Season 5: 3 Episodes (excludes Bandersnatch (2019)
Original Network: Netflix
Having positively reviewed Season 4 of Charlie Brooker’s wonderful anthology show here and the recent “choose-your-own-adventure” stand alone film, Bandersnatch (2019), here – I can further confirm I am a massive Black Mirror fan. Indeed, if Charlie Brooker wrote and produced a story about himself having his toenails clipped in the future, I would definitely enjoy it that too.
Lastly, it’s safe to say I certainly loved the latest three episodes of the programme and not just because Brooker wrote them. It’s because the ideas relating to the darker side of technology are so fascinating and of course the productions are of very high quality. Here are mini reviews of each episode with usual marks out of eleven.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
STRIKING VIPERS (2019)
Director: Owen Harris
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Nicole Beharie, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Pom Klementieff and Ludi Lin.
Danny (Mackie) and Theo (Beharie) portray a loving couple who having been together for some time suffer a marriage dip and a somewhat curious eleven-year itch. This drama is especially propelled when Danny’s best mate, Karl (Abdul-Mateen II) reconnects with Danny and the two play the Virtual-Reality video-game, Striking Vipers, online. Soon the two enter into a curious online relationship, one which threatens their relationships and sanity.
While the danger of videogames and VR have been explored before in Black Mirror, this is freshly presented both dramatically and humorously via an unexpected and bizarre love triangle. I was very empathetic for the main characters as they felt trapped by family life and struggle to keep the romance going. Plus, that need to escape propels some hilarious scenes that pay homage and parody combat videogames in general. Funny, touching and surprising, Striking Vipers is an excellent season opener.
Mark: 9 out of 11
Director: James Hawes
Cast: Andrew Scott, Damson Idris, Amanda Drew, Monica Dolan, Topher Grace etc.
Actor-of-the-moment, Andrew Scott, gives another blistering performance as a rideshare/”Uber” driver, Chris Gillhaney, who kidnaps a young Smithereen employee, Jaden (Damson Idris). Smithereen are a social media company not dissimilar to Facebook or Twitter, and Gillhaney holds a serious grudge against them. It’s so serious in fact, he will kill Jaden if he doesn’t get to speak directly to Smithereen CEO, Billy Bauer (Topher Grace).
Structured around a very tense standoff in an English field between Gillhaney and the Police, the events also go ‘viral’ via social media and online news platforms. Scott’s characterisation of Gillhaney is dramatically impressive. He emits a sadness, guilt and anxiety which forces his character to commit an unlikely crime. While we do not condone his actions Scott keeps you onside with his sterling portrayal of a man on the edge. Ultimately, the narrative turn at the end impacted me because it felt so believable and human. Once again Brooker taps into the heart of the technological matter and how reliance on it can cause tragedy and senseless loss of life.
Mark: 9.5 out of 11
RACHEL, JACK AND ASHLEY TOO (2019)
Director: Anne Sewitsky
Cast: Miley Cyrus, Angourie Rice, Madison Davenport, Susan Pourfar etc.
Pop star Miley Cyrus stars as pop star Ashley-O in this dramatic and comedic techno satire, which finds her character being pushed to the creative limit by her unscrupulous manager. At the same time Ashley-O uber-fan, Rachel (Angourie Rice), worships every word Ashley O’s manufactured persona spits out; much to the chagrin of her metal-head sister, Jack (Madison Davenport.) The two sisters’ conflict is exacerbated when Rachel is given an Ashley-O smart speaker and Rachel becomes obsessed with the techno doll. As the story progresses the two Ashley-O narratives connect in a somewhat contrived but captivating way.
Starting as a teenage-rites-of-passage-profile-of-a-pop-star-mash-up, this narrative crosses the genres and becomes a heist-led comedy by the end. With so many criss-crossing leaps in style the characters get a little bit lost in the mix of ideas. However, use of technology to exploit both the pop singer and the all-consuming fan finds Charlie Brooker’s satirical darts hitting more targets than it misses. Arguably, this is the weakest of the three episodes as the onerous pop manager is a bit of a cliche. Plus, more planning could have gone into the final act when it all felt rushed. It is nonetheless very entertaining episode, very much on point in its vision of pop culture, the music industry and society’s ever reliance on technology for emotional interaction.
I watched a load of films in October due to the London Film Festival mainly. I also wrote a lot of reviews too and realise that, with not enough hours in the day, or desire to read the ramblings of a narcissistic cineaste most people may not have had the time to read them all.
So, I have consolidated all my October reviews into one post and made it a quick and easy reference point for films currently out or coming out in the future. Here are quotes from the reviews with the usual marks out of eleven!
A SIMPLE FAVOUR (2018)
“Director Feig is able to blend the comedy, noir and thriller very well. While I would have preferred the tone to be darker we may not have got Blake Lively’s stunning comedic turn as the bitchy femme fatale, and that is worth the admission fee alone.”
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
A STAR IS BORN (2018)
A Star Is Born (2018) is a great cinematic experience. The story is familiar but the performances, direction and the songs all combine to create a very emotional journey; making a fine example of classic Hollywood storytelling at its best.
(Mark: 9 out of 11)
BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE
“Overall, Drew Goddard deserves praise for delivering a very sharp script. . . mainly style over substance, ultimately this is a satisfying B-movie-pulp-fiction-violent-extravaganza with twists that provide an entertaining blast in the noir night sky.”
(Mark: 8 out of 11)
BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)
“… feels like Coens-lite, without the existential depth of No Country for Old Men (2007). However, the Coen’s films improve with each viewing as you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance occurring between the lines.”
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
“. . . is very brave filmmaking with fascinating themes relating to: ritual and child abuse; nature versus nurture; good versus evil; and how those humanity believes to be outsiders should not be treated as monsters but respect and love.”
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
“Overall, this film made me feel really sad. This is a haunting character study of the outsider; a man who is literally like a dog. He is faithful, loyal and eager to please but ultimately let down by the human cruelty of those who exploit him.”
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
THE FAVOURITE (2018)
“Lanthimos’ direction of his three stellar leading actors is superb; with Olivia Colman delivering one of the most memorable performances of the year. Weisz and Stone are also quite brilliant in a devilishly quirky Machiavellian and lustful tale.”
(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
FIRST MAN (2018)
“. . . is methodical, slow-burn and restrained in performance and shows Chazelle’s expert range. It is a wonderfully striking film. The visuals and scientific renditions relating to space travel are incredible and contains a moving human story at the heart.”
(Mark: 8.5 out of 11)
THE NUN (2018)
“. . . has lots of shadows, darkness, blood, screams and a gruesome supernatural monster but, despite Farmiga’s committed performance, makes little narrative sense and suffers from poor characterisation.”
(Mark: 5 out of 11)
“Peterloo is a long epic with a plethora of dialogue heavy scenes. Yet, I was enthralled as the language and passion of such discourse is very eloquent and heartfelt. The sheer scale of the filmmaking itself is also impressive. . .”
(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)
THE PREDATOR (2018)
“. . . is a mash-up of: science fiction, action, war, spy, and TV-movie-of-the-week tropes. It moves at such an alarming pace you get an explosive film which, while moving rapidly, does not make much logical sense.”
(Mark: 7 out of 11)
“What works is the connection between Brock and his extra-terrestrial host. . . it’s turned into something of a comedy double act; albeit with Venom biting the heads off baddies. Tom Hardy’s rat-a-tat spats with his parasite make it worth a watch!”
DOCTOR WHO – SEASON 11 – EPISODE 4 REVIEW: ARACHNIDS IN THE UK (2018)
Directed by: Sallie Aprahamian
Written by: Chris Chibnall
Produced by: Alex Mercer
Executive producer(s): BBC Productions, Chris Chibnall, Matt Strevens, Sam Hoyle
Cast: Jodie Whittaker, Bradley Walsh, Tosin Cole, Mandip Gill, Chris Noth, Shobna Gulati etc.
Composer: Segun Akinola
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
Having got lost in space and time looking for her TARDIS, the Doctor and companions were now, via a stop in 1950s Alabama, back in the UK, present. Just at the right time it would seem too as Sheffield was in the grip of a major arachnid problem. If like me you’re not scared of spiders this episode held no major fears, however, for those with arachnophobia it played out like the stuff of nightmares.
The TARDIS lands on Ryan and Yasmin’s estate and we are soon introduced to Yas’ mother, father and, from her point of view, irritating sister. Her mother, Najia, has a job working at a just-about-to-open plush hotel. Her father spends his time complaining and collecting rubbish building up on the estate. Now, I wonder if these situations will be connected to the spider problem. Yes, I wonder?
Meanwhile, Graham and Ryan are faced with the continued grief over the loss of their loving wife and Aunt, Grace. Her ghost appears to Graham and Sharon D. Clarke performance adds a welcome emotional pull to the spider shenanigans. It also gives Graham and Ryan’s characters interesting depth as we continue to empathise with their loss.
One would think the spiders would be the main monsters of the episode but they are not. Indeed, humans and capitalist corporations are often the biggest fiends within Doctor Who and that is no different in Arachnids in the UK. Hollywood actor Chris Noth as obnoxious American businessmen, Robertson, fires people and refuses to take any responsibility for the toxic contamination which causes the spiders to grow exponentially. Chris Chibnall has fun having digs at this Donald J. Trump clone and while Noth’s performance is a bit over-the-top, it’s in keeping with the B-movie horror tone of the episode.
Overall, this is a lighter episode than the previous week’s Rosa, but the giant spiders were quite frightening. Furthermore, the social commentary about environmental dumping of waste added another layer to the narrative also. Jodie Whittaker offered another safe performance as the Doctor although the storyline hardly stretched her talents. I thought Bradley Walsh gave a moving turn as Graham and the final scenes in the Tardis with the Doctor were memorable. Ultimately, Arachnids in the UK was probably the weakest in the series so far, but it’s fast paced narrative and creepy crawlies filled the Doctor Who gap satisfactorily until next week.
Writer(s): Baran bo Odar, Jantje Friese, Martin Behnke, Ronny Schalk, Marc O. Seng
Starring: Oliver Masucci, Karoline Eichhorn, Jördis Triebel, Louis Hofmann, Maja Schöne, Stephan Kampwirth, Shani Atias, Daan Lennard Liebrenz, Mikkel Nielsen, Andreas Pietschmann, Deborah Kaufmann etc.
Cinematography Nikolaus Summerer
Original network: Netflix
Where do you start with this clever German science-fiction-family-drama-murder-mystery-serial-killer-historical-thriller-drama? Because over ten fascinating episodes it is challenging, baffling and mind-blowing in equal measures. Does this mean it’s any good? Well, on the main, it is well worth a watch, especially if you like labyrinthine narratives concerning time-travel paradoxes, death, human corruption and familial conflict.
Set in the fictional German town of Winden, Dark begins in 2019 before later on moving around in time covering at least another two separate timelines. I will admit I do not want to give spoilers away on this but if you like on-screen jigsaws which span different years and various versions of characters as children, adults and the elderly then this is for you. Indeed, over the ten episodes the creatives behind the show take you on a gruesome, stylish and splintered journey into the characters’ past, present and future.
Dark is grim, weird with loads of death. It opens with the suicide of a man and a teenager from the local school has also gone missing. Further disappearances occur which baffle the police while at the same time dead birds drop out of the sky. Yet, this is to all intents and purposes a normal town with regular families, school, police and oh, a Nuclear power station. So, if you’ve seen the recent Netflix show Stranger Things you’ll recognise we’re in similar Stephen King type horror territory. Having said that, Dark doesn’t actually worry about you liking these intense characters the way King and Stranger Things does. Although you do root for some of them they are a humourless bunch. But, who can blame them given what’s about to happen to their town and it’s the weirdness and mystery that keeps you watching.
Centred around four families within Winden called: Nielsen, Kahnwald, Doppler and Tiedemann, who all have secrets to hide. As these secrets are revealed the intriguing writing gives us more and more mysteries and at times I felt lost. However, with a multitude of strands pulled together during the last couple of episodes I was fully on board this incredibly rich genre mix of horror, drama and science-fiction. The style is also very alluring with darkness, light, rain, stark landscapes and photography creating a thrilling mood, along with the haunting score. Finally, there were still loads of questions which remained at the end but I’ll certainly be back for Season 2 in the future.
Produced by: Jason Blum, Kylie Du Fresne, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones
Written by: Leigh Whannell
Starring: Logan Marshall-Green, Betty Gabriel, Harrison Gilbertson
Music by: Jed Palmer
Cinematography: Stefan Duscio
Edited by: Andy Canny
For me Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell is one of the best screenwriters out there. He has been involved in the writing of TWO fantastic horror originals: Saw (2004) and Insidious (2010). Furthermore, he has written and directed a brilliant sci-fi-horror-B-Movie in Upgrade. He is a great writer because he brings conceptual invention with strong style and tight economy. What he shows is that you don’t need billions of dollars to make an entertaining film but rather a decent script with focussed ideas and great twists at the end.
I watched his latest film Upgrade (2018) at a Fright Fest 2018 preview and its blend of science fiction, body horror and bloody gore was lapped up by the packed crowd. The director, Leigh Whannell, did a Q & A afterwards and spoke of his desire evoke the spirit of the 1980s low budget films like The Terminator (1984) and he certainly achieved that in my view. His budget of $5 million dollars was stretched by incentives from the Australian government and what it lacks in scale, the movie more than makes up in a look and style which echoes that of those 1980s sci-fi classics.
Upgrade’s story is very simple and similar in some ways to Death Wish (1974) and also the recent assassin shoot-em-up-actioner John Wick (2014). But the joy is not so much in the plot but in the exceptionally well devised character arc our hero, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall Green), goes through. Left a depressed, suicidal and a quadriplegic by a vicious robbery he is given the opportunity to revitalise his body by a computer genius, Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson). Hell-bent on finding the killers of his wife he agrees to surgery which will implant an artificially intelligent programme into his body and enable him to walk again. After which the story moves at some pace as he first comes to terms with the new technology, before his descent into the criminal underworld really gathers speed.
STEM itself is a fine supporting character too. There is much humour in Logan Marshall-Green’s performance and his interaction with the “HAL9000-like” computer in his head. Marshall-Green also excels physically during the brutal and fantastically choreographed fight scenes. Indeed, the bloody violence is a joy and I actually wanted more gore as less definitely WAS NOT more. But, overall, this is a fantastically enjoyable B-movie mash-up with an incredible look for such a low budget film. Shadow, fluorescent light, darkness, blood, metal and strobes all co-mingle to startling effect. The score by Jed Palmer is a brooding classic and some of the technological concepts relating to bionic and Nano-technology were very inventive. Above all else, it’s Whannell’s lean and mean machine of a script that wins the day; he certainly deserves to work on a bigger scale no doubt!
THE HOLY CORE – A STAR TREK FAN FILM – PRODUCTION UPDATE
Just a quick update to say that another short screenplay I have co-written has just been funded and has entered the pre-production phase. It’s a follow up to our Star Trek fan film Chance Encounter called The Holy Core.
Alas, the Kickstarter campaign did not reach its target but out of the blue a private donor gifted the full budget to enable Gary and Fix Films to make the production a reality.
So, we are very grateful to the donor and to everyone who contributed to the Kickstarter campaign and look forward to making The Holy Core.
It is an exciting script which we would describe as a thoughtful science fiction adventure story examining the values of faith and science set against a backdrop of religious fanaticism and romantic love.
CONTRASTING DREAMS ON PAGE AND SCREEN: REVIEWING THE WORK OF PHILIP K. DICK
“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
― Philip K. Dick
For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was in fact a certifiable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, a further 120-odd short stories, plus a whole vision of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.
The latest cinema release inspired by Dick’s vision was the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course his stories have also given us film adaptations including: Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.
With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A) and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Dickian short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.
I have immersed myself in the novels, cinema and TV work inspired by Philip K. Dick recently. I was fascinated by the themes and narratives represented and comparisons between the literary and screen works. How did they compare to Dick’s original vision and how do they differ?
NIGHTMARE THEMES IN ELECTRIC DREAMS
Of late I have read his novels Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Ubik (1969) and the collection of short stories – collated in conjunction with the Channel 4 series – Electric Dreams. Moreover, I have seen most of his works adapted for cinema. His narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place where you are unsure as to what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are more than often a threat. The biggest threat though is humanity and its seeming endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope where telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre; along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.
The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, paradoxically feel realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs which, while offering hope for humanity, brought with it a movement to the loss of free will and a possible future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe is brimming with people under threat, humans desiring to escape and a questioning of what it means to be human.
CONTEXTUALISING THE NIGHTMARES
**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**
Adapting Dick’s work can be complex because what works on the page as a concept can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with fragments of the initial idea remaining while others stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) are very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s original novel; retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story a wife faces the choice as to whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien, is in fact more human because he is an improvement and displaying idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this occurs in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take over the humans in order to divide and conquer. Human Is… both the short story and television adaptation are particularly convincing as many people have all been trapped in dying relationships where we wish we could change our partner. Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.
Certain filmmakers, when adapting Dick’s work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed. Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders it a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hoodmaker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.
Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ life dissatisfaction and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Dick’s work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter a Station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.
Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. While in Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegorical story about social unrest and fascistic hangings, turning it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election. This eerily reflects much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, Your Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound; and examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.
Arguably not as successful, however, was the Tony Grisoni adaptation called Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact I had no idea what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techo-nightmare premise. Indeed, threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents is also presented in the excellent episode called Autofac. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilizations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology to the extent we could be classed as helpless without it.
Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of writing. Moreover, what this thematic and genre contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as: the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all round insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society and the human condition.