Black Lightning – waiting for a strike (early impressions review)

With the imminent release of Black Panther on the horizon – can’t wait! – and a general shifting toward the listening to the voices of minorities in western civilisation, the landscape of film and television is affording more opportunities for fare that would not have found a large audience outside of its particular niche.
With the popularity of superhero films in cinemas and its filtering to television and subscription services, the once niche market of comic geekery is now known to all. Netflix, to their credit, have been at the forefront when it comes to programming in the superhero genre. Having predominantly screened Marvel fare – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Defenders – with the exception of the risible Iron Fist (review here), the comic book adaptions have been good to great, Marvel continuing to prove that their grasp of the genre is solid.
Black Lightning is the latest addition to DC’s roster of televisual super beings. Unlike their filmic output, DC’s television shows have been strong, with Arrow, The Flash, Supergirl and Heroes of Tomorrow all established shows. As I mentioned before, it seems with the race to embrace minority friendly content, DC have dug through their archives of characters and found the little known – even amongst comic geeks – character of Black Lightning.
As a black person myself, I embrace the advent of minority programming and love seeing people on the screen I can readily identify with. That being said, three episodes into Black Lightning it is difficult to find much to be excited about. In fact, there is so much wrong with Black Lightning, it is difficult to know where to start.
Jefferson Pierce (Cress Williams) is Black Lightning, a meta-human able to generate electrical beams, lightning, from his hands. He is also an expert martial artist. None of this is addressed in the show, I learned it all on Wikipedia. How he came to be Black Lightning, his origin story, is not even alluded to. We meet Jefferson as a high school principal in Freeland. He has retired from the superhero/vigilante game, feeling he can help more as a pillar of the community. He also knows that it was being Black Lightning that broke his relationship with his estranged wife Lynn (Christine Adams) as she could not bear the thought of him being in danger every night.
Elsewhere his youngest daughter, Jennifer (China Anne McClain) is getting close to a young, would-be, gang banger, LaShawn (Al-Jaleel Knox), cousin to local dealer and area boss of the notorious one hundred gang, Lala (William Catlett). When LaShawn takes Jennifer to see his cousin, trying to impress her, Lala embarrasses him and insults Jennifer. When later on Jennifer is caught up in a gang-related situation, Black Lightning is forced to come out of retirement. So far so cliche.
Let’s start with the costume; it is god awful, easily the worse costume of modern-day heroes. Not in anyway subtle, it is a shiny, carbon-blue coloured, motorcycle suit, with a bright lightning bolt ‘V’ on the chest. He wears goggles – GOGGLES! – as his disguise. So people, who have known him most of their lives do not recognise him with a pair of sunglasses on!
A peruse of IMDB shows a divide of opinion; many comic show fans hate the show, the biggest gripe being the acting. I feel that this is unfair as, if anything, the acting is probably the best thing about the show. Unfortunately, the actors are given not only a weak premise to work with – I will get to that – but also dull scripts. The dialogue in the show is so poor it is almost a sedative. The only actors who get to invest believably in their roles are the aforementioned William Catlett, Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III, who plays Tobias Whale and Damon Gupton as Inspector Henderson.
The show’s story and premise go for the lazy and overworked, using the old ‘gangs taking over and terrorising the ghetto/neighbourhood’ trope that is often attributed to black stories/communities. It was the same story they used in Luke Cage, though that show did have a much better script.
As well as following the black gangs and a frightened community staple, the show also jumps on the ‘empowering women’ bandwagon, as well as the wife and youngest daughter, there is also Anissa (Nefessa Williams), the eldest daughter, who is a lesbian. Notably, the lesbians in this show are strictly of the lipstick variety; utterly beautiful.
Unusually, Black Lightning has made no effort at an origin story, thus we are given a vague sense of Black Lightning as a figure of folklore, missed by the god-fearing – yep, the church loving staple is in there too – community.

I will say, as a positive, that – aside for the costume – the show looks technically good, especially the third episode. The lighting and colours look rich and deep and the editing, fight scenes and sound are top class.
Netflix has, unusually, opted to release Black Lightning week by week, unlike many of the other superhero shows. Whether the show will be able to retain its audience over its thirteen episode run remains to be seen. Whilst not unwatchable, Black Lightning is far from unmissable television. As I am a long time fan of the superhero genre, I will no doubt keep watching. Hopefully Black Lightning will find its feet later in its run.

 

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Bright – Not Really (a review)

BRIGHT is the latest offering from David Ayer, the writer, director and producer, whose most recent works include Suicide Squad, Sabotage and End Of Watch. He is perhaps best known for two of his earlier works, The Fast And The Furious and the critically acclaimed Training Day. On Bright, Ayer is on director duty, the screenplay having been written by Max Landis, whose most notable writing credit is the 2012 superpowers thriller, Chronicle.
Bright tells the story of a world where humans, orcs and elves live an uneasy coexistence, with elves being societies elite, orcs the bottom of the pile and the humans somewhere in-between. Quite why Landis decided to use orcs and elves, as opposed to creating new beings or characters, is not a question I can answer. I can only think that by using the normally opposed races Landis was hoping it would speed the story along. It doesn’t. If anything, it pulls you out of the story, especially the elves, who are LOTR (Lord Of The Rings) extras in Matrix get up. The budget does not quite stretch to creating the orcs with the same intensity they had in LOTR.
Will Smith, turning in an I, Robot performance, plays Daryl Ward, a street cop forced to work with the affable orc Nick Jakoby, played by Joel Edgerton, only recognisable by his gait under the orc make-up. Ward distrust Jakoby after he is shot by an orc whilst waiting for his partner to buy lunch. He suspects that Jakoby let the assailant escape due to him being an Orc. On returning to duty, his human colleagues, all of whom are small-minded and wear their prejudice with pride, try to encourage him to turn against his orc partner. Giving them short shrift, Ward and Jacob hit the streets.
They encounter Montehugh, a hirsute, dirty, half-naked man, wielding a sword and after persuading him to put the sword down, arrest him. Whilst in the back of the car, the seemingly crazy man suddenly – with an exposition scene that lands like Thor’s hammer – starts talking in orcish. He also throws up in the back of the car, which later leads to a scene in which Internal Affairs come to have a covert meeting with Ward to persuade him that turning on his partner would be in his best interest.
Meanwhile, Montehugh, the orcish speaking, sword-wielding vagabond, is visited by an elf and a human from the magic division – really – who wants to know about his babblings. As this is going on, Ward and Jakoby are attending a call where they come upon charred bodies and an elf crucifixion. They also meet Tikka (Lucy Fry) a terrified elf who is protecting a much sort after, wand. When back-up for Ward and Jakoby turn up, their four colleagues, in another exposition scene, try to persuade Ward to kill Jakoby so as they might keep the wand that can grant them any wish they desire – once again, really.
Exposition is next given in one sentence when Ward warns Jakoby not to reach for his gun because he would stand no chance against him in a gunfight. He then proceeds to kill the other four policemen who, of course, had planned to kill them both anyway; he is amazing in gunfights. The wand is now common knowledge in the city and everybody wants it. It’s a wishing wand you know. Humans cannot touch the wand without exploding – or maybe that’s anyone, that is never quite explained. Humans definitely explode though. Unless they are a….Bright. Really.
Remember babbling exposition man, Montehugh, in the back of the police car? He signposts that Ward is a Bright – that is not a spoiler, a small child would have seen it. The rest of the film is basically a chase film, where everyone pursues the wand – not the ring. Sorry.
Bright suffers from two major faults – there are more, but only two major ones – it is too shorts for the many varied themes it tries to cover. Bright would undoubtedly have been served better as a short series, four to six episodes maybe. Secondly, it is rushed, which sort of feeds into the first point, but if the slight book that was The Hobbit can be stretched into a trilogy of – admittedly – overlong films, how can a similar story be condensed into less than two hours? It can’t.
Bright tries to cover themes of race, prejudice, class, greed and avarice. Unfortunately, it fails on all fronts due to some heavy-handed writing and a runtime that is short by present standards. Bright turns out to be pretty dim.

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The Punisher – a review

Like many of the comic adaptations before it, Netflix’s The Punisher had previously been brought to the screen. Three films featuring the grizzled ex-marine, Frank Castle, who would go on to become the Punisher, have been made. Even though the character did have its own comic book title back in the mid-eighties, The Punisher was never a major Marvel title, unlike say, Daredevil in its Frank Miller run.
Like most of Netflix’s Marvel series, The Punisher is well executed. Unlike the other series, it is able to jump straight into the story, with the character having been introduced, backstory and all, in the second season of Daredevil. Having not seen any of the earlier versions of The Punisher, it would be unfair of me to compare the different versions. What I will say is if there is a better Frank Castle than Jon Bernthal’s I need to see it!
Bernthal is so completely born to play this character, bringing an intensity and feral believability to a character that is capable of extreme violence. Bernthal’s taciturn turn is compelling and gruesomely attractive, portraying an admirable monster of a being. Frank Castle is a killing machine, out of place in the touchy-feely, let’s-mediate, millennial generation. The liberal espousing of every person having some redeeming qualities is something he knows, all too painfully, not to be true.
The story begins with all but a select few believing Castle to be dead. He has taken on work on a building site, keeping himself to himself, whilst taking out his rage on masonry. Some of the other labourers take a dislike to him and try to intimidate him. He does not rise to the bait. Another young labourer is friendly to him, but Frank tells him that he prefers to be left alone. The young guy, waiting to fit in and looking for friends, latches on to the bullies. One of the bullies is indebted to a loan shark and needs to get some money. He tells one of the others, who tells him of a mob poker game they can hit. The bullies decide to rob the mob poker game and bring the new kid along.
During the robbery, the youngster drops his wallet, revealing his driver’s license. Afraid that his mistake will expose them all, the gang take him to the building site to kill him. Unfortunately for them Frank, who is on the site still, hears about the whole episode and goes full Punisher on them. After giving the mob loot to the kid and telling him to disappear, he goes and wipes out the mob poker players, inadvertently revealing the probability of him still being alive.
Had The Punisher decided to follow the John Wick route and have him fighting and killing mobsters, forced to come out of ‘retirement’ because they are after him and then having various affiliations coming after him – CIA, Homeland, FBI – as they realise he is not dead, The Punisher could have been brilliant instead of just good.
It could have gone the way of the fantastic Jessica Jones, the little known super-powered private eye in the comics, brilliantly realised in her own Netflix series, utilising characters from the comics but bringing a compelling story.
With the exception of the poorly written lead character portrayed by a GOT popular Finn Jones in Iron Fist, all the acting and performances in Netflix’s Marvel fare have been universally excellent, central and supporting characters alike. It is in the area of story, something that was so strong in both Daredevil and Jessica Jones, to a lesser extent in Luke Cage, where Marvel has begun to falter.
The Iron Fist story and central character were an unholy mess, making the decision to have The Defenders have it as a launch pad an odd one. In The Punisher, the writers decided to use the death of his family and an ‘off-the-books’ covert mission, that was recorded (of course), when the squad he was part of executed a prisoner, as the premise for the series. The fact that they decided to put Ben Barnes’ (excellent) Billy Russo character in the trailer doing something nefarious was a spoiler of the worst kind.
With its top-shelf acting and first-rate fight choreography, not to mention the excellent editing, The Punisher is somewhat redeemed, though not wholly, allowing the cliched story to chug along nicely. The real issue with the story is not that it is bad, it is that it is too familiar. There are no surprises at all. Every cliche and stereotype box is ticked; a despicable drug smuggle? Tick. A powerfully positioned ‘secret’ overlord? Tick. A slick, but deadly, an old friend who swaps sides and becomes a fearsome adversary? Tick. Innocents in danger? Tick. It is all in there. There really was not enough story to sustain a thirteen episode arc, with some of the middle episodes akin to a more exciting episode of Homeland.
It is a pity that the overall arc is so tiresome because, as I never tire of saying, the performances are first class. No doubt The Punisher will get a second outing, one can only hope that Frank Castle can be found in a more interesting and challenging situation.

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Getting Back On The Horse…

I was, earlier in the year, writing a blog a day, posting every day – not here, I have a few blogs – but definitely posting consistently. A few things happened to derail my posting; laziness was one, I visited the cinema less frequently and I decided to make a film after an almost four-year hiatus.

So I made the film – The Good, The Bad And The Tennis – and then…nothing. I have been messing about with editing and Da Vinci Resolve colour correction software and looking into all sorts of myriad FCPX plugins – they really need audio enhancement!  – basically, I have been procrastinating.

Though I have begun writing a sequel to my last short, even though I am not a massive fan of sequels, not bad ones anyway, there are a few classic ones – Godfather part two, Rocky two, Terminator two.

I am feeling that I need to get back to blogging, writing random thoughts at least, so as to allow space for creative, plot and story breaking thoughts. That’s the hope anyway. I am determined to not let another extended period of navel-gazing halt my filmic output.

It is my desire to be a filmmaker, storyteller, and since it is entirely my decision if I pursue that particular goal, let the pursuit begin.

 

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Memories Of A Film Shoot – The Good, The Bad And The Tennis

It’s a week after the shoot and my film – The Good, The Bad And The Tennis – is in the home straight. It is about three years since my last film and the nerves preceding this shoot seemed to have helped enormously. Never have I planned so well for a shoot. Even though I knew the script and what I wanted to see – I did write it after all – having decided to use non-actors in all the roles, I knew I had to be able to get my ideas across clearly.

Having put out feelers for a camera and sound person on shootingpeople.org the initial response was not good. Acting as the producer – I pay for everything – I offered a middling to low fee for both roles. For those who have never had to deal with getting a crew together, let me assure you it is both very easy and extremely difficult.

It is easy because there are loads – and I means loads – of talented people out there who want to make and be involved with filmmaking. Finding a competent camera person who is prepared to work for a fraction of their daily rate is relatively painless. Also, because one can easily look at their past work, it is easy to see if you like their work or not. With sound, it is more awkward. I have worked with both good and bad sound people. A good sound person is worth every penny of the hard earned cash you give to them. Make no mistake, bad sound will ruin your film no matter how good the story, camera work or acting.

It seemed to be going smoothly. I put out the calls for the two positions and begun to receive responses. The first response was for the sound person. The would-be applicant pointed out – no doubt he felt helpfully – that the pay rate was too low. He did not get the job, but I did raise the pay rate. I got a couple of replies from camera people and after settling on one, I was hoping I would be able to focus on a creating a storyboard. He quickly fell out of the project. As did the one after him.

When people start dropping from a shoot, it makes you question whether you have a viable project. I was beginning to panic a little as I had already got the actors and had set a date, but I had no crew. As luck would have it, the cameraman I used on my first two shorts got in contact with me. Having worked with him before, I knew what to expect. I still did not have a sound person. My camera guy came to the rescue again. He could supply the sound person. My crew was locked.

Besides the storyboard, I also decided I would create a shot list. A shot list is exactly what it says; a list of all the shots that will be used. The shot list serves two purposes: it reduces the amount of unnecessary coverage – very popular in the digital age – so one does not end up with so many shot options that the edit becomes unwieldy. It also allows you to keep track of the shots. (On my second shoot I had to call everyone back because I forgot to shoot some scenes.)

Another thing the shot list does, is it forces you to do is edit the film in your mind beforehand. When it came to the actual edit, I had completed a rough edit on the same day as the shoot, with the shots ninety to ninety-five percent locked.

The coloring, look and music are probably the things that have taken up the most time. Just finding the music has been a real job! As I did not employ a musician – I am not independently wealthy! – I had to use that vast and brilliant library known as the internet. We, filmmakers, are somewhat blessed in this digital and internet age, in that we can utilize the talents of people from all over the globe, that in times past would not have been available to us.

With my film now close to completion – need to shoot one more scene…! – and the trailers and promo stuff out, I am trying to ensure that my next project is not three years hence! Fear and laziness have kept me from pursuing my passion for filmmaking for too long, which is a terrible waste, as I enjoy the entire process immensely. I have two more short projects that are ready to go and many a written work on the go. Time to get back to the filmmaker dream.

 

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​​American Assassin – a review/rant

I didn’t walk out, so there is that. I really wanted to. Sixty minutes in and the cliches and lazy plot twist just kept coming. It is films like this – films that get major distribution and promotion – then turn out to be so poorly executed, that anger me. American Assassin, a made for television film if ever there was one, has been foisted on an unsuspecting public as a high-concept action thriller. It really is not.
The film begins in Ibiza where a loved-up Mitch Rapp (an underfed Dylan O’Brien) proposes to his girlfriend, Katrina – though I thought her name was Serena – (Charlotte Vega). She accepts and he goes off to get a couple of cocktails to celebrate. As he waits at the bar all hell breaks loose as terrorist open fire, spraying automatic gunfire at fleeing holidaymakers. Rapp takes a shot in the hip and shoulder as he tries to find his recently acquired fiancée. As Katrina looks for him, she gets shot and then one of the terrorists decides to shoot her again in front of Rapp, because, why not?
Fast forward eighteen months and a hirsute Rapp is making contact with the Taliban, hoping to infiltrate the cell that killed his fiancée. Unbeknownst to him, he is being observed by the CIA who move in when his plan proves successful, getting them close to a target they had previously been unable to even locate.
Impressed by his tenacity and apparent high level of combat and firearms competency – “he scores off the charts” says deputy director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Latham). Bullshit. – he is recruited to join a covert, hardcore, elite division run by grizzled veteran hard arse, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). And the cliches keep on coming.
The angry young buck that is Rapp, proves to be a bit of a maverick, failing to follow orders and going off mission. Meanwhile – cliche pile-ups aplenty – Hurley recognizes one of his old charges, referred to enigmatically (not really) as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). Turns out Ghost was a former operative, whom they thought dead, who was the previous young charge who ‘scored off of the charts’!
Having revealed the laziest twist in cinema, the film proceeds with some convoluted crap about uranium and building a nuke and how it must not get into Iranian hands, but wait, the Ghost is double-crossing everybody! He wants to blow up ‘Mericans!
The fact that this same story has been done so much better – 2012’s Skyfall most recently – on every level is what is irritating. One does not expect a masterpiece – not with the imaginative title of American Assassin – but lazy, tired, two-dimensional characters, a less than two-hour runtime that feels like four and lackluster directing do not point to a film that warrants the kind of promotion that this tripe had.
It always pains me when I see actors having to commit and try and convince an audience that a story is worth sticking with, whilst working with such poor material. Four – FOUR! – screenwriters worked on this! It is doubtful that they worked together, as the script reeks of studio interference, hence the many writing credits. There is only one director though, Michael Cuesta.
Cuesta is mostly credited with television work. The best I can say about the directing in this film is everyone is in focus. Fights scenes – in an action thriller remember – are pedestrian. For some reason, they decided to set a chase scene in one of the world’s busiest cities, when it comes to traffic, Rome and the chase is on par with the awful ‘let people see the cars’ sequence/chase in Spectre in its blandness.
Locations, no doubt trying to give the film an international flavour, seemed picked at random, as though the director thought they might be nice places to visit. Another thing; the title of the film gives the impression of some lone wolf, a one-man army, tasked with taking out bad people; a male Nikita if you will. In the film he is anything but that, stealing cars and having shootouts whilst compromising his team and mission, no finesse or evidence of his ‘off the charts’ ability in anything except reckless endangerment.
If you have one hundred plus minutes to kill and find yourself watching the trailers as you wait for American Assassin to begin, do yourself a favour and leave after the trailers.

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The Lesbian Majority In The Minority

An odd and mild prejudice has been revealed to me whilst binge watching my latest obsession – I’m late to the party but I am loving Wynonna Earp! – I have found that with perhaps the exception of Curtis in Arrow, there are no male gay characters that I find particularly engaging on television. Even with Curtis, it is the character of Curtis, not his relationship, that I like. When it comes to gay female characters my feelings are completely different.
From Willow and Tara on the best show of all time, Buffy The Vampire Slayer – shut up, it is! – to my present favourite show, Wynonna Earp, – hashtag Wayhaught – television’s representation of lesbianism has always been more, emotionally, appealing than that of the homosexual bent.
At this point, I should probably confess my inappropriate and undeniable love of a character and actress who is almost half my age in Dominique Provost-Chalkley (if she gets married and keeps her name, that will be a real mouthful!) and her character, the feisty Waverley. Along with Katherine Barrell’s dark-eyed police officer, Nicole Haught, they make up one of the most engaging and wonderfully organic gay couples on television, the aforementioned Wayhaught.
It is a testament to the writing, casting, and performances that the relationship works so well in the show. From the moment officer Haught comes into the show, the attraction to Waverley is immediate and obvious. Not that it should be a massive surprise as the creator and showrunner, Emily Andras, was also involved in the sexually fluid and brilliant Lost Girl.
It does beg the question as to why female gay relationships seem to be explored so much better in terms of emotion than their male equivalent, especially as – though this may just be a result of my city myopia – there seem to be far more gay men than gay women. Not that I seek out programmes with gay relationships in them and perhaps as such I have just not seen the shows that reflect the emotional depth that shows I have watched with gay relations – Buffy, Lost Girl, Supergirl, Wynonna Earp – convey.
Even the shows that have embraced male on male relationships, such as Empire, created by the openly gay Lee Daniels, tend to approach male relationships differently, with, in the case of Empire, the gay Jamal character portrayed by Jussie Smollett, very strong and prominent in the show but any partner or hook up he meets being only there to support his character, lacking any true purpose themselves.
Even though Tara and Willow were in Buffy and Waverly and Nicole have irresistible chemistry, it is the portrayal of Alex and Maggie in Supergirl that is my favourite couple. The openly gay Maggie (Floriana Lima) challenges Alex (Chyler Leigh) view of herself, when after years of failed heterosexual relationships, she finds herself, to her surprise, attracted to the streetwise, tough-talking, Maggie. Both tackle elements in the relationship that they have always shied away from, both are similar in that they have erected a wall around themselves, projecting a certain persona, in order to protect their hearts.
Amidst the silly and enjoyable superhero stuff, they more than any other characters, explore the complexities and challenges that are part and parcel of any relationship.
In the landscape of television, much more so than film, there is so much scope for the stories and realities of any and every group to be told and heard. The stories of women, gay men and women and those in the transgender community are being heard and sought more frequently now. For myself, as a British black person, there are still so many stories that are not being told and even in these increasingly multicultural and multiethnic times, few stories that reflect the plight or even normality of the fish-out-of-water scenario that is everyday life for so many non-white or indigenous people in the big city.
Whether this is a reflection of the powers that produce and make programmes or a reflection of the viewing demographic is hard to say, but with so much media and so many platforms to get our stories out there, I am confident that it will and can only get better.

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