflix continue to create really interesting antagonists. Loved every moment that David Wenham was onscreen.

Finally, I was interested in Danny Rand. Yeah, he’s a privileged fool in a lot of places, and he’s severely damaged, not just by the plane crash where his parents were killed, but by his time in K’un Lun. His time in the monastery turned him into a superhero, but at a terrible cost. He’s a fucked up dude, and he’s constantly stepping on his own dick.

At the same time, it’s clear he’s trying to navigate his different identities and do the right thing. Once the story turns away from “Can Danny prove his identity?” to “Can Danny stop The Hand?/find allies he can trust?/reconcile his dual identies?” the story works.

So yes, there are problems with the show, but as the reviewer at Forbes said, it’s a stumble, not a face-plant. It’s not the best of the Marvel shows, but it never sinks to the ludicrous plot points of DAREDEVIL S2 or the unconvincing character beats of something like ANT-MAN. Instead, it’s somewhat slow, unconvincing in places, and too repetitive.

I expect history to treat this season more kindly than the present, and I expect an AA Iron Fist when the MCU gets rebooted.

Three Reviews and a Pre-review

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I’m going to post three quick reviews here, so obviously there will be SPOILERS.

LOGAN

Logan is a solid, competent movie, the way most big budget superhero films are nowadays, but because it aims for tears instead of cheers, people are hailing it as revolutionary.

It’s not. It’s good and it’s sad. All the right buttons are pushed in the right order, and both Stewart and Jackman put in good performances and get to play their big death scenes. If you want mutant action with a tragic tone (and I do I really do) this is the place to get them.

But the emotional weight comes from 17 years of seeing these actors play these roles. Look at this:

LOGAN worked because it was the end of 16-20 hours of movie adventure, using characters with decades of comics and cartoons behind them. If it had been about a magical ninja whose healing spells were finally failing, it wouldn’t have gotten past the script-reading intern.

And it’s troubled by unjustified, reverse-engineered sequences. They needed a “family” scene for the little girl to see what a family looks like, so–despite being on the run from stone cold killers–they crash at the home of an Average Loving Family.

And got them all killed, which… come on. Logan and Xavier knew they were putting that family in danger, and nothing in the movie or the previous movies suggests they would put folks’ lives at risk. I call bullshit on that.

They did get the violence right, though. Finally. Rated R for brain-stabbing.

TRANSISTOR

This is a game I bought on Steam because I enjoyed BASTION, although it’s science fiction instead of fantasy. The premise is simple: In a weird but pretty and possibly virtual city, a group of urban planners have unleashed something called The Process to remake things to their liking. Then The Process gets out of control, and Only You Can Stop It.

The main character is a woman named Red, with a giant-ass science sword that gives her attack powers, each of which comes from dead people she finds and uploads into the sword. The very first person to be killed and uploaded is Red’s unnamed boyfriend: he’s the “narrator” throughout the game, although he’s not really narrating because he’s talking to Red (and by extension, you the player).

They hired a great voice actor for the part, and his dialog is well-written. The city looks fantastic. The enemies are varied and fun (I especially liked the eggs w/ chicken feet). Even the music is interesting. And the game is long, but not insufferably long.

But look at those choices: the lead character is a woman who has had her voice stolen by The Process. She’s a singer and we hear her songs, but she doesn’t get to speak. Only the man does. And her name, Red, is a stage name because of her hair. In short, he’s specific and interesting, with a voice. She is a cypher who runs around doing the work. And at the end, when they realize she can’t get her lover out of the sword, she impales herself, over his pleading, so they can be trapped in the weapon together.

She gives up her life for a guy.

This is something I’ve been saying a lot about modern entertainment: it’s beautifully executed but makes questionable choices.

BOSCH

Do you like mopey detectives? I do. The first two seasons of BOSCH are on Amazon Prime, and they’re excellent examples of a really common and generally mediocre thing: the American police procedural.

One of the things BOSCH gets right is that it doesn’t put cops on a pedestal. Some of them are bad at their job. Some are lazy, careless, or corrupt. They’re people, not a corps of heroes who are always proved to be righteous.

And it changes things up from the books. I thought I’d spotted the killer in S1 because I read the book it was based on, but nope. They tricked me. I’m easily tricked, I admit, but I’m pleased when it happens.

I can be a cheap date, story-wise.

Season two was stronger than season one because the character motivations were more believable, and I’m hoping that, when the third season comes out next month, it’ll be another improvement.

IRON FIST

Here’s the thing: I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I don’t get all excited. I don’t cheer. I don’t rattle on about the stuff I enjoy.

But I do like things. Sometimes too much. And when I do, I experience it as an unpleasant, obsessive anxiety.

I’m feeling that way about IRON FIST, which is due out from Netflix this week. I know reviews have been bad, but I’m still anxious to see it.

Yeah: Iron Fist’s origin is a racist narrative in the “Mighty Whitey” tradition. As much as I like the character, there’s no quibbling with this. But there is great stuff about the character, too.

First, martial arts is awesome and it looks fantastic in the comics.

It’s great in movies, too, obviously, because you can see movement and speed, but sometimes that speed makes it hard to follow. Martial arts illustration in the comics, when it’s done well, is beautiful and dramatic. It captures a moment, and that’s why it’s so common. The medium is a wonderful way to portray it.

Second, punching things like a wrecking ball is awesome.

This honestly worries me about the show, because sometimes I would love to just smash something without breaking my hand. Punch through a wall. Smash a tree to splinters. Whatever. Even if I didn’t do it often, just knowing I could would be intensely satisfying.

But the show runner for IRON FIST isn’t impressed. Having the iron fist is

not the greatest superpowers. All he can do is punch really hard … you can use it in some ways but in rest of his life, it’s not really all that significant.

Um, yeah. Let me introduce you to the concept of superheroes. They live in a narrative universe where punching is a significant part of life. That’s a basic part of the appeal. It’s not realistic, but it is fun.

There are several warning signs about the show, and this is one of them.

Third, Danny Rand went to a cooler school than I did, and he learned more interesting stuff.

I was 11 or 12 when I discovered Iron Fist, in the summer before seventh grade. August, 1977. I bought five comic books out of the spinner rack at a local drugstore: One was the issue where the X-Men fought the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, and I couldn’t even tell which characters were the good guys, or who had which name, or what the hell was going on. Eventually, I realized the hero’s faces were on the cover, so I went through and picked them out, and comic made more sense.

(If my sister hadn’t called me an idiot for buying a copy of Dr. Strange that ended on a cliffhanger–with Strange facing off against a warthog version of himself–I might not have gone back the next month just to prove her wrong and I might not have become a lover of comics.)

I discovered Iron Fist shortly after and he was one of the earliest characters I followed. I loved the way he was drawn in those early John Byrne issues, and when I tried to teach myself to draw comics, it was often Iron Fist illustrations that I tried to copy. And why not? Was I supposed to draw Spider-man with his nasty, gross armpit webs? Or Iron Man flying through the sky with his elbow slightly bent?

Nope, I tried to draw Iron Fist kicking some dude in the face.

This was seventh grade, and seventh grade sucks. It wasn’t just the usual teasing and other bullshit, not for me. I had a kid hold a knife blade to my throat. I had… I had all sorts of shit happen. If I could have gotten away from all of that to go to a place where a guy named “The Thunderer” would teach me how to be a superhero, I would have gone in a second.

It’s similar to the wish fulfillment inherent in Hogwarts, except Hogwarts is better because it’s not a generic racist fantasyland.

But liking the character in the comics is different from whatever they put in the TV show. Look at this fucking trailer:

It’s just so disappointing.

Every trailer has to intrigue. It has to set up the central elements of the show, establish tone, and assure the audience that they’re going to see something clever and interesting. This trailer absolutely falls on its face in the last task.

“How in the hell did he learn martial arts?”

“Where did you train?” “K’un Lun.”

I get it; they have story elements they need to set up. But you don’t put a line like “How in the hell did he learn martial arts?” in a script, let alone a trailer. Anyone can learn martial arts. I could, even, if I was willing to practice hurting people and take a cross-town bus a few times a week.

No, the line is “How in the hell did he take out a team of our best hitters?” or something like that. Something that sounds dynamic.

And you don’t need to put the name “K’un Lun” into the fucking trailer. It’s meaningless to the people who don’t know the character’s history, and the people who do don’t need it. Just say something indirect like “A far away place” or “you haven’t heard of it” Even better, make a joke:

“Where did you train?”

Montage of Danny in monks’ robes, Monks, the beautiful city of K’un Lun.

“Oh, there’s a little place near the mall.”

The trailer needs some grace. It needs to show cleverness and competence, which it absolutely doesn’t. Is it any surprise that the filmmakers didn’t seem to understand why fans were hoping for an Asian-American Danny Rand?

Early reviews of the show have been pretty terrible, slamming it for being dull and talky, but you know what? I’m doing my usual Marvel Netflix thing anyway. On March 16, I’m buying two six packs, ordering a late pizza, prepping a pot of coffee for 4 am, then I’m going to binge the show straight through. I expect to finish sometime Friday afternoon. That’s what I did with the other Marvel Netflix shows. Then I watched them a second time that same weekend. Then, for Jessica Jones and S1 of Daredevil, I watched a third time the following week.

Will I be disappointed by Iron Fist? Probably. I still have hope that they’ll make his origin work somehow (After all, the MCU Punisher’s origin changed from a random tragedy into a complex plot and coverup that ran through most of Daredevil S2.) Can the filmmakers do something unusual/interesting/worthwhile with the whole “White Guy is the Best at Everything” trope? I’m doubtful, but I hope so.

Notice I haven’t called myself an Iron Fist “fan.” That’s because, as I mentioned, I don’t experience fannish enthusiasm. I’ve seen people waiting in line for movies and books who are giddy about the new thing they’re about to experience, but I’ve never felt that.

I experience my enjoyment as a sort of anxiety. I’ve been anxious and distracted for two weeks, thinking about this show. Maybe it will be terrible, but it will be a tremendous relief if it turns out to be good. Or at least not as bad as it could be.

In fact, I’m hoping it will live up to this:

We’ll see.

“… to interfere for good.” Annual repost of my favorite version of A Christmas Carol

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Every year, I watch this version of A CHRISTMAS CAROL and post it:

If the embedding doesn’t work, here’s a link.

It’s under half an hour, and while it feels a little rushed, it’s also full of fantastic choices: dark colors, spooky ghosts, and both Ignorance and Want.

It’s fantastic. If you haven’t watched it before, check it out.