Black Mirror (Seasons 1-3)

Greetings loved ones. Liu is the name, and views are my game.

What if you could build a man, based on his social media posts? What if you could watch memories, like movies, on a screen? What if a signal was sent out that turned half the world into passive spectators, and the other half into murderous hunters ? These questions, and more, are what get asked and explored in Black Mirror, a British anthology series that’s streaming on Netflix. Each episode features a different cast, a different story, and a different reality. But all feature the recurrent motif of technology, and a dry, nihilistic sense of humor. The series might best be described as half science fiction, half satire.

In many respects, Black Mirror is the spiritual successor to The Twilight Zone, the classic sci-fi anthology series that ran for five seasons back in the 50s. Both feature episodes with different casts and story-lines. Both ask moral and philosophical questions, usually through a scientific or magical plot device. Both feature macabre twist endings, and both gave actors who would eventually become super famous their first big break. Seriously. Black Mirror has got way more famous British actors in it than I would have thought. You’ve got Domhnall Gleason, from The Force Awakens, The Revenant and Ex Machina. You’ve got Hayley Atwell, or as you may know her, agent Peggy carter from the MCU. You’ve got Tuppence Middleton from Sense8. You’ve got Daniel Kaluuya from Get Out. You’ve got Toby Kebbell, who’s starred in every major big budget flop that’s come out in the last four years. You’ve got Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, Beauty and the Beast, and Beyond the Lights. And, of course, you’ve got Benedict Wong, from Marco Polo, Doctor Strange, and The Martian. So much talent. And it was all before they were famous. But I’m getting sidetracked.

Black Mirror is a very smart, very well-written series. Even in its weaker episodes, the show is consistently entertaining. The acting is always top notch, as is the production design. And I really want to emphasize this, its original. Every single episode features a unique; thought provoking concept. And none of them are remakes of older stories, adaptations of preexisting material, or spin offs of other stuff. Do you realize how rare that is? Do you realize how virtually nothing that gets made these days is not a sequel, remake, adaptation or spin off? For that reason, I have to recommend you all watch this. Even if you don’t like sci-fi, you’ll appreciate the show for it’s emotional depth and it’s originality. Especially the latter.

But before you get the wrong idea, the series isn’t perfect. Where the show falters the most is its cynicism. Virtually all the episodes end in an extremely bleak manner, and, very often, those endings fly in the face of the world and the characters that have been established. I understand tragedy is seen as the highest, most respectable form of dramatic art, but forced tragedy is awkward and unrealistic. And it doesn’t hit you as hard when you know that the story shouldn’t have ended that way, not because you didn’t want it to, but because the ending was easily avoidable. And example of this “false tragedy” I’m talking about is the episode “Fifteen Million Merits.” In it, we see Daniel Kaluuya raging against the numb, media obsessed dystopia that he’s living in. He spends the entire episode telling us how much he hates it and how much he hates the people who have turned the world into thoughtless zombies. And yet, by the end of the episode, he joins the big media company and becomes part of the system he despises. And it comes out of nowhere. It’s not like the show builds up to this by throwing us little hints that maybe he actually likes the system. He hates it, and then, out of nowhere, when he’s given the chance to join it, he does. Why? It doesn’t make sense. And because of that, I don’t feel devastated. I just feel confused. And even in episodes that don’t include sci-fi elements, like the first episode of the series, “the national anthem,” the show’s harsh, mean-spirited tone is off-putting. In that episode, a royal princess gets kidnapped, and the only way to save her is if the prime minister fucks a pig. And we have to watch him do it. Why? What possible good can come from forcing us to watch an old man get pressured into committing bestiality. What does that say, other than that you hate politicians? I hate Donald trump, but I would never want to have to watch him fuck a gorilla. That’s just cruel and mean. And it doesn’t teach us anything. The only episode that has a happy ending is San Junipero, a sweet little love story about two women finally being able to be with each other in an artificial construct. And there, it comes as an all too welcome relief.

All I can say is that Black Mirror is a brilliantly-written, highly original, but deeply mean spirited and nihilistic show. I want to recommend it, but I feel I can’t do so without warning you of its content. Make of this what you will.

Sense8 (Season 2, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Will and Riley are on the run. So is Nomi and her girlfriend, Neets. Lito has been publicly outed after confronting a friend’s abusive ex. Kala has gone ahead and married her fiancé, Rajan. Capheus, having done the unthinkable by standing up to a local warlord, is now hailed as a hero. Wolfgang is reunited with his best friend, Felix. And Sun, poor Sun, is still trapped in solitary confinement. But not for long. Because things are moving, and faster than you might think.

Sense8 is a show I really enjoyed when it first came out. I liked the concept of people becoming psychically linked. I liked the international cast and setting. I liked the fact that it touched upon relevant social issues, such as gender, sexuality, and identity. But, as much as I liked it, I was more than willing to admit it had problems. Hokey dialogue, underdeveloped plot threads, illogical character choices; these were just a few of the bigger flaws I noticed. And yet, I still recommended the first season to everyone, and was excited to see what the creators, Lily and Lana Wachowski, would do with the second. Well, season 2 is finally here, and this is what I have to say about it.

A lot of the problems from season 1, such as on-the-nose dialogue and stupid character choices, carry over. So does the show’s reliance on racial and national stereotypes. And yet, the funny thing is, when you’re watching the show, you don’t really care. Seriously. Maybe its because the dialogue is less hokey than before, or because the stereotypes–like the idea of the white savior and Asian martial artist–are actually addressed this time around. But, honestly, I think its because the show has so much heart, and so many great character moments, that you forgive its weaker aspects. There are so many great beats in the first episode alone –like when Sun is reassuring kala that sex is something to enjoy, and not be afraid of, or when Lito’s boyfriend, Hernando, gets outed during a lecture, and handles it with grace and dignity–that I have to recommend you all see it.

To put it bluntly, Sense8, season 2 is silly, but its the best kind of silly. Its fun, its inoffensive, and it leaves you feeling warm inside. You really love these characters, and you love following them on their journey. Does that journey make sense, or follow any kind of narrative logic? No. But who cares. The show is still beautiful, and I still think you should give it a look.

Master Of None (Season 2, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

After spending six months in Italy, mastering the art of pasta making, Dev returns to New York, where he reunites with his friends, and has wacky misadventures involving love, technology, race, and, of course, food. Lots and lots of food.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, you know that I absolutely adored the first season of Master of None. I thought it was very funny, and a lot of what it had to say about modern technology, the immigrant experience, and the limited roles available for Asian actors really spoke to me. And, for the most part, Master Of None, season 2 maintains a lot of what made that first season so great. The series regulars are awesome, there’s some biting social commentary, and, of course, it’s funny. Very funny. In fact, I laughed a lot more at this season than I did at the first one. I still like the first season better, but that’s mostly because I like what it has to say. But, if you don’t care about commentary, and just want to laugh, I would recommend this season to you. And, in general, I would recommend the season to everyone. It’s a fine example of modern television.

That being said, I do have problems with it. The biggest, for me, is the season long romantic arc between Dev and the show’s new female lead, Francesca. I… hated it. Seriously. I hated it. I hated Francesca’s character. She’s a bland, uninteresting bore. I hated how Dev’s constant complaining about how he likes her, but can’t be with her, ground the comedy to a halt. This whole scenario, liking someone who’s already in a relationship, was dealt with beautifully in one, 20 minute episode in the first season. We don’t need a four episode arc to tell this story. Another thing that works against this season is all the cutaways to food. Yes, food is a huge part of Dev’s character, and the first season did feature it, but there it was kept to a gracious minimum. It never got in the way of the story. Here, the cutaways override the story. There were many moments while I was watching where I was certain that the only reason they were showing this was that Aziz Ansari wanted to eat something, and he told the crew, “film it.” And, finally, part of what made the first season special was how it thoughtfully dealt with social issues. The second season does have a few episodes, like “Religion,” “Thanksgiving,” and the finale, “Buona Notte,” which deal with faith, coming out to one’s parents, and sexual harassment in the workplace, but, for the most part, food and mother of all bores, Francesca, take center stage here.

Still, I did like the season overall, and I would recommend it to you. It is funny, and it does have a lot of what made season 1 great. Just go in with tempered expectations.

Dear White People (Season 1, 2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

After an ill-conceived blackface party reignites lingering racial tensions, the students of the fictional Winchester University air their grievances in specific, unique ways. Some, like local provocateur Sam, do so by protesting major events, and shouting obscenities over the radio. Others, like shy journalism student Lionel, do so by investigating the causes of the party, and writing stories for the college paper. There are those who try to work with the administration. There are those who try to manipulate it to their own advantage. And, in the end, they all come together in this 10 episode adaptation of the acclaimed drama film from 2014.

Now, if you’ve read my blog, then you know that I wasn’t actually a big fan of the original Dear White People. I thought that it had trouble balancing its tone, and that the overly quirky aesthetic–perfectly symmetrical shots, pastel colored backgrounds, whip pans–was jarring when set against the serious subject matter. Well, someone must have read my review, and shown it to the director, because Dear White People the series is simply spectacular. I enjoyed it immensely, and consider it vastly superior to its feature length predecessor. Certain elements from the original film that didn’t add anything–the Reality TV Crew, Troy’s relationship with a White girl–got cut, while other elements–the back stories of Sam and Coco, Lionel’s struggle with his sexuality–got considerably more fleshed out. And all the stuff from the original film that was good–the witty dialogue, the strong performances–carried over. It was the best of both worlds, and I’m very happy about that. Part of what I think helps this series stand above the film its based off of is the fact that the creators have 10 episodes to tell their story, as opposed to just two hours. As such, they have a lot more time to go back and develop various characters and plot threads. Like I said, Coco and Sam, who, in the original film, just didn’t like each other because the latter was taking attention away from the former, get a much more nuanced, and fairly tragic, history with one another in the series. Characters who weren’t that important in the original movie, like Sam’s radical friend Reggie, get whole episodes devoted to them. Hell, his episode, which, incidentally, was directed by Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, was probably my favorite one in the entire show.

Put simply, Dear White People the series is a masterclass in adaptation. It omits weaker elements from the source material. It expands upon aspects that need to be expanded upon. It maintains the best aspects of its predecessor, and manages to be highly entertaining all the while. If you want to laugh, cry, and, best of all, think, give this show a look.

American Crime: Season 2

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

If there’s anything I’ve learned after 21 years on this Earth, it’s that having expectations is never a good idea. All you’re doing is setting yourself up for disappointment. I bring this up because, I went into the second season of American Crime, a show that I reviewed on here, and really loved, with expectations, and wound up being highly disappointed. Now, I’m not trying to say that the second season was terrible, it just wasn’t quite to the same level that the first one was. And I wanted to tell anyone who might have been looking to watch it, be warned. It might not be what you expected, or hoped for.

For those of you who don’t know, American Crime is an anthology series, meaning each season revolves around a different plot and characters, created by John Ridley, the man who wrote 12 Years A Slave.  The first season centers around a murder in Modesto, California, and deals with themes like race and xenophobia. The second season revolves around a rape in Indianapolis, and seeks to examine homophobia and the stigma of sexual assault. Except it doesn’t. It starts out with you thinking that its going to be about those things, but quickly shoots off into a number of sub-plots, each dealing with a different issue. You’ve got one plot thread involving the principal of a public school, and tensions between Black and Latino communities. You’ve got another one focusing on a wealthy Black businesswoman, and her seeming dislike of other Black people. You’ve got the conflict between public and private schools, and how unfairly favored the wealthy are in terms of treatment. And there are a ton of other topics, like mental illness, cyber-security, teen drug dealing, divorce, child molestation, and even school shootings, which don’t get brought up until the last three episodes, and which honestly feel like they were just thrown in. Now, I do believe that each of those subjects deserves to be written about, and that the writers of American Crime did provide some interesting perspectives on them, but the series as a whole feels over-stuffed and scatter-brained. If they had just limited the show to the rape case, and all the issues that accompany that topic, I feel the season would have been more cohesive and thematically focused. As it stands, though, the season felt overwrought, and I feel like there were too many disparate elements that had nothing to do with each other.

Now, some of you might be thinking, “well, fine. It’s got a lot of story lines and topics. So what? Is it at least enjoyable?” Yes, and no. As with the first season, the acting is good, the dialogue is great, and there are a lot of gut-wrenching scenes and moments. At the same time, however, the fact that the show kept shifting perspective, and didn’t seem able to decide which issue it wanted to focus on, all made it harder for me to latch on to any one character. Because the show didn’t do that. People who you think you’re going to follow and care about, like the young man who says he got raped, end up becoming either secondary, or despicable. In his case, we find out pretty early on that it “wasn’t rape,” because he “wanted it,” a sentiment I find highly offensive to victims of sexual assault, and the show actually spends more time trying to get you to care about the kid who beat him. There are also a number of other characters, like this random hacker who just shows up in the eighth episode of this ten episode season, who are thrown in at the last possible second, and who suddenly become major players. This season honestly reminds me of films like Spider-Man 3, or The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which had an overabundance of plot threads and characters, and disappointed at the box office and with critics as a result. Now, granted, American Crime, Season 2 got much better reviews than those films when it came out. Still, there were points when I was watching it that I didn’t think I could go on, and that’s never a good sign for a TV series.

So, if you were a fan of the first season, maybe you’ll enjoy this. As for me, I don’t feel any need to watch it again.

American Crime: Season 1

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And boy do I love being wrong! What? That doesn’t make sense? well, allow me to explain. I just finished watching the first season of American Crime, yet another anthology series looking to “examine race in our modern society.” And yet, despite its well-worn premise, and lackluster title, I ended up loving the show. It’s truly a fantastic piece of art. I highly recommend it to you all.

The story of a murder in Modesto, California, American Crime stars an ensemble cast, and examines how each of the people connected to the crime react to it. First, there are the people who were directly involved. There’s Antonio “Tony” Gutierez, a teenage boy who works at his father’s auto repair shop. There’s Hector Tontz, a drug dealer and illegal immigrant who rents cars from Tony. There’s Carter Nix, a meth head whom Hector drives around sometimes. And, finally, there’s Aubrey Taylor, Carter’s girlfriend, and accomplice. One night, something goes wrong, and a guy named Matt Skokie winds up dead, and his wife, Gwen, gets put in the hospital. By the end of the show, we’re not entirely sure what happened, or who’s really to blame, but, one thing we do know is that, somehow, Tony, Hector, Carter and Aubrey were involved, and they each get arrested as a result. Their family members then get called in, including Tony’s father, Alonzo, a strict disciplinarian who wants to keep his son on the straight and narrow, Carter’s sister, Aliya, a convert to Islam determined to get her brother off free, Matt Skokie’s divorced parents, Barb and Russ, and Gwen’s parents, Tom and Eve. Each of these people has serious issues, and they only get more messed up as the sordid details of the case come to light. Barb, a delusional racist, doesn’t want to accept that her son was selling drugs. Tom, an old-fashioned Christian, can’t stand the idea that Gwen, his little girl, was sleeping around. And Eve, well, she’s just trying to keep her sanity in check as everything crumbles around her. Needless to say, a great deal of drama unfolds over the course of this 11 episode series, and, if you want to find out what happens, you should give it a look.

As I stated earlier, I really enjoyed this show. As far as writing and acting are concerned, I have no complaints. Every character has depth and backstory. Every character changes over the course of the series. Seriously. I started off the show hating Barb and hector, and, by the end, they’d grown and changed so much that I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for them. And the casting could not have been better. See, very often when you watch a movie or a show, there’ll be that one person who, even if they were fine, just wasn’t up to the same level as the rest of the cast. Those of you who’ve read my review for Suicide Squad (HELL YEAH!) might remember that I praised all the actors, except Jared Leto, whom I believed was really hamming it up. I don’t have that problem here. There’s no single actor in this series who stands out as “bad,” or “just okay.” Everyone is great, and I appreciate that. And, for a show dealing with race and racism, the series does largely manage to avoid racist stereotypes. What I mean by that is, very often, movies that try to comment on racism will make their characters extremely stereotypical so as to make a point. Films like Do The Right Thing, Falling Down, and Crash are populated by individuals that feel more like cartoons than real people. These movies are especially bad when it comes to representing Asians and Asian Americans. See, race movies mostly tend to focus on the relationships between Black people, White people, and Latin people. If Asian people are brought up at all, they’re either a background element, or someone that the other characters can mock. Most of the time, they’re shown as being incompetent , rude, and, no matter what, incapable of speaking the most basic English. That’s not the case with American Crime. Yes, none of the main cast is Asian, but, Barb and Russ’s living son, Mark, is getting married to a woman named Richelle, who is Asian American, and is actually fairly non stereotypical. She speaks perfect English, is from Oklahoma, and is in the Army. It’s rare to see a character like her get written, especially in a show that’s directly addressing racism, and I was very impressed. Wish more writers would create characters like her. So, yeah, good writing, good acting, and good representation. Well done, American Crime.
With regards to filmmaking, though, I do have some comments. They’re not necessarily complaints, just observations. One is the fact that, this show is shot in a very odd way. What I mean by that is, most of the time, directors will shoot a conversation between characters as a series of close ups on the various speakers faces, or with a wide shot, where you can see both actors at the same time. American Crime doesn’t do that. Very often, whenever a conversation is being had, the camera will only focus on one person’s face, and either the other speaker will be off screen, or will be blurred out so that you can’t see them. What this does is make the conversations feel less like conversations, and more like long showcases of how particular characters are feeling. Which is fine, and maybe was the filmmaker’s intent, but, still, it’s hard to look at one person’s face, non-stop, for an entire seven minute conversation. The other comment I have with regards to filmmaking is that, while the musical score does its job just fine, accenting particular moments with proper amounts of pathos, it’s not particularly memorable. I honestly couldn’t hum it back to you if you asked me. And that’s fine, not every score needs to be as catchy as John William’s Superman theme, but, still. It’s better if your musical score can stand out.

All in all, though, I think American Crime is a very well done series, with strong writing, and strong performances. I highly recommend it, and have decided to give it a 9 out of 10. Give it a look.

Stranger Things

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And if ever there was a work of art that could only be described as “nostalgia porn,” it would have to be the new Netflix original series, Stranger Things. Set during the 80s, in a fictional town in Indiana, the show follows an ensemble cast as they deal with the disappearance of a young boy, and a number of strange and horrifying events at night. It features a ton of 80s music, pop culture references, and nods to the works of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg. It’s basically just the show runners’, Matt and Ross Duffer’s, big love letter to the Reagan era. Which is fine for two men going through a mid-life crisis, but does it make for good television?
Well, with such a lackluster title, and unoriginal premise, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t enthusiastic about watching this series at all. Now, however, having actually sat down and binged the entire show, I can tell you, I was 100% wrong about Stranger Things. This is one of the best shows on Netflix, and that’s saying a lot, when you consider that the likes of Breaking Bad, Master Of None, Orange Is The New Black, Lost, and Broadchurch are also available on the streaming service.
But what makes this show so good, you ask? The writing. Hands down, it’s the best part of this series. Every character is so fleshed out and well-rounded, that you can’t help but fall in love with them. And that’s saying a lot, when you consider that, on the surface, most of these characters are archetypes. You’ve got the drunken police chief with a troubled past, the strong, but struggling single mother, the rebellious teenage daughter, the bland boy protagonist and his two token friends, token fat kid and token black kid, and many others. And yet, the filmmakers were able to give these characters enough good dialogue, enough personality traits, and enough scenes where they grow and develop that you can’t help but love them. And the acting, especially of the four main kids–Mike, Lucas, Dustin and Eleven–is very impressive. Their performances are easily the best part of this series. Caleb McLaughlin, whom plays Lucas, especially impressed me. I could easily see him going on to become a big star, and play main roles like that of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Seriously. His character is the cynical loner of the group. he’s got lots of gadgets and gizmos. He gets into lots of arguments with his friends about being “naive” and “overly optimistic.” He really is the Batman of this world’s mini Justice League, and I’d love it if he went on to play the Dark Knight in the real JLA. Now, of course, no one can say for certain whether he will, or even whether he’ll continue to act after this series ends, but the bottom line is, he’s great, and I loved watching him.
Now, of course, no work of art is without its flaws, and Stranger Things certainly has a few. One is Winona Ryder. She plays the mother of the boy who’s gone missing, and is the one who gets top billing on all the advertisements. She’s also the most annoying character in the whole show. I understand that her son has gone missing, and that she’s under a lot of psychological stress, but there’s barely a scene in this series where she’s not crying, or speaking in a really shaky voice. And that really starts to grate on your nerves after a while. On top of this, the show fails the Bechdel test. Hard. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s a game you play when watching a movie or TV show. It consists of you asking three questions; 1) is there more than one female character? 2) Do these female characters talk to each other? And 3) About something other than a man? If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” then the movie is progressive and unique in its portrayal of women. If not, well, you get what most Hollywood productions are. And, sadly, Stranger Things, as good as it is, doesn’t allow it’s female characters to talk about topics other than men, so, no new ground being broken there. And that brings me to my last gripe with the series, it’s damn near fetishization of the past. See, every few years, a movie or TV show will come out that really romanticizes a certain time period. For years, the era that everyone seemed determined to drool over was the 1950s. Back To The Future, Diner, Stand By Me, these are just a few of the movies that basically serve as love letters to this decade. And while each of these films is great, and the people who worked on them are all very talented, the pictures themselves very often neglect to portray the negative aspects of that time period. The 1950s were when Jim Crow segregation was at its strongest. They were the decade before the women’s liberation movement. They were an era when people lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation, and when “the red scare” led to thousands of innocent, or simply liberal-minded, people losing their jobs and getting blacklisted. So, yeah. The 50s were a simpler time, provided that you were a straight, white, heterosexual Christian male, with an Anglo-Saxon last name, and a near blinding level of patriotism coursing through your veins. Nowadays, we recognize this fact, and so we have decided to fetishize another era; the 1980s. Tons of YouTube personalities, like the Nostalgia Critic, the Angry Video Game Nerd, and Linkara, have made videos tributing the films and pop culture of this era. Stranger Things does this as well. But what they all fail to recognize is that the 80s weren’t perfect either. Homophobia was at a record high due to fear of AIDS and HIV. Crack cocaine was everywhere. And let’s not forget a little group in Afghanistan called the Mujahideen (aka the Taliban) that America felt the need to support in their fight against the Soviets. Yes, it’s cool to see a work of art reference things like Risky Business, and John Carpenter’s The THing. But it should at least acknowledge that the time period in which those movies and songs came out was imperfect.
Still, with all that said, I did really enjoy Stranger Things, and have decided to give it an 8 out of 10. Please, please watch it! I promise you, it will be worth your time.