Black Mirror Has Nothing Left to Say – Season 5 Review (#42)

Of the now 49 things currently ranked on the Week I Review leaderboard, Black Mirror’s semi-interactive cinematic experience Bandersnatch remains just above the bottom slot, where it has been ever since I reviewed it and Bird Box back in January.

It really felt as though series writer Charlie Brooker just didn’t have anything new to say and was using a gimmick in a failed attempt to cover that up. Which seems inevitable when you have a single man responsible for pumping out more than a dozen disconnected, feature-length scripts over the course of just a few years. The first two seasons, aired on Channel 4 in the UK, had three episodes each, and Netflix doubled that output for its next two. Quantity over quality, it seemed.

But I wanted to believe that Season 5 having just three again signaled a shift back in the other direction: that they would be the three best ideas and not the three only ones.


The show typically sets itself in a vaguely-near-future that is the same as the present but slightly higher tech: things like extremely thin/folding smartphones or translucent computer monitor are common. Really good virtual reality plays a pivotal role in many episodes, but there is usually a more overtly “sci-fi” technology that really drives the story: memory recall devices, human cloning, implants with live brain filters, etc. Whether these things ever happen – some probably will, others probably won’t – isn’t the point: it’s about seeing how technology changes the world.

Unfortunately, this tends to be pretty surface level, so I am typically more interested in the implications of the stories than the stories themselves. My enjoyment of an episode is directly tied to how interesting I think its use of technology is and how it’s integrated into the narrative – even if that narrative is dumb or bad. Because what else is there? So many episodes don’t actually have anything to say about Society – they just want to remind you that everything is bad, you’re going to die, and the internet is going to make that death so much worse.

But that isn’t Season 5, which doesn’t have much of the more fanciful stuff and isn’t there just to cause pain. Indeed, two of the episodes are actually pretty optimistic, and most of its technology exists already. And what doesn’t exist yet isn’t really new, even to this series; indeed, all of it can be found in Season 4’s opener: USS Callister. The high-end VR tech in Season 5’s “Striking Vipers” is the exact implementation seen in that episode. The user puts a little circle on their temple, starts the game, and then their eyes cloud over and they fall back in their seat as they enter the digital world.

But in USS Callister, this was part of the set dressing – existing the same way as all of the other not-quite-real tech but not itself being the driving technology like it is in Striking Vipers. Instead, the Big Thing We Have to Be Worried About is a machine that creates a perfect in-game copy of a person using their DNA, which brings up a lot of interesting questions about consciousness that are… completely ignored.

Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too – Season 5’s final episode – also has a person’s consciousness perfectly recreated, though this time it is added to an robotic home companion instead of a digital crew member of a Star Trek-analogue. And guess what: they don’t do anything with it there either…

Virtual reality is kind of Black Mirror’s bread and butter, which makes sense, because it’s something everyone has dreamed about at some point, and it’s a dream that feels closer and closer each year. So there’s a lot to think about and that is worth thinking about

Striking Vipers might raise some interesting questions about how virtual reality affects real-world relationships, but it doesn’t because the whole thing is just a metaphor for suppressed passions. I mean, the actual message of the episode is Maybe Try Open Relationships. And, like, fine, that’s a message. But it has nothing to do with technology. This is Black Mirror, dude. Compare that to Season 3’s San Junipero, where virtual reality allows for people physically incapable of anything at all to live full lives – have romances that would be literally impossible otherwise. It is why San Junipero is often held up as the best episode of the series, because it is the only time that the show has ever truly woven technology into its thematic fabric while remaining optimistic about that technology. That episode makes good on Black Mirror’s promise.

Striking Vipers does not. As an episode of television, it’s fine. The performances are good, the use of Tetris Effect as a representative of video games in the future is something I found hilarious (and a massive missed opportunity for Danny, since that game is best experienced in Virtual Reality).

But the technology merely offers two characters the means to have an emotional affair. That it’s this tech in particular is not really relevant. It’s missing that integration that I crave.

By the same token, Smithereens must be a failure, because it does not use any new technology or even have a new use for an existing technology. It harkens, then, all the way back to the first episode – also about a hostage situation that was always going to end in with one person free and the other dead. And you know there’s not going to be anything new from the outset, because onscreen text tells you that it’s 2018. We’re talking now about the recent past, not the near-ish-future.

Smithereens takes aim at technology now, at Twitter and Facebook specifically. It’s something of a power fantasy, where the fantasy is finally getting to tell Mark Zuckerberg directly that the thing he made Is Bad. And sure, who hasn’t wanted to have a private audience with Jack Dorsey to go off about how much worse the world is because Twitter exists? Billions of people would jump at the chance. And it is genuinely cathartic to hear Billy Bauer get shut down when he starts to whine about his own problems, though that is undercut slightly by the cop-out that is having him refuse to stand behind his own company.

A generous interpretation is that this represents the constant buck-passing that goes on at the highest levels of these corporations. Nothing is ever their fault, etc. And there is a lot of that to go around in this episode, but the specifics of Bauer’s complaints complicate that cartharsis.

But the real issue is that everything is text: a man is angry that everyone is always on their phones. He wants to yell at the CEO of a technology company to explain why he is angry that everyone is on their phones. So he does that. His story is sad, sure, but it’s really just another excuse to rant about how awful it is that these companies prioritize engagement at the expense of their users’ actual happiness.

Years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. I did so because I, like Charlie Brooker, played Bioshock in 2007 and wanted to be able to engage in a conversation about how it followed the Objectivist themes of Rand’s magnum opus. Near the end of the book, the narrative stops so that a character can give a speech that condenses the previous 900 pages into about 80. And you have to wonder: why wasn’t this just an 80 page Manifesto? Why the hell did I just read this? And then you want to burn the book in a fire.

Smithereens is kinda like that except, ya know, shorter and with a less garbage philosophy. Charlie Brooker used to have a series of cultural review shows: Screenwipe, Newswipe, Weekly Wipe. This speech seems like it was intended for a monologue to be used if any of these were still on air, and since they’re not, he decided to put it in his much more popular show and built an entire narrative that would justify someone saying it.

Also, the cinematography is obnoxious.

One interesting question that Smithereens ever-so-briefly raises plays a much larger role in Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too, which is widely considered the worst of the season but also happens to be my favorite, and it’s not even close. My my main reason is as superficial as any episode of Black Mirror: I really liked Miley Cyrus-as-Ashley O’s song “On a Roll.” If none of these episodes are going to say anything new about technology, I’m gonna gravitate towards the one with the jams.

But seriously, I do think it’s the one that has the most interesting implications, though before I explain why, I want to acknowledge music site Pitchfork’s review of the episode. They weren’t fans for entirely valid reasons – what it has to say about pop-star-as-prisoner is both well-trodden ground and also something that *is* being changed by the rise of acts like Billie Eilish, who, love her or hate her, is nothing like the perfectly manufactured pop star Ashley O represents – even if the experiences were inspired in part by Cyrus’s own struggles.

But where I think Pitchfork et al don’t give this episode enough credit is the way it captures something profoundly sad about the relationship between celebrity and fan, exemplified by the moment when the titular Rachel, upon seeing pop star Ashley O come out of the coma forced upon her by her evil aunt/manager, cannot think to say anything but “I’m a huge fan.” It’s maybe intended as a joke, but it’s not really fun. Separate from issues of expectation – ya know, Ashley is not allowed to make the music she wants to make because her die-hards will abandon her – those fans don’t see her as a human person with human feelings.

It reminds me of what happens when kids show up at the homes of YouTubers, those YouTubers say, “Please leave me alone,” and then actual adults who somehow were allowed to become parents chastise those YouTubers for wanting to be seen as humans.

And that inhumanity is key to the bigger ethical question of the episode, which has nothing to do with music and everything to do with life after death.

In Smithereens, Hayley struggles with the aftermath of her young daughter’s suicide and has become obsessed with accessing said daughter’s social media, which she wants to see in order to find some kind of closure. This is like a D-Plot, but it raises interesting questions about what we leave behind when we die and whether we should be allowed to control that.

Of course, there will only be more pain on the other side of that log-in – itself the type of thing that this show would make an episode about (in some ways, season 2’s Be Right Back is the logical Black Mirror conclusion of the premise).

But is her daughter owed privacy? Is her grieving mother owed access?

And so we get back to Ashley O, who is intended for replacement by Ashley Eternal, a perfect holographic representation. More than a perfect replication, in fact: the idealized version of the pop star.

Last month, Philip Defranco’s Rogue Rocket posted a video about the future of the holographic concert as more and more late acts are, uh, touring again. It’s a big deal and only getting bigger, and it’s fraut as hell with ethical issues. Unfortunately, Rachel, Jack, and Ashley Too sidesteps them entirely by making Ashley Eternal the product of a monster.

As mentioned earlier, though, that’s not the big tech we as a society ought to be concerned about. *That* is Ashley Too, a robot doll that has the entire consciousness of Ashley O herself embedded in it, just limited by software to be more like what we think a digital assistant would be. Removing the limiter – an almost hilariously simple process – brings out the “real” Ashley with all of her actual emotions and memories and everything else.

So, that’s kinda horrifying. This is the thing that ties it back to USS Callister:   Is a perfect recreation of a consciousness actually conscious? Is it human? Should it be?

And even if not, it has human-born thoughts and feelings and memories and… we actively limited all of that. What are the ethical implications there? Is this some kind of digitized slavery?

And how far away are we, the actual world, from opening that Pandora’s Box?

Honestly, Black Mirror provides valuable material for an ethics of technology course that every single person in Silicon Valley should be forced to take. Because I would be surprised if in my lifetime we as a society don’t have to reckon with what Siri actually is, and I would like for the people who do that reckoning to have spent some time thinking about it.

Black Mirror is asking some big questions, important ones that we may not need to worry about quite yet but are coming up faster than any of us want to believe.

I just wish it cared more about answering them.

Six Point Two out of Ten

Spring Breakers Was (Five Years) Ahead of Its Time – Review #30

“After four college girls rob a restaurant to fund their spring break in Florida, they get entangled with a weird dude with his own criminal agenda.”

Comedies, Dark Comedies


Look, I get it. Some films are difficult to describe – let alone with just 26 words. And we all know that accurate synopses are not Netflix’s highest priority… but this one is pretty bad. Both because it misleadingly connects two entirely unrelated events in the movie, and because it seems to have been written by someone who thinks that flippancy is inherently clever.

It’s not.

“comedies, dark comedies”

Maybe whomever it was who wrote that description just deeply, deeply misunderstood what they had seen.

In this hypothetical Netflix synopsizer’s defense, it’s not hard to misunderstand Spring Breakers, a movie that follows four young women who spend more time in bikinis than not. A movie that opens with topless men and women living their best lives on a spring break beach, as Skrillex’s Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites wub wubs over it all.

A power fantasy where guns never run out of bullets.

A few months ago, I showed Spring Breakers to my currently-in-college sister, and she really fixated on that last bit in the same way that the film is fixated on guns in general.

There are a lot of guns, real and fake, in Spring Breakers. At first, they’re impressions of suicidal imagery. The girls are locked into their boring college lives; they point finger guns at their heads and pull imaginary triggers. Brit drinks from the barrel of a loaded squirt gun.

Scenes transition with the sounds of guns cocking. They echo across the soundscape. Even when you don’t see them, you feel them. And then all of a sudden, they’re everywhere. And they are everything.

Spring Breakers understands the truly fetishistic relationship that America has with guns – the way that their killing power has been sexualized by our culture. And the camera loves the guns just as much as it loves the girls holding them. What starts off feeling like a lost Girls Gone Wild tape ends up a fever dream symphony of sex and violence just daring you, the viewer, to get swept up.

But the actual construction of the film makes it very difficult to do that. I haven’t seen many genuinely good films that were more clearly formed in the edit than Spring Breakers. Of course, every film is made three times: on the page, on set, in the edit, but a movie like this can only exist with hindsight. No one, not even Harmony Korine, could have known what Spring Breakers would become.

And I’m not just saying that in some pathetic attempt to sound insightful; I know it for an actual fact, because I read the script. You can too; A24’s original link is gone but I’ll point you in the proper direction down below. I highly recommend it if you have seen the film, because it really does show just how much can change. The imagery, by and large, is intact – I would call Korine’s descriptions “grotesquely evocative” – but the context is oh so different.

Scenes are in different order, or even on top of each other. There are flashes forward and backward. Dialogue is repeated, but with different inflections – pulled, I assume, from multiple takes given different direction. These are not in the script; indeed, most of the dialogue in the film appears to have been improvised, because there’s a whole lot less on the page and the stuff that is there feels a lot less… human? I dunno, it’s pretty awkward. It’s good they were allowed to riff.

But that doesn’t really come across. Those strange edits sometimes feel almost arbitrary in the moment, but taken collectively they are so goshdarn impactful, because they serve the broader purpose that makes Spring Breakers so unforgettable: It is telling you a lie while showing you the truth.

This is not unique to Spring Breakers, but Spring Breakers does it uniquely well. It’s worth noting that there was a metatextual aspect to Spring Breakers at the time of its release that is lost now. Back then, putting Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Vanessa Hudgens in roles like this was scandalous. To some, it might have felt like they were overcompensating for kid-friendly images by taking part in this very-not-kid-friendly film. Indeed, them and Rachel Korine, wife of the writer/director

– which, I just want to take a moment to acknowledge is so freaking strange –

were co-nominated for the Alliance of Women Film Journalist’s “Actress Most in Need of a New Agent” award that year, though they ultimately lost to Cameron Diaz for The Counselor.

Time has now passed, and images have changed. It’s not so strange that these actors would play these roles. Let’s be honest: they’re flawless casting choices. Every one of the four characters is perfectly realized, with Vanessa Hudgens as Candy I think being the particular standout.

Spring Breakers takes these four attractive young women, puts them in bikinis, and then lets them loose into debauchery. It is objectifying them in the context of their own story. And if you turned the sound off, you might think that was all it was doing.

But then you listen to Gomez’s Faith calling her grandmother and talking about how beautiful the thing you’re seeing is, how she wishes they could go together – what a wonderful time. In the script, there’s a knowing smile but it is played perfectly straight onscreen, and it’s far more effective for that change. Because it’s Faith’s own conviction in the magic of the Florida beaches that shows how horrific everything is. The sound both adds the necessary drama to make the scene function and makes clear that the celebratory imagery itself is not so celebratory at all. It’s gross, and it knows it. All that ogling the camera is doing starts to feel more like an attack on the audience, again, a dare to get caught up in everything before it all comes crashing down.

The spell begins to break even before the introduction of James Franco’s Alien, a genuinely terrible rapper whose actual business is drugs and murder. He bails the girls out from prison after they’re arrested alongside two of his own posse at a particularly crazy Spring Break party, which had nothing to do with a chicken shop robbery, and he just wants them to be with him. They’re attractive and in need; he wants to be their knight in shining armor. And in return, they get Spring Break… Forever. But the reality of that is terrifying and dangerous.

One gets scared. Another gets hurt; they go back to their old lives, despite Alien’s protests. The remaining girls hug them goodbye, and then they board a bus and and watch the world go by from what I can only assume is I-95.

In the end, there are only the true believers, and they herald in a new kind of truth. A “Future is Female” kind of truth, as Brit and Candy show the world that nothing will stop them from living in Spring Break Forever. The film becomes their dream, as they ascend to power using the tools at their disposal, both natural and man-made. And it’s glorious. Which is why I think Spring Breakers’ biggest problem was its release date. Had this film come out in, say, 2017 instead of 2013, I think the conversation around it would have been very, very different. And much more interesting.

Because Spring Breakers feels like a movie of the current age, one that feeds into the chaotic and angry world that we are living in now – one that points a literal gun at the male gaze while still fully embracing it. It’s a big, beautiful mess of a film that demands and rewards repeat viewings.

And I love it. I love it so much.

9.5 out of 10.

Climax is Gaspar Noe’s Best Since Irreversible (I Hated It!) – Review #29

“Well, that was crap,” said a middle-aged man wearing what appeared to be full-on goggles as the lights came up in the theater. It’s odd that we’re still there at that point. One would typically have headed out as soon as the credits began… but this is a Gaspar Noe film. Those closing credits are the opening credits, seamlessly flowed to from the minutes-long opening shot of a bleeding woman crawling through perfect white snow.

There are actual opening credits too, but they take place about an hour in. So fun.

Gaspar Noe is one of the most interesting directors working today. He’s hardly prolific – having only made five features in 20 years, with some shorts in between – but every release feels like an event. For him, style is substance, and he’s got style to spare, all of which is used to push the boundaries of acceptibility.

His first film, I Stand Alone, feels like a warm-up, clearing his throat with some almost comedically nihilistic philosophy. It was the next, Irreversible, that shot him into the collective consciousness by depicting a nine-minute-long rape with an unbroken, unmoving camera – among other horrors. Seven years later, Enter the Void meditated on life and death in a DMT-fueled psychosexual nightmare full of unforgettable imagery. His next, Love, had a quarter of the budget, and so went in a more, um, intimate direction with scenes of actual, as in unsimulated, sex, including a moment of ejaculation straight at the screen.

Also, it’s in 3D.

Climax, fittingly, is a culmination of everything that has come before. Eighteen dancers come to an isolated location to work on a performance that they will then travel beyond France’s borders. Perhaps even to America.

The bulk of the film takes place a few days into their stay. After a routine run through, they have a party. Someone spikes the celebratory sangria with LSD. All hell breaks loose.

But where Enter the Void takes you along for the trip, Climax keeps you out of it.

I’ve been sober for… 27 years; I have never intentionally ingested alcohol or anything else of that sort. But I have been around intoxicated people – perhaps not on LSD, at least to my knowledge, but I can say that Climax captures the discomfort of being someone who’s just a bit more aware of a situation than everyone else. I don’t think this was intentional, to be honest; I don’t know if Gaspar Noe knows what it’s like to be the sober one, and it seems to me that the disorienting camerawork was intended to bring the viewer into the experience, but there’s a clear line between the way Enter the Void depicts DMT and Climax does LSD. Now, Quora tells me that this is because DMT is a whole other level of hallucinogen

– and Google probably now thinks I’m looking to start checking out alternate planes of consciousness –

but the Irreversible-esque camerawork in constant motion better represents the overall uneasiness of the situation than it does any given person’s experience. This is more appropriate, though, as the camera moves throughout the characters, not all of whom had the sangria, while trying to keep you up to date on their statuses in a movie that barely passes the 90-minute mark. This section of the film appears as a single take, eventually resulting in an intimate familiarity with the space. This is the area where the light changes colors. That is where you hear the screaming child locked in a room. You start to remember where characters are only to be shocked when they appear elsewhere.

And this is where Climax is at its most effective, because it feels as though the camera could have just as easily given its primary focus to other characters without really compromising the overall impact of the narrative. Despite having so many characters, they’ve all got clearly defined personalities and feel like people who are doing actual things even when they’re not onscreen. Everyone is introduced in a series of interviews, presented on an on-screen television surrounded by reading and viewing materials. To the left are books; the right are VHS tapes.

The tapes include Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, Hara Kiri, Possession, Suspiria, and the like. I wasn’t really able to see what the books said, because the film is in French and I was trying to pay attention to the subtitles and couldn’t do both – but the word “Suicide” stuck out, as did the name Fritz Lang. Watching the trailer, you can see some of this. However, the aspect ratio is wrong, and much of the sides are cut off. I guess he doesn’t want you to see his Salo-esque “Essential Bibliography” until you get into the theater.

But these gave me a lot to think about during the slower portions of Climax, and there are many. That interview section feels like an eternity even if it is probably closer to ten minutes long. Following the big dance number – which is very impressive – is an exhausting amount of singles dancing and then a bunch of two-shots ripped straight from Love as characters talk about whatever gross or dumb thing they’re interested in amidst jarring cuts to black.

Fortunately, this is Noe’s first time in 16 years working with competent actors. The biggest failings of both Enter the Void and Love are that its performers are genuinely bad – especially the protagonist in whose head you spend… most of each film (the former more literally than the latter). You can tell that he’s working with professionals here solely by the amount of clothing that the majority of the characters keep wearing throughout. There are a couple of folks willing to sign nudity clauses, but far more who won’t; that would have been a deal-breaker for Love, but Noe clearly cared more about performance here. And good, because it is all about the performance. Unfortunately, I just didn’t care about at least two-thirds of them.

So while they were keeping on keeping on, I thought about other things: like Suspiria, and mother!, his earlier films, but the oddest one I kept coming back to was the music video for Sia’s “The Greatest.” If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should; it’s a great song inspired by the Pulse night club shooting in Orlando, and it has a video to match – one full of dancing and emotion and, of course, death. I don’t watch that much dance, so my points of reference are pretty limited, but if you told me that the choreographer of Climax was the same person who puts together Maddy Ziegler’s little Sia dances, I’d believe it. Here that feels particularly true, as so many others are involved. And hell, that video’s final group scene takes place in a room lit in green and red.

Honestly, if you watch the video for The Greatest, you’ve seen like 80% of what Climax has to offer. Maybe more.

Which is perhaps the oddest thing of all about this movie: it doesn’t really stand out. Even though it is overtly a Gaspar Noe film, it has none of that unique or interesting transgression that defined his earlier work. Other people could have made this movie – and indeed have made movies much like it. Climax instead turns inward, reflecting on his ouvre, pulling direct inspiration from his own earlier styles and attempting to fit them into one film. It doesn’t work. The nauseating, seemingly unbroken camera of Irreversible mixes as well with the frankly boring conversational style of Love as oil with water. Juxtaposing them highlights this incompatibility. Climax, then, feels like a series of shorts starring the same actors that have been grafted onto each other.

It may be new for the director that the closest thing Climax has to a protagonist is a woman, but that hardly feels like a revelation. His male characters are still pigs, and they’re given so much time to spout their piggishness. It made me wish that I was watching this at home, where I could fast forward through the nonsense before getting into that last thirty minutes or so.

Still, I don’t really agree with the man in the goggles who sat behind me. When he came into the theater during that same dumb trailer for The Curse of La Llorona that I’ve seen fifteen times, he loudly proclaimed “You’re in my seat” to whomever was already there. Clearly, not a man who cared much about the people around him. I bet he would have been even louder if the movie had already started.

But I understand both why he felt that way and why he needed to verbalize it to this room of strangers, because there is no way to not have a visceral reaction to this movie – also evidenced by the multiple walkouts. And no two reactions will be quite the same: there are so many reasons to hate this movie, though each could just as easily be a reason to love it for a certain type of person. I’m not one of them, but I get it.

Because I have a genuine appreciation for some of what Climax does. It has flashes of brilliance that, though they are overshadowed by the much longer spells of aggressively anti-audience blather, I can’t help but respect.

And so for the hilarity of it:

Six Point Nine out of Ten.

Review #10 – Shane Dawson’s “Inside the Mind of Jake Paul”

Shane Dawson is not Errol Morris. Jake Paul Isn’t Robert McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld or even Steve Bannon. But I kept thinking about those movies, in concept if not in actual implementation. Part of the reason I is the simple that that Inside the Mind of Jake Paul runs for an hour and forty five minutes, putting it squarely in the feature length category against the world of Morris and others. The 40 to 50 minute pieces that preceded it feel fundamentally different, despite the fact that the final episode doesn’t have any more things in it than the others – it just has them for longer.

And Jake Paul is, you know, reviled by the public and the media. In a different way by much different people for less significant reasons, but the initial reaction to a docuseries about Jake Paul was DARN IT SHANE DAWSON DON’T YOU DARE MAKE ME FEEL FOR JAKE PAUL. The idea of giving that guy a platform was anathema to a wide swath of the people on the internet who care about the things that happen on the internet. And yet, he did. And so, you do.

The question that bogs down the first half of the series – is Jake Paul a sociopath – is so far from view and irrelevant by the finale that you honestly wonder why Shane Dawson bothered in the first place. He’s not, so the devotion of an entire episode, easily and justifiably the most controversial of the bunch for its problematic use of music and extra footage, to it seems like the flailing of a filmmaker who has extensive remnants of an earlier video concept left in place because no one was there to tell him it undermined the point he would ultimately be trying to make.

But it’s also a likely result of the way the series was released. It was fascinating to watch in effectively real time as this thing was formed. He continued to edit each episode until the day it released. It is everything that a YouTube series can be that nothing else can.

But maybe the decision to form the coherent structure and argument beforehand isn’t just a result of archaic distribution systems. Maybe it just results in more cohesive storytelling.


The series, then, is largely a distraction. The very-serious conversation between Jake Paul and Shane Dawson that is this final episode focuses on some topics that we’ve heard from any number of perspectives, and others that have not come up at all. A fair amount of it contradicts things we heard earlier, and there’s no attempt to reconcile that.

None of it was necessary. Much of it was counterproductive.

Inside the Mind of Jake Paul is a fully self-contained document of a 21-year-old millionaire. One who doesn’t matter at all. Except that he does.

I did not care about the younger, slightly less controversial Paul brother until I saw Nerd City’s video on him entitled Parents Worst a Nightmare, which exposes some genuinely dangerous aspects to the videos of someone who claims his audience is kids 8 – 16. I continued not to care on a personal level, but the video shattered any impression that Paul’s success was benign.

That video also serves as the basis for the most revealing moment of this entire series. That is not, as Shane seems to believe, in the segment where things get real and the background music comes down (more on that, I can assure you), but in the exchange that precedes it. Shane brings up Nerd City and the accusations he makes. He gives Jake Paul a chance to be redeemed. And Jake Paul rejects it outright.

Not only will Jake Paul not apologize for manipulating children into buying dat merch, he rejects the premise. The closest thing he gives to an actual defense – that Spongebob has commercials too, so whatever – falls on deaf ears in the only moment where Shane genuinely pushes back (sort of). I believe that Jake doesn’t understand the problem with what he’s doing, but that doesn’t make him anything but wrong for doing it. I’m glad someone told him that to his face. Maybe when he’s 30, he’ll understand.

Can you imagine Jake Paul at 30? He probably can’t either.

The intent of these Shane Dawson docuserieses has been to give a platform to controversial figures and let them speak their truth in a setting moderated by an ostensibly (but clearly not) neutral arbiter. It’s an interesting, perhaps even admirable, goal, but it is also one that grinds against the reality of a Shane Dawson video.

This is because Shane Dawson is not a particularly good interviewer. His YouTuber sensibilities overtake his conversations as he interjects himself into basically every question he asks. Everything begins with a monologue explaining what he thinks and why before he invites the other party to respond. And back-and-forths continue in this pattern. He often offers his subjects the opportunity to just stop talking or turn off the camera. He, of course, would have much to say about this fact. But it makes sense, because as much as any of these series – this, Jeffree Star, Tanacon – are about the people whose names clickbait his titles, they are all really about Shane. And that’s fine.

But let’s not pretend that this is anything else.

Fifty-three minutes in to Inside the Mind of Jake Paul, a title card says that heavy stuff is coming (it’s not wrong) and so Shane will remove the background music that has been playing under everything thus far. And that moment, and the subsequent conversation that happens in silence, is so clarifying. Because you can feel the manipulation on Shane’s part in the musical choices he makes even more than in the video clips he overlays. The music is heavy-handed. It’s loud – I listened with headphones. It doesn’t benefit the video. And I can say that with the utmost confidence because even if the conversation that begins there is not the most enlightening, it’s the most compelling. This is where you just get Jake Paul in all of his glorious dullness. 

Because he is not an interesting person to listen to. His language is simplistic and repetitive, particularly when he’s trying to express emotion, which much of this video is him struggling to do. He dropped out of high school, and you can tell.

But what he is trying to emote about is, I think, genuinely interesting. The story of what brought a kid from Ohio into this bizarre internet fame and the craziness that followed his fame all make for compelling, if often unrelatable, drama.

YouTube drama takes a variety of forms, but it runs the gamut from utter nonsense to kind of horrifying. Jake has been caught up in both, but Shane focuses largely on the latter. There appears to be an honest attempt to get him to go deep on it – though one constantly interrupted by Shane’s need to explain how it all makes him feel.

The Mind of Jake Paul, which has over 130 million views and counting across its episodes, is nothing short of a sensation; it also has taken on this broader importance, as the entire internet that cares about the internet stopped to have an opinion – myself obviously included. And the series, and this episode in particular, will shape the way people perceive Jake Paul going forward. This platform, these 105 minutes, the chance to say things with some pretense of radical honesty is disarming.

But it’s a puff piece, and we can’t let ourselves think otherwise. Shane Dawson likes Jake Paul, and that fact hangs over every minute. Jake’s feet aren’t held to any kind of fire; that sole pushback comes in the form of a stern talking to and not a genuine attempt at engaging Jake in his manipulation of children. Despite all of that, it wants you to be on Jake’s side, and of course it succeeds.

If you don’t, you wasted eight hours of your life.

Six-Point-Nine out of Ten

Review #6: Searching

Searching is the latest movie in the up-and-coming genre of computer-screen cinema. It tells the story of David Kim, played by John Cho, whose daughter, Margot, disappears out of the blue, after sending three consecutive phone calls in the middle of the night and having left her laptop at home. Ultimately, he turns to computers to aid in the search.

Everything you see in Searching takes place on a screen. And though you can see John Cho for most of its runtime, there is never a disembodied camera – it’s a FaceTime video feed or something on YouTube.

Before I talk about that, though, I want to talk about another movie: Unfriended, the 2014/15 horror movie that brought this thing into the relative mainstream. A pseudo-sequel that I didn’t watch, Dark Web, was released earlier this year, but the original Unfriended is a thing I have spent a lot of time thinking about, evidenced by the 2700-word review – one of the better ones I’ve written.

Unfriended takes place in real time. It is a screen recording in the literal sense: you can see the entirety of protagonist Blair’s laptop screen from start to finish. This is fascinating.

I described it as a film “about a girl who doesn’t know how to use Cmd+C” (or Ctrl+C, if you’re a Windows user). Anytime Blair needs to copy text (which is often), she goes through the laborious process of right clicking, copying, going to the destination, right clicking, and pasting. For a teenage girl, that’s completely ridiculous, and undoubtedly everyone involved knew that… but it exemplified the complexity of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve, as invisible keyboard shortcuts don’t communicate actions to the audience. It was a question of realism vs clarity, and the creative team went with the latter.

Searching generally avoids this problem by being something else entirely. Rather than “just” recording a screen, Searching uses the tools of cinematic language that have been developed over a century and applies them to this new type of production. There are pans and zooms and cuts. It has an original, non-diegetic score. There are changes in “location” as David shifts between computers, and the switch from macOS to Windows in key moments is a silent but powerful change.

There is nothing inherently wrong with Unfriended’s approach, which might be thought of as theatrical in an Off-Off… Off-Broadway sense versus Searching’s cinematic style. Each has a place. But what Unfriended did is much more difficult to make interesting for the duration of a feature film.

And with that, let’s talk about Searching!… ‘s marketing. I hate it when movies advertise their big, twisty narratives whether directly or by quoting some critic who wants his (probably; let’s be honest about the gender makeup of that industry) audience to know. The last ad I saw before going to see the movie was on Facebook. It says only “See the twist. Keep the secret.”

I don’t like this. If you don’t know that a movie has some big twist at the end and then it comes, then you will have a natural reaction and be surprised and hopefully thrilled. But when you go in looking for the twist, it consumes the movie. Everything becomes in service of this twist that you know is there and are now looking for. People have a natural tendency to want to outsmart movies. They want to figure out the twist because it means they’re better than the movie… or something.

So from the time I saw that ad until the moment I saw it, I was thinking about the twist. I was thinking about my assumptions about the twist. Because when I see that there’s something big, I always assume one of two things:

  • Someone doesn’t exist
  • The protagonist did it

These are bad twists. They can work (I saw an example of the former earlier this year that was handled beautifully), but that’s a rarity.

Fortunately, the creative team also knew this, and neither is the case here – in fact, neither is even flirted with.

But the nature of the film’s climax matters less than whether or not it is justified, and… there is no narrative payoff in Searching that does not have some kind of setup, as ham-fisted as it may sometimes be. It’s not trying to trick you or pull the wool over your eyes. In fact, by its very nature, you forcibly have the exact same amount of information at all times as David.

Which is the most interesting thing about the movie. Because every interaction David has, between his iPhone and his MacBook, is easily accessible in one place that an audience can use to follow along with the story. It doesn’t matter that the actual desktop was put together over many many many months in post-production – so cool, by the way, because that is what a desktop would look like were such a thing to actually be occurring.

And if someone had remote access to that computer, they would have access everything. The implications of these movies, then, is somewhat terrifying. They only work because it’s completely plausible to get the entirety of a story from text messages, facetime calls, etc. and not feel like you had information hidden from you. You can only feel like you’re as in-the-know as the protagonist if the protagonist puts his every thought onto a screen.

And he does. And you believe it.

Because we all do.

Eight Point Six out of Ten

Review 5.2: Bojack Horseman Season 5

Bojack Horseman is by far my favorite show on Netflix and by extension probably my favorite show on television. The animated story of a washed-up celebrity voiced by Will Arnett in horseface started off dark and has only gotten moreso as the seasons have gone on. I loved the show all the way back in Season One, more than most. Season two really changed things, though, particularly with its episode “Hank After Dark,” centered on a Cosby-like character in an alternate reality where a woman tries to bring him down instead of a man. And, well, she fails where Hannibal Burress in the real world succeeded. That marked a turning point for the show’s cultural relevance – the moment where the show went from a darn great show to a vital one.

I watched the entirety of Bojack Horseman Season 5 in less than seven hours. Skipping the opening and closing credits – which Netflix makes very easy to do – puts the runtime at about five. In those extra hours, I was, well, this, mostly; recording Monday’s episode about Islands of Adventure. Also, eating dinner. I did watch while I was cooking, though.

An oft-documented problem with the dropping-every-episode-at-once paradigm is that in the full year or so that comes between seasons (or more, as in the case of Stranger Things), it’s easy to forget what’s going on. When shows air over months, the first episode of a new season is comparatively pretty soon after the finale of its previous one. Unless it’s, like, Game of Thrones. Because it’s been a year since I last watched Bojack Horseman, something that will now probably become an actual reference point for the passage of time in my life, I had honestly forgotten the narrative threads left off at the end of Season 4. Instead, I remember its most effective and powerful moments, or even entire episodes that are dedicated more to character than to plot. Episodes like Stupid Piece of Sh*t and Time’s Arrow are genuinely incredible and have left indelible marks. But I couldn’t tell you what happened in the last few minutes of the season, so it took me half an episode to actually get my bearings.

The show continues to focus on four-plus-one characters. There’s Bojack, washed up sad horse trying to make a comeback; Princess Carolyn, Bojack’s ex-girlfriend and still agent and now producer of this season’s show within a show; Todd, asexual comic relief formerly crashing long term on Bojack’s couch and now doing so on Princess Carolyn’s; and Diane, Bojack’s closest friend and biographer turned blogger.

Diane’s now ex-husband and all-around good dog Mr. Peanutbutter weaves his way in and out of everyone else’s storylines and gets some of his own screentime this season, but even that is ultimately in service of developments relating to those other characters, mostly his ex-wife.

In that way, Bojack Horseman season 5 isn’t necessarily welcoming to newcomers. As before, the timelines are fluid, with flashbacks fleshing out backstories that only returning viewers will see and be like, “Ohhh! So that’s how that happened.”

But most of those moments are over as soon as they begin. No one would accuse Bojack Horseman of meandering along the way so many Netflix shows do. It’s thing after thing after thing. The exception may be the incredible sixth episode, which I think is formally one of the most daring the show has done yet for its commitment to minimalism as little more (and yet so much more) than a 20 minute monologue, but even that covers a whole lot of character ground and features probably the best performance Will Arnett has ever done. If ever a man deserved a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance, it would be for this.

But even in that, the show retains its constant stream of jokes and/or other emotions. There is so much going on in Bojack Horseman at any given moment, with half a dozen visual gags in the background of every establishing shot, and dialogue that you barely register before it’s onto the next thing. It lends itself well to the things that Netflix is good for: binging and rewatching.

By binging the show, you commit yourself to its descent into madness. Each episode goes deeper into the psyches of its broken characters while simultaneously serving as a scathing indictment of society in general and the entertainment industry in particular. It’s often uncomfortable, frequently hard to watch, and always impossible to look away from.

This time around, Bojack Horseman takes on, among so many other terrible things, sexual harassment and the widespread forgiveness of abusers. And… it’s rough. The main harassment plot line is fairly light at face value but has depressing implications.

Henry Fondle, a sex robot built by Todd as a would-be gift that says, well, wildly inappropriate sex… things, says those things to people until it makes him literally the head of the company producing Philbert, the aforementioned show-within-a-show that everyone else is tangled up in. In a way, it’s reminiscent of the bizarre Vincent Adultman arc from the first season, where what was very children on top of each other’s shoulders nonetheless had a relationship(?) with Princess Carolyn, because no one could see the obvious except for Bojack.

But while the idea of a robot sex-talking its way to the top of the food chain is ridiculous, remove the robot from the equation, then take the overtly sexual language and mask it just a little bit, and suddenly you’re faced with something that feels very real. That people accept it as part of the company culture because they think that that’s just how business is done. It’s by sheer force of talent that, even once you realize that deep down none of this is funny, you can’t stop laughing.

The prevalence of forgiveness is much more straight faced, resulting in a much more complicated series of emotions. The existence of an award ceremony called the Forgivies that a Mel Gibson-a-like wins is something that people can laugh at and feel superior about because it’s so obviously terrible, at least as long as they didn’t see Hacksaw Ridge. Which I did not.

(You’re so brave!)

But the whole show is built around a character who does not deserve forgiveness – oh and does he not deserve forgiveness – but it’s so easy to put that out of your mind when he isn’t actively being a monster. You feel for him. You maybe even want to forgive him.

I mean, he’s trying to change! Slowly. Inconsistently. Maybe circumstances won’t let him, but how much does that matter? Maybe it’s circumstances that won’t let him, though… does that even matter? “I would like to be judged solely by my intentions this time,” he says early in the season. But the road to hell, right?

Bojack Horseman never lets its title character off the hook, per se, but the show is now grappling with its potential to normalize the behavior that it has made so much effort to not glamorize. And in dialogue, largely given to Diane and co-star of Philbert, Gina, Bojack Horseman talks to itself just as much as its protagonist about that very fact. The conflict there is obvious. The audience, too, is implicated in all of this. But what can you even do?

Whether you see that implication as an accusation or a good faith attempt to open a dialogue says little about the show and a whole lot about you.

I still don’t know what it says about me.

Nine point two out of ten

Review #5 – Islands of Adventure

I spent last weekend and the start of the week visiting my friend Christine in Oviedo Florida, a town that is named after Oviedo but lost the Spanish inflection somewhere along the way to becomeOveedo.” Oviedo is not all that interesting, but it provides proximity to Orlando, home of Walt Disney. Orlando as a city is also not super interesting for anything but its glut of theme parks, but that one aspect of it is very interesting indeed.

The five big ones: Disney World, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, Islands of Adventure, and Universal Studios, all cater to slightly different groups, but my favorite has always been Islands of Adventure. I’m a fan of rides over non-specific “attractions,” and I’ve considered that one the best of the bunch as far as that goes.

It has been about thirteen years since I was last in Orlando, and the park has changed in some parts and remained identical in others. There are fewer roller coasters now, largely a result of the removal of the Dueling Dragons, which I missed this time around. In their place was a whole lot of construction, and the giant crane visible over Olivander’s Wand Shop definitely diminished some of the Magic of Diagon Alley.

Other than those, the rides I remembered were there, plus a few more, thanks to the addition of Harry Potter World and a ride themed after Kong: Skull Island.

The deemphasis of roller coasters (Harry Potter has only an entry-level coaster) has been met by a bigger push towards more high tech rides with greater property integration. I find myself somewhat conflicted about this.

On the one hand, the experiences offered by trusty old Spider-Man (asterisk for reasons we will talk about in a bit) and the newer ones like Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey and Skull Island: Reign of Kong create some genuinely thrilling and unique experiences unlike any you can experience at other parks.

On the other hand, I really like roller coasters.

And sure, I could go anywhere to get on roller coasters; there are a bunch of cheaper coaster-heavy options in Orlando even, though why anyone would travel to the home of Disney and go to a non-Disney themed park is beyond me. But also, The Incredible Hulk is my favorite ride at the park and easily one of my favorite coasters period. I greatly enjoyed Dueling Dragons as well back in the day. I want some loops, you know? And there’s only one place in the whole park to get them. That’s a bit of a shame.

Christine had never been to an amusement park before. That made the visit particularly special. And our first ride, her first ever amusement park ride, was Spider-Man.

In Spider-Man, you put on a pair of 3D glasses and get sent out into Manhattan (not where I was looking to be on my vacation away from… Manhattan) in a car with a bunch of other folks. You see Spider-Man. You see villains. You see actual flames and water and you get lifted into the air and dropped and it’s all very exciting. But… it broke. In the climax, the projection gave out. First, the audio lost sync, then the video looped, and then it went black. And in that moment, the illusion was lost. A moment I remembered, one of the most intense of the entire ride, as you feel like you’re falling, is nothing.

It was actually kind of fascinating in the sense that it makes you realize just how much work your brain is doing to make the whole thing work. The vehicle barely needs to move for you to feel intense movement. But… you want to feel it from start to finish. It made me wonder if we were a one-off or if something was generally wrong with the ride and no one bothered to inform the operators. I considered it but didn’t; maybe no one else did either.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. Two rides, Spider-Man and Jurassic Park, and one queue, the one for The Incredible Hulk, had moments when the theme park broke through the façade.

Despite the glitch, I enjoyed the ride. Christine did too. One down. It’s a start!

The last time I went to a Disney theme park, my family picked up the tab. This time, the $115 ticket – more, I imagine, than it was in 2005 – ripped a hole right in my wallet. But, ya know what, vacation, am I right? If I can’t make not-always-financially-sound decisions while I’m traveling, why even bother having money in the first place?

Before going on another ride, we experienced the Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, a live show with some not-necessarily-great fighting but pretty great other stunts. That was fun. As with Spider-Man, there was actual fire, and it was something that I could feel. But unlike Spider-Man, where it was probably fifteen to twenty feet away, here it was probably sixty or more; and I still felt it. I can’t even imagine how hot it is for the people onstage within spitting distance of the flames.

Christine bought butterbeer in the Wizarding World, which seemed like something that just had to happen. It tastes like cream soda with butterscotch topping. I had about five sips of it. I liked it well enough but could tell it would send me into a sugar coma if I had any more.

The Hippogryph coaster was fine. Christine screamed a lot. It seemed like a good introduction.

Harry Potter’s Forbidden Journey was perhaps the most interesting ride of the whole visit, owing largely to Christine’s intensely adverse reaction.

Forbidden Journey felt like the modern version of what Spider Man was trying to do. It didn’t use 3D glasses, and it didn’t need 3D glasses. The ride is long and the projections immersive as heck. It relies even more on those than Spider-Man. It has actual props and sets that you flip and turn your way through, but there’s no, for example, real fire. The effects themselves are are digital.

About those flips, though: Because it is a hanging ride with the track above rather than below, and there is only one row of seats to manipulate, a lot more can be done to these seats, including two instances of near upside-downness. I did fine with all this. Christine did not.

I left the ride thinking that it felt like the logical evolution of Spider-Man. The lack of glasses, the more intricate projections – it all felt very modern where Spider-Man felt retro. This even extends to the set. One of the most fun things about these attractions is the work that goes into the pre-ride. Long corridors with lovingly crafted sets to get you in the mood. Videos and props crafted just for the ride. If your ride wait is less than 40 minutes, you’re going to spend that whole time in this environment, and it adds greatly to the experience.

We went on a Monday after school was already in session. Much like my trip to Nuevo Vallarta, this off-season visit resulted in waits that were manageable *at worst*. These lines are built to accommodate such large groups that, so when the expected wait is 20 minutes, you can spend literally five just getting to an actual person to stand behind. This was truest with Harry Potter, but there were long walks to at least three separate rides. Still, we never waited more than half an hour. And while we watched the people with their express passes skip ahead, I never felt the urge to drop the extra $65.

So, not completely financially unsound.

Going on Kong’s ride made me realize that I was wrong in my original assumption about Harry Potter, however. The newest ride is even more projection-heavy yet requires 3D glasses. It has to do with your experience of it. As with Spider-Man, Kong puts you in a car with a number of others. You all experience it together vs the feeling of isolation you have with Harry Potter. And you’re able to look around at projections that come at you from both sides. In this environment, the glasses are a necessity.

Kong’s line has the most impressive animatronic I’ve ever seen, of an elder woman making what are probably religious proclamations about Kong. After the fun but silly ones on the Jurassic Park ride, where you can literally hear the movements, the jump in tech was again on display.

Jurassic Park didn’t glitch, but the in-ride intense voice-overs were mitigated somewhat by the actual voice coming over the intercom on four separate occasions “Row Three Take Off Your Hat,” chastising someone who wasn’t even on my ride. He was in the one behind, and clearly he didn’t care at all, because we kept hearing the messages.

The Incredible Hulk went down while I was in line, which resulted in some weird dissonance while an in-park voice-over while one voice over the intercom said “We are experiencing a brief delay and will update you when anything changes” and “Status Update: Gamma Radiation at full,” which sound like they could be related but aren’t. But I kept thinking that maybe they would be and waited for far too long… which was frustrating, particularly since they made me put away my cell phone, camera, etc. in a locker, resulting in me being alone and bored.

Eventually, though, I got on, and gosh darn was it good. Such a fun coaster. Gave me a bit of a headache as it knocked me around, but totally worth it.

We went on one other ride and walked through one other attraction: the Ripsaw Falls log flume and Fury of Poseidon, uh, walking tour.

Ripsaw Falls is a classic, and it’s a ride that people will literally stop to watch others experience. Jurassic Park has that too, though seen from a different angle.

More importantly, Ripsaw Falls makes you the rider, much wetter.

It costs $4 to rent a locker by the ride. It was the only money I spent once we got into the park itself. It was also a great purchase. Some rides – Harry Potter, Incredible Hulk – will give you free locker access because it would be dangerous to have loose stuff hanging around during them. The water rides don’t have that, but, like, if you’re walking around with a camera because you’re vlogging in a theme park, rent a locker. Your stuff is going to get soaked and probably not work anymore and then not be under warranty because of severe water damage, and then people will laugh at you.

And deservedly so.

Lastly, Poseiden’s Fury. This was the one older attraction that I hadn’t done before, and I’m both sad and glad about that. Sad because it was super cool and I wish I hadn’t missed it the last times around and glad because it was super cool and I got to experience it for the first time. In its climax, the whole space opens up in a way that is genuinely awe-inspiring, and though the projectors appear to be in dire need of bulb replacement, resulting in some muddled visuals, it was nonetheless a pretty incredible show.

And that was the experience in a nutshell. Sure, it would have been nice for things to have worked properly and that guy in the Jurassic boat behind me to not have been wearing a hat while a disembodied voice berated him, but though they impacted the immersion in those moments, they did little to diminish the overall experience.

In fact, there was something kind of amusing about seeing behind Disney’s curtain. They work so hard to keep you from seeing the seams, and to see them fail feels like a special thing.

Nine point zero out of ten.

Review #4: Moon Pies vs. Choco Pies

You may be wondering why I want to compare Moon Pies and Choco Pies. It’s a fair question, but it’s got a simple answer: Moon Pie’s official twitter account. Twitter is generally a nonsense cesspool, but one beacon of light is the full commitment to post-irony that you’ll find in such gems as:

Describe how a brand uses questions as bait to get quote tweets and attention in 5 words

When I say this account is family friendly I mean I will be friends with your mom and dad

Anyone who’s good at Twitter always follows the 4 p’s: Proactiveness / Placement / Please Linda / Please come back

And those are all since the beginning of August. If you dig back further, it’s all amazing.

A lot of brands do this kind of thing (Old Spice comes to mind as one that has been in the game longer than anyone), but I don’t think even they compare to Moon Pie for sheer commitment. I mean, look at this one:

“A lot of people ask me “Hey, are Moon Pies any good” and I would say I’d probably eat them even if I didn’t work here that’s a pretty big endorsement”

Can you imagine another official brand account saying “probably” like that? Of course not. That’s ridiculous.

And it worked. Ever since I learned about the account late last year thanks to an AV Club article, I’ve been craving a Moon Pie. And only in the past few days have I finally gotten to have one.

That’s not for lack of trying – though I’ll admit I didn’t try very hard – but there just aren’t Moon Pies in New York City. I checked out at least a half dozen stores that the Moon Pie website says would typically stock them in a different place where I don’t live, including one that says it should stock them in the place where I do live but to no avail.

I would have to enjoy tweets like this one about Frisbee chat rooms being all up on those disc-shaped delights without supporting the company that makes it possible.

But the desire went at least somewhat deeper than just wanting a Moon Pie because their socials were tops; I actually just wanted the snack. I like smores. I wanted to try what are effectively bagged smores. Is that an enticing way to phrase it? Doesn’t matter.

One day, though, I was in an M2M, which is a Korean-plus grocery store that has sadly lost most of its locations over the past couple of years. I was buying pocky or something and noticed they had an individually wrapped thing called a Choco Pie. It looked kind of like what I thought a Moon Pie was supposed to look like. It was 50 cents.

I went to the internet and looked up the difference been a Moon Pie and a Choco Pie. Unfortunately, no one had made a clear, straight-to-the-point YouTube video that I could quickly watch and get the necessary facts from while I awkwardly stood in the aisle – an issue that I have just fixed by releasing this video (you’re welcome, internet).

I bought it. It was delicious. This was at least six months ago. It satiated the specific snack sensation I was so inspired to find, but Choco Pie doesn’t have hilarious marketing, so I still wanted the actual thing.

Well, having spent the weekend in a small city upstate. I finally got myself an actual Moon Pie.

Moon Pies are pretty big, though. I was actually a little surprised at their size, since I have been used to the smaller Choco variant. Let’s unwrap these bad boys and see this a little bit better.

I should have suspected, since Moon Pies have a full hundred calories on Choco Pies (220 vs 120), but this is a lot smore snack. Almost too much, I think. And the Choco Pie? Bite-sized by comparison. I don’t feel compelled to eat another Moon Pie, but I’d be digging the concept of another Choco Pie if I hadn’t just eaten both.

When I was researching the difference all that time ago, I learned that the real measure of this sorta snack is to briefly microwave it and have it warm. Only then will I really know what’s what.

For science.

Law of diminishing returns, am I right?

The Moon Pie is an institution, having been around for literally more than 100 years. The Choco Pie and every other thing like it – there are many – inevitably is naught but an imitation of the thing that the Moon Pie website says was conceived of in a coal mine back in the terrible teens. This Choco Pie comes from Lotte, a Korean mega corporation that has also an film production/distribution subsidiary that released great films like Eungyo, Very Ordinary Couple, and The Terror, Live. They have their hands in a lot of, uh, insert pun here, but for real though.

A box of 12 Choco Pies costs $4. A dozen Moon Pies costs $6. But, that comparison isn’t really fair. A Moon Pie, as we have established, is a little bit too big, but you’re getting more unhealthy snack food for the money. A more direct comparison would be the Moon Pie Mini, which I do not have but is closer in size to the Choco Pie (which lacks a “Maxi” equivalent), and that cost $4 a dozen as well. At that point, it’s not a matter of cost but of taste and convenience.

The latter we addressed – it’s difficult to get my hands on a Moon Pie by any means other than an online shipment, and these types of snacks are exclusively impulse buys for me. Placing an order with the knowledge that I’ll be having a dozen of these things hanging around in my kitchen is a surefire path to intense regret similar to the one I’m feeling right now. So I can’t get the things in the first place, but even if I could, would I? Is the original actually better than its imitation?

Yes, it is. I don’t know if all those extra toxic-sounding chemicals that make up the Choco Pie are resulting in a taste that isn’t quite-but-almost-the-same but still just isn’t quite as good. I mean, it’s less good for you probably, but neither of these things could by any measure be considered healthy, so do the degrees even matter? You shouldn’t eat either, really, so if you’re going to go against what I assume is a doctor’s advice, go with the tastier option.

That’s the Moon Pie

Moon Pies: Seven Point Five Out of Ten

Choco Pies: Seven Point Zero Out of Ten

Review 3: Submitting to Film Festivals (Withoutabox vs FilmFreeway)

Four years ago now, my friend Gerard and I ran a small but ultimately successful Kickstarter for a martial arts short film called Reel. Though we filmed the bulk of it in late 2014, it wasn’t finished until… a month ago. There are a lot of reasons for this that don’t matter here, but the point is that it weighed on my mind for literally the entirety of the intervening time and if I hadn’t finally finished it, I probably never could have gotten this whole YouTube thing off the ground.

But I digress. The movie is actually pretty good, something that I think shocked just about everyone involved. If it gets into a festival, I’m going to review it here. It would be a largely positive review.

Because of that, we decided that it may actually be worth sending out to film festivals. In my years as a film critic, I went to a lot of festivals and saw some of my favorite movies ever and also my most hated. There are certain projects that just, like, why? So bad. Sometimes the New York Times loves a film that you absolutely hate and you just can’t even.

And when you see those movies, you can be fairly sure that your movie is good enough to show somewhere, but obviously it’s more complicated than that.

It’s complicated because the job of a festival programmer is complicated. The selection of a film isn’t based just on its merits – it must function as part of a cohesive whole that is the festival’s ideal. And this is even more true when it comes to shorts, since they have to work as part of programs or a lead-in to a feature.

Which leads to a lot of tough decisions.

Your film might be the perfect length for its story but too long for the shorts block. You might execute your thematic intent perfectly but no one else submitted anything to complement it.

I know that Reel is at least as good as some of the films that will play at the New York Film Festival, but I also know that the festival doesn’t show movies like it and therefore couldn’t accept it if they wanted to. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to know what you’re submitting to and why you’re submitting there specifically. If you don’t, well, that submission fee ain’t coming back.

On the other hand, there’s something kind of nice about the shorts-specific complexities, because you can tell yourself that a rejection was not an indictment of your work but of everyone else’s – and there’s a non-zero chance you’ll be right.

In 2018, it’s easy (if not exactly cheap) to submit your movie to dozens or hundreds of festivals with a few button presses. Sure, some festivals, like Cannes or Telluride, have dedicated platforms, but the bulk of festivals of all shapes and sizes are accessible via one or both of two platforms: Withoutabox and/or FilmFreeway.

Each service does the exact same thing – connects your film with festivals, but the experience of using each is different in key ways. FilmFreeway offers much more robust tools for filtering through the enormous list of participating festivals – all right from the home page. Aside from sliders and radio buttons on the left sidebar allowing you to select for customizable entry fee ranges or event types or film categories and there’s a wider variety of sorting tools, including popularity and user ratings.

For those numbed by the sheer volume of options, there are a handful of curated lists, including 33 of the “50 Film Festivals Worth the Entry Fee” from Moviemaker’s list – one that I’ve used in the past as a way to narrow down my submission decisions.

Withoutabox, too, has filtering tools – if you dig into the “Festival Search” page – though they’re not as wide-ranging as FilmFreeway’s. It also has some easily accessible lists, including “Hot List” – for highly popular options – and “Deal Time” – for those with lower-priced entry, but it lacks the ability to sort by that popularity and has no user reviews; both have quick links to their Oscar-qualifying festivals.

But what Withoutabox has that FilmFreeway does not is a parent company with a household name: Amazon. Withoutabox, then, shares an owner with IMDb, meaning there are some integrations between those services that doesn’t exist elsewhere. The project page you create for your film can automatically become an IMDb page. Considering how user-unfriendly the IMDb interface is, it’s a major step up. Additionally, there is a button right up there in the corner of Withoutabox telling you that you can have your film put on Amazon’s Prime Video Direct if you want to self-distribute your work.

These are nice.

Since the last time I used it, FilmFreeway has introduced a profile system that they bill as “Like IMDbPro, except it’s free,” but let’s be real: No. FilmFreeway’s profile system is an IMDb competitor in the same way that YikYak was a Twitter Competitor.

RIP YikYak.

Withoutabox is the OG here, and with that status has come complacency. And fair enough: you don’t need the most efficient browsing system when you offer exclusive access to Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca, Fantasia, etc.

To take on Withoutabox, then, FilmFreeway would need the sleeker interface and more modern feel. And it has that. Every aspect of the service feels more thoughtfully designed. Certainly, they’ve got a complex going on, considering their dedicated page of tweets from people favorably FilmFreeway against its competition.

Maybe if I tweet out this review, I will get added to their page. Probably not. It’s a bit much.

You can decide which subject is the “it” in that scenario, and you’ll probably be right.

But the flip side of Withoutabox’s hold on the big names is that its selection of smaller festivals is less impressive.

For example, my last short played at the Women Texas Film Festival in 2016 – shot after Reel, but finished much earlier. Maybe I’m a little biased, but it’s a great festival, and it’s only on FilmFreeway.

I asked Justina Walford, the festival’s creative director and most impressive person I have ever met, why that is, and she told me it was a combination of complexity, cost, and ultimately just need: enough people use FilmFreeway to fill their slate with quality productions, so why even bother with its competitor?

But this means that a filmmaker will inevitably have to use both: Withoutabox for the big names… and FilmFreeway for everything else. Because for the festivals that use both – Austin, Fantastic Fest (also in Austin), Female Eye, etc. – there is no reason whatsoever to go with the dinosaur.

But regardless of the platform, it’s unequivocally the case that getting your work in front of programmers is more-or-less infinitely easier than it once was. With a single video file (maybe even a Vimeo link), you can get your work seen by programmers all over the world. And though both FilmFreeway and Withoutabox seem to take issue with the fact that Reel has two directors, they take a lot of the frustration out of information gathering. You know you have the stuff that you need, because there are boxes that you’ve gotta fill or else you can’t submit. It’s easy. It’s nice.

And then, of course, you can obsessively check the status of all of your various submissions from the comfort of a single dashboard (or… two).

These platforms take the stress out of submission itself, FilmFreeway more than its competitor, which frees up time that you can use to… stress out about where those submissions are at.

So stressful.  

Seven-Point-Zero out of Ten

Review 2: Dashboard Confessional

Dashboard Confessional, or Dashy Confesh, as I assume the cool kids call them, is currently touring their first album in nine years with All Time Low on the so-called “Summer Ever After” tour, which stopped by New York last Sunday night at the Rooftop on Pier 17, an outdoor venue at the top of a former mall wrecked by Hurricane Sandy that has genuinely the nicest bathroom of any concert venue I’ve been to in my entire life.

Unlike several hundred other people, I read the list of restricted items, so I knew not to bring an umbrella. There was an enormous pile of umbrellas next to the security desk by the time I got there, at which point I was ushered through before I could stop to take a picture. 

I made a Spotify playlist 15 months ago called Developing Intensity (2004-2009). It charts the course of my musical taste over that time. I was always more into modern rock than the classic stuff, and it got heavier and heavier as the years went by. By the early 2010s, the words in much of the music I listened to were growled rather than sung.

But that meant that, by the time All Time Low was picking up steam, I was already outside of their sphere of influence. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of them until their song Backseat Serenade showed up on a Spotify radio station one day. After “Missing You” followed, I was hooked. When I met my girlfriend, Danielle, not long after, her love of the band cemented my own affection for… both, I guess?

DashCon, on the other hand, I had always been vaguely aware of – they were formed in the first decade of my life – but I had also literally never listened to them until last weekend. And I’m all emo about it now that it took so long, because they’re really good. Frontman Chris Carrabba has an excellent voice, and the musicianship is solid throughout. They have great stuff on every album, up to and including their latest release, Crooked Shadows.

But the act of first discovering, and then seeing them perform, in 2018 is kind of fascinating.

They’ve been around for a very long time, so it makes sense that Carrabba would be in his early 40s – 43, to be precise – but that knowledge makes the concert a little strange. Without any nostalgia to draw on, I was focused differently than most of the people there were. I thought at least as much about the context of what I was watching as I did the content.

Even though the man writing the words for Crooked Shadows is older and presumably wiser, he seems just as focused on youth as he ever did. But that fact feels different now. These are the opening lyrics of the album: “We were the kids that left home, probably too young.” At his age, he could easily have had kids who left home right on time.

That type of digging back to the past is a little… sad. And not sad in the way emo music inevitably must be. I mean sad in a varsity-football-star-still-wearing-his-class-ring kinda way. Here is a forty-three-year-old man who stood on the stage and talked about having recently graduated from high school and then correcting himself by getting younger – he’s going back in just a few weeks, he told the crowd. Sure, he’s joking, but the dude hasn’t been in high school since before at least half – and probably much more – of the people in the crowd were born.

It’s weird.

I get it. He’s pandering to his audience of almost entirely girls and young women who are listening to his band in high school or listened to them when they were, in the same way Kane Brown is pandering to whatever demo he’s playing for – I mean, have you heard him on the alternate version of Camila Cabello’s Never Be The Same? I am still not convinced that that’s the same guy who sang What Ifs. I like those songs (actually though), but dude’s faking it for at least one of those audiences. Maybe both.

But while pandering is an almost-inevitable part of a being a band that peaked in an earlier decade, it eventually becomes discomfiting. Though I can’t tell you exactly where the line is, 43 is definitely past it. (I’m lying, the line is the day you graduate from college.)

DaCo seems determined to stay forever relevant to that demographic too, as evidenced by the featured artists on Crooked Shadows: Chrissy Costanza, singer of Under the Current and person I hadn’t thought of since I got really into watching Alex Goot YouTube covers five years ago, appears on the final track – my favorite of the bunch. A quick check-up on where her band’s at shows that her voice has changed a lot in the intervening years. Kind of interesting, that.

Dancing violinist YouTube sensation Lindsay Stirling is also there, which makes me think I shouldn’t even call them features; I should call them collabs. Because, you know, YouTube. But are those collabs genuine, or are they ploys to ensnare a new decade of their target demographic?

Maybe it’s both. Does it even matter?

It’s not like they’re the only ones pining for the olden days. Heck, they weren’t even the only ones at that concert doing so, where All Time Low came out with nostalgic bangers like “Good Times” that feature lyrics like “Chasing girls who didn’t know love yet,” a lyric one can only hope is in reference to the time around their formation back when they were also young enough to not know love yet, because at some point that went from sweetly naïve to actually a crime. Lead singer/songwriter Alex Gaskarth is 30, which is comparatively young… but it ain’t that young.

On a personal note, there’s a benefit to having similar music tastes to this particular demographic, because 99.6% of women in it are shorter than me, resulting in excellent sight lines for the whole concert – so long as they don’t bring their often distressingly tall boyfriends . (I tweeted something about this just over four years ago.)

Halsey came out for a song – All Time Low’s, not DC’s. That was cool. I didn’t know it was Halsey, because the last time I wanted to know what Halsey looked like her hair was a different color, but I knew I recognized her voice. It’s kind of like how Lady Gaga is in that new movie with Bradley Cooper, and you’re like “Huh, she looks kinda familiar” and then you hear her singing voice and you’re like I know that, and then they also show her name on screen, and you’re like Oohhhhh, duh.

It was the kind of cool, unexpected appearance that makes seeing live concerts such a pleasure. Chris Carrabba himself came out again briefly to show off his ridiculous lung capacity during another ATL song. I liked that.

Look, as odd and slightly uncomfortable as it is to hear a very grown adult pretend to be a high schooler, I am totally on board for their music. Even not having a history with it, I can’t help but get caught up in the feelings that it very honestly does portray.

Plus, they put was a great show.

Eight-Point-One out of Ten

Thank you so much for watching. This is the second week of this channel and the first week where I am doing the thing in the way it’s meant to be done. A colleague asked me how many reviews I have stashed away, and he called me an idiot when I told him none. But it’s true, which is both exciting and frightening. I am unsurprised that my Death of Moviepass review has thus far been the most popular, and I expect that the wildly disparate topics I’ll be covering will result in ridiculous fluctuations of viewership in the long term. But if you’d like the take the journey with me regardless, there’s a button that lets you do so below, right next to some buttons that let me know you care enough to press more buttons.

Also, if you want to talk about this subject or any other, hit me up in the comments or on Twitter. As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of talking.

I hope to see you next week.