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Jude Law and John Malkovich in The Two Popes (HBO) Jude Law and John Malkovich in The Two Popes (HBO)

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‘The New Pope’ Premiere is a Blessed Event

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Comedian Bill Maher, back in the ’90s, once joked that “even the Pope is now pop culture.” He had no idea. 

The same day that The Two Popes, director Fernando Meirelles and Netflix’s fictionalized tale of a series of meetings between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, received three Academy Awards comes the arrival of another fictionalized treatment of the modern papacy. 

The New Pope, which debuted Monday night on HBO, is a sequel season to 2017’s The Young Pope, which starred Jude Law as a pontiff who was considerably younger and more American than what is typical of popes.

Once again overseen by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker  Paolo Sorrentino, The New Pope keeps up the general tone of its predecessor, combining bizarre and surreal flourishes with backroom Vatican politics and intrigue. The first episode of the series, which is all we’ve seen, is hugely entertaining, although there are concerns that what’s to come will be very different structurally.

The difference, as you may have guessed, is… there’s a new pope. The previous series ended with Law’s Pope Pius XIII in a coma, and he’s going to be replaced – eventually – by John Malkovich as Pope John Paul III. 

The New Pope Review HBO

The first episode of The New Pope is hugely entertaining, although it’s likely quite different from the rest of the season because both of the lead actors are sidelined for most of it. 

Instead, the season opener is based mostly around a marathon papal conclave, in which the leading candidates are the scheming Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), and a new rival character, Cardinal Hernandez, who is also played by Orlando. 

Unable to win the papacy himself, Voiello decides to install Tommaso Viglietti’s Marcelo Romollo as a puppet, but the decision backfires as the new pontiff quickly emerges as something of a Pope Francis on steroids. Named Francis II, he agrees to let migrants into the Vatican, to more strictly enforce the vow of poverty, and other reforms untenable to the Holy See’s existing power structure. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s dead by hour’s end, paving the way for the inevitable ascension of the Malkovich character. This gives the episode unmistakable echoes of The Godfather: Part III, which was set against the backdrop of the real-life mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978. 

Throughout, The New Pope continues the aesthetic style of The Young Pope, as wild visuals and unlikely musical cues are paired with familiar Vatican iconography in a way that absolutely works. From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s much better put together than The Two Popes is. 

The centerpiece of the episode is the papal conclave sequence, which looks very different from the one we saw in The Two Popes. We’re shown the priests praying, both in confession with the terrible things they’ve done, or for other things they wish to see from the church’s new era.   

The entire sequence with Romollo’s disruptive reign as pope is also such a hoot that it raises concerns that the rest of the season won’t be as interesting now that he’s gone. 

Law appears silently in a couple of scenes, mostly in a dream sequence and in which he’s in the coma, one of which is followed by the woman who had just given him a sponge bath pleasuring herself. Malkovich himself only appears in the episode briefly; after a couple of seasons of doing a Russian accent on Billions, he’s said to be played a Brit this time. 

The New Pope Review HBO

The show’s creator, Paolo Sorrentino, is one of the leading lights of Italian cinema, best known for Il Divo and The Great Beauty, as well as the English-language films This Must Be the Place and Youth. His most recent film was last year’s raucous Loro, a treatment of the administration of longtime Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi that focused on the way his sycophants relate to him and maneuver into his circle. It’s a conceit that I’d love to see serve as the template for a future biopic of President Donald Trump. 

But in the meantime, The New Pope, while likely not as meme-able as its predecessor, is off to a blessed start. 

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and RogerEbert.com. In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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‘Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet’ Levels Up Gaming’s TV Reputation

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Mythic Quest

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is a faux-documentary series for Apple TV+

From the very start, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet had a bold task ahead of it: take the relatively marginalized medium of gaming and represent it for a mainstream TV audience. Going off the first episode, which received an early screening at PAX South this weekend, the result is something of a mixed success. This Apple TV exclusive suffers some pacing issues and sometimes struggles to rise above the stereotypes of the typical office comedy, but at the same time, it manages to represent a wide view of gaming culture for mainstream media, offering a unique setting that allows it to rise above its shortcomings.

Mythic Quest follows Rob McElhenney as Ian Grimm (perplexingly pronounced Eye-an), the creative director of the world’s most successful MMORPG, the eponymous Mythic Quest. This cultural phenomenon is about to receive its first major DLC pack, and just before launch, the development team breaks down into conflict over one major issue: the inclusion of a shovel.

The lead engineer, Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) is in support of the shovel’s inclusion as a new game mechanic, while Ian is insistent that it conflicts with his artistic vision. This conflict grows to a massive scale, to the point where it involves the entire game studio by the end of it. Each member of the development team has their own perspective on the matter, and their own personal storylines to go along with it as well.

The first episode of Mythic Quest may only be a half-hour long, but it stuffs tons of subplots into that brief runtime. And with so little time to work with, most of these side stories are left largely undeveloped, with most characters remaining little more than caricatures and stereotypes. The episode rushes from one subplot to another, and although this is likely a symptom of this being the first episode in the series, that doesn’t change that the pacing could have felt more natural.

That all being said, the main appeal of Mythic Quest is its setting of the world of game development, which it aims to legitimize in mainstream media. McElhenney even acknowledged as much himself in a Q and A following the screening, mentioning how gaming is often relegated to the butts of jokes and is rarely taken seriously – except when it can be sued as a political scapegoat. Mythic Quest thus addresses many of the hot topics of the industry, including crunch time, playtesting, artistic differences, toxic content creators, and the tendency of gamers to make penises in their games whenever possible.

It’s these vestiges of gaming culture that help Mythic Quest stand apart from the crowd of typical workplace comedies. It includes jokes based on full-motion video modeling, on faulty character animations, and a running gag about an immature, potty-mouthed streamer, to name a few. It’s a unique setting that appropriately allows for unique humor.

On its own, Mythic Quest is filled with stereotypes. Ian is the pretentious, self-obsessed boss, Poppy is the sensible yet underappreciated one, and so on. Yet it is the setting and the context for these stereotypes that breathe new life into them. Gaming is essentially a new frontier for mainstream comedy, so it’s refreshing to see these old tropes in a new light.

Following the screening, McElhenney stated that Mythic Quest was intended to present the issues facing the games industry in an accessible manner for a popular audience. In that regard, the first episode is already a success. As a show on its own, it suffers from a handful of stereotypes and succumbs to some pacing issues, but hopefully, these can be patched out in the context of the full series. Mythic Quest certainly isn’t perfect, but considering gaming’s poor reputation in previous media, then it’s certainly a level up.

Mythic Quest airs on Apple TV on February 7

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Wrestling

Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H and Cactus Jack Street Fight

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Royal Rumble 2000 Triple H Street and Cactus Jack Street Fight

Royal Rumble 2000

WWE Championship: Triple H vs. Cactus Jack

The thirteenth annual Royal Rumble gave us one of the best matches in WWE history.

The event took place on January 23, 2000, at Madison Square Garden in New York City. It was the start of a new decade and the WWE was gearing up to build their next great champ. And this was the match that gave one participant the push he needed to become a heavyweight legend over the next decade and arguably the greatest heel for the entire Attitude Era.

Of course, I’m referring to the Street Fight match between Triple H and Cactus Jack for the WWF WWE Championship.

It was the match the helped Triple H earn everyone’s respect; in fact, in retrospect, it’s clear the whole match was designed as one giant promo in order to give Triple H a believable physical prowess as an ongoing champion contender. And for WWE fans who weren’t familiar with Mick Foley’s earlier hardcore wrestling, the match pretty much certified the man was indeed, truly insane.

Yes, Mankind and Undertaker had already wrestled their legendary Hell in the Cell match two years prior at King of the Ring— and yes, we had already seen plenty of street fights in the WWE— but the WWE Championship match at the 2000 Royal Rumble was a brutal, violent, and extremely bloody affair. By WWE standards, it pushed the boundaries, delivering a level of violence that casual WWE fans weren’t accustomed to seeing.

It was also a match that told an excellent story and had a remarkable buildup leading into the event.

Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H Street and Cactus Jack

By the summer of ’99, Triple H was finally getting the main event push he deserved thanks to the McMahon-Helmsley Faction, a partnership that benefited from that fact that at the time, Stephanie McMahon had almost full control over the WWE. Great power means great responsibility but for Stephanie McMahon, it meant scheduling unreasonable matches for the wrestlers who were deemed a major threat to her husband. The superstar most affected was none other than, Mick Foley.

Triple H and Mick Foley put on a series of exciting matches in the first year of the new millennium and with this rivalry, came some of the best writing in the history of the WWE. The compelling storyline featured legendary promos, unforgettable drama, and unusual matches designed to wear down Triple H’s main competition. One such match was the “Pink Slip on a Pole Match” between The Rock and Mankind, with the loser forced to leave the WWE. Mankind lost, and thus was fired unceremoniously, only to return two weeks later when the Rock and the rest of the WWE superstars threatened to walk out unless Mick Foley was reinstated. That night, Foley requested a Street Fight for the WWF WWE Championship at Royal Rumble— and on a January 13 episode of SmackDown!, Foley shocked the world when he returned to the ring in his Cactus Jack persona! It wasn’t Mankind set to fight Triple H at the Royal Rumble— instead, it would be the hardcore legend.

WWE Championship: Triple H vs. Cactus Jack

With Mick Foley entering his final year as a full-time professional wrestler, fans were expecting big things from the legend, and the 2000 Royal Rumble Championship match did not disappoint. There have been plenty of Street Fights in World Wrestling Entertainment history, but one would be hard-pressed to find one better than this classic. It was the fifth match of the night— in one of the best Royal Rumble pay-per-view events to date— and by far the most memorable match on the card.  

Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H Street and Cactus Jack Street Fight

Cactus Jack gained the early advantage after repeated punches but it didn’t take long before both men took to the outside the ring using everything in their reach including the ring bell, the stairs, a couple of trash cans and more. The match featured multiple chair shots to the head along with the destruction of both announce tables and at one point, the two men even took the fight into the crowd. But the real turn of the match came earlier when Cactus brought out a 2×4 wrapped in barbed wire, and slammed it across the skull of Triple H, busting his forehead wide open. It was brutal. It was bloody, and for some fans, it was hard to watch.

Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H Street and Cactus Jack Street Fight

Reminiscent of prior a Royal Rumble, Triple H managed to handcuff Cactus Jack and continue to use the steel chair as a weapon, taking advantage of a man who could barely defend himself. Eventually, The Rock made a brief cameo, striking Triple H across the head with a chair, and allowing a police officer enough time to remove Jack’s handcuffs so he could continue to fight. Soon after, Cactus Jack was ready to seal the match but made the mistake of pouring hundreds of thumbtacks onto the ring. In a quick turn of events, Triple H fought back to take control of the match and hit his Pedigree finisher on his opponent, slamming the challenger face-first onto a large pile of thumbtacks and in the process and sealing the victory. The finish was gut-wrenching and graphic but well-scripted given the level of hatred and disdain the Superstars had for each other. Both men took a beating, but in the end, it was Triple H who escaped the victor.

Royal Rumble Matches: Triple H Street and Cactus Jack Street Fight

The brutality of the match is a reminder of the differences between the current WWE and the Attitude Era. Nowadays, the WWE doesn’t allow blood in their matches, never mind the use of barbwire and thumbtacks as weapons to use against your opponents. It was a match of its time; a match that stands the test of time— and one of the greatest matches in Royal Rumble history, fueled by the emotion of the competitors, and an epic storyline that would prove Triple H a legitimate headliner.

On a night filled with memorable moments such as the Tables Match between the Hardy Boyz and the Dudely Boyz, not to mention The Rock’s unforgettable Royal Rumble win, Triple H and Mick Foley ended up stealing the show— but it was far from the latest chapter in their rivalry. With the stage set for another iconic battle, the Hardcore Legend and Triple H would step inside a Hell in the Cell for yet, another epic encounter.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series. Click here to see every entry.

  • Ricky D
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Wrestling

Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

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Royal Rumble 2003

WWE Championship: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

WWE’s annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view is famous for its over-the-top main event, but there have also been many legendary single and tag team matches over the years that wound up overshadowing the titular 30-man brawl. One such match came during the Ruthless Aggression Era when two of the greatest wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling, squared off in what would be a technical showcase between two mat technicians. Of course, I’m referring to the 2003 Royal Rumble WWE Championship match between Kurt Angle and the Rabid Wolverine, Chris Benoit.

The match between Benoit and Angle isn’t just one of the greatest matches in WWE history— it is hands-down, the best match of 2003— a non-stop classic that doesn’t get the full recognition it deserves.

This match took place on January 19, at the Fleet Center in Boston. It was the sixteenth annual Royal Rumble and it unfolded during the pinnacle of the first WWE brand split. Monday Night Raw placed a heavy emphasis on soap opera drama while Smackdown focused more on technical wrestling. And if this wasn’t evident at the time, it became crystal clear during the 2003 Royal Rumble pay per view. In short, there was a huge difference in quality between the Angle/Benoit match which headlined the Smackdown brand and the primary match for Raw which saw Triple H and Scott Steiner fight for the World Heavyweight Championship. It was no contest. The Smackdown brand came out on top thanks to the sheer talent of Benoit and Angle; two world-class competitors in their prime and arguably at the time, two of the best wrestlers on the planet.

WWE Championship: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

For roughly twenty minutes the Canadian Wolverine and the U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist went to war in a non-stop physical encounter which simmered with an amazing series of transitions from the Ankle lock to the Crippler Crossface. Needless to say, both men pulled off every single one of their special movies, multiple times throughout the match. Benoit attempted a diving headbutt on Angle, only Angle avoided the move and attempted an Angle Slam on Benoit which Benoit countered. Later when Benoit applied the sharpshooter on Angle, Angle in dramatic fashion, slowly made his way to the edge of the ring and touched the ropes to break the submission. Their chemistry was off the charts and the action in the ring kept the audience at the edge of their seats, as did the incredibly convincing near-falls which were executed to perfection. At one point, both men laid on the mat unable to get to their feet which almost resulted in a double count-out. It as a back and forth battle that had spectators believing anyone could win at any given moment.

WWE had built Benoit up as a babyface, and despite being the underdog— with the crowd behind the Canadian wolverine, many believed he would finally hold the belt over his shoulders. By the time Benoit executed a diving headbutt, nobody in the arena was left sitting on their chairs. In the end, however, Benoit applied yet another Crippler Crossface on Angle, only to have Angle counter it into a modified ankle lock, forcing Benoit to submit to the hold. It was a clean finish that featured a rare submission from the famously resilient Benoit.

Angle vs. Benoit at the 2003 Royal Rumble

The match exceeded any expectations and in the end, both men received a standing ovation. And while Benoit didn’t win, he walked away as the man who stole the show. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end for him but only the beginning. Over the course of the next year, he would rise in the ranks of the WWE roster and in 2004, he would win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XX against Shawn Michaels and Triple H in a triple threat match.

As Kurt Angle said when asked about his career-defining match: If you want to learn and understand the art of pro wrestling, you need to watch the 2003 Royal Rumble World Championship match.

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Up next….. Royal Rumble in January 2019. 16 years ago I had the privilege of defending my WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble. This is how the match was explained verbally to those who haven’t watched it. “Professional wrestling in its purest form is as beautiful as ballet, as elegant as a ballroom dance and as captivating as a theater. By purest form I mean technical wrestling, which in today’s world is almost non-existent. The fiery chain wrestling, involving great chemistry, in-ring psychology and dream like story telling is something that happens when all the stars align.” This match was one of my best performances of my career. If you haven’t seen it, give it a look. #itstrue #wwe #championship #royalrumble

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Angle vs. Benoit can be viewed as the single greatest non-Rumble match in the history of the pay per view. Watching it again after all these years proved to be just as thrilling— even if I already knew the outcome.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an ongoing series. Click here to see every entry.

  • Ricky D
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