Saturday, 20 April 2013

Review: Da Vinci's Demons Episode 2 ~ The Serpent

This morning I sat myself down to watch episode 2 of Da Vinci's Demons, a feeling of excitement brewing in me. Last week's episode was thoroughly enjoyable, so I couldn't wait to get my teeth into this one. As I mentioned in my previous review, Da Vinci's Demons is a historical fantasy based around the life of a young Leonardo Da Vinci - it blends a mixture of history and fantasy seamlessly, making the show a rip-roaring ride. Even if you're one of those who turns shows off at the merest hint of historical inaccuracy, I'd highly recommend you don't because you'll probably end up enjoying it just as much as I did. And in my very humble opinion, Da Vinci's Demons is, quite possibly, one of the best shows to come out this year!

We ended episode 1 with Leonardo having been given a commission by Lorenzo the Magnificent to built war machines as well as finding himself becoming embroiled in a rather enthralling mystery to find the mysterious "Book of Leaves". Episode 2 begins with Leonardo continuing that search. As actually happened in history, we see Leonardo (or rather, his friends Nico and Zoroaster) digging up a dead body. This body is the Jew who was hanged in the previous episode; Leonardo wanting his body after being told by the myserious Turk to begin his search with the "hanged man". In history, Leonardo was known for his dissection of humans wasn't exactly legal during those times. So a nice though to see Nico and Zoroaster evading the guards to dig up the body for their maestro. We're then treated to a rather gruesome scene in which Leonardo dissects the body to find what he's looking for.

Leo cuts open dead people

Which of course, being brilliant, he does. It seems there's a lot more to the Jew than meets the eye. Of course, Leonardo has a lot more on his plate than interesting mysteries. Not only must he build war machines for Lorenzo, but he has a portrait to do of Lucrezia Donati to paint as well. Lucrezia, being the love interest and a bit of a snake in the grass, seems like she's going to prove a bit of a problem for Leonardo. But we'll see how it goes as the series continues. I have to say, regarding Leonardo's sexuality in the series, I have seen a lot of posts picking at the "change" to Leonardo's sexuality. We don't actually KNOW whether Leonardo was homosexual in history as so little is known about his personal life. Yes, he was locked up for sodomy according to some sources; however he also wrote in his notebooks "The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous dispositions" - this likely suggests asexuality. Historians can argue for weeks over whether or not Da Vinci was actually gay or not; but within this show I really like this story arc. Besides, from what I've seen so far it doesn't actually make him out to be straight - if you look at the scene in episode 1 where the male model comes over and Leo says something along the lines of "he's nice to look at", I think that suggests bisexuality don't you? Anyway, I'm ranting when I should be reviewing... *gets back on topic*

Leo and Lucrezia

One of my favourite scenes in this episode was where he's first testing out his famous fan shaped musket. Let's just say that things go catastrophically wrong (despite Leo's smart mouth and his insistence that it'll all be fine), and Lorenzo gets rather irritated; giving Leonardo a week to get it fixed and working. 

Testing the musket

I really thought that Blake Ritson came into his own in this episode. Ritson stars as Girolamo Riario; nephew of Pope Sixtus IV. In history, Riario was a bit of a derp and not the nicest of men. In the show, Riario is positively evil and Riario shows this excellently. In fact, his performance is positively mind blowing. The cold, unfeeling looks that he gave Nico during a rather gruesome scene were so brilliantly done that I found myself hating the man. And that is a sign of bloody brilliant acting!

The Widows Tear, a rather nasty torture device

I was highly impressed with the acting once again in this episode. I honestly couldn't think of anyone better to play a young Leonardo; you can tell that he is really giving it his all and I have to say, as I'm watching I can really imagine that's how Leonardo would have been. The smart mouthed sass helps immensely too!

Being clever. Again.

Zoroaster is such a reprobate

Greg Chillin is another of my favourites from this episode. The character of Zoroaster just makes me laugh so much. He's just one of these characters who you instantly like; he's so full of sass and such a bad boy. He's bloody brilliant!

I was even more impressed with the cinematography and CGI elements of this episode than I was in the first. There is one very simple reason for this; and that can be seen in the screencap just above. This scene, involving a chase with the papal guards and Leo doing a very assassins creed moment with a makeshift lift, was absolutely mind blowing! I was staring at my screen in awe, and as the camera pans out you can really see the work that was put into the CGI.

I won't spoil the ending of the episode for you all. But let's just say it ends with a bang....

Lara Pulver as Clarice Orsini

Overall, another absolutely fantastic episode. I'll say it again, even if you're a historian with an eye for historical accuracy, I highly recommend this for it's mix of history and fantasy. Just as many of you will read historical fiction novels that blend history and fantasy, this does the same and it does it fantastically. Feeling sceptical? Give it a chance, you might be pleasantly surprised. I for one, will be watching this series with interest!

In the mean time, while you wait for Episode 3 please do check out the following:

Tom Riley on twitter - @thisistomriley
DaVincisWriters on twitter - @DaVinciWriters
Da Vinci's Demons on twitter - @DaVincis_Starz

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Review: Da Vinci's Demons Episode 1 ~ The Hanged Man

Having long been a fan of Leonardo Da Vinci (sometimes bordering on fangirlism - I'm not sorry for it), I may have gotten a little excited when I heard that Starz were doing a series on the great man himself. Part of me was a little worried that they would tear the history apart, but having watched episode 1 I have to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised. In fact, as I watched, I was somewhat in awe. It must be noted in the first instance, however, that the series is a work of historical fantasy. It isn't a historical documentary, and there are many (I counted myself among them not so long ago) that would switch off within the first five minutes for reasons I will come to shortly. However if you watch the show with a grain of salt, and don't expect a great degree of accuracy then I hope you will all find it as enjoyable as I did. As is the same with such historical dramas as The Borgias, I can only hope that newcomers to the period are inspired to pick up books to learn the real history of the period and enjoy the show for precisely what it is - a fun historical drama.

Tom Riley as Leonardo Da Vinci

Leonardo, being brilliant as always (with Eros Vlahos as Nico in the background)

The show itself stars Tom Riley as a young Leonardo Da Vinci. Those of us who are somewhat akin to the history of Da Vinci are familiar with the ageing bearded self portrait; however the show shows Da Vinci as a young man. Given the events at the start of the episode, we can date the first episode to around 1475/6 or so, just after Da Vinci was made a maestro (master) of art. We also see him working within the studio of Verrochio, whom he continued working with even after he was made a maestro within his own right. As I watched, I found Riley's performance absolutely captivating and honestly could think of no one better for the role of a young Leonardo Da Vinci. Alongside Riley's Da Vinci we also have Blake Ritson as the infamous Giralomo Riario (later the husband of Caterina Sforza, and whose actor recently starred in "World Without End"); Elliot Cowan as Lorenzo De Medici and Gregg Chillin (of Being Human fame) as Zoroaster. Alongside such names we also have the brilliant Nick Dunning who played Thomas Boleyn in The Tudors. Given such a wonderful cast, is it any wonder that one is drawn in from the get go?

I did notice a few historical inaccuracies as I was watching. And normally I'd be all over that sort of thing given my interest in the period, but given how much I enjoyed the show I've managed to overlook most of them. At any rate, I feel like I should briefly go over the inaccuracies that I spotted. I shall do them in bullet point form, so I don't go on for paragraphs:
  • The showing of the dome of St Peter's basilica. This wasn't started until around 1505 when Julius II was Pope. At the time of the first episode (1475/6), it was still old St Peter's that was standing - complete with the famous pine cone sculpture out the front. This may be an issue with those not knowing the history of Rome and expecting to see St Peters as we know it today, so I can excuse this.
  • The courtyard of the Medici palace is much more fancy than it actually is in real life. You can see in the show a very exaggerated octagonal shaped courtyard when in fact the court yard is much simpler.
  • The characterisation of Lucrezia Donati as a secret agent of a Vatican pact is ever so slightly over exaggerated and probably somewhat jarring to those who specialise in the history of women of the period. I myself wasn't too bothered with this, given that it seems to be a very important plot point and it looks like the whole thing will get very very interesting as the series goes on.

All in all however, the series looks incredibly promising. The fantasy aspect of the show looks to be incredibly interesting, combining ancient Roman history (the Mithraic cult) and Renaissance history; as well as building on the growing genius of Leonardo Da Vinci. The sets are, quite frankly, stunning; and the acting has proven to be top notch.

High points so far: Leonardo Da Vinci's sass, Zoroaster and his drunkenness and the creepy Turk.

Very much looking forward to the next episode. I highly recommend checking this show out!

Monday, 15 April 2013

The Borgias - Season 3, Episode 1: The Face of Death

Caterina Sforza - Gina McKee

I'm going to be honest here and say then when I heard what the plans were for The Borgias, Season 3; I was a little loathe to even start watching it. And I'm still loathe to carry on watching the series. However, I have watched both the first and second seasons and, if I must admit it, enjoyed them immensely despite their ah...not so historically accurate storylines. Now then, the creator of the show, Neil Jordan, has said throughout that he wouldn't go down the incest route. But then the promotional videos game out showing the whole "Only a Borgia can love a Borgia" and "It's a game of want, and wanting" thing; and the Cesare/Lucrezia shippers went nuts and it seems that Jordan had decided to cater to the rumours that have been fed down to us throughout the centuries. I have to say, I was a little disappointed in this, and it really put me off the idea of watching the new season. But then I thought, "hang on a minute, why don't I review them so I can do a little mythbusting?" And so here we are, the first episode has aired, and here I am to share with you all a little review. I'm going to try my best to be as balanced as possible, and I'll try my best not to get ranty. If I get ranty, I apologise.

The first episode, aptly named "The Face of Death", picks up where season 2 left off. I'm going to try my best not to spoil the episode for everyone, but obviously given how one must review the content of the episode...that might be a little difficult. At the end of Season 2, Giuliano della Rovere had organised for Pope Alexander VI to be poisoned and the tasting boy (and agent of Rovere's) managed to succeed in getting cantarella in the Pope's wine. Of course, being the taster the boy drank from the wine himself and died a horrifically painful death while the Pope started spitting blood and passed out. Now thinking that the Pope is on his deathbed, the entire consistory gathers around his deathbed. They begin to scheme over who will replace him, Della Rovere being the usual sneaky piece of work. Alas, when Cesare realises that it was Dela Rovere who engineered the plot; poor Della Roverre realises that actually he'd be better off siding with the Borgia family. Now enemies begin to surround the Borgia family and Cesare must do his best to protect his family from those, like Caterina Sforza and her assassin Rufio, who want both the papacy and the lives of them all.

The cardinals gather, just incase the Pope decides to pop his clogs.

Cesare tries to attack Dela Roverre

Regarding the historical accuracy of this episode - there was absolutely no accuracy to this at all. Whilst the Borgias had many enemies and doubtless would have dealt with many plots, Dela Roverre never conspired to poison the Pope and indeed the Pope was never poisoned with cantarella. Caterina Sforza also never sent  her assassins into the house of Vanozza Cattanei; the only assassination attempt she made towards the Pope was actually by sending letters that had been left to fester next to the body of a plague victim! Regarding Dela Roverre, he was always plotting for one way or another to get his hands on St Peter's chair but more often than not he'd run away from Rome at the first sign of trouble. He certainly wasn't taken into custody in such a way, nor did he escape in such a way only to run into Cesare's blade. I honestly wonder where the scriptwriters got half of these ideas because so many of them are just so unlikely it's laughable. Of course as the series goes on, I'm sure there will be many more points I can make about the accuracy of such plot points. And I'm sure you'll all be treated to a bit of a rant when the incest storyline gains a foothold. But we shall cross that bride when we come to it.

In any case, there are a few good points to the episode as well. As always, and as has been proven in previous series', the acting is top notch from the cast. Stand outs for me so far are Francois Arnaud, Holliday Grainger and Colm Feore. With Arnaud's Cesare you can really get a sense of how Cesare has grown - in the previous scene we see him as a cleric determined to be rid of his robes, and giving into the darkness of his soul. In this first episode we can really see how dark he is beginning to become, how important family is and how much he loathes the idea of religion. Grainger seems to have also really grown into her role as Lucrezia although I am sure we will be able to gain further ideas of this as the series goes on. And with Feore, you can really see how Cardinal Dela Rovere will grow to become the infamous Papa Terrible. Yet again the costumes and set designs are amazing, and the cinematography is second to none. Whilst I may dislike the lack of accuracy in the scriptwriting, I can't deny that the rest of the production is always stunning to look at.


Arnaud is rather good at making Cesare look broody

Cesare and Pope "Irons" Alexander

Cesare and Dela Roverre face off outside St. Peter's.

So what do I think so far? Not massively impressed but that may have something to do with the fact that I really have something against how a drama can be called "historical" if the only historical element is the name of a famous Renaissance family and the rest of the plot is so loosely connected to said family that it can't really be called historical at all. We'll see how the rest of the series goes but if I'm honest I'm not holding out much hope, especially when one of the main storylines is being said to be the incestuous relationship between Cesare and Lucrezia. As I said, we'll see how it goes. I can only hope that the other storylines get less ridiculous as the series goes on and that the acting and cinematography retains it's already excellent reputation. All in all, not as bad as I thought but still enough to make me disappointed enough not to watch the rest of the series.