Month: May 2016

TV Roundup – Wayward Pines, Bloodline

*Spoilers for the first seasons of Wayward Pines and Bloodline

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Although sci-fi Wayward Pines and crime/family drama Bloodline are completely different, they share one key similarity. It appears, from viewing comments on various blogs and critical reviews, that generally people do not believe these shows warrant a second season. That’s not to say they are not good. In fact, it’s the opposite. Aside from the last thirty seconds of both shows’ series one finales (which set up future plot-lines), the seasons felt complete. Story-lines were wrapped, main characters were dispatched and the majority of people (myself included) would have been satisfied if the shows had remained once-off event series (which was the original plan for Wayward Pines). However, both returned this week and it’s interesting to see how the shows have dealt with the transition to their sophomore seasons.

For those who don’t know, Wayward Pines revolved around U.S Service Agent Ethan Burke (Matt Dillion) who, following a car crash, awoke in the mysterious Twin Peaks-esque titular town. The show revolved round him trying to understand the mysterious rules and practices of the town (no mobile-phones, public executions, cameras in every person’s home). Halfway through the season, in an M. Night Shyamalan-like twist (he is executive producer), it was revealed that the community was living in the year 4032. Everyone was frozen by visionary scientist David Pilcher (Toby Jones) as a means of keeping humanity alive in the face of humans’ devolution into the abbies (short for abberations), feral and cannibalistic creatures. In the finale of the first season, as the abbies breached the town’s gate, Ethan and his fellow community members rebelled against Pilcher’s iron-fist dictatorship. The season two opener takes place three years following these events. Despite Pilcher’s death, the coup was ultimately a failure and the late scientist’s student Jason Higgins (Tom Stevens) has taken control of the town, utilising his master’s former tactics. Meanwhile, a new lead character, Dr. Theo Yedlin (Jason Patric, Narc), has just awoken from cryosleep as a new revolution is about to begin.

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Wayward Pines’ season two’s cast

Wayward Pines benefits from a thrillingly frenetic pace and cool premise, ensuring that even when the dialogue becomes burdened with plot exposition (particularly the opening narration by Charlie Tahan’s Ben, Ethan’ son), it is always engaging. Pitting essentially fascists against freedom fighters in a confined pressure cooker setting, all while monsters loom outside the town walls, guarantees action and excitement. Plus, as before the show isn’t afraid to kill major actors unexpectedly, adding a constant palpable tension. Former showrunner Chad Hodge (who passed on the mantle to Mark Friedman) stated during the first season that Wayward Pines was “always designed to be just … ten episodes”. However, on the basis of the series two premiere, it appears more compelling stories can be mined from the premise and I’m looking forward to seeing how the show will progress.

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Tom Stevens and Kacey Rohl

That said, aside from some solid work by newcomers Jason Patric (even with a tired subplot involving marital strife) and Hannibal’s Kacey Rohl, as Jason’s intelligent girlfriend, this season features notably less charismatic performances. Having only ten episodes before meant actors did not have to commit long-term, enabling the show to get bigger names to appear. Wayward Pines’ first season featured a number of reputable actors (Matt Dillon, Juliette Lewis, Terrence Howard, Toby Jones, Mellissa Leo and Carla Cugino). Thus, it’s a little disheartening to see the credits for this season noticeably less star studded. Even actors whose characters didn’t die previously no longer receive top-billing (Shannyn Sossamon, Cugino and Leo) and it’s hard to not miss them when judging this season’s performances.  For instance, Tom Stevens’ villain isn’t necessarily badly acted. However, it feels in its delivery two-dimensional and simplistic in comparison to Jones and Leo’s season one performances which were always mutating as the show progressed and felt more layered. It has been noted that some of last season’s actors are scheduled to appear in minor roles (we saw Howard’s quirkily menacing town sheriff in a flashback) so perhaps their brief appearances will inject some much needed magnetism.

Bloodline is more difficult to discuss as the show has proven in the past it’s a slow-burn. While the first series received mildly positive reception upon its release, critics were only given the first three episodes in advance. Those who followed it to the end, predominately found it a far more rewarding as the show revealed its many intricate mysteries upon reaching its final, stellar string of episodes (Netflix’s strategy of releasing all episodes at once encourages this binge-watching). The first season centred upon Florida inhabitants The Rayburns, a seemingly happy family consisting of local cop John (Kyle Chandler, Super 8), lawyer Meg (Linda Cardellini, Age of Ultron), boat mechanic Kevin (Two-time Tony Winner Norbert Leo Butz) and their hotel owning mother Sally (Sissy Spacek, Carrie). Their lives were disrupted by the return of their scheming, ostracized but ultimately sympathetic career criminal sibling Danny (the brilliant Ben Mendelsohn, Killing Them Softly, Starred Up). In the previous season’s climax, John killed Danny while his relatives (bar Sally) helped cover it up. This series deals with the fallout of these actions as the trio are crippled guilt, Danny’s long-lost son appears on John’s doorstep and their late brother’s criminal activity haunts the family (particularly as John runs for county sheriff).

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Ben Mendelsohn’s black-sheep Danny Rayburn

From the first two episodes, the show in attempting to create a new story, appears to be moving away from its simple but ultimately engrossing Greek-tragedy plot, which focused heavily on family dynamics. Instead, in attempting to fill the void left by Danny’s death, the writers have been forced to mutate Bloodline into a more standard crime show, filled with ludicrous plot twists. As a result, the show is still compelling but is ultimately less interesting as its plot drifts away from family bonds into a tale about a group of people covering up a murder.

That said, the acting remains as the brilliant as ever and there are a handful of excellent scenes to be found. For instance, John’s speech lecturing his brother on what to do when someone mentions Danny feels like the clip they will play as Kyle Chandler’s name appears on the Emmy or Golden Globe best actor list. Similarly, the scene in which Kevin is interrogated by police while under the influence of cocaine features terrific work by Norbert Leo Butz.

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Kyle Chandler and Linda Cardellini

Although its cliché to say, the Florida setting feels like a character in the show. Like the opening shots of Blue Velvet, its idyllic beauty contrasts with the darkness of its inhabitants. Also, the visceral heat of the area contributes to the paranoia of the characters as the sweat drips down their foreheads. The show continues Netflix’s streak of producing televisual content which feels just as cinematic as many films. The constantly jittering and swirling camera-work contributes tremendously to the atmosphere, creating a constant feeling movement, almost akin to a nervous tick. Whether or not, this season can top its predecessor (a tough task considering its best character is dead, only appearing in visions and flashbacks) it’s too early to say. However, I can report on the basis of these opening episodes that Bloodline is still worth watching. Expect a full review when I finish this season’s ten episodes.

Green Room Review

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Green Room is as mean and lean a thriller as they come. It’s high concept plot revolves around The Ain’t Rights, a struggling punk band consisting of Pat (Anton Yelchin, Star Trek), Sam (Alia Shawkat, Arrested Development), Reece (Joe Cole, Peaky Blinders) and Tiger (Callum Turner, Glue). Cash strapped, forced to siphon petrol out of strangers’ cars in order to continue their tour, they land a gig in a backwoods club run by white supremacists. Following their show, they stumble across the dead body of a young woman in their green room. The club owner, Darcy (played with chilling, quiet menace by X-Men’s Patrick Stewart), needs no witnesses and the group, as well as a mysterious stranger, Amber (Imogen Poots, 28 Weeks Later), are forced to defend themselves against shotgun and machete wielding neo-Nazis and their vicious rottweilers.

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The Ain’t Rights and co. consisting from left to right: Imogen Poots, Joe Cole, Callum Turner, Alia Shawkat and Anton Yelchin

The film is as fast, furious and exhilarating as the punk stylings of bands such as The Dead Kennedys, The Misfits and The Damned (all mentioned within the film). In terms of genre, director Jeremy Saulnier (the impressive Blue Ruin) appears to be drawing upon 70’s survival thrillers such as Assault on Precinct 13, Straw Dogs and Southern Comfort. However, while many movies now a days do hark back to these archetypal contributions to the thriller genre, what separates Green Room from the pack is its intelligent plot twists (which never strain belief), its grim ultra-black humour and the fact it continuously gets better as it progresses. Up until its final shot, one is enthralled by the tension Saulnier manages to sustain.

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Patrick Stewart’s Darcy and his loyal followers

Although Saulnier’s use of extreme graphic violence may turn many away from the film, I never for one second found it exploitive. The film doesn’t linger luridly on its bloodbath. Instead, its constant but brief flashes of gore serve as almost explosions to the ticking bomb of pressure cooked up in the previous scenes. Green Room, as evident by its final moments involving a dog, is firmly anti-violent. The carnage is unglamorous, serving to highlight how people can be driven or manipulated to commit truly horrendous actions on account of a belief in a warped ideology.

Although critics for the most part have been overwhelmingly positive about Green Room, many have commented that the film suffers from a lack of humanity. I disagree because I believe the moments of humour between the protagonists add pathos to the film, particularly their conversations about their desert island discs. Also, a key antagonist, Gabe (Macon Blair – Saulnier’s recurring collaborator), feels completely human. An underling of Darcy, Blair injects Gabe with a depth. The character possesses a world-weariness, as if he doesn’t really believe in what he is doing and is saddened by the position he has found himself in. Despite no backstory to his character (the film is remarkably low on plot exposition of any kind), one feels as if they completely understand Gabe’s scenario on account of Blair’s star-making turn.

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Macon Blair (whose directorial debut will be released later in the year) as Gabe

In terms of the performances, there really is no weak link in the cast. Stewart relishes his turn as the quietly confident villain, who doesn’t even need to raise his voice to scare you. It’s a terrific piece of casting as Stewart’s history as mostly heroic characters causes it to be extra-shocking when he drops a racial epithet. Imogen Poots also sheds her previous image (one of posh Brit-girl), fully embracing the deranged nature of her neo-Nazi wild-card that has turned on her brothers. Yelchin, Shawkat, Cole and Turner do not put a step wrong in terms of their roles which capture in the opening section young swagger, before morphing into fear and terror as they speedily realise how in over their heads they are.

Verdict: 4/4

An instant classic, following Blue Ruin and Green Room one can’t help but hope Saulnier will complete his own blood-soaked three colours trilogy.

Our Kind of Traitor Review

Our_Kind_of_Traitor_(film).pngFollowing the critical acclaim of John Le Carre’s recent novel adaptations – “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, “A Most Wanted Man” and BBC’s “The Night Manager”, the thriller writer’s bibliography has become to be seen as a rich catalogue for filmmakers to draw upon. His latest work to get the big-screen treatment is his 2010 effort Our Kind of Traitor. The novel and film revolve round a British couple, Perry and Gail (Ewan McGregor and Naomie Harris) on holiday in Marrakech. A fellow vacationer Dima (Stellan Skarsgard – Breaking the Waves), a money launderer for the Russian mafia, takes an instant liking to Perry. Dima reveals his life is risk, unless Perry hands over important documents on a memory stick to MI5 upon return to England. When he does so, the USB falls into the hands of Hector (Damien Lewis – Homeland, Wolf Hall), an agent who wants to use Dima’s information to target English politicians colluding with the mafia.

The film succeeds at capturing a tone akin to the thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock such as The Man Who Knew Too Much. The story is twisty and easy to follow, while the more ambivalent characters’ motivations are slowly teased to the viewer. Susanna White, a director predominantly known for her work on television such as HBO’s Generation Kill, slips comfortably into the spy thriller genre, staging a number of taut action set-pieces.

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One of the most striking features of the film is the work of DP Anthony Dod Mantle (28 Days Later). He adds a glow and shimmering light to every frame of the film, creating an almost dream-like feeling of unrealness. This choice of cinematography mirrors Perry and Gail’s descent from ordinary every-day life into a world of suspicion and intrigue.

The film begins to lose steam when it focuses upon its leading couple as Perry and Gail are quite one-dimensional, despite solid performances by McGregor and Harris. The Two Faces of January’s Hossein Amini’s screenplay is at times punchy and witty but it ultimately fails to convince that these central characters would go to such tremendous lengths to secure the safety of the self-professed criminal Dima.

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Instead, Our Kind of Traitor is at its strongest when it turns its attention to its supporting characters. For instance, Dima is a great vehicle for an actor of Skarsgard’s talent. He is a character who puts on an air of geniality and attempts to flaunt a carefree attitude, when in reality he is terrified, scheming to stay ahead of his employers, to which he is expendable. Skarsgard moves with the grace of dancer between the two personas, cementing his status as one of the greatest actors of this generation. Similarly, Damian Lewis, returning to his native tongue after years of U.S drama, shines as the cold but ultimately sympathetic government agent pushing his own agenda. The actor shares a scene with the equally good if severely underused Jeremy Northam (in a villainous turn) which is electrifying.

Verdict: 3/4

Flawed in the sense that as it progresses it becomes increasingly far-fetched. However, Our Kind of Traitor is worth seeing on account of Susanna White’s taut direction, Anthony Dod Mantle’s exquisite cinematography and Stellan Skarsgard’s multi-faceted performance.

 

The Trust Review

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The last few years have been hard on Nicolas Cage fans. The Oscar winner was arguably the most commanding and entertaining leading man of the nineties, collaborating with the Coen Brothers, John Woo, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch and Ridley Scott, just to name a few. Yet in the last decade he has slipped into mediocrity, appearing in movies of little merit. While some of this trashy fare I personally found enjoyable (Stolen, Trespass, Drive Angry), efforts like Left Behind or Season of the Witch are bottom of the barrel terrible and Cage is awful in them. For every ten movies of this period (Cage is prolific), there is a great film like 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or 2013’s Joe to remind one why the actor was so likeable in the first place. However, these are too few and far between. Taking all this into consideration, it gives me joy to report that the actor’s latest The Trust is quite good and Cage is on top form.

download.jpgA blend between a cop/heist thriller and a dark comedy, Cage plays the quirky, fed-up, tabasco and lemon chewing Lieutenant Jim Stone, who along with his equally dispossessed sergeant, David (Elijah Wood), discovers a drug-dealers vault. The two decide to rob it, but Stone’s strange sense of humour and violent behaviour buts heads with David’s increasing anxiety, leading to conflict.

It’s difficult to tell whether Ben Brewer and Adam Hirsch’s script fits perfectly with Cage’s eccentric style of acting or if Cage brought the loony humour to the role. Either way, unlike many of the actor’s recent efforts, his trademark of implementing strange behavioural ticks is more subdued here, and when he does utilise them it is genuinely funny or unsettling. For the first time, in what feels like ages, Cage is well-cast. Stone isn’t a womanizer or a legendary hitman or an ancient warrior. He is a strange character, past his prime, something Cage has always portrayed well as evident by Bad Lieutenant.

Wood, who post-Lord of the Rings has really embraced his sleazier side in films such as Maniac, excels as both a straight-man for Cage’s lunacy but also as a man breaking the law just to escape the malaise of his daily life. The film opens with Wood’s character having dispassionate sex with a prostitute. This detachment extends to David’s police-work as he laughs when a perp jumps from a closet and evades fellow officers. Later, when Stone asks him to be a part of his heist, David replies yes, stating: “Only because I have nothing better to do and I truly despise my job”.

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When the two lead characters perform the heist, the comedy becomes muted as events begin to take a more sinister turn. However, what is impressive about The Trust is that there is little tonal imbalance. In fact, the comedy of the first half of the movie serves to almost emphasise the tension of the second.

As the film nears its climax, its flaws become more apparent. Although I love downbeat, grim endings in these types of thrillers (on which The Trust somewhat delivers), the logic by a certain character (revealing who would be a spoiler) that enables the film to reach its bleak conclusion is weak. Also, the movie doesn’t possess the depth of a classic heist film such as Rififi (of which The Trust pays multiple homages). For example, when Stone tells David, “We’re in the heart of the American dream”, it’s hard to tell if it’s an offbeat one-liner or whether the filmmakers think they are actually discussing the notion of the American dream. If the latter is true, I can’t really see how in terms of what’s transpired up until that point.

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However, despite these qualms the film is still a cut above average. Unlike a lot of straight-to-DVD or VOD fare, The Trust looks quite stylish. Directors Alex and Ben Brewer began in music video directing and know how to create interesting visuals, such as David cycling a bike around a police evidence room. Also worth noting is the night-time scenes, featuring heavily neon-lit bars and fluid camera-work, which create an almost woozy sense of place in regards to the seedy and slightly intoxicating L.A. setting.

Verdict: 3/4

Funny, tense and engaging, The Trust suffers from a lack of depth, but features fine work from its two leads and serves as a good calling card for its directors.

Trailer for the film below

TV Roundup – Peaky Blinders, Penny Dreadful and Marseille

Due to a vast amount of new television emerging in the last few weeks, it has been difficult to give every show its fair due in terms of reviews. Now that I’ve finally caught up on the majority of season premieres and pilots, I’ve decided to do a TV roundup, in order to discuss shows I think are the most interesting.

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Let’s begin with BBC’s Peaky Blinders, the 1920’s gangster drama centring upon the exploits of the Birmingham gang “The Peaky Blinders”, led by Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) and his family. The show moved into its third season with the closest it has ever come to a bottle episode. The entire hour of television was set on the afternoon of Tommy’s wedding to former undercover agent Grace (Annabelle Wallis – still the weakest aspect of the show). Despite the confined setting, the episode played to the series’ greatest strengths and confidently planted the seeds for this season’s conflict.

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Following the end of season two, the show has jumped two years and there have been major changes. Tommy’s brother Arthur (Paul Anderson), a man who previously suffered from outbursts of violence and a coke habit, has become romantically involved with a devout Christian woman and has since found God. However, this makes him even more of liability than his drug addiction did as the gang begin to question whether he has the stomach for their lifestyle. Meanwhile, Michael (Finn Cole), Tommy’s long-lost cousin introduced in season two, has become integrated into his family’s criminal activities but appears to have a contempt for his new relations. Also, Tommy’s aunt Polly (the fantastic Helen McCrory) is being wooed by the charming stranger Ruben (new main cast member Alexander Siddig). However, some things have stayed the same. Tommy is still being blackmailed by Winston Churchill into taking part in matters of espionage and national security, this time becoming involved in a mysterious plot involving the Russians.

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Helen McCrory as Polly

Aside from the terrific period detail, the thrilling action set-pieces and the awesome contemporary soundtrack (the sounds of Radiohead, Arctic Monkeys and Nick Cave can be heard in the season opener), Peaky Blinders is at its most compelling when it turns its focus upon the Shelby family dynamic. Arthur’s extremely awkward wedding speech, Tommy’s sister Ada (Sophie Rundle) and her communist ramblings unsettling the party guests and Polly’s conflict with Grace are what make the show feel compelling, human and character-driven amidst the over-abundance of style and carnage. Setting the intro to this season at a family event is such an intelligent method of highlighting minor problems between the Shelby’s that will erupt as the season progresses.

Apart from Wallis (although her stereotypical “fierce colleen” characterisation may be the problem), every actor and actress is firing on all cylinders. Many have commented that Cillian Murphy’s commanding presence in the central role is akin to the late and great James Gandolfini in The Sopranos. Although the premiere did not reveal any villain in the vein of season one’s Billy Kimber or Sam Neill’s villainous agent, the business with Churchill is intriguing enough for the time being. Writer and creator Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Dirty Pretty Things, Locke) has teased the return of Tom Hardy’s rival Jewish gangster Alfie Solomon and Paddy Considine is slated to appear in an antagonistic role so it appears the stage is set for a wildly entertaining next five episodes.

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While Peaky Blinders opened its third season by limiting its scope to one location, gothic horror Penny Dreadful (also moving into a third season) did the opposite with equally fine results. Never have the central characters (some based on classic horror characters from literature) been so far apart. Although Vanessa Ives (Eva Green) and Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway) are still in London, traumatised by the events of the season two finale, Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) is in America, Sir Malcolm (Timothy Dalton) is in Zanzibar and John Clare (Rory Kinnear) is in the Arctic. While I would usually argue that placing one’s central characters on completely opposite parts of the globe is foolish, it gives Penny Dreadful a chance to showcase its high budget and production value. For instance, Ethan’s New Mexico surroundings enable director Damon Thomas to stage an impressive homage to the train robberies which commonly occur in Western cinema.

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Patti LuPone as Dr. Seward

Also each separate plot thread is engaging in its own right, particularly Vanessa’s and Victor’s. Vanessa is urged by Ferdinand Lyle (Simon Russell Beale, no longer a series regular sadly) to seek experimental therapy at the hands of Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone) – hinting that this season will touch upon the birth of psychoanalysis. The timeline adds up as this episode entitled “The Day Tennyson Dies” means that these events are occurring in 1892. Victor, meanwhile, seeks the help of old friend Dr. Jekyll (Shazid Latif – very promising), one of three legendary horror fiction characters who make their first appearance on the show. His goal in recruiting Jekyll is to help him curb his heroin addiction and to domesticate the villainous woman he resurrected from the dead, Lily (Billie Piper, unseen).

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Eva Green as Vanessa Ives

The season opener also highlights writer and creator John Logan’s gift at creating beautiful dialogue that wouldn’t feel out of place in poetry from the Romantic era. Even the heavily hinted homosexual Ferdinand, a predominantly comedic character, has the gorgeously naked monologue opening with the lines:

“There was a time in my life when I fell into a state of ennui beyond compare. I was quite divorced from the man I was or wanted to be. My unique nature left me feeling loathed and loathsome”.

When at the end of the episode, Vanessa quotes from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poetry, it doesn’t feels shoehorned in. It instead fits like a glove with Logan’s script.

Moving from the stellar to the flawed, Netflix premiered French drama Marseille. The eight-part miniseries tells the story of Robert Taro (the legendary Gerard Depardieu), a man who has been mayor of Marseille for twenty years. He has a goal to leave a legacy by making his city the “Marbella of France”. He believes this can be achieved by building state of the art casinos and resorts. However, his opposition feel casinos are just another way for gangsters to launder money. On the day of getting his legislation passed, he is betrayed by his assistant Lucas Barres (Benoit Magimel) to whom he was a father figure. The two politicians thus wage a personal and political war upon each other.

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Benoit Magimel (left) and Gerard Depardieu (right)

The show is drawing comparisons to Netflix’s political behemoth House of Cards as they both tell stories of multiple characters affected by political events. However, what Marseille reminds me most of is hip-hop drama Empire in how over-the-top and clunky it is at times. Both shows are about rebelling against father figures and battles of succession, as well as feature ludicrous plot twists and pointless sex which serves no other purpose but to shock its audience.

That’s not to say there isn’t pleasure to be had. Occasionally the show (in the two episodes I’ve seen) delivers campy thrills, particular Magimel’s practically moustache twirling turn. Also director and co-creator Florent Emillo Siri (The Nest, the Bruce Willis starring Hostage) ensures the visuals are cinematic and the action is slick. However, what’s lacking is subtlety. When one thinks of French television or even some shows set in France, one thinks of ambiguous, ambitious, atmospheric dramas like The Returned, Witnesses or The Last Panthers (also set in Marseille). Marseille is the complete opposite with bad guys dressed like pimps from Miami Vice, lurking predominantly in the background of scenes for no reason aside from letting the viewer know they will play a role as the show progresses. It’s a shame because it’s a great opportunity Netflix is providing to foreign countries by enabling their programming to made and broadcast worldwide (just look at the critical acclaim Narcos received). Hopefully, future efforts from non-American countries will be better.