TV Review: Reddington and “Luther Braxton” Battle for the Fulcrum in “The Blacklist” Midseason Premiere

Liz Keen Looks for Red in Midseason Premiere of "The Blacklist." Photo belongs to NBC.com.

Liz Keen Looks for Red during the Midseason Premiere of “The Blacklist.” Photo belongs to NBC.com.

“The Blacklist” returned last night after the Super Bowl, bringing an installment that is arguably one of the best this season. Reddington has been nabbed by military forces and gets transported to Blacksite, a prison where spies are tortured for intelligence. It’s not exactly a warm welcome. Unfortunately, Luther Braxton (a very convincing Ron Perlman) is about to break out, a warning that the warden ignores.

Agents Keen (Megan Boone), Ressler (Diego Klattenhoff), and Samar Navabi (Mozhan Marnò) rush in via a chopper for a rescue attempt that quickly goes sour for the latter two. Liz teams up with Red, who has assembled a team of sketchy allies to help them reach the server room. Red already knows that Braxton wants the Fulcrum, finally explained in greater detail as the file to bring down the government (juicy blackmail material). Reddington needs to maintain the appearance that he has it in order to stay alive. However, other DC agents and baddies (David Strathairn and Janel Moloney) have worked out that Red doesn’t have the Fulcrum, ordering a airstrike to blow up the Blacksite. Strathairn is quite chilling as the Director and seems to be setting himself to be the new Fitch in town (Alan Alda).

For the moment, Braxton is closer threat to Red and the others, killing hostages ruthlessly to get a code from Cooper for access to the Blacksite’s servers. Red’s counterattack is to disable the servers by overloading the pressure in the boiler room. Perlman’s coldness, brutality, and straight talk work in tandem to give him a strong presence here, yet it’s not overdone at all and serves to present Braxton as quite the threat to Red and Liz. There’s also an underlying brawn versus brains juxtaposition at first, as Braxton turns out to be an old adversary. However, we know Reddington to be extremely dangerous and violent when he’s provoked, particularly when there’s the possibility that any harm will come to Agent Keen.

Not only was a strong cast in play for the evening, but the episode brought great focus to the things that make “The Blacklist” a compelling and addictive show. James Spader shines again as Reddington, switching effortlessly between the two extremes that viewers may be so familiar with but of which never come across as old. First, there’s charming Red as he tells yet another bizarre tale (the vase thief) to entertain Lizzy while his temporary henchmen examine the boiler. But Red also reminds us that he’s still a monster, as he delves into the metaphor of the cave fish that have become blind and hideous in the dark. It’s fully revealed when he comes swinging with the big gun to save Liz, who is almost certainly the ray of light shining in his dark cave, to continue with the imagery.

It’s rather astonishing how much “The Blacklist” teases out in hints. Braxton is more than just brawn; he’s made a careful study of Reddington and recognizes at the end how important Liz is. According to Red, she is the key to getting the Fulcrum. But from Braxton’s words, “She was there,” referring perhaps to the incident of the fire, we may get closer to the answers when “The Blacklist” airs a new episode this Thursday. Oh, and what a cliffhanger that was with the airstrike looming! Overall, “Luther Braxton” brought an intriguing chapter for viewers new and old to enjoy, setting up a few good points for followup in the second part and other ensuing installments.

“The Blacklist” airs on Thursday evenings at 9|8c on NBC.

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Film News: Emma Watson Will Star in Live-Action “Beauty and the Beast”

This morning, TheWrap.com reported that Emma Watson will be taking the role of Belle in Disney’s live-action adaption of “Beauty and the Beast.” Watson shared her excitement about her role on her Facebook page today:

Facebook announcement today, January 26th. Screen shot by author.

Facebook announcement today, January 26th. Screen shot by author.

Disney is really lining up the adaptations of its classics, making this venture the fourth one in a recent string. Thus far, we’ve had “Maleficent” and this year we’re getting “Cinderella” and “Jungle Book.” You might also include “Frozen” in that list, if you count the appearance of the beloved Disney characters in the fourth season of “Once Upon a Time.” The fairy tale trend can be expanded further with the popularity of “Into the Woods,” another Disney project.

Live-action adaptations of stories (whether from fairy tale or general storybooks) have been around for a long time, but newer and better special effects do much to raise the hype for these productions, something that is not singular to Disney. Just look at the recent success of “Paddington” from StudioCanal, with a very convincing but computer generated bear.

The question now is whether the new “Beauty and the Beast” can match or even surpass the flair and magic of the original animated film. For a time, Guillermo del Toro was going to make his own version, which would have starred Emma Watson. While it’s interesting to consider how his might have turned out, it’s probably a relief to know that Disney will be at the helm this time and that so far casting is in good hands.

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Conan Unveils O’Taco at Taco Bell Test Kitchens

On Wednesday evening, Conan O’Brien wanted to give the show’s IT staffer, Chris Hayes, a Taco Bell experience he’d never forget. They took a trip to Irvine, CA, to visit Taco Bell Headquarters. The longtime comedian refers to the site as a “tiny Mexican village.”

As one might expect, Conan couldn’t resist wreaking a little havoc in the historic gallery and then at the test kitchen itself. Leave it to Conan to make a romantic dialogue about tacos with marketing manager Katie Garner. Finally, Chris and Conan reach the kitchen, where it’s time to taste creations that have yet to be released to the public at large. Conan points out that a cake cone is just as useful as the tortilla and taco shell for holding the meats and toppings. He also proposes that we repurpose harmonica holders as burrito holders so we can eat and drive. The final reveal is his new culinary creation, an Irish taco topped with his special sauce (Guinness). It’s doubtful that we’ll see his beloved O’Taco anytime soon, but many will appreciate his comedic flair and curiosity as we’re given a neat glimpse into the world of Taco Bell.

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TV News: “Full Sherlock” Teasers for Upcoming Special on BBC

Weeks ago, I highlighted the buzz surrounding the photo of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman dressed in what appeared to be Victorian garb. It was certainly reminiscent of the days of the Granada television series, which starred the late Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke.

Now Twitter is alive with hashtags for #Sherlock and even #setlock, a combination of Sherlock and set by fans who want to share their adventures from filming on the streets. The recent excitement concerns the appearance of Cumberbatch and Freeman in Victorian clothes in Gloucestershire Cathedral, as tweeted by sites like Entertainment Weekly:

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TV Review: Season 2 of “The Musketeers” Starts Strong

“The Musketeers” are back on BBC America for a second season. The title is “Keep Your Friends Close” and I suppose, by implication, enemies closer as the saying goes. Noticeably missing is Peter Capaldi as Cardinal Richelieu, due to the actor’s prudent switch to the BBC hit, “Doctor Who.” Richelieu is far from everyone’s minds however, as the premiere opens with his funeral and the question of a suitable replacement on both the King’s Council and the helm of the Red Guard. He even speaks from the grave with an ominous warning to Aramis at the end of the episode. One wonders why, if the Cardinal knew everyone’s secrets, he didn’t put them to good use.

King Louis (Ryan Gage) is thoroughly disappointed when Captain Treville (Hugo Speer) turns down Richelieu’s job. Meanwhile, the D’Artagnan (Luke Pasqualino), Athos (Tom Burke), Aramis (Santiago Cabrera), and Porthos (Howard Charles) are on a mission to retrieve one of Richelieu’s men. I was always weary of these types of missions, as it tends to take a while for the momentum to build. However, it appears the production team and cast have settled in nicely into the swing of things. The musketeers rescue the Comte de Rochefort (newcomer Marc Warren), who has a dark and suspicious air from the start.

His vital information for the king leads right away to another rescue mission: return to the Spanish fortress for General de Foix (Dominic Mafham), the architect of the strategy used against the Spanish. Rochefort is revealed to viewers as a Spanish spy and he’s successful at winning Richelieu’s empty spot with de Foix’s rescue. He’s proven to be quite ruthless, cunning, and even a capable fighter: qualities that will be sure to give the musketeers trouble. It’s easy to go further in saying that he’s worse than Richelieu, who detested Spain. Yet, Rochefort doesn’t seem to have much love for the Spanish either, save the queen, and may dispense with the alliance of convenience soon.

There are a few teasers of conflicts yet to come. Constance is given a job as confidante to Queen Anne (Alexandra Dowling), a post secured for her by D’Artagnan that no doubt irks her husband Bonacieux (Bohdan Poraj). It’s clear from her strange daydreams that she still carries a torch for D’Artagnan, who labels her a coward. Even more curious is the fact that the queen even wants a private messenger but there are strong hints that the King’s newborn son is actually Aramis’. The other small teaser is Treville and de Foix’s role in the past of Porthos, whose father was a friend of the aforementioned comrades.

Surprisingly, there’s quite a lot of action in this episode, which could be in part because it’s a season opener. D’Artagnan even gets a neat underwater scene. Another reason for improvement may be the new UK time slot, shifting to the so-called “watershed” period when more violence and adult content is permissible. It also seems like secondary characters are being given more room to grow, including King Louis, who is a big focus in next week’s installment.

“The Musketeers” airs Saturday evenings at 9|8c on BBC America.

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TV Review: Russians, Art, and Boredom on “Downton Abbey”

Last week, Mary (Michelle Dockery) seemed pretty optimistic about having a holiday with Tony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) in Liverpool. However, now she looks ready to shake him off and move on to another suitor. She didn’t heed Charles Blake’s (Julian Ovenden) warning from beforehand that Tony was too boring. It’s rather puzzling why she insists on dragging on the affair rather than giving Tony the boot. It’s plain to see that Mary is bored, which probably makes the viewers feel bored as well. Even the fact that she’s seen by Spratt (Jeremy Swift) does little to enliven this part of the plot. One reason for the dragging pace is the fact that Mary’s suitors are not that appealing.

What is more enjoyable is the return of Richard E. Grant as Mr. Bricker. It’s only his second appearance on the program, yet he marks out a stronger presence than both Blake and Gillingham combined. Anyway, Bricker invites Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) to see a della Francesca at the gallery in London. Cora has always been portrayed as faithful to her husband Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and here is no exception in spite of how flattered she feels from Bricker’s compliments. It’s unfortunate that Lord Grantham can be a bit of a boor sometimes, ignoring Cora’s desire to still feel useful at the manor. I highly doubt that she’ll acquiesce to Bricker’s advances, but the art critic is bound to cause more trouble down the line.

The other thread worth paying attention to concerns Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan), who disagree on whether or not to advocate to include Archie’s name on the war memorial. Archie, Mrs. Patmore’s (Lesley Nicol) nephew, was shot for cowardice and is disqualified from such honors. Carson insists that he won’t budge, but we know from the first episode that he detests being on the opposing side. There’s a hilarious one-liner from Mrs. Patmore as she implores Mrs. Hughes for help: “Everyone knows you can twist him ’round your little finger.”

As for other happenings in Downton, Rose (Lily James) is busy doing charity work in York with Russian refugees, who stop by later for tea and to view Romanov relics. It leads to an interesting encounter between the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) and Prince Kuragin (Rad Serbedzija), an old flame from the 1870s. It turns out Lady Violet is not so conservative as she seems, an observation that makes her relent somewhat on pressuring Mary to tie the knot with Tony. Meanwhile, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has been spending more time with Marigold, but her frequent visits do much to annoy Mrs. Drewe (Emma Lowndes). Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is looking into “choosing [his] own path,” the police appear to rule out Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), and Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) gets to stay at Downton after all.

Overall, this episode is rather disappointing, adding some layers here and there but doing little for a “wow” factor. Some plot build up is great, but going too slowly can make for an anti-climatic wrap up of a season. One hopes that next week’s installment will change the course. However, it could very well be the end of “Downton” at season six, with the recent news that PBS only confirmed a sixth season. Last October, it was also announced that writer and creator Julian Fellowes would be working on “The Gilded Age” with NBC. Is season six the last one for “Downton Abbey”?

“Downton Abbey” airs Sunday evenings on PBS at 9|8c.

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Review: “Paddington” is a Truly Endearing and Poignant Family Film

According to box office estimates, “Paddington” took third place behind “American Sniper” and “The Wedding Ringer” this weekend with a pull of nearly $19.3 million. One hopes that the figures will only continue to rise for the family film, which already set records in the UK for distributor StudioCanal last month.

The film tells the story of Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw), a loveable and naive bear from Darkest Peru, whose family encountered and befriended an explorer (Tim Downie) years ago. The bear’s aunt and uncle (Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon), who can also talk, learned a lot about etiquette and jolly old England before the explorer departed for home. Skip forward years later, when disaster befalls the bears, forcing Paddington’s Aunt Lucy to send him to a new life in London. He’s equipped with only a suitcase of marmalade and a tag on around his neck asking for someone to care for him.

At Paddington station (inspiration for his human name), he’s taken in temporarily by the Brown family until they can find him a permanent home. Or perhaps until Mr. Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville) can convince his wife, Mary (Sally Hawkins), to take Paddington to the authorities and the not-orphanage. Also comprising the family unit is their son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), daughter Judy (Madeleine Harris), and housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters). However, lurking around is an evil taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) set on adding Paddington to her collection, with initial assistance from the Brown’s neighbor, Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi).

Surprisingly, that is the gist of the main plot for “Paddington:” a storyline that is so simple yet doesn’t fail to capture your heart by the end. Paddington is a very clumsy bear, which does much to provide misadventures as the Browns help him look for the truth about the expedition to Darkest Peru. However, none of these antics seem as overly silly, as is wont to happen in kid’s movies. For once, we also have a family movie where the family generally gets along. Often a feud between parents or children and parents is emphasized far too much at the expense of the story. Instead, most of the little episodes are packed with meaningful and hilarious moments that also serve to impart little lessons along the way.

“Paddington” is a beautifully executed family film for many reasons. First, the casting is quite seamless with the likes of Bonneville, Kidman, and Capaldi. “Downton” fans in the U.S. probably relish the opportunity to see Bonneville in a purely comedic role, as he vaults straight off of the likes of the “Downton” spoof and “Galavant.” Both Kidman and Capaldi play characters that could easily strike one as over-the-top, but they expertly navigate that tightrope (Mr. Curry’s crush on Millicent) in their serious portrayals. Other talented actors like Michael Gambon, Imelda Staunton, and Geoffrey Palmer do much to add to this magical atmosphere despite their short screen (or voice) time.

I would be remiss to mention that “Harry Potter” and “Gravity” producer David Heyman was also on the team for “Paddington,” which perhaps explains a lot. There’s such a good flow to the film, which is full of so many little details. Take for instance the train set that carries the tea and cakes to the table. It transitions right away to Mr. Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) backstory as Paddington is still gazing at the little train. Sometimes the CGI appears as though it could be slightly better, but it’s quite impressive just how real Paddington the bear looks in his surroundings.

Additionally, “Paddington” is a decidedly British film, sparing little when it pokes fun at English sensibilities and elements of the culture. It does so without descending into jokes or language that Americans wouldn’t be able to understand, which is quite a relief. The comedic moments are refreshingly funny to both adults and children, a characteristic that has been lacking in many family flicks as of late. Therefore, “Paddington” is also a very universal film that will delight international audiences with Paddington’s journey to find a home and acceptance. So gather the whole family and head out to see “Paddington” for a memorable experience.

Oh, and there’s already talk of a sequel.

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