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Looking Through ‘Black Mirror’

Ever since its arrival on Netflix, I have been completely enthralled with Black Mirror. If you are under a rock and unfamiliar with the series, I think it’s fair to call it Twilight Zone meets futurology/media commentary; All but the first episode are based in a gritty sci-fi future – not gritty in the Mad Max sense, more that the series not only displays fantastic concepts, but also dour consequences.

Black Mirror is an anthological series, consisting of six episodes original episodes, six “Netflix original” episodes, and a Christmas special. For the heck of it, I decided to rank them from my least to most favorite – because lists are fun! There will be spoilers as we go, but hey, if you haven’t seen any of it, this may (or may not) persuade you. But here’s a hint: I definitely dug the original British run over the American involvement – for the most part, anyway.

13. S3E6: Hated in the Nation
Kinda coincidental, I suppose. Once you follow through the harrowing fantasies of this series, the finale is disappointing, to say the least.

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Bees?

One of the biggest critiques regarding the Netflix expansion is that these episodes stray from the formulaic pacing of the originals – also the narrative tends to lean more on characters than world-building. Hated in the Nation offers neither. Personally, I felt this to be a drawn-out sci-fi Law & Order episode rather than an introspective commentary on society.

Okay, sure there was the whole twist where the public put their money where their mouth was, but it all felt very shallow, if not boring, compared to the girth of previous episodes. Also just a waste of Kelly Macdonald. Moving on.

12. S3E2: Playtest
As much as I appreciated the Twilight Zone-esque zinger at the end, I feel like that wasn’t enough to warrant sitting through 30 minutes of travel montage. The AR was cool and all, but ultimately mediocre when set against heavier subjects. As mentioned, since this season had more character focus, I think it’s worth mentioning that this protagonist didn’t really garner much empathy from me either.

11. S2E3: The Waldo Moment
waldo-600x399Picture Triumph the Comic Insult Dog on acid, and then place him in this year’s election. That’s pretty much this episode. Being a more character-focused episode, this one lost me a little bit, because I found myself more interested in how the government was to be run rather than the comedian’s spiral into dissociative madness. Maybe I’m a little heartless, or maybe I just wasn’t that into it.

10. Black Mirror: White Christmas
There are many things to appreciate about this Christmas special: the accumulative use of technology, multiple emotional gut-punches, Jon Hamm… But really, this is an episode that sends you reeling. My only issue is wondering how Hamm’s character is supposed to survive if he’s completely blocked out (maybe he can just order groceries online), but at the same time, this is an incredibly interesting take on solitary confinement – more about “blocking” later.

The story itself is enjoyable (in that edge-of-your-seat sense), and was ultimately a great one-off. Definitely finish the series before watching this, if you haven’t yet.

 

9. S3E3: Shut Up and Dance
Much like a later entry on this list, Shut Up and Dance is a more realistic parable rather than morose fantasy. Extreme realism sure, but still frightening. I feel like this is what my parents thought would happen if I had a Myspace.

8. S2E2: White Bear
One of the grimmest episodes (arguably), that makes one wonder what kind of punishment is truly justifiable. The tension is pretty fantastic throughout, with a twist that sends you reeling. I really did enjoy this episode, alas there were others I liked more.

7. S1E2: Fifteen Million Merits
This was an episode where things started getting cool. We have a distopia, set with multiple commentaries of daily life: reality tv, fat-hate, living through social media, etc. Take all of this and crank it up to 11 and you have Fifteen Million Merits – sort of. This is an episode that truly needs to be seen and experienced. It’s surreal enough but still has heart.

6. S3E1: Nosedive

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Welcome back, Bryce Dallace Howard.

This episode was a great start for a new season (especially aiming for an American audience); despite the social downfall of our protagonist, she rediscovers the power of self-expression…albeit behind bars. So yes, a cringey high-note, but a high-note nonetheless. If Charlie Brooker decides to do another holiday special, I’d love to see a cameo of Lacie doing some sort of menial job with a smile on her face.

5. S1E1: The National Anthem
The National Anthem is less about futurism and more a satire of modern media, and frankly, it’s a weird start for the series. It’s the perfect “what would you do?” scenario where truly no one wins, but it’s such an amazing stinger: the world would rather watch a man screw a pig rather than ensuring a woman’s safety. It’s so devastatingly dark, not to mention played to my Dogme 95 fandom. Why I prefer The National Anthem over Shut Up and Dance: That twist was more satisfying than bad wolf internet trolls.

4. S3E5: Men Against Fire
As Agent Teddy Daniels once pondered, “Which would be worse – to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?” Take this question and mix in some warfare, a massive dash of augmented reality, and you have Men Against Fire. This episode was an incredibly heavy experience, especially considering that the AR didn’t end in the warzone.

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3. S3E4: San Junipero
This episode has led to some rifts between cohorts, but I’m standing my ground on this. Yes, it is comparatively “too happy,” but I love the amount of depth in these characters. The end of this episode sparks all sorts of discussion of theology and second-chances. Despite the heavy-handed nature of these topics, it was so nice for this episode to breathe some levity and hope – even if a massive hack or crash could destroy everything, but we’re not thinking about that. Let’s keep riding that nostalgia wave, just for a little bit longer.

2. S1E3: The Entire History of You
I personally see this episode as the flagship for the series. It’s got a crazy concept with tons of societal implications, and we get to see everything go wrong for someone because entire-history-of-you2of their own paranoia. You know how right as you fall asleep, the most embarrassing memory pops into your head? Imagine having access to that and being able to zoom and enhance.

This concept also allows people to be “blocked” and forgotten, taking selective sharing to a whole new level. It’s interesting to think about forcing someone out of your head so literally, especially when they are trying so hard to be there. It’s these ideas, as well as the imagery, that makes this episode so haunting.

1. S2E1: Be Right Back
In an age where facebook profiles become literal, living shrines, people are finding new ways of coping with loss. Be Right Back essentially personifies the struggle of letting go in a time where reminders of lost loved ones are just a click away. This is an episode that brought me to ugly tears, and thusly I tell everyone to watch.

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Hail, Caesar!

It’s 1951 and the world of entertainment is on fire: the studio system is falling apart, television is on the rise, and the second Red Scare is running full-tilt. But during these times of great duress, Americans still turn to the silver screen for an escape – dramas, musicals, and of course, epics.

 

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Clooney-meets-Clancy epic.

It’s no secret that Hollywood itself is a hot mess of internal drama, and during a time when actors a literally owned by studios, it is of utmost importance that everything’s up to status-quo. Enter Capital Pictures’ key producer and “fixer,” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). When Hollywood’s biggest star (George Clooney) goes missing, it’s up to Mannix to step in before the tabloids catch on.

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Tilda Swinton as a pair of twins with rival columns, Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Thessaly pictured).

 

Hail, Caesar! is a delightful mix of Lebowski/Burn After Reading hijinks met with the some bizarre meta qualities reminiscent of Barton Fink (not to mention the Fink references in themselves). There is also an underlying solemness to this film, especially considering our hero deals with personal dilemmas of both future and faith. After all, he’s a man who takes his sometimes dubious orders from a faceless voice, but also charmed by a future of nuclear proportions.

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Lady top, fish bottom, sailor’s mouth.

Of course, when things begin to get dour, we lighten up with a water ballet or a musical number – as I mentioned, this was a time of spectacle, so naturally as an audience we get to take part as well.

In all, Hail, Caesar! is a cynical love letter to old Hollywood. It’s a weird sort of folly with socio-eco-idiological ties. It’s masterfully shot, wonderfully designed, and the performances are fantastic (just the exchange between Ralph Fiennes and Alden Ehrenreich is worth it alone).

Additionally, it’s worth mentioning that the nature of god is portrayed with a sort of heavy-handed whimsy: we never see their face, but will still blindly follow their orders, no matter how questionable they are. Sometimes things work out – alas, would that it ’twere so simple.

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I’m not even the biggest Tatum fan, but I desperately want this to be a real thing.

 

 

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Let’s take a moment to get this out of your heads and off your minds –

Oh you have no idea what that was all about? Well, Google on your own time (please do, that show was fantastic) because we’re going down a road dredged with madness, mayhem, and really, really cool effects.

Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton) is a former blockbuster hero attempting to revitalize his career by producing a play based on the Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” After a rogue spotlight leaves Riggan without a supporting actor, Broadway prima donna Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) steps in and sends Riggan down a spiral of self-doubt and denial. Fortunately, Riggan has his alter-ego, Birdman, to by his side – that is, until one is destined to take over the other.

You wanna get nuts? C'mon, let's get nuts.

You wanna get nuts? C’mon, let’s get nuts.

From the very beginning, Alejandro González Iñárritu casts us into Riggan’s mind, driving each movement home with a raw, disjunct score and gorgeous composition. Each moment of mania and fragility is captured as the camera almost seamlessly sweeps through the story. We’re witnessing an introspective journey, gliding along the spectrum of self-deprecation and egomania – like Black Swan, but really, really fun.

What I found most refreshing about this film, though a midlife crisis story, can easily appeal to Gen-Y folks as well. We’re dealing with existential crisis brought on by our own design, as Sam (Emma Stone) points out, this is a time when everyone’s screaming for attention as loudly as they can – and if you don’t exist online, you hardly exist at all. More so, this story takes place on Broadway – an industry struggling for relevancy. And if that wasn’t heavy enough, what kind of professional is more fragile than an actor?

I really dug Stone's wardrobe, though.

I really dug Stone’s wardrobe, though.

Unfortunately, when one character is followed from the get-go, it feels as if the story strays when it’s time to focus on other characters. These dialogues do offer some context for the characters, but retrospectively feel more superfluous in the grand scheme of things.

Despite this gripe, I think Birdman might be one of my favorite films this year. It’s dark, funny, daring, and downright unforgettable. Pure essay fodder. Plus Michael Keaton’s still got it.

Final Grade: A

Oh yeah, still got it.

Oh yeah, still got it.