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Month: March 2017

The Young Pope #5 (2016)

I Am Sexy And I Know It

Most series reaching midway experience an air hole, usually punctuated by the second best cliffhanger of the season; not this one. Asking a incongruous but simple question: “How easy is it to be God?”, Episode 5 mixes obedience and perversity in Sorrentino’s equally imperious and empathetic way: this Pope’s puzzle gets a prominent missing piece with the arrival of his tiara from America, and as the master of symbols that both character and director are, this milestone in Pius XIII’s pontificate reverses power dynamics in the Holy Father’s dance with Cardinal Voiello. Also, the long-belated address to the Curia starts on techno within the Sistine Chapel, in full regalia. Once again, one pictures Fellini smiling wildly wherever he is now. Bless bim.

There are even less ways than ever to anticipate what will pop up next in the series’ plot; power shifts continuously, as power does, in an exhausting game only monsters with a mission can uphold. The Holy Father’s confessor, in one of their rooftop nightwatches, seems pretty much drained of any energy by now, zombified by apocalyptic views. He’s the Pope’s confidante, and what he has to hear about Pius XIII’s intended revolution casts a godly fear on his soul. Well, that was the intention, wasn’t it?

Savantly amalgamating past and present, this episode, including its vaporetto prologue, reveals a bit more about the Pope’s childhood, meaning not much. Apart from admirable editing, there is a life lesson to be studied here: if you can take the boy out of the orphanage, you can’t take the orphanage out of the boy. Its constraints are indeed unlimited, as proven by Pius XIII and his brother’s brief visit to a hotel lobby resulting in a hooker taking his picture on a cellphone. This Pope is definitely a strange Pope.

Utterly terrifying dialogue resonates within the Holy See. “I want great love stories for God. I want fanatics for God. Because fanaticism is love.” is the essence of the Pope’s address to the cardinals. He’s updating the Word, the way some other holy dignitaries reshapes another one. There is a suicide bomber in the Vatican, and you can’t miss him, as he’s the one wearing the apostolic tiara in the Sistine Chapel.

Cardinal Spencer, having been broken down to smithereens of faith, is the first one to bow to the Pope’s will, and he’s followed by Voiello, in a holy/kinky sub/dom seance following an equally weird seduction scene turned fertility prayer lensed by Church-sanctioned paparazzi. One should apologise for taking so much time for reviewing The Young Pope’s first season; but there is so much to take in that taking the scenic road really is one’s only option.

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Assassin’s Creed (2016)

Steve Jobs: The Untold Story

One remembers watching the first Assassin’s Creed demo in 2007 and being wooed by its visuals and its cinematic fluidity. The fact that 10 years later none of the movie even approximately approximates this cinematic level speaks volumes about Hollywood’s conflicting marketing unability to make anything out of anything. As a movie, Assassin’s Creed is almost entirely unwatchable; as a game-inspired movie, its makes a nice bookend with Doom; as a game-inspired movie franchise, it’s dead on arrival.

Should one bother with the story? The prologue establishes that the hero’s father killed the hero’s mother because the hero’s blood was not theirs. And one more for blood purity, a worrying concern for recent alleged blockbusters. Ensues a life of crime after which Michael Fassbender, looking suspiciously handsome, clean-shaven and muscular for a prisoner on Death Row, is executed by the State, only to be ressuscitated by Marion Godzilla. Amply provided with absurd lines by the script, she warns him “You are about to enter the Animus”. There are three know modes for Miss Cotillard: ordinary girl, in which she excels, fabricated heroin, for which she has star power, and vilain’s daughter in auto-pilot. Unfortunately, she’s in full gear third mode here.

She’s “protectress of the Apple” because, see, “the Apple is everything”. Or something. And one more for questionning the nature of reality, thanks to bogus X-ray science she developped in a secret laboratory by peering once or twice in a microscope, surrounded by fake stone pillars, dusty files and glassboxes full of antiques – which surprisingly enough, won’t get smashed this time around. Not that there are no ninjas around, though.

Twenty per cent of the movie shows a CGI eagle flying over CGI nothing while CGI bloodless massacre occurs. Filters vary wildly, and there’s is enough lense flare to suspect JJ Abrams was involved in the production. The insistance of motion capture during the contemporary scenes makes the thing look and feel like a behing the scene documentary of the game’s conception, while the horrendously edited period scenes have all the dramatic impact of an epileptic fit in a smoke machine. Late into the movie, someone utters “Commencing regression”, and it’s much, much too late an awakening of conscience.

Bless the damned thing for a one minute scene opposing Jeremy Irons (who spends half the duration of the movie looking into the abyss, maybe reminiscing the time when he got interesting roles in good movies, and doubtlessly waiting to cash his check) and Charlotte Rampling, who would make any under-written villain interesting. Michael Fassbender looks hot without a shirt on. Godzilla looks lovely with short hair. And last but not least, the line “Steak for the pioneer!” is a valuable entry in our ongoing contest for the most ridiculous line of 2016. Utterly avoidable.

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The OA (2016)

The One Thousand And Five Nights Or So

There are three ways to watch The OA. The first is to dismiss it after a couple of episodes due to its slow pace, obfuscating plot and its deliberate imbrication of stories within stories. The second is to be taken by its “Stranger Things for adults” atmosphere and let yourself go captive of its 1001 nights structure, listening to its Sheherazade and hoping the tale will never end.

The third starts like the second, until the 40′ mark or so of Episode 5, when like one you are snapped away from ensuavement by a Pina Baush dance routine which might or might not open a door to another dimension. This is the point when you cover your mouth with your hand and lament “Oh no, Brad Pitt, please no!”. For Mr Pitt has produced the Brit Marlin’s debut as a writer, and she’s an actress with an obvious dancing background. And if there is a line to be drawn somewhere, this line clearly separates supernatural fiction from interpretative dance, or interpretative dance from anything else, really. Some hazardous stuff just requires tight containment.

What happened in the mind of people writing such a script is pretty clear. It is a pretty smart Stephen King rip-off, including the shocking finale which elegantly but ludicrously wraps up the whole affair. What happened in the mind of the rather talented actors who contributed, and whose shoulders bravely carry the crashing weight of said script, is pretty clear too, as most of them are given a bravoury turn. What happened in the mind of whoever directed the eight episode is clearly onscreen, with some very good visual ideas and some flair for human interaction. What happened in the mind of whoever supported Mr Pitt in this endeavour is beyond one.

Spoiler alert: near the end of the series, Prairie (yes, that’s her name), a beatific expression on her face, reveals to her adoptive mother that she’s “the original angel” and her mother slaps her in the face, hard. It is as hard not to “Yeah!” to the screen, the character, and Alice Krige in general, who does a splendid job pretending to care for the pain in the neck that is Prairie for seven episodes in a row. Really, that thing is dumbfounding. Once again, whoever thought it was a good idea to mix Mr King’s trademark convergence of misfits in search of a greater good with Usual Suspects, then sprinkle the result with interpretative dance for dramatic and resurrectional effect is beyond therapy: the result is a chimera which obviously thinks quite highly of itself and a terminal case of ridicule.

One honestly doesn’t know if the series is worth following to witness the moment when the wheels come off the wagon in such a spectacular fashion or if staying away from it is a better option. For this memorable brand of indecision, The OA is indeed worth of a review, but you’d better go for it after yoga and a gluten-free meal, with your chakras wide open and ready to let yourself go in a trance. Then you will enjoy shaking your arms, hissing in unison and swallowing your hand and, oh. Some things just can’t be unseen.

In retrospect, there might be a simple explaination for the whole thing:

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The Girl On The Train (2016)

Hitchcockiana

The thing with Hitchcock is rather simple: he was a formalist and a control freak without much empathy. Show one a fully fleshed character in his entire oeuvre and one will show you a liar: they’re all puppets serving his vision. There are therefore two possible paths when copycating / paying hommage to him: the formal way, which Brian de Palma had some success with, although he was too much of a Catholic, giallo-raised Italian to do more than mimicking a repressed English Protestant; or the “inspirational” way, which equates to placing “real” people in Sir Alfred’s trademark tricky situations. And this simply can’t work, because the absurdity of the plot then takes centerstage and backfires on the characters, making them caricatures of “real” people. Exhibit 2016 is The Girl On The Train.

An awkward mix of The Lady Vanishes, Rear Window, Spellbound and Suspicion, the movie stars Emily Blunt (good, and blessed with an even better eyesight) as commuter Rachel, vicariously living a perfect life through Megan, a woman she watches on her way to and back from the city, who seems the embodiement of bliss with her blonde looks, big house and handsome husband. The day she glimpses Megan in the arms of another man sends her into a downward spiral of alcohol-fueled rage and further enhances her aptitude at stalking her ex-husband (Justin Theroux, bland) and his new wife, Anna, who gave him the child he always dreamed of after Rachel proved to be barren, rhubard rhubarb rhubarb. Are we twisted enough yet?

One fateful night Rachel has a few too many and wakes up in a confusion of blood, vomit and cryptic flashbacks from a convenient blackout. Megan has been killed and Rachel becomes The Wrong Man (well, woman in that instance), which at least has the advantage of bringing on Allison Jeanney as a surprisingly understanding cop (she must have read the script). Twists and turns ensue, until a finale which might surprise you if you have never seen a thriller before, but earns a few brownie points for a corkscrew murder – call it alcoholic justice.

Build as a 21st century TV series, with the action jumping backwards and forward via title cards, including ones introducing the female leads by their first name, The Girl On The Train is not bad at putting together in a bell jar a bunch of parasites unable to feed from each other, and that’s quite about it. Rachel the wacko tries “to remember when was the last time she had meaningful contact with anyone”, which sounds a rather quaint way to qualify her situation. Also, she’s an alcoholic for the exact time the script needs her to be, after which a brief AA meeting allows her to breeze through the programme’s 12 steps in order to ask herself meaningful questions of the “do you ever really know anyone else?” kind. Oh, rutabaga.

Don’t miss the ginger haired Red Herring or the analysed-by-numbers shrink scenes, shoehorned into what should have sticked to an unreliable witness tale of frustration and depression, or a dream, or a ghost story, or a split personnality case, or whatever else it actually is. That’s how bad it is. The Girl On The Train pilfers Hitchcock’s vocabulary but doesn’t have any grammar to put the words in a correct sentence; it is therefore a meaningless, useless exercice. Oh well, at least the last scene doesn’t show a train rushing into a tunnel; that would have been the cherry on the layer cake.

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Allied (2016)

Play It Again, Marion

For “inspired” as it pretends to be by a timeless classic, Allied sure has a twisted sense of timing. It kind of does the trick for thirty minutes or so, on the inspired grounds of “What would Casablanca become from the point of view of the woman in charge?”, then any intention to bring a new perspective to whatever is the subject goes down the drain unhappily ever after. This is French Morocco, during WW2, the villains are Nazis and this is not a Raiders of the Lost Ark spin-off, so what were you expecting? This movie is not an oddity, it is an anomaly, not to say an abberation.

Before we get to the Ferrero Rocher extended ad, let’s talk about language in this movie. It’s about spies, see, and their ability to blend in. Miss Cotillard is very good as an agent double before the script asks her character to bend over twice, and definitely better at giving birth than at dying. Mr Pitt, on the contrary, makes a fool of himself attempting at French, all the while fooling close friends or fluent German spies. And don’t start one on simulated post-coital bliss on a rooftop, spoken in English when all the neighbours are German spies. In dialogue as in war, one has to chose sides, and this movie is neither here nor there.

So, Ferrero Rochers. One guesses the ambassador assassination features prominently in the trailers, because it’s the only exciting moment of an otherwise dull, useless and as exsanguinated as the 2015 version of Madame Bovary (featuring a dull, useless and exsanguinated Mia Wasikowska). It’s all going Bourne all of a sudden, even though it doesn’t work for a number of reasons. The best thing here are character actors, which are quite on par with the alleged original. Mr Pitt, though, strikes awkward poses in uniform during an absurd bunker scene.

And it goes and on, attempting at pilfering Hitchcock’s Notorious, then Suspicion, then Sabotage, to no avail. The original, for which one doesn’t have any feeling, at least had cult lines like “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” while here we are blessed with “Show me your chickens, Max.” Further down the drain, there is a scene which is an embarassment to France and its national anthem, not to mention the Resistance. One thought Mr Pitt should have known better after Inglorious Basterds, but one doubts anyone involved in production was over 25.

Featuring no less than Mr Pitt killing in cold blood a woman in front of her infant child, Allied is some seriously awkward stuff, intended as an hommage but ending as a travesty of everything it is supposed to revere. It’s garbage, undecided to be an old new movie or a new old one, a black hole of every talent’s involved in the pursuit of such a McGuffin of a movie. Call it the Oscar Curse; if only it was the worse thing Miss Cotillard was involved this year (see next).

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The Crown #7: Scientia Potentia Est

Hurricane In A Tea Cup

Based as it is on the premature trimming of a tree and the ailments of an old man, this episode doesn’t quite progress at neck-breaking speed, something that by now we are conditioned to accept with a stiff upper lip and some resignation. Opened by one of those flashbacks letting us know that Elizabeth Regina attended Hogwarth to learn her royal brand of magic, meaning that the titular crown, the orb and the scepter are her specific horcruxes, Knowledge Is Power take the scenic route to demonstrate the contrary.

The Queen feels ignorant in everything that matters and commissions one of England’s brightest minds to perfect her education, cruelly lacking in anything practical, or even more mundanely, scientific. The role of that surrogate teacher is to appear with a book which never will be opened, have a nice cup of tea while Her Majesty rambles about being illiterate, then answer a couple of trite questions about the topic of day, then ceremoniously retires. He actually does that a couple of times before reaching the conclusion that Her Majesty’s education is indeed perfect as it is. Some hell of a dramatic curve.

Elizabeth Regina nevertheless has a point feeling bored. The only topic besides the weather is lineage, preferably dogs’ and horses’, because even this safe ground becomes shifty regarding humans beings. Her private secretary, whom she inherited from her father, is retiring and is adamant that “his rightful heir” takes his place, even though the Queen of England disagrees. It is, once again, a Downton Abbey upstairs-downstairs dynamic, only with a temperamental butler; it rightfully eclipses Sir Winston’s shaenigans to remain in power far beyond his peremption date.

There’s a fuss about a State visit from President Eisenhower, which is more the pretext for an obscene display of tableware than anything politically resounding. Some confusion ensues about in which castle should Sir Winston be regally admonished after he unwisely kept Her Majesty in the dark about the fact that no one has been at the helm of HMS Britannia for a couple of weeks. Churchill cooes with Anthony Eden while the latter is either sick or addicted in Washington. It would be quite shocking, were it not so understated it becomes rather muddled.

As usual, the best part is the dialogue, which this week includes not less than “sycophantic supplicants”. Queen Mom vaguely alludes to the Royal Rejects. It all wraps up with another insight inside Buckingham Palace”s sex life, thanks to His Royal Highness Philip, Duke of Edimburgh and his appetite for oral play. We are otherwise informed to “never trust a Cecil”, which is as good an advice as ever given by the Windsors. One wonders what Sir Cecil Beaton would have thought of it.

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Under The Sun (2015)

The Father Of Invention

No stranger to hot topics, Vitaliy Manskiy, Under The Sun‘s director, has previously released, among others, Virginity (2008), about three young women using the titular asset to make their way in 21st century Ukrainia, and Pipeline (2013), casting an uflinching look at what the construction of the Trans-Siberian gas pipeline meant to local populations. He found himself in 2015 at the helm of a documentary officialy sanctioned by North Korean authorities, devoted to the one and only possible subject: how and why the last remaining Stalinian State is Paradise on Earth. He therefore dutifully followed the official instructions, only with one caveat: he kept the camera rolling during rehearsals of Pyong Yang’s version of cinéma vérité, most of the times to hilarious effect, but sometimes to a terrifying one.

There is, you see, always someone forgetting lines, or lurking in the corner of the screen, or looking straight in the camera at the wrong time, ruining the painstakingly recreated illusion of happiness and prosperity commissioned by the authorities. By virtue of these minor interferences, the omnipresent propaganda machine modeling the public consciousness in any possible way is proven unable to sustain a exterior gaze, despite, or maybe because, the constant Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il imagery and the delirious architecture crushing people under the weight of a dystopian, Orwellian quotidian.

Some of the scenes elicit giggles that turn to a laughter of delight. North Korea has obviously invented flash-mobs, with crowds of costumed people congregating in empty spaces to sing and dance. Kimchi can cure cancer and restore youth. In a stupendous scene of suspense lasting several minutes, a young girl might or might not fall asleep during the speech of an elderly general sporting more than fourty medals, her fight against boredom and tiredness being filmed in merciless close-up. “What do I say know?” asks the general after an endless tirade about the superiority of the North Korean army over American forces. Oblivious of the answer, he starts all over again.

Some others are painful to watch, like the final training of a very young girl dancing on marching drums. She is first ecstatic, giving the best she has, then as the teaching goes on and on she just looks exhausted and in pain. She breaks into tears. Asked to think of something good to stop crying, she first says “I don’t know what”, then recites the pledge to the Children Union like the good little citizen she is. It’s awful. Another little girl, or is it the same, chosen to embody any child of the Great Socialist Republic, appears in front of a gigantic red curtain to deliver a welcome address to some pageant at the glory of the Great Leader, and she has such a case of stagefright than it plays like the Radiator Lady scene in Eraserhead.

People take turns to have their picture taken in front of the two Great Leaders giant golden statues, looking dead inside. You look at them terrified, then you muse about the parallel architecture of the gigantic square, converging towards the current Great Leader’s grandfather and father, and you wonder: what place is left for him? He’s not on the many frescoes depicting the exploits of his elders, there’s no room left for another bronze colossus. This, maybe better than anything else, expresses the tragic alieness and alienation of a country without a future.

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Underworld: Blood Wars (2016)

There Won’t Be Blood

Attempting at resurrecting the lifeless corpse of Kate Beckinsale’s career, Underworld: Blood Wars (thereafter Blood Wars) looks and sounds like someone made a terrible mistake and injected it formaldehyde instead. Her character Selena is destined to become one of the Vampire Elders and she starts looking the part even though she seems in great shape, which is more that can be said about the CGI tornado wreaking havoc around her.

Braindeadly written and irrepressibly poorly filmed, this meager epic takes great caution in disgressing to something else, anything really, anytime something threatens to move the plot forward. Due to, one guesses, budget constraints, Blood Wars circumnavigates its big scenes through cheap slow-mo and epilectic ellipse while feverishly trying to check all the required action boxes. The result is not unlike watching unsuccessful attempts at defribrillating something long dead during ninety minutes: it’s not cinema, it’s electro-convulso therapy.

Blood Wars is much more interested in fetish gear than in the vampire lore. One mused where on Earth are so many barely legal hairdresssers that much into leather parties, and the answer is Prague, standing for “The Eastern Coven”. There, millenary vampires act like brooding teenagers, need modern medical equipment to take blood and have installed a “Dawn Alert” fired sixty seconds before sunrise because, one guesses, vampires have all the time in the world but a short attention span. Well, daylight is not such a threat anyway, considering a sunny morning gives instant way to diluvial rain in order to stay true to production design.

What stands for a script is obsessed by drug-taking and blood purity, to the point of having a coven of recently machine-gunned peacenick Walkyries return as Aryan elite warriors when some back up is needed. Selena is flanked by mostly bland characters, to the exception of the appropriately lupine Marius (Tobias Menzies) and vilain of the piece Semira (Lara Pulver, a talented antagonist in Sherlock Holmes‘ first season, here caught several times gazing at nothing, obviously bored). Oh, and Charles Dance plays Tywin Lannister – again.

Everyone being related to more or less anyone else, the thing ends – not, a sixth instalment or the franchise being planned – in family feud and serious questions about inbreeding that, unfortunately, the viewer is the only one to ask oneself. Such miscegeneration would at least explain why that fanged cohort is, from start to end, acting more like retarded backwater cannibals than like ladies and lords of the night. “Turn off the lights!” are a dying vampire last words. Please, do so, and shut the door behind you.

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The Young Pope #4

May The Foe Be With You

The Young Pope is a miracle in the true sense of the term (not the paganistic fantasy depicted in overture of this episode) for its very boldness: what, it asks, if the Catholic Church had a Holy Father who would not only be Word, but Flesh, and as such flesh would be planning the kind of revenge only available to an absolute sovereign? What, to be more specific, if the Pope was Darth Vador dressed all in white?

Equaling homosexuality and paedophilia is, paradoxically, something only the Church -whatever it is – would initiate, being guilty of both, not necessarily together. In episode 4, Pope Pius XIII’s agenda is becoming clear and it’s no less than destroying the Catholic Church. For that, he’s using a very simple method: turning its lies and base urges (greed, lust, power) against itself, with a blunt brutatily which is all but stupid. There is, in fact, a mole in the Vatican, and it’s the Holy Father. “Jesus Christ!” let Sister Mary escape at some point; “If only I were” comes the answer.

Sister Mary is otherwise absent from what is a quintessential mid-season episode, completing the exposition of the main characters and plot with a deft harmony between scenes, some gracious, some ferocious, some both. The initial exchange between the Blessed Father and a Sri-Lankan nurse is shokingly cruel, but balanced by an unexpected act of kindness: this Pope has a plan, but it has his fancies, too. Those certainly do not include church rituals, especially baptism, to which a very funny side scene is devoted.

Esther is tasked by Cardinal Voiello to seduce Pius XIII. “I’m not such a seductress”, she objects, only to be answered “Neither was the Virgin Mary”. The Young Pope‘s range is indeed broad, from Fellinian anti-clericalism to Spinoza-inspired casuistics, not to forget football as the unofficial religion of Italy and Berlusconi-style TV. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister of Greenland visits, giving the Pope an opportunity to use both his own brand of gaydar and his ability to make anyone feel instantly, intensely, very uncomfortable. The Mad Shepherd quietly torments his flock, gloating at he watches them smile and squirm in equal measures.

“The punishment of God is never over beauty, never”, says the Pope to Esther while he, at her demand, teaches her how to pray, a beautiful phrase that doubtlessly flew naturally for the author of maybe the best movie of this young century, The Great Beauty. One will take the risk of drooling by saying once again The Young Pope is essential viewing. More than opinion, this is belief, or even faith.

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