Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’

“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.

“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.

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

January 31, 2017

Send cardinals, nuns, and money – the shit has hit the fan.

Nine months after Pope Pius XIII announced his intention to rule the Catholic Church with an iron fist (wearing a red velvet glove covered in gold rings, natch), the effects of his fundamentalist fervor are being felt far and wide. August officials are dropping dead in the cafeteria. Renegade mystics are disappearing. Church pews are quite literally collapsing. Police are investigating and the priesthood is being purged. Jimmy crack corn, and the Young Pope doesn’t care.

Sex, suicide, cigarette-sharing, suspicious disappearances, slippery babies—I reviewed all the shenanigans on last night’s The Young Pope for Rolling Stone.

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

January 31, 2017

…the high point is the address to the College of Cardinals, an act of absolutely unsurpassed arrogance and imperial menace. To the visible and audible shock of the assembly, the Pope is carried into the Sistine Chapel on a throne, carried on the shoulders of a dozen priests. Fan-bearers flank him like an actual Roman emperor. His costumery is so ornate and massive that he’s all but immobile in it, his head pivoting and malevolent eyes twinkling amid the mountain of cloth and gold like a character out of Alice in Wonderland.

His speech is a dictatorial masterpiece: an outright call to his brother cardinals to purge the Church of all but its most fanatical followers, to act as aloof and above the unfaithful masses as God Himself. It’s one of the greatest speeches in TV history, placed at the apex of the best television episode of the year. And it ends with a display of outright dominance: Pius extends his foot, and one by one, his mentor Cardinal Spencer, his best friend Cardinal Dussolier, and his defeated nemesis Cardinal Voiello come forward to kiss it. He is the Young Pope. Bow down.

I reviewed Sunday’s The Young Pope, the best episode of television I’ve seen in months, for Rolling Stone. I literally cried tears of joy and delight watching this thing.

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

January 24, 2017

It’s not TV. It’s The Young Pope.

We hope HBO will pardon our repurposing of their famous catchphrase for the sake of celebrating what creator Paolo Sorrentino, star Jude Law and everyone else involved in this extraordinary pulp-prestige TV project have wrought. But hey, if the slogan fits, wear it. Flip the channels or scroll through the streaming services all you want, but you won’t find anything like this. Its combination of tightly controlled tone with beautifully bizarre flights of fancy and absolutely colossal camp stands alone. It’s Hannibal for lapsed Catholics.

I reviewed last night’s episode of The Young Pope for Rolling Stone. It was excellent as always. But let me tell you this: Nothing can prepare you for next Sunday’s episode. I literally wept tears of joy.

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

January 23, 2017

Next up is the opening credit sequence that launched a thousand fan tumblrs. As an instrumental version of “All Along the Watchtower” plays, Pius walks in slow motion past a series of famous religious paintings as a comet soars through the sky in each of them, tracing his progress. (This is a symbol dating back to one of the Medici popes, Clement VII, and is said to indicate either great good or great misfortune.) With a shit-eating grin on his face and the credits emblazoned in flickering neon blue on the wall behind him, he eventually turns directly to the viewer … and winks. Nothing is sacred here, not even the fourth wall. At the end of his stroll, he passes a life-sized statue of beloved Pope John Paul II, which is then promptly bowled over by the now-extinguished comet. (This is itself a sculpture called “La Nona Ora (The Night Hour)” by artist Maurizio Cattelan.) Eat meteor, JPII!

I reviewed tonight’s marvelous episode of The Young Pope for Rolling Stone.

The 25 Most Anticipated TV Shows of 2017

January 19, 2017

TWIN PEAKS

Showtime, May 21

“I’ll see you again in 25 years”: Ok, so the ghost of Laura Palmer may have wound up being off by a year or so when she uttered these immortal words to Agent Dale Cooper. But hey, better late than never. As it stands, the return of David Lynch and Mark Frosts’s seminal small-town–noir series – arguably the most influential show for TV’s New Golden Age – will pick up with much of the original cast, including Kyle MacLachlan as Coop and Sherilyn Fenn as Audrey Horne, in tow; everyone from Laura Dern to Trent Reznor and Eddie Vedder are slated for cameos. The original Peaks was both heartbreakingly empathetic and pants-pissingly scary; there’s no reason to expect the Lynch-directed Season Three won’t follow suit. STC

I wrote about Twin Peaks, Game of Thrones, Fargo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Iron Fist and more for Rolling Stone’s list of the 25 Most Anticipated TV Shows of 2017.

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

January 17, 2017

That’s the beauty of The Young Pope: Like all truly great television shows, it trusts its audience enough to risk alienating us. What will people make of this episode’s most bizarre scene, in which Pius supernaturally soothes a savage … kangaroo? It’s so truly, madly, deeply odd, and showrunner Paolo Sorrentino has no interest in softening the blow. You make your peace with an exquisitely campy series about a chain-smoking homophobic tyrant who looks to the band behind “Get Lucky” and “One More Time” for stylistic inspiration; who was raised by a nun who thinks he’s a saint but wears a t-shirt reading “I’m a Virgin, but This Is an Old Shirt” to bed; and who can calm rogue Australian wildlife like, as Voiello puts it in his thick Italian accent, “Saint Francis of-a Sydney.” Or you don’t. If the meme-able moments make it all sound silly, well, remember when an O.J. Simpson show from the creator of Glee starring John Travolta, David Schwimmer, and Cuba Gooding Jr. sounded silly, too? We rest our case.

I reviewed the second episode of The Young Pope, which was just as marvelous as the first, for Rolling Stone.

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

January 15, 2017

“We have forgotten to masturbate!”

So proclaims Pope Pius XIII to the adoring throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square to hear the first homily of his papacy. Yet when it comes to the jaw-dropping moments in the premiere episode of The Young Pope, the Holy Father’s ode to onanism barely even makes the Top 10.

Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino kicks off his highly anticipated series with the surreal dream-image of the new pope emerging from a literal mountain of dead and dying babies. He follows it up with not one but two shots of the pontiff’s bare ass before we’re five minutes in. The smug religious leader then slo-mo struts through a teeming crowd of priests, nuns and cardinals whose multi-colored garb looks might like something out of Game of Thrones‘ – if they weren’t, you know, what Catholic clergy really wear. He has a split-second flashback to seeing a topless woman in his youth. He looks up and hey, there’s a water cooler lit like it’s a visitor from God. His adoring underlings form stunning tableaux in shot after shot, like something out of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video. He glides to the balcony to give his speech as if attached to the camera, like Harvey Keitel when he gets loaded in Mean Streets. A graphic overlay of black bars slowly spread across the screen, emblazoned with the series’ title. His lunatic grin is the only thing that’s visible.

Pius XIII takes the proverbial stage to the screams of thousands, arms outstretched like a rock star, grinning and gesticulating like his name was Monsignor Mussolini. Rain clouds are parted with a wave of his hands, and out comes the sun. Then, with a gorgeously old-fashioned zoom-in and drum buildup, he drops that masturbation line, the first explosion in a carpet-bombing campaign of unorthodoxy: Why not have extramarital sex, gay marriage, nuns saying mass? In reaction, shocked prelates collapse backwards in unison like they’re in the final panel of a gag cartoon. Panicked priests run through the Vatican halls, screaming for help. Only the intervention of his second-in-command, summarily firing him from the papacy, tips the show’s hand that this was just a dream.

But when this young Pope, a 47-year-old American named Lenny Belardo and played by Jude Law, wakes up from his nightmare, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. On the contrary, the twist works like a charm, because everything here – from the writing to the cinematography, the score to the performances – is honest-to-God dreamy. The show does the same thing its title character is supposed to do as the leader of the Catholic Church: It provides a breath of madcap fresh air in a dreary, homogeneous TV season.

I reviewed The Young Pope’s fucking fabulous series premiere for Rolling Stone, where I’ll be covering the show all season.

2017 Golden Globes: The Official Drinking Game

January 10, 2017

Better late than never, I guess? Here’s a link to the drinking game I helped write for Rolling Stone to make the Golden Globes more tolerable. I think you’d have gotten pretty loaded.

2017 Golden Globes: What Will Win, What Should Win

January 4, 2017

Best TV Series (Drama)
The Crown
Game of Thrones
Stranger Things
This Is Us
Westworld

WILL WIN: The Globes’ TV patterns are difficult to predict, but it’s rare to award a series with its first trophy deep into its run. So while it’s possible that Game of Thrones‘ historic “Battle of the Bastards” season could snag an outlier win, our money is on the HFPA giving the nod to rookie (and network) domestic drama This Is Us.

SHOULD WIN: With enough Emmy gold under its belt to ransom the Iron Throne itself, and deservedly so, Game of Thrones‘ epic recent run easily defeats the competition.

ROBBED: Where do we begin? The Affair, The Americans, Better Call Saul, Empire, Halt and Catch Fire, Horace and Pete, House of Cards, Mr. Robot, Narcos – all of these past nominees or worthy applicants got the cold shoulder. Of the group, Mr. Robot arguably had the boldest and best season.

Over at Rolling Stone I predicted the winners, losers, shoulda-beens, also-rans, and snubs of this year’s Golden Globes. As is always the case when I do prediction pieces, I am right and I will be proved right. Don’t @ me.

Why ‘Rogue One’ Is a Better ‘Star Wars’ Movie Than ‘The Force Awakens’

December 20, 2016

Think back to Force‘s major settings and story beats. The three planets on which the bulk of the action take place – Jakku, Takodana and Starkiller Base – evoke the desert, forest, and arctic landscapes of the original trilogy’s Tattooine, Endor and Hoth, respectively. The story centers on a young adult stranded in a sandy world, awakening to their Force-dictated potential in the face of opposition from a black-masked wielder of the Dark Side, with Rey and Kylo Ren taking the place of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Tentacled menaces threaten our heroes, with Han Solo’s captured Rathtars standing in for A New Hope‘s dianoga and Return of the Jedi‘s Sarlacc. Dangerous dogfights and narrow escapes dominate the action sequences, as they did in The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope. Good guys attempt to blow up a superweapon by finding its secret weakness, a plot point so familiar that Solo himself cracks a joke about it. The hugely entertaining performances of relative newcomers Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, best-of-their-generation contenders Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver, and even lions-in-winter Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher may disguise it, but in artistic terms, this is a very conservative film.

By contrast, Rogue One looks like an alien life form. No snow. No forest. Some sand, but mostly as the surroundings for Jedha, as teeming a city as the series has shown us since the prequels’ skyscraping metropolis of Coruscant. No edge-of-your-seat dogfights and “yahoo!” escape sequences – the only thing these characters escape is death, and then only briefly. There’s a tentacled monster, but it’s used as a method of “enhanced interrogation” rather than presented as an apex predator. The goal of the final fleet-on-fleet battle isn’t to destroy a superweapon, but simply to run interference so the method to destroy said superweapon can be smuggled out of storage and preserved until the time comes. Most importantly, none of the major new characters – whether they are one with the Force or in the service of its Dark Side – are men and women of destiny … because none of them, literally none of them, survive the end of the film. As far as survival and celebration are concerned, this thing makes Empire look like Jedi. It’s doing something no other Star Wars film has ever done: depicting the life and death of everyone who sacrificed so the Skywalkers, their friends and their foes could decide the fate of the galaxy.

Rogue One crammed in so much Star Wars fanservice—how did it still feel fresher than The Force Awakens? I tried to answer this question for Rolling Stone. I note in the piece that this is not to argue Rogue One is necessarily a successful film, just that it’s its own film in a way The Force Awakens isn’t.

The 20 Best TV Characters of 2016

December 20, 2016

Dr. Robert Ford, ‘Westworld’

Smile, and smile, and be a villain. As the co-founder and chief narrative architect of the Westworld theme park, Dr. Robert Ford is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare; he’d recognize Hamlet’s description of evil every time he looked in the mirror. Or would he? As played by Anthony Hopkins, who taps the quiet menace he mined so effectively decades ago as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, Ford spends the bulk of the HBO hit’s first season manipulating and murdering everyone, human or android, who threatens his control. But late-game twists hint at an even more disturbing truth behind Ford’s highly erudite villainy, this time one out of Nietzsche: To fight monsters, is it necessary to become a monster yourself?

I wrote about Cottonmouth, the Punisher, Agent Dom DiPierro, Sarah Wittel, Detective Dennis Box, and Dr. Robert Ford for Rolling Stone’s list of the 20 best new TV characters of the year.

The 10 Best Horror Movies of 2016

December 16, 2016

A shape-shifter, a baby-killer, a forest predator who communes with the Devil himself – the title character of Robert Eggers’ Puritan “folk tale” is a Satanic hag of the first order. And when this monster gets her claws into a 17th-century New England family excommunicated by their righteous religious neighbors, it feels less like a cathartic comeuppance for old-world bible-thumpers and more like a vicious assault on people trying their best to live and love in an unforgiving world.

I tag-teamed with my aptly named editor David Fear on a write-up for The Witch in Rolling Stone’s list of the year’s 10 Best Horror Movies.

“Westworld” thoughts, Season One, Episode Ten: “The Bicameral Mind”

December 5, 2016

SPOILER ALERT

We’ve reached the center of the Maze. It’s not a physical location, a place in the park where the safety catch comes off and the guests can play for keeps. It’s a metaphor for consciousness, the inward journey required for an android to become truly alive. In the case of Dolores, it’s also the downward spiral to her buried identity, i.e. Wyatt, the genocidal maniac destined to create a new robot-friendly world from the human blood of the old.

But tonight’s movie-length season finale – “The Bicameral Mind” – proves that the Maze isn’t such a bad image for the show itself. For all its faults, Westworld‘s first season wasn’t an affront or a disaster. There’s enough entertainment value in each episode, particularly if you just so happen to enjoy sci-fi thrillers, no matter how skeptical you are of their overall philosophical or dramatic merit. But the journey from the starting point to the center of it all reveals just how distant “enjoyable” can be from, you know, good. Right up to the end, the show’s inaugural season was watchable – and ultimately dismissible.

I reviewed last night’s season finale of Westworld for Rolling Stone. Like I said, it was never a show I dreaded watching — I was never like “oh god, here we go, time to watch another fucking Westworld,” you know? I actually kind of looked forward to it each time. I just never looked backward to it afterwards.

Anyway, as I try to explain in the review, the show succeeded best as a straightforward genre thriller and foundered in its attempts to be more than that. In terms of the twists and revelations, the problem was less their existence and more the simultaneously slovenly and byzantine way in which the storylines that led to them unfolded. Basic structural stuff.

“Westworld” thoughts, Season One, Episode Nine: “The Well-Tempered Clavier”

November 28, 2016

It’s not the content that’s to blame for the episode’s shortcomings, but the delivery mechanism. From start to finish, the hour’s events move in fits and starts, with the herky-jerky rhythm of a malfunctioning host. How else could it work, when nearly all its focal-point characters are constantly moving in and out of awareness? Teddy wakes up from being shot with an arrow, then is promptly killed again. The Man in Black watches all of this smugly, until he gets knocked out; the next morning he realizes he’s about to get hanged from a tree courtesy of a noose and a skittish horse. He narrowly escapes, but only to have his narrative stopped in its tracks once again by a visit from Charlotte Hale, one of his fellow members of the park’s board of directors. Logan torments his estranged brother-in-law-to-be and Dolores until the latter escapes and the former pretends to forgive him. Cue the smirking asshole waking up the next morning with all his robotic Confederado comrades massacred and the born-again-hard William firmly in charge.

The self-aware hosts go through even more fake-outs and double-backs. Dolores shifts back and forth between locations, time periods, and states of consciousness so frequently that it’s impossible to keep track of – deliberately so, but that doesn’t prevent it from undercutting the emotional impact of her discovery that she murdered her maker. And poor Bernard splits his time between getting switched on and off by Maeve and Ford on the one hand, and being jolted in and out of his robotic consciousness and memories. Many of said memories involve killing other characters, like Theresa and Elsie, just to add to the staccato storyline. Sometimes he’s not Bernard at all, but Arnold … or at least Dolores’s deep-rooted memory of him. His Doctor-ordered suicide at the end of the episode comes as sweet relief after the mindfucks he’s been through. When the storyline that suffers the fewest interruptions of this sort (i.e. Maeve’s rebellious arc) involves our heroine breaking down a fellow robot’s mind before deliberately burning them both to death en flagrante delecto, you know things have gotten way too complicated.

Add it all up and it’s like watching a version of The Usual Suspects in which both Chazz Palmintieri and Kevin Spacey’s characters are constantly getting hit in the head with a baseball bat. (And are then forced to try and pick up the story where they left off hours later.) There’s just no way for it to sustain momentum, tension, or suspense – let alone make its plot twists and shocking revelations work properly – when every character is so busy just trying to stay sentient and upright.

Never mind the plot twists—last night’s Westworld had more concrete storytelling problems, as I discuss in my review for Rolling Stone.

“Westworld” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “Trace Decay”

November 21, 2016

The episode is less persuasive when it shifts its gaze from the robot mind to the human one. Before Ford wipes his secret android minion Bernard’s memories of his murder of, and relationship with, Theresa Cullen, the perplexed ‘bot asks his maker what separates his pain and experiences from that of a normal person. If all of this stuff ultimately exists in the brain and nowhere else, who’s to say where the line is drawn between the stuff of life and the merely “lifelike”? Noting that his old frenemy Arnold was tormented by the same question, the Doctor dismisses it. There is no difference, he says, because human consciousness is just as much an illusion as that of the hosts. We too are locked in loops and routines, rarely challenging our drives and desires, perfectly happy to follow orders. The only difference between machine and man is that the latter can at least be aware of his plight, and holds the remote control over the former.

Which is true, so far as it goes, but that’s not very far at all. The question of “what makes us truly human” has always been one of the least interesting ones science fiction asks because the answer is all around us. Love, happiness, suffering, memory, anticipation – even if they’re all just part of our brains’ core code, it’s the only code we have. It’s not as if we’re living a lie when we experience these things, since there’s no way to access any other deeper “truth” about reality. False or not, our consciousness is inescapable. No matter how much Ford sneers about it as he uses his iPad or whatever to reprogram his Frankenstein’s monster, it doesn’t give him, or us, an escape route.

Westworld the genre thriller > Westworld the serious-business philosophy vehicle: I reviewed tonight’s episode for Rolling Stone.

“Westworld” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Trompe L’Oeil”

November 14, 2016

SPOILER ALERT

For sheer entertainment value, the biggest shift isn’t in Bernard, but his creator. Nearly a quarter-century after his star turn as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs — a role he revisited twice, to diminishing returns, amid a virtual buffet of ham-based entries on his IMDB page — it’s easy to forget just how menacingly minimal Anthony Hopkins can be. The “I ate his liver” speech and the face-peeling shenanigans have the biggest pop-culture footprint, of course. But his Hannibal was at his most ominous when he was standing still, the ghost of a smile on his face and fire in his eyes, quietly tearing people to mental shreds with just his words.

The brilliance of his take on that iconic killer is visible in Ford’s full-fledged heel turn. Gone is the cryptic old-man-of-the-mesa routine, dispensing wit and wisdom in a bemused British accent. In his place is a stone-cold lunatic, and if Bernard’s very existence is any indication, he’s been mad as a hatter for literally decades. Staring into that face — which is positioned almost, but not quite, to look directly into the camera, a la Lambs‘ Lecter v. Clarice conversations — you can feel hope evaporate in the heat of his squinty glare. This guy’s too smart, to prepared, too ruthless, and too insanely dedicated to his mad project to possibly be beaten in the basement of his own sanctum sanctorum. It takes Ms. Cullen longer to realize this than it takes us, and the Doctor has no patience with it: The look of combined boredom, impatience, and condescension as he watches her try to call for help is a thing of dark delight. The brutal murder that follows is almost an afterthought; you could see her death reflected in his eyes long before he gave his robotic right-hand man the order. You wanted an “adversary”? You’ve got one.

SHOCKING REVELATION: Westworld works best as a straightforward genre thriller. I reviewed this week’s episode for Rolling Stone.