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.

★★★

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.

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

The Definitive ranking of John Lewis Christmas ads

Ah, the John Lewis Christmas ads. Truly a sign that the festive season is upon us. JL, if I may be so bold as to call them, has managed to create such strong pieces of creative commercialism that they’ve firmly embedded themselves as part of British Christmas tradition. It’s pretty amazing actually, to have a department store’s annual advert become a well loved and anticipated ‘big moment’ for the year is quite an accomplishment. Of course, with films like ‘Home Alone’ and ‘A Miracle on 34th Street’, department stores have gone hand in hand with the jolly season for quite some time, but it’s still an impressive campaign. But the big question is, of the eleven often tearjerking shorts we’ve seen so far, which ones are the most endearing, well put together and best capture the spirit of the season? Well, I’m here to answer that with the definitive ranking of the John Lewis Christmas ads, as of 2017. Quite possibly the most controversial list I’ll ever write, so just remember; this is all opinion based! Let me know your favourite in the comments below. 

11. ‘Shadows’ (2007)

JL’s first festive themed advert is also sadly their weakest. There’s some nice imagery, creating the picture of a woman from potential gifts but the message is pretty commercial, without much Christmas spirit bar a mandatory sprinkling of fake snow. It also hasn’t yet adopted what would become standard for future instalments; an emotional cover of a popular song. All in all, pretty dull and forgettable.

10. ‘Buster the Boxer’ (2016)

Quite possibly the laziest and most disappointing of the bunch. While also the most light hearted and humorous, it doesn’t really hit any emotional beats and comes off a bit try-hard and overly silly. Despite a cute, endearing main character and a lovely cover of Randy Crawford’s ‘One day I’ll fly away’, something’s just a bit off here. Lovely dog, lovely idea pairing up with Wildlife Trusts, but without a doubt the weakest of the more more recent ads.

9. ‘From Me to You’ (2008)

Despite getting probably bias treatment from me for including a cover of a Beatles song, this one is again, pretty dull. It’s a stock ad with the cover song being the only thing that makes it feel even slightly reminiscent of its superior siblings. The concept of knowing the person’s ideal Christmas present is nice in theory but comes of cliché with some pretty stereotypical presents; oh the old people need a satnav because they’re old and useless, isn’t that lovely. Skip it if you haven’t seen it. 

8. ‘Man on the Moon’ (2015)

A great concept, with a lovely connection to incredibly worthy charity, Age Concern. It also features my favourite cover of all of the songs; rising star Aurora doing a beautiful reimagining of Oasis’ ‘Half the World Away.’ However, the execution this time is a little sloppy and nonsensical. I always thought they missed a trick by not making the ‘moon’ aspect all in the child’s head and have them visit the elderly relative in a retirement home, but ah well, I’m not a creative director.

7. ‘Moz the Monster’ (2017)

This years attempt to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of the British public is a bit marmite. I quite like the practical effects of Moz, evoking qualities of both Sully from Monsters Inc and the Gruffalo and owing a lot to 80’s and 90’s monster effects. The plot is sweet but the ending is pants. I don’t really see the relevance of the lamp being given as a gift as he wasn’t scared of the monster in the first place, rather, he actually got on with him pretty well! The song here is lovely though; Elbow seem like a band made for a John Lewis advert and their cover of yet another Beatles song, ‘Golden Slumbers’ is suitably magical.

6. ‘A Tribute to Givers’ (2010)

Using the massive hit of Ellie Goulding’s cover of ‘Your Song’ was a stroke of genius by the marketing team. This one gets points for being the most Christmasy yet. The image of the mum and dad trying to sneak a rocking horse upstairs without their kids realising is both hilarious and heart warming. The budget had clearly increased by this point as the use of a major artists song and much slicker editing paid off with a tight, if a bit basic, piece.

5. ‘Sweet Child Of Mine’ (2009)

Perhaps it will be a surprise that a relatively down to Earth entry comparative to the later anthropomorphic adventures we’d see from the company, ranks so high on my list. I find it utterly charming in its simplicity and its emphasis on the pure excitement that Christmas brings to children. The message of letting this live on to adulthood (admittedly via buying presents from John Lewis) is wonderful and it was the first Christmas ad from the company to seem less commercially focused and a little more heartfelt.

4. ‘Monty the Penguin’ (2014)

Oh, Monty. The first time that John Lewis had clearly transformed a sweet little ad into a full blown integrated marketing campaign. And it was met with rapturous praise when it launched; Monty plushies, a trending hashtag, the charity tie in; it was all there and it was everywhere. Putting this aside and looking at it critically, Monty is an utterly charming piece. The CGI looks surprisingly strong for a tv advert and Tom Odell’s masterful cover of John Lennon’s (I’m seeing a theme here) ‘Real Love’, fits the sweet tone perfectly.

3. ‘The Journey’ (2012)

Amazingly, this is the only advert from the entire eleven year long collection to actually use a Christmas song. Again, simplicity is key here. We don’t need a man on the moon, or a bouncing dog, just a genius idea of building the same snowman in different locations and editing it to make it seem like he’s moving. Basic? Yes. Effective? You betcha. It put Gabrielle Aplin on the map for her stunning cover of ‘The Power of Love’ and is a testament to the power of great editing and sound design; it warms the cockles of your grinch-like heart.

2. ‘The Bear and the Hare’ (2013)

Who says trying something new doesn’t pay off? John Lewis certainly didn’t think so as they followed ‘The Journey’ with an unconventional, entirely animated piece. ‘The Bear and the Hare’ channels a Disney fable with it’s story of a grumpy bear who nearly missed Christmas and it gets even more props for actually managing to work the John Lewis product into the story without seeming forced. Lily Allen’s cover of Keane’s ‘Somewhere only we know’ seems on paper, entirely inappropriate for a Christmas story, but is simply beautiful and is the perfect accompaniment to this delightful story.

  1. ‘The Long Wait’ (2011)

The only advert from John Lewis so far to legitimately make me cry; ‘The Long Wait’ is not only the best John Lewis Christmas ad, but may be one of the best adverts of all time. The subversion of expectations and the inspired use of the ‘child can’t wait for his presents’ cliché is so clever, it still gets me to this day. The moment where you realise this boy just can’t wait to give his mum a gift not only melts your heart, but makes you feel guilty for jumping to conclusions earlier. The score this time is the entirely appropriate Smith’s song ‘Please, Please, Please let me get what I want’, slowed down and covered perfectly by Slow Moving Mille amplifying all ‘the feels.’ If you don’t get even a little emotional while watching this one, you have no soul, I’m sorry.

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

 

Castlevania (2017- present) series one and two review

It’s a rarity indeed to find a video game adaption that’s not only faithful to its source material, but creates wholly compelling television in it’s own right. Based on the long running gothic horror game series of the same name, ‘Castlevania’ loosely follows the events of the third game, ‘Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse.’ The first series is as mere four episodes long, with the mercifully second doubling that. This allows for a more compelling series that has the luxury of being able to take its time more and thus bites back much stronger.

Taking an anime inspired visual style, the action is fast, bloody and wonderfully gory, as horror should be. Inspiration is clearly taken from fellow vampiric anime like ‘Hellsing,’ but many elements will make game fans squeal with nerdy glee as they’re ripped directly from the game cart of the NES. It’s suitably graphic and uses its hardcore 18+ rating to the fullest to show some savage kills and horrific moments.

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Being based on an 8 bit game from the dark ages of Nintendo means that many liberties have to be taken with characters. It’s difficult to find motivations in a collection of brown pixels. Fortunately, the writing is watertight and presents protagonists Trevor, Sypha and Alucard as engaging and amusing, while still keeping them credible and badass. Series two introduces as few new faces too and the extra four episodes give these new characters time to breathe and make a (bite) mark in their own right. Renowned sexy dwarf, Richard Armitage is fantastic as fan favourite Trevor Belmont, transforming a literally two dimensional character into a hilarious, down on his luck, drunk who must rediscover his will to defeat evil. However, it’s Dracula himself who steals the show, being equal parts terrifying as he is empathetic and shockingly relatable. Particularly when juxtaposed with the merciless and unforgivable actions of the Church here, Dracula’s character becomes as grey as his vampiric skin. We somehow end up feeling for him, despite the whole ‘human genocide’ thing.

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Tonally, it’s clearly written by people who understand the appeal of the source material and know what the target audience want. There is a bit of an unfortunate anti religious message that runs through, with the Bishop and his men becoming absurdly evil, contrasting with the more rounded main characters. This can be overlooked though, as the tone manages to accurately convey the horrific moments while simultaneously balancing a dark, sardonic wit.

A criticism by fans of the first series was the mismanagement of one of the games greatest assets: the fantastic soundtracks. This is fixed in series two however, with a scene born to please fans that uses the track ‘Bloody Tears’ from ‘Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest.’ In general, the music is subdued, but works where it counts. Many scenes however take the atmospheric approach by utilising what we don’t hear and allowing for the character’s dialogue to take centre stage.

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In conclusion, ‘Castlevania’ is a frighteningly good Netflix original that breaks the curse. Not of Dracula, mind, but of poor video game adaptations. The character writing, voice cast, gratuitously bloody action, wonderful hand drawn animation and moments written by fans for fans, make this a really enjoyable series for gamers. After a criminally short first series, a further eight episodes sorts out the overly rapid pace of last year and allows more development time. Series two leaves us in a pretty radical place, so with the recently confirmed third series on the way, I can’t wait to see where we end up in 2019. One things for sure, ‘Dracula’s Curse,’ has only just begun.

8/10

 

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