Monday, August 31, 2020

Black Mirror Revisit: Shut Up & Dance

Season 3, Episode 3: Shut Up & Dance
When I put together my incredibly non-definitive ranking of Black Mirror episodes, Shut Up and Dance came up dead last. I clearly had STRONG feeling on season 3's meanest entry, but I was curious to see if time would be kinder to it. 

The Talent: Shut Up and Dance is written by Black Mirror creator Charlie Brooker and Will Bridges, the same team who would pen Season 6's celebrated USS Callister. Director James Watkins comes with some good modern horror pedigree, having made the strong (if, whaddya know, mean) Eden Lake and the much kinder, effectively spooky The Woman In Black. 

The Setup: Kenny seems like your average British teenager, working in a fast food joint and constantly battling her bratty sister for his laptop so he can lock his door and masturbate in peace. After cleaning his computer with the first antivirus software that comes up in the search results, Kenny discovers he's provided full camera access to a mysterious all-knowing entity that is now threatening to release the video to his entire contacts list.

Most teenage boys would be scared, but Kenny is absolutely terrified and immediately agrees to to carry out his blackmailers' demands. The tasks seem easy enough at first: pick up a cake, work with a fellow blackmailee (Game of Thrones' Jerome Flynn) to rob a bank and, well, things escalate. 

The Ending: After being forced to fight another man to the death, Kenny assumes he's free as initially promised. Broken and carrying a bag of stolen cash, he begins stumbling home only for his mother to call in tears. A montage shows our other shamed men and women discovering the secrets they fought so hard to hide have been released upon the world. 

Kenny, you see, wasn't just jerking off to common porn. While we (thankfully) don't get the details, his mother's cries of "kids!" is enough, especially when we think back to the small moment he shared with a little girl earlier in the episode. What seemed like a quick shot to lend our protagonist charm is reframed as something menacing and awful.

The Theme: But see, here's why I hated Shut Up and Dance so much upon my first viewing: what's the point? People have done terrible things ranging in their measure of sin. Jerome Flynn sought out a prostitute, something hardly worth true damnation (though I like to think it was the detail that he was trying to haggle on the pricing that put him on the list). Nobody should be sad that a CEO's racist emails are leaked, and Kenny's proclivities would probably have led to the abuse of a minor, but seeing these characters put through a marathon of high anxiety tasks is just, well, unpleasant.

I suppose Brooker and Bridges' moral is that what's done is done. No amount of bicycling or sponge cake can erase your sins, and if you put any of your worst instincts out into the digital world, they will indeed come back to haunt you. 

The Verdict: Shut Up and Dance is not a bad episode of television. It's incredibly well-acted, and busting with tension that director Watkins somehow amplifies when he brings in comedy. On second viewing, I can be a little less mad at the rug pull reveal. Yes, it still feels like a cruel trick to pull on its audience, but I can admire how well it plays its hand. 

Technology Tip
Don't ever use the internet in any way shape or form to do anything that you wouldn't feel comfortable being shown to everyone you know. Easy, right?

The Black Mirror Grade
Cruelty Scale: 10/10
Quality Scale: 7/10
Enjoyment Scale: 3/10

Monday, August 24, 2020

A Walk In the Woods

I've ranted and raged at the gross misogyny and worse, plain boredom that seems to run deep through the V/H/S series, anthologies that have come to epitomize everything awful about straight white dude bro horror in the 21st century. The fact that three movies that featured fifteen segments couldn't give a single slot to a female filmmaker says quite a bit, especially when you realize Roxanne Benjamin was sitting there the entire time as a producer.

Now obviously, I know very little about the production background of V/H/S, and Benjamin's personal trajectory from producing to directing. But from where I sit, I see three (fairly crappy) movies that hired a total of fifteen male directors. Benjamin would go on to make her directorial debut in Southbound and follow it up with XX, an anthology founded on the idea of female directors because, you know, we had FIFTEEN stupid V/H/S segments that couldn't bother to include one.

Anyhoo, my point is pretty simple: I'm tired of bro horror, and fully ready to celebrate the women who are building their own dynasty. Thusly do we dive into Benjamin's first full-length movie.

Quick Plot: Wendy is a less-than-stellar part-time park ranger at Brighton Rock who valiantly offers to take her more experienced pal's shift to prove herself (and allow her friend to flirt with a hot guy). Most of the day's tasks involve hiking around and hanging up safety posters, but when she loses her map, Wendy's afternoon becomes considerably more complicated.

It would be bad enough to be lost and losing daylight, but the discovery of a dead body, creepy stranger, and some mysteriously deep claw marks put poor Wendy on edge. 

Wendy is played by Karina Fontes, a newcomer who had a small role in Benjamin's Southbound segment. The casting is crucial, since Wendy is the only character onscreen for a good chunk of the movie. So much of the movie's energy depends on Fontes, who brings such a fun likability and believable dumb innocence to the part.

Make no mistake: Wendy is no Ellen Ripley. She's a little flaky and far from a survivalist, someone who gets completely lost after trying to make such a point out of her abilities to read a map. But you know what? That's kind of refreshing. Yes, it's incredibly empowering to watch Sharni Vinson school ill-prepared killers in You're Next, but let's face it: many of us aren't actually equipped to survive a horror movie. Wendy is a perfectly average young woman, and seeing her dig deep inside herself to make it through 90 minutes of horror is in itself something to be proud of.

Benjamin wrote and directed Body At Brighton Rock, and it makes me thrilled for her next project: a remake of the beloved Night of the Comet. There's a very similar tone in this film, one that's not afraid to be simultaneously silly and filled with danger. It's a tricky balance, but one that ultimately makes for a darn enjoyable watch.

High Points
The tone is key, but it depends so much on Fontes's performance that I'd be remiss to not put her in this slot

Low Points
I could have used one or two less "it's just a dream!" reveals, but at the same time, this is a movie about a woman being lost on an isolated mountain. I think I'd have a few nightmares too?

Lessons Learned
Maybe turn off the noise cancellation feature on your earbuds when hiking alone?

Nothing starts a fire better than anti-fire propaganda!

Why do we need female filmmakers, you might ask? Because often they're the only ones who understand the value of a hairtie on a hot day

Body At Brighton Rock isn't terrifying or ever hilarious, but it's just a genuinely good time all around. You'll chuckle a little, maybe jump a tad, and ultimately, walk away with a very satisfying and fresh-feeling flick. Streaming on Hulu and worth your eyeballs. 

Monday, August 17, 2020

Emily's Non-Definitive Ranking of Black Mirror

A couple of years ago, I went through the full (then) 5 season run of Black Mirror, mixing the order up as randomly as I could save for the then-finale, Black Museum. I roughly drafted this preference order a few months back, always intending to post it and move on.

Instead, I kept forgetting it was in my email box.

Now that the world has gotten even WEIRDER, it seems like the perfect time to revisit Charlie Brooker's universe. First, I give you my list, ranking the episodes below from my least to most favorite based on a one-time watch sometime in 2018. Over the next few weeks, I'm going to slowly revisit the series to see how everything lands with time and distance.

In the meantime, let's start at the bottom and move on. Mild spoilers might follow:

23. Shut Up & Dance
Easily the most mean-spirited in the current Black Mirror canon, this episode follows a frazzled teenager trying to appease mysterious hacking blackmailers by completing odd tasks with the help of fellow blackmailee, Jerome Flynn (or Bronn, if you're Westerosi). Maybe I'd like it more if I didn't think two film versions of 13 Sins did it better. Or maybe I'd like it better if I enjoyed pure misery with no redeeming value or catharsis.

22. The Waldo Moment
Sometimes timing is everything. Airing a full three years before a certain horrendous cartoon character launched the ugliest political campaign in modern times but watched by me two full ones later, The Waldo Moment doesn't seem to have anything to say that I wanted to hear. Politicians lie and don't really care about the people they serve, yet the very concept of democracy might just be the key to...holding civilization together? I don't know, an animated foul-mouthed bear makes crass, usually not very funny jokes, things get out of hand, and the world becomes a dystopia. Or something. Pre or post-Trump, The Waldo Moment just doesn't click.

21. Black Museum
More entertaining for its easter eggs than story, Black Museum presents three downbeat mini-stories about the dangers of technology. It's another downer, redeemed by the cute nods to other episodes and Black Panther's Letitia Wright's  presence. That aside, Monkey doesn't love this one.

20. Bandersnatch
What's the value of a great idea, and how much does it count when the execution is so boring? I spent about 90 minutes choosing my own adventure in the ambitious Bandersnatch, an interactive experience that lets you direct the main character's actions. Fine in theory, but aside from Will Poulter's supporting role as a charismatic game developer, the action is simply dull. Maybe it will play differently when I, you know, play differently, but at first run, it left me wanting more.

19. Hated In the Nation
One of the things I love about Black Mirror is knowing that I'm going to get a complete story in a 45 to 90 minute block of time. Why then would the show use its longest episode to tell a story without an ending? Kelly Macdonald and Faye Marsay (best known as Game of Thrones' Arya-hating Waif) make a great detective pair, and the idea of exploring the stakes in anonymous internet hatred of real people is certainly fitting for the Black Mirror treatment, but the feature length runtime makes no sense, especially when you walk away on a frustrating cliffhanger.

18. Smithereens
"Don't check Facebook while driving" is a message better conveyed by an episode much higher on my list, so I just don't have too much to say about the most recent (and final?) season's tale. It's well acted and sad, but ultimately, unremarkable.

17. Arkangel
I imagine Arkangel plays very differently to an audience of parents than, say, me. I'm the last person to judge a person's style in raising a child, making the moral issues at play fall somewhat flat. Rosemarie DeWitt is great and it's always pleasant to have Jodie Foster in the director's chair. And hey, there is plenty of area to explore within the freedom we give or deny youth in an age of increasingly aggressive technology. It's not a bad hour, just not anything I need to revisit.

16. Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too
AKA the Hannah Montanan one, Rachel, Jack and Ashley, Too is one of the show's lighter offerings, playing with a lightly fictionalized Miley Cyrus's childhood stardom. It's a clever concept and nice to see Cyrus go meta with some restraint, but the episode itself is weirdly paced, never knowing which of its characters to focus on. In a sea of misery, it stands out for ultimately being so chipper, but in terms of quality television, it's more cute than good.

15. Striking Vipers
There are some interesting ideas at play in Striking Vipers, my best ranked episode of the maybe past-its-prime most recent season. What starts as a video game come to life turns into a much, well, sweeter exploration of attraction between two heterosexual cisgender black American men who find themselves unable to resist one another when playing completely different beings in an advanced video game. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Anthony Mackie give incredibly nuanced performances as men questioning their sexuality. It's just that, well, by 2019, an annual open relationship cheat day doesn't seem nearly as daring as the episode thinks. It dances with something innovative, but pulls back too soon.

14. Playtest
I humbly beseech someone in a position of power to boil this episode down to a 2-minute educational video that gets shown before very theatrical film release in order to warn audiences about the dangers of cell phone use. That heavyhanded request aside, Playtest is a fun twist on the haunted house trope by way of video game revolutions. Wyatt Russell makes a likable protagonist, thus making his tragic fate that much sadder.

13. 15 Million Merits

Ambitious in its world-building (especially considering this is only the show's second episode), 15 Million Merits gives us a bleak future, one where American Idol (or more appropriately, The X-Factor) becomes one's only means of social climbing of an exercise bike. Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya is incredibly magnetic as the cynical proletarian who finds and loses a small chance at happiness, though the rather hopeless nature of the story keeps it from feeling truly satisfying.

12. Crocodile
How far would you go to protect the life you've created? That's the central question in Crocodile, one of Black Mirror's bleaker entries helmed by, not surprisingly, The Road's John Hillcoat. The episode is cruel and bleak, with its protagonist such a chilly presence that it's hard to know where we're supposed to fall. Still, the satisfying O'Henry-esque ending, eerie Icelandic setting, and inclusion of a side plot involving an elementary school production of Bugsy Malone keep it weirdly watchable.

11. White Christmas
I'm dreaming of Jon Hamm playing a smarmy jerk, which, let's face it, is a thing of true beauty. Telling three stories, White Christmas has some cruelty up its sleeve, producing some pretty mixed results. A dating coach-gone-wrong is fairly predictable, but Oona Chaplin Alexa-ing herself has some interestingly dark undertones. The final story, following Rafe Spall's misguided attempts to take care of his mother-less daughter, is as dark as Black Mirror gets. Merry Christmas!

10. Men Against Fire
This one seems to land low on most ranking lists, but to my mind, it's the closest the show comes to being the perfect modern example of The Twilight Zone. Sure, it's a little heavy-handed and maybe obvious in its message about war and how the government uses and discards its young soldiers, but couldn't you just smell the secondhand smoke of Rod Serling's cigarette slightly off camera?

9. The National Anthem
As the series premiere, The National Anthem is fascinating for how it opens the door to the Black Mirror Universe. Perhaps the most modest of all episodes in terms of its technology propositions, this episode plays more like dark humored satire than science fiction, and not in a bad way. The Prime Minister has a choice to make, one that may save a princess's life while damning his pride, his humanity, and in an even more fascinating way, his country's moral center. Perhaps it's smart to have aired The National Anthem so early, since later Black Mirror audiences might have been unsatisfied by the lack of a kooky techno twist. There's something even more disturbing about how it grinds its theme down. Yes, the nature of a society that can all watch their government official have sex with a pig at the same time is born of the Black Mirror world, but without the frills so common in later seasons, it's able to stand out even more.

8. Metalhead
There's no real deep meaning or statement to be found in Black Mirror's shortest episode. It's a cat and mouse hunt in a bleak future where the cat is a solar powered robot dog loaded with bullets and the mouse is one of the few human scavengers left in the world. Directed by the underrated David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days of Night, and the only passable Twilight film) Metalhead doesn't have any grand statements to make about the horrors of mankind or what it creates. All of that may have been explored in prologues. But here, it's just a chase, and a thrilling one at that.

7. Nosedive
Yes, social media has changed the way we live, and yes, Nosedive takes that to extremes in a somewhat predictable way. But what keeps this high concept episode so high on my list is less about its premise and more about its content. Bryce Dallas Howard is sheer perfection as that woman we all have in our lives who tries just a tad too hard, who you never really know because she's too busy perfecting a look to show you the person underneath. Joe Wright has long been one of my favorite modern directors, and the pastel hues and nightmare smartphone effects show the potential of a standalone high budget show with no real restrictions like Black Mirror can do.

6. San Junipero
One of the most beloved episodes (and winner of its very own Emmy), San Junipero is from that minority batch of uplifting stories...that might also be much darker depending on how far you want to dig. So let's stay on the surface to enjoy the sweet romance between two very different women in a retro computer-programmed pop culture afterlife. Like Be Right Back, San Junipero understands that love can't be manufactured, but it also surmises that cheating the system to find happiness might not be such a bad thing after all.

5. Hang the DJ
One of Black Mirror's lighter entries, Hang the DJ calls to mind the wonderfully underrated film tiMER, which also explored what romance might look like if dictated by technological algorithms. Like tiMER, it works not just because of its concept, but because it uses it to tell the story of two likable people with great chemistry. There are plenty of times when Black Mirror makes the future look terrible (and in doing so, the modern world as well), but every now and then, it stops to tell a charming love story well-earned in its triumph.

4. White Bear
I love The Purge series. I love Michael Smiley. I love a horrifying future where anarchy reigns and no one is safe. Hence, how could I not love White Bear? Yes, it's as mean in spirit as Shut Up and Dance, but where that episode leaves its audience feeling like crap with no real opportunities for reflection, White Bear gives us a thrilling horror movie and ends on a note that asks serious questions about society's thirst for punishing criminals. More importantly, it's a thrill of a watch.

3. The Entire History of You
Imagine never being able to just let something go, and you'll have a pretty good idea of just how horrific The Entire History of You truly is. Some time in the future, typical Black Mirror-esque technology allows people to record every moment of their lives in order to replay when they choose. Reliving warm memories or pulling up your best sex to improve your current experience seem like pleasant tools, but when this also means you can reevaluate every single interaction you've had on a personal or professional context, you can see the dangerous path the episode goes down. While we're (hopefully) not due for this kind of technological upgrade anytime soon, The Entire History of You remains powerful because like the best science fiction, it uses a high concept to explore specific tics of modern humanity.

2. USS Callister

Yes, it's probably the best known, most award-winning slice of Black Mirror, and it's for good reason. Jesse Plemons (not Matt Damon, as I'll one day understand) is greasily fantastic as a lonely, bitter programming genius who creates his own little world where he can be king (or rather, Captain). Its Star Trek homages are fabulous and fun, but in the age of Gamer Gate, its insecure, embittered, and cruel sad white boy antagonist is truly a monster. Unlike Jill in marketing, who just plays one in his code.

1. Be Right Back
First of all, Haley Atwell is an international treasure and Agent Carter should have run for 12 seasons.

In other news, Season 3's Be Right Back is the best made, most effective, and most moving episode of Black Mirror to date. It's a small, incredibly focused story that explores the very nature of what it means to be in love. Even the best relationship is fraught with conflict, sometimes in the littlest of ways. Those imperfections are often what make them great.

When Atwell's husband dies suddenly in a phone-induced car wreck, she has a hard time letting go...especially when the slightly ahead of us Black Mirror universe gives her a very simple, albeit expensive way to make sure she doesn't have to. For a price, you can speak to your dead lover, his internet presence being assembled and programmed based on his previous social media activity. For a few dollars more, he'll call you, and for a good chunk of your future daughter's college tuition, you can have your very own life-size, anatomically correct (though possibly mole-less) recreation. Anyone who has lost a loved one would see the incredible lure of such a possibility, but Be Right Back shows, without having to say it in such specific terms, that the very nature of humanity is tied to something that can't be programmed. It's deeply moving, and Atwell is crushingly effective.

Peggy Carter for life.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Diamonds Are a Suburban Teenager's Best Friend

In times like these, it's our civic duty to ourselves to ensure our mental and emotional health needs are being properly met. Hence, it would be a crime for me NOT to watch Doug Campbell's latest Lifetime thriller.

Quick Plot: Joanie is the new girl at her LA high school, finishing off her senior year with dreams of going to MIT. Her doe-eyed innocence catches the attention of Anabel and Olivia, two typical mean girls who have been making extra tax-free cash smuggling blood diamonds. 

When I was 17, I worked at Chuck E. Cheese.

Joanie is initially horrified when she discovers she's been used as a mule, but everything changes when her tex-mex loving little brother is diagnosed with cancer of the small intestines. With a single mom in debt and inadequate health insurance, Joanie's only choice is to immerse herself in this TSA foolery and hide the money in a crowd funding website. 

The benefits of such an extracurricular activity? Jet setting green screened SELFIES!

Smuggling In Suburbia is a special little film, finding a place smack in the center of a Venn diagram filled with Lifetime's "...In Suburbia" series and Lifetime's lifetime employee Doug Campbell's ouvre. Better known for directing five (and counting) movies with titles that begin "Stalked By," Campbell is a pro at the genre who goes a step further by embracing its inherent campiness while maintaining full sincerity. It's a tricky balancing act, but when you direct four such films a year, you get pretty darn good at it. 

How do you know you're in the hands of a master? Take Tucker, Joanie's boyfriend and a key player in the blood diamond business empire. Tucker would love to live a straight life, and naturally, his real passion, like any good Hallmark Christmas movie hunk, is architecture. 

These people know their stuff.

We're not 20 minutes when Campbell spoils us with the greatest of all cinematic treasures: the shopping montage. Eventually, we get 9/11 references that somehow equate Joanie's activities to terrorism. Crazy that a girl can be smart enough to dream of going to MIT but not understand how she's betraying her country or how any part of an FBI investigation works. The credits forego the classic "Cast" list for "The Players," because...why not?

Smuggling In Suburbia is trash, but it's fun, smartly made trash that understand exactly what it's supposed to do and does it with an added dose of clever trickery. It's a dumb good time. 

High Points
It's easy to make a self-aware Lifetime thriller with actors choking on their own winks (while I adore Eric Roberts in Campbell's Stalked By My Doctor series, he's definitely having too much fun). What works about Smuggling In Suburbia is the very cautious line its cast toes, playing everything earnestly with a very careful, barely there glint that says, "we know exactly what we're doing"

Low Points
It might just be that I've grown so accustomed to the Lifetime 90 second happy time coda that I found Smuggling In Suburbia's weirdly bleak ending a downer, but I mean, SPOILER ALERT: she goes to jail now, RIGHT?!

Lessons Learned
All girls like diamonds

Transplant of the small intestine is the most expensive elective surgery in the USA, but it's the treatment you need to beat enchiladitis

Look, as a loud talker, I'm not one to loud talk shame another woman, but ladies in Lifetime movies, PLEASE: speaking full volume in public about something as sensitive as, say, an ongoing FBI investigation that will compromise your friend who happens to regularly be in the same public space where you are SPEAKING FULL VOLUME

There comes a point in every single mother's life when she has to do what it takes to make sure her firstborn doesn't throw her future away for a handsome failed architect turned diamond smuggler

Smuggling In Suburbia is streaming on Amazon Prime, and it will bring joy to your for just under 90 minutes. Heat up a plate of burritos and enjoy.