Archive | Featured articles

Some of the best articles on the blog. Typically, these have a picture. It's a low entrance requirement, I know.


August 18, 2016

Review: Baron Noir - season 1 (France: Canal+; UK: Amazon Prime)

Posted on August 18, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Baron Noir

In France: Aired on Canal+ in February/March
In the UK: Available on Amazon Prime

There can be few channels around the world as reliable as Canal+ when it comes to producing quality TV. Chances are, provided it sticks to French, any Canal+ series you watch is going to be HBO-good.

A case in point is Baron Noir, a remarkably prescient and impressive political series that is everything that Les Hommes de L'ombre (Spin) and Marseille should have been but weren't. Airing in France in February and March this year, but available in the UK on Amazon, the show somehow managed to anticipate both this year's Brexit and the Corbyn/Smith Labour leadership competition and relocate them to France, taking in all of left-wing French politics along the way.

And when I say 'all', I mean all.

The show is about the mayor of Dunkirk, Kad Merad (Bienvenue chez les Ch'tis), an old-school socialist who's spent years fighting (sometimes literally, with a baseball bat) for the poor, oppressed working classes. He's best friends with fellow socialist and presidential candidate Niels Arestrup (Un prophète, De battre mon cœur s'est arrêté, Quai d'Orsay), to the extent that he's willing to steal money from social housing projects to help fund his campaign. However, soon there are ructions between the two friends and before you know it, Merad and Arestrup - both sometimes helped, sometimes hindered by new-wave technocrat Anna Mouglalis (Romanzo Criminale, Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) - are pulling strings and levers behind the scenes of French politics to block each other and further their own, the party's and the country's interests, all while trying to avoid ending up in prison through Mutually Assured Destruction.

While the opening episode of the show gives the impression that this is going to be a show about corruption - and certainly that is an element - most of the first season is about political dirty-tricks and manipulations at every level of politics: everything from how to disrupt a local council election through how to manipulate the media and use party rules to counter your enemy's plans through manipulating the Assemblée nationale all the way up to the EU and how to play it off against your own national interests by threatening to leave it to 'ensure your country's sovereignty'. Advised behind the scenes by real-life French politicians, it's a real eye-opener, not least because it actually manages to film inside the Palais Bourbon itself, but also because of the differences between French and British politics - it's a long time since anyone had to take Troskyites and communists seriously here. Well, it used to be, anyway.

If Baron Noir has a message, it's that there are no friends in politics yet if you do screw over your friends in the short-term, chances are that things will go badly for you in the long-term - you just have to know how to balance all the options and bring people back on side. Merad spends most of the season in a whirl of plots and counter-plots, playing one person against another, usually with their knowledge, often by giving inspiring speeches about the left and the need to look after the oppressed/fight the National Front - think Jeremy Corbyn if he had charisma and leadership skills.

Beautifully shot and acted with some cracking music, the show nevertheless isn't without flaws. Merad is implausibly attractive to women of all ages and there's one relationship involving him where not only the audience but the couple themselves are surprised it's taking place at all. It also meanders a little, dropping interesting plotlines and characters, and focusing too much in later episodes on that housing project, which so dominates the first episode. For English speakers, there's also the subtitling, which starts off fine but starts to lose it a little mid-season, such as by switching the French-Algerian's Mercad's reason for entering politics from helping 'les Arabs' to helping 'minorities' and frequently taming down some of the more interesting, fruitier language (it's a real tragedy that the marvellous 'putain ville de merde' ends up as 'this town sucks', for example).

But if you want a House of Cards that's not only European but better than Netflix's, Baron Noir's your boy. Give it a whirl - there's a second season on the way in France next year. Here's a French-language trailer for you to get an idea of what it's like.

Read other posts about:

July 21, 2016

Mini-review: Vice Principals 1x1 (US: HBO; UK: Sky Atlantic)

Posted on July 21, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Walton Goggins and Danny McBride in Vice Principals

In the US: Sundays, 10.30pm, HBO
In the UK: Tuesdays, 9.35pm, Sky Atlantic. Starts July 26th

This year, it seems, is the year that US TV has decided it wants not only to go back to school but to go back to school childishly. "Being an adult hard? How about a bunch of teachers who behave like kids? Wouldn't you like to watch that?" seems to be the theory.

We've already had Teachers and Those Who Can't from TV Land and TruTV respectively, offering us just that, and now we have HBO's efforts at the same, Vice Principals, in which Walton Goggins (Justified, The Shield, The Hateful Eight) and Danny McBride (Eastbound and Down, Tropic Thunder) are - yes, you guessed it - vice principals at the same US High School. Goggins is the sweet-talking but ultimately two-faced popular one; McBride is the foul-mouthed, inadequate dick that everyone hates; both hate each other.

Then the principal (Bill Murray - yes, Bill Murray) decides to stand down for the sake of his sick wife, prompting a contest between his deputies to replace him, only for both their dreams to be dashed as outsider Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Devious Maids) gets the top spot instead. My enemy's enemy is my friend so McBride and Goggins unite to defeat their new opponent - but such is their ineptitude, all's that likely is mutually assured destruction instead.

The show has several strands of (attempted) comedy. With McBride co-creating and writing, as per Eastbound and Down, it's not surprise there's his usual parade of attempted alpha male put-downs, extreme dickery and inappropriate teaching methods, here filtered through a more inadequate, more self-aware, less sports-obsessed prism than Kenny Powers. There's also the childish squabbling between McBride and Goggins, and their frequently politically incorrect antagonism towards Gregory's 'smart, sassy black woman' routine - which, subtly, is itself as manufactured as both McBride and Goggins' facades.

But despite all those elements at play, Vice Principals isn't hugely funny, except towards the end of this first episode when the two enemies unite, and largely feels like watered down Eastbound and Down. McBride's ex-wife Busy Philipps (Cougar Town) doesn't get to do much beyond be the butt of his ineptitude, while Shea Whigham as her new husband largely gets to play the unexpectedly nice guy that McBride doesn't quite know how to deal with, without getting to cause any laughs himself. 

An almost-interesting looking at failing masculinity and petty power struggles, Vice Principals might get better in its second episode when hostilities take off. The fact that it's a definite two-season, 18-episode run means that it should have a fixed story arc that takes as long as it needs, no more, no less, which is another plus. At the moment, though, it feels like it needs work: must try harder.

Read other posts about:

July 8, 2016

Review: Roadies 1x1-1x2 (US: Showtime; UK: Amazon Prime)

Posted on July 8, 2016 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Roadies

In the US: Sundays, 10pm ET/PT, Showtime
In the UK: Mondays, Amazon Prime

Although the theory of 'the auteur' is eminently quibblable, it's fair to say that you can spot the work of Cameron Crowe a mile off. Whether it's Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, Elizabethtown or We Bought A Zoo, his work is usually characterised by an indie sensibility; a central male-female, potentially romantic relationship; quirky dialogue; a focus on music; and a lot of heart but not much brain. You won't get very far through Roadies, Showtime's new series about those unsung heroes and heroines of the live music industry, before proclaiming it as possibly the most Cameron Crowish piece of work that Cameron Crowe has ever done.

Crowe's never been one for putting plot above character, so it's a little hard to say what Roadies is actually about, other than that it's a show about roadies - and the first episode is an introduction to all of them. The ostensible focus of the show are Luke Wilson (Idiocracy, The Royal Tenenbaums, Legally Blonde, Enlightened), the tour manager with a failed marriage and who now sleeps with women literally half his age, and Carla Gugino (Watchmen, Threshold, Wayward Pines), the production manager with a failing marriage and who doesn't sleep with anyone. They have such The Thin Man chemistry together and obvious devotion to one another, everyone who meets them thinks they're married - except they're not!

However, Crowe seems more interested in Imogen Poots (28 Weeks Later), the young roadie who's heading off to film school because she's stopping believing in the music. If only she could recover her faith. Most of the first episode follows her around as she slowly rediscovers that faith thanks to all her fellow roadies, who are all a motley bunch of amiable characters: Ron White, the old hand who may have murdered two people but all the bands like; Keisha Castle-Hughes (Game of Thrones, The Almighty Johnsons, Whale Rider), the lesbian; and Peter Cambor (The Wedding Band), the guy from New Jersey who worked with Elvis Costello for a while and got stuck with his accent. There's also Machine Gun Kelly, a roadie for another band with a strange relationship with Poots, which gets explained at the end of the first episode (spoilers, sweetie).

Crowe's one real concession to plot comes from Rafe Spall (The Shadow Line, I Give It A Year), the semi-menacing English finance guy who used to work in sports and 'real estate' so doesn't really get music, but who's been sent over to make some budget cuts. Who's for the chop? Probably not Poots, judging by the other age-inappropriate, Crowe-typical relationship that gets thrown into the mix. Probably no one, in fact, as Spall gradually learns that it's love and people, not numbers, that keeps everything working backstage and you remove a piece of that bizarrely intricate puzzle at your own risk.

That first episode is in many ways lovely and heart-felt, albeit a bit saccarine and divorced from reality, with obvious love for music and people oozing from every scene - even for Spall and the creepy stalker girl who wants to do odd things with microphones (Jacqueline Byers). The trouble with auteurship, though, is that unless you're Aaron Sorkin and prepared to consume superhuman amounts of cocaine to write a classic script every couple of weeks for umpteen years, it's not something that can transfer over easily from film to TV.

The result is that even though Crowe directs the first two episodes, he hands over writing duties to others from episode two. Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life) is the first to pick up the slack, but although she's good in her own right, she's not up to being Cameron Crowe. The result is faux-Crowe and a little bit painful to watch without his heart-on-a-sleeve gushing. It doesn't help that Wilson pretty much checks out after the first episode, even if everyone else is working hard, particularly Spall whose role switches from menacing to comedic from the second episode. To be fair again, Wilson does give a near-perfect performance as someone who's coming down after smoking heinous amounts of weed, so there's that one small concession to reality, at least.

If you like Cameron Crowe, it's worth watching the first episode at least, as long as you consider it as a one-off short movie. Watching any more than that would be intolerable. You can watch a trailer below, and if you're in the US, you can watch the first episode for free here.

Read other posts about: ,

Featured Articles

Baron Noir

Brexit and the Labour leadership contest… but in French