Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Review: Into The Wild

Into The Wild (2007, trailer) is based on the life and death of Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a middle-class kid who, after graduating from university, abruptly leaves home (and his mom Marcia Gay Harden, dad William Hurt and sister Jena Malone).

He adopts the name Alexander Supertramp to avoid recognition, and becomes a homeless wayfarer - albeit a rather clean and well-groomed homeless wayfarer.

Git lost, ya stinkin' bum!

His ultimate goal is to find his way to the Alaskan wilderness and live off the land.

My Take

I normally don't like to see movies as having specific agendas, as I believe one of the great things about art is its facility to be open to interpretation. That being said, I felt that Into The Wild's filmmaking perceives Christopher McCandless in a drastically different way than I did. I assume this is because the movie was made by Sean Penn, a man not exactly known for being subtle with his views.

Just before setting out on his adventure, Chris cuts up his credit card, ditches his car and burns his Social Security card and all of his cash.

Although Chris has a contentious relationship with his parents, he is close with his sister Carine. However, he never makes any effort to keep in contact with her. He also does not own a cell phone. If anything was to go wrong, - which it did - he would have no method whatsoever of finding help. Which is exactly what happened.

Chris constantly quotes platitudes from authors and poets: 'It should not be denied that being footloose has always exhilarated us. It is associated in our minds with escape, from history and oppression and law and irksome obligations. Absolute freedom.' (Wallace Stegner)

He also writes self-aggrandizing poetry: 'No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom. An extremist. An aesthetic voyager, whose home is the road. So now, after two rambling years, comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within, and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. No longer to be poisoned with civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become: lost in the wild.'

When someone asks him: 'Alaska? what the hell are you running from?' Chris avoids answering honestly, and instead deflects the question:

'I could ask you the same question...You got to get back out in the world...You should make a radical change in your lifestyle. I mean, the core of man's spirit comes from new experiences. And there you are, stubborn old man, sitting on your butt.'

All this made me see McCandless as a pretty arrogant, misguided and delusional person who took a lot of risks without fully realizing the consequences.

The movie, however, presents him through a very rose-tinted lens.

Chris is sometimes deified by the camera, like when we see him float down a river naked in an arms-spread, Christ-like pose; or the sequence where he runs amongst a herd of wild horses while silhouetted by the sunset.

hero with his horses.

Meanwhile, the civilized world is depicted as very nasty: when looking for a hostel in a city, Chris is surrounded by menacing, shifty-eyed types (who are all black, for some reason). When he takes a temporary job at a Burger King to afford supplies, we see a shot of an obese kid wolfing down a Whopper. Alas! how far our society has fallen!

The soundtrack of Chris's travels mainly consists of corny-as-hell songs by strained-voice American rock legend Eddie Vedder:

'When you want more than you have/
You think you need/
And when you think more than you want/
your thoughts begin to bleed/
I think I need to find a bigger place/
'Cause when you have more than you think/
You need more space.'

The movie's much-lauded cinematography shows us a lot of sweeping, Lord of the Rings-y helicopter shots of vast mountain ranges and forests. I found all this to be too grandiose for what is supposed to be a true story about one guy and his journey of discovery. All this imagery and music seemed to me like the movie really wants us to feel that McCandless was an amazing person.

In real life McCandless never burned his cash and his ID; he stored both in a hidden pocket in his jacket, ready for whenever he decided to return to society. Why did the movie change this? Is this story somehow meant to be more inspiring if he takes stupider risks than the real guy did?

The reasons for Chris's rejection of society are never quite clear. He complains: 'This sick society!...You know what I don't understand? I don't understand why people, why every fucking person is so bad to each other, so fucking often. It doesn't make sense to me. Judgment, control; all that, the whole spectrum...Parents, hypocrites, politicians, pricks...'

Early in the film his sister's voiceover informs us that 'From as long ago as Chris and I could remember, there have been daily bouts of rage in our house.' But they don't show us this, they only tell us about it. We don't get a flashback of the parents fighting until much later, and their argument is completely ridiculous:

'There ain't gonna be a party, I'm gonna cancel Christmas this year!'

'Cancel Christmas? Who do you think you are, God?'

'That's right! I'm God!'

As the McCandless family has a restaurant dinner, his parents offer to buy Chris a car as a graduation gift. However, Chris doesn't want it.

'Why would I want a new car? 'Datsun runs great. Do you think I want some fancy boat? Are you worried what the neighbors might think?'

'We weren't gonna get you a brand new Cadillac, Chris. We just want to get you a nice new car that's safe to drive. You never know when that thing out there just might blow up.'

'Blow up? Are you guys crazy? It's a great car. I don't need a new car. I don't want a new car. I don't want anything. These things, things, things, things.'

I'm sure the real Christopher McCandless did have real problems within his family, but in terms of the movie, how is this supposed to represent family discord? A squabble over a lavish gift? It casts Chris as awfully petulant.

Something that I found distracting about Into The Wild was its star-power in roles ostensibly meant to be everyday people. I had a hard time buying Caravan Wanderer Catherine Keener,  Ole Farmer Vince Vaughn and Hippie Chick Kristen Stewart.

Nope, no Hollywood stars here. Just us reg'lar folk.

Chris arrives in Alaska dangerously unequipped - save for boots, knives and a fishing pole donated to him by generous strangers. He has no map. He doesn't know how to properly preserve the game he shoots, so it quickly becomes infested and consumed by wolves. Despite this incompetence, Into The Wild continues to worship Chris with slow-motion, makeshift-shower shots.

A hero's shower.

He can't return for help because the frozen river he crossed is now melted and fast-flowing. Starving and weakened, he finally dies from eating poisonous seeds.

Alaskans familiar with the harsh conditions they live in deride McCandless for his lack of survival knowledge. He could have rescued himself by starting a fire, which would have sent firefighters running.

Also, the real McCandless did have a map, which surely would have shown that he was situated 20 miles from a highway, and only a half-mile from a road from which he could have caught a bus. In his diary he wrote: 'I have been advised to hike half a mile upstream to the place where the river braids out into shallower channels', although at this point he 'can barely move twenty feet.'

Contrary to what the film says, McCandless didn't die by poison, but by 113 days of starvation.

The broken-down bus where Chris died (dubbed 'the magic bus' by McCandless) is now a shrine to him. Fans make pilgrimages there to leave messages and pay tribute. I really don't understand the inspiration that people find in McCandless's story. I don't find it at all inspiring; I just find it sad.

Would so many people love his story so much if he had lived at the end? What is everyone's fascination with people dying young?


2010 brought the release of 127 Hours, another film about a man trapped by nature. I personally felt that this one was truly amazing and inspirational, way beyond Into The Wild. At least Aron Ralston lived through his ordeal to tell the tale, and was actively involved in the making of the film to ensure its authenticity. Into The Wild was written by a journalist, and some of his 'facts' are apocryphal.

Screengrabs: Into The Wild was produced by Paramount Vantage, Art Linson Productions, River Road Entertainment and Into The Wild. The UK DVD was released by Paramount Vantage.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Review: Sita Sings The Blues

You can't get much more independent than this. Sita Sings The Blues (2008, trailer) is a Flash-animated film made almost entirely by one woman, Nina Paley.

On top of the heavy workload that this task already brings, Paley worked herself even harder by depicting Sita through several, completely disparate styles. For example, the 'real-world' framing of the story is shown through a simplistic, sketch-y style.

Style 1: The real world.

The main story of Sita is based on Nina Paley's real life. At the start, Paley is living in domestic bliss in San Francisco with her husband Dave and their cat. Suddenly, Dave takes a six-month job in India.

The rest of Sita (tagline: 'The Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told') charts the couple's alienation and eventual split, as well as Paley's resulting despair.

This may be the 'real' story, but Sita Sings The Blues also incorporates representations of the Hindu epic The Ramayana, which mirrors Nina's ordeal in many ways.

My Take

Paley doesn't just tell the Ramayana story in a straightforward fashion; she gets much more creative than that.

In some sequences we do see a traditionally-told version featuring collaged images taken from illustrated versions of the Ramayana. However, we also hear a recording of three Indian-born people, represented in the film as shadow-puppets, trying to piece together the legend from their memories:

'Ram's father had four wives.'

'Three wives.'

'Three wives?'

'Four sons.'

'Four sons, three wives. Okay.'

'Kausalya, Sumitra and Kaikeyi.'

'And Kausalya's son was Ram. Sumitra's son was Laxman, Kaikeyi's son was Bharat.'

'I'm so impressed!'

 Style 2: The Ramayana

This dialogue features much irreverent bickering over patchy recollections, alternative details from different versions of the Ramayana, and exposure of the kind of plot holes inherent in just about every myth. At one point they hit an inconsistency over a section where a kidnapped Sita leaves a trail for Ram to follow:

'But you know what Sita does then? She drops her jewelry along the way. And that's how they were able to find her. It went all the way to Lanka.'

'How many times did she drop the jewelry?'

'She was wearing a lot of jewelry in the forest.'

'No, remember, she's not wearing any jewelry 'cause she left everything before she left Ayodhya and she came-'

'She left everything?'

'Right, she just came in her Sanyasi clothes.'

'Don't challenge these stories.'

The title Sita Sings The Blues comes from another of the film's narrative devices: at emotional key-points of the Ramayana story Sita - shown as an exaggerated, Betty Boop-alike figure - sings tunes of heartbreak and love, with vocals supplied from recordings by Jazz Age singer Annette Hanshaw.

These sequences are replete with vibrantly-colored characters, gods, animals and scenery; and humor: after Sita is kidnapped, Ram battles an army of demons to save her. As he fights, Sita sings an incongrously upbeat song that concentrates solely on her sweetheart's return:

'If my sweetie's there outside/
My arms and my heart are open wide/
Who's that knocking at my door?'

Style 3: The Songs

All of these styles are so distinctive as to even move differently. The 'real' sequences have wiggle-y, constantly moving outlines, the Ramayana/shadow puppet bits a more two-dimensional, ancient storybook feel; the songs are lilting and hypnotic. Everything is accompanied by a great score by Todd Michaelsen that uses sitars, tambouras, and the full Indian works.

Although Sita Sings The Blues is essentially a break-up story, Paley's agenda isn't just to express what a bastard her conniving ex is (although his use of the ignominious method of e-mail for the break-up made me surmise this for myself). Paley takes time to criticize her own devotion to this guy in one scene where she calls him in desparation:

'Please take me back! Please, please, please! I'll do anything, please!'

The shadow puppets suddenly appear and comment on Sita's similar devotion to Ram in the Ramayana story:

'If you had a girlfriend who was being treated really badly, by like her ex- or her current boyfriend, and she kept saying: 'No, every day I'm gonna make sure I cook for him and send him a hot lunch at noon.' Aren't you going to be like; 'listen, he doesn't like you or talk to you. You've got to move on. Something's wrong.' Okay?...I feel like this whole 'good' and 'bad' thing? That we always want people to be either all good or all bad? I think Sita also has her own issues.'

When Nina Paley was recovering from her divorce, the way she found solace and closure was to read these legends and listen to this music. Sita Sings The Blues isn't really 'about' the break-up itself; it's more about how people can both experience and create stories, music and art to help them through the difficulties of life.

In most break-up movies (Swingers(500) Days of SummerForgetting Sarah MarshallMidnight in Paris) the break-up itself is identified as a core problem, and the story resolves with the protagonist just hooking up with someone else. The underlying messages here seem to be that being in relationship is the ideal state of life, being single is a tragedy, and for God's sake find a new partner as quickly as you can.

In Sita Sings The Blues Nina Paley weathers the storm of grief and takes time on her own to regroup and meditate on what she wants for her herself now. Paley's messages are that relationships aren't everything, being single is fine; and that it's perfectly healthy to establish oneself as an individual, rather than as half of a unit.

These are the kind of realistic and inspiring ideals that are rarely posited in films and that I'm grateful to see expressed by someone.


You'd think that the freedom of public domain would make using old songs completely easy, but in making Sita Sings The Blues, Nina Paley ran into legal trouble. Although the recordings themselves are in the public domain, the lyrics themselves are still held by copyright. The $50,000 it costs to authorize the use of these songs might be chump change for a big studio film production, but this is obviously a lot of money for just one person.

As a reaction to what Paley perceives as injustice from the world of corporate copyrights, she decided to release Sita Sings The Blues free from copyright. As her website says:

'You don't need my permission to copy, share, publish, archive, show, sell, broadcast, or remix Sita Sings the Blues. Conventional wisdom urges me to demand payment for every use of the film, but then how would people without money get to see it? How widely would the film be disseminated if it were limited by permission and fees? Control offers a false sense of security. The only real security I have is trusting you, trusting culture, and trusting freedom.'

You can buy the Sita Sings The Blues DVD at Paley's website here, or you can watch it for free on YouTube with her blessing.

Further Reading

For more about animation, you can see my post about Princess Mononoke.

Screengrabs: Sita Sings the Blues was produced by Your Name Here and Funded By You, in association with Your Money. The DVD was distributed by FilmKaravan.

© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Review: Kick-Ass

When a genre becomes popular enough, filmmakers can use filmgoers' familiarity with it to make successful postmodern takes on it. Scream did it with horror, Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy did it with the western. Kick-Ass (2010, trailer) sets out to do the same with the cash-vortex that is the comic-book movie.

Dave Lizewski, (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, née Johnson) a high-school student, says that his only super-power is 'being invisible to girls' - despite being rather good-looking for a self-confessed geek.

Get lost, four-eyes! NEEERD!!

Kick-Ass's world is similar to our world, in that super-powers only exist in fiction. Despite this, Dave wants to try being a real-life super hero himself: 'I always wondered why nobody did it before me. I mean, all those comic books, movies, TV shows; you'd think that one eccentric loner would have made himself a costume.'

Dave buys what looks like a green gimp-suit, puts on a pair of Marigolds, arms himself with a couple of heavy sticks, and goes out on patrol as 'Kick-Ass'.

My Take

Soon after this, Kick-Ass betrays its own premise completely. Kick-Ass gets cornered by criminals while on an investigation. Suddenly, Hit-Girl, (Chloë Grace-Moretz) a purple-costumed eleven-year old wielding knives and spears, appears and graphically murders all the bad guys.

Wait, I'm confused. Isn't this movie supposed to be based in real life? How exactly is a back-flipping, villain-butchering pre-teen supposed to be real? This movie tries to have its cake and eat it too by precisely enacting the genre it is purportedly making fun of.

Case in point: after Hit-Girl saves Dave, Big Daddy, (Nicolas Cage) another murdering psychopath dressed in a Batman-style outfit, tells him:

'You know we're around if you need us.'

'How do I get a hold of you?' Dave asks.

Hit-Girl replies: 'You just contact the mayor's office. He has a special signal he shines in the sky. It's in the shape of a giant cock.' They then jump out of the window and disappear into the night. How this massive irony went past the filmmakers unnoticed is beyond me.

The major problem I have with this movie is how jarring the oscillating 'real' and the 'super-real' are.

On Dave's very first patrol, he sees a couple of hoodlums trying to break into a car. When they refuse to stand down, he starts to fight them. The fight ends when Dave is knifed right in the gut. Soaked in blood and delirious with pain, he stumbles into the street, where a car hits him. Damn.

I guess you can go one of two emotional paths when watching this scene (and the movie as a whole): either the 'real' route, where  you are horrified and depressed by the wanton injury, pain and killing; or the 'super-real', where you dispassionately observe it all from a distance, marvel at the Tarantino-esque geysers of blood, and laugh.

At the hospital, Dave has steel rods implanted into his broken bones. You'd think he'd be traumatized beyond belief by both his injuries and this surgery, but instead he looks at his X-ray and exclaims: 'This is awesome! I look like fricking Wolverine!'


The movie lost my respect here, and never got it back. Why are we expected to still root for this maniac? As Dave's friends say: 'Super's like being stronger than everybody and flying and shit. That's just hero...No, it's not even hero. It's just fucking psycho.'

I even took issue with the music. Featured on the soundtrack are a mock-Ennio Morricone tune and the orchestral arrangements 'In the House - In a Heartbeat' and 'Adagio in D minor' by film composer John Murphy.

Both of these aren't just minor background tracks; they are the instantly-recognizable, front-and-center themes from Murphy's 28 Days Later and Sunshine scores. Rather than draw me into Kick-Ass, as filmic music ought to, this instead distracted me into thinking about which better movies I could be watching instead.

Kick-Ass derives its comedic moments from more nasty pain and death. The movie opens with Dave's voiceover where he wonders about how come nobody's ever tried being a real-life super hero. The accompanying visual is a guy in an extravagant red outfit, complete with wings, perched on top of a tall building. He spreads the wings and leaps off.

He then plummets down dozens of storeys and smashes into a parked car, dying instantly. Dave's voiceover says: 'That's not me, by the way. That's some Armenian guy with a history of mental health problems.' Ha ha!

I don't think I'd mind the violence so much if the movie wasn't predicated on this being the real world. I'm not too bothered by violence in something like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, because it clearly exists in a fantasy reality from the very beginning. Kick-Ass asks me to both ground it in reality and accept its extreme brutality, and I found this impossible to do.

Later, we see Dave at the breakfast table with his parents. Suddenly, Dave's mom collapses in her chair and cracks her head onto the table. 'My mother was killed by an aneurysm in the kitchen', says the voiceover.

I can tell that both of these moments are supposed to play as comedy because both of the characters are never referred to again - presumably to distract us from the 'real', and instead get us to see these scenes as if they are live-action Wile E. Coyote cartoons. Except they are not cartoons. Neither of these people can just dust themselves off and continue living.

After Dave's mother dies, there is a cut to another breakfast scene. The remaining family members sit with deadpan expressions, and the table laid out in exactly the same way as in the aneurysm shot. Dave's dad looks at the cartoon mascot on a cereal box and nonchalantly asks: 'Did they change the bee's face?'

Ha ha!

Is this supposed to be cool and hilarious? Is 'not caring' the new caring? At the age of twenty-one, am I already too square for a movie targeted at my own demographic?

The answer is probably yes: the release of Kick-Ass was met with sometimes orgasmic applause, and the movie made its budget back three times over.

Kick-Ass's success has given rise to Kick-Ass 2, which is set to be released in this year's summer blockbuster block. I obviously have no intention of seeing it, but I have leafed through the movie's tie-in comic book and discovered that one scene involves children being gunned down, and another features rape.

Screengrabs: Kick-Ass was produced by Marv Films and Plan B. The UK DVD was distributed by Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Review: Black Mirror, Series One

Black Mirror Series One (2011, very cool trailer) is a black comedy science-fiction (or speculative fiction) British TV series. Like the old Twilight Zone, it is a collection of stories that are completely independent from each other, save for a shared concept.

Whereas Twilight Zone's was just a vague theme of strangeness and otherworldliness, - 'the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition...between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge', in the words of theatrical narrator Rod Serling - Black Mirror focuses on modern technology and its role in how we communicate.

More specifically, Black Mirror centers on the sinister. The episodes are essentially cautionary tales that theorize on what could happen in the future. 'If technology is a drug,' series creator Charlie Brooker wrote in The Guardian on its release, 'then what, precisely, are the side-effects?' (Citation below.)

‘The ‘black mirror’ of the title’, he continues, ‘is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.’ (You're looking at one right now!)

Brooker is a TV veteran best known for his TV shows Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe and Newswipe with Charlie Brooker, in which he satirizes television shows and the news, respectively. I have never sat down and watched either of Brooker's programs, but I was aware of him due to a hilarious and popular segment from Newswipe that makes fun of the dreary presentation of BBC news broadcasts.

Like many UK TV shows, Black Mirror had a very brief run (typically a series of a UK sitcom lasts for only six or seven episodes; a mere fraction of the American standard 23 to 24.) Black Mirror falls into the Sherlock mold of only having three episodes, but each are around an hour long, and are structured in a filmic style with very slick production values.

The Prime Minister (Rory Kinnear, M's right-hand man Tanner in Skyfall) is woken by a call from his cabinet, who show him a video of a kidnapped Princess Susannah (Lydia Wilson), an 'eco-conscious national sweetheart' who I assume is implicitly based on Kate Middleton.

'Read the statement', says a voice off-camera. Susannah dictates, tearful and terrified:

'I am in a place you cannot find, held by one you will not trace. Prime Minister Michael Callow, my life depends on you. If you do not do precisely as instructed by 4PM this afternoon I will be executed. There is only one demand, and it is a simple one. At 4PM this afternoon, Prime Minister Michael Callow must appear on live British television, on all networks, terrestrial and satellite, and have full, unsimulated sexual intercourse with a pig.'

This is his face, immediately after hearing that last line.

Callow's austere staff feed him worse and worse information: the kidnapper has left no way to be contacted or negotiated with. The video exists on YouTube. The newsrooms have it. It's trending on Twitter.

'Fucking Internet', Callow spits. 'So what now, what's the playbook?'

'This is virgin territory, Prime Minister. There is no playbook.'

The rest of the episode follows the PM's investigation and the media's extensive probing.

My Take

Wow, I thought. What a premise. Can it possibly measure up to this premise? How in the hell is it going to end?

Thankfully, I was very impressed with the outcome, as well as with the entire episode through and through.

My last post was about Contagion, a film that, like The National Anthem, is about a crisis that threatens innocent lives. In my post, I complained that Contagion failed to convey the public's reaction to the crisis. Where Contagion failed in this respect, The National Anthem excelled. In fact, I think that the whole genius of the episode lies in its sheer sense of population, all scrambling about for information and answers.

A woman working at Downing Street describes some of the media coverage: 'The Guardian are running a live blog, and a short think-piece on the historical symbolism of the pig.'

We also see snippets of the TV news, including a former head of MI5 debating with a 'Middle East expert' about whether or not the kidnapping could be the work of Islamist terrorists; and a news team on the street recording the opinion of an everyday idiot:

'Nothing too abnormal for Prime Ministers and MPs. They're all deviants, sexual deviants, all MPs and Prime Ministers.'

Malaika, (Chetna Pandya) a classic shameless-journalist type at fictitious news station 'UKN', sends pictures of herself in various states of undress to a guy working inside Number 10 in exchange for information.

Charlie Brooker himself wrote this episode, and it is packed with so much rich detail that I'm sure he put a lot of time, thought, effort and research into it. His script is as sharp as Sorkin.

We as see both the reporting/government side, and that of normal people. Our view fluidly navigates through and around them as if it's a bona fide political-thriller movie.

Orderlies watch new developments on overhead screens at a hospital, a guy watches from bed on his day off, pub workers and patrons watch in the pub.

Much darkly hilarious dialogue ensues: one of the orderlies (Sophie Kennedy Clark) asks her co-workers 'Would they use a female pig?'

Brooker clearly has a cutting-edge awareness of social media - including horrible, caps-lock ridden YouTube comments: Prime Minister Callow's aghast wife Jane (Alex Cairns) views an online upload of the kidnapper's video and reads the following below it:

PM gonna fuck a pig LOL


This is her face, immediately after reading that last line.

The most meaningful scene of Anthem for me came immediately after the opening scene, at a meeting at UKN. The government is utterly helpless to censor the kidnap video, but they do issue a D-notice about mentioning the video on air.

'We're honoring the D-notice', the UKN director tells the room.

'The voluntary D-notice', Malaika rebuts.

'It may be a sportsmanlike gesture, but we are making it. A woman's life is at stake here. We follow procedure...We're not a chatroom...No-one has broken rank. Not the Beeb, not Sky.'

A man then enters the room and informs the director that CNN, Fox and MSNBC are already reporting it in America.

'Oh God, this planet!' the director exclaims, then immediately disregards his righteous tirade and readies up his own coverage:

'Set the tone with standards and practices. We need to explain this without viewers sicking up their Weetabix...All graphics run past me. Keep it functional, no Peppa Pigs.'

To sum up: We won't talk about it as long as nobody 'breaks rank', but as soon as they say it, we have to, too. Suddenly it's not sacrosanct anymore. 'They broke rank' is justification enough to begin thourir reporting onslaught. 'My timeline consists 100% of viewers asking why we're not covering it', Malaika initially argued against the director. Everyone wants to know everything about it, and it's our job to tell them. It's a race.

I can relate personally to this eerie theme of technology allowing people to feel entitled to know everything about everyone: Back when I was in high school, a teacher once reprimanded me for reading her e-mail without responding. I found out that my school's e-mail service could inform senders about whether or not their recipients have opened their messages.

This probably sounds like a minor occurrence, but it mildly disturbed me. I was okay with the arrangement of someone sending me a message and my receiving it, but I considered this weird 'check-up' feature of the e-mail program to be a violation of my privacy.

I wondered: what would the low-tech equivalent of this feature be? Looking over the shoulder of someone holding an envelope you sent them, watching them open it and read the letter, and demanding 'Send me one back. Hurry up!' when they finish? This kind of thing is only possible with modern technology.

Okay, back to The National Anthem.

All I've shared about the story only happens within the first half. I'm not even going to provide a hint as to how any of the episodes end, but suffice to say that, like any worthwhile satire, this one is crazy enough to be both possible, (given the premise), and wickedly funny.

Fifteen Million Merits takes place in a dystopian world where, for unknown reasons, millions - and perhaps all - young people are kept in a shiny black facility that looks like the inside of the new Mac Pro.

Welcome to the iFuture.

They all pedal stationary bikes all day, and for this they earn 'merits', a currency which they need to purchase necessities like food and toothpaste. Those too unfit to maintain their cycling are demoted to picking up the cyclists' garbage. The demotion is called 'going lemon', after the yellow scrubs-like outfits these people must wear.

The pedaling cyclically powers screens they stare at from their bikes. they can play motion-activated video games (reminiscent of Xbox Kinect), customise their 'doppels' (digital avatars reminiscent of Miis on the Nintendo Wii) or watch programs (through an interface reminiscent of iTunes).

The programs are all awful: Botherguts consists entirely of fat people having food crammed into their faces and being otherwise humiliated. Wraith Babes is hardcore porn - 'The hottest girls in the nastiest situations.'

Finally, and perhaps worst of all, is Hot Shots, an X-Factor clone that costs a massive 15 million merits to audition for. Hostile judges rank Hot Shots contestants in a manner identical to its inspiration: 'I'm so sorry, love. You came across as fundamentally unlikable and really quite worthless.'

The Hot Shots on Hot Shots are exalted, and a spot on the show is implied to be the idyllic culmination of the life of toil: 'putting their back into giving back for a brighter now. Each pain they'd use, like you, hoping to become a Hot Shot.'

Our protagonist is Bing Madsen (Daniel Kaluuya). Bing has inherited over 15 million merits from his recently deceased brother, and is going through something of an existential depression (as I'm sure I would if I were in his situation, dead brother or no).

His slow, listless pedaling doesn't earn him many merits, and, judging by the way he cavalierly throws them away to skip screen advertisements, he doesn't see much value in them. While pedaling, he opts out of watching TV shows in favor of looking at a plain graphic of rolling hills.

The screens keep his fellow pedalers docile: one guy is enraptured with the singers on Hot Shots and occupies himself with buying endless accountrements for his doppel. Another pedal-mate, Dustin (Paul Popplewell), is a mean, chortling dumbass who drinks up all the horrible programming and berates the 'lemons', like in one scene where he sees the reflection of one in his Wraith Babes video screen:

'For Christ's sake! Way to mood-kill, blubbernaut! Cheers for the reflection! One minute I'm in Slitsville, the next there's a haunted pig gawping at me! They may as well have cut to a war crime!'

Abi (Jessica Brown Findlay), an attractive new girl, arrives. Bing hears her sing an old love song, and is transfixed by her soulfulness.

'You thought of trying out for Hot Shot?'

He doesn't care about glamorizing her or putting her on a pedestal above everyone else; he just wants her to have something better than this life, and believes she might make it with her talent. He offers to gift her the fifteen million merits she'll need to enter the competition.

'Why don't you spend it on you?' she asks him.

'And buy what? New shoes for my doppel? What's the point? It's all just stuff. It's confetti, it's...You've got something real. What better to spend it on?'

My Take

Fifteen Million Merits is my least favorite episode of the three, but I still think it's a very good one. Charlie Brooker returns to write this one (with his wife Kanak Huq), but it is diametrically dissimilar to The National Anthem.

Where that one was fast-paced and fluid, Merits has a much more languid pace, to emphasize Bing's dull and claustrophobia-inducing routine. Bing barely even speaks for most of it, and we don't even find out his name until seventeen minutes in.

Merits is the most science fiction-y of the series. Its glossy sets, computer generated screen-activity and evocative score underline how technologically brilliant - yet soulless - this world is. Props to Caroline Barclay, art director; Daniel May, production designer; Bernard Newton and Scott Peters, special-effects technicians; and Clint Mansell, whose score for Moon is featured. All of their collective craftsmanship effectively transports the viewer into this episode's bleak world.

There is one moment when Bing, in a moment of despair, has insufficient funds to skip one of the porn ads, and when he tries to close his eyes, the screens around him go red, and an automated voice repeats: 'Resume viewing'. The video won't finish until the scanners around him confirm that his attention is held on it. It's enough to make you shudder.

Welcome to iHell.

Many simple, clever moments play on the theme of quashed individuality: Abi makes an origami penguin out of an apple wrapper, and one of the lemons tips it into his garbage bag. 'Detritus. Sorry.' he says with palpable malaise.

On the other end of the spectrum is Dustin, who enjoys taking what he wants and pushing down others: While on the bicycle, Bing sneaks a sweet gaze at Abi. Enter Dustin, who also looks over at her. 'I'd love to fucking ruin that.'

The ending sold this episode for me; at first I thought the story was a bit too sentimental, but then there is an organically-developed change that takes it into a whole new direction. All I'll say is that Daniel Kaluuya's acting prowess goes a long way towards making it work.

Like The National Anthem, The Entire History of You takes place in the regular world, save for a unexpected detail. In this one the detail comes in the form of the 'grain', a Strange Days-like device that people implant into their own heads to allow them to record all that they see and hear:

'Live. Breathe. Smell. Full spectrum memory. You can get a Willow Grain upgrade for less than the price of a daily cup of coffee. And three decades of backup for free. Install in-grain procedure with local anaesthetic, and you're good to go. Because memory is for living.'

Memories can be browsed using a little key-fob that looks and works similarly to an Apple Remote. Playbacks of memories, or 're-do's, can be viewed both through TV screens and inside your own eyes. Cataract-like apparitions appear on their irises whenever they watch these in-brain re-dos.


As you might imagine, the grain technology allows people to obsess over imperfections in their lives, like when a guy shows a re-do of his hotel room:

'Look at that frayed carpet! This is a five-star suite! I paid good money to have perfect details. Now I've got that shitty carpet for the rest of my life.'

The grain has caused changes to the legal system. 'Retrospective parenting' litigation now exists: 'Bobby sues Mum and Dad for insufficient attention, leading to lack of confidence, leading to damages against earnings.' I can't imagine what state the psychotherapy profession is in the wake of the grain.

Hallam (Phoebe Fox) is the only character we meet who doesn't have a grain, and when someone mentions this fact, it becomes a conversation piece. Those with grains are in such a majority that not having one is considered a sort of fad: 'It's a big thing right now, right? Going grainless?' someone asks her.

The removal of Hallam's grain has left an ugly scar, and she says that the procedure was 'agony' and risked damaging her vision.

Another woman, Colleen (Rebekah Staton), who works in 'grain development', simply can't understand Hallam's choice:

'With half the population, you can implant false memories just by asking leading questions in therapy. You can make people remember getting lost in shopping malls they never visited. Getting bothered by pedophile babysitters they never had.'

I guess her point is: we need the grains to record everything, because we can't trust what we think we know.

The Entire History of You follows Liam (Toby Kebbell) and his wife Ffion (Jodie Whittaker), and is essentially a relationship drama about them. Liam suspects that Ffion may still be attracted to her old flame Jonas (Tom Cullen), after observing their interaction at a dinner party.

Ffion tries to reassure Liam that hers and Jonas's relationship happened a long time ago on holiday in Marrakech, and only lasted a week. In 'our' world, that would have been the end of that conflict, but this is Grain World, and Liam ignores his wife's word - and assurance that she loves him - in favor of scouring his 'memory' to confirm his suspicions.

My Take

Another great one. This is the only one that Charlie Brooker didn't have a hand in writing; instead, Jesse Armstrong (one half of Peep Show's writing duo) steps up to the plate. Like Brooker on his episodes, Armstrong applies a lot of effort to fleshing out the impact of the grain technology on his alternate universe. Armstrong also writes two nuanced and emotionally volatile lead characters who ended up expertly realized by Kebbell and Whittaker.

The theme of privacy-invasion returns, with airport security requesting a scan of Liam's memory: 'Could you rewind me your last 24 hours quad-speed or me please? And back that up for me times-64 for the week?'

Distrust and paranoia also strongly permeate The Entire History of You; Liam and Ffion's baby even has a grain, which Ffion scans through to monitor on her babysitter's conduct. Neither parent bats an eyelid at this, and it seems to be a completely socially acceptable precaution.

I wonder if real parents would install what is essentially a CCTV camera into their offspring's skull. Given the opportunity, who knows?

Liam uses special grain-features to comb his re-do of the dinner party. 'Lip-read-reconstruction' helps him ascertain what Ffion and Jonas are discussing across the room, and a zoom feature allows him spy the two kissing in the background of another person's screen projection of an old re-do.

'Is that Marrakech? It doesn't look like Marrakech.'

'He's an old fling!', she pleads. 'So what, don't get all fucked up!'

'Oh, I'm fucked up, am I? That's brilliant. Because sometimes, you're a bitch.'


'I didn't mean that.'

Ffion then gives him a taste of his own medicine by playing back what he just said:

'You're a bitch.'

'You can't just edit off the word 'sometimes'! I want you to delete that!'

In a pairing of similarly hypocritical moments, Liam derides Jonas for masturbating to 'hot times in earlier relationships'. However, later both he and Ffion watch re-dos of sex - as a stimulant to having sex in the present.


Again, in 'our' world, Liam would never have been able to lip-read or zoom anything, and would have had to just trust his wife's word. Trust is what the grain eliminates.


Filmland beckons to Black Mirror: Brit crime-thriller Welcome to the Punch featured Daniel Kaluuya (Bing) as a cop; and Robert Downey Jr., with production company Team Downey, has purchased the film rights to The Entire History of You - although I assume that, based on the fact of his involvement, it will become some kind of action-thriller. I hope that at least Jesse Armstrong is brought back for the screenplay.

Black Mirror was succeeded by a second series (kick-ass trailer) in 2013, but in my opinion two out of the three episodes were just bad, and the remaining good one doesn't even approach the first series's level of quality.

For those living in the UK, Black Mirror is available to stream for free on 4OD.

Further Reading

For more about the horrors of technology, see my post about Catfish.

The Guardian citation: Brooker, Charlie. "Charlie Brooker: The Dark Side of Our Gadget Addiction." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 01 Dec. 2011. Web. 14 July 2013.
Screengrabs: Black Mirror was produced by Zeppotron. The UK DVD was distributed by Channel 4 DVD.
© Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and 'NickGBrown On Films', 2012-14. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog's author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Nicholas Gonzalez Brown and NickGBrown On Films with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.