TIFF Day 6: Black Mirror, La La Land, and the inevitability of unfair comparisons

When Netflix announced it would be producing new episodes of the UK show Black Mirror, it was a moment to rejoice. Charlie Brooker’s anthology series had already made a huge impression with its collection of The Outer Limits-style tales focusing on the perils of technology, but across two seasons and a Christmas special there had been just seven episodes. Netflix bought in big, agreeing to produce 12 new episodes of the show, with the first six arriving on the service on October 21st. Two were being shown here as part of TIFF’s television-focused "Primetime" section.

"San Junipero" starts in 1987, as an awkward, self-conscious woman named Yorkie (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis) arrives at the coastal party town of San Junipero. At a local club, she meets Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is everything Yorkie isn’t: self-assured, collected, and sexually confident. The two hit it off, and after spending the night together Yorkie thinks she has the makings of her first real relationship. Kelly disappears, however, so Yorkie goes looking for her in San Junipero… in different decades.

A phenomenal piece of self-contained storytelling

This is Black Mirror, so that’s just the start of the unexpected twists and turns the episode takes — and they’re all better discovered when you watch the episode for yourself. But what I can tell you is that as a standalone hour of television, it is a fantastic piece of storytelling, touching on larger themes of life, death, self-identity, and guilt with a cleverness and sense of real emotional stakes. Davis, who has always been wonderful in Halt and Catch Fire, is remarkably vulnerable, creating a character that has never come to grips with her basic social anxieties, much less her sexuality. Mbatha-Raw is an equally effective counterweight, particularly as it becomes clear that Kelly’s party-hard persona is just a mask she’s wearing to keep her own emotional pain at bay.

The second episode, "Nosedive," is more of an obvious satire. It stars Bryce Dallas Howard as an ambitious woman in a future society where people rank their every social interaction on a one-to-five-star scale. Social status is determined not just by wealth or power, but by somebody’s score, encouraging everyone to actually live the kind of carefully curated fake personas you might see on Facebook or Instagram. When a socially elite childhood friend asks Howard’s character to be her maid of honor, it seems like the perfect opportunity to improve her ranking. Holding on way too tight and trying way too hard, things go extraordinarily wrong for Howard on her way to the wedding, in what plays like a futuristic riff on Planes, Trains, & Automobiles.

"Nosedive" was co-written by Rashida Jones and Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation), and the episode wears its comedic intentions on its sleeve. But watching the episode back to back with "San Junipero" does it a disservice, because it can’t achieve anything close to that episode's emotional resonance. It’s not a fault — "Nosedive" isn’t even trying to hit those notes — but watching them as a pair inevitably invites the comparison. As the show branches out and invites even more writers and directors to spin a tale in Brooker's apocalyptic world (10 Cloverfield Lane director Dan Trachtenburg also has an episode in this batch) those tonal shifts and contrasts in vision will give the tightly curated show a little more of a grab-bag feel.

These are my confessions

And now I’m going to take the daily diary concept a bit literally, because I need to make a confession. I did something horrible yesterday. A thing that I’ve judged others for, and that I always thought I would never do myself.

I walked out of a movie.

The last time I pulled that stunt was in 1992, when I went to see the John Turturro "comedy" Brain Donors. (I have friends that I love and respect that vouch for that movie. Those friends are wrong.) But in that case I’d spent hard-earned cash for something that I was definitively not enjoying: I’d paid for the right to walk out halfway through. I’ve always felt that film festivals were a different kind of situation. At a place like TIFF, you’re being exposed to new filmmakers and new styles of filmmaking; if you’re don’t feel out of your comfort zone from time to time, you’re simply not taking advantage of everything the programmers have put together. Leaving early feels like watching in bad faith, and so I always stay to the bitter end — even when it hurts.

Of course, not everybody shares that philosophy (I counted 14 walkouts at my screening of Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch earlier in the festival), and in the situation yesterday I found myself watching a film that seemed to telegraph where it was going early on. I won't say which film it was — that seems cheap, like giving a bad review to something you haven't fully watched — but it was a story I felt I'd already seen here at the festival, told in a more engaging and energetic way, and when people started trickling out the door I followed suit.

The comparison may have been unfair, and perhaps The Movie That Shall Not Be Named would have delighted and surprised me in its final moments (that's what the pang of guilt I felt all day kept saying, at least). But with so many films scheduled so densely in the festival, walking away from something that’s not working can be the key to catching something that will blow your mind. That’s actually what ended up happening, when the walkout ensured I was able to see Damien Chazelle’s remarkable La La Land.

There is literally nothing to compare writer-director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land to. The movie has become one of the standout titles of the festival — there’s so much demand, that TIFF has added additional screenings — and people were milling around the theater door for yesterday’s press screening an hour and 45 minutes before it started. They don’t even let people line up until an hour in advance, and this was for a so-called P&I (press and industry) screening, typically the more relaxed ones of the festival.

Of course, that kind of buzz also means you get all kinds of people showing up to chase the hype.

I’m not going to discuss La La Land too much here, as Tasha Robinson’s review is coming later today. But as someone that loves musicals, loves movies, and loves movies and musical about love in particular, I will say that Chazelle has created something truly special. Whiplash made it clear he was a filmmaker to pay attention to, but his ambition with La La Land is much more bold, a glorious musical shot through with hope and regret, idealism and bittersweet acceptance, all buoyed by the singing-dancing-acting marvels that are Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.

It also was the fourth film this festival to make me cry in a room full of total strangers. I know I’m a softie and all, but seriously TIFF, you sure know how to bring the feels.

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