Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Tromeo & Juliet Review: The Height of Demented Fun

Well, if I had known that I would review two BBC series and two Shakespearean adaptations over four days, I wouldn’t have been talking about enjoying my Monocle Time during Saturday’s review of Edge of Darkness – I would’ve declared this Monocle Week and turned it into a whole big thing...

I’ve looked forward to reviewing Tromeo and Juliet since I began this site in 2009. My mission statement from the get-go was to cover unknown gems that you would be unlikely to seek out unless someone suggested them to you. TaJ fits that definition quite easily, and I've been recommending it to friends for ages, which makes this post long overdue.

Tromeo and Juliet is a creation of Troma Entertainment, a studio that specializes in low budget horror works that have splatter gore, nudity, wit; their productions always stand out for being so... unconventional. And this adaptation of Shakespeare’s most well-known story is certainly unconventional. I mean, how do you inject tension and excitement into a story whose major plot points all of us know? How do you get the audience to get behind these kids and worry whether they’ll get together?

You change the names of the characters. You change… the ending so it involves Juliet violently murdering someone. You include scenes at a tattoo/piercing parlor, where one of the players suffers a gruesome head injury. You make Count Paris into the billionaire London Arbuckle, whose business is in the meat-packing district, to the chagrin of his vegetarian fiancé.

And you make Juliet a die-hard lesbian who, within two minutes of her introduction, gets jilled off by the family nurse. Juliet’s never even thought about a man that way, so how can Romeo win her love?! That, my friends, is how you create tension.

Recommended: Utopia (UK('s Best) Drama)

Ominious. Gripping. Scary. Thrilling. Funny. Hypnotic. These are all adjectives that apply to Channel 4's recently-departed drama, Utopia.

The biggest struggle here is not to spoil the teensiest bit of this glorious dramatic series, and yet give you enough reasons to try to see it. I had to go out of my way to watch it in the US, its limited availability making it a little more difficult to experience, too. So how can I entice you? Let’s start with the simple phrase, “Where is Jessica Hyde?” I heard that question dozens of times over the course of Utopia's 12 episodes. Those words never grew old - even when I knew the answer – often portending great uncertainty and danger.

Yet that’s sort of skipping right past the premise: A bunch of geeks meet in a London pub. These people all spend time on a web forum where they talk about The Utopia Experiments, a cult comic book independently published in the UK. Ian, as the newest member, is shocked to learn from Wilson and Becky that this colorful and creative work is rumored to spell out the details of a real-life conspiracy. But how can anyone predict the socio-political secrets lurking inside a graphic novel that predicts global doom? Who could imagine what kind of trouble one can get into just by following a web forum? Why is a fourth forum user absent from the gathering? And do any of these web surfers know that a handful of people died in a London comic shop that same day?...

From there, we watch as the forum members – Ian, Becky, Wilson, and Grant – find the world around them becoming stranger and more dangerous with each passing hour. They don’t know who’s chasing after them or what those people want, following the slimmest of threads to unravel the threat that might kill them at any moment. All they do know is that their hunters are so resourceful as to make the stakes extremely high.

There must be some cultural zeitgeist pushing creative people in this general direction. For one thing, Utopia has a bit in common with the CW‘s Cult, wherein the events on a popular TV show were connected to a larger conspiracy of unknown purpose and power. More aptly, however, Utopia’s cast resembles that of BBC’s Survivors – a disparate team that comes together to form a de facto family, one that struggles to keep on living and to understand what’s happening around them. Unlike Survivors, we’re not thrust into a post-apocalyptic catastrophe, but perils grounded in real world situations. And, ultimately, Utopia’s sheer quality far outstrips that of Cult, and its storyline is much smarter, more driving and more engaging than the Survivors' story was.

The central mystery is compelling and handled magnificently by the writing staff. The individual plots that you follow from week to week can start to take on the urgency of a countdown. In addition to laughing, feeling outraged, or the semi-constant state of awe I experienced, Utopia actually managed to give me an adrenaline spike on occasion.

It’s incredibly rare for a series to have such a powerful, palpable physical effect on me. Alongside successfully promoting social change or making a viewer think about serious issues, can a TV series aspire to more than that? Can you shoot higher than to hold your audience, completely?

Avengers 2 Review - You Can't Go Avenge Again

As some of you may recall, I wrote a terribly positive review for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers three years ago, but I must inform you that I’m not so enthusiastic for this year’s follow-up, The Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a good action film – yet it’s hard not to feel that the sequel is inferior to its predecessor. tA:AoU just seems to have slightly less snappy dialogue, slightly less tight plotting, and action scenes that are slightly less impressive than what came before it.

As Avengers 2 begins, Earth’s mightiest heroes are a united force, one dealing with the aftermath of the events of the first picture. Specifically, the scepter that Loki used against the team is missing - so Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), and the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) track down the group that stole it: Hydra, the evil nemesis of SHIELD. The attack succeeds, but Hydra used the scepter to give powers to two twins, Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who proceed to sow dissension in the team! And then Tony Stark uses the scepter to create Ultron, an AI robot that chooses to destroy humanity instead of serving as a global protector. Oops!

I’m in the mood to cut right to it, so I will: Avengers 2 is full of nice elements that don’t always mesh together so well, producing a sum that is less than its constituent parts. To some extent, this is because this movie has so many more moving parts, creating more opportunities for it to fall a little flat. The more fundamental flaw here, I think, is that the characters and story are filled with too many unknowns.

That last point is kind of a big deal. Audiences understand what a punch does, what nukes are, and that a bullet to the head usually means death. In Age of Ultron, however, we never understand the capabilities or nature of the main antagonist, Wanda has MacGuffin powers and a mid-story turn that isn't quite built up properly, the action sequences don’t hit so hard because we don't know what anyone's abilities or limitations are, and there's a diminished sense that our heroes can really get (physically) hurt.

Many viewers had problems with the moment in The Avengers when Captain America gets shot. It's a good idea and a great fight sequence - but Steve Rogers is shot by an alien weapon, and there's no blood. He's just knocked down and a bit winded. However, Cap is exactly as durable to, say, gunfire as Hawkeye and Black Widow. If the bad guys can't really hurt him, that deflates the stakes of a scene, and thus (possibly) the tension of the whole film. Ultimately, Avengers 1 is so entertaining that you just go with it... Yet that sort of "do these guys even get hurt" flaw appears far more often in A2 - and it stands out more.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Question (+ Review) for the Week of Jun 28-Jul 5: Film Promo Both Bad and Good

What piece of film promotion did you find equally bad and good?
This entry, which will also double as a review, takes me way back to 1996. At the time, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson were my favorite film couple, something they had earned with their work in Dead Again, as well as their cinematic adaptations of Shakespearean works. And it's really the last part that cemented their place with me.

I had been reading Shakespeare a lot at the time, and Branagh's movies were all excellent productions. My love of Much Ado About Nothing is already well-documented, and I can only state again that it's one of my favorite films ever. And Mr. B also directed an exceptional version of Henry V. Even aside from the romance between Kenneth and Emma, that picture made me want to rush out and see everything that Branagh had ever been involved in.

Then the news came that KB would be helming a new version of Hamlet. Although I won't give Shakespeare's most famous tragedy the same treatment I gave to Romeo and Juliet, I also can't tell you how eagerly I anticipated this latest iteration. Unlike Zeffirelli's 1990 adaptation, this one would cast British folks who had been in the Royal Shakespeare Company and it would feature the complete text.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Edge of Darkness (BBC Drama)

You can take the boy out of the hood, but you can't take the desire to escape the hood that was in the boy in the first place. That's why I decided to get my Monocle-Time by watching a revered BBC drama/sci-fi/political thriller, Edge of Darkness.

I discovered this movie because I was doing research on Jurassic Park, specifically Bob "Clever Girl" Peck, who played the hunter/gamekeeper. Peck died far too young, in 1999 of cancer (f--k you again, cancer). As I went through Wikipedia entries, I caught notice of Edge of Darkness, a BBC 2 miniseries with a stupendous amount of acclaim. Since the program was so lauded, and listed as a great influence on all the shows that came after it, I felt that I had to give it a spin.

I could not have made a smarter choice.

Edge of Darkness begins with DCI Ronald Craven questioning a man. Craven is looking into voter fraud for a mining union in Yorkshire, not far from London; it's a relatively trivial matter, and the subject, James Godbolt, asks Ronald to do him a favor and proceed slowly, gently. From that meeting, Ronnie goes to meet his daughter, Emma (Joanne Whalley), a physicist at a local university. She participates in a group, GAIA, one dedicated to environmental causes. You can tell that he doesn't share her views, and yet enjoys seeing his child be so active and vital.

So you can imagine that he doesn't take it well when they get home, a man comes out of the shadows cursing Ronnie's name, and Emma steps in front of a double-barreled shotgun blast for her pop. Cradled by her father, Emma mutters a few words before she breathes her last. And this is how BBC 2 kicked off six hours of one of the most acclaimed political thrillers ever made.

EoD was billed by Wikipedia as a drama/political thriller/sci-fi effort. While it may not belong in that last category, it's the epitome of the former two genres. Peck's unofficial investigation of the murder takes him to London, where he's soon contacted by city cops, in addition to a bevvy of unexpected figures who have some information relating to, or stakes in, his work. The more that Ronnie tugs at the threads that will help him find the killer, the more he becomes entangled in politics, big business, and matters of the highest national security. And it's all because of what DCI Craven finds in his daughter's bedside dresser.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road: It Made My Pants Pee THEIR Pants

I was extremely skeptical when I heard about Mad Max: Fury Road. For one thing, the last installment in the series was Max Mad Beyond Thunderdome, and even if I had thought that MMBT was good (I didn’t), I still would’ve seen this as yet another pathetic attempt to make money off of an extinct franchise. It didn’t take more than 30 minutes to show that my assumptions were completely incorrect – and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed being wrong this much in my whole life.

This trailer is so damn good. I even love the "bwaaamp"-like horn blares.

Since we’re at the point where movies are being rebooted constantly (will the real Spider-man please stand up?) and studios seem desperate for any familiar name that will guarantee a certain number of tickets sold, I can’t blame myself for my response. My expectations rose a little when I heard that Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron would be the leads, but actors are no guarantee of a film’s ultimate quality, and those two names alone couldn’t totally mollify my skepticism. I do know, however, that I should’ve paid attention and noticed that it was being made by George Miller – the writer-director of all the prior Mad Max films.

Miller’s presence on the project was a virtual guarantee that this wasn’t just a cheap cash-grab, both because he’s so intimately familiar with the series, and because the man does good work. Not perfect work – but very distinct, very consistent in tone, and of very good overall quality even if the subject matter isn't appealing. The first film was a depressing “every man’s worst nightmare” experience – the worst-case scenario in which your best friends (the only lawkeepers in the area) are picked off one by one, and then your wife and infant are killed. The second film saw Max losing everything that he had left, and then wandering off to be by himself - which pissed me off, because he could have stuck with those people he rescued at least long enough to get e.g., a new car and a new dog.

So Thunderdome didn’t work for me because it was excessive in all the worst ways of 1980’s excess, and I didn’t like the subplot with the children. When that film ended with Max completely losing what little he had, totally screwed and wandering off into the desert once again, I just decided that I had had enough. None of that meant, however, that Miller didn’t have a dedication to telling a story well, and filling it with good characterization. Some of my opinions boiled down to some stylistic choices, and how old I was when I watched these pictures.

Mad Max: Fury Road, however, is nothing less than a stellar achievement, one all the more laudable for feeling of a piece with a series that began in 1979 and last appeared in 1985. Numerous elements call back to prior entries - the intimations of Max's murdered family hearken back to the first movie, towns dedicated to creating one precious resource was the crux of Beyond Thunderdome, while the second and the third appear in the form of the cold open (The Road Warrior especially), as well as the truck vs. convoy battles, which now dominate the endings of all three sequels. And the title character remains the same: damaged, self-concerned and yet incapable of truly abandoning people in need, always pushing forward to survive...

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ex Machina - Spoilers start at paragraph 8

In Ex Machina, corporate programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) has won a contest held within his company, Blue Book – the internet’s biggest search engine. The prize is a week with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the reclusive genius who owns the business. After a long helicopter ride and a solo trek through the forests around the boss’ palatial home, Caleb is greeted warmly by the pumped-up, hungover man behind it all – and with an incredibly detailed and invasive non-disclosure agreement. When Caleb balks at the demand for secrecy, his superior has the perfect response: if you sign this form, you get to test out Ava (Alicia Vikander), the artificial intelligence that I just created. The choice is a no-brainer.

Ex Machina has so many things in its favor that it's almost a bit unfair. The cast is great in their individual roles (much praise goes to Sonoya Mizuno as Nathan's silent servant, Kyoko), displaying fine chemistry in their various scenes together. The fx are super-fine, backed by some admirable camera work and shot composition – especially on a modest budget of $15M (which is really modest, given CGI costs). And the overall story is fun and smart and immensely applicable to the concerns of this modern age.

And, while I wanted to love EM and give it a glowing review, I just can't do that. For one thing, the screening that I attended placed me next to two drunken idiots who, by the halfway mark, were making loud jokes every 5 seconds. For another, the movie actually fails its sci-fi premise in a way that made it impossible for me to take this film at face value. Until I get to watch it again, I'll never know whether my experience was ruined, my standards are too high, or that no one else noticed the flaws that were so obvious to me.

So my review has to be taken with a grain of salt. I would’ve paid money to see this, given the trailer and the critical buzz, but I got passes to a free screening in one of NYC’s best theaters – and I couldn’t have predicted what would go wrong (haha, scifi irony). As such – sweet f--k, my dedication to fairness is so strong that I am compelled to state things that may undermine me – you should keep in mind that it was nearly-impossible to be pulled into, roughly, 40-60% of the story.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

And then my father died

Well, the other shoe finally dropped - my father has passed away, well before his time. Over the past year, my family has dealt with one of the worst possible vicissitudes of life... a brain cancer diagnosis for a loved one. He was just shy of 80, survived by several siblings, his longtime spouse, and his children.

For those of you who relate better to films and tv than real-life emotions, (a) seek help soon, and (b) this is how terrified you feel when your relative has cancer.

Pop, the man in question, served in an army for Trujillo (basically, Stalin of the Caribbean), who tried to have my father killed for speaking out of turn, forcing my dad into exile (and my father outlived that dictator by 44 years, so hahaha fuck you very much, Trujillo). This same man was later dragooned by another army in the 50's. As a soldier, he saw Hiroshima survivors a decade after the bombing (his descriptions of which were horrifying). He was also a doctor who became both a successful businessman and an active community leader.

Last Spring/Summer offered ample time for fears, regrets, and introspection - even time to freak the hell out about the times I raced to the emergency room on my own behalf (as many hospital trips as in my whole life combined before 2014). But Autumn '14 was full of overnight stays in hospital rooms after working 40-60 hours, because we wouldn't let my dad sleep alone. And the past Winter was supposed to be an oasis - getting our loved one out of noisy hospitals, and continuing his rehab in a beautiful new apartment. Given the circumstances, we hoped to get him in the best possible shape for the remainder of our time together - yet, after some weeks, it didn't really work out that way. My father's condition simply deteriorated... until, finally, a good man was extinguished.

Monday, June 22, 2015

MRQ XVII: Great Directors Edition

Well, by now, you should k kw what an MRQ is - and my struggles to keep these entries pretty concise. This time out, if I go on too long, just know that I think I chose the right films to go on about. And all of these, save Aronofsky's Black Swan are available to stream, so you can watch them as soon as you please.

This time out, we're taking a quick stroll through: Black Swan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grifters, The Verdict, The French Connection, The Brothers Grimm, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Enjoy, if you please...

Black Swan

It's... somewhat impossible for me to review this movie properly, because I'm not really sure how to approach it in the first place. Since I'm unable to assess the story (e.g., how much of this is hallucination? Does that even matter?), I have to confine myself to its content.

Black Swan was filmed as effectively as anything before it. Seldom have I seen a camera move in a way that really reflects what it's like when you're dancing or running. Everything looks beautiful - the tracking shots in the old-style NYC apartment, the ballet scenes... And the sheer extent of the careful editing, much less the way it's utilized, sets Aronofsky on a special pedestal; I have to think other editors felt like they'd never see such fine work ever again.

The performances are all excellent, from Hershey's work, which is like a toned-down version of Piper Laurie's part in Carrie, to Cassell, who hits the perfect balance of privilege, faux sophistication, and salaciousness. Kunis is so good that I almost wonder if the script does all the heavy lifting. I doubted Portman repeatedly because she resorted to her "small voice" so often, but she really does establish her part, and the unraveling that occurs to her. God, is it even an unraveling, or is it more like a collision between herself and the oppositional elements in her subconscious?

Black Swan was incredible. It did a hell of a lot, not the least of which was crafting a thriller/body horror film out of a ballet story. I also joked to my friend that maybe this movie should've been called Birdman - and it may have actually been an apt comment, as those two pictures have a lot in common. Bonus points go to the director for using the Black Swan for a laugh right near the climax, when a fine bit of humor would have a great impact.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tomas "Let the Right One In" Alfredson may not qualify as a great director, given the others on this list. Yet I have to think this movie is a sign that he might get there, some day soon. TTSS is an incredibly slow, long drama that gets you engaged with the story at the same time that it undermines the importance of the events therein.

Carrie - You Can't Top or Recreate This One

There’s a lot to say about Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, Carrie. As I discovered while researching the movie, it came out only two years after Stephen King’s novel – which was the book that turned King from an unknown writer to one of the most successful (and adapted) novelists in American history. There’s a lot to say, but I wanted to write a more stripped-down review for this well-known movie, and so I will try to be brief.

Carrie is a surprisingly-delicate tale – surprising in that it’s directed by a man, and based on a man’s book, and yet handles its primary subject with a delicate sensibility. It’s also delicate in that it tackles a sensitive time: when a girl becomes a woman. In a moment of daring perv, the movie opens with a long shot of a high school locker room. The camera pans across young women as they remove or don their clothes... And then it settles on the shower, and Carrie White (Sissy Spacek at 26, but seemingly much younger).

Carrie soaps herself up, her head twists to let the water spray along her form... And then she notices the blood that’s seeping straight down her legs. Apparently, Carrie has had no manner of sex ed, as she completely freaks out. Ms. White runs from one girl to another in a panic, screaming for help. But she’s already unpopular, all the other ladies can’t believe that she’s this ignorant, and Carrie makes the mistake of getting her blood on the white sweater of Sue Snell (Amy Irving), which is received quite poorly by Sue's alpha-female friend, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen).

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Recommended: Nikita (2010 CW Series)

If you're surprised that I'm recommending this series, then know that I join your emotion; I intended to make TV recommendations for a variety of genres, but this didn't have to be my action entry. To be honest, this post nearly went up four years ago, and was to be titled "Stripper shoes = go away now." Just look at that DVD cover on the right. Maggie Q is a lovely woman and a good actress, but the sight of her in those clothes and those lousy shoes is contrary to (a) my dislike of objectifying or mistreating women and (b) the fact that those are probably the least practical things that a secret agent could ever don. Even if I were still a horny teen, it would be senseless and excessive.

And, as a fan of Alias before it, I would've expected CW's version to have more hyper-tragic origins, more ridiculous stakes, and even more stupid fetish costumes for the lead to wear. And I would've been almost completely wrong.

So imagine my wonderment when I watched the show in order to trash it, only to realize that it's a minor treasure trove of solid performances, great plotting, good characters, and excellently-executed action sequences. Nikita surpasses the trappings of its genre - and that damn DVD box cover - to stand as a strongly-written action series and (gasp) one of the best ever examples of a female fighter on film or TV. I know that last part is a big statement, but I am confident in being able to back it up...

First, a little background. Back in 1990, Luc Besson released his fourth feature film, Nikita (also called La Femme Nikita, like Leon was The Professional in the US). The movie didn't receive unanimous critical praise, but it was a box office hit in France, and grew very popular Stateside - probably once Siskel and Ebert gave it a positive review. I remember enjoying the hell out of it, myself.

Please ignore the 80's-porn-esque music.

La Femme Nikita stood out for a lot of reasons. It had a fresh, interesting story: a French secret agency takes young violent convicts, fakes their deaths, and then trains them to work off their societal debt as highly-skilled assassins. It had some amazing action sequences, as well as some intense violence - like when "Victor the cleaner" takes Nikita's victim and uses chemicals to dissolve the body in a bathtub. And it gave a great arc to its strong female lead, a wild person who is molded into carrying herself with grace and style. Nikita's many flaws made her both more credible and more likable to audiences, which was already a lock because she's almost getting the Clockwork Orange treatment.

Three years later, the movie received an English-language remaking starring Bridget Fonda in the lead role. And then four years after that, Besson's pic was turned into a Canadian TV series called La Femme Nikita, which starred Peta Wilson and ran for five seasons. I recall watching Point of No Return and liking the original better, but I was never tempted to tune into the television show. So now it's been reworked on a level similar to what DJ described in his Hannibal post.

In fact, those two English-language efforts were part of why I rolled my eyes fairly hard when CW's Nikita was announced 9 years later. At that point, it seemed like a black hole of remake-itis, and I didn't know any of the cast, and CW Networks' offerings seemed pretty inferior back then. But, oh, how the times have changed - the Maggie Q program is practically an object lesson in not prejudging things...

Bill Murray Caricatureness

This final installment of Bill Murray came to my attention some time ago, in a post written by Katie Rife (who was herself working off a National Post article). The contents were most welcome news: someone took the time to make a caricature-style drawing of every role Mr. Murray has portrayed on film.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Inherent Vice, Wolfcop Extra Thoughts

Just two brief notes on my recent posts:

I suppose I left this out of my Inherent Vice review, but the principal sex scene is one of the worst I have ever seen. Now, I'm sure it's intentional on PTA's part, but it's hard to over-sell how bad it is. I wish I could find a clip of the moment, but in its absence, let me just describe:

Gone Girl Gender Issues - GGG in the worst way

So the voting’s done, and the Academy Awards were handed out with great ceremony and very little decent humor (I couldn’t believe NPH was unfunny so often). No laurels were laid at the feet of Gillian Flynn, who was robbed of a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination for some exceptional self-editing, much less given to David Fincher, who’s quickly become one of the best American directors of the last 40 years or so. My race to cover the big 2014 films before the Oscar winners were announced is over, and I’m happy to have had a little break – or, at least, as much break as I’m going to get, given present circumstances. It’s nice to know that I (and DJ) took great pains to talk about the year in film, and that I don’t have to push myself to do more when I have only so many hours in the day.

But the awards scarcely matter when it comes to Gone Girl. It made a big splash in the box office, received great critical acclaim, and it fostered many metric tons of conversation. Just look at my dear friend Sati, who wrote seven posts which were dedicated to GG (as well as other posts, some of which were or weren’t focused on it exclusively). Although I like the review I wrote for Fincher’s movie, there are still some other issues I wish to address regarding that picture, and the time to discuss the roles played by its leads is now.

Hang the f—k on, please. I’m about to get all word-y.

The only thing I won't argue is that their one problem is Amy's insanity.

Amy Dunne (played by Rosemund “Hot Yoga” Pike) is a fantastic fictional character. She’s a very damaged and untrustworthy human being, but she’s also far more complex, intelligent, and fascinating than many filmic women of late, and certainly more so than Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne. As an easy “great film” reference, let’s just say: she plays a woman with a Salieri-type personality, but with the gifts that Mozart has, whereas Ben plays a guy with a Mozart-style personality, but with Salieri’s level of talent.

My attitude does not depend on the quality of the actors, mind you – it’s in the writing and the specific roles assigned to each person in this twisty story. Amy is active, gifted, and f’ed up, while Nick is reactive, embarrassingly unskilled, and an objectively terrible person in the absence of lifelong trauma. For me, then, one of the big issues is when I read other people describing Amy as “fierce” (one of the lousiest and lamest popular words since “epic”) and “unbelievable” (as in “strong”).

I have to concede the point that both of those words do apply to Amazing Amy, literally. As a cold-blooded murderer, she is “fierce”, and I cannot believe her personality or behavior, so the actual meanings of those words hold up. The problem is when folks make this sound like Amy is a strong and empowered woman – that’s when it all falls apart.

Friday, June 19, 2015

I Understand Rachel Dolezal

And when I say that I understand Rachel Dolezal, I don't mean that I necessarily approve or that I've engaged in behavior that may be seen as deceitful or culturally/ethnically insensitive.

I'm not even talking from the perspective of a Latino who:
-(I think) looks like a total white boy, has been guessed to be everything from Italian to Indian to Syrian to Greek and more,
-who's got both white and black ancestry,
-who's been subject to discrimination from Latinos, and Blacks, and Whites who have all mistook me for White, White, and as a Latino/Not Pureblooded White, respectively.

No, I understand Dolezal because obviously movies are to blame here.

And by "movies" I mean "a specific era of movies.'

See, watching films like Tootsie, and especially C. Thomas Howell's Soul Man must have given her false expectations. In a decade full of crazy pictures, the concepts at play in those works stand out as being extra, super-super cray-cray.

Great Moments In... Awful Scripting

Here's the offending segment - what I think is the most comically-stupid, unintentional rhyming dialogue ever. I don't know screenwriting, but I do know that you're supposed to read dialogue out loud at some point to hear if it sounds bad.

Even forgetting what poor, perfunctory, plot-driving lines these are - and please note, none of these words convey anything about the characters saying them - the overuse of "-sion" sounds (especially "-ation") should've stood out to even a semi-attentive writer. The emphases are mine:

The hologram of PALPATINE sputters and fades away.

AMIDALA : Senator Palpatine?!? (turns to Panaka) What's happening?


CAPT. PANAKA : Check the transmission generators...
BIBBLE : A malfunction?
CAPT. PANAKA : It could be the Federation jamming us. Your Highness.
BIBBLE : A communications disruption can only mean one thing. Invasion.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Recommended: The 100

A bit of Lost, a large helping of Lord of the Flies, then sprinkle in some Lockout: these are the ingredients of CW’s surprise hit, The 100. I guess I was guaranteed to watch this program no matter what – for one thing, I have a life-long love of sci-fi in any form, be it in a novel, televised, or on film. For another, many aspects here are reminiscent of the first Fallout game, for which I clearly have a vast, abiding affection.

But, as with most CW shows, I approached it warily; this series had to work to earn my respect and trust, or else I’d stop watching by the fourth episode and never look back. Instead, I was confused at how The 100's makers crafted a story so multifaceted and entertaining that I was hooked. Quality is the skepticism-killer, after all...

What we have here is a case of love at first watch, and it’s easy to see why. After a world-ending nuclear war, humankind only survives through the descendants of multinational astronauts. Aboard the Ark, a mega-station of conjoined ships, our civilization waits for the aftereffects of the nuclear holocaust to fade away so they can return. Due to limited resources, however, all crimes are punishable by being blown out of an airlock; only offenders under 18 are spared, forced to stay in space-jail until reassessment at the age of majority.

In the future, a girl's diary/poems will include etchings and a CGI PowerPoint presentation.

The series’ lead, Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), is one of those teens. This beautiful, smart pre-med was tossed into jail because she knew too much – her dad realized that the Ark couldn’t support life for much longer, and his desire to inform the public resulted in his death as well as Clarke’s incarceration. But, with resources dwindling even more quickly, the Ark’s Chancellor, Jaha (Isiah Washington), has decided on a (semi-)risky move: send their 100 teenaged prisoners to Earth to see if the planet is habitable, one century ahead of when it should be safe.

This is how Ms. Griffin finds herself surrounded by strangers, strapped into a seat, as Jaha’s recorded message explains their purpose and their goal. These 100 kids must see if they can live, then access the real-life fallout shelter called Mt. Weather for the food and supplies that the 3000-ish people above them will need to repopulate the Earth.

aNoES Depp Death Diorama

I've already written about my love of a certain scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street. It's one of the best-executed and most iconic moments in all of horror film history, one which I love to pieces. And, last October, one of my favorite websites posted about a fan who paid into an Indiegogo campaign to have this scene remade on the cheap. I must admit, this is a fine re-creation of a seminal sequence, one made slightly less painful because of the way that it's been constructed.

Watch now, and please enjoy the cardboard reenactment of the death of Johnny Depp's first cinematic role. In any medium, it's just glorious:

This death scene truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Machine

The Machine is an excellent English sci-fi film that popped up on Netflix Streaming near the end of last year, sadly without a theatrical release. I enjoyed writer/director Caradog W. James’ focused and thoughtful thriller, which took $1.5M and turned James’ story into a beautiful-looking, atmospheric tale about medical experimentation, the connections people form with each other, and the development of artificial intelligence. It’s not a perfect film at all, but it does everything it does well, and displays true artistry in its performances and writing. I also think it’s 1000 times more of a sci-fi film than Ex Machina will ever be, but I’ll leave that discussion for my upcoming EM review.

In the near future, Vincent McCarthy (Toby Stephens) is unhappy, but hopeful, despite England’s tenuous cold war with China. This scientific genius has a well-funded, well-intended project with Thompson (Denis Lawson), a Ministry of Defense bigwig: a plan to help injured soldiers recover use of their limbs and brains with computerized implants. As the film’s start conveys, that’s a difficult, painful process.

Flash forward a bit and Vincent is putting three computers through the Turing Test, which determines whether a machine can respond well enough to convince a human that it's a human, too. None of the computers pass, but he sees great potential in the device developed by Ava (Caity Lotz). McCarthy then convinces Ava to join him by offering unlimited financial support. The idea is that, together, they can jointly complete his new project: an android run by a true AI that is bolstered by scans of a person’s brain.

Unfortunately, Ava is more than a little into civil disobedience, which doesn’t go over well at MoD research bases. While a crippled soldier demonstrates his new super-strong arms, he whispers to her that he’s being mistreated. Ava investigates, Thompson decides she has to go, and Vincent gets roughed up in the same attack that kills his newest assistant. The UK’s equivalent of OSHA must f--king hate this base.

Honest Trailers: Cinderella

Really, there's nothing more to say than that this is hysterical, and the lyrics are great.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Year-End Wrap-up 2014: Insanely Belated Edition

Well, we’ve come to an extra-confusing time here, because I’m writing my annual review for 2014 in June of the following year. For those of you who are just tuning in, I suggest clicking on the “Site Update” tag at the end of this post or on the far right of the screen; that should fill you in on what I’ve been up to and why this post is appearing now. For all those people who have been keeping up, and know that I’ve been slowly reviewing the “best” and/or “biggest” pictures from last year at a leisurely pace, then just keep reading.

2014 was a terrible year in my own life, and yet it produced a lot of great films. More importantly, it’s the first time in a long while (since before this blog even started) that I truly kept current with theatrical releases. I saw more high-profile movies for 2014 than in any year before the turn of the century – I’ve been in and out of theaters so much from last Spring to now...

Having reviewed all the movies that I was excited for or felt I “had” to see, it’s time for me to weigh in. Please note that no one ever suggested I change the ridiculous categories that I use (every year, I ask readers if I should), so this will be nothing like a Top 10 list.

Best New Movie (that I actually saw) - This is the most difficult call that I’ve ever made, as 2014 was exceptional. The result of all my viewing is that I’m thoroughly-confused as to which is “the best.” And so, I can only say that my favorite films are Wild, Grand Budapest Hotel, Only Lovers Left Alive, The Babadook, and Under the Skin. If you like, you can tell all your friends that for once in my life, I accepted taking a total f--king copout.

Wild was the most moving, to me. Grand Budapest was the funniest, and may have had the best story. Only Lovers had the best characters and – I think – maybe the best setting and premise. Babadook was a fantastically-scary story, an excellent theatrical experience with a fresh, rich horror tale driving the narrative. Under the Skin was wonderful, partly for being so challenging and different, and partly for the exceptional audio and visual elements.

Rest assured, other movies came close to the mark. Birdman was amazing, joined by Whiplash, The Lego Movie (this links to DJ's review, I never got to do a double dip for it), and Two Days, One Night as all being able to stake a claim to having an outstanding combination of story, acting, direction, character, and script, in addition to displaying superb visual and audio craftsmanship. That’s what “the best film” is, right? I can’t just choose Edge of Tomorrow because I enjoyed the holy hell out of it - this is a laurel that speaks to the power of film, and pure action films shouldn’t make that list very often.

S--t, now this is starting to sound like a Top 10 list. In any case, it’s hard for me to declare a true winner among all those fine and varied entries. I guess I could narrow it down to Budapest, Under the Skin, and Wild, but I’d be hard-pressed to whittle it down from there - and removing one or two just makes me want to add Whiplash and Birdman (especially Birdman).

Best Out-of-the-Blue Release - Three independent documentaries nearly snagged the title, namely Citizenfour (which I very nearly reviewed for this site), Ai Weiwei: The Fake Case, and Red Obsession. However, my personal favorite has to be Coherence.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Wolfcop and Space Milkshake - B-Movies are the Best

Space Milkshake - is a B-sci-fi/horror movie that knows what it is and revels in its genre conventions. I mean, really, everyone who’s seen a sci-fi film that involves a mutating rubber duck, raise your hand. Oh, it’s just me? Then, everyone who wants to see a sci-fi film that involves a mutating rubber duck, raise your hand.

Okay, good, we’re all on the same page here.

Space Milkshake is about a futuristic spaceship full of garbage-men and –women whose job it is destroy debris that might interfere with space-traffic around Earth. Captain Anton Balvenie is a self-centered sometimes-jerk who’s mired in the petty/unhappy phase of a relationship with his frustrated, fed-up first officer, Valentina. The young technician Tilda mostly just works and keeps to herself, which frustrates their newest arrival – Jimmy, a talkative guy whose first time in space is being ruined by the attitude problem of his new coworkers.

It’s bad enough that Jimmy is greeted by his new boss curtly ordering him to fix a half-dozen different machines, but Tilda won’t even speak to him. It’s pretty clear that Jimmy won’t be able to glamorize life on a space station that uses lasers and spacepods to clear the paths of interplanetary travel. But then an unexpected cargo craft arrives, and Anton goes out on a salvage mission – and suddenly, there’s no radio communications from Earth. Hell, there isn’t even any trash orbiting Earth!

I’m not nostalgic for the 80’s and 90’s, but I have had many conversations lately about the fact that good or entertaining b-movies seem few and far between now. I feel a pang deep inside of me when I browse the horror and sci-fi offerings of Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Youtube’s free film selection. Most of them are CGI fests with bad writing and/or acting, and they don’t have an enjoyable sense of tone, and they don’t do anything new.

Seriously, one of the most rewarding experiences as a film goer is getting to see good actors that you know star in low-budget ventures that make a strong effort to tell a good story – when you add the tone and mood of B-movies (think Black Dynamite, From Dusk Til Dawn), you create a possibility to have ungodly amounts of fun. And that’s exactly what you get with SM.

Valentina unloads on a truly unappreciative boyfriend.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Two Days, One Night Review

In Two Days, One Night, the Dardenne brothers have a story that any audience will find compelling: a woman in Belgium must get coworkers to vote for her job or their €1000 bonus. Even if the economy didn't resemble a dystopian nightmare, we can all put ourselves in her shoes, and it's terrifying.

So we follow our lead, Sandra (Marion Cotillard), as she uses her weekend to sway nine of the people who already voted in favor of the bonus. She has to track down her fellow employees to ask for their support, and she has no idea if she can influence any of them. But she also has two kids, a husband who works as a cook, and a mortgage that can't be paid without her salary.

Cotillard is an impeccable actress. She has a mastery over her expressions and her voice. Everything she does, every feeling she emotes, seems genuine. And, in Sandra, she gets a chance to show what she can do. Her work in Two Days is brilliant, and her Best Actress Oscar nomination was well-deserved.

As the film progresses, we get context for Sandra's problems and the pills we see her take now and then: the poor woman is just returning from sick leave for depression. This is the worst possible time for her to experience something as scary and emotionally crushing as the loss of a job.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Recommended: Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I think I pretty much stopped following sitcoms after Seinfeld ended. It’s not like there weren’t some great options, but I never tuned in to The Office, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or Community. I will correct that someday, but I wasn't inclined to watch them live. Instead, my situation comedy diet was fed by animated series, like Archer, or BBC programs (sorry, programmes), like Coupling, Hyperdrive, and Spaced. I didn’t even see the superlative Arrested Development until just before the Netflix eps premiered. But my drought ended a year and a half ago, when I tried out Fox’s great series, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

BN-N is a sitcom centered on the crazy characters who work in Brooklyn’s 99th police precinct. You have Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), an arrogant man-child who’s a highly-successful detective despite often acting as dumb as a bag of rocks. Amy Santiago (Melissa Fumero) is a fellow detective, a kind and helpful brown-nosing, OCD-addled overachiever. Rosa Diaz (Stephanie Beatriz) is the moody, rough cop on the edge who eschews feelings, gentleness, or anything that prevents her from catching punks. And Sgt. Terence Jeffords (Terry Crews) is the confident, energetic, competent health nut who’s on desk duty after a troubling incident. It’s an odd combination of fringe characters who, behavioral flaws aside, genuinely care about keeping the peace and stopping crime.

These four people are joined by a few others who you also wouldn’t imagine working in law enforcement. Charles Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) is a soft-hearted geeky detective with a romantic longing for Rosa and a man-crush on Jake. The precinct’s secretary, Gina Linetti (Chelsea Peretti), is a walking distraction; she's a space cadet who only offers snide insults and pithy responses. Last, we have Captain Raymond Holt (Andre Braugher), the uptight, nearly-emotionless figure who tries to wrangle these knuckleheads. When this cast comes together, you have nothing less than a brilliant, hysterical, nuclear-powered comedy machine.

The series is, at heart, a send-up of 70’s-era cop films and TV shows, and you can see that in nothing more than the opening credit sequence. It’s at least as funny as Police Squad!, but it’s a show that takes full advantage of all the changes television has experienced in the past few decades. The plotlines matter less than the comedy and the characters, there’s a decent amount of serialization - in spite of the self-contained nature of each episode - and the cast is gloriously-diverse. Seriously, one of my favorite aspects of BN-N is that it’s an NYC-based program with a true-to-life mix of genders and ethnicities.

I never write up sitcoms, aside from Hyperdrive. Much as with that Nick Frost series, I’m doing so now partly to write about something different, and partly because I want to promote this show as much as possible. As a class-clown-type, I have a lifelong love of comedy, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine has an amazing knack for making me laugh, hard and often. So why does this series work so well?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Great Moments In... Awkward, Bulls--t Lines

Armageddon is one of those action films that miraculously becomes an acceptable guilty pleasure because it's so full of garbage and stupid, senseless, lowest-common-denominator fan-pleasing moments that are completely insane or full of it.

One of the most insane comes at the very end of the film, and if you've been spared the movie experience of watching Armageddon, I want to understand how stupid this film is: Steve Buscemi's character - who, btw, is called "Rockhound" - gets his longtime coworker Max (Ken Hudson Campbell) killed, and the "drama" of watching a guy catch on fire and then be shot out into space is actually played for a joke. Twice.

Long story short, Bruce Willis' character, Harry Stamper, takes a space shuttle to an asteroid and later sacrifices himself to save the world. For, um, I guess sentimental reasons, NASA allows his daughter, Grace (Liv Tyler) to sit in the command room so she can... uh, watch the action and speak to the two passengers who matter most to her: Harry, her dad, and A.J., her boyfriend (Ben Affleck). Well, nearly everyone sent on this mission has known her since she was a kid, but, since this is a movie, those are the only two people that she really cares about.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Post #900: Inherent Vice Review - Fumbling Face-First into the Fumes of the Past

No matter how impressed I’ve been by so many of 2014’s films, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice is very much a standout. PTA is one of America’s best directors, and - unlike Wes Anderson, who writes and directs his own stories - this picture is based on a recent novel by one of America’s most renowned writers, Thomas Pynchon. Much more importantly, however, Inherent Vice is an adventure in anachronism and unreliable narration.

The story: Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a scruffy-looking private investigator who lives in 1970’s Los Angeles. This long-time drug-user knows the town, and he understands the competing, equally-iniquitous systems of crime and law enforcement - but he’s also aware that he’s killed so many brain cells that he can’t always trust what he says or hears. So imagine his shock when Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), an old flame, enters his home and says that she’s in trouble.

Shasta tells Doc that she has a boyfriend/sugar-daddy: Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), the biggest real estate developer in town. What's wrong now is that Mickey’s wife, along with the wife’s lover, want to involve Shasta in a plot to have Wolfmann declared insane so they can keep all his wealth for themselves. Despite Larry’s distrust, he can’t turn his ex away, even if it forces him to go face-to-face with a deadly Neo-Nazi biker (Keith Jardine), a shockingly open-minded member of the militant black movement (Michael K. Williams (The Wire's Omar!)), and Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) - a detective who loves to hate hippies.

It feels like an age since I featured this trailer.

So, for once, I find myself at a slight loss because I still haven’t seen The Big Lebowski. I’ll catch the movie eventually, but I suspect that it may be the best possible comparison. As a result, I can only say that Inherent Vice is sort of like a Dashiell Hammett story filtered through the style of Hunter S. Thompson. Basically, it’s The Maltese Falcon meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Doc struggles through a labyrinth of seemingly-unconnected people, using any trick he can to draw his next clue out of them - and, throughout this search, he faces as much resistance from law enforcement as he does from the figures that are engaged in violently-illegal activities...

But how can you trust the clues when you’re not even sure what’s really being experienced by the PI who pieces them together?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Recommended: Orphan Black

The advertisements for and conversation around Orphan Black pretty much give away the show’s premise. And, while I approve of most anything to drum up new fans for the first season of this excellent Canadian series, I think it’s a shame. The tension - and more than a bit of the fun – of the show’s beginning partly lies with the mystery that the lead stumbles upon. Because I hate that the first thing that everyone reveals undercuts that tension, I’m writing this brief recommendation to both win you over and stay spoiler-free. Please note: there Will be SPOILERS in the comment section, so, uh, don't read those.

Sarah Manning (Tatiana Maslany) is an adult screw-up who’s just returning to Toronto. This foster kid grew up to have no goals, no job, and an abusive boyfriend. Our lead is nothing more than a scam artist, one whose young daughter is in the care of Sarah's own foster mom, Siobhan (Maria Doyle Kennedy).

While Ms. Manning makes a call from a subway platform, she sees another woman crying... a woman who looks exactly like her. The stranger sets her purse on the ground, makes eye contact with Sarah, and steps in front of an oncoming train. Shocked and curious, Sarah makes off with the woman’s bag – so she can assume her identity, and take the woman’s money for herself.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Wild Review: We Need More Stories Like This

The moment I chose to watch today’s entry was when someone asked me to see American Sniper with them. In an instant, it occurred to me that all the mainstream films I’ve seen have been about guys, and going to see one more would just be... really excessive. Eastwood is a good director, but I didn’t have an especial interest in that story. The only thing that would satisfy my principles would be finding a picture centered on a female role. And so we come to Wild, which is probably the most beautiful movie of 2014.

Wild is based on a memoir written by Cheryl Strayed. It describes the journey Ms. Strayed took, going to the Mojave Desert to hike a 1,100 mile stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail. It starts with her gearing up in a California motel, and concludes with her arrival at the Bridge of the Gods at the Oregon/Washington border. As Cheryl struggles along the path, her only companions are the thoughts and memories that both torment her and explain to us why she’s doing this.

From its beginning, Jean-Marc Vallée’s film hooked me. The opening scene is gripping, and a perfect sort of summary of the entire picture: Cheryl struggles (in this case, a gruesome repercussion of extended hiking), she makes some bad choices (that was a dumb place to stop), and yet she persists. It nicely sets up her willpower, as well as her caustic, frustrated emotional state.

I haven’t seen Vallée’s other notable work, Dallas Buyers Club, but Wild follows through on that beginning with exceptional style and so much raw heart that I want to watch DBC just to see how it was helmed. The trek along the PCT is conveyed so well, and the intercutting to memories of Cheryl's mother (Laura Dern, wonderful here) is genuinely touching, beautiful, and lyrical.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Recommended: Charlie Jade

For fans of sci-fi television, Charlie Jade is a semi-glorious punch to the face. This multinational production from 2005 took an amazing, progressive concept and rode it straight through 20 episodes of a jarring, exciting narrative. Series creators Robert Wertheimer and Chris Roland were not well-known for working in science fiction, and yet the end result showed a dedication and fascination with the genre that you'd expect from folks who spent years toiling on the various televised Star Trek series. It's that, and how relatively unknown it is, that inspires me to recommend it today; please forgive me for proceeding with a very limited description of its strengths and rewards.

The titular character is a gritty private investigator, complete with a gun, a hard-boiled attitude, and a two-day stubble. As familiar as his role is, he's living in a world that's completely alien. Odd machines fly around a smog-laden sky, much of the technology is at least twenty years ahead of our own, and a corporation called Vexcor seems to dominate everything and everyone. Oh, also, Mr. Jade's beloved live-in girlfriend is, basically, a slave that he purchased.

When first we encounter our hero - to stress it again, our hero who owns his loving girlfriend - he's trying to solve the death of a woman who's unidentifiable. This puts him on the trail of "01 Boxer," the dissolute son of Vexcor's owner. Charlie Jade is so dedicated and unafraid that he doesn't fear this massive gamble. It's admirable, as his society is a true plutocracy, where the richest people are basically above the law, if not flat-out in control of it. But, after following 01 to a desert location, Charlie sneaks up on his quarry - only to find no sign of the person he's chasing, though there's no place to hide. And, at about the same time, a young black woman blows up a power plant, after which everything - even these plots with a Soylent Green setting and a Blade Runner visual aesthetic - becomes supremely strange, confusing, and dangerous.

Check out the first 5 minutes of episode 1.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Boyhood Review - The Dividing Line At Its Most Divisive

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was the big critical darling of 2014, receiving a wealth of praise and awards nominations. Its only competitor was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. When the Oscar awards were announced, Boyhood only received one out of the five awards it was up for: Best Actress for Patricia Arquette. Even ignoring her excellent victory speech – and, worse, my relative lack of familiarity with the other Best Actress nominees, I am glad that Arquette won. The why of that can be most smartly conveyed by reviewing the movie itself.

For those who don’t know the background: between 2002 and 2013, writer-director Richard Linklater gathered a handful of actors and two children, recording some scenes with them every year. Together, those scenes comprise Boyhood. As in several of his past works, Linklater eschewed a traditional narrative, crafting a film that focused on creating a thorough tableau of what it’s like to go from mid-childhood to early adulthood in the American state of Texas.

So, over the course of 2 hours and 45 minutes, we become acquainted with the Evans family: Olivia Evans (Patricia Arquette) is a single mother with a six year-old son, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, the lead here), as well as Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), a daughter who is roughly two years older than her sibling. Olivia works her ass off to raise and maintain her family. She attends college courses so that she can become a teacher and earn a little more. She moves the kids from one place to another so they can save money. And she is drawn to men who seem to be able to offer a stable home for her children.

Throughout this time, we see the kids play, annoy their mom, and enjoy the occasional presence of their biological dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Homes come and go, mom’s new husbands come and go, but the one constant in this story is the Evans family, going through life and growing older over time.

I was a bit conflicted as I started to watch this picture. It’s really divided audiences, with some hating the overall experience, despite its strong points. Moreover, it’s a very long movie, one I was watching more out of obligation than anything else: so I could close out my run of 2014's major films. I wasn’t sure how I would feel in the end, just that it would take up a lot of my limited time.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Recommended: BBC's Black Mirror

I never thought that there would be an anthology show that would actually compete with The Twilight Zone. It's not that I think tTZ was the greatest program ever - I haven't come close to seeing every episode, and doubt that I would ever own the box set (although it is a worthy purchase)... But the series was often exceptionally well-written, many eps display nearly flawless execution, and it's far more challenging, terrifying, and harsh than one would expect from a 1959 TV program.

Much more importantly, Twilight Zone was a paragon of genuine science fiction storytelling. I had this conversation with a co-worker last week: in Star Wars, it doesn't matter how their engines or weapons work, and the only purpose of their amazing technology is to move the plots forward. tTZ, however, used its weekly premise to tell a story about what happens to human beings when they abuse a watch that stops time, or someone phrases a wish poorly, or when a couple finds a fortune-telling machine that's always right.

So I was virtually shell-shocked after I saw the first episode of BBC's Black Mirror. Not only did it display fine writing and good execution of a solid story, but the spirit of sci-fi was clearly held in high esteem by the series' creators - and it only used existing technologies to make a strong statement about real, present-day society. "The National Anthem" is exactly the sort of thing Rod Serling and his team of writers would have loved.

Even more, this program delves into its sci-fi ideas with some thoroughness. Each installment explores the ramifications of its premise, demonstrating the social, moral, and practical results of these slight changes to the world we believe to be so familiar and so well-known to us...

And, rather than shying away from "dark" material, BM dives right into it. As I watched the closing minutes of season 1, I could only think, "wow. It wouldn't be out of place if each episode ended with a shot of planet Earth as a barren, lifeless rock, and a title card that reads 'THIS was the best possible outcome.'" More than most series I've ever seen, BM has a knack for putting me into a very reflective state of mind.

But anyone who saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture knows that intelligent stories full of sci-fi ideas can be dry, dull, or not engaging. It's fortunate, then, that this series is humorous, exciting, and sharp. Moreover, it finds numerous ways to connect the reader to the premise of any given episode. Mirror never just says "here's this weird future or odd technology" - it works those elements into the story in a way that directly ties back to the present time.