5- minute film review: Chocolat (2015)

The French circus is a cultural institution, an enduring tradition documented lovingly – if only occasionally – through the years in movies like The Walk. Less well-known are some of the pioneers of the tradition. Also unknown is the life and culture of the 19th century black French community. That’s why Chocolat is such a treat: as a historical biopic of the first famous black circus clown in France, and one half of a famous duo, Chocolat follows the rise of an incredibly talented and complicated person. It does a great job of setting the clown Chocolat in the context of 19th century France, stuck between the image of Africa and the image of himself, anxious to make a name for himself, and torn apart by what’s required to do it. As a reflection of Europe’s view on Africa at that time, it’s powerful and heartbreaking, and well done to the filmmaker to take the issue head-on. As an artist biopic, it doesn’t disappoint in showing the pain and struggle and euphoria and genius and naked ambition of its central character, whose real name you don’t even know until halfway through the film. The circus scenes are a delight to watch, beautifully costumed and acted and shot as a love letter to the French circus tradition.

You’re The Worst Is The Best

You don’t often see rom-coms on television, apart from side plots like Ross & Rachel of Friends. Perhaps because of the uncertainty of how long the show would last, or the challenge of keeping regular relationship drama interesting, no one has taken a soup-to-nuts approach to a single relationship the way Hollywood does with its endless rom-coms.

Until now.

You’re the Worst follows Jimmy and Gretchen, a pair of terrible people who fall for each other. Jimmy is cold, curmudgeonly, and English, while Gretchen is a foul-mouthed wild-child who refuses to follow the rules. An instant attraction sparks their relationship, and Season 1 follows its development as they try to understand what being in a relationship means in an era of hookups and hangups.

Apart from the core couple, there are a host of other characters that decorate the show. Jimmy’s roommate Edgar is a Mexican-American war vet with PTSD and an earnest sense of his own mental health. Linsey is Gretchen’s best friend and terrible wife to boring banker Paul. She pouts and mistreats him to the point where even poor Paul starts to notice. Becca and Vernon also serve as the couple from hell, with Becca’s holier-than-thou attitude matched only by Vernon’s dad-joke corniness.

Despite such an awful mix of personalities, somehow they all just click. The jokes are light and truly funny, giving each of the characters enough of a heart makes you root for them even as they’re making everyone’s life hell.

The show is striking in its realism of relationship dramas, rendering them both believable and completely ridiculous: when is a relationship exclusive, how much sex is too much, how to keep the honeymoon vibe even when you just want to cuddle at home. Each hurdle is climbed with hilarious detail and several mishaps along the way, and the show is surprisingly graphic for regular cable.

Hilariously raunchy scenes range from discussions of saliva during oral sex, what to do when your lover has her period (‘play through?’ Jimmy asks quizzically), a friendly recommendation to ‘get dressed up and do butt stuff’, even coining the term ‘cockaholism’.

Also unusual for a comedy show is how it treats mental illness. Depression and PTSD are along for the ride, with a deep exploration of just how debilitating mental illness can be. Unfortunately, it wraps up these storylines a bit prematurely, perhaps leaving the audience to believe that indeed it simply dissipates overnight on its own. The reality is far more bleak.

While most of the characters are white, Edgar is the only person of color in the core ensemble. With no trace of an accent (and a throwaway comment that he doesn’t speak Spanish), he is free from many of the stereotypical portrayals of Latinos onscreen. Unfortunately, the entourage of African American rappers who form Gretchen’s clients do not escape the trap of stereotypes: Sam is loud, rude, and over-enthused about the rapper lifestyle, using obscenities to address everyone in sight. The actor (Brandon Mychal Smith) is brilliant and his elocution is priceless, but I wish the character was fleshed out along far less stereotypical lines. LGBT characters are absent from the show, but I hope that they’ll include them soon.

You’re the Worst is easily one of the best TV shows on the air.

Who’s the Best in Tech on TV?

Three-way review of 3 popular tech shows: Silicon Valley, Mr Robot, and Halt and Catch Fire.

SILICON VALLEY 2*

This little HBO comedy is beloved by technerds for how it satirizes the Valley. Getting a lot of things right from overblown valuations to overinflated egos, the show offers many fun Easter eggs for those who are in the know on the tech scene.

However, I found the jokes overcooked, too-obvious (one character modeled on Peter Thiel is actually named Peter), or just not funny. While it highlights the issues in the Valley, it lacks nuance and deeper commentary. By contrast, its political counterpart Veep nails satire by offering a heightened view of both the absurdity and sheer banality of US politics with gut-busting dialogue. In Silicon Valley, too often the punchline is the wink and nod itself, the weird uncle with terrible jokes that keeps asking ‘get it!?’ And unforgivable is its portrayal of one Asian character as a kind of witless mascot, and another as a sexless man-boy.

The show is almost saved by the humble-genius straight-man protagonist played by Thomas Middleditch, and the lovably crude and hilariously cocky owner of the incubator (in actuality just a house), played by TJ Miller. The rest of the characters are mostly 2-dimensional clichés: the evil CEO, the VC with Asperger’s syndrome, the overpriced smooth-talking lawyer.

If you need a crash course on weaknesses of the US tech industry for research or something, watch Silicon Valley. Otherwise, give it a miss.

 

MR. ROBOT 4*

Mr Robot quickly attracted a cult following, and it’s easy to see why. A battle-cry for the disaffected anti-capitalist Millennial, the show serves as a commentary on modern society’s failings. Cybersecurity expert by day, hacker by night Elliot is emotionally tortured, painfully introverted, drug-addicted, lonely, and socially anxious. He finds salvation and kindred spirits in a small hacker collective bent on revenge and righteousness.

The show’s dark, muted tone immerses us in Elliot’s techno-dystopian world, controlled by a mega corporation (somewhat on-the-nose, called ‘Evil Corp’). While the threads of the hacker revenge plot are laid out in detail, the real hook of the show is whether Elliot is slowly descending into madness, and how much of his world is real.

The show drags when the technology takes center stage midway through Season 1. From a television standpoint it was boring, confusing, and unnecessary: firewall workarounds and data security plans do not make for good dialogue. But the show brings it back when more of Elliot’s secrets are revealed, and with the subplot of a marginal character- an ambitious Evil Corp executive who will stop at nothing. The Season 1 finale cleverly left some unexplained mysteries that will make the Season 2 openers exciting.

Rami Malek’s brooding Elliot and the Christian’s Slater’s (yes, THAT Christian Slater) maniacally paranoid Mr Robot make this show very well-acted.

Overall this show is worth watching, but dwelling on the technology slows it down.

 

HALT AND CATCH FIRE 5*

How I just got around to this show I’m not sure. Easily one of the best shows on television, it’s expertly scripted, cast, acted, and shot. Following a team to design the first personal computer at a tech company in Dallas, the show gets right what a lot of other shows get wrong: that the most interesting thing about technology is not the tech itself, but the story that it tells. The writers do a nice job of making the tech language easy to understand and compelling in scenes.

Never before have I seen a show so accurately portray life inside a startup. It’s not glamorous. There is no such thing as ‘overnight success’. No investors bang on the door. It’s bill collectors, missed paydays, stolen code, disloyal employees, and tiny glimmers of hope. It’s one grueling step at a time, one groveling investor meeting after the other. It’s the disdain for the ‘business guy’ until the ‘tech guy’ flubs a critical deal. It’s the wunderkind that makes a simple mistake that puts the whole project in jeopardy. It’s the hard work that goes identically into failures and successes. It’s the raw sexism, ageism, elitism, and classicism that has to be overcome to work together as a team.

Standouts include Lee Pace’s Joe MacMillan, a kind of Don Draper meets Steve Jobs, and Mackenzie Davis’s girl-genius Cameron Howe.

The show is wonderful. If you want to truly know what startup life is like, watch Halt and Catch Fire.

Is Roadies Really Rock & Roll?

Roadies is an unusual show for Showtime. It’s a light funny ‘musical comedy’ that could slot easily into a midweek ABC lineup. Perhaps riding on the coattails of the super-successful Nashville, the show follows a motley crew of roadies on tour with a fictional band, the Staten House Band. The show proselytizes the love of rock music, and treats true music lovers to a string of cameos from current stars and historical legends. As a feelgood series, it turns its back on the trend of anti-heroes, instead presenting an ensemble of earnest, well-meaning characters who may be unwashed but have the purest of intentions.

But that’s about the only place where the show excels. For Showtime, Roadies doesn’t have the bite that’s customary for paid-cable shows. The characters revolve around each other’s hopes, dreams, yearnings, and identities, but few have a compelling drive. They blurt out their ambitions, then backtrack in the next episode. They rediscover some long-lost dream, then balk at the chance to realize it. They yearn hopelessly for one another, patient on the sidelines to be noticed even by their own spouses. These are not people who take control of their destiny, these are people who are subject to the whims of others.

These ‘others’, often, are the band members. Taking a rather tired page from the rock & roll movie handbook, the band is as narcissistic, capricious, and drug-fueled as you’d expect. Poolside executives pull the strings and the roadies are caught between their rock and the band’s hard place.

As a romp through the rock & roll landscape the show is fun, easy watching. As a serious drama worthy of its premium channel, it misses the mark. By a lot. Showrunner and producer Cameron Crowe and JJ Abrams revel in rock nostalgia but skimp on character and plot development. As a result, the characters play as ‘types’: the charming screwup, the wise older man, the uncool bean-counter. And if the characters are thin, the plotlines are even thinner: routine lineup changes, chaos of changing the playlist, a stalker superfan, a missing bandmember. The highlight of the season is when roadies have to rid themselves of a curse. But even there, the stakes are low and you find yourself not really caring what happens. There is no major tension, such as Showtime’s Nurse Jackie, about a highly-competent nurse and working mother hiding both a drug problem and extramarital affair.

The season ending you can see from a mile off, and the overlong wrap-up is way out of proportion for the event that prompted it. Perhaps the showrunners had a sneaking suspicion that Season 1 was it, and wanted to end the series on a high.

The show is middling in its portrayal of different groups. An endless string of young, beautiful, brainless, sexually available women sacrifice their modesty to prove the point that Bill (Luke Wilson) is a middle-aged stud. Elsewhere in the crew, women are largely painted with agency and autonomy.

A sprinkling of people of color keep this show from being a total white-out, which is good. For the first time in a while, Luis Guzmán plays a real character: the bus driver and crewmember who longs for his beautiful wife whom he rarely sees.

If for some reason Showtime renews Roadies for Season 2, don’t bother.

Baskets Review: a Basket of Enjoyables

Zach Galifinakis has long been a favorite of mine. His dry, absurdist comedy lies somewhere between one-liner genius Stephen Wright and Mr. Bean. Between Two Ferns is a brilliant expression of his offbeat humor in snackable web form, so when I learned he had his own show, I was beside myself.

Watching it, I wasn’t disappointed.

Unlike the recent run of semi-autobiographical comedian-as-anti-hero(ine) dramedies such as Girls, Louie, and Master of None, Baskets doesn’t feel like it could the origin story of a Hollywood celebrity. Chip Baskets (1 of 2 of Zach’s characters on the show) is a loser through-and-through, a minimum-wage rodeo clown who failed out of a prestigious French clown school and faces constant rejection from his indifferent for-the-greencard French wife.

Zach brings his unique brand of determined, aggressive absurdity to this little comedy, crafting a character that thrives on pessimism, anger, low-self-awareness, completely inappropriate arrogance and closeted depression. The situations that form the arc of the story explore Zach’s range as Chip swings between glimmers of hope and crushing disappointment with fierce determinism.

By now because of the Emmy’s you know that Louis Anderson plays Chip’s mother, a gender-bended character that somehow feels completely natural and needs the bare minimum of props. A wig and dress are all that turn Louis into Christine, which keeps the character from seeming affected or artificial.

Chip’s inexplicable sidekick is Martha, a mousy insurance adjuster with an infinite tolerance for Chip’s dismissiveness and verbal abuse. Her ability to absorb the worst of his absurd insults and still turn up the next day is remarkable, as is her near-ability to will herself to disappear (in one episode she helpfully offers to simply disappear – perhaps from the planet – to help her boss avoid a difficult conversation with her).

The show wins points for a gender-bending role that’s presented naturally and not in a hammy fashion, and for an unusual set of female characters that are painted with depth and drive.

Baskets stunningly refreshing: TV has sunk to such lows that any break from a predictable storyline is like a hit of creative oxygen. With a minimalist plot and ultra-compelling characters who are deeply funny yet deeply tragic, the series feels like a character study similar to Ryan Gosling’s Lars and the Real Girl.

It’s must-watch television.

 

Baskets is created by Louis C.K., Zach Galifianakis, Jonathan Krisel, and stars Zach Galifianakis and Martha Kelley, and Louie Anderson. It airs on FX.

Welcome!

I know, I know, I know. Yet ANOTHER blog about entertainment and the media. I mean, there’s Vulture, Vanity Fair, countless others, the tabloid sites and even HuffPo and New York Times dipping their toes in the water now and then. What could possibly be left to say?

Much of the critique focuses on storylines, casting, quality and news. While this blog will have a lot of reviews – a LOT- it will also pay attention to many of the producer’s good and bad habits, particularly in to representation and culture. How well do we do at making media that reflects who we are? is a running theme. And yes, it’s also a way for me to manage my TV addiction into something vaguely resembling productivity.

So if you’ve ever laughed outright at your television, pointing the finger and yelling ‘ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?’ or looked around the room to see if you’re being pranked (looking at you, True Detective Season 2), this is the blog for you.

I welcome your comments and suggestions!