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The Young Pope #6

The Number Of The Beast

Opening on a startling death in the Curia refectory, witnessed by indifferent fellow cardinals, this episode, once has been established Pope Pius’ plan on destroying the Church (the What), lays the groundwork for his modus operandi (the How) and starts shedding some conflicting lights on his motivation to do so (the Why). “What did he die of?” asks a cardinal, still masticating his lunch. “Of old age, like our Church.” comes the answer.

Sorrentino then alternates between three highly symbolic scenes, so complementary in their purpose that you can positively hear him giggle on the back of the soundrack: the elevation of faithfull Bishop Guttierez to the rank of cardinal; Esther giving birth to her baby boy; and a crude glimpse on what Cardinal Dussolier is up to in Honduras, namely having a parting threesome with his two favorite members on his flock, the wife of the richest man in town and a muscular young man. The fact that Dussolier is the meat of this particular sandwich doesn’t augure well to his future in Roma, where he has been ordered to come back.

In starck contrast with the assembled Curia, the pope wears green for Guttierez ordination, but he’s back to Holy white when he visits Esther at the hospital. She has decided to name the boy after him, so the Pope blesses “Pius the Fourteen” before dropping him on the bed when he’s reminded that the Italian Prime Minister is waiting for him at the Vatican. It’s not directorial giggles you hear then, it’s the sound of your laughter: enjoy it while it last because what follows is all but funny.

The meeting with the young, handsome Prime Minister is more of a pissing contest than a courtesy visit. In full golden regalia, the Pope presents a list of request to the Head of Government, every one more outrageusement then the other. Pius XIII wants to put a term to abortion, to homosexual marriage, to sexual depravity within the Church, and as a cherry on the Holy Cake he wants the Vatican territory to be renegociated. The Prime Minister laughs at this delirious laundry list, only to be reminded that if he has been elected by men, the Pope has been elected by God. The Holy Father then threatens not only to reactivate an obsolete “Non Expedit” disposition, forbidding Catholics to vote at election time, but to appear for the first time on St Peter square to enforce its application, a media event like no other in modern history.

The How has become clear at this point: the Pope considers himself the second advent of Christ and he won’t compromise in any way. Franciscan monks alluding to a schism of their order become the object of his fury. Voiello laments about the drooling revenues of the Papal State, to no avail, but has a more urgent fish to fry when a police officer asks about a missing shepherd who happened to be in open conflict with the Vatican. Last but not least, Cardinal Dussolier definitely has a thing for both middle-aged women with expensive cosmetic surgery and altar boys; if the formers’ fate are left to the imagination – or the next episode – the latters are definitely in peril, since one throws himself from the roof of the basilica after his apllication for priesthood has been rejected on the grounds or his homosexuality. The Beast is unleashed, and his number is XIII…

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The Crown S1E8: Pride & Joy

Duty Queen

Spoiler Alert: the title of the episode refers to Papa’s nicknames for his two daughters. Elizabeth was his pride and Margaret his joy; both resented the other for being only one side of the royal coin; Pride & Joy highlights the moment when the two incarnations of Windsorness, the head of the Empire and her volubile deputy, clash on what is expected from the Crown. The episode manages to pack together the span of 23 weeks while distorting time in such a manner that no time passes in what feels like so many years of stately boredom.

Reviewing her modest wardrobe for her first Commonwealth Tour as a monarch, Elizabeth Regina feels 100 dresses and 50 pairs of shoes a little wee bit too many, but it’s Sir Winston’s orders that she compensates with questionable fashion every inch of influence the Empire has lost since the previous edition of such a courtesy to British colonies. India, see, is in unrest. She goes through the ordeal of protocol with her royal chin up, to the point of having the 50’s equivalent of Botox injections to soothe her inflamated zygomatic muscles. The burden of the Crown has to remain invisible to the masses when the Queen appears to her adoring subjects. Elizabeth is indeed a trooper.

Meanwhile, Prince Philip is being his usual rainmaker on his wife’s parade, calling the whole enterprise a “pantomime” and “a coat of paint”. Vested by the power of the writer, he’s once again gifted with an uncanny foresight which seems even more far-fatched after we were hit by the news that the second season will further develop his character. It’s becoming pretty obvious by now that Prince Philip is far more interesting to Peter Morgan than the Queen. The Crown slowly asserts itself as an elaborate – and pretty expensive – fan fiction on the most unlikely of subject: His Royal Highness the Duke of Edimburgh.

Sir Winston scoffs at Princess Margaret being quite the show girl. She enjoys a bit too much sporting tiaras in order to have good ol’fun at the Ambassador diner, or being politically incorrect on TV during a comical bout of coal mining. It’s still the 50s though, and the Press a national lapdog, so the order of things is restored when the Queen comes back from the Antipods and sternly reprimands her sister. She then resumes her duties in lonely Buckingham Palace after a mere glimpse of The Royal Rejects.

Wearing an hideous Barbour, Queen Mum galumphs at the end of the known world, namely a Scottish beach, more in chagrin of having lost the Crown than from any mourning of her dead husband. Some delicious quiproquo with a Scottish gentleman ensues. The ludicrousness of this segment alone is worth watching the episode. It gives an unexpected insight on the fact that if the Queen of England is so wealthy, it’s also because the Windsors are ruthless real estate negociators. Spoken, of course, like a real Scottswoman!

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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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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 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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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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The Crown #6: Gelignite

A Bit Of Fluff

Although its title bears the promise of some action at last, Gelignite is unfortunately as explosive as a soggy crumpet. Basking in the dual spotlight of her newly acquired status as the most famous woman in the world and the dashing handsome couple she forms with her consort, Elizabeth Regina starts unscrewing lightbulbs in the air at the back of her Rolls-Royce while crowds deliriously cheer her appearance. But opening the Pandora’s box with her public coronation has unleashed, among other barbarian monsters, the threat of a scandal about Princess Margaret’s willingness to marry not only a commoner, but a divorced one. The Press is quick at interpreting her picking a bit of fluff off Peter Townsend’s lapel as a cue to further intimacy. The tricky situation has to be defused right away.

Remember the Egyptian unrest, which figured prominently in Sir Winston’s preoccupations a couple of episodes ago? You’re forgiven if you don’t. Some kind of an historical context has to be delivered though, so Nasser deposes King Farouk, allowing HRH Philip, Duke of Edimbourg, to have a casually racist brush with foreign affair while sipping brandy with his likeminded pals. Later on, a curious scene of French cancan pans over bottles of Dubonnet: the Empire, see is dancing on the edge of an abyss akso known as misalliance.

A double date brings together the royal couple and the illegitimate one. Margaret spills the beans. Philip will have none of this nonsense and turns his back to his lifelong friend / flying instructor. Elizabeth, decidedly a hot head, promises not to make too much of a hell of her sister’s life before she turns 25 and is therefore allowed to marry who she wants. The problem with that particular queen, though, is she has a very effective embedded cooling system for that hot head, and ready as she may appear to break every rule, she will do nothing of the sort before taking advice.

According to the plot, what goes wrong does so because Peter outshines Her Majesty during a visit to lovely, sunny Northern Ireland. The Queen is having no joy not being the center of attention, and one can’t help but wonder how much of her regal life is spent watching reruns of herself. Townwend is quickly dispatched to the outer realm (Brussels, in that instance), much to Margaret’s furor. “You are cruel”, she spits at her sister. Ouch.

It’s good to see the Windsors discovering at last their domain of excellence: gossip, scandals and misalliances of all kind. They obviously lack the consumed practice they have acquired by now in smoothing the feathers of increasingly disatisfied subjects, still superbly ignored by the writer. He however condescends to show phone operators repeatedly plugging in antiquated switchboards, like the brave bolts and clogs they are. Two scenes elicit giggles: a piece of British love-making in which a woman in tweed and jodhpur kisses a man in a Barbour; and yet another ludicrous parallel editing between London and Rhodesia, as another concession to a life beyond the Kingdom. At the end, Prince Philip leaves his wife for yet another brawl with his buddies and she walks alone accross the vast halls of Buckingham Palace. Poor little rich Queen.

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Shinya Shokudo (Tokyo Stories: Midnight Diner / 2016)

Today’s Special: Nothing Special

Adapted from a stage play turned into a movie, the Shinya Shokudo (hereafter: Midnight Diner) series is a very much welcome addition to Netflix original productions. It’s as remote to the Marvel TV heros than street food is to a traditional kaiseki, the common point being one of the many Japanese cultural obsessions: eating. But forget about sophistication, pottery and lacquer ware craftmanship: apart from rare escapades, all the action takes places in a tiny diner tucked in a narrow street of Shinjuku, a hole in the wall accomodating 10 clients at most. The chef prepares anything his customers ask, providing he’s got the ingredients; they do not ask for anything complicated anyway, and the only time he shows any annoyance is when someone asks for sushi, which of course requires a specific chef. The chef, who evyerone calls “Master”, multitasks as a confessor, a shrink, a guide, and ultimately a friend.

Accompanied by the type of hideous musak one hears all the time in Japan, the diner becomes a crossroad, a confessional or a stage, with some funny breaking of the fourth wall at the end of each episode. Simple stories as heart-warwing as the simple soups and dishes the chef prepares are like them depending on the quality of their ingredients: acting, comic timing, lightning of the cooking scenes, and this unmistakable feeling of work true to life.

Each episode is titled after a dish like pork steak (tonteki, also vernacular for “ugly girl”=, hot pot or rice omelet, and the ensemble offers a variety of quotidian, if dramatically concentrated in the short format, situations: unrequited love, hookers with heart of gold, lost children and dangerous flirts with addictions. This is Japan, where mah-jong could as well be the most dangerous game, where a ghost motivation can be a porn collection instead of just plum wine, and where everyone is always forgetting one’s umbrella. A land of bad encounters and delightful coincidences worthy of an Anthony Powell novel, triggering some very different emotions indeed: some episode are comedy when others border on the ghoulish.

Anchored in the Japanese soul by the Master’s stoic presence and some impossible noble behaviours, Midnight Diner is well worth your time and appetite. Just sneak in, find a seat and either listen and watch or dive in. Viewing advised.

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Life’s Too Short: Sherlock S4E1

Elementary My Poor Watson

How low the mighty have fallen: when did Sherlock become 24? Let’s face it, the series is not half as clever as it thinks it is, quite ugly to look at and incoherently geared in a morass of family plots which have no resonance in the Holmes canon. What was at first a ingenious take on classic characters steadily declined from Season 2, thanks to an atrocious Moriarty turn and the global rise of its star’s fame. Benedict Cumberbatch is becoming cumbersome as he’s entering Roger Moore territory: when the hell is he proposed the James Bond role?

A slamming door farce in awe of both its protagonist’s charisma and its main actor’s wattage, Sherlock has switched from dominatrixes and naked visits to Buckingham Palace to adorable moppets, and well written vilains to endless, useless banter. The series is highly functionning nothing, a mere self-absorbed trifle when it is supposed to be a feast of cleverness. Not genius but lazily ingenious, it is the TV equivalent of casting Sophie Turner as the most powerful mind in the whole galaxy. Suspension of disbelief doesn’t apply anymore because you know, life’s too short.

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The Crown #5: Smoke And Mirrors

The Royal Rejects

As Miranda Priestly says in The Devil Wears Prada, “by all means, move at a glacial pace!”. This episode finally zeroes on the Queen’s coronation after hours of beating around the bush through flashbacks to Papa’s reign and family crisis. What becomes stricking by now is the absolute inexistence of Charles and Anne, the royal rejects. The writer, fully absorbed the completion of his thesaurus of tongue in cheek British understatement (“Shall we f*ck?”. No, please.), has simply forgotten to write the Queen’s children in.

HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edimburgh, rightfully feels like a sissy relegated as he is to help his wife do the queening; he obtains full control of the Coronation Committee as a restauration of his manhood. His project is to let the good people of the Commonwealth participate to the event, much to the horror of Sir Winston and his posse of old Eton choir boys.

By the titular smoke and mirrors, the arc of Episode 4 acknowledges the Duke’s sudden switch from casual racist snob to parangon of democracy; the least that can be said is that it comes off a bit odd. Anyway, without ever formulating the idea he’s the one to get the ceremony recorded and broadcast (an historic footnote that seems mostly innacurate), even thought the common people might, gasp, watch it while EATING. Shocking, really.

Can you imagine that at some point during the 50s Elizabeth Regina was the symbol of a new era and the very face of modernity? The postulate of the whole series seems hardly believable nowadays. Truer to life is the Duke of Windsor as a freudian repressed memory, once more returning to his family of hyenas, this time to bid farewell to his ailing mother. The impossible posh Windsor makes a fool of himself in the People pages with She-The-Name-Of-Which-Can’t-Be-Said, their Paris residence adding insult to injury.

Protocol swiftly humiliates him in retribution. Queen Mary dies on cue. Suddenly everyone wears fancy hats. An hilarious, involontary cliffhanger showing Windsor blowing his bagpipes in the wind attempts at some Skyfall follow-up revenge against the family “pusillanimity and vindictiveness”. Britain, Britain, Britain!

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