BLACK MIRROR Season 4 (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 5 hours 48 minutes

Directed by: Toby Haynes, Jodie Foster, John Hillcoat, Tim Van Patten, David Slade & Colm McCarthy

Written by: Charlie Brooker & William Bridges

Starring: Jesse Plemons, Cristin Milioti, Jimmi Simpson, Michaela Coel, Rosemarie DeWitt, Brenna Harding, Owen Teague, Andrea Riseborough, Andrew Gower, Kiran Sonia Sawar, Georgina Campbell, Joe Cole, Gwyneth Keyworth, George Blagden, Maxine Peake, Jake Davies, Clint Dyer, Douglas Hodge, Letitia Wright, Aldis Hodge & Babs Olusanmokun

Over the past seven years, Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR has gained a large fanbase. After getting seven episodes (two seasons and a holiday special) in the UK, Netflix picked up BLACK MIRROR and granted Charlie Brooker the freedom to make a 12-episode season. Wanting to dedicate more time and care into his new stories, Brooker split this into two six-episode-long seasons. Season 3 made waves in 2017 and won over more fans. After lots of hints and speculation, Netflix dropped BLACK MIRROR Season 4 at the tail-end of 2017! As with all my BLACK MIRROR reviews, I’ll briefly cover each episode before giving my thoughts on the season as a whole…

USS CALLISTER: BLACK MIRROR’s fourth season immediately kicks off with the best episode of the bunch. A woman awakens in a STAR TREK-like universe only to discover that this brightly colored sci-fi adventure isn’t all that it appears to be. What starts off as a campy TREK spoof quickly morphs into something else entirely. I won’t dive into further details for fear of ruining some of the fun, but this is very much a BLACK MIRROR story through and through. The mixture of campy humor and sinister creepiness is a blast to watch, while the production values look extraordinary. This is not only Season 4’s best episode, but I also consider it to be one of the top five episodes of the entire series! A+

ARKANGEL: Season 4’s saddest episode arrives in this cautionary tale about extreme helicopter parenting. After her daughter briefly goes missing and then reappears, a single mother injects experimental technology into her child’s brain so she can monitor her at all times and block potentially harmful content from her eyes. However, this technology begins to backfire as her young daughter shows warning signs of mental distress and things take an ultimate turning point years later. ARKANGEL doesn’t simply lambaste helicopter parents, but also gives an empathetic insight into their concerns. However, it also shows a gripping downward spiral of bad decisions, awful mistakes, and terrifying technology (that honestly doesn’t seem that far off). Though this episode isn’t one of the all-time best, it does stick out as one of the series’ most depressing tales and that’s quite a feat. A

CROCODILE: This seriously bleak ditty follows two different storylines that are bound for tense collision. A woman desperately tries to cover up a dark secret, which involves a couple of skeletons in her closet. Meanwhile, an investigator is hired to look into a car accident and puts clues together from memories of the people who witnessed it. The episode jumps back-and-forth between these two narratives until both main characters are in the same room and bad things happen, very bad things happen. This episode actually had one shocking bit that made my jaw drop and exhibits particularly cruel irony. The darker-than-dark CROCODILE is perfect and one of the season’s biggest highlights! A+

HANG THE DJ: The season’s weakest episode takes a light-hearted sci-fi look at romance. In a future where an automated Siri-like system controls the length of relationships, a couple meet up for 12 hours and fall madly in love with each other. Though the system and rules seem stacked against them, this couple attempts to break and rebel against the broken system. Much like last season’s SAN JUNIPERO (which was a hit among many fans for some reason), HANG THE DJ doesn’t feel like your typically dark BLACK MIRROR episode. The concept behind this episode is cool and there are great bits of comedy, but the pacing lags and the ending is disappointingly stupid. While some folks might consider this to be a great episode, I felt that the light-hearted tone, occasionally slow pacing, and silly twist ending worked against it. It’s not bad, but it’s just okay. B-

METALHEAD: Season 4’s last spot of perfection sticks out from the usual series tropes for a number of reasons. METALHEAD’s plot is very simple. The visuals are shot with a grim black-and-white style, that reminded me a bit of scenes from David Lynch’s ERASERHEAD. The 38-minute running time also makes this the shortest BLACK MIRROR episode so far. All of these unusual qualities turn out to be great benefits because this episode is thick with dread, full of suspense, and gives us a creepy tale of cat-and-mouse. The term dog-and-cat would be more fitting to describe this story though, because it follows a woman who’s desperately trying to survive being pursued by a weaponized robotic dog that just won’t let up. Lots of quiet tension, an unusual monster (inspired by real-life robotic dogs), disturbing visuals, and a bleak atmosphere make this into another perfect episode. A+

BLACK MUSEUM: Season 4 ends on a high note with a mini-anthology episode. A woman stumbles upon the deserted Black Museum (which displays true crime technological memorabilia). Guided by the creepy (and crass) museum owner, we watch three different tales of madness and wonder. With 20 more minutes, this episode might have served as its own crazy sci-fi/horror anthology film. As a BLACK MIRROR episode, it’s a ridiculously entertaining finale to an overall great season. This is basically BLACK MIRROR mixed with TALES FROM THE CRYPT as each of the three stories (and the wraparound segment) all focus on cruel twists of fate, horrific ideas, and scummy people getting what they deserve (alongside innocent casualties). The only flaw that keeps this episode from being perfect comes in a final reveal during the last minute that feels like one twist too many. Still, this is a great episode that I immediately rewatched after it ended.  A-

BLACK MIRROR’s fourth season contains the best batch of episodes since the first season (back in 2011). This season’s structure is particularly strong too as we get a perfect episode, a great episode, another perfect episode, an okay episode, yet another perfect episode, and an almost perfect mini-anthology to cap everything off on a high note. Even the worst episode in this season is okay and more than watchable. If you’re a BLACK MIRROR fan, you’ll likely be delighted by the latest selection of twisted tales. If you haven’t watched an episode of BLACK MIRROR and you dig dark sci-fi anthologies (like TWILIGHT ZONE), then you should binge this series as soon as humanly possible! Here’s hoping that Netflix renews BLACK MIRROR for many more seasons, because this series has never been better!

Grade: A

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Sexual Content including Graphic Dialogue throughout -some involving Teens, and for Language

MWC poster

Directed by: Jason Reitman

Written by: Jason Reitman & Erin Cressida Wilson

(based on the novel MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN by Chad Kultgen)

Starring: Rosemarie DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Ansel Elgort, Kaitlyn Dever, J.K. Simmons, David Denham, Jason Douglas & Emma Thompson

I was actually planning on reviewing MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN during its theatrical run last October, but the film jumped in and out of theaters in a blink of an eye. The film tanked horribly and holds the title as one of the lowest grossing movie weekends for a film playing in 600+ theaters. The reason I didn’t watch this one in theaters was because it vanished within a week’s time. Jason Reitman’s dark ensemble drama about the dangers of the internet was on the same ground with BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP for briefest wide release in 2014. However, this movie looked good and I wanted to see it regardless. Having now watched it, I’m of the opinion that MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN is a severely mixed bag. There are things that stand out as good (even great) in areas, but just as many silly clichés and awkwardness where there should be emotions.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Kaitlyn Dever, Jennifer Garner, 2014. ph: Dale

The story revolves around five different families who are all struggling with dark secrets. Helen and Don Truby are a bored married couple who both desire to be unfaithful, while their fifteen-year-old son struggles with a pornography addiction. Patricia Beltmeyer is an extremely overprotective mother, whose misguided actions (monitoring every one of her daughter’s online interactions, text messages, tracking the GPS on her cell phone) are smothering her frustrated teenager. Then there’s Joan Clint who helps her daughter with a modeling website that’s overly risqué. Wait, did I forget to mention the Mooneys (father and son who are both struggling with identity crisis after their wife/mother leaves them) and the Doss family (whose cheerleader daughter is suffering from an eating disorder)? You might already see a bit of the main problem with MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN in this synopsis which is that there’s way too much ground to cover for a two-hour film.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Rosemarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler, 2014. ph: Dale

Director/co-writer Jason Reitman adapts Chad Kultgen’s novel and doesn’t seem to grasp that there simply isn’t enough time to properly show every single scene of 320-page book on the screen. It’s almost as if Reitman tried to adapt all the subplots and two of these could have easily been cut out entirely. The social issues that the characters struggle with are important (body image, addiction, temptation, etc.), but the whole film tries to encompass every one of these problems and doesn’t have a full grasp any of them. Since the focus is mainly on the actions of the characters, actual character development is kept to a minimum for most of the cast. This also leads to unresolved plot threads as this film is tackling about 17 characters and wants us to feel something towards each one of them.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Dean Norris, Judy Greer, 2014. ph: Dale Robinette/©Paramount

Even with character development is on the shallow side, the performers almost save the film in some ways. Ansel Elgort (a hit among young adult audiences with FAULT IN OUR STARS and DIVERGENT) takes on his most emotionally mature role yet as a kid suffering from depression. Judy Greer is solid in the role of a mother vicariously living through her child and Jennifer Garner is frustrating as a misguided mom who won’t even let her teenage daughter breathe without permission. Most surprising is Adam Sandler’s understated role as Don and shows that he still has dramatic chops when he chooses to use them. The young cast members (far too many to list) all sell their characters as believable teenagers struggling with their own problems. Seeing as the movie takes on far too many characters, a few quality actors are swept to the sidelines, including J.K. Simmons and Dean Norris.

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Travis Tope, Olivia Crocicchia, 2014. ph: Dale

I imagine that most people will have a problem with the overall message and execution. This might not have been the deliberate intention of Reitman, but it feels like a lot of blame is going towards the internet at the sole cause of every one of these problems. Though there’s no defense against social networks and websites fuelling issues that were already there, it feels like too simple an answer to blame addiction, body image, and cheating spouses completely on modern technology. Those issues existed long before the dawn of the internet and will continue long after. It feels like the film is trying to make a grand, sweeping, and revelatory statement, but it’s old news and has been seen in better films (2013’s DISCONNECT).

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN, from left: Kaitlyn Dever, Ansel Elgort, 2014. ph: Dale Robinette/©Paramount

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN doesn’t make any new discoveries about technology feeding into serious problems and tries to cover way too much ground at once. There are great scenes hidden in the plodding two-hour run time and many solid performances as well, but these are almost drowned out by a pretentious attitude towards the material (coming off as cliché more than once) and underdeveloped characters that populate a massive cast. The good and bad evenly weigh themselves out into a middle-of-the-road experience that is likely to leave just about everyone unsatisfied or slightly pissed off.

Grade: C

KILL THE MESSENGER (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and Drug Content

KillMessenger poster

Directed by: Michael Cuesta

Written by: Peter Landesman

(based on the book KILL THE MESSENGER by Gary Webb & Nick Schou)

Starring: Jeremy Renner, Barry Pepper, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rosemarie DeWitt, Ray Liotta, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Richard Schiff, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick & Michael K. Williams

There are plenty of reasons why KILL THE MESSENGER is a “good” movie. It addresses huge important issues and features a standout performance that ranks among Jeremy Renner’s best roles. Other talented faces pop in and out of the story as well. There are plenty of great moments as well. It’s a shame that bad pacing fumbles up the overall experience. For those interested in corruption, ignored history, and one of the earliest whistleblowers before Snowden, then MESSENGER is a worthwhile watch.

KILL THE MESSENGER, Jeremy Renner, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collect

In the mid-90’s, Gary Webb got an interesting tip that led him to publish a series of three articles known as “Dark Alliance.” Webb interviewed many drug dealers and criminals in order to unveil a conspiracy that led to a discovery of CIA officials who knew full well about cocaine being used to fund Nicaraguan rebels in the 1980’s. It was a crooked way of fueling a conflict that wasn’t getting full support from Congress. Obviously, Webb shedding light on a top-secret story wasn’t exactly what the CIA wanted. A massive smear campaign was launched against the man to discredit him rather than focus on genuine points in his articles. KILL THE MESSENGER is based on Webb’s entire ordeal with a conspiracy thriller vibe thrown into it for good measure.

KillMessenger 2

The two biggest reasons to see KILL THE MESSENGER are the true story behind the film and a knockout performance. If there’s anything this film gets completely right, it’s that I wanted to read up on the actual story about Gary Webb’s articles and get multiple points of view. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of this plot though. Sometimes, it feels as if certain angles were prettied up in order to automatically see Gary Webb as a perfect hero figure (despite his past sins). It’s a tad manipulative and offering a more complex/flawed view would have made for a more challenging/realistic movie. Jeremy Renner knocks it out of the park as Webb! The actor pours so much emotion into his role that it’s great to watch him pretty much carry a decent movie. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Webb’s editor), Oliver Platt (Webb’s boss), Robert Patrick and Andy Garcia (drug dealers), Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta (government agents) all deliver in their scenes, even if they only appear for a mere five minutes of screen time.

KillMessenger 3

The biggest killer of momentum in the film is the pacing. There are interesting scenes that totally work within the context of the movie, but also a couple of godawful stretches that border on tedious. There’s not a solid reason why this movie should run at nearly two hours. 20 minutes could have easily been snipped out for a tighter flick. Some of these include family dynamic clichés that failed to flesh out the story further or give any emotional weight to this movie version of Webb. Also, the insertion of clips (interviews with government officials or stock footage) as montages feels like a cheap technique of transitioning from scene to scene. It’s almost like a documentary approach was inserted into an otherwise traditional narrative and it’s as jarring a decision as it sounds.

KILL THE MESSENGER, Jeremy Renner, 2014. ph: Chuck Zlotnick/©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collect

KILL THE MESSENGER did a good job of pissing me off and rightly so about at the upsetting true story at the core of the film. Jeremy Renner almost single-handedly makes the movie work with a great performance, while other capable actors make their presence known. Bad pacing really kills the building momentum. There are definitely standout plot points that needed to be kept, but a few unneeded clichés felt cheap. I am glad I watched KILL THE MESSENGER if only because it shed some light on a troubling story and got me interested enough to read up more on the facts behind the film. I can’t imagine ever watching it again, but it’s a decent flick.

Grade: B-

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