Black Mirror series 5 review

Another year, another bleak foray into the existential dread of the nature of the human condition. Although, this time, things seem a little different. Perhaps showrunner Charlie Brooker has discovered inner peace, or at least a substance based substitute, because Black Mirror series five is perhaps the franchise’s most optimistic and bright outing yet.

Continuing on Netflix following six expectedly dark episodes and one bizarre and disappointing AR experiment that Bandersnatched expectations and threw them down the loo, series five provides a comparatively conservative three episodes. The viewing order is seemingly random, so I’ll briefly break each down in the order I was shown; Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and finally Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too.

Reflecting on the three as a whole, there are two major differences when compared to previous series. Firstly; less of a reliance on future technology for narrative devices. Unlike the memory chips, cookies, and robot dogs of past series’, this edition could almost be considered contemporary. Facebook (sorry, Smithereens) and VR games are the targets of Brooker’s cutting ire instead. Of course, there is some tech that goes beyond the realm of current possibility, mainly within Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, but instead of being horrifying and dread inducing, it’s just a bit too silly to believe. That said, this is the same series that tried to sell us on a prison-torture theme park, so make of that what you will.

That leads me nicely onto difference number two; tone. Historically, and especially during its initial Channel Four run, Black Mirror has taken an almost laughably bleak view of modern / future life via desperately depressing scripts. Horrifically dark twist endings would flirt with almost absurdist finales that would make even the grimmest Twilight Zone epilogue look like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Not so in series five. While only one of the three endings could be considered ‘happy,’ another is certainly optimistic, and the final one is ambiguous, but admittedly, more traditionally ‘Brookerish’.

Striking Vipers 

Striking Vipers is about two dudes shagging as Street Fighter characters while telling themselves that ‘it’s not cheating’ (life hack fellas – if you’re hiding it from them, it’s cheating). Alright, so there’s more to it than that. The question of sexuality is probably the most underdeveloped aspect, and LGBTQ+ viewers will likely be disappointed to see how glossed over this conversation is, as it essentially amounts to ‘no homo.’ The VR concept is novel, and I’m always game for a conversation that encourages video games to be viewed as an art form worthy of intellectual discussion (as well as scantily clad fighters with fire punches), but the social commentary just doesn’t hit the mark here.

It should go without saying that all three episodes are shot real nicely, maintaining the washed out Black Mirror colour palette that gives the series its own identity. Performance wise, it was lovely to see nobody’s favourite Avenger Anthony Mackie show off some proper acting chops. He’s great, and I’d love to see him in more things. Overall, Striking Vipers is a beautifully filmed episode with great moments, but an ultimately undercooked script.

***

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Smithereens 

So this is the best one, without question. The commentary about the out of control state of social media, as well as how damn effective it is at keeping your personal data, to the point where it does a better job than the police, is terrifyingly on point. Andrew Scott is absolutely sublime here. He brings a genuine frustration that is so absolute, so severe, yet mathematical in nature. You don’t know what he’ll do next, and his performance combined with the tight script will have you on pins for the sixty five minute run time.

Other performances are equally excellent. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace as a would-be Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bauer. What could’ve easily been a one note villain becomes a sympathetic and almost likeable pawn of his own making, which was a great twist. One tiny gripe; the woman playing the lead British Police Officer was just…not good or convincing? Did no one pick up on this? Her intonation was all over the place, and the direction wasn’t strong enough to iron this element out. Luckily every other actor puts in the work and the result is a tense, brutal episode, that, while ultimately ambiguous, comes the closest to the quintessential shock and suspense that only Black Mirror can deliver.

*****

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Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

Yikes. At the polar opposite of Smithereens comes Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Not only the weakest in the series, but a contender for worst Black Mirror thing, ever. It’s between this and Bandersnatch, because boy, this one was a tough slog.

There’s a great script in here somewhere. If the focus had been on Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and the toxic relationship with her (hilariously) evil Aunt, we could’ve had some ace commentary about the music industry, corporate greed, and the breakdown of strained family relationships. Instead, we focus on two plucky sisters who learn the value of sisterhood via a talking, swearing Hannah Montana doll. It’s a mess. The Ashley doll is bafflingly played for comedy and the result is a haphazard, tonally inconsistent romp that ends (perhaps appropriately considering the lead) with a finale ripped straight from a Disney Channel movie.

That said, the performances delivered, cinematography choices, and editing are all on point. Miley Cyrus gives a surprisingly subdued, genuine performance that lets you empathise with Ashley’s situation. It’s just a shame that this well developed characterisation ultimately devolves into Pizza Delivery costumes / generic baddies / rat robots / doll road trip / crashing a virtual pop concert / forming a punk super group. Don’t hate me for spoilers, I’ve saved you an hour of your life.

**

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Overall, Black Mirror series five is the very definition of a mixed bag. Smithereens is instant classic and one of my personal favourites, with its realistic commentary that doesn’t veer off into absurdism, grounded by an exceptional lead performance from Scott. Then Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is essentially well filmed trash that not only jumps the shark but proceeds to come back on a hoverboard, slaps the shark in the face, call its mum a dirty word, then jump over it all over again. Striking Vipers sits somewhere in the middle of the scale of badness, but the muddled script and message make me lean towards it being on the worse end.

I do, however, prefer the small episode release model though as it allows me to appreciate each episode properly and thoroughly. With series four, I find myself forgetting the specifics, as well as episode names, so I’m game for tighter series’ moving forward.

If history is anything to go by, one thing is for sure; Mr. Brooker pays attention to what people say. The main complaint on the twittersphere has been the lighter tone, so if his Netflix overloads allow it, I’d expect the inevitable season six to pile on the macabre scripts to make up for what could in hindsight be a breath of levity before we properly dive into the pits of despair.

★★★

Fyre (2019) review

Between Leaving Neverland, Abducted in Plain Sight, and the Madeline McCann eight-parter, 2019 is apparently the year of top notch mainstream documentaries. Chris Smith’s Fyre is no exception, presenting the startlingly baffling events of 2017’s Fyre Festival: a douchebag, yuppy, hipster festival appealing to the vainest and wealthiest social media whores that money and self loathing can buy. I’d actually seen a similar documentary, albeit on a much smaller scale by a Youtuber, so was aware of the gist of the event going in. However, that certainly isn’t necessary, as the film goes into great depth explaining how the hell this all happened. The rabbit hole goes deep in this well researched, and simply well made piece of cinema. What it offers on the other hand has to be seen to be believed…

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Fyre tells the tale of Billy McFarland, a young American entrepreneur / scam artist, who, as a promotional tactic for one of his sub companies, decides to organise an uber exclusive festival on a private island in the Bahamas. It does not go to plan. The documentary further explores the aftermath of the event, which is perhaps the most ridiculous element of all. The decisions that this man makes are unfathomable, and he simply seemed to be so engrossed in his own hyperbole, that he refused to make rational decisions, assuming that nothing could go wrong for him. If there’s one message that Fyre attempts to portray, it’s a warning; don’t mistake limited success for untouchability.

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The sheer amount of interviews performed and their profound bluntness is incredibly telling, and makes for a documentary that provides almost every piece of the puzzle, with little left unanswered. Short of the infamous McFarland and Ja Rule themselves,  everyone worth interviewing are able to tell their story. These interviews are so interesting, because they expose the insane level of ignorance and ‘we’ll do it later’ culture, particularly from McFarland, who, from the footage and testimonials, acts like he’s not even from this planet. He lacks any ability to acknowledge the level of trouble he’s in, in favour of ‘solution based responses.’ Most of the staff come off as likeable and / or sympathetic, particularly those with large personal investments lost because of Billy’s incompetence. Though the documentary might be accused of presenting a bias perspective, based on its overwhelming evidence, it’s clear to see that the blame is  firmly placed correctly: it’s McFarland’s fault, alone. Meme culture will also tell you that certain interviewees are more, erm, memorable than others. Enough said until you watch it.

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Putting aside the infuriating festival itself, the documentary is masterfully made. Its pacing is excellent, giving a good level of background to Billy, Ja, the various companies, and all of the interviewees before taking us through the preparation for the festival. This is then followed by a step by step explanation of its descent into chaos, with every conceivable thing that could go wrong, going wrong. The empathetic staff become our avatars, and many of them are figures that we root for, despite knowing that the endgame is one of disaster. The film also has so much raw footage that it doesn’t have to resort to reconstructions, which is nearly always a good decision for better documentarian storytelling. If there’s one thing it misses, it’s a memorable score, which could’ve really elevated it and helped grow tension even further. Also, (and wow, this is petty, but it shows how little is wrong with the film) the small orange text above the interviewees is sometimes difficult to read.

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So, please do watch Fyre. It’s a frankly fantastic documentary that manages to build tension effectively, and will have you throwing your hands in the air in frustration and exasperation every two minutes. It’s an incredibly interesting story that shows how one stupid man’s confidence and bravado can spiral into one of the single greatest PR disasters of all time. Market something well enough and pay social media influencers a quarter of a million to say it’s great, and people will practically beg you to pay £10,000 a ticket. Seriously.

★★★★

Lord of the Rings: The TV show…?

Is this a good idea? New versions of existing IP’s tend to be pretty shocking, so why should one of the most beloved trilogies of books and films be treated any better? If you’re a need of a little more context as to what’s going on here, let me elaborate. After some reportedly intense negotiations with the Tolkien estate, Amazon Prime: the online streaming service rival to Netflix, have acquired the rights to create a ‘Lord of the Rings’ based television show for a multi season run. Very little is known about the project right now, but Amazon have released a statement saying that the writing team would be looking into ‘unexplored stories based on J.R.R Tolkien’s original writings.’ This is, in my mind, a more hopeful comment that hints at more than jus another reboot or remake. As a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s, in my opinion, flawless trilogy, it’s reassuring to know that the project won’t likely be retreading existing beats from a version that already tells that story in a pretty perfect way.

So what does this vague statement tell us and what could it mean? It sounds unlikely that it will touch on the works of ‘The Hobbit’ either, which, as a hugely unsatisfying and underwhelming trilogy, could’ve been a more forgiving option. The term ‘unexplored stories’ offers a myriad of potential options and allows for what could be the first onscreen incarnation of another Tolkien epic set in the same universe (though crucially not just Middle Earth); ‘The Silmarillion.’ As by no means an expert on the topic, please don’t take my word as law, but from what I understand, the works take on a larger scale story with a spiritual approach to the familiar lands of the ‘LOTR’ trilogy, focusing on the first age and the creation of many of the races from subsequent books; hobbits, men, elves etc.

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So as a largely unexplored work, ‘The Silmarillion’ could be the best option for a Middle Earth based television show. It’s a massive epic that is too large for a movie, or even three, despite the famous length of Peter Jackson’s fantasy repertoire. The entire purchase is reportedly to rival HBO’s absolute mammoth franchise, ‘Game of Thrones’ and Netflix’s hugely successful sci fi serial ‘Stranger Things.’ (Side note- I promise to get through a blog one day without mentioning ‘Stranger Things.’) If the intention is to make a huge, multiple character spanning and multi season product that also carries a familiar tone, then ‘The Silmarillion’ seems like the obvious choice. This is one use of the franchise that I would actually be quite happy to see as while it may have a familiar setting and tone, no doubt with references galore, it is still a new IP; something that we’ve never seen on screen before and a work that isn’t massively well known to the general public. If this is the direction they decide to go, I’m all for it.

What I am not all for however, is a ‘LOTR Origins: ARAGORN’ or ‘Bilbo Begins.’ A prequel series that is set shortly before either ‘LOTR’ or perhaps more sensibly ‘The Hobbit’ have no business being made. All this will accomplish is a demystification of characters already familiar with audiences, as well as feeble attempts to tie their ‘previous’ adventures into existing lore without creating a time paradox. Think back to the dismal failure that was the third ‘Hobbit’ film; what were the worst parts of that? It was the elements that attempted to ‘fill in the gaps’ to ‘Fellowship of the Ring.’ The inclusion of Sauron (yes, yes the Necromancer- whatever), the huge battles not present in the books and basically everything that happens after they defeat Smaug, were hugely uninteresting, because they hadn’t come from Tolkien’s brain and therefore, felt out of place and weird. It’s the same thing with ‘Game of Thrones’ going of course in later seasons as they strayed further from Martin’s works. Sure, you get to roughly the same place in the end, but if the journey was haphazard and worse than previous seasons; what was the point? What I’m saying here, is nobody really wants to see Mike from ‘Stranger Things’ (damn, there I go again) playing the youngest Bilbo we’ve seen yet, getting into made up adventures with characters we’ll never hear about in future instalments, while also shoving in references to things that he shouldn’t know about for another thirty years, just so the audience can declare ‘I understood that reference’ at the television set every thirty minutes. Please Amazon, for the love of God, do not turn this into another ‘Gotham.’ As another side note, if you think ‘Gotham’ is a good representation of the ‘Batman’ franchise, you’re wrong. But that’s a topic for another day.

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So, although nothing’s confirmed, we’ve established a few things: It probably won’t be a re-telling of ‘Lord of the Rings’ again, thank God. It also probably won’t be a re-telling of the Hobbit. Ok. It could disturbingly be some sort of contrived prequel focused on a main character from one of these works. Hm. It could be an adaption of ‘The Silmarillion’ giving us the first on screen adaption of this work and its characters. Ok, that actually sounds pretty good! Or, it could be something else entirely based on either relatively unknown or even unreleased material from Tolkien. Who knows. The final question posed is, assuming this does indeed take a brand new tangent, adapting either ‘The Silmarillion’ or another obscure Middle Earth work: will it take place in an all new ‘LOTR universe’ or the existing Peter Jackson universe? Many fans, myself included, see his trilogy as the definitive adaption and the new series is in conjunction with New Line Cinema, the distributors of the original trilogy. If they’re going to reboot the existing works, then obviously this wouldn’t be the case. However, if we are going down the favourable road of new source material, then why not have it set in the Jackson-verse? It wouldn’t change a whole lot in a narrative sense, but the inclusion of the familiar filming styles, sets, costumes and in particular, Howard Shore’s absolutely iconic score would be incredibly welcome. Seriously, can you imagine a Middle Earth story without the triumphant ‘Lord of the Rings’ action theme, the ‘Concerning Hobbits’ theme for the Shire, or ‘the one ring’ theme for anything to do with Sauron or the ring? I’m not saying all of those elements would be present, but whilst I struggled through the painfully average ‘Hobbit’ trilogy, the soundtrack, both new and re worked existing tracks, was one element that helped me find enjoyment in that mess.

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So, that’s my speculation on the new ‘Lord of the Rings’ based Amazon show. It’ll probably be average to crap, but hey, who knows; it could be absolutely fantastic and along with Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ television show, start a whole new trend of existing IP’s getting their own massive tv show universes instead of new film remakes. It seems like a logical progression with how much film and tv are blending into one medium at the moment with more and more huge budget shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ rivalling big Hollywood movies in terms of sets and stunts. Perhaps we’ll see a ‘Blade Runner’ tv series, or ‘Jurassic Park’, or even, dare I say; ‘Ghostbusters’? Oh, how the mind boggles. Let’s wait and see.

Stranger Things 2 (2017) review

Following an incredibly successful and critically acclaimed first season is not an easy feat. Fan and critical expectation is high, as are the stakes to try and capture the same magic that made your initial creation so well loved. Evolution is also important; you can’t just re-tread the same beats from the previous season. Change is important for both character and plot to move the story forward in a logical, but fresh way. What I’m trying to say, is that it’s very difficult to keep momentum going and create a second season as strong is the first. Stranger Things 2, in my opinion, is not only as strong as the first season, but exceeds it.

Very rarely do I get so connected to a cast of characters on my screen that I actually feel like they’re legitimate, real people going through fantastical and horrific experiences. Stranger Things 2 builds on their characters in a way I never thought possible and manages to deliver emotional gut punches multiple times throughout the season with the Duffer Brother’s masterful knowledge of how real people act and react to trials and tribulations. Development and change is a risk managed wonderfully; as an example, if you’d told me at the end of season one that Steve Harrington would be my favourite character by the end of the sequel season, I’d offer a snort of derision. Many characters here have wonderful arcs that help them progress as people and at the core of this is the relationship between fan favourite characters Eleven and Jim Hopper. These two absolutely steal the show for me this time around and their evolving father-daughter relationship reaches a moment of absolute poignancy in the final episode that I’m not ashamed to admit had me wiping tears from my crusty, cynical eyes. Also strong is Noah Schnapp, who gets much more screen time this season as Will and is able to show off some serious acting chops. His facial expressions provide some of the most disturbing moments we’ve seen yet, but you also just feel for the kid and his family so much and truly root for Will to get through it.

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Another difficult aspect of a second season is introducing new faces into an already well loved and established cast. Delightfully, the four new main characters of this season are woven in carefully and with slick precision. Sadie Sink’s ‘Mad Max’ is a welcome addition to the ever growing cast of talented younger actors and her psychotic brother Billy presents a great foil to now antihero and all around good guy, Steve. Sean Austin also joins as Joyce’s boyfriend Bob and instantly oozes likeability. He’s goofy, warm and the antithesis of Hopper, who seems to be being built up as her ultimate love interest. If there’s one character who suffers this time around, it’s previous male lead Mike, played by Finn Wolfhard. Wolfhard’s performance remains strong and you feel all the raw pain associated with the death of a loved one, but without Eleven, he’s mostly a damp squib. He doesn’t do much until the final two episodes and plot driven moment are largely handed over to Lucas and Dustin. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly great to see two great characters take more screen time, it just means Mike is slightly short changed as a payoff.

While the characters may be all change, what haven’t changed are the fantastic tone, the creepy atmosphere and the brilliantly woven homages to classic 80’s media. If the first season owed its horrific imagery to James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, then ‘Stranger Things 2’ owes its shocking and disturbing moments to ‘The Exorcist.’ The horror is amplified this time; the feral, animalistic and survivalist instincts of the Demigorgan gone and instead replaced by the overbearing and unknown presence of The Mind Flayer. The idea of this creature being more methodical rather than just being driven by instinct, coupled with the complete lack of information of what exactly it is and what it wants, creates a much more terrifying foe for the gang to tackle. One that it doesn’t seem likely will be leaving the fictional town of Hawkins alone any time soon. The stakes have been well and truly raised so it will be interesting to see the continued expansion of the unknown lore of ‘The Upside Down’ in future seasons.

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The show also continues to be a love letter to films and pop culture of the 80’s. The fact that the show is able to blend different elements of such vastly different source materials is a credit to the different directors working on it. There are countless references, but the pieces that came to mind while I binged it over a week included ‘Halloween’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Flight of the Navigator’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘The Wizard’ and even ‘The Last of us’ video game. The gorgeous synth soundtrack could be pulled straight from a Sega Megadrive game and the 80’s songs used to support key moments work really well. The use of ‘Ghostbusters’ is particularly fun and is a great example of the wonderful humour and childhood nostalgia that blends so surprisingly well with the darker elements.

I have only one complaint and it’s one that the internet has been pretty unanimous about, so I don’t mean to beat a dead horse. It really bothered me while watching, however, so I must mention it. There are some bad choices in terms of episodic structure. The opening scene presents a group of new characters including a tease of a connection to Eleven that isn’t followed up until the now infamous episode seven, ‘Lost Sister.’ While the episode is dull and the characters even more so (bar the always excellent Eleven), it could’ve been forgiven easier had it been placed within the first few episodes. Episode six ends on a huge cliff-hanger and it’s a strange move to then completely ignore that for  what is essentially a single character episode, with the rest of the cast entirely absent. I’m sure that this is meant to be foreshadowing some season three content, but to have it as the pre title sequence in episode one and then place it in this way was an odd choice that didn’t pay off. I hope not to see more of Eight or the other gang members in the future; they do not work for this show.

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Despite this, ‘Stranger Things 2’ is wonderful on the whole. It builds on already rich and developed characters and makes them pop out of the screen with realism. The nostalgia, themes, tone, atmosphere, soundtrack and writing all blend together to create one of my favourite pieces of television in a long time. It does exactly what a sequel should do and builds on its source material while adding in new elements (nearly) seamlessly. I wanted to give this another 10/10, but sadly, ‘Lost sister’ was a real weak point and acts as a blackhead on an otherwise beautiful face.

9/10

And now we have to wait HOW long for season 3?

Oh God.

Stranger Things series one (2016) review

 Once every so often, something completely unexpected will take our screens by storm and hook the wider viewing audience whilst having a profound impact on the media; spawning memes, fandoms, cosplays and countless merchandise. Prior to the pop culture takeover by Game of Thrones, who would’ve thought back in early 2011 that the most popular show on TV would feature dragons and medieval politics, topics previously reserved only for Tolkein obsessed geeks? Indeed, who would’ve thought in 2016 that the next big thing to grace our streaming screens would be an 80’s themed horror/sci-fi with five pre-pubescent children as the stars? While not quite on the scale of George R.R Martin’s fantasy leviathan, the Duffer brothers’ ‘Stranger Things’ has taken the world by storm since its introduction onto Netflix last year, for very good reason.

   The show is very aware of its roots and makes reference to them throughout. The styles and influence of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and especially Stephen King, are obvious and are executed in unique and exciting ways that make them feel fresh and crucially, leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat from episode one. In particular, the incredible opening titles masterfully composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein evoke memories of synth scores typical of the time period. For me, ‘Halloween 3: Season of the Witch’, the panned threequel of John Carpenter’s popular slasher romp, always comes to mind when those artificial notes first boom on screen, sending a chill down my spine every time.

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   The plot is well written and easy to follow, but I won’t get into too many details here, check out the Wikipedia page for that. It’s simple and some might say generic on the surface, but it spreads a clever science fiction mystery perfectly over excellently paced over eight ‘chapters’, showing another clear inspiration for the series: classic 1950’s serials. The plot itself is also a love letter to 80’s sci fi, horror and coming of age stories. ‘The Shining’, ‘ET’, and in particular ‘Stand by Me’ all have strands of DNA expertly woven into the narrative. The vision of the 1980s is vivid and realistic with an excellent attention to detail. From Mike’s toy Millennium Falcon to the upbeat and playful tones of the Jam playing through Johnathan’s cassette player; the show screams authenticity. Speaking of screaming, it is also of course, in part at least, a horror. From the decaying buildings and gory bodies of ‘the upside down’ reminiscent of a Ridley Scott alien hive to the slender-man inspired creature with its jump scares, the Duffer brother’s evoke as much horror and disturbing elements as they do humour and coming of age drama. A slight editing critique is in the final showdown in episode eight far overuses flashing strobe visuals that took me out of the action for having to physically look away from the screen.

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   Besides that, there isn’t a huge amount to critique within ‘Stranger Things.’ As someone who has grown weary of terrible child actors over the years, the cast of youngsters are a welcome breath of fresh air. Each character is not only written to be distinct, but all the performances are pulled off with believable gravitas and where necessary, pathos. If there was a slight criticism to make, it would actually be with the shows biggest star: Winona Ryder. As Joyce Byers she certainly sells the performance of a frantic mother desperate to find her child, but as the episodes go on and she gets more and more screen time, this is taken to frustratingly loud and, for want of better word ‘screechy’, levels. While the direction is largely spot on, advising poor Winona to rein it in a tad to limit her spectacular meltdowns to key dramatic beats, could’ve made for a more believable character. This is however, a mere nit-pick amongst the stunning cast of both children and adults. In particular, David Harbour’s curmudgeonly cop Jim Hopper starts the series as a stereotypical sheriff, but as the series evolves and backstory is slowly revealed, layers of humanity are pulled back and thrown to the forefront of the emotional action creating some truly heart-breaking and disturbingly real moments. In fact that sums up the whole series: while it might take its basis within stereotypes and well known cliché, it blends them so seamlessly in with realistic drama, raw character emotion and a genuinely interesting mystery that the nostalgia is not the driving force of the story, it’s simply an excellent backdrop that gives the series that much more charm and appeal, making it stand out against other shows that try to weave pop culture references into their narrative.

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   All in all, ‘Stranger Things’ is smart, scary, funny, well-paced, exciting and has an absolutely gorgeously realised atmosphere, setting and tone. The wide shots of the town again evoke the opening scene of ‘Halloween’ with crusty brown leaves flying across the credits as we’re introduced to Haddonfield. The Duffer brothers capture the tone of 80’s horror, sci fi and child coming of age stories all in one magnificent package. With the support of a mostly consistent cast, a haunting soundtrack and a good helping of humour to keep the potential bleakness at bay, ‘Stranger Things’ can only be compared to a rollercoaster ride; It throws you around and keeps you on the edge of your seat, only to be over in what seems like seconds and leaving you waiting with baited breath for a second ride could possibly offer.

10/10

Black Mirror series four (2017) review

Very rarely are television shows able to legitimately dub themselves as ‘unique’ in this day and age. Everything is either a sequel, spin off or remake of an existing property, or at the very least, has a similar narrative or tone to something familiar to us. Satirist Charlie Brooker breaks this mold with his anthology series (an already uncommon genre) that takes a look at the world we live in and warns the audience that the direction of the future might be bleak if we aren’t careful. In the same way that every episode is totally different, series four is a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I loved many elements, some episodes show Brooker taking a few too many liberties with the already fantastical future tech and leaps into what almost seems to be self-parody. That said, the good certainly outweighs the bad and the show remains as compelling as ever, it just isn’t quite as tight as it was in series one or two.

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Series four kicks off with a really strong opening episode that perfectly characterises what ‘Black Mirror’ can and should do with its anthology format; give us something unexpected. I almost wish that ‘USS Callister’ hadn’t been included within marketing materials so the surprise factor would have had more weight, but in the social media world we live in, that was never going to happen. For me, this is the strongest episode of the series, brilliantly blending a dark message about losing yourself within a virtual world rather than taking responsibility in reality with a frankly spot on parody of ‘Star Trek’ that injects some well needed humour and levity into the show. The tone of ‘Black Mirror’ has always been dark, but this is taken to extreme levels this series. Whereas the bleak and hopeless tone of ‘Metalhead’ feels earned as it sets itself up as a dystopia where humanity has all but died out, the brutal and frankly mean spirited ending of ‘Crocodile’ feels completely fabricated and is written as such simply to keep the series ‘shock value’ reputation afloat. You might call me a prude for this opinion, but whereas previous bleak entries such as ‘White Christmas’ or ‘White Bear’ expertly built up to a sinister climax with continuous strong plot reveals and adept social commentary, ‘Crocodile’ clumsily trudges along and is at times, quite boring, only to take a massive 180 turn at the end, almost to make up for the lack luster content of the second act. There are some lovely shots of Iceland though, so there’s that I suppose.

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Technology remains firmly weaved into the DNA of the show, with every episode again tackling a potential new piece of tech that has could ruin the users lives. That is, apart from ‘Crocodile’ which recycles a lower tech version of the memory viewing software seen in series one’s ‘The entire history of you.’ Thankfully, episodes such as ‘Hang the DJ’ and when you get to the core of it, ‘Metalhead’, present a more hopeful view of humanity, showing us that Charlie hasn’t quite given up on us yet. Brooker once said in an interview that his intention is to ‘worry us, not warn us’ about the encroaching effect of machinery on our everyday lives and for the most part, each episode does just this, acting as a cautionary tale for how something first seen as good, could end up profoundly changing the way we live for the worse. This is seen accumulating in ‘Metalhead’, the beautifully shot, entirely black and white grindhouse flick of the series. If theorizers are correct and the show does indeed take place in one all encompassing universe, then this episode must be the latest instalment in the timeline. The dystopian wasteland presented in the Scottish highlands leaves more questions than answers and allows the viewer to fill in the blanks. Perhaps the robotic dogs were another invention of TCKR, the company that produces many of the futuristic tech that we’ve seen so far. It would make sense that they finally produced something that went too far, going full ‘Skynet’ and becoming self aware with an innate desire to kill humans. Brooker did however allude to an original ending that saw a human controlling the dogs though, so who knows.

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The most polarising episode of all is the finale; ‘Black Museum.’ One of the most macabre episodes produced yet, it follows an anthology style format, almost identical to ‘White Christmas.’ While this episode is quite obviously inferior to the excellent (and so far only) Christmas special put out, I still found it to be an enjoyable, if silly affair. The technology presented in the second and third sub stories are laughably ridiculous and over the top. I would also like to point out that the idea in section two, where a man ends up with his deceased girlfriends consciousness inside of his brain is pretty much word for word the suggestion for a movie that Karl Pilkington proposed in 2006 on the ‘Ricky Gervais show’ which he called ‘The love of two brains.’ It was literally the plot of this section and was to star Clive Warren (he meant Owen) and Rebecca De Mornay (who I had to google to find out who she was). It’s hilarious that one of the cleverest shows around has legitimately used an idea presented as ‘a terrible idea for a movie’ in a serious manner and it shows here as it’s clearly the weakest idea in the episode.

Stronger episodes include ‘Arkangel’ and ‘Hang the DJ’, two very different stories, one far more hopeful than the other. ‘Arkangel’ is a bit heavy handed and predictable, but has a strong lead cast and a very interesting piece of technology, that is probably the most realistic of everything presented this season. ‘Hang the DJ’ I feel is a bit overrated, but has some wonderful acting and a really optimistic message about humanity vs technology. It’s actually one of the more heart-warming moments that the show has offered us so far. Its no secret that the show is inspired heavily by ‘The Twilight Zone’ and this series seems the most akin to its Rod Sterling roots. ‘Black Museum’ could almost be a ‘Twilight Zone’ episode with its lead character Rolo an over the top and Faustian character that tempts down on their luck customers with deals of fate, except, as its ‘Black Mirror’ these are all new pieces of tech designed to improve their lives. Despite the aforementioned stories being pretty damn silly and the ending just being ridiculous, I loved this homage to the shows roots, it really felt like Rolo was the Crypt keeper or Burgess Meredith’s devil as he manipulated his clients into taking his tempting fruit.

All in all, series four is certainly worth a watch. ‘USS Callister’ is far and away my favourite, but I have a lot of time for all of the others with the exception of ‘Crocodile.’ Its mean spirit and slow pace really leave you on a downer after watching it, so I highly recommend having a comedy on standby if you decide to go with it. That said, all of the episodes are beautifully shot and the creativity on display here is hugely commendable. There really isn’t anything else like it on television at the moment and as someone, like Brooker, who loves the old anthology horror/mystery/thriller shows like ‘The Twilight Zone’ it’s great to see a show like this for our generation.

 

My scores for all of the episodes of series four are as follows:

 

USS Callister: 9/10

 

Arkangel: 8/10

 

Crocodile: 3/10 (just SO MEAN)

 

Hang the DJ: 7/10

 

Metalhead: 6.5/10

 

Black Museum: 7/10 (Probably because of nostalgia for TTZ)

We love ya Charlie.

The end of the F***ing world (2017) review

With a title like that, you can assume that you’re going to be watching something a little out of the ordinary. The Channel 4 adaption of Charles Forsman’s novel of the same name is certainly not your traditional drama; a quirky and dark sense of humour and a vision of modern suburban Britain filled with adults who are a mixture of clueless neanderthals, rude and misunderstanding authority figures or in the most extreme cases: sexual predators. The show is classified as a dark comedy drama and certainly fits that description with its horrific moments inter spliced with blunt language or an amusing inner monologue from one of our protagonists about just how buggered (not the word they use), they really are.

So what’s the premise? We follow the misadventures of two British seventeen year olds; James, played by Alex Lawther of ‘Black Mirror’ fame and Alyssa, portrayed by Jessica Barden, a relative unknown perhaps best known for her small role in ‘Penny Dreadful.’ The casting of both characters is spot on, with both relatively young and new actors performing their roles with an unbelievable level of believability. Both are sick of their dull lives in modern suburbia and strive to find some meaning in this mess we call life. In some ways, its a dark reflection of a tale typical of Disney, with our leads yearning for more understanding of the world and life outside of their safe, boring hometown. Of course they go about this in completely the wrong way; James is convinced, perhaps out of some sense of yearning for a singular identity, that he is a psychopath. He is quiet, has an unnerving lingering stare and a scarred hand from where he attempted to experience pain at a young age by shoving it into a fat fryer. Alyssa, conversely, is quite the opposite; loud, rude, abrasive and from perhaps the most depressing look at a modern family in recent years- a total facade of normality and happiness. Both decide in the first episode to jack their dull existence in, without any sort of a plan. The rest of the show follows them through each unfortunate encounter, leading up to a thrilling and cathartic finale. I shan’t spoil anything further.

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Analysing the themes of TEOTFW is perhaps the most simple way of talking about it. Through following James and Alyssa, we, along with them begin to understand who they really are and what they’re really looking for, which is ultimately; someone who understands them and can help them find they’re place in the world. While very different, they ultimately complete each other and provide a level of understanding that no other character, least of all any adult, can comprehend. Not even likeable police officer, Yara Greyjoy, despite having sympathy for the duo can ultimately help or understand them, because she simply doesn’t have their messed up upbringings or lack of understanding the world around them. If TEOTFW is about anything, its about the discovery of real human emotions and experiences, in particular, the love of finding someone who just gets you. It’s quite beautiful and the acting that supports this revelation in the final episode, is sensational. None of this is said, by the way, but is merely inferred by the actions of the characters and shown through what they’re willing to go through for each other. The writer at the same time, seems to thrive on satirising adult culture. With the exception of the aforementioned police officer, all other adults are presented as clueless idiots or monsters for both of our protagonists to defeat and overcome.

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TEOTFW is very clever in the way it presents these themes. It never outright has any character speaking these messages, in the same way as say, the characters in ‘The Dark Knight’ discuss the struggle of good vs evil, but rather, relies on fantastic subtext. Long, atmospheric scenes, often with minimal or simple dialogue give a visual representation of the feelings of the characters or the theme of the scene. Music is also plays a key part and the excellent soundtrack of existing songs are used very carefully in order to work within the scene. Often music is used as a juxtaposition tool to create humour, or a sense of slight discomfort in the audience. The soundtrack has an incredibly broad range of music from the 50’s, 60’s and even obscure genre specific tracks such as country music. It all works very well and gives the show a unique charm and likability, dissimilar to anything else on television.

All in all, TEOTFW is a triumph. I won’t go into plot details, as I feel its best to go into it fairly cold, with few expectations. I will however say, that with regards to a potential continuation; this should not happen. The ending leaves on a powerful and perfect note that supports the messages of the series and a second season would degrade and change these characters for the worse. The show has been successful, but the season is so tight and perfect as a piece of art, that it should be left alone to thrive as a weird, brilliant, self contained piece of television that stands alone. At only twenty two minutes an episode and eight episodes in total, its very easy to watch and binge on Netflix. If you’re a fan of atmosphere heavy, thematic pieces of media, this will be for you. If you’re there for some standard humour and background tv, it will not.

9/10

Bojack Horseman series 5 (2018) review

‘Bojack Horseman’ continues to be equal parts entertaining and difficult to watch in it’s emotionally crippling, hilarious fifth series. Where the end of series four left us with a glimmer of hope that our titular steed would be on track to making the improvements needed to better himself, this series shows that things will be getting worse before they get better. If they get better.

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‘Bojack’ is a show that while getting progressively darker and more emotionally savage, also seems to get better and better with each series. The characters become even more compelling with further backstory provided for the likes of Princess Caroline and Mr. Peanutbutter and their specific narratives becoming almost as prevalent as the title character’s. The development for Princess Caroline in particular took the driver’s seat this series as she attempts to solve her particular brand of depression by filling the void with adoption. While it is gratifying to see her momentary happiness at the end of the series; a child never solves a crisis of purpose. Diane also took centre stage this series, becoming a near mirror image to Bojack in terms of a lack of direction, but still attempting to maintain her dignity and moral high-ground. That said, perhaps sleeping with her ex-husband repeatedly somewhat diminishes that goal. And then, there’s Bojack. Sadly, despite the last series gifting him a sweet and caring sister in Hollyhock, series 5 brings a number of skeletons from his closet and pushes him to an absolute new low by episode eleven. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to validate our protagonist and the show is doing an insanely good job of making the audience question our feelings about him. It also seems to be setting in motion a multi-series narrative culminating all of the terrible things we’ve seen Bojack do since the start of the show in an explosive fashion. Expect to hear the names of Sarah-Lynne, Charlotte, Herb and Penny as we start to gear up for a finale.

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‘Bojack Horseman’ revels in its satire of Hollywood and never shies away from controversies of the past year. Unsurprisingly, they chose to tackle the topic of sexual harassment, victim blaming and collateral damage of the actions of these cases. The obvious stab at the recent Weinstein controversy is addressed in a suitably powerful but typically farcical fashion centring around a sex robot that has a dildos for hands and can only shout expletives. The show uses a generic character as a conduit for the satire at first, but the lack of consequences for abuse and assault are disturbingly reflected onto Bojack during the final two episodes. This further strains the audience’s relationship with him and makes us wonder if we’ll ever consider him a good guy.

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If there wasn’t comedy in this show, it might be one of the most depressing pieces of television on at the moment. Yes, the same programme with talking animal people as it’s leads, is indeed, the most reflective and honest look at society and Hollywoo(d) culture today. Fortunately, it is still a comedy and the jokes this series are some of the shows best. Aaron Paul’s Todd remains one of the few virtuous characters left on a show where almost all of our main characters are sliding into further depression and self-destruction on a mountain of their own terrible decisions. Todd provides a lot of the laughs; a brilliant episode revolving around meeting his asexual girlfriend’s parents and the aforementioned sex robot are just two examples of his endearing levity. The plot driven and deeply nihilistic episode ‘Free Churro’ is a prime example of the now staple ‘experimental episode,’; this time consisting of a single monologue for the entire length of the episode from Bojack. This perfectly illustrates the broken relationship with his parents, yet also provides a number of outlandish jokes that remind us that this is a black comedy. Despite all of this however, the focus is always on the drama, and Bojack series five might just be the darkest the show has gone to date.

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In conclusion, I loved ‘Bojack Horseman: Series Five.’ The show feels like it is sewing the seeds of a finale as it continues to encourage their audience to think about not only issues in the media around showbiz, but also the bigger questions, like what it truly means to be a good person. Or even, are there good and bad people, or just people doing good and bad things, as Diane explains to Bojack in the final episode. It’s rare for me to be so invested in a show, but I truly can’t wait for series six. I also find myself heavily invested in every character and am equally anxious to see how they further develop as I wonder if our leads will ever face their own demons and make the necessary improvements to their lives to finally be happy.

9/10

Final space series one (2018) review

I think the most wonderful thing about Netflix is its ability to give passion projects a chance as well as reviving dead network shows. The level of creative control offered is also often unheard of on network television. This makes me hopeful that creatives will be able to push for the same control on network shows and make some needed changes to the industry. But I digress. ‘Final Space’, started life as a short on a Reddit post by independent filmmaker and creator, Olan Rogers. It’s clear from watching the series that Rogers is passionate and devoted to his creation and it’s great to see an idea like this receive mainstream attention with high profile castings, as well as a now confirmed second series.

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Fortunately, this passion seeps into the narrative and creates a mostly engaging plot, with fun characters and a unique style and world. The premise is standard fare for an animated series for adults set in space. Although, it’s difficult to tell whether it’s attempting to parody generic sci-fi tropes, or use them as its basis. It could well be both. The plot however, is genuinely intriguing and the linear, serialised narrative style works well and is supported incredibly by the ticking timer of the short pre-credits scenes at the start of each episode; a great touch. The whacky plot is also amplified by some fantastic visuals that would make Christopher Nolan blush. The elements presented have a Lovecraftian inspiration to them and they’re a real highlight of the show.

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The characters, however, are a bit more divisive. On an initial viewing, protagonist Gary (voiced by Rogers) comes off as a little too obnoxious and boisterous to be engaging, though he did grow on me as the plot progressed. Stand outs include an unrecognisable David Tennant as the villain, ‘The Lord Commander’ and Fred Armisen as the intentionally irritating robot, ‘KVN.’ Tom Kenny, of ‘Spongebob Squarepants’ fame, also provides a less than subtle, but still hilarious parody of ‘HAL 9000’ as ‘HUE,’ becoming an endearing addition to the cast as the show develops.

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The main criticism comes from the comedic elements of this sci-fi/comedy. Many of the jokes unfortunately don’t hit their mark and come off as too adolescent and silly. Much of this is due in part to the attempted humour coming from Gary himself, who unfortunately just isn’t very funny. There are some side characters that provide some genuine laughs, but for the most part, it misses its mark. I also found the soundtrack to be a little generic in places, particularly the title theme. The quieter moments in ambient space, however, did have some gorgeous, quieter music, so we’ll call the soundtrack a mixed bag.

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All in all, I enjoyed ‘Final Space.’ It didn’t work for me as a comedy, but the story was compelling enough that the cliff-hanger ending left me wanting more. If the jokes are improved and the characters developed to be less grating in the next series, this could rival shows like ‘Archer’ and ‘Rick and Morty’ as a really great example of genre specific, adult animated programming. As is, it’s a little lacking. But much like the adorable MacGuffin of the show, ‘Mooncake’, there is hidden potential in this small package.

6/10

 

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