TV Review: Madness Reigns on ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ in “The Black Tower”

Marc Warren and Bertie Carvel

The Gentleman (Marc Warren) watches Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel) at work. Photo: JSMN Ltd, Matt Squire / BBC America.

Following “The Black Tower,” there’s only one more episode of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a BBC series that depicts a Napoleonic Europe beset by magic. The penultimate installment is a jarring descent into madness. Norrell (Eddie Marsan), the older magician, is frustrated that he can’t locate Strange (Bertie Carvel), his former apprentice. He reluctantly pulls Drawlight (Vincent Franklin) out of jail to handle the search.

Strange is hiding in Venice, trying to “catch” madness, a mental state that enables one to see fairies. He meets the lovely Flora (Lucinda Dryzek), from whom he learns about an old lady that lives with cats and eats dead rodents. Yes, she’s mad. I would have preferred a less stomach-turning method for demonstrating his obsession with getting Arabella (Charlotte Riley) back. Strange succeeds and meets the Gentleman, a fairy king (Marc Warren) with a penchant for deals. His happiness fades upon realizing that Belle is alive, turning quickly to rage when he discovers the Gentleman’s involvement with Lady Pole’s (Alice Englert) resurrection.

Both Bertie Carvel and Marc Warren deserve praise for the way they play the long overdue confrontation in Strange’s rooms and the fairy kingdom of Lost-Hope. When they cast aside their measured politeness, the visible tension in their stances and faces almost makes you believe that invisible waves of magic are radiating from them. The Gentleman’s antagonism drips through his conversation with the Pole family’s butler, Stephen (Ariyon Bakare). It’s beautifully shot with strong light and shadow as the fairy king stands behind Stephen, who tries to dine with the oblivious Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer).

“The Black Tower” is certainly the most entertaining and exhilarating chapter thus far. Developing plot threads are starting to converge, tied to the prophecy of the Raven King, another longtime adversary of the Gentleman. That story, as told by the street magician Vinculus (Paul Kaye), has hinted at disaster for Norrell and Strange.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell also addresses with maximum damage the question of John Segundus, an aspiring (but not practicing) magician: “Why is there no more magic done in England?” Strange and Norrell predict correctly that a revival of magic would bring about factions. It threatens to leave devastation in its wake, as shown by the Gentleman’s conjuring of a pillar of darkness around Strange.

Norrell is convinced that Strange’s “mad magic” can only lead to “catastrophe.” He’s equally at fault for employing the very dark magic that he regarded as disreputable in the first place. In addition, he succeeded at stirring the ire of Strange, culminating in a threat that the younger magician sends through the mirrors as a horde of ravens. Fluttering and pecking sounds create an eerie atmosphere before the ravens break Norrell’s mirrors, heightened by Eddie Marsan’s looks of perplexity and horror. Will the rift between Norrell and Strange continue or will they put aside their differences to take down the Gentleman together? Catch the finale on BBC America July 25 at 10 p.m. ET.

Article first published as ‘TV Review: ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’ – “The Black Tower”‘ on Blogcritics.org.

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FOX Releases “Rise of the Villains” Teasers for ‘Gotham’ Season 2

FOX ran promos for the upcoming second season of the hit series “Gotham,” which returns to television on September 21. “The Cave” is a promo focusing on young Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) and his butler Alfred Pennyworth (Sean Pertwee) as they venture down to what will become the Batcave. It’s pretty straightforward and doesn’t offer much in the way of extra details. There’s likely to be a lot of anticipation about Bruce’s development into the Dark Knight, given his introduction to Lucius Fox (Chris Chalk) in the previous season.

The second commercial is entitled “Hungry,” drawing attention to the antagonism between Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) and Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari). Jim looks pensive and serious as he deals with Penguin (Robin Lord Taylor) and later gazes into a mirror. Perhaps the new season will explore a sort of falling away from his principles as a new struggle for power ensues? If that’s the case, I see a bigger role for his partner Bullock (Donal Logue) in steering him back to a better path.

It’s nice to see that Penguin is at the center of events in Gotham City. With things going his way, how will the criminal world of Gotham change? There’s a brief glimpse of the Joker (Cameron Monaghan), who has long held a reputation in other versions of Batman as a wild card. We can probably be sure of one thing: “Rise of the Villains” is a secondary title that doesn’t bode well for the good citizens of Gotham.

Tune into FOX on Monday, September 21st, to find out what happens next.

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Robert Carlyle’s Directorial Debut, ‘The Legend of Barney Thomson,’ Opens July 24 in the UK

Photo of Thomson Road Sign

Where will Barney appear next? Photos: Pat Cuadros

How fortunate if you’re living in the UK right now, because cinemas nationwide will release “The Legend of Barney Thomson” tomorrow. Robert Carlyle (“Once Upon a Time,” “Trainspotting”) stars in the titular role as the hapless Scottish barber, who is thrust into the world of serial killing. The black comedy recently had its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, of which Carlyle is an Honorary Patron. He also makes his first leap into film directing with this project, though he’s no stranger to working behind-the-scenes in theater and television.

Other talented actors round out the cast of “Barney Thomson.” Interestingly enough, Emma Thompson secured the role of Cemolina, Barney’s mother of questionable sanity. However, she’s only a couple of years older than Carlyle. Leave it to her magnificent skill as an actress and the power of makeup to tie her portrayal together wonderfully. Ray Winstone is Inspector Holdall, a somewhat reluctant detective on the case, lamenting that being in the police force didn’t turn out as flashy as television trumped it up to be.

“The Legend of Barney Thomson” is a film adaptation of Douglas Lindsay’s The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson, first out of a series of 7 books. Lindsay is effective at getting readers into the heads of his Glaswegian characters. Barney Thomson, of course, is the primarily focus of this psychological study of sorts, with no shortage of dark and funny thoughts that usually didn’t go past his own imagination.

Will Robert Carlyle’s version be successful at capturing that energy and comedic brilliance? One also wonders if Carlyle will continue on with the other books, should his first venture generate a sizable revenue at the box office. There’s still no indication as to whether the film will hit other markets, but the film festival season is still underway, leaving more time for distribution companies to promote it.

I have a feeling we haven’t heard the last of Barney. If you’re in the UK, be sure to check out “The Legend of Barney Thomson” in the coming days.

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Review: Russell Howard Opens Second U.S. Comedy Tour in Washington, D.C.

Russell Howard kicked off his comedy tour in the U.S. earlier this summer, opening in Washington, DC. The British comedian from Bristol is the host of Russell Howard’s Good News, a BBC Two program in which he addresses recent news with standup routines and sketches. Expect venues like the historic synagogue Sixth & I to be packed; event organizers had to add chairs to rows in an effort to accommodate the enthusiastic attendees.

In DC, local comedian Max Rosenblum opened the show. He immediately tackled the misfortune of having the same name as the Max Rosenblum who was arrested in connection with the Philip Seymour Hoffman drug raid. “Max, tell me it isn’t true!” he recounts from a phone conversation with his mother. As Rosenblum points out, it’s quite an obstacle if he ever wants to market his own brand of cologne. Speaking about dating websites, he suggested that it’d be easier to bring up the topic if sites were called “In Real Life” and “Through a Friend.” Such titles are better suited to the inevitable and oftentimes awkward question, “So how did you meet?”
Russell Howard

It’s quite fitting that Sixth & I blasted out alternative music at intermission leading off with the catchy vibes of The Strokes. Subsequently, one’s gaze was pulled immediately to The Strokes t-shirt that Howard wore. On Good News, Russell Howard isn’t afraid to address controversy and resort to jokes that some might find objectionable. Likewise, he jumps right into his live shows with his sharp wit, peppered with a relish for improvisation.

Leave it to Howard to engage in a friendly chat with a woman about web design and connect that to his perplexity with Fifty Shades of Grey behaviors. These moments, along with a discourse about “absurd things blokes say,” did much to garner a lot of excitement. It’s great to see that he injects spur-of-the-moment material to tailor each show to his audience, even so far as to inquire about places he should visit.

However, the best aspects of Howard’s routine deal with the anecdotes about his experiences with friends and family. His mother’s advice for coping with adversity is to “think of a T-Rex making its bed.” Just try and picture that scenario if you can! At the Glastonbury Festival, an attendee high on a certain substance asked Howard’s friend, a dwarf, why he was so short. “I angered a wizard,” came the answer. Another gem is a question about Star Wars light sabers: “Why is it you never see any moths?” Yes, he even topped it off with the classic light saber gestures.

If you’re looking for an enjoyable evening out with a sibling or your friends, Russell Howard certainly delivers on that front. He concludes his North American tour tomorrow in Montreal, Canada. Let’s hope he adds another tour next year.

This article was first published as “Comedy Review: Russell Howard Opens Second U.S. Comedy Tour in Washington, D.C.” on Blogcritics.org. It’s published again here with two minor changes in the opening and final paragraphs.

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Review: ‘Arabella’ Teases Buildup to Confrontation Between ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell’

Photo of Jonathan Strange

Hard times are ahead for Jonathan Strange (Bertie Carvel). Photo: JSMN Ltd, Matt Squire, BBC America

“Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” have decidedly split, as the former (Bertie Carvel) resides back at his family estate with his lovely bride Arabella (Charlotte Riley). Strange is busy working on a book and a series of etchings. He’s still a bit shaken by his harrowing experiences at Waterloo, where he used his magic to kill a hatchet-wielding Frenchman. His own weapon of choice was a giant hand that he conjured out of the mud.

Unfortunately, the Gentleman (Marc Warren) steals away Belle in the middle of the night, replacing her with a fake copy that dies the next day. Stephen (Ariyon Bakare) convincingly appeals to Belle for help with Lady Pole (Alice Englert), but instead he pulls her into the kingdom of Lost-Hope. Belle’s situation differs from Stephen and Lady Pole, because she appears to be enjoying herself at the dance.

Strange, in his grief, appeals to Norrell (Eddie Marsan) to no avail and returns to London to try to publish his book of etchings as a tribute to Belle. However, Childermass (Enzo Cilenti) reveals that Norrell is bent on stopping the book by casting Strange as in league with the machine-breakers. Childermass is an intriguing character; he appreciates that Strange treats him as a magician rather than as a mere servant (unlike Norrell) but he vows to take up the cause of the loser when the dust settles in the upcoming Strange/Norrell confrontation.

“Arabella” seemed to plod along at parts, particularly during the disappearance of Belle. Yet Bertie Carvel shines as the tortured and grieving Strange when he is finally overcome by the reality that he can’t revive his beloved wife. His next plan is to become mad so he’ll be able to see the Fairy King (aka the Gentleman). The more interesting aspects of the episode concerned the subtle changes in the dynamic between Stephen and the Gentleman. Lady Pole insults Stephen as being “poisoned” to do whatever the Gentleman bids (although both seem unable to wrest themselves out of his control). Meanwhile, Segundus (Edward Hogg) and Honeyfoot (Brian Pettifer) realize that the pattern in Lady Pole’s stories point to a fairy.

However, it’s clear that Stephen is slowly rejecting the hold of the Gentleman: refusing to engage in the pranks on Strange. Ariyon Bakare effectively captures the nuances in Stephen’s resigned but braver demeanor as he remains sympathetic to the plight of Jonathan Strange. Stephen is destined to become a king and prophecies, at least thus far, have been turning out to be true. The Gentleman is pushing Stephen to be King of England, but what if the butler’s future position lies in another realm?

Check out the “Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell” tonight to find out what’s next for magic in England.

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Review: Ian McKellen Is Remarkable with Another Side of ‘Mr. Holmes’

Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind has finally hit the big screen, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher into “Mr. Holmes.” It stars Ian McKellen (“The Hobbit,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”) as the Great Detective at the age of 93. Holmes has long been in retirement in Sussex, tending to bees and contending with the questionable cooking of Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), a war widow. He connects well with Mrs. Munro’s inquisitive son, Roger (Milo Parker).

Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes

The game is afoot for Ian McKellen as Sherlock Holmes in “Mr. Holmes.” Photo: Miramax/Roadside Attractions/BBC Films.

It’s 1947 and Holmes is on the case. Why did his last investigation in 1919 lead him into retirement? He relies first on “royal jelly” from bees and then tries “prickly ash” from Japan as possible remedies for memory loss. It seems a bit top heavy with the visit to Hiroshima, but eventually his encounter with Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada) turns into a small mystery of its own, too.

Since the days of Arthur Conan Doyle, stories have been generated to explore nearly every imaginable facet of Holmes’ life. Delving into Holmes’ love life and his retirement years are of no exception. The somewhat uneven tales from Laurie King perhaps comprise one of the more well-known versions of an older Holmes. Crafting together a Holmes who is perplexed or even annoyed by his literary persona is also nothing new. By the way, did anyone catch Nicholas Rowe (“Young Sherlock Holmes”) as the Matinee Sherlock, a fun parody of the Basil Rathbone era?

Director Bill Condon and Ian McKellen are brilliant at giving us a different side of Holmes, rendering wonderfully the problems of aging and identity. Point-of-view shots and close-ups of McKellen are also presented to get us into the mind of Holmes: smooth and artful panning to the side as he trails Mrs. Kelmot (Hattie Morahan) through 1919 London. It’s quite suddenly broken up by jump cuts while his mind grasps at the tendrils of the fading memories, pulling viewers into the same sense of frustration. Glass surfaces and mirrors are not in short supply either to continue this venture into his consciousness. Was it truly necessary to dispense with the original title, given the tricks that are woven into the plot?

Admittedly, the slower pace all throughout and the intensity of the last third of the film may not be for everyone. (Should it really have been rated PG?) Noticeably missing is Dr. Watson (Colin Starkey), cleverly shown through the haze of the window when he arrives. After that, only the good doctor’s legs and hands are seen. There’s still plenty to keep Sherlockians entertained in the way of Holmes’ deductions and sense of humor, as magnificently captured by Ian McKellen in both the younger and older Holmes. The refreshing honesty of his performance is balanced by that of both Laura Linney and Milo Parker. Undoubtedly, “Mr. Holmes” was worth the wait and promises to be a memorable film for 2015.

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Review: ‘Minions’ Top the Box Office Despite Flaws

“Minions” successfully raked in $115 million in its opening weekend domestically, taking the number one spot in the box office. Combined with other grosses, the prequel to the “Despicable Me” films has now made a whopping $395.7 million worldwide and will continue to climb. We’ve been clamoring for a minions-centered movie for a while, so how does it measure up?

I wanted to like “Minions” with all my heart, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit cheated by its end. I’m usually wary when the theatrical trailer is very long and divulges the entire plot. Sadly, most of the funny material from “Minions” was already in the trailer. Kevin, Stuart, and Bob (three of the beloved yellow creatures) embark on a search for the best evil master, in hopes of revitalizing the entire minion group (all voiced by Pierre Coffin). When I saw the initial trailers for this film, I assumed that it meant we would get to meet young Gru (Steve Carell) “soon” after the disastrous events with Dracula and Napoleon.

It’s set in the 1960s, but unfortunately, there’s no Gru in sight. Instead, Kevin and his mates hitchhike from New York to Florida for Villain-Con in hopes of being recruited by the hottest villain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Be forewarned: if you weren’t able to get tickets to San Diego Comic-Con, then seeing Villain-Con on the big screen just might stoke the flames of despair. Bob, the smallest minion, succeeds in taking Scarlet’s jewel, making the three minions her newest henchmen. They are charged with stealing the Queen of England’s crown, which amusingly ends with Bob as the winner again!

Photo of "Minions" poster

Poster for the “Minions” film Photo: Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures

Aside from those points, there’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which suggests that shorts or television specials would have been a better route to take. The confusion and humor by the minions continues along the same patterns or at least produces the same reactions. There aren’t any humans here that stand out as much as Gru and the girls from “Despicable Me.” Curiously enough, there’s an equivalent to Russell Brand’s Dr. Nefario in the form of the blind Tower Guard (Steve Coogan). Rather than being comical, the torture room scene with Scarlet’s masked husband, Herb (Jon Hamm), comes off as rather disturbing: depicting a noose and other devices as fun? Poor taste there. The adventures seem rushed and tired by the time Kevin grows to the size of Godzilla.

It’s quite astonishing that Gru comes into the film so late. His scenes with the minions then and during the ending credits are among the best ones. Perhaps Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will seek to profit by elaborating on those segments via a television show with Gru and the minions.

Overall, “Minions” is merely okay, with a few areas for laughs. One could forgo the 3D glasses and resort to the standard viewing option, as with many of the 3D films that have come out in recent months. Better still, you could wait until the film is released on Redbox. And parents, you might want to exercise caution about some of the potentially objectionable content.

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