Month: October 2016

Ugly Reflections

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

Black Mirror isn’t a television series as much as it is an anthology. The episodes are independent stories, so there’s no requirement of watching them in order. They are, however, tied together by the common theme of technology, and the consequences of technology. The first and second season which was written for and broadcast by UK’s Channel 4, released in 2011 and 2013 respectively, with three hour long episodes each. The third season, produced by Netflix, released on the 24th of this month, with six episodes – six different, terrifying stories of how our dependent relationships with technology could alter our lives, and the world.

Each episode takes on a different genre – the first episode, Nosedive, is an excellent satire based on our fixation with social media and is set in a pastel coloured, alternate future (or near future, depending on how you look at it). In this world, every social interaction, whether it’s getting into a cab or buying coffee, involves you being rated out of 5, which in turn shapes your rating as a person. Permanently cheerful and ridiculously good-looking 4.5s get treated with extra care, gain access to privileged spaces, and can claim their world as their oyster. The lesser ranked 3.5s and below – the ones who speak unpleasantly, the ones who don’t care for appearances, are categorized as low lives who for whom facilities are shut off. Nosedive narrates the story of a young woman who gives all she has into climbing up the ratings ladder so that she can move into a plush housing colony.

The second episode, Playtest, tells the story of a somewhat dull American traveler who agrees to test out a virtual reality game for quick money. It’s a fun episode to watch, but is among the weaker episodes in the anthology, with too many predictable, cheesy horror movie tropes and a rather ineffective twist in the end. The similarly themed fifth episode, Men Against Fire, which deals with augmented reality and tells the story of trigger happy soldiers whose brains are implanted with chips that make them see deformed zombies instead of human enemies, isn’t the most impressive either. While the moral lesson is necessary, the episode feels bloated, and doesn’t connect.

The third (Shut Up And Dance) and the sixth (Hated In The Nation) episodes are the standouts of the season. Hated In The Nation combines online bullying with drone technology with a classic whodunit police investigation, resulting the most riveting and well taken 90 minutes of television that you’d have seen in a while. Shut Up And Dance is an especially disturbing story of how a 19 year old, soft-spoken waiter in a café, and a married 40 year old are forced to come together as an unlikely tag team who have to complete terrible tasks when a mysterious hacker gets hold of the secrets of their computers and threatens to leak it to the world. It is poignant, gripping, upsetting and has an ending that lingers long after the episode finishes.

black mirror season 3
I thought the fourth episode was too eh-meh to write about, so here’s a photo.

Black Mirror, as a series can be especially bizarre when you’re watching it for the first time, and this third season hasn’t been consistent with the quality of its episodes. However, if you’re even slightly fascinated by the impact that technology has on our lives, Black Mirror is a series you don’t want to miss.

{The first three seasons of Black Mirror are currently streaming on Netflix}

 

Royal Pains

{First Published In The Hindu Metroplus}

The lives of the British Monarchy have been the subject of endless fascination for generations. One would think they’ve no relevance given the times we live in, but the celebrity treatment of the Royals, which began with Princess Diana, has well and truly exploded today. Forget Prince William and the Duchess, Kate Middleton – even their children, Prince George and Princess Charlotte, are not spared from the constant public scrutiny of not just their behavior, but even their outfits. You’ve got to hand it to the Royals though, their public appearances are always so put together, so polished, so perfect, but the inner workings of their family are kept tantalizingly private. Occasionally a scandal breaks out, but the finer details are buried deep and stowed away, far, far away from the rest of us. Consequently, there’s a Royal rumour mill that never loses steam, and a slew of ‘inspired’ films and television series that try to offer some perspective on their lives.

the crown on netflix

The latest, and perhaps the most promising endeavor in this regard, is Netflix’s newest drama series, The Crown. What makes this series special, isn’t that it’s Netflix’s most expensive production yet (they seem to be topping their previous record for spending every three months now), or even that it is written by Peter Morgan, who was also the writer behind the 2006 film starring Dame Helen Mirren, The Queen, as well as Frost/Nixon. The Crown is special because, for the first time, the Royals seem to have approved of the show- Peter Morgan had revealed at a Press Conference that they were ‘very, very, aware’ of it, and that it might not be too long before Netflix manages to get the Queen’s opinion of it.

The Crown is a drama that seeks to explore the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and the first season, which comprises ten episodes and releases in a few weeks, begins at the very beginning. The year is 1947, the second World War has just about come to an end, Winston Churchill (John Lithgow) has been re-elected as Prime Minister, and Princess Elizabeth (Claire Foy) is getting married to Prince Philip (Matt Smith). In the middle of all this, King George VI (Jared Harris) is ailing – he is frequently coughing blood, which his faithful attenders dismiss as a symptom of “the cold”. It isn’t long before he discovers that it isn’t the cold, but cancer, and realizes that he must do all he can, while he can, to prepare his barely 25 years old daughter for the throne. The Crown explores the impact that the adherence to duty, to royal duty, has over family and relationships, and the immense burden that is placed on a young woman’s shoulders.

Claire Foy plays young Queen Elizabeth, which is interesting because this series would be the second time she’s playing an important English queen on television – she was spectacular as Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, and her performance in The Crown doesn’t seem any different. Matt Smith is also wonderful as Prince Philip, a man who is caught between the boundless love he has for his young wife, and hating the monarch that she must become.

The Crown is the story of a Princess who became Queen, but make no mistake – it isn’t a fairytale.

{The Crown releases on Netflix on November 4th}

These Violent Delights

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

It was the famed novelist, Michael Crichton, who had written and directed ‘Westworld’, the film, back in 1973. The sci-fi thriller was about an amusement park where guests with heavy pockets could indulge themselves in any way they wanted with the highly realistic robotic inhabitants of the park – from gunfights to lovemaking, everything is kosher to those who can afford it. These robots are programmed in such a way that they can never harm the guests, until one day, they begin malfunctioning and predictably, all hell breaks loose. Westworld was a film that was far ahead of its time, and a runaway box office hit as well. The truth is that I’ve not seen the film (although I am very familiar with Crichton’s similarly themed Jurassic Park) which is why HBO’s lavishly produced television reboot of the film was one that interested me as much as it did.

Westworld (the TV series) picks up thirty years from where the movie left off – the park is well established again and the robots are more human than ever, to the point where it’s impossible to distinguish them from the guests. The only tell that they have is their inability to harm live creatures, which means they’ll happily let flies sit on their face, and sometimes, their eyeballs. These robots live programmed lives wherein their fates are already have already been written, unless an interaction with a guest throws their day off previously scheduled events. Even then, once the guests leave, they go back to sleep and wake up with no memory of past events, ready to lead their scripted lives once again.

The entire scientific set up is headed by Dr. Ford (Anthony Hopkins, who is as hypnotizing as ever), who is in charge of creating and programming these bots. It’s when he installs an update in them, an update that allows the bot to access previous memories and have ‘reveries’, that the bots begin to malfunction, and chaos looms.

The show is unapologetic about its (mostly) ridiculous and over the top premise, and takes itself very seriously, making sure you’re as immersed in their world as they are. The Westworld of 2016 has been created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Ray Nolan, and has JJ Abrams and Bryan Burk sitting as executive producers – all names and talent that need no introduction, least of all in the realm of science fiction television. The casting is also incredible – a veritable coup by itself, for it brings together the likes of Anthony Hopkins, Thandie Newton, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Luke Hemsworth (the oldest of the Hemsworth brothers), Jeffrey Wright and Rodrigo Santoro, among others.

Westworld is only one episode old, making it the perfect new show to watch. To be fair, the premiere left the audience with more questions about the show than answers, but I do believe that it’s by design, for it makes sure that you’re counting down the days to the next episode. The sets are lavish, and it’s evident that every penny of its massive budget is accounted for, but the story is still the hero of the show, which is why a simple shot at the end of the first episode will have you more agape than all the special effects put together. Westworld calls itself a reboot, but think of the term as a technicality, for there is little else that is as original on television right now.

{Westworld is presently telecast on Star World Premiere HD every Tuesday, and is also available on HotStar}

A Night To Remember

{First Published in The Hindu Metroplus}

When Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan (Riz Ahmed), a shy, maths-loving college student in New York is invited to a party that holds the promise of “mad females”, he’s elated. He makes plans with a friend to drive there, but as his luck would have it, his friend cancels at the last minute. Naz is so desperate that he decides to borrow (read steal) his father’s cab to drive to the party. It’s not the greatest drive, with him being unable to figure out how to switch the ‘off duty’ light on, resulting in random people getting into his cab asking to be driven around. To make matters worse, he gets lost. It is when he stops to figure out his way that a beautiful young girl gets into his cab, and Naz decides that he’ll drive her, setting into motion a chain of events that will alter his life forever.

Naz and his mysterious, beautiful passenger (Sofia Black-D’Elia) whose name he doesn’t know end up taking a long drive, having copious amounts of alcohol, and fall into bed. Naz wakes up in the kitchen, and when he goes up to the bedroom to say goodbye, he sees her body, bleeding and brutally stabbed. He makes a run, only to get caught for drunk driving. It isn’t long before the police put two and two together and sweet, soft-spoken, wide-eyed Naz becomes the lone and prime suspect in a gory murder.

the-night-of

Naz now faces a future in jail, and must learn to deal with life in prison, forge bonds with other convicts for his own safety and decide whether or not he should place faith in his lawyers, or in his own memory of events.

The Night Of is a tightly paced mini-series (it only has eight episodes in total) which covers a variety of themes including Islamophobia and racial prejudice in the backdrop of the American Justice system. Riz Ahmed is mesmerizing in his portrayal of Naz, a student whose life has shut down because of a mistake which he can’t even recall in full. John Turturro is also excellent as John Stone, an eczema ridden, street smart lawyer who defends petty criminals. Stone is the first lawyer who comes to Naz’s defence in jail, and decides to fight for his innocence. Bill Camp, who plays Seargent Box, a ‘subtle beast’ of a detective who isn’t convinced about the case despite all the evidence in the bag, is a treat to watch as well. Naz’s parents are played by Poorna Jagannathan and Peyman Moaadi, and they are both very convincing as hardworking, middle class immigrants grappling with the shock of their son’s arrest, the attention from the press and most importantly, the fact that they don’t know their son as well as they thought they did.

The Night Of is intense, dark, and gripping, which isn’t a surprise considering the fact that it has been directed by Steven Zaillian, who has Schindler’s List to his credit. The series has been reportedly inspired by the BBC thriller series Criminal Justice which aired sometime around 2008, but I also found that it had striking similarities with a viral podcast called Serial, that came out a few years ago. Serial unraveled a real murder of a young girl that had happened in Baltimore in the late ‘90s, where the accused was also a Muslim student, Adnan Syed. Like Serial, the audience isn’t given the whole picture, and the evidence is unfolded through the course of the series as it reaches crescendo in the finale.

Although The Night Of is a short series with only eight episodes, the impact of the show is one that will stay seared in your memory for a long time to come.

{The Night Of is presently streaming on HotStar}