Black Mirror (Season 3, 2016)

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Black Mirror Season 3, written by Charlie Brooker (Netflix, 2016).

Score: guilt-tripping and fearmongering.

People have a weird relationship with science and technology: they trust them but they don’t bother to try and understand them. People complain about things their phones do or won’t do without realising some of those are for their own safety, or that they aren’t using the phone correctly. I worked for three years in tech support and you’d be surprised at how many people assume the manufacturer is obliged to back up all their personal data without even asking for permission and at the same time defend that 1234 is a perfectly good password. Bothering to understand the most basic things about computers and handheld devices is for nerds and millennials, and that really is a shame because technology is an incredibly powerful tool.

So, what do you do if you want to warn society about misusing such a mighty instrument? Wave your arms around, wail that the end is nigh and point fingers at everyone, of course. Black Mirror’s villains are unbelievable and boring because they’re all the lovechildren of Dr. Evil and Nolan’s Joker. Its allegories are ham-fisted, short-sighted and unoriginal. Even when it criticises technology directly, it’s really misguided.

What if phones, but too much, indeed.

But, for some reason I can’t start to wrap my head around, there is one episode in this season that it’s actually good, and not only for Black Mirror standards: “San Junipero”. Probably because it drops the edgelord act and actually examines an issue, with its good and bad aspects. Also, it bothers to create characters who actually have human, understandable motivations, which one would think would happen more frequently.

Here are my six rants for the six separate episodes:

***SPOILERS***

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Burning chrome (William Gibson, 1986)

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Burning Chrome, by William Gibson (1986).

Score: timeless classic.

Gibson is a difficult author, the way I see it. He can come off as vague, though he’s not. He not so much explains things as suggests them. He uses as few words as he can get away with, so you need to pay close attention, because every single word counts and you need to fill in the gaps. He also loves in medias res and that’s part of what makes his stories so interesting. Explaining the plot of one of the stories in Burning Chrome is kind of spoiling it, because half the fun is piecing the information together, hunting for clues about the setting, the past of the characters and the chronological sequence of events.

Burning Chrome is a collection of ten short stories, publised originally between 1977 and 1986. Its pages are inhabited by hustlers, petty thieves, technicians, hackers, assassins, astronauts, journalists and artists, and everything is made of neon and chrome. “The Gernsback Continuum” could very well be the manifesto of the latest great revolution in science-fiction, cyberpunk: we are no longer interested in this proto-fascist future where progress is taken for granted and knowledge is unambiguously used for the greater good. The future is here and it is gritty, edgy and spliced with celluloid tape. “The winter market” revisits the legend of the tormented artist with a delicious oniric, transhuman twist. I choose to read “The belonging kind” as a truly inspired allegory on alcoholism, while “New Rose Hotel” and “Burning Chrome” are fascinating twists on the classic noir narration. “Hinterlands” is some of the most eerily beautiful prose I’ve ever read.

Sometimes it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea that Gibson has never been able to see the future; being one of the most influential writers in the history of science-fiction will do that. Still, this is not one of those books you read solely for their historical significance, it’s one that you can enjoy today, with no strings attached (once you’re over the fact that the society of information ended up being digital, not analogical). Let me insist: with motifs like people living their lives through the eyes of simstim stars and actually holding a job being a symbol of status, it is truly amazing that the author managed to see the things we are struggling with now coming for us thirty years ago.

Also, you might want to bring this up the next time someone says that science-fiction lacks literary quality. Within his narrative minimalism, Gibson is a wizard of metaphors and similes. ‘Directly beneath the clock, the flat eyes of somebody’s grandpappy’s prize buck regarded Deke from a framed, blown-up snapshot gone the slick sepia of cockroach wings’ he writes, as pretty much the only description of a room where war veterans gather to bet on virtual airplane fights. ‘Her other palm came up to brush across the feed-back pads, and it rained all afternoon, raindrops drumming on the steel and soot-stained glass above Bobby’s bed’, and that’s how much Gibson needs to say so we understand that Automatic Jack slept with his best friend’s girlfriend. ‘The Finn’s place has a defective hologram in the window, METRO HOLOGRAFIX, over a display of dead flies wearing fur coats of gray dust’. It’s a passage that doesn’t give that much information, but says it all.

All in all, delicious to read, take in, reread beautiful passages out loud, look out the window on a rainy afternoon and wonder where the future we were promised went.

Baby Driver (Edgar Wright, 2017)

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Baby Driver, directed by Edgar Wright (2017).

Score: extraordinary.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a melomaniac getaway driver who suffers from tinnitus. He lives with his deaf foster father Joe (CJ Jones) and meets the girl of his dreams (Lily James), but as much as he wants to turn to an honest life once he has paid off his mentor in crime Doc (Kevin Spacey), his godfather won’t let him make this heist the last one.

Much has been said about Wright’s visual style, and his evolution continues with Baby driver. He had already worked with scenes set to significant music, but his latest movie takes it to a whole new level. From the opening sequence, Baby is established as a character for whom life has a soundtrack, and every moment must be set to the right tune. We all like to walk down the street with our headphones on and pretend we’re in a music video, he just takes that as seriously as it’s humanly possible. And so the whole movie is set to an awesome playlist and carefully choreographed, car chases and gunfights included. We hear what Baby hears at all times, including a faint ringing in the rare moments of silence. Colour is used to cue us into the tint and hue in which Baby sees the world at any given time.

It’s a very fun movie to watch. The car chases are frantic and beautiful, completely immersed in the music. I was worried I was bothering the other moviegoers because I was literally dancing in my seat. It makes me very happy that some young directors are instilling new life in the musical genre (I already wrote about Damien Chazelle): this is no West Side Story but there is no denying it’s a musical, in that music is an integral part of the experience, in a new, exciting way.

It’s not a parody or a pure comedy like the Cornetto Trilogy but it still has some brilliant comedic moments, such as “you’ve got a tattoo that says ‘hat’” and Samm at the post office, but don’t expect to laugh out loud all the time because that’s not the point.

But wait! There’s more.

***SPOILERS***

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The long way to a small, angry planet (Becky Chambers, 2014)

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The long way to a small, angry planet, by Becky Chambers (2014).

Score: irregular.

Kids, this is why you get your manuscript proofread by a professional. The long way to a small, angry planet was originally self-published and later distributed by Hodder & Stoughton, who didn’t bother to comb over it like any editor would have with a manuscript. Angry planet slaps you in the face from page one with cringeworthy literary style: incorrect punctuation, anacolutha, unsuitable or incorrect vocabulary, a narrator with an inconsistent style, and awkward metaphors all happen in the novel.

The long way to a small, angry planet tells the story of the multispecies crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling vessel whose job is to make new wormholes to connect different places of the galaxy. Rosemary, who has a terrible and secret past, is the newly arrived clerk; Kizzy and Jenks are the techs, Ashby is the captain. Corbin is a cretin who is in charge of the ship’s fuel; Sissix is the pilot, an Aandrisk: a sentient, lizard-like species. Dr. Chef, as suggested by his name, is both the medic and the cook aboard and is a member of the almost extinct species Grum. Finally, Ohan the Sianat pair, which means he and a brain-eating parasite, make tunneling possible and Lovey the AI makes sure everything on board runs smoothly.

The characters are hard to become familiar with because they don’t have that many special features or serve a narrative purpose. Corbin is set apart early in the novel for being obnoxious, but the rest of characters are far too similar to each other. Kizzy is insufferable. Ashby has no personality. The only thing that makes Jenks different is that he’s… short. Angry planet is not so much a space opera as a bunch of tidbits about these characters. The novel reads a lot like fanfiction and I’ve been trying to figure out why; I think it’s because it focuses mostly on the everyday lives, personal relationships and backstories of the characters. Chambers has lots of fun putting the characters in quirky situations and figuring out how they react: it’s like Angry planet is fanfiction exploring the characters for another space opera where things actually go down.

This being said, there is one thing at which Angry planet sweeps the floor with other novels: worldbuilding. This is some platinum-tier space opera worldbuilding. Every sentient species, especially the Aandrisks and the Grum, have really interesting histories and backstories. The attention to cultural interactions is very refreshing and a trend I expect to keep seeing in Twenty-First Century science-fiction authors. Minute details like the shapes of chairs, handles and bottles. The development of different cultural values and ethics, linked to biological realities. Dr. Chef’s backstory made me choke up a little. The moral dilemma posed by Ohan is extremely interesting; it’s a shame it’s resolved so bluntly.

All in all, the style made me want to cry but the worldbuilding made me stay. Tread carefully.

 

Only God forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, 2013)

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Only God forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2013).

Score: thoroughly uninteresting, unless you look at it from a very particular point of view.

Winding Refn is style over substance, always. That’s just what he does. Only God forgives could very well be a collection of neon-lit shots of Bangkok’s underbelly, and nothing more. And it would be a gorgeous collection indeed. The long, panning shots in overly saturated colours, everything bathed in a neon glow, renders the scenes unnatural and seedy. After all, neon is for cyberpunk megalopoli and brothels.

But a movie is not an art book: it must tell a story. Only God forgives follows drug queenpin Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her two sons, Billy (Tom Burke) and Julian (Ryan Gosling). After Billy gets killed for raping and murdering an underage prostitute, mother and younger brother try to avenge him and fall into the hands of vigilante corrupt cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm). There’s not what you could call suspense or action, really. The movie not so much paces as slithers through ninety minutes that feel like two hundred. Two smartass Americans get their asses handed to them by a middle-aged Asian cop and that’s more or less the end of it.

Nevertheless, there is something that sets this movie apart from Drive or The neon demon: it is heavily laden with Freudian symbolism, which makes it not only the most aesthetically beautiful of the three, but also the one with the most hidden substance. Britt Hayes wrote a superb piece on it that made me appreciate a little more a movie that had me yawning for an hour and a half.

***SPOILERS***

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What we do in the shadows (Clement & Waititi, 2014).

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What we do in the shadows, written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi (2014).

Score: bloody hilarious.

What we do in the shadows is a mockumentary that follows the everyday lives of four vampires who share a flat in present-day Wellington. Viago (Taika Waititi), 379 years old, was a German dandy and even to this day he is delicate and easy-going. Vladislav (Jemaine Clement), 862 years old, was known as Vlad the Poker for his favourite torture method and still has his way with the ladies. Deacon (Jonny Brugh), 183 years old, is a young, wild, Bela Lugosi-like vampire who got turned by 8,000-year-old, Nosteratu-ish Petyr (Ben Fransham), who lives in their basement and is not very social.

The false documentary attests to how the flatmates argue over who has to clean the huge pile of bloody cups or to how Viago tries to convince Vlad to cover the couch with towels before eating someone so everything does not get messy. The vampires have real trouble clubbing because they cannot walk into any pubs unless they are invited in, and a running feud with a local pack of werewolves (not swearwolves).

What we do in the shadows is extremely genre-savvy: virtually every vampire trope you can think of is mocked, spoofed and deconstructed, all in the fragmented style of a reality show; ad-libs add to the hilarity and the special effects are pretty nice. Waititi looking meekly at the camera as Viago and smiling with his little fangs while everything goes to shit behind him cracks me up every time. Needless to say, there are copious amounts of black comedy, like Deacon’s familiar Jackie (Jackie Van Beek) bringing her school bully and her ex-boyfriend to be eaten.

To wrap it up, totally worth it.

 

 

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2013)

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Coherence, directed by James Ward Byrkit (2013).

Score: rather poor.

You don’t want to know a lot about the plot of Coherence, but so you get an idea of the kind of movie it is, it takes place almost entirely inside a house during a dinner party with eight guests. A comet is passing quite close to Earth that night and freaky things start happening.

Coherence has appeared in several lists for best 21st Century science-fiction movies, obscure science-fiction movies and low-budget science-fiction movies, but I find that it has a worldbuilding problem, is not very original at all and has maddening cinematography.

The movie was apparently mostly improvised, with the characters just given a paragraph with their character’s motivation, so the actors themselves were discovering the plot as they went. I’m sure it was terribly fun to shoot, but not so much to watch. That kind of experience is better suited for a room escape design or a roleplaying game, but not for a movie. If you want believable reactions, hire the best actors you can, but for goodness’ sake, don’t sacrifice watchability for that. The camera is shaky, unfocused at times and has terrible angles. Some reality shows are better shot than this, really. And apparently it was all done so the actors could move around freely.

***SPOILERS***

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Zwartboek (Paul Verhoeven, 2006)

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Zwartboek, directed by Paul Verhoeven (a.k.a. Black book, 2006).

Score: sober.

The Hague, near the end of Nazi occupation. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a young Jewish singer from a wealthy family; when the Christian family who was hiding her dies in a bombing, she is approached by police officer Van Gein (Peter Blok), who offers to take her to Allied territory. She takes a loan from her father’s lawyer Smaal (Dolf de Vries) and reunites with her family, but the barge they’re travelling in is raided by a nazi boat and everyone is killed except for Rachel. She decides to join the resistance, led by Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), dyes her hair and adopts the name Ellis de Vries. After some of her comrades are arrested by the Gestapo, she decides she must seduce SS Colonel Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to save them.

On one level, Zwartboek is an exciting thriller with spies, double agents, deceit and strategy. Every character must make choices and take chances, not only in the context of war, but also looking at how their actions will be judged when the Allies eventually win the war. Ellis learns that the attack on the barge which killed her entire family was far from being a coincidence, but she can’t start to imagine how convoluted the truth about it is.

On another level, Zwartboek is a war movie, and one that focuses on a topic that is not frequently discussed, especially as World War II is frequently considered the good war: how in civil wars, or occupations, your friends, neighbours and acquaintances will make decisions you despise or show their true colours, and once the war is over and strife is no longer coercing people, there can and will be consequences.

Ellis’ feelings towards Müntze are not spelled out for us. Has she fallen in love with him? Does she just respect him, or feel sympathy for him? Does she think she’s a good man, despite the circumstances? Does she separate the personal from the political? When the war is over, she barely makes any effort to deny she was a collaborationist, despite the fact that she was in the resistance all along. One great virtue of this movie is the way it portrays grey and grey morality in the context of something as fucked up as war.

To wrap it up, an exciting thriller and an interesting reflection on the controversy between resistance and collaborationists in the occupied Netherlands.

The Handmaid’s tale (Season 1, 2017)

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The Handmaid’s tale, Season 1, created by Bruce Miller (Hulu, 2017).

Score: must-watch.

I first read The Handmaid’s tale back in December of 2013, over three feverish days. I recall myself gawking at my e-reader at the tram platform after a long day of work. I remember deep discomfort and gradual coping towards what was coming out of those pages.

In the wake of an infertility epidemic, a martial coup turns the United States into a totalitarian theocracy. Fertile women, dubbed Handmaids, are gathered, assigned as property to the regime’s elite and forced to conceive children for the Commanders. Failure to comply with the rules of the new order results in physical punishment, mutilation or leaving the house in a black van and never being seen again. The Handmaid’s tale follows the life of a woman formerly known as June (Elisabeth Moss), now forced to take the patronym Offred after the Commander she’s been assigned to, Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). June is decided to be reunited with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) and young daughter, who went missing when they were trying to flee the country to Canada and she was captured.

Let’s go over the science-fiction mantra one more time: science-fiction is about the world right now and right here, not trying to guess the future or to issue warnings (except for warning about things that are actually happening). Publicity of the show has focused too much, for my taste, on reassuring people that the Free World will not become Gilead tomorrow, don’t be silly. Everyone’s like, oh my god, do you think this could happen to us? No way, we’re above that. It seems we’ve got our heads too deep inside our own butts to realize all this is happening, has happened and will happen again. Maybe not near our homes, but definitely somewhere out there, to other human beings. Is it so extremely distressing to entertain the idea that we may be complete barbarians? Even more important, is it completely unfounded?

***SPOILERS***

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La grande bellezza (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013)

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La grande bellezza, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (a.k.a. The great beauty, 2013).

Score: contemplative.

Some works of art are born looking at another work of art. Admiring it, wanting to revive it, to make it eternal, to tell the world how much it meant to the creator. Some works of art are born grabbing the ankle of that masterpiece that came before: La grande bellezza came into the world grabbing La dolce vita’s ankle.

Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) is a sexagenarian socialite in present-day Rome. He writes for a magazine, parties all night and sleeps all day. Forty years ago, he wrote a novel that went unnoticed and everybody keeps asking why he never wrote another one. It might be because he spent those forty years too busy trying to find trascendence in the unredeemably banal.

La grande bellezza is made of vignettes so brief and minimalistic they might as well be social network posts and lavish panning shots of Roman iconic locations so painfully beautiful they might as well be pornographic. We get glimpses of the life around Jep: his friend Romano (Carlo Verdone), trying to make it big as a playwright and begging for the love of his abusive, narcissistic girlfriend; his Platonic romance with Ramona (Sabrina Ferilli), the forty-something stripper; Botox parties, priests and nuns right next to drugs and orgies; children raised by butlers while their parents are out for dinner.

Unlike La dolce vita, La grande bellezza is ambiguous about whether it loves or despises the void debauchery it portrays. It’s probably both. The past century has really made artists lose interest in trascendence; we’ve become so hedonistic we look at these people drinking, smoking and arguing that they’re the greatest artist in the room and don’t think much of it.

For obvious reasons, the debauchery needed to be amped up. Having sex at a prostitute’s house is no longer enough, we need to introduce things like a middle-aged stripper who works at her father’s club; he’s disappointed she doesn’t like drugs, since they would have a hobby in common, then. The fake miracle scene is updated as an interaction with an elderly nun, clearly alluding to Teresa of Calcutta.

All in all, desperately beautiful and a love letter to the void, to all those things we desperately want to give meaning to our lives but simply won’t.