Reviews

The Will of God: 'The Borgias: The First Season'

The Borgias: The First Season on Blu-ray introduces "the original crime family", and it wastes no time in getting to the dirty secrets of one of the most powerful and influential families of the 15th century.


The Borgias

Distributor: Showtime
Cast: Jeremy Irons, François Arnaud, Holliday Grainger, Lotte Verbeek, David Oakes
Network: Showtime
Release date: 2011-12-27
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Showtime bills creator Neil Jordan's The Borgias as "the original crime family", and it wastes no time in getting to the dirty secrets of one of the most powerful and influential families of the Italian Renaissance.

Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons is Rodrigo Borgia, a cunning, calculating cardinal who has his eye on the prize when the Pope dies. Through deceit, trickery, blackmail, bribery and even murder—all conveniently, if not completely, disguised as "The Will of God"—Borgia ensures his victory in the papal election, thereby becoming Pope Alexander VI. He promotes his eldest son Cesare (François Arnaud) to the College of Cardinals, despite Cesare's desire to live and serve in a more secular fashion. Second son Juan (David Oakes) is appointed leader of the Vatican's armies, and famously beautiful daughter, Lucrezia Borgia (Holliday Granger), becomes a bargaining chip with which the Pope hopes to secure more influence and military protection.

Of course, following in the footsteps of its predecessor in the field of historical soap opera/sex romp, The Tudors, The Borgias has plenty of sex and scandalous affairs between scads of all-too-pretty-for-the-time-period people. First, there's the fact that the Pope has children, declared openly and acknowledged publicly. Then there Guilia Farnese (Lotte Verbeek), widely proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Rome, married herself, and chosen as His Holiness's mistress in the confessional. Talk about abuses of power!

But Irons portrays the Pope as more of a man of machinations, manipulating the office to suit his worldly needs, than a man of any supreme spiritual calling. He is a ruler, rather than a representative; he is a political prince, not a spiritual conduit. As the season progresses, however, it sometimes seems as if he truly does respect the religious gravity of his station, and he struggles with his spiritual duty and the weight of his heavily burdened soul, just as much as he grapples with the grand schemes going on around him in the earthly realm.

Irons is the center of this show, as Borgia is the center of his family and Pope Alexander is the center of the Catholic Church, but Arnaud as Cesare is equally strong and just as imminently watchable. Not only is he visually magnetic, but with Cesare's internal struggles displayed much more obviously, he's infinitely more compelling in an emotional sense.

Cesare is the romantic, longing for the storied love of Abelard and Heloise. He never wished to enter the church. His desire for a life of his own is at odds with his sense of duty to his father. His close relationship with little sister Lucrezia, his willingness to fight for his city, his small rebellions, and his own tragic love affair are all supplanted by his loyalty to his father and his father's plans for the family Borgia. Arnaud lets this wretched turmoil play across his face magnificently, even when Cesare's words and manner would never betray them. He's a treat to witness and the easiest with which to empathize. And yes. He, too, has some steamy love scenes.

The Borgias: The First Season on Blu-ray contains all nine original episodes on three discs. The third disc also holds the special features which, like other Showtime DVD and Blu-ray releases, include episodes of other Showtime shows and sneak peaks at upcoming productions. This one has an episode of Dexter from its sixth season, two episodes of Episodes from its first season, and the pilot for House of Lies starring Kristen Bell and Don Cheadle, which looks like it's going to be a fantastic series.

The "BD Live" portion of the special features, only includes one feature that is actually related to The Borgias, and that's a piece on the casting of Cesare. Otherwise, it is just another teaser episode of Dexter, and two episodes each of Gigolos and Californication.

Clearly, Showtime chooses to use its Blu-ray releases as built-in, heavy promotional vehicles for other shows in its programming line-up. That's fine. The Borgias itself has more than enough to ensnare and reward its viewers without having to relying on bonus materials. Once you've immersed yourself in this family's tantalizing intrigues, you may be prepared to sell your soul to see season two.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Features

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton



9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton



8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge



7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge



6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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