Black Mirror series 5 review

Another year, another bleak foray into the existential dread of the nature of the human condition. Although, this time, things seem a little different. Perhaps showrunner Charlie Brooker has discovered inner peace, or at least a substance based substitute, because Black Mirror series five is perhaps the franchise’s most optimistic and bright outing yet.

Continuing on Netflix following six expectedly dark episodes and one bizarre and disappointing AR experiment that Bandersnatched expectations and threw them down the loo, series five provides a comparatively conservative three episodes. The viewing order is seemingly random, so I’ll briefly break each down in the order I was shown; Striking Vipers, Smithereens, and finally Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too.

Reflecting on the three as a whole, there are two major differences when compared to previous series. Firstly; less of a reliance on future technology for narrative devices. Unlike the memory chips, cookies, and robot dogs of past series’, this edition could almost be considered contemporary. Facebook (sorry, Smithereens) and VR games are the targets of Brooker’s cutting ire instead. Of course, there is some tech that goes beyond the realm of current possibility, mainly within Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, but instead of being horrifying and dread inducing, it’s just a bit too silly to believe. That said, this is the same series that tried to sell us on a prison-torture theme park, so make of that what you will.

That leads me nicely onto difference number two; tone. Historically, and especially during its initial Channel Four run, Black Mirror has taken an almost laughably bleak view of modern / future life via desperately depressing scripts. Horrifically dark twist endings would flirt with almost absurdist finales that would make even the grimmest Twilight Zone epilogue look like an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark. Not so in series five. While only one of the three endings could be considered ‘happy,’ another is certainly optimistic, and the final one is ambiguous, but admittedly, more traditionally ‘Brookerish’.

Striking Vipers 

Striking Vipers is about two dudes shagging as Street Fighter characters while telling themselves that ‘it’s not cheating’ (life hack fellas – if you’re hiding it from them, it’s cheating). Alright, so there’s more to it than that. The question of sexuality is probably the most underdeveloped aspect, and LGBTQ+ viewers will likely be disappointed to see how glossed over this conversation is, as it essentially amounts to ‘no homo.’ The VR concept is novel, and I’m always game for a conversation that encourages video games to be viewed as an art form worthy of intellectual discussion (as well as scantily clad fighters with fire punches), but the social commentary just doesn’t hit the mark here.

It should go without saying that all three episodes are shot real nicely, maintaining the washed out Black Mirror colour palette that gives the series its own identity. Performance wise, it was lovely to see nobody’s favourite Avenger Anthony Mackie show off some proper acting chops. He’s great, and I’d love to see him in more things. Overall, Striking Vipers is a beautifully filmed episode with great moments, but an ultimately undercooked script.

***

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Smithereens 

So this is the best one, without question. The commentary about the out of control state of social media, as well as how damn effective it is at keeping your personal data, to the point where it does a better job than the police, is terrifyingly on point. Andrew Scott is absolutely sublime here. He brings a genuine frustration that is so absolute, so severe, yet mathematical in nature. You don’t know what he’ll do next, and his performance combined with the tight script will have you on pins for the sixty five minute run time.

Other performances are equally excellent. I particularly enjoyed Topher Grace as a would-be Mark Zuckerberg, Billy Bauer. What could’ve easily been a one note villain becomes a sympathetic and almost likeable pawn of his own making, which was a great twist. One tiny gripe; the woman playing the lead British Police Officer was just…not good or convincing? Did no one pick up on this? Her intonation was all over the place, and the direction wasn’t strong enough to iron this element out. Luckily every other actor puts in the work and the result is a tense, brutal episode, that, while ultimately ambiguous, comes the closest to the quintessential shock and suspense that only Black Mirror can deliver.

*****

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Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too

Yikes. At the polar opposite of Smithereens comes Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too. Not only the weakest in the series, but a contender for worst Black Mirror thing, ever. It’s between this and Bandersnatch, because boy, this one was a tough slog.

There’s a great script in here somewhere. If the focus had been on Ashley O (Miley Cyrus), and the toxic relationship with her (hilariously) evil Aunt, we could’ve had some ace commentary about the music industry, corporate greed, and the breakdown of strained family relationships. Instead, we focus on two plucky sisters who learn the value of sisterhood via a talking, swearing Hannah Montana doll. It’s a mess. The Ashley doll is bafflingly played for comedy and the result is a haphazard, tonally inconsistent romp that ends (perhaps appropriately considering the lead) with a finale ripped straight from a Disney Channel movie.

That said, the performances delivered, cinematography choices, and editing are all on point. Miley Cyrus gives a surprisingly subdued, genuine performance that lets you empathise with Ashley’s situation. It’s just a shame that this well developed characterisation ultimately devolves into Pizza Delivery costumes / generic baddies / rat robots / doll road trip / crashing a virtual pop concert / forming a punk super group. Don’t hate me for spoilers, I’ve saved you an hour of your life.

**

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Overall, Black Mirror series five is the very definition of a mixed bag. Smithereens is instant classic and one of my personal favourites, with its realistic commentary that doesn’t veer off into absurdism, grounded by an exceptional lead performance from Scott. Then Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too is essentially well filmed trash that not only jumps the shark but proceeds to come back on a hoverboard, slaps the shark in the face, call its mum a dirty word, then jump over it all over again. Striking Vipers sits somewhere in the middle of the scale of badness, but the muddled script and message make me lean towards it being on the worse end.

I do, however, prefer the small episode release model though as it allows me to appreciate each episode properly and thoroughly. With series four, I find myself forgetting the specifics, as well as episode names, so I’m game for tighter series’ moving forward.

If history is anything to go by, one thing is for sure; Mr. Brooker pays attention to what people say. The main complaint on the twittersphere has been the lighter tone, so if his Netflix overloads allow it, I’d expect the inevitable season six to pile on the macabre scripts to make up for what could in hindsight be a breath of levity before we properly dive into the pits of despair.

★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019) review

Besides ‘we have no cheese’ and ‘live action remake‘ there are few words that fill me with such dread as ‘Toy Story 4.’ A trilogy that is unanimously agreed to be as close to animated cinematic perfection as possible really didn’t require a fourth entry, and the list of good third sequels could barely fit on a sentient spork. Alas, here we are. But, in a ray of optimism, Toy Story 4 is not bad. Far from it, in fact. Does it live up to the immense standards of its predecessors, though? Well, no.

There’s a lot to like in Toy Story 4 (it still feels weird to type that). From the fun new players like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, to the mercifully fresh narrative, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the credibility of the franchise remains intact. In what will come as a surprise to nobody, leading man Tom Hanks is still likeable and compelling as Woody, a role he’s been played with affable joy for nearly thirty years. Let that one sink in. Everyone (except Bonnie’s) favourite Sheriff’s arc is undoubtedly intended as a metaphor for Fathers of children who’ve left home, as he struggles to find purpose in an Andy-light world, where he’s no longer the number one toy at play time. Hanks slips back into the role with ease, delivering on both the comedy and the mushy moments through the warm gravitas that only his voice can bring.

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Sadly, besides a near unrecognisable Bo Peep, Woody is the only member of the OG gang to get much of any focus. Fan favourites like Slinky, Jessie, Rex, and my beloved Bullseye are afforded almost no screen time, and are hastily left out of the action in favour of new players. Even once co lead Buzz Lightyear feels not only sidelined, but also dumbed down, to the point that he feels a shell of his former, heroic self. As a big fan of Buzz, this was a shame to see, especially as the initial draft of the script was reportedly Buzz-centric, an element that hasn’t reappeared since the first film.

Nostalgic gripes aside, the new players are mostly welcome. Christina Hendricks’ Gabby is a suitable evolution of the bitter-toy-villain stereotype, and despite her frankly horrific organ harvesting plan, she does garner a suitable level of audience empathy. A big shout out must also go to the ventriloquist dummies; a genius concept for henchman that are as hilarious as they are nightmare inducing.

So, about Bo. She’s great here, though entirely unrecognisable from her original appearance, even sporting a new voice. Her former damsel in distress / weirdly sexy voice persona has all but evaporated, as she (somehow) trades in her porcelain dress in favour of a badass cloak and bandage combo. She leads an underlying motif of girl power than runs throughout the film, as Jessie, Dolly, Gabby, and Bo all either lead the gang or take the reigns of power from the male leads. You could take an academic feminist reading and say they’re taking back power from the patriarchy. Hell, Woody even literally loses his voice to a woman. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into it and they’re just better written characters.

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In terms of the technical stuff, this is Pixar working with all engines running. The visuals are fantastically realised, with smooth animation that reminds you how refined the medium has become since the gang first broke ground in 1995. The Antique store’s cat in particular looks amazingly lifelike, especially when compared to the very polygonic dog guarding Sid’s back garden in the original. The colour palette is equally lovely, with far less murky blacks and greens than its darker predecessor. The carnival setting allows for vibrant and varied technicolour machinations at every turn.

The traditional Randy Newman score also makes a somewhat triumphant return, with a wonderfully nostalgic montage song near the beginning, harkening back to the days of ‘Strange Things’ and ‘I Will Go Sailing No More.’ It would also be a lie to say that the reprise of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ didn’t put a big smile on my face. The orchestral score however, does seem entirely phoned in. Character leitmotif is one thing (and one thing I’m VERY passionate about), but entire musical cues are seemingly ripped in their entirety from previous entries, which is just lazy.

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It is the script that is ultimately the film’s greatest strength, yet its biggest weakness. In many ways the plot is a breath of fresh air, and many jokes and emotional moments do indeed stick (or rather crash – you’ll get it when you watch it), the landing. However, there’s just something absent, that makes the experience ring hollow. Perhaps it comes down to the MIA main cast, or the bittersweet ending that’ll undoubtedly be a divisive topic. Personally though, I feel the pacing drags, far more than in its predecessors. There was just more of a sense of urgency in those films, that left you genuinely tense. Here however, through the admirable exploration adult topics like life purpose and existential crisis (!), the film loses a bit of what made Toy Story so great. The camaraderie and simplistic storytelling is lost, but what replaces it isn’t bad, just different.

I ultimately feel warmer about Toy Story 4 the more I think about it. It remains in my mind, unnecessary in its existence, when the third and at the time, ‘final instalment’ had a sense of finality that will always be unmatched. However, Toy Story 4 justifies itself by taking the characters (well, two of them) in bold new directions, touching on important, difficult aspects of life in a sugar coated, comedic skin that stop things getting too real. If a Buzz focused Toy Story 5 is in the future, then so be it. If it’s this good, then we have little cause for concern.

★★★★

My series ranking, if you’re interested:

Toy Story 2 (1999)

★★★★★

Toy Story (1995)

★★★★★

Toy Story 3 (2010)

★★★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019)

★★★★

Rocketman (2019) review

If the last ten years were the age of the superhero film, perhaps we’re moving into the era of the music biopic. Rocketman follows the tumultuous and often difficult life of Reginald Dwight, better known as the most famous British solo artist of all time, Sir Elton John. While liberties are undoubtedly taken with the truth for the sake of a compelling narrative structure, the heart is in the right place.  And boy does this film have heart to spare. This, combined with innovative camera work and a stunning soundtrack, make Rocketman something really special.

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Biopics can have a tendency to be a little formulaic, predictable. They flirt with both the drama and documentary genres, steering clear of anything creatively bold, filmmaking wise. In a refreshing twist, however, this film is as flamboyant and brave as the man himself. Combining the drama and musical genres is nothing short of genius and the bombastic broadway dance numbers that take a 180 turn into formalist filmmaking are as exciting as they are frequent. All of the cast are able to have a stab at re-vamped classics alongside the bafflingly excellent Taron Egerton, which keeps things varied. These formalist elements extend to bizarre trip sequences that manipulate time and space to evoke the feeling of a drug addled mind, while concurrently taking us on a masterful musical voyage.

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The cast is wonderful. Egerton leads the charge as a truly believable and unapologetically angry Elton, hitting every emotional beat with an electricity that strikes you through the screen. Richard Madden may as well be twirling his non existent moustache for how evil he plays manager John Reid, but his initial suave charm just about makes it work. Slightly more questionable is Bryce Dallas Howard as John’s mother, who not only doesn’t seem to age, but also acts a little too ditzy, so when the big emotional confrontation comes in the third act, it falls a tad flat.

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Overall though, Rocketman is phenomenal. The soundtrack provides beautiful re-orchestrations of so many hits, performed incredibly by the shockingly amazing at-singing Egerton. The writing is spot on, hitting the key beats of John’s life while not shying away from his demons. The dialogue is both witty and appropriately dramatic, yet it somehow feels organic and real. Finally, and most wonderfully, is the brilliant cinematography, editing and sound design. This is a technically fantastic film, bearing a strong resemblance to the innovative shots and transitions of La La Land, which is certainly no bad thing. Don’t let the sun go down on this incredible flick, and make sure you come back for several viewings.

★★★★

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