Monday, January 22, 2018


The final episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror, "Black Museum" is set up to be a sort of  counterpoint to the magnificent "White Christmas" special that aired between the second and third seasons (and which is included as part of season three on Netflix). They're both longer than normal episodes, and both feature multiple storylines, with a wraparound narrative that underpins the final of three tales told. Unfortunately, this is a juxtaposition that does "Black Museum" no favors.

Not that it's a bad episode, or even a mediocre one. It's quite good actually, with only a few minor quibbles (about which more later). It's just that "White Christmas" is so fantastic, it's a bad idea to invite comparisons to it unless you're damn sure you've smashed a home run. And while "Black Museum" has a few intriguing ideas and some deeply disturbing moments, a home run, it isn't. For one thing, it's definitely the preachiest episode of the series, and is sorely lacking in the ambiguity that distinguishes the best Black Mirror episodes.

"Black Museum" revolves around an encounter between Nish, a solitary cross-country traveler, and Rolo Haynes, the owner and manager of the Black Museum, a sort of reliquary for technological artifacts of ill repute. As Rolo guides Nish through the exhibits, he regales her with their lurid backstories, about which he happens to have first-hand knowledge.

There are three stories in all, with the first being the best by far. The fact that it was adapted from a short story by Penn Jillette is surprising, but it certainly helps to explain its descent into extreme perversion. The second story, featuring a married couple's doomed attempt to share a single consciousness, feels like a more tongue-in-cheek replay of the second segment from "White Christmas", and is the weakest of the three. The final, wraparound story goes for broke in terms of cruelty, sadism, injustice and revenge, and ends up falling flat.

If Easter egg hunting is your game, then "Black Museum" offers fan service a-plenty, with callbacks to at least half (and probably more) of Black Mirror's 19 episodes. Aside from that, I'd place this episode squarely in the middle of season four, quality-wise, and it leaves me worried that Brooker and company might be running out of ideas.

Don't get me wrong! I'm still holding out hope for future seasons. But, perhaps an infusion of fresh blood in the form of new writers is called for?


In the penultimate episode of the fourth season of Black Mirror, three survivors of an unidentified near future civilizational collapse are scavenging for items to help ease a dying friend's suffering, when they accidentally activate a terrifying, unstoppable, four-legged security drone that is equally adept at problem-solving and improvising as it is at committing brutal, cold-blooded murder.

"Metalhead", the first Black Mirror episode to be shot entirely in black and white, is also the closest the series has come so far to producing an all-out horror movie, with season three's "Playtest" being the only other episode to come close. The episode's genre bona-fides are bolstered by the decision to make extensive use of needle-drops from Penderecki--instantly recognizable from Stanley Kubrick's The Shining--in the score.

Maxine Peake is excellent as Bella, the only character to survive the initial heist-gone-bad, but the real star here is the drone, or "Dog", which ruthlessly hunts Bella down after making short work of her partners, Clarke and Anthony. Its appearance and movements are partially based on robots designed by Boston Dynamics, online videos of which gave Brooker the idea for this episode in the first place.

While the real-world robots in the above video have a certain goofy charm, there's nothing cute about the Dogs in "Metalhead", which seem to have escaped from the deepest, darkest canyon at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley. Imagine if a mad scientist crossed a pit-bull with a giant hissing cockroach, then gave it a 9mm revolver, heat vision, a GPS tracking system, a functional IQ of 200+, no morals, and every tool it needs to interface effectively with every current real world technology, and you begin to get a sense of what poor Bella is up against.

I've seen some reviewers complain about the lack of backstory in "Metalhead"; how we're given no clues as to what happened to make the world such a mess. Personally, I think this works in the episode's favor. Somewhat similarly to "White Bear" from season two, "Metalhead" is more experiential than it is speculative. It takes you for a ride... and what a wild ride it is.

In keeping with its formal approach and minimalist tone, "Metalhead" is also the shortest episode of the entire series, coming in at a tight 38 minutes. Taut and trim, there isn't an ounce of flab on this feral, unforgiving episode, which for me is one of the best of the season, second only to "ArkAngel".

Sunday, January 21, 2018


Here's how I think Charlie Brooker came up with the idea for the fourth episode in his Black Mirror anthology series: "Hang the DJ".

One night, he takes his wife out to see Yorgos Lanthimos' The Lobster, and they both enjoy it immensely. Afterward, Brooker starts wondering whether he can tell a similar story, about the ways in which we human beings struggle in our quest to find and be with the best possible life-mate, for his Black Mirror audience. Yes, this is fertile ground indeed, he thinks. But then, he wonders how he might be able to distinguish his story from Lanthimos' film, which has developed a substantial cult of admirers since its release (a cult that includes your humble blogger)? And that's when he hits upon the idea of making his story the fourth season's "San Junipero"... the "feel good" story of the season, in other words.

And that's how "Hang the DJ" was conceived! Or, at least, it might be. I don't know; I'm just guessing here. What I do know, however, is that "Hang the DJ", which has nothing to do with executions or radio presenters, definitely is this season's most light-hearted, uplifting offering.

Amy and Joe are an instantly likable, fashionably interracial couple who are both experiencing their first preordained relationship in The System, which appears to be an extremely thorough and exacting program designed to pair people off with their best possible romantic partner. This all takes place within the confines of a village of lakeside chalets surrounded by an inordinately tall barrier wall that keeps the outside world at bay while participants get to know each other in every sense, including the Biblical. While taking part in The System, participants have access to Coach, a sort of personalized Smart Phone that helps guide them through the process.

Seeing as they are both each other's first coupling, and their time together so short, Amy and Joe decide to forgo sex, a decision they both jokingly confess to regretting in their final moments together. After they depart, both cycle through a variety of relationships of varying duration, including some that go on for months. All the while, Amy and Joe keep bumping into each other at public events, and it's obvious they would both very much like a second chance at being paired up.

Of course, when this wished-for second chance comes to pass, one of them succumbs to temptation and accidentally breaks a rule they didn't even know existed, thereby giving this season its most human, relatable, emotionally resonant moment.

Beautifully acted and handsomely mounted, "Hang the DJ" is that rarest of things: A Black Mirror episode that is also makes for a perfect "Neflix and chill" date-night watch.

Friday, January 19, 2018


It's the funniest goddamn thing I've ever heard. Enjoy!

NOTE: The audiobook was, of course, taken down. Therefore, I have replaced it with this extended preview. It's well worth paying for. That's my review. Cheers!

Monday, January 15, 2018


This review of up and coming Brazilian artist/writer Rafael Grampá's stand-alone book for Dark Horse, entitled Mesmo Delivery, is going to be short and sweet.

Short, because there's not much to say. The proof really is in the pudding with this book, which features a pared down, bare bones story about a couple of mysterious truck drivers--one big and burly, the other small and wiry--hauling a mysterious load across a desolate American industrial hellscape. The big one needs to take a leak, so they pull in to a truck stop, where trouble and highly stylized fisticuffs ensue.

Sweet, because every square inch of this book, from front cover to back, is simply gorgeous... like inky fireworks trapped on paper for our eyeballs' titillation. It's also very funny, both narratively and visually. Fans of martial arts movies, underground comix, and subtle Apocalyptic imagery will find a feast, here. Me, being all three, I love this damn book to pieces.

So why not pick up a copy of Mesmo Delivery for yourself or a friend to get a taste of what the next generation of comic industry greats has in store for us? You won't be disappointed, and if you use the link provided to buy it from Amazon, I'll get a few pennies in my beggin' cup!


If you aren't already familiar with the incredibly ambitious underground-crossover comix phenomenon that is Benjamin Mara, I can think of no better place to start learning about his work than via this collection, which shows off the impressive range of styles that Mara has deployed for the books put out on his Traditional Comics imprint. 

Before you ask, yes, the entire book is reproduced in mimeograph style purple ink, as in the above example. You get used to it, trust me.

From the hilariously over-the-top (some might say "problematic") blaxploitation satires "Gangsta Rap Posse" and "Lincoln Washington" (the latter about a freed slave wreaking furiously violent revenge on some racist crackers in the Restoration era), to the more refined and visually sleek "Adventures of Maureen Dowd", which casts the New York Times' resident redheaded Op Ed cutie as a Bond Girl type taking on Karl Rove and Dick Cheney with both words and weapons, to the ugly-in-every-conceivable-way "Ripper and Friends", a series of scatological and hyperviolent 'funny animal' strips, before finally finishing off with a trio of certifiably insane High Fantasy strips--"Zorion: The Sword Lord", "The Naked Heroes", and "Blades & Lazers"--that somehow manage to work both as over-the-top parodies, and exemplary specimens, of the genres Mara is ostensibly satirizing. 

It's purple in the collection version

The deeper you consider his deceptively simple drawings, the more you're able to detect echoes of Kirby, Ditko, Buscema, Moebius, Steranko and more. And yet, there is nothing about Mara's work that is derivative. Also, besides being a unique and prolific creator in his own right, he's also doing yeoman's work of bringing some attention to unjustly ignored comics industry veterans and re-invigorating their careers. So he's a mensch, too! 

Fantagraphics' promo page does a good job of explaining Mara's primal appeal:
Born from the crucible of 1980s trash culture and exploitation entertainment and focused like a laser through the prism of Marra’s brain comes this nasty brew of revenge, power, and passion. It is a reflection of the things that America celebrates and for which it is scorned, and often blurs the lines between the two.
A true original, Benjamin Mara is one of the most important new artists working in comics today. Pick up this beautiful, reasonably priced collection to find out why.

Monday, January 1, 2018


There is a long, hard fall in quality from the heights of "ArkAngel", to the lows of its follow-up, "Crocodile", an episode that, if it weren't for the glorious Icelandic setting, would have precious little worth commenting on. Unless I’ve missed the point completely, and it’s actually a brilliant, spot-on send-up of all those “Nordic Noir” procedural TV shows that were all the rage a couple years back.

For the second time this season, we have top shelf talent—director John Hillcoat, two excellent leading ladies in Andrea Riseborough and Kiran Sonia Sawar, and an obviously superlative crew behind the cameras—doing their level best to tell a story that, by the time the credits roll, most will doubt was worth telling.

Pared down to its essence, “Crocodile” is the story of Mia, a successful, intelligent, big deal urban planner whose decision-making process displays all the cognitive sophistication and analytical rigor of a first-generation computer chess program. In order to avoid being held accountable for taking part in the cover-up of a 15-year-old road accident, Mia commits murder, a crime that dwarfs her earlier transgression both in severity and in its potential to destroy the life she’s built for herself and her family. And then, to cover up that crime…

And that’s when the proceedings descend into farce. It’s a well shot farce in a gorgeous, austere and starkly beautiful setting, but it’s a farce nonetheless, complete with unfortunate clichĂ©s—like a car failing to start at the worst possible time—and a climax that features the one-two punch of an unnecessarily sadistic irony and a surprise “twist” reveal better suited to Monty Python than Black Mirror.

Looking back on this episode after first viewing it, I couldn’t help but ponder the lost opportunity. The basic conceit—a high-tech update of Rashomon, in which truth dwells somewhere near the intersection of subjective memory and objective reality, with a DePalma style multi-POV puzzle boxy murder mystery overlay—has tremendous potential.

Unfortunately, with “Crocodile”, Brooker seemed content to try and out-bleak all previous Black Mirror episodes, and the end results are so over-the-top and depraved that the entire episode seems like an exercise in nihilistic surrealism. This episode joins “USS Callister” and “The Waldo Moment” in a three way tie for Worst Black Mirror Episode Ever.


Now we’re getting somewhere.

I suppose it won’t upset too many readers if I confess that I’ve broken my promise by failing to pause and write individual reviews between every episode from this season of Black Mirror. After reviewing “USS Callister”, I watched the remaining five in one long stretch. I blame Netflix’ auto-start, which I have yet to bother figuring out how to prevent.

Regardless, my having seen every episode at least allows me to declare that, in my opinion, “Arkangel” is this season’s best.

Everything in this episode works.

The story, by Brooker, is excellent, a beautifully constructed study of a relationship between a mother and daughter from its beginnings up to those fraught and frantic high school years. Rosemarie DeWitt and Brenna Harding are outstanding as the mother/daughter duo of Marie and Sara Sambrell, as is little Aniya Hodge, who plays Sara at the age of three. All the other actors acquit themselves beautifully, also, which means at least some of the praise must go to the episode’s director, Oscar winning actor Jodie Foster. 

Kudos to Foster for taking on the job of directing an episode of a science-fiction anthology series known for bleak, edgy existentialism, and imbuing the proceedings with an unexpectedly warm, human, almost “indie” touch… this, despite the incredibly disturbing and cringe-worthy denouement. But more about that later.

The eponymous technology featured in this episode—an advanced version of the GPS “chipping” currently available to paranoid parents in most first world countries—is sufficiently advanced to be interesting, without ever seeming unrealistic. In fact, Arkangel seems like the kind of product we could expect to see available in the not too distant future. Much of the technology (remote GPS tracking, life-signs monitoring) is already available, and while the most advanced elements (mind’s eye POV recording and transmission) are still a decade or two away from being perfected, you better believe there are a bunch of very smart, capable and ambitious people working on making it a reality.

More than any other episode of this fourth season, however, “Arkangel” isn’t about technological extremes so much as it’s about the extremes to which some are willing to go in order to protect their loved ones. Mom might believe with all her heart that she’s doing right by her daughter when she walls her off from life’s many threats and dangers… but is she really? At what point does benevolent parental involvement in a child’s life become something else, even something potentially… perverse?

That’s where the “disturbing” part comes in. I’m not going to spoil it for you, except to say that, despite being seriously cringe-worthy, the scene is deftly handled and not played for titillation. If you know anything about the hazards snooping parents face when they meddle in the affairs of kids approaching adulthood, you can probably make an educated guess as to what this entails.

There’s a lot more going on in this episode than I can express in this short review, partly because I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, and partly because I’ve only got a partial handle on it myself. I feel that Brooker is definitely saying something about the state of the modern (or is that post-postmodern?) family here, with Marie’s relationships with men relegated to one fuck-buddy, and no mention ever being made of Sara’s father.

This is underscored in the very first scene, where Sara’s birth requires an array of technology and five specialists in a sterile, lab-like environment, all working together in order to achieve something that our ancestors used to do while squatting in the dust. Marie is cut off from the experience, a point driven home with the striking visual of an overhead shot of the operating table, Marie's top half clean, serene, and separated via hanging curtain from her bottom half, naked and covered in gore. We’ve come a long way, certainly… but at what cost?

It also speaks to the unfair expectations put on all children in these days of vanishingly small families, where the loss of a single child to sickness, an accident or worse often means the end of one’s genetic lineage forever and always.

Another interesting sub-plot involves Arkangel giving parents the ability to “block”, in real time, anything the child sees and/or hears that causes their stress levels to spike. So if, for instance, a dog barks, and the child is afraid, the dog will become a pixelated mush and its bark will be muffled while everything else in their line of vision remains clear. While it might seem like a nice idea to spare a child from experiencing anxiety and stress, the potential negative consequences of such are duly explored.

Refusing to stick with the easy anti-censorship stance, however, Brooker also takes the opportunity to explore the potential consequences of exposing children to the kind of horrific violence and extreme sex acts that are easily available to one and all these days. This is an example of the moral ambiguity and philosophical sophistication that is the hallmark of the best of Black Mirror, and which was sorely lacking in the season’s first episode, “USS Callister”.

With “Arkangel”, Brooker has added yet another masterpiece to the Black Mirror canon, an episode worthy of the legacy forged by “The Entire History of You”, “White Christmas”, and “Shut Up and Dance”. If any Black Mirror episode has a chance at winning an Emmy or two (not that it matters), it's this one.