Some Thoughts On The Young Pope

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Well, that was certainly not the show that I thought it was going to be.

To be fair, I didn’t have a lot of preconceived notions about what The Young Pope was going to be like. The idea of Jude Law playing the Pope seemed like an unconventional choice and the title was terrible, but I’ve never let that stop me before (I did, after all, watch the entire run of Cougar Town). I did make the assumption that The Young Pope would be a straight drama about the inner workings of the church under the leadership of a young pontiff. Until I saw the first trailer, I thought that this was going to be a period piece, rather than being set in modern times. Since historical drama are all the rage, that would have seemed like the obvious choice.

There is absolutely nothing about The Young Pope that is an obvious choice.

I was completely unprepared for how bonkers this show would be. The opening scene of the series is a baby crawling over other babies and then Jude Law emerges from said pyramid of babies. I’ll admit that I was only half paying attention the first time I saw this, because who expects a pyramid of babies in the first ten seconds of an HBO drama. I was instantly confused and had to rewind the DVR to make sure that I wasn’t missing anything. I would be confused a few more times in the first episode as it took me some time to figure out what this show was doing – and it’s doing a lot of things. It’s both funny and serious in ways that were unanticipated. It’s gorgeously shot and it covers a lot of territory – faith, some of the ridiculousness of Church traditions, power, narcissism, loneliness. As I tweeted out while watching it, there is a lot more nudity, smoking and kangaroos than you would have anticipated for a show called The Young Pope. The show is weird and chaotic and even a little messy, but once I just let the show teach me how to watch it, I was totally sucked in. The Young Pope is really not like much else that’s on television and I’ll take weirdly original, yet imperfect over traditional and safe any day.

The Young Pope is the brainchild of Oscar winning director Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the entire ten episode season. When The Young Pope begins, 47-year old Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) has been just elected Pope Pius XIII. His selection in the conclave was orchestrated by Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) who believed that Belardo wound be a puppet for him. Belardo, however, has different ideas about that and soon a power struggle emerges between the two men. Belardo is aided by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who raised him in an orphanage and is appointed as his personal secretary. Belardo is not what the Vatican was expecting – he smokes, rejects publicity and the liberal philosophy of his predecessor, and is more than ready to play the game of Papal politics. Pope Pius XIII is old school and Old Testament; he’s charismatic and cruel. He may or may not actually believe in God, but he sure thinks that he’s the Almighty’s spokesperson. There’s a lot of dichotomies floating around in this show and yet somehow they make it all work. Though this show was conceived and written a few years ago, there are definitely parallels that can be made to the current political climate here in the U.S. and abroad. You have to respect a show that makes the decision to portray the Pope as kind of a dick. Law’s hat game, though, is flawless:

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Jude Law is really the perfect person to play Lenny/Pope Pius XIII. I really can’t imagine anyone else pulling off this role so well, given that Lenny is so many things rolled into one. Law can bring fire and brimstone down in one scene and then be exceptionally funny in the next. That’s a skill set that not a lot of actors have, and his good looks can’t help but draw you in even when he’s plotting his next move or being unnecessarily condescending. He’s the pretty package in which a lot of ugly ideas are presented and even though I don’t know that Pope Pius XIII is likeable, you are drawn to him. There are also a lot of layers to his back story that I look forward to them unpacking in subsequent episodes. Law perfectly dances the line of contempt and comedy, campy and cruel. It helps that you can’t look at Law without kind of assuming he’s a smug jerk; that’s not entirely fair to Law, who I’ve seen be nothing but pleasant on many occasions, but for this role his inherent latent jerkiness is an asset.

Through two episodes, the rest of the cast is strong as well. Diane Keaton is great in her role as confidant and co-conspirator. She seems to be having a good time with the role, which also require some deft maneuvering as Sister Mary vacillates between the role of mother and subordinate. There’s a fascinating dynamic unfolding between Sister Mary’s relationship with Lenny and her relationship with Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), another orphan that was raised alongside Lenny. Keaton is almost always great and she’s given a lot to do in The Young Pope.

It’s worth repeating again – this is a weird show. While the intrigue and plotting behind the scenes at the Vatican is kind of reminiscent of power struggles on traditional HBO dramas like The Sopranos or The Wire, The Young Pope zigs when you think it will zag. There are odd little moments sprinkled throughout the first two episodes that constantly make you feel a little off balance. The whole thing with the kangaroo is a good example, as is random scenes of the nuns killing it playing soccer. But I don’t think anything made me laugh as much as Keaton’s Sister Mary answering the door of her Vatican apartment in this:

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That’s hilarious on a bazillion levels.

The Young Pope may not be everyone’s cup of tea and you do need to stick with the show to get used to the tonal shifts and absurdity of some of what’s going on. But underneath some of the more bizarre choices, there is a really interesting story unfolding about power and narcissism, about tradition and change. I personally think that some of the odder choices contribute to this storytelling, but mileage may vary. If you do watch the show, it’s important to know that you are supposed to laugh at some of it; these were conscious decisions, not poorly executed drama. I’m all in – after binge watching the first two episodes, I’m legitimately bummed that I have to wait a week for this story to continue. The Young Pope could kind of go in any direction, which is exciting. I’m not a religious person, but I’m down on spending an hour a week at the Vatican.

Pop Culture Odds and Ends – Netflix at Lunch Edition

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One of my pop culture resolutions for this year was to make better use of my lunch hour at work by a) actually talking a lunch hour and b) using that time to watch Netflix on my phone. We’re only three weeks into 2017, but so far I’m really enjoying this change. I find that I am a lot less grumpy when I actually walk away from my desk for an hour and that despite my worries, the world does in fact keep spinning if I don’t answer an email during that time. Who knew? It feels kind of decadent to spend an hour watching Netflix; it almost feels like I’m playing hooky. And it’s been productive – I’ve already made it through the entire first season of The Crown and Bloodline, though I have watched some episodes at home. But it’s reminded me of all the great content on Netflix and I’m now taking better advantage of my subscription. So all in all, this is a net positive for me. Resolutions can be good!

Today we take a break from the plethora of movie reviews that I’ve been posting to check in on pop culture news with this week’s roundup. As usual, there is a little bit of something for everyone this week. So while I look forward to my daily oasis of Netflix, get yourself caught up on the pop culture that you might have missed.

Television

 

 

Movies

Trailers

  • XX:

 

  • Clinical:

 

  • Dark Knight:

 

  • Cars 3:

 

  • Better Call Saul, season 3:

 

  • Wilson:

 

  • Santa Clarita Diet:

 

  • Girlfriend’s Day:

 

  • iBoy:

 

  • CHiPs:

 

  • Sleight:

 

  • Snatch:

 

  • Manifesto:

 

  • The WWE and The Jetsons teamed up for some reason:

 

  • My Life as a Zucchini:

 

  • Tangled: Before Ever After:

 

  • Riverdale:

 

  • Clowntergiest:

 

  • Raw:

Music

Theater

Books

Stand-up

Odds and Ends

Mashups and Supercuts

  • Ed Sheeran covered the Fresh Prince theme:

 

  • The devolution of Rickety Cricket on It’s Always Sunny:

 

  • Jazz versions of “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter:

 

  • Super Mario Bros. gets a Martin Scorsese trailer:

 

  • How all the Pixar movies are connected:

 

  • Game of Thrones theme on cellos:

 

  • Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston star in a Kanye West soap opera:

 

  • Daveed Diggs raps “Rubber Duckie”:

 

  • Celebrities sing “I Will Survive”:

 

  • President Obama and Vice President Biden meet Shawshank Redemption:

Fences – A Review

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Just give Viola Davis the Oscar now and save us all some time.

I’m not really a gambling gal, but if I was I’d put everything I have on the fact that when the gold statuettes are given out at the Academy Awards ceremony in February, Viola Davis will have one in her hand for her performance in Fences. It’s not easy to steal scenes from Denzel Washington, but she manages to do it regularly. Seriously – no one can ugly cry like this woman.

Viola Davis is the main reason to see Fences, but there are plenty of other reasons to recommend the movie as well. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play of the same name by August Wilson, Fences features excellent performances and a compelling story. Almost all the leads in the film are reprising their roles from the 2010 Broadway revival of the play, which gives the performances a lived-in feeling that only comes from doing the same dialogue eight times a week in front of a live audience. They know these characters – what makes them tick and their motivations. The staging of Fences in the film is more expansive, but still feels like a play. If you aren’t used to going to the theater, the pattern of the dialogue may take a little adjusting to; Washington’s character, in particular, is prone to a lot of “speechifying.”

Fences takes place in 1950s Pittsburgh and focuses on the Maxson family – patriarch Troy (Washington), his wife Rose (Davis), their son Cory (Jovan Adepo), Troy’s brother Gabe (Myketi Williamson), Troy’s son Lyons from a previous relationship (Russell Hornsby), and Troy’s longtime best friend Jim Bono (Stephen McKinley Henderson). Troy and Jim work as garbage collectors, but Troy used to be a talented baseball player who never made the transition from the Negro Leagues to Major League Baseball, whether because of his advanced age or, as Troy believes, because the color of his skin. Troy runs his home with an iron fist, often coming into conflict with Cory, who wants to play football and is being recruited for a college team. Troy is often estranged from various members of his family throughout the film and Fences chronicles the familial drama and ebb and flow of these relationships. Fences is a small movie in that it is more a character study of this particular family and there isn’t a ton of “action.” But there is strength from this intimacy; it allows the viewer to really get to know these characters as people and feel invested in their lives. It also gives the perfect showcase for the actors to shine. Washington also directed the film.

The role of Troy is a little different than what we’ve come to expect from Denzel Washington; when I mentioned to people that I was going to see this movie, they asked if he played a cop in it. Washington does tend to stick to his strengths when picking roles, but in Fences those manifest themselves in slightly different ways. He’s great as Troy – a man that you don’t necessarily like the more you get to know him, but who you at least come to understand his view of the world. Washington knows how to make Troy perfectly charming one minute and then make you want to smack him the next. Throughout the film, Troy references his battles with the Grim Reaper, but he’s also wrestling with a lot of demons. What I particularly liked about Fences is that all of these characters have hidden layers and the movie takes its time peeling them back and showing us another facet of their personality or world experience. That nuance gives the actors a lot to work with and the talented cast assembled eats that opportunity up with a spoon.

Though this film is anchored by the powerhouse performances of Davis and Washington, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also give credit to the supporting cast as well. They all bring something to the table and their characters provide some crucial insights into who Troy is. His interactions with his brother Gabe are particularly illuminating, as we see a part of his personality that few other characters can illuminate. Mykelti Williamson is saddled with perhaps the most problematic role – the depiction of the mentally impaired feels very outdated and there are a lot of clichés associated with Gabe – but Williamson somehow makes most of it work. As the newcomer to the cast, Jovan Adepo manages to hold his own. He was not in the Broadway revival, but he can go toe to toe with Washington, which is no small feat. Adepo’s acting credits are sparse, but I think that’s about to change.

I didn’t see the revival of Fences on Broadway, but after seeing the film I feel like I have. I’m guessing that not much changed in the transition from stage to film and Washington definitely directed a very bare bones production. The open sequence of Washington and Stephen McKinley Henderson on their trash route is the most cinematic segment of the movie. The rest of the film is very small, rarely leaving the confines of the Maxson homestead. Fences is very much a stage play that happened to be filmed. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there was an intermission during the film (there wasn’t), because it so accurately captured the experience of going to the theater. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but there don’t need to be when the actors are providing all the action.

Fences isn’t a particularly flashy movie, but it boasts some truly fantastic acting performances. Viola Davis shines in this film; my only complaint is that she is submitting herself in the supporting actress category, which I think minimizes how central she is to this film and the amount of screen time that she receives. Otherwise, despite the ridiculously talented cast that surrounds her, she is the true standout. 2016 was generally a crappy year for movies, but I have to give it credit for ending strong with films like Fences. Led by Washington and Davis, this movie provides the opportunity for some of our best actors to do their thing and it is a pleasure to behold.