Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

“Taboo” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

March 1, 2017

Like James, Taboo encounters out-and-out evil as a mere obstacle to be effortlessly surmounted in the race to the finish line. It’s ruthlessly cruel to its female characters, killing off Winter, Zilpha, and Helga with barely a backward glance. Zilpha in particular is done very dirty: She falls in love with her brother, weathers his unwelcome and life-destroying advances, kills her husband for him, has unsatisfactory sex with him, gets dumped, and kills herself with a fetishistically beautiful leap off a bridge. James cries a couple of single tears and staggers up a staircase, but then he’s back to his usual routine of mumbling and murdering. Zilpha’s suffering and death only means something in the context of his manful quest, and even then only barely.

Worse still is the use of slavery as a motivator. If we’re being charitable, we could say that Taboo’s handling of this human-rights savagery as primarily a dispute about the Crown reflects how men like Sir Stuart, Coop, the Prince Regent, and even Delaney himself would think about the issue. It’s the smuggling and the treason that matter to them, not the murder of innocent men, women, and children.

Yet how do you square this with Delaney’s bizarre kiss-off to his faithful servant Brace, telling him he wasn’t born to be free? How can you countenance the show’s characterization of Delaney’s final double-cross, in which he leaves Chichester the testimony he needs to punish the EIC for its involvement in slaving? “Justice,” Chichester gravely intones to no one in particular — yet the three men who ordered and orchestrated the crime (Strange, Pettifer, and Wilson) have been murdered on the order of the man (Delaney) who nailed the slaves into their sinking ship and is already sailing for freedom.

James’s primary interest was personal vengeance, not redressing the grave moral horror in which he took part. After all, he comes right out and says that Sir Stuart’s slave-trading is small potatoes compared to the evil things he himself had done. To call the legalistic postscript to his subsequent killing spree “justice” is to subsume a centuries-long atrocity into one weirdo’s vendetta. As a stand-in for Taboo’s artistic approach, in which an entire world is meticulously constructed to give a single character the people and places he needs to show off how awesome he is, it’s all too perfect.

I did not care for the season finale of Taboo, which I reviewed for Vulture. I did not care for Taboo period, really.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Two: “Dead Cat Bounce”

February 27, 2017

Suddenly, Billions is one of the most delightful fucking things on TV. Hey, don’t ask me, I just work here! But after two episodes including tonight’s rip-roarin’ “Dead Cat Bounce,” the show’s second season has turned the first outing’s (very) occasional flashes of wit and heat into a strobe light designed to trigger the pleasure center of your brain into some kind of awesome epilepsy. The schemes and plots are dizzying but perfectly constructed, the main characters are holding their own, the supporting players bring down the house, and the whole thing feels like almost a brand new show. It’s too soon to tell if this will be as big a turnaround as series like Halt and Catch Fire and The Leftovers experienced, and that may be an apples-to-oranges comparison anyway—they’re far more serious dramas, for one thing, and for another they were already on the upswing by their first season finales, while Billions stumbled through that particular finish line. But I’m enjoying pretty much every second of screentime, and it’s one of the young year’s most pleasant televised surprises (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway notwithstanding).

Billions rules now and I’m just as surprised as you are. I reviewed last night’s episode for the New York Observer.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Three

February 27, 2017

The biggest tell in this week’s episode of “Legion” isn’t a line of dialogue or a plot development: It’s a window. Specifically, it’s a circular windowpane crisscrossed with an X — the X-Men logo familiar to any superhero fan. During a pivotal conversation between David Haller and his mutant minders, in which he asserts his will to plow forward with his mental training in order to find his kidnapped sister, the window frames his head like a halo, his face directly in front of the spot where the diagonal lines meet. We may never get a more tangible connection between “Legion” and the (sorry) legion of Marvel mutant movies that has led to the impending release of “Logan,” the sad-old-man swan song for the X-Men’s breakout character, Wolverine.

But this single Easter egg serves as a symbol for the whole episode, which sees David take charge of his “treatment” and force his new mutant family to burrow deep into his brain in order to unearth his buried memories — and, they hope, rescue his sister from the evil mutants who have captured and tortured her. After two scatterbrained episodes in which the show simultaneously attempted to establish its ostentatious visual aesthetic and its overcomplicated space-time-contiuum-shifting story line, the show now seems ready to get on with the business of making this superhuman a superhero.

I reviewed last week’s Legion for the New York Times. A step in the right direction. That said, the work Larysa Kondracki does directing this coming Wednesday’s episode makes it the show people said it was from the beginning. Hoo boy, just you wait.

The Boiled Leather Audio Hour Episode 60!

February 23, 2017

How the West Was Young: The Young Pope & Westworld

When the game of thrones comes to an end? That’s the unspoken question at the heart of Sean & Stefan’s discussion of HBO’s two most high-profile drama debuts of the past year, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope and Jonathan Nolan & Lisa Joy’s Westworld. These two prestige-TV series present two very different paths for the future of the New Golden Age of TV, and offer many points of comparison with current standard-bearer Game of Thrones itself. Go in-depth on their strengths and weaknesses—and trust us, one is much stronger than the other—in one of our biggest and, dare we say it, best episodes yet!

DOWNLOAD EPISODE 60

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“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Six: “For Our Safety”

February 22, 2017

It’s good to be the Son. Life has been tough for Eddie Lane since he surreptitiously flew to Peru to find out the truth about Dr. Steve Meyer, the cancer-stricken founder of the Meyerist cult. For one thing, he got struck by lightning and the Doc died. But before that happened, Meyer pronounced Eddie the heir to the movement, casting the leadership of rageaholic Cal Roberts (and Eddie’s own ex-wife Sarah, dragged along into power by Cal) into question. Rather than deal with that, Eddie cut the cult loose and has struggled to maintain contact with his kids, particularly his increasingly devout son Hawk. But as we learn in this week’s episode (“For Our Safety”), it hasn’t kept him from increasingly passionate bouts of down-low sex with Sarah, before and after which he maintains his relationship with his doting and gorgeous girlfriend Chloe. Some guys have all the luck! Aside from the whole getting struck by lightning thing, I mean.

I kid, but there is an element of good fortune in Eddie’s two-timing storyline. Eddie’s conduct toward Chloe may be deeply shitty, but it’s also one of the most down-to-earth and understandable sins anyone on the show has yet committed. Whether as a result of inconsistent writing or a reasonably well-drawn depiction of people who are practiced at lying to themselves, it can be difficult to get a grasp on what The Path’s characters want out of life, out of the cult, out of each other. But skipping out on a backyard barbecue with your current significant other for an illicit booty call with your ex? Whether or not that’s something you’ve done yourself (hey, we don’t judge), this at least speaks to issues of lust and loyalty anyone who’s been in a relationship can relate to on some level. It feels real in a way that the endless shouting matches about The Light simply can’t. (The idea of this more or less personality-free dingus bouncing back and forth between two of the most beautiful women he’s ever likely to see in his life is somewhat less plausible, but what can you do.)

I actually kind of liked this week’s episode of The Path! I reviewed it for Decider.

“Billions” thoughts, Season Two, Episode One: “Risk Management”

February 22, 2017

Billions and Breaking Bad have something in common. No, it isn’t just the wonderful twinkle-eyed actor David Costabile, so heartbreakingly hapless as Gale in the latter and so delightfully sleazy as Wags in the former. In several of its season premieres, Breaking Bad began by showing Walter White in some terrible jam: recording a farewell to his family as sirens close in, owning a pool strewn with scorched debris, stowing a freshly purchased machine gun in the trunk of his car. The question these cold opens posed was simple: How the hell is he gonna get out of this one?

“Risk Management,” Billions’ second season premiere, doesn’t play the flash-forward time-shift games that Vince Gilligan’s methamphetamine magnum opus did, beyond a inserting a “THREE DAYS EARLIER” tag following our opening glimpses of hedge-fund kingpin Bobby Axelrod mostly for effect. But it lands its protagonist, U.S. Attorney Chuck Rhoades, in a similarly inextricable predicament. By the end of the episode, he’s been slapped with 127 lawsuits simultaneously—all bankrolled by Bobby—while a government investigation has uncovered an apparent smoking gun in the form of Axelrod’s five-million-dollar payout to his wife Wendy the very day Rhoades dropped his own investigation into Axe Capital. Even as he meets with the federal judge with whom he quid-pro-quos to stay a step ahead of political turmoil, he gets the call from the Attorney General summoning him to Washington, where he’ll likely get the axe himself (no pun intended). As far as establishing stakes are concerned, Billions Season Two has come in hella high.

Fortunately, the quality of the episode has followed suit. Billions’ first season featured a stellar cast plucked from prestige-TV Valhalla that was simultaneously given both too much and too little to do: Schemes and storylines spidered out from the central Axe vs. Chuck conflict like crazy, but the byzantine plotting too often felt like padding and too rarely revealed reasons to care about any of the characters involved. This sucker, on the other hand? Drum-tight, high velocity, and fueled by each player’s most enjoyable attributes.

I reviewed the season premiere of Billions, which to my surprise I enjoyed quite a bit, for the New York Observer. As a side note, director Reed Morano’s work here should inspire confidence in Hulu’s upcoming adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which she’s directing from start to finish.

“Taboo” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven

February 22, 2017

Tonight, Taboo brought the pain.

The climax of the show’s seventh episode is an extended torture sequence in which Coop, the Prince Regent’s right-hand man, puts the screws (and the waterboard, and something that looks like a cheese grater) to James Keziah Delaney. The goal is to extract information about his grand gunpowder scheme: the names of the co-conspirators, the location of the contraband, and most importantly, the identities of the American spies who planned to buy it from him. Perhaps because he has a sack over his head and can’t see the Hostel leftovers the props department gathered for the festivities, James refuses to divulge anything at all. He instead insists that he’ll give the Crown all the info it requires, as long as he’s first given a private meeting with the East India Company’s Sir Stuart Strange right there in the Tower of London.

What follows manages to be both gratuitously gruesome and weirdly weightless. The camera lingers on the torturers, their implements, and their handiwork with sordid glee. Techniques are trotted out one by one: scraping the flesh from Delaney’s leg, waterboarding him Gitmo-style (complete with a supervising doctor to make sure he doesn’t die), and finally securing him in an iron gimp mask, submerging him in water except for a small pipe into his mouth, and forcing him to ingest some kind of hallucinogenic truth serum. It’s not a terribly gory sequence, mind you. It’s just relentlessly unpleasant, an attempt to derive entertainment value from human suffering.

Honestly, I’d be okay with that if it actually succeeded in saying something about suffering. But of course it doesn’t: This is James Keziah Delaney we’re talking about, and he’s far too badass to succumb to torture. (Because that’s how that works, apparently!) A full 12 hours pass before the Prince Regent gets fed up with Coop’s failure and orders the man to procure Sir Stuart for James’s requested meeting. “My God, look at you,” Strange stammers when he sees his foe … for no apparent reason, since Delaney looks no more scarred and filth-encrusted than ever. For a guy who just spent half a day getting worked over, he’s sure taken it well, sitting at a desk as if this were an appointment in his office. Perhaps he’ll include “this whole torture thing was a waste of screen time” in the minutes of the meeting.

I reviewed last night’s Taboo, a lesson in how to render scenes of torture pointless, for Vulture.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two

February 17, 2017

“And so we ran on, into Summerland, and the place they said did not exist. And all the while, wolves were at our heels. Black masks, boots, and the one they call the Eye. We had come to do the work that must be done. To strip ourselves of the fog of the Life Before.” The second episode of “Legion” opens less with narration than with an incantation — prose calculated to conjure up a sense of wonder and terror straight out of a Galadriel speech in “The Lord of the Rings.”

To a limited degree, the show is capable of wonder and terror alike. Thanks in large part to the quiet and confident performances of Jean Smart and Jeremie Harris as Melanie Bird and Ptonomy Wallace, David Haller’s sojourn in the mutant refuge called Summerland does have that adept-in-training vibe vital to the origin stories of so many heroes, from Bruce Wayne to Arya Stark. And the continued presence of “the devil with the yellow eyes,” the corpulent demon who growls and grins at the periphery of the narrative, indicates that this is a series that could scare the pants off us if it so desired.

Yet there’s something that feels gimmicky, even chintzy, about the show’s manipulation of space, time, audio and video — the very stylistic innovations that seemed to set it apart from the superhero pack.

A quick cut during a flashback to one of David’s therapy sessions, for example, seems at first like just a way to represent his jitteriness. But later in the episode we learn it’s “real” — an actual glitch in his memory, a time jump created by his brain to hide something disturbing. We’re meant to get a little intellectual jolt out of this — “Ohhh, so that’s what that was!” — and we do … but it’s ultimately as insubstantial as a sugar rush.

I reviewed the second episode of Legion for the New York Times. It’s early and I’m in the liking-things business so I’m ready to be wrong about this, but this doesn’t feel like a terribly promising show to me at this point.

“The Path”: Can This Show Be Saved?

February 15, 2017

STEP ONE: GIVE US A VILLAIN

It’s well past time for The Path to give up all this vacillating back-and-forth with jittery cult leader Cal Roberts and have him commit to being the Meyerists’ David Miscavige. His slow, two-steps-forward one-step-back zig-zag approach to that point has not been half as interesting as the writers likely hoped; just end it and make him the crimelord already. Don’t worry, you can still show his inner conflict without jerking him all over the map. Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and endless other shows with (to put it mildly) deeply flawed men in positions of leadership.

STEP TWO: GIVE HIM A FOIL

In theory, Cal already has this in the form of Sarah, his co-leader. But his herky-jerky character arc has brought her along for the ride, making either his conscience or an even more cut-throat customer depending on the needs of the moment. If you slide Cal comfortably into the no-one-man-should-have-all-that-power slot, you can locate the true moral dilemma in Sarah rather than in him. To put it in terms fans of this show will likely appreciate, you can make her the Jesse to his Walt, in other words.

I fleshed out some of the ideas I posted here recently about how to get The Path back on, well, you know, for Decider.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Five: “Why We Source”

February 15, 2017

A charming, charismatic, incredibly handsome, young fundamentalist takes control of his religious denomination and makes a series of personal, professional, and philosophical decisions that imperil everything he cares about. Not a bad idea for a show, huh? Well, sure, if you’re The Young Pope. The Path, on the other hand…well, let’s just say that when Cardinal Spencer told Pius XIII, “You’ll be a terrible pope! The worst!”, he’d clearly never met Cal Roberts (Hugh Dancy). The pontiff of the Meyerist movement can’t go five minutes without doing precisely the worst possible thing he could do. And unfortunately for the show, his never-ending screw-ups have yet to yield the dramatic dividends his counterpart over in Vatican City enjoyed.

I reviewed this week’s The Path for Decider. A few steps in the right direction, but not enough.

“Taboo” thoughts, Episode Six

February 15, 2017

Skulking, spying, smuggling, sabotaging, and slaying: These are James Keziah Delaney’s stock in trade, and tonight’s episode of Taboo is all about his tradecraft. As the rogue’s plan to secure a lucrative trading route out from under the rival English, American, and East India Company factions moves forward, the show’s portrayal of his dirty deeds has gotten much clearer and tighter than it used to be, and more entertaining as a result….Unfortunately, many of Taboo’s old troubles — the workmanlike plotting, the half-baked supporting cast, the overreliance on James’s alleged magnetism — are still hanging around.

I reviewed this week’s Taboo for Vulture. Better than it started, still not as good as you’d hope.

This Valentine’s Day, Watch ‘The Love Witch’

February 14, 2017

But the most romantic thing about The Love Witch is the existence of the film itself. To call a work of art “a labor of love” is to imply a sort of jejune passion, an amateur’s enthusiasm, but nothing could be further from the case here. Taking the concept of the auteur to a whole new level, Anna Biller not only wrote, edited, scored, produced, and directed this movie — she also served as the production designer, the set decorator, the art director, and the costume designer. She personally built, knit, sewed, collected, or otherwise provided many of the film’s key props, from the witches’ altar to the characters’ jewelry to a rug that took her months to make. If the lengthy and thoughtful essays and interviews on her blog are any indication, she also served as the movie’s on-set philosopher. Short of starring in the movie herself, there’s no way The Love Witch could be more Anna Biller’s vision.

The result is unmistakably familiar. To watch The Love Witch is to enter the headspace and heartspace of another human being as surely as falling in love.

This becomes crystal clear barely five minutes into the film. After an opening driving sequence that’s a loving homage to similar scenes in Hitchock’s Psycho and The Birds, we enter the Billerverse in earnest — a world where every detail is deliberate and delightful. Tucking her cherry-red cigarette case into her cherry-red purse, Elaine emerges from her cherry-red car in her cherry-red dress, then takes her cherry-red suitcase out of the cherry-red trunk to enter an apartment full of occult artwork so colorful it’d make a Crayola 64-pack blush. Next, we’re off to a sumptuously appointed tea room in which every one of the all-female clientele is clad in cotton-candy pink; the matching floral-patterned tea set, hand selected by Biller herself, looks like something made of marzipan in the sugar-spun home of a fairy-tale cannibal witch.

By the time I hit this point in the movie, I was laughing out loud in sheer joyful admiration. Whether working in true independent form like Biller or blessed with the carte blanche freedom afforded to established and acclaimed names like Scorsese, Anderson, Tarantino, or Coen, few filmmakers have anything close to this level of confidence in their own taste and vision. Pulling this off for a single scene would be reason to celebrate. Constructing an entire film from a single intelligent, idiosyncratic worldview is close to a miracle. And from its first scene to its last, from the font choice in its opening titles to the music over the closing credits, that kind of miracle is exactly what The Love Witch delivers. Watch it with some witch you love.

Love Witch and chill: I wrote about what makes The Love Witch the perfect Valentine’s Day movie for Vulture.

“The Young Pope” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten

February 13, 2017

A pat conversion of Pius XIII the dashing fundamentalist dictator into Pope Lenny the Kinder Gentler Catholic would be a lie; it would say, falsely, that only art about people who reflect our values can itself reflect our values, or that only art about empathetic people can have an empathetic message. Better to grapple with contradictions and flaws, with the hard-to-swallow and the tough-to-bear….The Pope is still the same smug bastard he started as. He could well be crazy. But in his presence, characters feel God’s presence. Couldn’t he be a madman and a mystic, a sociopath and a saint all rolled into one?

As the Holy Father himself puts it, “Goodness, unless it’s combined with imagination, runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism.” The Young Pope trusts our imagination – our ability to handle its narrative leaps, cinematic risks and characters with views far different from our own – and has faith that we’ll see the goodness all the clearer for it. That’s where its greatness lies.

Amen.

The Young Pope is/was a masterpiece. I reviewed its season finale for Rolling Stone. The aspect of the show discussed above is very important to me.

“The Young Pope” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine

February 13, 2017

Mincing words is the last thing Pope Pius XIII would want us to do here, so we’ll say it plain: Tonight’s episode of The Young Pope is absolutely magnificent. It juggles the climaxes of two major storylines, either of which could command an entire hour on their own, as effortlessly as the Holy Father juggles oranges. Whether it’s Cardinal Gutierrez trying to bring down the abusive Archbishop Kurtwell or Pius making peace with the dying Cardinal Spencer, every image feels deeply considered. Every character is full and fleshed out. Not a moment is wasted. Not an emotional punch is pulled.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Young Pope, one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen, for Rolling Stone. This is a show for the ages.

“Legion” thoughts, Season One, Episode One

February 13, 2017

Take one of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchises. Combine it with one of the breakout auteurs of the Peak TV era. Drop it in the middle of a very crowded, yet largely undistinguished, field of competitors. “Legion,” the stylistically bold new X-Men spinoff from the “Fargo” showrunner, Noah Hawley, is designed to cause a sensation. Given the superhero genre’s odd combination of cultural omnipresence and cinematic anemia, it’s hard for it not to.

For all their reliance on feats of derring-do, superhero films and TV shows are, creatively speaking, a risk-averse lot. Since director Bryan Singer’s first “X-Men” film inaugurated the genre’s pop-culture hegemony nearly 17 years ago, precious little variety in tone or technique has been permitted by the major spandex factories.

Marvel, home of The Avengers, relies on a house style that coasts on the charisma of its attractive casts but has all the visual and sonic flair of an ibuprofen commercial. Its rival, DC, switched from making sometimes dull movies for smart teenagers (Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy) to often dull movies for dumb ones (Zack Snyder’s Superman/Batman films and the egregious “Suicide Squad”). On television, “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” and especially producer Greg Berlanti’s various DC properties have some zip, but no more genuine ambition than a syndicated ’90s action series. Marvel’s Netflix series are a step in the right direction. “Daredevil,” “Jessica Jones” and “Luke Cage” take relative risks with their moody visual palettes and their pairings of strong leads with idiosyncratic enemies who function like coprotagonists.

So there’s some precedent for “Legion,” the new superhero-ish series tangentially tied to the X-Men franchise from the writer, director and showrunner Noah Hawley. But for its true antecedents you have to search further back in the superhero timeline, to Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s stylish and self-aware “Batman” series from the late ‘60s. Or you could simply look at Hawley’s previous act of televised alchemy: “Fargo,” an anthology series in which the Coen Brothers’ Midwestern-noir classic is used as a springboard for a bold, bloody, often beautiful homage to their entire oeuvre. Perhaps in a desire to transform Hawley into an auteur-impresario in the style of Ryan Murphy or Louis C.K., FX, their shared network, tapped him to guide their all-important first foray into pop culture’s most lucrative zone.

In “Legion,” Hawley takes pages from his own “Fargo” playbook. The ostentatious use of classic rock on the soundtrack, scene and spatial transitions that call attention to themselves with graphic design or camera trickery, the sense (borrowed from the Coens) that reality is a sheet of thin ice that could crack and immerse you in the chaos beneath at any moment. It’s as fearless a creative statement as the genre has seen since Tim Burton’s original “Batman” movie in 1989. Whether it’s successful is yet to be decided.

I reviewed last week’s premiere of Legion for the New York Times, where I’ll be covering the show all season. Visually and tonally it was sharp; script-wise it was creaky as heck.

“The Path” thoughts, Season Two, Episode Four: “The Red Wall”

February 8, 2017

“Making sense” appears to be low on the show’s list of priorities at the moment. Take Eddie’s storyline, which finds him in the hospital recuperating from…well, it’s not entirely clear what. Alcohol poisoning? Alcohol allergies? Getting coldcocked? Having some kind of PTSD episode? All of the above? Whatever’s ailing him, it somehow nets him a room of his own and an overnight stay instead of a few hours of tedium and half-assed care behind a curtain in an overcrowded ER. It also lands him a hospital doctor who takes off his restraints the moment she’s asked — I guess no one’s pressing charges over the fight he instigated with casino security? — and who has plenty of time to spare talking Eddie through the reentry process after leaving a cult. She also rains prescriptions down on him like she’s Drake throwing money on stage at King of Diamonds, which makes it official: It’s easier for an ex-cult victim hospitalized for drunken violence to get an Ambien scrip than it is for me, dammit.

What’s more, he has the doting attention of not one but two comically beautiful women who literally leave their children someplace to take care of him instead: Sarah, his ex, and Chloe, his current girlfriend. Sarah begs Eddie to return to Meyerism to be with his family and get the only treatment she feels can help him. Chloe stays at his bedside and then takes him home, instructing him on how to take his pills like she’s his mom. All this despite the fact that Eddie’s vocabulary has basically been reduced to variations on “Yeah, I, uh, um, I just don’t/can’t…” Eddie theorizes that Chloe is trying to save him because she couldn’t save his brother, which is as good an explanation for her devotion as any; god knows she’s not getting any romance or affection in return, any more than Sarah’s getting a decent partner and father.

The Path is in serious trouble. I reviewed this week’s episode for Decider.

“Taboo” thoughts, Episode Five

February 8, 2017

Look out, London: There’s a new man in charge. No, not James Keziah Delaney — he’s pretty much doing the same things he always does. I mean behind the camera. Here at the halfway mark of Taboo’s eight-episode run, director Anders Engström takes the reins from Kristoffer Nyholm, who helmed the show’s first four installments. It’s not exactly a whole new ballgame, but now it’s much more tempting to stay through the final few innings to see how Taboo ends.

Although he retains cinematographer Mark Patten, who shot all eight episodes, Engström nevertheless brings a new crispness and clarity to the show’s look. Nyholm relied on alternating muddy realism with nightmarish surrealism; the result was a murky mess that offered little in the way of arresting imagery no matter which side of the divide a given scene or shot landed. By contrast, Engstrom makes the muck a little brighter and more fantastical, and gives the dreamlike sequences more solidity, improving the power of both.

Take the early scene in which Delaney returns home from his duel. He and Lorna Bow decide to take their egg breakfast outside, and eat it while sitting on heaps of driftwood, rock, and rotted dockworks covered in lush green moss. A few episodes ago, we’d have seen nothing but mud out there; now everything’s as emerald as a shot from John Boorman’s Excalibur. The color palette really makes Lorna’s red dress pop — a scarlet slash across the screen that befits her wild-card spirit and status. A later shot of Delaney riding his white horse across a verdant green landscape takes a similarly striking approach.

Last night, Taboo got a new director and suddenly got much better. Coincidence? Beats me, but I reviewed it for Vulture.

“Taboo” thoughts, Episode Four

February 8, 2017

Tonight, Taboo lives up to its name. To a fault. As if adhering to some arcane contract it had signed with the East India Company — “Taboo may show all the ultraviolence and sexual assault it desires, but only beginning with episode four” — the show suddenly let loose with an awful torrent of torture, rape, attempted rape, murder, and disembowelment. It’s a bloodbath in a world where no one bathes.

That’s not all: The episode’s nonviolent but otherwise quite eye-melting events include gratuitous sex scenes, gratuitous oral sex scenes, incestuous invisible sex scenes, the large-scale smuggling of prostitute urine, horny aristocrats on nitrous oxide, and a guy who eats not one but two different kinds of animal feces. Peak TV, baby!

Forgot to link to it at the time, but I reviewed last week’s Taboo for Vulture as well. It wasn’t good, which made this week’s somewhat better episode a mildly pleasant surprise.

“The Young Pope” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight

February 8, 2017

It was the best of Popes, it was the worst of Popes. Tonight’s episode contained both individual shots and lengthy segments that are as successful as anything the HBO show has put on screen so far – but it’s also the first installment of the series that feels like a substantial failure. It’s oddly appropriate: The storyline, in which Pope Pius XIII exits his comfort zone by leaves the cozy confines of his papal palaces and travels abroad to meet his public, is the one in which co-writer/director Paolo Sorrentino wanders off course himself.

I reviewed Monday’s episode of The Young Pope, the first I felt had major (or, really, any) flaws, for Rolling Stone. 

“The Young Pope” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven

February 8, 2017

“Betrayest thou the Son of Man with a kiss?” This was the incredulous question Jesus posed to Judas in the garden of Gesthemane, the night His follower-slash-frenemy ratted him out with a telltale smooch. After tonight’s episode of The Young Pope, we’ve got a feeling Pope Pius XIII knows how the Good Lord felt. No, Sister Mary didn’t lock lips with her former ward – even for a show this Oedipally fixated, that would be a bridge too far. But her desperate attempt to end his disastrous reign was no less intimate.

Using a piece of the tobacco pipe that the elder deadbeat Belardo left with his son Lenny on the day the boy was deserted at her orphanage, the nun hired actors to impersonate the Holy Father’s mom and pop. Her hope was that the fulfillment of his lifelong dream of reuniting with his parents would leave him so shaken that he could be bamboozled by his cardinals into resigning his office. O she of little faith! As we learn throughout the hour, Lenny was already well on his way to arriving at that decision all on his own.

I reviewed Sunday’s sordid and sad episode of The Young Pope for Rolling Stone.