Review: Black Mirror – Season 5

I love Black Mirror and have been a fan ever since discovering it around season 3. The show is dark and twisted but also has its lighter moments and the three new episodes that constitute season 5 are exemplary of the show’s varied imagination.

Striking Vipers is a story about two friends (Anthony Mackie and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who reunite after years apart and bond over a sophisticated VR fighting game which soon becomes a conduit for unrequited feelings the two friends have. I was genuinely surprised by the early twist in the storyline and I really appreciated its maturity and sensitivity in dealing with the subject matter. I also loved the ending.

In Smithereens, Andrew Scott plays a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown who takes hostage an employee of the tech giant behind Persona, a Facebook-like social media platform, demanding to have a phone call with its Zuckerberg-esque creator. I found it struck an astounding balance between tragedy and comedy, making me laugh out loud several times as well as shed a tear at one point.

Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too features Miley Cyrus as a pop sensation whose new AI doll becomes the prized possession of Angourie Rice’s Rachel, but her sister Jack (Madison Davenport) has concerns about its influence. This episode is much more light-hearted in its execution, even if it has some dark material, striking and almost Scooby-Doo vibe at times, but I found it quite fun and well-earned after the seriousness of the previous two episodes. Plus, it gave me a new respect for Miley Cyrus.

Black Mirror is probably my favourite TV show. I love how intelligent and mature it is and how the series is more about quality than quantity, as each season is pretty short. The best thing about the show, in my opinion, is its anthology nature. Every episode is its own self-contained story and you can start anywhere; the quality is such that you will know in one or two episodes if this show is for you or not. Personally, I love it.

Review: Russian Doll

Twisty, funny, very smart and unexpectedly touching

I’m a little late to the party, but I just discovered this miniseries on Netflix and I really loved it. Eight episodes of 24-30 minutes each makes the complex story manageable and I found it very funny, a little on the dark side, with a lot of intelligence and heart. It obviously takes a lot from Groundhog Day but adds a neat twist which gives it an identity of its own. The writing, the acting, the whole production are all excellent and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys weird stories with interesting and unusual characters.

Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a name which is so loaded with metaphors I could spend a whole paragraph on it. The show begins with her in the bathroom at a birthday party thrown for her by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) where she is not having a good time. Nadia is a deeply unhappy person prone to self-destructive behaviour and is struck by a car and killed while trying to find her cat in the local neighbourhood, only to find herself back in the bathroom at her birthday party where it all began. She goes on with her evening and the next day but when she dies again and finds herself in the bathroom once more, she realizes she is stuck in some kind of time loop. The twist comes when she then she discovers there is another person trapped in the same loop, Alan (Charlie Barnett). Together, they have to find a way out.

This is some really inventive stuff rom the creative minds of Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne. I don’t want to give away too much because the real joy in the series is discovery; this is the kind of show that rewards you for paying close attention to every detail. Every episode turns in subtle and different ways that balance both the fantasy aspect of the plot and the deep characterization of the leads. I found it very refreshing in terms of casting and how the characters were written and acted, with tragedy and comedy in equal measure. It’s very impressive, the kind of stuff you don’t see very often.

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

This movie was an absolute delight. I had heard some good things but missed its initial release, so when I made the effort to see a one-night screening at the Rio, in spite of wanting to stay home and watch the new Black Mirror, I was very surprised and elated to discover one of the most original movies of the year. Sorry to Bother You made me laugh, made me think and made me go “WTF?” with its truly unpredictable plot twists. I loved it and I think it is one of the best movies of 2018.

The movie opens with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing for a telemarketing job at Regalview, part of a huge multifaceted corporation run almost as a personality cult by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in hilarious form). The job sucks and there is discontent between workers and management with a move to unionize led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), but when Cassius starts using his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) to connect to clients he rises through the ranks leaving his friends behind when he becomes a star “powercaller”. But Reglaview has a dark side which is only revealed as Cassius climbs higher and it only gets darker and funnier and flat-out weirder as the film approaches its conclusion.

The first thing I loved about this movie was its tone. It is very relatable with a fine supporting cast of rich and diverse characters, and it definitely plays to a mature audience with grown-up sensibilities. It’s not an overt crowd-pleaser (although the large audience I saw it with did sound very amused throughout). I also really loved how it’s one of those kinds of science-fiction movies that creeps up on you. There is already a heightened sense of silliness in a lot of what we see, but the real world is also very silly when looked at in certain ways and it’s only the gradual accumulation of details that clues you into the fact that this is not the real world. That is, until a crazy plot twist late in the movie that is pure sci-fi but works because of all the subtle groundwork laid in.

There are some rough edges to the movie (the film’s lack of budget is very apparent in one sequence involving a riot) but that is part of its charm. It’s a scrappy underdog of a movie, about working class heroes and featuring a fairly socially progressive point of view (the union subplot being a perfect example). That’s the kind of real community justice you don’t see in most movies, probably because most movies tend to reinforce the status quo instead of challenging it. The film has many little touches that tip you off to its subversive nature which had me grinning when I wasn’t outright laughing, and that is the most important thing of all – the film avoids being preachy by making you laugh.

Boots Riley deserves special mention for his writing and directing, the movie is full of wildly inventive visual ideas that match the story perfectly, and the cast is terrific. Lakeith Stanfield is immensely sympathetic, keeping you on his side even when he’s selling out, and Tessa Thompson is wonderful as Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend Detroit. Terry Crews has only a couple of scenes as Cassius’ uncle Sergio but he’s always a gem. I really enjoyed the mostly non-white casting because I love seeing other faces and voices on screen. The movie is incisive in its comments about race and one sequence in particular had many in the audience at the screening I attended squirming with discomfort, myself included. I love it when a movie can make me squirm and laugh and think.

Sorry to Bother You is very high up on my list of best films of 2018. I thought it was highly creative and original with many genuine surprises, but also that it was smart and funny – very, very funny. I was smiling almost from start to finish and for a long time after it was over. I really can’t say enough good things about it, I thought it was truly unique and special. I loved it.

Film Review – 2001: A Space Odyssey 50th Anniversary IMAX

I recently had the good fortune to stumble upon a screening of the 50th anniversary Imax edition of 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my top ten favourite films, and I am very glad I caught before it left theaters. What was mostly luck of circumstance turned out to be one of the best cinema experiences I’ve ever had.

First of all, the restoration was amazing – the movie looked freshly made. That and the mastery of Kubrick’s eye makes the movie feel very modern and accessible. There are very few details that date the film, which is more than one can say of most science-fiction movies. Speaking of details, the massive Imax image was a revelation for someone who has only ever seen the movie on television screens. For example, I was stunned by the number of shots where I was able to see people moving around inside the windows of the spaceships – and this was produced in the 1960s! I really didn’t think that kind of special effect was even possible at that time.

The magisterial pace and the minimal dialogue of the film make for a story that relies heavily on imagery. I understand why many people find it inscrutable when they see it, as I was one of them, but with repeated exposure and learning other perspectives the movie came into full flower for me. Without characters explaining things for the benefit of the viewers, they are left to themselves to decode the pictures and I know there are many different interpretations of what it all means. For myself, I think it is the best story about encountering a superior alien intelligence ever put on film. I appreciate truly alien aliens, and in 2001 they seem to be a species that exists outside space and time as we understand it, appearing to us only in the form of an absolutist black monolith of perfect mathematical proportions. That is pretty far out, man.

Of course, the best parts of the movie are the space ballets set to Strauss’ The Blue Danube and the pure spectacle of the Stargate sequence, but on a screen this size with all-enveloping sound every part of the movie dazzles. The landscapes of the Dawn of Man sequence and the dizzying interiors of the spaceship Discovery are equally spell-binding and even lesser moments like conversations held my attention completely. The screening included a 20 minute intermission which I felt unnecessary (the movie is two and a half hours, not three, which is easily manageable in my opinion) and might have even disrupted my trance a little as I had a feeling the post-intermission part of the film felt a tad draggy. I still loved it, anyway.

Kubrick was the ultimate film maker, in my opinion. His movies are the ultimate in each genre he tackled: The Shining is the ultimate horror film, Full Metal Jacket is the ultimate war film, Dr. Strangelove is the ultimate political satire and 2001 is the ultimate science-fiction film. I already love this movie, so I’m obviously biased, and seeing it in crystal clarity on a giant screen while seated basically dead center in the auditorium was pretty electrifying and I know I sat there with big eyes and a smile for a lot of the movie.

Retro-Review: City of Lost Children (1995)

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go to a screening of The City of Lost Children, a gem of French cinema from the 1990s which I have long adored. I love it for its baroque production design, the casting of fabulously unusual faces and an overall cartoonish sensibility that makes it a dark fairy tale adventure full of surprises and laughs.

I’ve seen the film several times but it is only now that I feel I comfortably have a grasp of the plot, because it is serpentine with endless detours into side-gags. Broadly speaking, in the fable-like setting of some dark quasi-early-20th century sea port town, children are being abducted by a mad scientist living in an off-shore laboratory where he drains them of their dreams in order to stay young. I think. Honestly, I’m still not sure if that’s entirely accurate, but our central protagonist, One (Ron Perlman), is a fairground strongman whose little brother is stolen, triggering a quest to find him, aided by 10 year-old Miette (Judith Vittet), a street-urchin and sort-of leader of a gang of child street thieves.

There are a lot of subplots running parallel to one another throughout the film’s running time, so much so that I can’t really explain any more of the plot because it would take too long and it’s more fun to discover for yourself. The show moves along at a good clip and never really lags, with loads of detail in every frame. The filmmaking team at the helm, Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro, would later go on to make Amelie (2001) which is a great example of their flair for fantastical elements and buoyant humour, though City of Lost Children is much darker in tone. Along with Delicatessen (1991), the duo have made three fine films which made me fall in love with French cinema.

I also want to make special mention of the casting of this movie. It is full of the most interesting looking people you’ve ever seen in a single film. The only pretty people are the children, almost as if to suggest that we all start out pretty until life twists us into broken adults. I also love how Miette plays as the classic fatalistic French femme, cynical and world-weary, yet tagging along with the vaguely simian strongman, One, focused on his quest. They make an endearing pairing of brains and brawn.

I love The City of Lost Children. I think the way its whimsy plays off the darker undertones is delightful. Wonderful cast, a pleasantly convoluted plot, gorgeous production design and flashes of humour make it a joy to watch. Thanks to this and the other works of Jeunet & Caro, I am a confessed fan of French film. Great fun.

Stars Trek Versus Wars

In the realm of popular sci-fi entertainment, Star Trek and Star Wars are the titans. Despite superficial similarities, the two are really designed for different audiences whose qualities come out in their respective fandoms. I think that Star Wars, with its simplistic good-versus-evil morality tale, is really more for children, while Star Trek skews toward a slightly more mature audience. Allow me to elaborate.

I think concepts like “good” and “evil” are basically childish. They are code for “us” and “them”, promoting a closed-minded tribalist attitude and enacting power fantasies of vanquishing the wrong and making everything right. As people grow and mature they should come to learn the complexity that attends life and how choices are not always so clean-cut.

Star Wars does touch upon the themes of point of view, but barely. It is still centrally and essentially a simplistic morality play in every iteration. Star Trek, on the other hand, tells a wider range of stories, some pulpy, some political and some just weird enough to challenge the way you think about your perceptions. One other key difference that distinguishes Star Trek as being for older audiences is the sexual content: Kirk and others are often in romantic liaisons whereas kissing is about as racy as Star Wars gets.

Writing this in the wake of Kelly Marie Tran’s on-line harassment by the worst elements of Star Wars fandom, I can’t help but think how basically immature they are. Personally, my favourite aspect of the new Star Wars movies is their on-screen diversity. I am all for seeing more faces and hearing more voices, but it is apparently a threat to some who are maybe not as secure in their own being. Of course these trolls exist in all forms of fandom, but I can’t imagine even the worst Star Trek fans being so loudly and vocally hostile that a cast member would remove him or herself from all social media.

Obviously, the trolls in this case are not representative of Star Wars fans in general and, as I say, Star Trek has it’s trolls too, but I can’t help but think there is something in the material they obsess over that fails to challenge their childishness because it is itself for children. I don’t think Star Wars fans have ever had the necessary humiliation that Trek fans were dealt by William Shatner’s “Get a Life” sketch on Saturday Night Live. That kind of public calling-out to stop taking it so seriously is precisely what Star Wars fans kind of need, certainly the cretins who attacked Kelly Marie Tran. I might even argue that The Phantom Menace was just that, but nobody seemed to get the point. They just got angry and bear the grudge to this day.

I’m not calling Star Wars fans immature, just the trolls. However, I do think being overly obsessed with a children’s entertainment might be bad for a person’s perspectives. I think it’s good to obsess over something until you figure out what it is about it that turns you on, but then you ought to pursue that quality in something more challenging, to test your assumptions and refine your perspectives instead of blunting them with endless repetition of the same thing and then getting upset when new product doesn’t meet your demands.  I’m still deeply in love with sci-fi, to which Star Wars was the gateway when I was a kid and  Star Trek sustained me as a teen. I just find they can’t deliver what I want from the genre anymore.