“Luke Cage” Season 2 Review

I will admit that I was cautiously optimistic going into the second season of Luke Cage. I think there are enough Marvel shows on Netflix now that this one can be judged on its own merits, but that wasn’t the case with the first season, one that ended up being just sort of meh compared to its contemporaries. My feelings on season 1 were that it was too long and tended to drag because of it. The creators tried to fix that issue by having two villains instead of one, with the strong Cornell ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes character giving way to the much weaker Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) about halfway through. Considering her character would be carried into the new season, you can understand my misgivings.

The season begins as Cage (Mike Colter) is finding increased notoriety in the community of Harlem. It was funny to see calls to the original comics in the show such as T-shirts emblazoned with “Power Man” and “Sweet X-Mas”.  Misty Knight (Simone Missick) is still kicking it as a detective, trying to get used to only having one arm as a result of the events of the Defenders crossover. At the same time, Mariah is making moves to go legit by selling off her family’s criminal empire, but there is a new villain in town by the name of John ‘Bushmaster’ McIver (Mustafa Shakir) who wants to take her down for some unknown reason.

I felt like most of the main character arcs really worked, especially Misty Knight. It was awesome to see her have doubts about her purpose, not just because she lost her arm but because nothing ever seems to change. Eventually she does get her mojo back, but not without some extreme soul-searching. That seemed to be a common thread this season: figuring out who you are as a person and embracing it. Similarly, Mariah began the season irritating me as much as she did last season, but halfway through, she completely transforms into the horrible villain she was meant to be, fully adopting the Black Mariah moniker from the comics. Bushmaster, while psychotic, has understandable reasons for wanting revenge on Mariah. Luke himself takes a very interesting turn right at the end and it will be interesting to see how this plays out in future seasons and other shows.

Though all the main arcs worked well, the side characters largely didn’t. Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) seemed very superfluous even though she and Luke are supposedly dating or something. Indeed, the rumor mill reports that she doesn’t want to come back to these Marvel shows because she feels her character serves no purpose. Hernan ‘Shades’ Alvarez (Theo Rossi) spends the entire season trying to be menacing but comes off as a joke. I can’t decide if Rossi is just a bad fit for the character or a bad actor. Tilda Johnson (Gabrielle Dennis) was an interesting addition to the show, especially as a tie-in to the comic villain, but her shift near the end seemed pretty drastic given how little time she had on screen.

misty and luke

These issues aside, I really liked the style of the season. Even though Mariah’s and Shades’ relationship felt unnatural, seeing the two caressing each other reminded me of those 70s-era blaxploitation films, which the original Luke Cage comic was part of. I also enjoyed how well Luke and Misty play off each other in conversations. Black culture and artists are woven into this show so well that Harlem’s Paradise is practically another character. There aren’t a ton of fighting scenes, but I find that refreshing. This season was much more about the drama than the action. I mean, how many times could two invulnerable men fight each other before it starts to get old?

The cameos from Colleen Wing and Danny Rand were excellent and call back to the comic versions of Sisters of the Dragon and Heroes for Hire, respectively. It’s worth noting that this version of Iron Fist is much closer to the original comics (i.e., better) than the one we got in his self-titled series, giving me confidence in its own second season. The Foggy Nelson cameo and Karen Page mention also help to flesh out this universe even more. Perhaps that’s the direction Claire needs to move, just showing up for a scene or two in a season, to show that she’s a thriving character as well.

If you had some gripes about season 1, but still find this universe interesting, I fully recommend you give the new season a shot. The second one went a long way to redeem itself after a lot of mistakes were made in its debut and in Defenders. As a result, all of our characters seem transformed by the end, and what an ending it was. Feel free to hypothesize about what’s to come in this universe in the comments below.

Score: 4/5

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” Review

Score: 4/5

One of the many burning questions viewers were left with at the end of Avengers: Infinity War was where were Ant-Man and Hawkeye? This movie, which chronologically takes place concurrently with or prior to the aforementioned, shows us why Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) may have been too preoccupied with his own life to be bothered with helping to save the universe. For those who have forgotten (as I certainly did), we last saw our leading man in Captain America: Civil War where he was caught violating the Sokovia Accords. Since then, he has been on house arrest and has every intention of following the rules to stay out of trouble. Of course, things eventually start going sideways, and Scott reaches out to Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), whom he alienated and are embroiled in their own issues, for assistance.

ant-man_and_the_wasp_still_michael_douglas_and_evangeline_lilly

This is how the movie begins, with Scott doing everything in his power to keep from going nuts while being stuck in a house for months on end. Rudd really excels in this role as his everyman persona seems to poke fun at the absurdity of all these superheros while simultaneously humanizing a character that Marvel initially didn’t know how to portray on screen. It helps that he has the charisma to not only work well with his main costars but also Abby Ryder Fortson, the girl who plays Scott’s daughter Cassie. The humanity we see in these superheroes is what actually makes them compelling and the struggle Scott has here with maintaining a full work schedule as well as being a present father might be mirrored in the real world by working parents.

Ant-Man and the Wasp almost seems to function better as a comedy than a pure action-adventure, exemplified by the fact that the star is a romcom stalwart and Scott’s coworkers, all former criminals trying to run a security consulting outfit called X-Con, are all played for laughs, especially Luis (Michael Peña). While I enjoyed the movie, I realized that the style reminded me a lot of The Green Hornet. The only difference here is that Peyton Reed seems to have tightened up the laugh factor and increased the pulp, complete with a buffoon for a villain, Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins). Truth be told though, there was no real “villain” in this film, though Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen) could have been a compelling one if the script had been different.

Ant-Man-and-the-Wasp-art-1

That brings me to the biggest gripe I have with the film. The director obviously tried to shoehorn in a couple possible villain substitutes, but they are both red herrings. Ghost as a character was more of a distraction than a real conflict. Her concept was really cool, but she and Bill Foster (Lawrence Fishburne) could have simply asked for help. Sonny Burch, on the other hand, has no real motivation for his actions except that his client really wants to have this super technical stuff and won’t take no for an answer. That being said, the fact that there isn’t any main conflict besides rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) does a lot to release the tension imbued by the last Avengers outing. Plus the movie finds new ways to play these laughable characters against each other in some of its best scenes.

Overall, Ant-Man and the Wasp is best when it shows our main characters and their humanity. The Quantum Realm was depicted well and I can’t wait to see more of it in future movies. The movie was entertaining and funny though largely inconsequential to the MCU, but after the set up of some of these characters, many are hypothesizing that we will be seeing more of Hank, Janet, and Bill (albeit younger versions) in next year’s Captain Marvel movie. Perhaps maybe we will even see some of the events that precipitated in their falling out? We shall see.

The Best Labels to Buy Are in the Mid-Range

It’s important when analyzing clothes to buy (btw, when you are spending more than $5 on anything, you absolutely SHOULD be analyzing) that you know what you’re looking at and how a label or manufacturer got to the price point they are asking. As I’ve said before, typically you are paying for materials, quality, style, and the brand name itself. In the fashion industry, all brands have played with these factors to various degrees and have ended up merging into 3 main tiers: low-end, mid-range, and high-end. When you examine these tiers, you can go even further by expanding to 5, to include a junk category at the bottom and a luxury category at the top, or even by separating each tier into 3 more sub-tiers, similar to economic classes. For simplicity’s sake we’ll just focus on these main 3 and the fact that, unlike the U.S. economic equivalent, the mid-range is steadily growing, giving savvy shoppers many more options.

The 3 Tiers

Let’s talk about how the mid-range sets itself apart by first describing the other 2 tiers. The low-end is typified by taking all the aforementioned factors and reducing them to as low as possible while still being able to sell the garment. We’re talking brands with a large team of designers so there’s no unified vision, sweat-shop labor assembly, and no plans for pushing sustainability. You will also likely see them in most malls, including outlets. I don’t think people should be buying these brands in a sizable amount as it’s a gamble whether pieces will hold together after more than a few wears. Plus, because these clothes cost so little, it’s too easy to overspend and accumulate a lot of them, buying into the whole business model. Also, since considerate design for the garments is virtually nil, the way garments fit is often unflattering.

It’s easy to think harshly on these labels, but they do serve a purpose for those who just need a T-shirt or a pair of jeans and don’t want the hassle of researching. The tier is also great for those who haven’t developed their sense of style yet and/or don’t want to put forth a lot of cash to do so–AKA people in their 20s. Brands in the low-end include Old Navy, Dickies, Gap, American Eagle, Nautica, Perry Ellis, and Original Penguin, as well as any fast fashion brands like H&M, Uniqlo, ASOS, and Forever 21. Labels like J Crew, Banana Republic, Michael Kors, and Polo Ralph Lauren could arguably be considered at the upper edge of this tier as well. It’s also worth noting that many low-end labels do great collaborations. Dickies in particular has become quite popular lately with the rise of the workwear/normcore/dadcore trend.

By contrast, the high-end is largely going to be the labels you see on the runway and in magazines like GQ and Esquire. I’m not going to lie, pieces will seem obscenely expensive to the uninitiated, but there are reasons for those price tags, some understandable, some not so much, which make them a better value. The quality of the high-end labels is usually impeccable. Often pieces are made in countries where the laborers make a livable wage, and the materials are superior to the other tiers. It’s virtually guaranteed that garments will last for a decade or more. On the other hand, these labels have a brand to establish and extensive advertising to pay for, so part of the purchase is buying into that scene overall, especially if the piece is more stylish.

I used to say I would never consider buying anything from a high-end fashion house considering their prices, but lately I have softened my stance. If a person wants to buy a classic minimalist garment from one of those brands that they would be assured to be able to pass on to their son or grandson, the high tier is the best choice. Also, if one has the kind of disposable income that they can afford to buy that perfect “of the moment” piece under the assumption that it will look passe in five years, more power to them. I’ve almost done that myself, but never bit the bullet. Brands in the high-end include the likes of Prada, Jil Sander, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Zenga, Balenciaga, Tom Ford, Yohji Yamamoto…the list goes on.

The concept of the mid-range is kind of new as people got tired of being forced to choose between brands that are either inexpensive and designed horribly or super expensive and designed impeccably. There needed to be some sort of middle ground. Thus the mid-range was created to give consumers well-designed, stylish garments at a price point that won’t break the bank. The rise of the mid-range also seems to coincide with rise of menswear through the 00s, which led to the birth of Menswear Fashion Week in New York.

Ami

There’s a special place in my heart for Ami because it was the first label whose style I adored that I could actually afford to own. In 2011, Alexander Matiussi started his Parisian brand after successful tours at Givenchy, Dior, and Marc Jacobs, with a vision of creating simple, colorful, but not ostentatious, garments that can be mixed and matched. A lot of his looks can be adopted straight of the catwalk without needing to live in New York. They are adventurous and simultaneously subtle.

 

Saturdays NYC

Saturdays has thrived as a lifestyle brand since they first opened their doors in New York in 2009, then known as Saturdays Surf. Though they dropped the “surf” out of their name, they still sell surfboards, wetsuits, and other lifestyle materials at their brick and mortar stores. Their clothing calls to mind California cool built with a New York mentality. I’m particularly keen on the Hawaiian shirts that they release when the weather gets warm.

 

NOAH

Brendon Babenzien, the head of NOAH, began his journey at Supreme as the label’s Creative Director. This is part of the reason why so many comparisons are drawn between the two, both being considered skater brands. However, while Supreme exhumes more of a DGAF attitude in their streetwear, NOAH is much more considered and even preppy, complete with seersucker suit separates. The brand is also making efforts toward sustainability and social awareness, which our society needs much more of these days.

 

ACNE Studios

The style of ACNE is unapologetically minimalist owing to its home in Stockholm. Having been founded by Jonny Johansson in 1997, the label eschews many complicated patterns and instead employs alternative tailoring in their design. They also like to play around with off-kilter color combinations in their collections, drawing inspiration from Scandinavian art and culture. In my mind, the brand is remarkably similar to Our Legacy and Norse Projects.

 

Needles

The story behind Needles’ creation is quite a long one, as it’s just one of many labels (including Engineered Garments) founded by New York transplant Keizo Shimizu as part of his Nepenthes umbrella company, itself founded in 1988. Japanese fashion has really exploded lately due to the way the country’s citizens can take items popular in America, reconfigure them, and in effect create something entirely new and different. This is displayed most abundantly in Needles’ lookbooks. The brand’s trackpants especially have become a hot item for any menswear addict to own.

 

Gitman Bros. Vintage

Nothing sets off my alarms faster than seeing a brand that only makes shirts. It is easy and relatively inexpensive for labels to start up, invest some money in the design of one type of garment, and stop there, switching out different fabrics ad infinitum, charging whatever they want for doing virtually minimal design work. However, there are a few that have perfected their version of the button-up and can justify charging a bit more for them. Gitman is one, owing partially to the age of the company, having been founded in 1932. Hamilton Shirt Co. is another. I’m going to use the former as my example here since they are a bit more casual and trendy with their offerings.

 

It’s notable how young most of these brands are compared to the other tiers, leading to a more youthful, trendy, and modern image. There are many more labels worth your consideration such as A.P.C., Steven Alan, Stüssy, Officine Générale, Todd Snyder, Solid Homme, Sid Mashburn, Rag & Bone, John Elliot, Wacko Maria, Billy Reid, and Folk. In fact, some labels that had already been well-established have created other spinoff lines to compete in the same market, Rugby Ralph Lauren (now defunct), Carhartt WIP, LL Bean Signature, and Land’s End Canvas among them. Of course, discussing every single quality, mid-range brand out there would get exhausting.

The key is to find the ones that fit your personal style the best and get on their mailing lists for updates. This is the best way to score pieces that fit exactly what you’re looking for and keep informed on sales to buy those items for even cheaper. Using Mr. Porter can also be great because you can get their updates for multiple brands. Of course, that’s only for the pieces they’ve curated for their collection, but that can keep you from getting overwhelmed.

Your mileage may vary, but if you’re in a style rut, I encourage you to go forth and explore. Let me know what labels you feel inspired by in the comments.

If you like my articles, please share them on social media platforms using the buttons below. It will help more people find me and increase my exposure. If you want to read more of my work, keep up with my new posts by clicking the follow button on the sidebar. Thanks for reading!

“Hereditary” Review

Score: 4.5/5

The horror genre has had an interesting life. If you ask someone to name off horror movies, you likely will get many of the classic series that began in the 70s and 80s: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween. However, it’s debatable if any of the typical genre movies could actually be considered good, worth watching, making you think about them for days. This is because there was a long time, particularly through most of the 90s and early 00s, when horror was considered a niche genre filled with easy jump scares, unrelatable villains, and defenseless damsels in distress, all of which sacrifice any stakes or deeper meaning. Any decent horror movie of that period had to step outside the bounds of those tropes to make a sizable box office grab. The rest ended up flopping or going quickly to video to try to make as much money as possible. Thus many good, scary movies aren’t strictly horror films but a blend of other genres as well.

Today things are quite different for the genre. Directors have begun to find different ways to frighten us while still managing to tell great stories. They’ve learned that mixing in other elements such as science fiction or drama helps broaden the appeal of the movie while making the story more relatable. They’ve also found that constant suspense, atmosphere, the feeling that you know something is going to happen you just don’t know when, work as a much better fear tactics than the jumps of yesteryear. Using these methods, a director can still craft and tell a story while scaring the watcher now and then. There are some great examples of using this style to great effect just in the last few years–The Witch, It Follows, Get Out–all of which I recommend seeing.

Hereditary is the newest member of this new breed of horror. It stars the wonderful and talented Toni Colette (Little Miss Sunshine, United States of Tara) as Annie, who really played this part for all it’s worth. Telling too much about the movie’s plot, or even comparing it to other movies with similar premises, would probably spoil it, but I can say that the film begins with the death and funeral of Annie’s mother. Like any family, this one has its demons and the sudden loss causes many emotions and event that have been tucked away or ignored to be confronted head on. Later in the movie, the great Ann Dowd (The Leftovers, The Handmaid’s Tale) makes an appearance as Joan, who wants to comfort Annie in her grief. The story is a complete downward spiral with not much in the way of levity, a constant grief building throughout with an ending that just begs to be explored.

download

Each of the four members of the family serves a distinct purpose for the the film: Annie is our window into this world, Steve is the largely absent and disbelieving father, Peter is the average everyday teenager, and Charlie is the troubled child. I have to say that the casting director did an excellent job finding talented actors to embody each of these roles. As I said, Toni is amazing in this role. She always seems to excel when playing a manic mother and wife. But the real find here is Millie Shapiro who plays Charlie, which is her first true acting gig. There’s always a risk in using new child actors, but after this performance, Millie may see a lot of doors open for her.

Jump scares have almost been completely supplanted in Hereditary with horrific imagery and tense situations. However, that might be to its detriment for people who are less cerebral when they watch movies. Those who are expecting to being scared of the things they see may be disappointed by the fact that this movie wants the viewer to be scared of those that they can’t. This is the premise of psychological horror, where the fear comes from thinking about the possibilities rather than viewing concrete events. For the most part, Hereditary excels at this. What makes this movie particularly scary is that through most of its runtime the scenes depicted could actually happen to a family who were all simply losing their minds. At one point I wondered if these four were actually dead and didn’t know it, like a certain other movie Toni was in.

Unfortunately, it’s never particularly clear on what some of the imagery means that is depicted. I don’t want to give any specific examples, but it seems to place importance on some recurring events without ever explaining any deeper meaning to them. I found it best to take these things with a grain of salt, but some viewers may be annoyed. The movie also could have been a little tighter at explaining the consequences of the events depicted. Though I was left considering facets of the movie afterward and how well done they were, I was confused about why anyone should ultimately care if this happened in real life. It also wasn’t completely clear to me whether or not the overall goal was ever achieved.

My small gripes aside, Hereditary is a spectacular addition to the horror genre. Even my husband, who says he doesn’t like horror movies, loved it. Let me know what you thought of the movie and feel free to discuss spoilers below.

Stardew Valley Review (Vita)

Score: 4/5

It’s not outlandish to say that retro games and pixelated graphics are a huge trend in the gaming industry today. While many AAA game studios are trying to make their product look as realistic as possible in order to blur the lines between fact and fiction, many indie studios have taken the exact opposite approach to development. It could be said that, in viewing games as an art form, it doesn’t really matter how realistic the graphics are. In fact, even better if a developer can get the point across without spelling it out for the gamer. It could also be said that these developers want to create games that give the same kinds of experiences as the ones they grew up with. Who needs Call of Duty when you have Galaga?

This sort of simple gaming and non-handholding is the mentality behind Stardew Valley, which at its heart is a reskinning of Harvest Moon. In fact, your in-game character leaves his/her busy, dead-end life in the city specifically to lead a simple life without all the hustle and bustle. That’s basically where the story begins and you, as the player, are left to your own devices to figure things out as you go along. Through the first year, you will get some equipment and other abilities unlocked as you get to know the villagers. Beyond that, your path is yours to develop. This may sound daunting or intimidating for those who aren’t used to this sort of game, but there isn’t much in the way of punishment for experiments gone wrong.

Throughout your stay in Pelican Town, you will have to split your time between 5 different categories of skills: farming, mining, foraging, fishing, and combat. Skills will each gain experience as you accomplish tasks within those groups. As each of these skills are leveled up, the player will gain access to crafting recipes, increased proficiencies, even more professions to choose from based on your playing style. Most of this stuff happens in the background and, though you can check your progress in the menu, you likely won’t realize how much you’ve developed until you get the level-up message.

Time will advance through the 4 seasons with each season having 28 days. Each season has its own crops to grow, foraging items to pick, and fish to catch. Mining and combat are mostly done in the mine, which can be described as rogue lite. The layout of each floor of the mine will always be the same and specific important floors will always be the same. However, all the floors in between will have randomly generated enemies to fight and objects to mine. Through all your actions, by the end of the day you will end up acquiring a lot of items which you will need to bring back to your farm, dropping them in a bin in order to be sold overnight. Each day begins with showing you how much cash you made from your sales and an automatic game save.

There are ways to evolve your character socially as well. Many villagers inhabit Pelican Town and it is up to you to grow your relationship with each of them by performing tasks for them. Many times, this amounts to bringing them items they want. As your relationship grows, they will reveal things about themselves. Eventually you will be able to marry certain NPCs and have a child with them. One of the interesting things about this relationship system is that you have free reign to choose a male or female, regardless of your character’s gender.

There are many more activities and features in Stardew Valley, such as festivals and bundles, but listing and describing each one would make this article much longer than it really needs to be. Suffice to say, you won’t be bored often or be without some goal in mind or duty to fulfill.

Unfortunately, this game does have a few shortcomings, one of which circles back to its core premise. I can appreciate not holding a player’s hand as so many games do, but I found it very irritating how little this game explains what to do. Fishing specifically was never explained and took me a few in-game weeks to figure out on my own. Also many fish appear only at certain times of the day, in certain seasons. As these fish are needed for bundles which unlock more of the game, missing them can add on another in-game year to a playthrough. The only way to figure out when and where specific fish are is to look online. Yet another important omission is explaining the importance of grass. In the beginning of the game, you’re left to assume it is a nuisance that should be cleared from the farm. It isn’t until after you have built a silo that you find out all the grass you previously cut could have been turned to hay for your farm animals. A player should be able to relax while playing this game and not resort to studying guides. This information could easily be added in-game.

Another issue I had was how difficult it is to farm crops, which really is the bedrock of the game. I once played a Harvest Moon game (don’t remember which one) in which the directional pad moved the character a certain direction without having them face that direction while the joystick moved them normally. This helped save an enormous amount of time and frustration while watering, planting, tilling, etc. This feature is completely absent in Stardew Valley. Needless to say, I tried a number of different methods to farm crops more efficiently and almost always left frustrated. This kind of feature would also be handy when laying out hay for farm animals early on.

My final major issue (and this will hopefully be fixed with subsequent versions, but should be mentioned nonetheless) is that the game seems to crash constantly. It probably has had to reboot around 2 dozen times after normal play. This wouldn’t be quite such an annoyance if the player was allowed to save the game manually. A manual save option would at least possibly keep someone from having to do an entire day’s work over again. Once, the game literally crashed as it was saving at the beginning of a new day. And yes, I was hot. Due to the random nature of parts of the game, a crash like this can lead to losing powerful weapons or a sizable catch.

Stardew Valley, while not a new game anymore, has been worth the wait for the Vita version. The handheld seems to be a natural fit for the game and I have enjoyed taking it with me on the go. Despite its issues, it’s easy to get lost in the game’s many features, constantly evolving my character and what I’m able to do, appreciating the beautiful pixel art that wouldn’t look out of place on a Super Nintendo or Game Boy Advance. My suggestion is to sit back, relax, and let the game play itself as you move your character around. You can always start over if you want and there is no real “end” to the game. Enjoy!