Thursday, March 30, 2017

Black Mirror - Some Episode's Grow On You, Be Right Back

Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson in the Series 2 premier of Black Mirror, "Be Right Back"
Note: Post Contains Episode Spoilers

Some episodes of Black Mirror are absolutely captivating start to finish, with a great mix of mystery, strong writing and exceptional story delivery. Other episodes leave you with udder shock with a final intriguing twist. And then, there are episodes like "Be Right Back," the premier episode of the second series.

This episode is in many ways more sparse than other episodes. The tone is soft and somber, and generally less shocking, and only lightly mysterious. The story deals with a woman who's husband dies and she is left alone until a friend introduces her to a technology that will allow her to connect with a simulated version of her husband based on a collection of his online footprint.

This episode is one that upon watching it I was surprised to find how often I thought about it after seeing it. The episode grew richer the longer I had waked away from it. There were certain aspects of this episode that were quite interesting in that the replicated husband was close, but not close enough.

Obviously, there has been plenty said about the dissidence between our online self and our actual self,but this episode was not preachy, it had the perfect simple man, Ash (played by Domhnall Gleeson) who wasn't presenting himself on social media as anything dramatically different from his actual self and so the similarity that was able to be established was very very close, just not quite an exact replica.

Series creator and writer Charlie Brooker could have gone for broke with a dramatic revelation that Ash was someone that his wife didn't know, or gone from some horrific twist, but the Brooker went for understated and sincere. As a result the differences between a replicated Ash and the real Ash are simple items.

Brooker's premise in this episode is not that we should present a true version of ourselves, for example one of the items that replicated Ash does not know about the real Ash is sexually intimate details. This is not presented as a criticism but as a simple gap that would be expected in this type of fantasy technology.

 As such, this episode doesn't just make you ask about your own gaps in your online and real self (and those around you), but also makes you asks which parts of yourself are okay to be left to real life. The episode also asks the question if you were to die what do you leave behind to your loved one's in your own online foot print -- a very new question, only barely discussed and explored.

Brooker writes a heartfelt episode in "Be Right Back" that asks some very real questions, questions worth lingering on, and in the case of this episode my appreciation for it grew only after concluding the episode.

This posts is part of Black Mirror Week on Click here to see the other posts part of this series. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Themes of Sex in Black Mirror

Daniel Kaluuya in "Fifteen Million Merits" (Black Mirror Season 1, Episode 2)
One of the things that keeps me apprehensive about recommending Black Mirror to people on teh streets is the sexual themes that are common in the series.

The episodes often have themes that deal with sex, but the themes are rarely presented in a sexual way (i.e. included because "sex sells), rather they are typically an important part of the story and deal with themes of sexual exploitation or the negative role of technology to unnaturally deliver sexual stimulus to a negative end.

Without spoiling the episode, Fifteen Million Merits, by far one of the most futuristic feeling episodes presents an alternative dystopian world where part of mind numbing tools used on people is pornography and as part of it's story telling a central character is manipulated in a way that leads to further exploitation of a sexual nature.

Many of the time, these topics appear as part of the hidden side of the internet, which is a key part of "Shut Up and Dance" (Season 3) which involves internet usage for less than wholesome things leading people to be placed an exploitable position. Where an episode like this shows people using technology on their free will, other episode such as "Men Against Fire" (Season 3) have military members being exploited by creating false sexual realities as part of the way there minds are used to exploit them and present false realities.

When I think about the comparison of Black Mirror to the The Twilight Zone this is one of the key differences -- in some ways, I chalk it up to edginess that is created in Black Mirror that reflects the producers desire to be shocking, but on the other hand this is also part of the modern technological dilemmas presented. It seems that every new technology ends up having a risk for sexual use, which we talk about at time, particularly when we talk about risk for raising children and providing them technology. But on the other hand, it's not just children -- it's a societal risk that has been introduced that is changing not only our social sensitivities ("The National Anthem," Season 1) and creates not only immoral opportunities but new criminal opportunities ("White Christmas," 2014 special).

There's certainly items all throughout the Black Mirror episodes that warrant discussion, often because of the way they make us feel uncomfortable in the vieiwing, and the topics that flow from Sexual Themes are no exception.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Black Mirror - A Window To The Future or Satire, A Discussion on Nosedive

Alice Eve as Naomi and Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie in "Nosedive" (Black Mirror Season 3, Episode 1)
Certain episode of Black Mirror seem to fall into the "lighter" category - probably as much because of their stylistic elements and production style, as opposed to their content, "Nosedive" is a stand out in this lighter style. Where certainly episodes like "The Waldo Moment"  or "San Junipero" fall into these categories, "Nosedive" over delivers with a a bubbly Bryce Dallas Howard who is taking cutesy pictures of her lattes and childhood stuffed animals as a tool to compel people to rate her highly online.

Where many episodes begin and you wonder "what in the world is going on here?" this episode that opens series 3 is not nearly as mysterious -- the question is "where is this going?" and give you an hour to ponder the consequences of a society based on the star rating of others (imagine Yelp and Instagram coming together to make a disastrous act where star rating controlled every single part of life).

In this "Nosedive," directed by Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride & Prejudice) there may be a little bit of that "this could happen" feeling, but in more ways it comes across as pure satire. This is the only episode of the series my wife joined me in watching and after we watched we both had reflections the following day of odd elevator interactions and made jokes throughout the week of how we would rate others (and how they would rate us) after various interactions.

An episode like "Nosedive" isn't a stand alone for instant reflection, but is certainly one that connects in daily life. Certain people certainly care more about their "like count," "fried count," or "follower count" on various social media platforms. Sure, the thoughts are not to far off in this regard (we live in a world where there are professional instagrammers), but on the flip side your social network profile doesn't impact your ability to get a first class seat on an airplane or entrance into a resort.

That said, there are going to be certain circles where people care about your "counts" in these networks a way that didn't exist a decade ago. I have heard people talk about concerns or thoughts on their connection count on sites like LinkedIn, or if you are a motivational speaker or local business or anyone who tries to generate their own grass roots brand certainly hasn't to be tuned into this space.

I have to think that Office and Parks & Recreation alumni Michael Schur and Rashida Jones (and Harvard grads) in writing this episode wanted to present this as comic parody of how we live today more than a fearful presentation of a future possibility.

Episodes like "Nosedive" that create a slightly changed world certainly raise questions unanswered by the episode -- for me, questions from this universe included when does a child begin rating others and start being rated? What industry is maintaining this rating system and preventing hacks or corruption? Is this a global program or defined by certain jurisdictions?

Schur and Jones would probably tell me "stop thinking so hard, enjoy it for what it is." And with that, I will.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Black Mirror: Top 10 Female Roles in Series 3

The casting in Black Mirror is fantastic, but in the third series/season (Netflix, series 3) the casting is somewhat different and at the same time features some tremendous female performances.

For starters, the casting is, well, less British (although casting is quite diverse), and second while every episode is not female-centric, the female characters in the third series get some meaty and interesting roles and really shine.

Below is a rank list of notable call outs in series 3 -- five as leading females in the episode and five in more cameo/supporting roles.

Top 5 Female Episode Leads, Series 3

1. Kelly Macdonald, Hated in the Nation (Ep 3. 6)

2. Mackenzie Davis, San Junipero (Ep 3. 4)

3. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, San Junipero (Ep 3. 4)

4. Bryce Dallas Howard, Nosedive (Ep 3.1)

5. Faye Marsay, Hated in the Nation (Ep 3. 6)

Top 5 Female Episode Supporting Roles, Series 3

1. Wunmi Mosaku, Playtest (Ep 3.2)

2. Cherry Jones, Nosedive (Ep 3.1)

3. Hannah John-Kamen, Playtest (Ep 3.2)

4. Madeline Brewer, Men Against Fire (Ep 3.5)

5. Sarah Snook, Men Against Fire (Ep 3.5)

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Black Mirror, Series 1 - Well Hello There Downton Abbey and Favorite Masterpiece Friends

Allen Leech in a minor role is the first Black Mirror episode "The National Anthem"
"Whoa, it's Tom from Downton Abbey."

"Wait, that's Mr. Grove from Mr. Selfridge."

Part of the pleasure in the first episodes of Black Mirror (as an American viewer who enjoys some PBS Materpiece as a way to catch some of BBC's shows), and in Episode 1 "The National Anthem" two recognizable faces from Masterpiece show up in small roles. Allen Leech (Tom from Downton Abbey) and Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove from Mr. Selfridge) show up.

And then episode 2 begins and the fictional wife of Downton's Tom, Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Cybil Crawley) plays a staring role in "Fifteen Million Merits."

Jessica Brown Findlay in "Fifteen Million Merits"
I realize to some the casting revelation is not that big of a deal, but on this side of the pond the cross pollination is pure delight...sure I recognized other characters in these episodes as well (Such as Rupert Everett who plays the judge of a singing competion in this second episode as well) but something about the "Masterpiece Theatre Crew" was certainly exciting...surely this trend couldn't continue.

It does.

Episode 3 "The Entire History of You" you see a dinner party that includes a number of serial-british TV cast members reuniting. Tom Cullen (Downton Abbey's Anthony Gillingham), Amy Beth Hayes (Mr. Selfridge's Kitty Hawkins) and Jodie Whitaker (Broadchurch's Beth Latimer).
Tom Cullen in "The Entire History of You" 
And the Downton and Masterpiece connections (to me, on this side of the pond, mind you) seem to end here. These episodes through all three series/seasons are cast well, but it certainly is fun in this earlier phase to see some of these favorite characters appear outside of the role I was most accustomed.

Note to Black Mirror casters, I'd love to see Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockerty, Jim Carter or Joanne Froggarty make an appearance in future episodes.

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Black Mirror - The Power of the Not So Distant Future

From Black Mirror Series 1 Episode 1 "The National Anthem"
In the first episode of Black Mirror, "The National Anthem" this show, known for it's science fiction and technology bent isn't beaming up light years into the future. There are no aliens. There is no mysterious unknown future technology. There is no medical innovation.

No, there is YouTube, Twitter, and cable news.

This episode begins with a kidnap and a ransom video in which the Prime Minister is specifically called out in to perform a bizarre sex act,

From there the story takes some unique turns that while absolutely outrageous in some regards are also incrementally believable.

This episode is one that is hard to place in the rating of the episodes (ranked 10 o 13 on my list) because in many ways it lacks some of thsoe compelling factors that make some of the other episodes so great, and in many ways is a little painful to watch at points -- yet, conceptually where this episode has the most power, and really sets the town for the series is that it's all somehow believable.

This episode, like many of the others leaves the viewer with the sense that this could happen, and maybe some time in the not too distant future.

In terms of episodes, and there reliance on technology, some episodes rely on some social change and technology changes (the furthest reaching in my opinion is incidentally the second episode of the series "Fifteen Million Merits") while many episodes are like this one -- it could happen, well, basically today (much like "Shut Up and Dance").

And while the nearer future episodes may lack some of the intrigue of these rendering of the future, in many ways the closest of these types of potential moments and uses of existing technology are striking.

I mention "Shut Up and Dance" as a similar episode from series 3 that uses technological tools that are readily available (computer viruses, cell phones, GPS trackers) to tell a story that could be stolen from tomorrow's news.

From Series 3 episode "Shut Up and Dance." Text messages read "KEEP LOCATION SERVICES ON | KEEP PHONE ON AND CHARGED | wHEN TIME COME'S YOU WILL BE ACTIVATED")
And for even those stories that rely on future technologies that do not exist the concepts themselves are some how believable, the episodes help bridge the gap to explain how these technologies, with all their unintended consequences, might come to be -- often with multiple purposes, including purposes that can be exploited.

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here.

Black Mirror - Rankings of the First 13 Episodes

John Hamm as Matt in the Black Mirror Special "White Christmas"
Originally aired December 16, 2014
Ranking the first 13 Episodes of Black Mirror is easy in the sense that they are all stand alone episodes and some of them are just easy to call out as fantastic.

On the other hand, establishing a criteria to rank an episode is tricky. There are some episodes which are more enjoyable while watching them - often in the way they grab you and keep you hooked (or guessing), while other episodes might be a little more painful to watch but by the time the episode resolves has you reflecting on what you just watched for days.

I've tried to marry the enjoyment and lingering thoughtfulness factor in my rankings below.

And then, there's the unfair advantage of some episodes being well, longer - and in the case of Black Mirror, both episodes that tip towards feature length at 90 or so minutes are two of the best.

Here's my rankings, feel free to suggest that I have it all wrong.

1. "White Christmas" (2.4)
2. "Hated in the Nation" (3.6)
3. "San Junipero" (3.4)
4. "Be Right Back" (2.1)
5. "White Bear" (2.2)
6. "Nosedive" (3.1)
7. "The Entire History of You" (1.3)
8. "Shut Up and Dance" (3.3)
9. "Fifteen Million Merits" (1.2)
10. "The National Anthem" (1.1)
11. "Men Against Fire" (3.5)
12. "The Waldo Moment" (2.3)
13. "Playtest" (3.2)

This post is part of Black Mirror Week on StrangeCultureBlog. See the list of other posts here

Black Mirror Week

Some shows are not for everyone, and would be reluctant to broadcast that everyone I know watch Black Mirror, but I for one find the series absolutely fascinating.

Black Mirror originally aired on the BBC with three episode in December 2011, three episodes February 2013, a stand alone special in December of 2014, and then a Netflix run with additional episodes as a third series released in October 2016 (six episodes, with the promise of six more not yet released).

It seems that as a point of comparison the show most frequently is compared to the Twilight Zone, with stand alone episode exploring dark themes largely based on the unintended consequences of technology.

Having now watched all thirteen of the available episodes I am preparing a week of posts dedicated to Black Mirror, posts that are published will be captured here in this post as an index.

Is Black Mirror for everyone, no -- but there are few shows where each episode has the unique power to get in your head, either eliciting great respect for the creativity and craftsmanship or simply messes with your hear in it's presentation of the technology and the potentials in the not so distant future.

Post in this series:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Man Called Ove

In an effort to read 12 books in 2017, tonight I finished the book A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman.

The book published in 2012, the debut novel by Swedish author Backman was translated into English in 2013 and has been a bestseller.

The novel begins with a cranky fifty-nine year old man, Ove, in a computer store. Clearly, he knows nothing about technology and lives in a different world that the salesman who fails to connect or understand his customer.

What a benign and comical beginning to a thoughtful and moving book, a book that builds up a world of interesting characters and history from this humble beginning.

Because of the way this story builds with hints of mystery (usually answered a paragraph or two after the mystery is presented) it's hard to write a spoiler free summary of this book, and instead it leaves me wanting to simply recommend that other's read it.

There are certain qualities of this book that are too convenient or things in other circumstances I might consider gimmicky or conventional, but the way that Backman seems to find the balance here in a way that takes the reader to the edge and then pulls back in just the right way with masterful timing and simple style.

Somehow the characters here, and they are characters, are also strangely human -- these caricatures of people still strike a human balance. In reading the logic and ridiculous words of Ove, I often found myself relating to the ridiculous things I might say and if I wasn't chuckling to myself, would find myself reading comical lines allowed to those around me.

In many ways this book captures both the joys and sorrows of a life, as well as the opportunity to be a part of the story in the lives of others.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Old Man and The Sea

As part of my effort to read 12 books in 2017 I recently read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

This book, like a handful of other "classics" I've never read has intrigued me for sometime. I often tell people my favorite type of book is one without too many characters and so this one that is a man at sea on a boat seemed like one I was missing out on.

The book The Old Man and the Sea won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and appeared in Life magazine. It's hard for me to imagine reading this book in it's magazine form, and while Hemingway was famous at the time of it's publication you have to wonder if in reading it people were aware of it's significance at that time.

There is something striking reading this over a half a century after it's first release because while the world has changed dramatically, there is something very human portrayed in the story of a an old man who is past his prime who has that one last big adventure, an adventure made all the more challenging due to age, yet all the more important because of it.

On the other hand, Santiago, an aged man who hasn't caught a fish in months encounters a giant marlin at sea, reminds us of how much the world has changed. For starters, the Cuba presented here continues to change since the publication of this book. Additionally, the book was written without any ecologically themed presentation on the role of pollution, population, or the role of over fishing. Not to mention, the role of industry has continued to change, and as it does the central act of fishing here looks more like contemporary sport than the picture here associated with mid-twentieth century survival.

In all these ways, it's hard to say how this book might be viewed if it had it's first publication today. There's something almost romantic and nostalgic about the hard course, the triumph, and the challenge faced by it's central character. A message that seems to communicate that there is nothing that comes easy without pain, defeat and heartache, and that somehow that is beautifully human.