Features TV & Film

SUMMER BINGING WITH BRIAN & LEIGH

Written by Brian James & Leigh Maynard

While the lockdown landscape has changed considerably since our last set of binging recommendations, this summers new normal sees most of us being limited in our ability to go “out out”, with the staycation being the holiday option for most. Whether your precious time off involves a rural retreat or an urban refurb, here are some of our favourite box sets and podcasts for that time of the day when you just want to switch off and be transported elsewhere.    

Your Own Backyard
“Your Own Backyard” is a U.S. true-crime podcast that examines the disappearance of Kristin Smart, a student at California Polytechnic University, in May 1996. After attending a party, she was accompanied back to her dorm by two fellow party-goers and en route, they were joined by a third, Paul Flores. About forty yards from her dorm, those two original companions veered off to reach their own dorms and left her to walk the rest of the way with Flores. She was never seen again. Nobody or evidence of wrongdoing was ever found, and she was deemed to be a missing person. 

Still missing twenty plus years later and designated a cold case by local law enforcement, the only tangible reminder of the tragedy was a faded highway billboard offering a reward for information about her disappearance. It was the constant reminder of this mystery that haunted local thirty-something indie musician Chris Lambert driving him to research the tragedy that had occurred in his own Central California backyard. 

What followed was his painstaking research over a number of years of the evidence available to him and a search for new evidence. Conducting a series of interviews with Kristin’s family and friends, he also interviewed party-goers, criminologists and those in law enforcement who were willing to speak. These interactions are defined by a tangible respect and empathy for Kristin and those that have been left behind in a state of limbo. 

It’s a respect and empathy which resonates throughout the whole series and extends to the understated tone of the series production. There is none of the intrusive adverts or shrill soundtrack that have become so commonplace in this genre, particularly across U.S. productions, None of the sensationalised speculation, unnecessary padding or manufactured cliff hanger endings to episodes that speak more to the podcasts makers need for 5-star reviews than the need to find the truth. What we have is a forensically assembled analysis of the evidence, both old and new, presented in a dignified manner and with a conclusion that is testimony to Chris Lamberts efforts to do justice to Kristin’s memory.

“Your Own Backyard” is quite simply investigative journalism of the highest order and a pod that is one of the very best we’ve heard in the true crime genre.

Listen to Your own Backyard on apple podcasts or Spotify.

West Cork
“West Cork” is a seminal true-crime podcast, one that very much set the bar for the genre and one that subsequent pods such as “Your Own Backyard” are invariably judged against. Originally airing in March 2018, a new episode aired this May to provide an update on the case.   

Made and hosted by two English journalists Jennifer Forde and Sam Bungey, the series investigates the brutal murder of thirty-nine-year-old French television producer Sophie Toscan du Plantier outside her holiday home near Schull, West Cork, on the 23 December 1996. A murder to which there were no witnesses, no forensic evidence and no apparent motive. A murder that has never been solved.

Suspicion quickly fell on local resident Ian Bailey, an in-comer from England, who became the main suspect. Twenty-odd years on and with no conviction. Forde and Bungay re-examine the evidence and interview those involved, including Bailey.   

Many of those interviewees allude to Bailey’s arrogance and air of superiority, character traits that have played into many of the locals’ stereotype of a certain type of Englishness. And something that, even prior to the murder, had left him at odds with many in this remote part of Cork. 

These are traits he does little to disguise across a series of interviews with the hosts. At times he appears charming, but there are occasions when the mask slips to reveal a callous and chilling personality. At times he appears naively disconnected from the maelstrom that continues to swirl around him, while so many of his actions speak to that being a calculated act to obfuscate and sow confusion. 

Bailey seems to relish the notoriety that his role as chief suspect has brought. And often, it appears as if he is playing a role, basking in the public attention that surrounds him. But did he murder Sophie Toscan du Plantier? Without forensic or witness evidence to place him at the scene of the crime, the case against him often seems to centre on his bizarre behaviour and pernicious personality.

“West Cork” is a riveting listen on many levels. It’s a murder investigation, but it’s also a fascinating character study of a rural community, an examination of the failings of the Irish police force and of competing and incompatible legal systems. Above all, “West Cork” is a poignant, empathetic and heartfelt journey to find justice for a life tragically cut short.

Listen to West Cork on Audible.

Halston
At its heart, “Halston”, airing on Netflix, is a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy wrapped up in all the fabulousness of 1970s New York and the delicious decadence of the Studio 54 set. 

This is Ryan Murphy’s fourth executive producer collaboration with Netflix, and as with his previous projects for the streamer, he brings a trademark queer sensibility that manifests itself across the whole mini-series. Not just in the subject matter but in the sumptuous colour palette which bathes the screen and an always respectful knowledge of the gay lived experience. That aesthetic is reinforced by costume designer Jeriana San Juan who dials up the glamour making the designer’s iconic 70s creations camera ready for 21st-century cinematography.

Roy Halston Frowick, known simply as Halston, rose to fame firstly as a milliner, having made the iconic pillbox hat worn by Jackie Onassis in the 1960s. That recognition enabled him to create his eponymous label, Halston, and his designs which combined forward-thinking femininity with sheer opulence, placed him at the forefront of luxury fashion throughout the 70s and into the 80s.  

Halston is played by Ewan McGregor, and he imbues the character with an imperious insouciance, a persona that masks a deeply troubled and insecure psyche, one that had its formation in the traumatic childhood that he never escaped. The rest of the cast is equally splendid, including Krysta Rodriguez, who plays his lifelong friend and confidante Liza Minelli and Rebecca Dayan, playing his muse and unrequited lover, Elsa Peretti. 

New York City is the other star of the show, with all the glamour and grime of the Big Apple captured in vividly authentic period detail. None more so than Studio 54 and its environs, the demi-monde that would be both Halston’s escape and his downfall. 

As the five-episode series unfolds, we follow Halston as he builds his fashion empire to become a darling of the industry. We also see him in all his pain as that empire crumbles. Much of it self -inflicted where the need to constantly create is fueled by cocaine and sex addictions, which in turn induce levels of erratic behaviour and paranoia that lead to disastrously bad decision making. 

Some of those decisions emanate from business deals done with the money men who want to squeeze as much as they can out of the Halston name. In an era where we are all encouraged to pivot, Halston is an example of a brand that pivoted too much, a strategy that not only cost the brand its unique cache but also led to the designers professional and personal demise.   

The show is not without its detractors, and it has been disowned by the Halston family estate. However, Ewan McGregor’s incredibly nuanced and mesmerising portrayal of the troubled genius and the sheer opulence of the production make this a hugely watchable spectacle. As Halston says to his accountants in one episode, “you can’t put a budget on inspiration”, and this retelling of the iconic designers’ life is definitely a budget well spent. 

Watch Halston on Netflix.

The Bold Type
Now into its 5th and apparently final season, “The Bold Type”, currently airing on Netflix, centres around a trio of millennial women, Jane Sloan (Katie Stevens), Kat Edison (Aisha Dee), and Sutton Brady (Meghann Fahy), who are employed by a fictitious New York fashion magazine called “Scarlet”. 

Inspired by former Cosmopolitan Editor Joanna Coles, who also acts as the show’s Executive Producer, it charts the triumvirates personal relationships and the workplace rewards and rejection that are never far apart in the ruthless world of New York publishing.  

Comparisons with “Sex and the City” are inevitable, and in many ways, this bold trio are the millennial daughters of that show’s iconic quartet. Like “SATC”, it portrays a picture-postcard version of New York. And like “SATC”, the business of work often seems to be an addendum to the business of relationships. 

Whether its journalist Jane having serious boyfriend trust issues but still finding time to write award-winning articles in a couple of hours, digital Editor Kat exploring her sexuality while taking on the corporate bosses and winning or stylist Sutton delivering editorials against all the odds while dating a Board member, quite profound and poignant subject matter shares space with soap-style storylines. More often than not, the trio meet to discuss these personal and professional dramas in the magazine’s fashion closet, a girl- gang, gang hut where dress up helps cure dilemmas, all assisted, of course, by bottles of workplace provided bubbles.       

Given its setting, it’s no surprise that each trio possesses a very distinct and achingly cool style. They own outfits to die for, and while those beautifully curated wardrobes and their entire lifestyles seem incompatible with intern income, here at Boyfriend, we’re not going to take things too literally. Particularly when the whole show is such a visual fashion feast with the supporting cast, including Editor in Chief Jacqueline (played by Melora Hardin), all serve the sleekest and fiercest looks. 

The Bold Type manages to combine serious with sassy, unfiltered issues with unapologetic escapism. They’re juxtapositions that maybe shouldn’t work, but it’s a testament to the cast and to the writers that they do. We’d go as far as to say that “The Bold Type” is just the type of show we all need in these times.  

You can watch The Bold Type on Netflix.

Them 
From the tension of the first scene, the limited series Them is unsettling and horrifying. When an old white woman happens upon a house in 50s America’s rural south, she begins a dialogue with its black resident, creating an uneasy air. And then commences a serenade, a 19th-century parlour song, “Old Black Joe”, sung with a smile. Followed by the woman’s request for the resident’s baby. What happens next isn’t revealed until the 4th episode. We are left stunned and unsure where the narrative is heading, but we know it isn’t good. Though we are certain already that this is a series that strikes at the heart of racism.

Our protagonists, the Emorys, are an upstanding, hard-working family of four. One of the 6 million African-American families to take part in a relocation initiative known as The Great Migration. From 1916 to 1970, families left the deep south to make new homes in Northern, Midwestern, and Western American cities. 

Henry (Ashley Thomas), his wife Livia (Deborah Ayorinde) and their two daughters Ruby (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Gracie Lee (Melody Hurd) sit in their car, nervous with anticipation. They are focusing on a new chapter and a new home in Compton, Los Angeles. That excitement is short-lived as they attempt to sign on the realtor’s dotted line, noticing a footnote forbidding sale to anyone “of negro blood”. She assures them, the covenant is no longer binding, but it’s a foreboding sign of things to come.

Them is reminiscent of Lynch’s Blue Velvet with its dark mysteries concealed behind white picket fences coupled with the pastel aesthetic of Edward Scissorhands. Compton, on the surface, is seemingly harmless, but the twitching curtains and perfectly maintained roses are a guise for the fear and hatred of the unknown and a community ready to implode. There’s a supernatural element lurking behind closed doors, where personal demons haunt each family member, and that’s enough to raise a scare. But it’s not the most shocking element of this show; the hatred the Emory’s face in the south is wholly abhorrent but very apparent. Yet, the portrayal of racism of the subtle Compton kind – one that hides in plain sight – is ultimately the most terrifying. 

The initiation begins as we witness a sea of crinoline-clad, hair-coiffured women setting up camp outside the Emory’s new abode, followed by a blast of radios – positioned to disturb the peace of those who have disturbed the ‘peace’. Betty (Alison Pill) is the queen consort with a gritted smile, whose campaign of terror with her less-than-neighbourly co-conspirators is charged and unrelenting.

Throughout the series, the family encounter racism at every turn, from little glances, small comments to big gestures; it’s a sentiment that will resonate across the decades for the African American and other ethnic communities. As white members of society, when we consider racism, we may contemplate slavery and singular moments of contemporary prejudice; a derogatory comment here, a look, an assumption there, like the receptionist who assumes Henry’s position is within the kitchen and not as a highly qualified engineer. Of course, this isn’t unchartered territory, in reality or fiction, but what Them does differently is to make us consider the resulting emotional toll of a life’s worth of relentless racism. How the accumulation of these hideous moments and comments gradually erodes the self-worth and the very souls of its recipients.

From Livia’s heart-wrenching recollections to Henry’s torture as head of the house, trying to protect his family whilst grappling with prejudice at home and at work, the acting is exceptional. Awards are deserved all around, and Shahadi Wright Joseph, and Melody Hurd surely have great careers ahead. The apparitions are imposing, but the Emory’s evil arch-nemesis Betty is the most memorable villain; in our view, Alison Pill portrays one of the scariest characters in modern television. Perhaps it’s because she so succinctly personifies society’s most insidious flavour of prejudice.

Created by Little Marvin and produced by Lena Waithe, Them is visually stunning; it’s a feast of thespian talent and cinematic style with beautifully stylised sets and costumes. But it’s the supernatural subtext that elevates Little Marvin and cinematographer Checco Varese’s shots to stunning Lynch-ian effect.

The series effectively captures the American ’50s of the collective conscience and one family’s experience of racism within that timeframe. It has been criticised for using apparitional elements like spectres to instil scares at the expense of truths. And though this tactic may seem to distract us from the ultimate message, this superb series is still a timely examination of racial prejudice. The 1950s were unforgiving for many minorities, the ghosts of which still pervade. We still reside in a world where George Floyd was killed so brutally and unnecessarily, and Trump became president to a legion of followers with questionable values. Ultimately, Them is an analysis of one country’s dubious past and the world’s still-terrifying present.

Them is available now on Amazon.

Dior and I
‘Dior and I’ is brought to us by the French-born filmmaker, writer and producer Frédéric Cheng. It is a fascinating look behind the scenes of the iconic fashion house following on from the director’s other insightful fashion films, such as Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and Valentino: The Last Emperor.

It’s the tale of two designers, Dior and Raf Simons, working decades apart, sharing so many of the same expectations, passions and challenges; one, the intimidation of his first couture collection, the other stepping into the shoes of an icon and into the heart of an atelier family. Like many creatives, there’s a duality; both are very private creators of very public collections. Camera shy, masters of precision. Perfectionists.

The film is peppered with black and white footage from the archives in 1947. Dior muses on his inspiration, his passions and his first-ever couture collection. Describing himself as a reactionary, his soft flowing dresses temper the harsh wartime silhouettes that will become the New Look that will change fashion’s direction.

Fast forward to 2012, Raf Simmons, self-trained furniture turned fashion designer, is about to take over as Artistic Director and meet his new team. We follow him on his journey, his labour of love as he designs, deliberates and unveils his first couture collection. That moment of the big reveal is equally as terrifying across the decades. Dior is tense, and Raf says, “it’s like a walk through the desert with a dry mouth.”

Even with that prior experience, it must be daunting; the expectations and heritage of such a powerhouse. Couture is at the heart of Dior; the codes were set by the man himself, and his predecessor must rise to the challenge of his legacy. Raf wasn’t the obvious candidate; previously working at Jil Sander, he has a reputation as a minimalist, one he is keen to redefine. Dior is all about femininity, romance and extravagance and Raf is known for his skinny black suits. With weeks to deliver his first couture collection following a career in ready-to-wear, he seeks to bring modernity to the house, from the moment of his introduction as ‘just Raf’, no Monsieur necessary. 

We watch as the creative director adopts a radical approach to update the house; with respect to past designs, he wants to reflect the modern woman’s dynamism. There is a continuous dialogue between him and his team, a mutual respect and sharing of creativity as he reinterprets the codes of the house. Of course, there are moments of tension at every turn; ateliers wait nervously for his responses, mistakes are made, visions and deadlines aren’t met, but these impossible expectations and ideas are at the essence of each great designer.

Behind the scenes are the ateliers that work their magic, realising the designer’s dream. They are the beating heart of the house; some have been there for more than 40 years. Many learned their craft there. Appeasing both Raf and private clients that support the house is a delicate balancing act for them. They work feverishly and intricately under his watchful eye, speaking of the ghosts that walk the design studios, “It’s Monsieur Dior checking our work”, they say. It’s a constant refinement process, and we see contrasts between a designer familiar with ready-to-wear and a team who understand couture. There are expectations, and there are realities. Still, they sit hour after hour, tweaking and reworking, often into and through the night, living off of coffee and candy, masters of their art. 

Eventually, it’s time to shine, it’s showtime, and the anticipation of that principal collection touches everyone. One nervous designer paces, and in a flower-filled room, many people wait with bated breath.

Dior and I is a work of art behind works of art. From one man’s dream for a new look to another’s modern reinterpretation. It’s a homage to the world of fashion, the talented teams, the weeks and months of precision and toil that go into each collection, the vision, the skill and the artistry. Released in 2015, the film may not be new, but the challenges and brilliance that it portrays are ever-present in this intriguing industry. Now more than ever, fashion is forced to adapt, and pioneers like Raf are necessary for the future of new labels as much as iconic houses like Dior.

Watch Dior and I on Apple T.V.

Selling Sunset
Wasn’t there a fake daytime T.V. slot called the Sun also Sets? Well, it doesn’t in La La land. Here it’s always super-shiny, and that L.A. lilt so reminiscent of the Kardashian clan lives on in reality T.V.’s breakthrough show Selling Sunset. Here, the gauntlets are down, and the stakes and the stilettos are high. Last year, as we settled down to our lockdown binge-watch marathon, this house porn meets pimp-my-wardrobe meets bitch-watch-your-back reality show made its way into our gobsmacked hearts. In all, it’s ‘here’s what you could have won’ glory we get to snoop around the enormous houses of the L.A. elite, complete with infinity pools, views across the Hollywood hills and every in-house gadget a multi-millionaire could wish for. It was, and still is, the perfect escapism.

The series centres around the Oppenheim Group, a leading L.A. real estate brokerage owned by the Oppenheim twins, who, what they lack in stature, have more than made up in deals that have earned them and their team a fortune. They are take-no-prisoners businessmen who expect only the best from their female-only team who are styled within an inch of their lives in garish awe-inspiring wardrobes. These women eat LV embossed toast for breakfast; then again, they probably skip it! 

There’s a spectrum of characters demonstrating a steely will to win behind those bleached and plumped smiles. For starters, there’s the oh-so-seemingly friendly Mary; no amount of money can make us understand why she actually dated one of these vertically challenged twins. But then again, she’s always the first pick for sales, much to the chagrin of her colleagues. She may be killing it in the work stakes, but she’s far too lovely to win the title of those we love to hate; that slot is reserved for Christine, the Barbie meets neo-goth on steroids. She may be ruthless in her sales chat and equally with her tongue, but she’s a powerful woman who knows what she wants, and we can’t help but look on in awe at her acid-soaked retorts. Her wardrobe deserves a show of its own, and she probably has more extensions than the entire cast of Kardashians, Towie and housewives.

On the other end of the spectrum, the saccharin-sweet Crishelle wins her pitches with sheer wholesome charm whilst constantly at odds with her nemesis Christine. And the rest fall somewhere in between; Amanza demonstrates that the working-mum struggle is real as she ping-pongs between school drops and big shots. Meanwhile, Kate, Heather and Davinia, are a mix of too nice, too straight and a leeetle too honest.  

The result, pure fashion, glamour, high-stakes realty deals, cat-fights and girl-power that makes for some compelling voyeuristic viewing. We want to look away, but we kinda also want to walk for a day in those vertiginous stilettos inside those equally vertiginous Hollywood pads!

You can watch all 3 series of Selling Sunset (with more coming soon) on Netflix.

Paradise 
As the theme song to this award-winning podcast goes, no one makes it out alive in Paradise. 

It’s seven years since ‘Serial’ gripped our collective consciousness, and today the true-crime genre is still a mainstay. In 2019 5Live released Paradise, winner of the 2020 British podcast awards. It tells the tale of a young doctor, Chris Farmer and his lawyer girlfriend, Peta Frampton, who embark on a trip around the globe. It’s the summer of ’78. A time without mobile phones and emails, when young travellers could only communicate through letters that kept their correspondence to home on time-lapse.

In 1978 ‘gap-year’ adventures were rare, and only 12% of the U.K. population graduated from university. Still, this exceptional young couple were high-achievers and dreamers who wanted to see as many countries as possible before they began their careers.

What began as a joyful exploration of the globe turned into a 34-year mystery when Chris and Peta disappeared, never to be seen again, and a letter from Peta mysteriously turned up in the U.K. weeks after she was last seen. It’s a case that would take almost four decades to solve and would criss-cross across two continents. 

Two BBC journalists Dan Maudsley and Stephen Nolan recount the couples’ last known steps through a series of interviews and investigations in a quest for the truth and for closure. Together they carry us back to a balmy night off the coast of Belize. A night that is relived through the memories of an innocent child who bore witness to a horrific act. 

What is most shocking about this case, though, are the chance encounters that lead to the couples’ disappearance, the missed opportunities that could have led to justice for them and the coincidences that would eventually lead to resolution.

It’s a stark reminder of the perils that can befall travellers through the constant chance connections they make and how quickly the excitement and anticipation of travel can take a darker turn. But it’s also an unfortunate reminder of the many similar failings in the justice system that have left families devastated and lost for answers.

Follow the journalists around the globe as they reopen cold cases, speak to witnesses and reveal how love, tenacity and the power of technology resulted in truth and justice for Chris and Peta.

You can listen to Paradise on the BBC Sounds. 

So, if you’re tired of checking and rechecking the red, green and amber lists, or trying to book weeks ahead for a two-hour table and you just feel like settling at home and enjoying being “in in”, we hope you enjoy some of these suggestions.

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