An intense time

[Sign up to get these updates via email]

You may have noticed it’s been a little quiet recently on the blog/newsletter. That’s because I’ve been busy gearing up for an intense time of my life: Hosting three weekly podcasts at once (Write Along, the Slashfilmcast, and now with the premiere of Game of Thrones, A Cast of Kings). A surprisingly large amount of prep has gone into this season of A Cast of Kings and I’m both nervous and excited to go through this final step of the journey with all of our listeners.

Given this schedule, for the next few weeks I’m going to take take steps to maintain my mental health and likely slim the blog/letter down, perhaps keeping it mostly to a list of recommended links.

We are about to enter a consequential time in pop culture history. In April and May, we’ll see the conclusion of Game of Thrones and the end of the first few phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are both epic stories — breathtaking in scope, sprawling in ambition, and unequaled in their respective mediums.

I find myself experiencing a lot of emotions as I contemplate these stories wrapping up. While I’m obviously a fan that has considered both of these works worthy of analysis and debate, I’m also a commentator with a modest following that has been podcasting/blogging/vlogging since they began.

I’ve looked back on the past decade and considered all the things I’ve devoted my time to. And I’ve started to turn my eye towards the next decade, and begun thinking about how I will take what I’ve learned to create valuable work that can stand on its own. Hopefully, I’ll have more to share with you soon. Hopefully.

In the meantime, here are a few things I’ve been working on recently:


Some more interesting links from the past week or two:

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch review – The choice is a lie

[The following contains SPOILERS for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch]

About two decades ago, a much younger version of me saw an ad in the newspaper for a movie called Mr. Payback. The ad bragged that it was the first interactive movie ever devised. I asked my older cousin to take me to see it and shortly thereafter, we went to a Showcase Cinemas to check it out.

The plot of Mr. Payback (such as it was) centered around a cyborg named Mr. Payback who would use his special powers to get back at people for their sins. Every seat in the theater was outfitted with a controller and at key moments in the film, a set of three choices was presented to viewers. Whichever choice received more votes would be the one that the character on screen made, so button mashing was a must in order to get the outcome you were interested in.

At the time, I was dazzled by the technology, even though each “playthrough” of the film only lasted 20 minutes (and for a full price ticket, no less). I didn’t necessarily think that this would be the future of cinema (I wasn’t thinking in those terms back then), but I really appreciated the novelty of seeing movies and videogames collide in a big way.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Mr. Payback was a terrible film with awful characters. The acting and writing were subpar and meanspirited (despite Back to the Future screenwriter Bob Gale being involved in the film’s creation). Its method of storytelling never caught on for a variety of reasons, but one truth remained clear: It’s hard enough to do a good job of telling a single narrative with only one ending.

In the intervening years, interactive storytelling has thrived, but mostly not in movie theaters. PC games with FMV (full-motion video) on CD Rom and the Sega CD gave way to incredibly ambitious stories like Red Dead Redemption 2, Mass Effect, and the games of David Cage. The most successful of these limited the total number of potential outcomes. Sure, there might be minor differences in dialogue, or in which characters survived, but most great games stuck with only a few endings (As a recent example, see the hugely successful Red Dead Redemption 2, where your “honor” level dictates how some of the later sequences play out, but limits the outcome to 3-4 distinct endings with minor variations).

There’s a limit to how satisfying an ending can be if you can get to it by dumb luck. The laws of physics (and production schedules) dictate that the more endings there are, the less time and energy can be invested in each one.

Which brings us to this week. Netflix released the latest entry in the Black Mirror franchise, an interactive film called Bandersnatch. The story is about a game developer played by Fionn Whitehead who desperately struggles to ship a game he’s working on, Bandersnatch, before a holiday deadline. Admittedly, the tech behind how Netflix made and executed this is impressive (although bafflingly, newer devices like Apple TV and Chromecast are unable to “play” Bandersnatch). But is the story any good?

Mirroring its branching structure, Bandersnatch is hugely ambitious, with threads splintering off the main storyline and increasingly widening its scope. Depending on which choices you make, there are philosophical ruminations about the nature of choice and free will, a stark depiction of burnout in the video game production process, a direct connection drawn between mental illness and creativity, and a protagonist who struggles with daddy issues and (dead) mommy issues. It’s all very Black Mirror-esque, but without any of the focus that make the commentary and satire land effectively in a regular episode of the show.

I found the experience of watching/playing Bandersnatch to be enormously frustrating. The film frequently presents you with two options without any sense of what outcome you’re even supposed to be interested in and which choice might lead you there. Am I supposed to want to drive the protagonist to the point of insanity, or am I supposed to want him to take a more healthy path? Should I nurture his relationship with his father or should I stoke the flames of familial discontent?

All of this would be fine if the endings were comparably interesting. However, not only do some choices lead to the film abruptly ending in an unsatisfying fashion, but Bandersnatch’s creators have already stated that there are certain endings that are “definitive,” with conventional credits to accompany them. By implication, many decisions lead you to “dead ends.” One of the endings even comments on how unsatisfying the outcome is (Note to filmmakers: Commenting on how bad an ending/joke/line of dialogue is doesn’t make it better). Thus, watching Bandersnatch is equivalent to being placed in a maze without an inkling of where the exit is, or if the exit is even a desirable destination.

I can already hear some readers responding, saying, “Why are you complaining? That’s the whole point!” Indeed, one of the main themes of Bandersnatch is the idea of free will. We believe we are driving the decisions of the protagonist but, in fact, it’s the filmmaker that dictates the outcome. We can decline to get high, but our drink will be drugged. We can try to avoid talking about the memories of our mother, only to be forced into it later. The filmmakers want us to consider the possibility that free will is an illusion, and that the forces driving us may not be ones that we know, understand, or can control.

If indeed this is one of the purposes of Bandersnatch, then I can say that it makes its point, but not in a way that I found to be particularly entertaining or enjoyable. “I’m going to make this decisionmaking process enormously frustrating and constraining for you, so that you may understand the pointlessness of all your actual real-life decisions!” is not a pitch that excites me for something to consume. In fact, it’s actively off-putting (Side bar: For an example of this type of commentary done well, see The Stanley Parable).

That said, Bandersnatch is not without merit. Previous Black Mirror director David Slade does a great job nailing the period look and surreal feel of the story, and Whitehead’s performance is a chilling depiction of a descent into madness. Bandersnatch also wants the viewer to consider the concept of technological enslavement. If there’s one theme to take away from the previous season of Black Mirror, it’s that we should consider if/when the technology we use might ever “suffer” in a way that we might understand that term.

In one of the more effective and mind-bending storylines, the viewer is able to inform the protagonist that they are controlling him via Netflix, and attempt to explain what all that means to a character who only has knowledge of 1980s technology. It’s a great meta moment that makes you as the viewer reconsider your relationship to the entertainment you consume. After all, everything you watch is ostensibly there to serve your viewing needs.

My first playthrough of Bandersnatch was only 30-40 minutes long, as I quickly made a choice that led to the Bandersnatch game being released in a poor state. Conveniently, the game allows you to rewind to previous decisions and, in an interesting twist, previous playthroughs can often impact the outcome and nature of future ones. I ended up spending around 1.5-2 hours with Bandersnatch before I realized that I had seen most of what it had to offer, and exploring further would necessitate wasting time re-watching a lot of content I’d already seen. The stories and their outcomes just weren’t interesting enough for me to further engage.

Bandersnatch is a mile wide and an inch deep. How you choose to get to the bottom of it is pretty much immaterial.

Disclosure: I currently work for Amazon Prime Video. The opinions expressed here are solely mine and do not represent those of my organization or company.

The two conversations that defined ‘Better Call Saul: Season 4’

Here’s a brief video on what I loved about Better Call Saul this season – specifically, the two conversations in the season finale that define the arc of the characters. It’s really impressive when a prequel can chart new territory from its predecessor, and I think the show has done just that.I wrote, filmed, and edited this video over the course of just a few hours on Saturday. I hope you find the insights to be worth your time. If not? S’all good, man.


I’ve been under the weather after my trip to Virginia, and the travel didn’t improve things (it turns out when you have sinus issues, you shouldn’t get into an aluminum tube with recirculating air hurtling across the country at 500 miles per hour!). But I hope to back to full functionality soon. In the meantime, here are some interesting links I’ve come across:

How realistic is HBO’s ‘Barry’ when it comes to acting class?

I had a chance to chat with legendary character actor Stephen Tobolowsky about the new HBO original series Barry. Stephen and I talk about the show’s themes and how realistic its depiction of acting class is. Also: Stephen gives advice to anyone interested in taking acting classes for themselves.

Check out Stephen’s new book, My Adventures with God, on Amazon or wherever books are sold.

Black Mirror: Season 4 review

When I watch Black Mirror, I’m really only looking for the show to do the following: Take my understanding of technology, extend it to its logical conclusion, and then twist it in such a way so as to make me question all my values. By this measure, the fourth season of Black Mirror is a resounding success.

I binged the entire season on the day it was released on Netflix. Here are a few thoughts on each episode:

“USS Callister” (S4E1): This episode refines ideas from Black Mirror Christmas special (specifically, the concept of enslaved computer programs), and combines them with commentary on toxic male fandom and unsafe workplaces. I love that it captures the feel of Star Trek — both original series AND new Abrams reboot (somehow). It’s clearly made with a lot of love towards the franchise, and felt like it honored Star Trek, while adding to it. The third-act suffers from incredibly far-fetched plotting but the episode’s very last moments are great. Grade: A-

“Arkangel” (S4E2): The lesson of this episode is that you must never parent too much. But never too little either. It must be precisely the right amount, lest horrors befall you and your family. This is the kind of episode that people who dislike Black Mirror often think of it as: facile, alarmist, and moderately ridiculous. Grade: D

“Crocodile” (S4E3): This episode is insane — nearly a self-parody in how over-the-top and dark it was. The premise is ludicrous. The ending is so stupid as to be insulting. It does almost nothing to explore the inner life of the main character and as a result, ends up revealing very little about technology or human nature. That said, it is gorgeously shot on location in Iceland and I will happily watch Andrea Riseborough act the hell out of anything. Grade: F+

“Hang the DJ” (S4E4): A wonderful, heartbreaking look at the dehumanizing effects of modern dating apps (with some dystopian aspects of The Lobster mixed in for good measure). Hell is dating other people. This episode is beautiful, though, and joins “San Junipero,” “Be Right Back,” and “The Entire History of You” as part of a excellent quadrilogy of short films about how technology impacts love and relationships (Thanks to Kyle Turner for pointing this out). Grade: A

“Metalhead” (S4E5): What happens when we piss off robots one too many times? This mostly thrilling episode (shot completely in black and white) tries to answer that question. A solid modern-day riff on The Terminator, with impressive visual effects. While it’s a decent genre exercise, it’s not as thought-provoking as the best of Black MirrorGrade: B

“Black Museum” (S4E6): How would advanced technology impact the fields of medicine and crime? This mini-anthology episode tries to answer that question by masterfully weaving together three stories into a main narrative that involves a girl visiting a mysterious and horrifying museum (loaded with Black Mirror easter eggs). I loved each of the vignettes and enjoyed the broader story as well. This is as good as it gets. Grade: A

Overall thoughts: If there’s one overarching theme for this season, it’s the concept that one day, computer programs will be able to experience consciousness, and therefore, pain. Our society will be ill-equipped to deal with this when it happens.

I think we got three great episodes (USS Callister, Hang the DJ, Black Museum), one good episode (Metalhead), and two outright terrible episodes (Arkangel, Crocodile). Any show would be great to rack up numbers like this, but for a show as ambitious as Black Mirror, it’s especially impressive given that we’re already into the show’s fourth season. I’ll be crossing my fingers for a fifth.

Errol Morris’ review of ‘Finding Frances’

Errol Morris, writing for The New Yorker, about the season finale of Nathan For You:

What’s the difference between a bad impersonator and a meta-impersonator? Or between true love and delusion? What makes something real? That we believe in it? That we can convince others to? These questions all come to a head in Fielder’s season finale. Maybe we are all poseurs pretending to be real people. Or possibly the other way around. The series, and this episode especially, is a perfect imitation of life. I mean, a perfect imitation of an imitation of life. However you want to describe it, it is some of the most interesting “reality”-based work yet made.

What a delight to see my favorite filmmaker commenting on one of my favorite pieces of television of the year. See also: My review of Nathan For You: Season 4

 

 

Bojack Horseman Season 4 takes the existentialism up a notch

[Spoilers for Bojack ahead]

No show does modern existentialism as well as Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. Beneath its searing satire of showbiz, its whimsical world in which animals talk and coexist with humans, and its nonstop barrage of obscure references and puns, there’s a core that gets to how painful, lonely, and sad modern life can be.

I enjoyed the first few season but I dragged my feet on getting through season four, for one simple reason: the first three seasons were so emotionally devastating that I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to this world.

Season four takes this punishing feeling of malaise and doubles down on it. There were two episodes in particular that really got to me:

Season 4 episode 9 (Ruthie– In the distant future, Princess Caroline’s great-great-grandaughter recounts one of Princess Caroline’s most challenging days. Princess Caroline loses her baby, then almost blows up her entire life in the aftermath. At the end of the episode, we discover that the future construct is completely imagined by Princess Caroline herself, purely as a means of soothing herself.

It’s a brutal gut-punch of an ending, precisely because the introduction is so enticing. It is reassuring to imagine that your descendants are still around, generations from now. And it’s equally terrifying to consider that this imagining might be the only thing separating us from a total mental and emotional collapse.

Season 4 episode 11 (Time’s Arrow) – This episode is one of the most visceral depictions of dementia I’ve ever witnessed, primarily due to its usage of the first-person perspective. We see Bojack’s mother, Beatrice, experience flashbacks of her entire existence with some notable omissions (many people’s faces, with Henrietta’s scratched out entirely to indicate her esteem in Beatrice’s mind). We see why Beatrice resents Bojack — and men in general. Bojack trapped her in a terrible marriage with a cheating husband.

As the episode draws to a close, Beatrice seems to regain her bearings. And even though Bojack is about to leave her in a terrible place, he provides one final act of kindness by walking her through an idyllic fantasy in their final moments together. Even in anger, there can be flashes of humanity. Even in moments of rage, our familial ties can be impossible to ignore.

**

Was it a great season of the show? It’s not my favorite. Bojack tried venturing away from its more familiar show-biz obsessed formulas and opted instead to dive further into Bojack’s family history. While the episodes above were extremely effective, I find myself more exhausted by this show than I have in the past. Its whimsy no longer counteracts its overbearing sense of fatalism.

I relate so much to the messages of this show. Bojack Horseman has helped me to understand what it’s like to be me, and why I feel the way I feel. But more and more, I think I might need more of a distraction from being me. After all, I’m already me for most of the time.