Tag Archives: Starz

Da Vinci’s Demons paints a wider canvas for Season 2

Tom Riley stars in 'Da Vinci's Demons.'

Tom Riley (center) returns as Renaissance inventor, artist and adventurer Leonardo Da Vinci in Season 2 of ‘Da Vinci’s Demons,’ premiering tonight on Starz.


Da Vinci’s Demons, the sexy historical fantasy that kicks off its second season tonight on Starz, opens with a surreal prologue that finds Da Vinci (Tom Riley) and his nemesis, Count Riario (Blake Ritson), in a setting and situation that may have you wondering whether you’ve wandered into Indiana Da Vinci and the Temple of Doom by mistake.
As weird as that scene is – don’t worry, you’ll find out what it means in a few episodes – it serves notice that the fantastic adventures of the title character are going to take him far away from his hometown of Florence, Italy this season.
After that brief opening scene, however, the action flashes back to pick things up where we left them at the climax to Season 1: the chaotic violence shaking Florence to its foundations following a ghastly betrayal by the treacherous Pazzi family, in cahoots with the forces of Rome. His brother dead, a critically wounded Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan) struggles to stay conscious as Da Vinci frantically tries to get him to safety. Nearby, Medici’s wife, Clarice Orsini (Lara Pulver, Sherlock), desperately tries to keep ahead of angry mobs as she rushes their young daughters to the relative safety of the Medici palace.
Resolving the pandemonium that prevails throughout the city takes up most of the first two episodes, but ultimately Da Vinci returns to the same obsession that drove him last season: locating a fabled tome called the Book of Leaves, which he suspects contains vital clues about his dimly remembered mother, as well as the truth about his own identity. That book, he learns, is located across the ocean, in the New World. Unfortunately, Count Riario, seeking the volume for his own ends, has a head start on Da Vinci.
In the season’s other major story line, we learn the secret of Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), former lover to both Da Vinci and Medici, and her relationship to the mysterious prisoner in the dungeons of the Vatican, a revelation that sends Lucrezia on her own dangerous journey to Constantinople.
In terms of sheer scale, these new episodes (Starz made the first five available for preview) dwarf what preceded them as fate separates these principal characters and sends them in pursuit of their individual (and eventually interlinked) destinies. Each of these threads has engaging plot developments that fans should enjoy, but I have to admit, I miss seeing these main characters sharing the screen together as often as they did before. Season 2 is bigger and more epic, to be sure, but there’s a trade-off in terms of focus, which simply isn’t as sharp as it was last season.
Among new cast additions, Lee Boardman is delightful as Amerigo Vespucci, the famous explorer portrayed here as the P.T. Barnum of the Renaissance, but Da Vinci’s Demons properly is dominated by Riley’s Da Vinci, a performance that is even more finely detailed than it was previously. Like Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock, Riley artfully conveys the impression of a genius whose mental gears never, ever stop spinning, as well as the frequent impatience and arrogance that comes with being the smartest guy in any room. With a prickly hero like this, fans of Da Vinci’s Demons will happily follow him to the New World and beyond.
Fast-talking explorer Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman, left) teams up with Leonardo da Vinci and his friend Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin, right) in Season 2 of 'Da Vinci's Demons.'

Fast-talking explorer Amerigo Vespucci (Lee Boardman, left) teams up with Leonardo da Vinci and his friend Zoroaster (Gregg Chillin, right) in Season 2 of ‘Da Vinci’s Demons.’

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Avast-ly entertaining Black Sails on Starz

'Black Sails' premieres tonight on Starz.

Tom Hopper, Toby Stephens, Mark Ryan and Luke Arnold (from left) star in ‘Black Sails,’ premiering tonight on Starz.


Black Sails, the lavish new pirate adventure series premiering tonight on Starz, freely blends actual historical characters (like pirate queen Anne Bonny) with newly created fictional characters to present a raucous, action-packed look at life in and around Nassau, Bahamas, circa 1715, before any kind of colonial law was imposed on the region.
As the series opens, Captain Flint (Toby Stephens) and the crew of his ship, the Walrus, are raiding another vessel they hope will swell their coffers after a very lean stretch. Their bad luck holds, however. Apart from a new cook who goes by the name John Silver (Luke Arnold), they acquire nothing of any real value.
That’s a tough break for Flint, whose fearsome reputation strikes terror in many hearts. His men, however, are on the verge of stripping Flint of his command and making another charismatic crew member their new captain. Only Flint’s quartermaster, Gates (Mark Ryan), and boatswain, Billy Bones (Tom Hopper), remain reasonably steadfast.
Nor do Flint’s problems stop there. He’s also being challenged by Charles Vane (Zach McGowan), captain of the pirate ship Ranger, and his cunning quartermaster Jack Rackham (Toby Schmitz). Both Flint and Vane are hot on the trail of a page that is missing from a ship’s log that, Flint believes, will point the way to a Spanish treasure galleon worth millions.
As the balance of power between these two men shifts back and forth, local smuggler and tavern-keeper Eleanor Guthrie (Hannah New, who looks a bit like Keira Knightley if Keira Knightley ever ate a sandwich) keeps shifting her own allegiances.
Beyond that short set-up, the creative team behind Black Sails (Michael Bay is one of the executive producers) has requested that TV writers reveal as little as possible about this new series, so as not to spoil surprises about past and present alliances, betrayals, love affairs and blood feuds among the characters.
Stephens, who happens to be the son of Downton Abbey fan favorite Maggie Smith, buckles his swash very grandly in the central role, but it’s important to note that Black Sails isn’t populated by Disney pirates. There are some scenes of comic banter among the crew members, but by and large these are ruthless, cruel and very violent men (that raid that opens tonight’s premiere is really pretty scary).
The jaw-dropping details of the physical production, which actually is based in Capetown, South Africa, vividly evoke the bustling daily activity of New Providence Island, where these outlaws make their home, and even though the pirate ship scenes usually are filmed on dry land, the vessels themselves are multi-level things of great nautical beauty.
Starz clearly has placed a lot of faith in Black Sails. Even before this first eight-episode season premieres, the premium cable network already has ordered a second 10-episode season. Prospective viewers may want to be aware that, as was the case with the channel’s hit Spartacus series, there is copious nudity in Black Sails, although unlike Spartacus, it seems to be limited to the female cast members.
In any case, make sure to keep any small fry away from this very, very adult series.
Hannah New stars as Eleanor Guthrie in 'Black Sails,' premiering tonight on Starz.

Hannah New stars as Eleanor Guthrie in ‘Black Sails,’ premiering tonight on Starz.

‘White Queen’ an opulent her-story lesson on Starz

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Rebecca Ferguson (center)
History, Winston Churchill reminded us, is written by the victors. He might have added that it’s also usually written by the men.
Based on a series of bestselling historical novels by Philippa Gregory, The White Queen – an opulent 10-part series premiering tonight on Starz after a sneak preview last night – strives to correct that gender bias by looking at a turbulent period in 15th-century English history from the perspective of the women who had a powerful influence on world-shaking events.
The story opens in 1464, during the War of the Roses between two rival factions of the Plantagenet family. Young King Edward IV (Max Irons, son of Jeremy) of the House of York sits on the throne, thanks to the cunning behind-the-scenes machinations of Lord Warwick (James Frain), whose skill at power plays has earned him the nickname “the Kingmaker.”
The cordial relationship between those two men is sorely tested, however, when Edward falls in love with a beautiful commoner, Elizabeth Woodville (Rebecca Ferguson), a widow of the rival House of Lancaster, whose mother, Jacquetta (the magnificent Janet McTeer), is every bit as wily as Warwick.
To Warwick’s horror, after Elizabeth firmly resists Edward’s proposition that she become his mistress, the King marries her in a secret ceremony that also is greeted with dagger-like derision by Edward’s mother, Duchess Cecily (Caroline Goodall).
Their union sets into motion a domino chain of political moves by other key players in the ongoing war, including the unstable and fanatically religious Margaret Beaufort (Amanda Hale), who is singlemindedly obsessed with installing her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne.
Starz has pleaded with reviewers not to spill any more of the storytelling beans, and I’ll respect that since, once past a stately-paced first hour, the narrative picks up momentum and unfolds with the tension of a contemporary political thriller. And if you’re as English history-challenged as most American viewers (including this one) are, rest assured that the adaptors of this BBC co-production have done a commendable job of keeping a tight focus on the sprawling events, so you should be able to keep straight all the various Edwards and Henrys and Marys without too much trouble.
I’ve seen eight of the 10 episodes in this series (the final two are still in post-production), and I tore through them in a couple of marathon sessions, so caught up was I in the characters and their story. Unless you’re naturally averse to historical costume dramas, you’ll probably find The White Queen a well-acted and lavishly produced way to spend a chunk of your remaining summer evenings.
Anthony Rivers, Jacquetta, King Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Richard, Anne Neville, Lord Warwick, Isabel Neville, George, Margaret Beaufort, Jasper Tudor
The main characters of ‘The White Queen’

New on DVD: Ser Jorah Mormont as you’ve never seen him

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Scottish actor Iain Glen has been a major star in his native Great Britain for many years, but he’s garnered legions of new Stateside fans in two recent high-profile TV roles: Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s suitor in season two of the period drama Downton Abbey, and Ser Jorah Mormont, trusted companion of Daenerys Targaryen in HBO’s wildly successful fantasy Game of Thrones.
Now U.S. viewers get a chance to see Glen in a more contemporary mode with the Tuesday DVD release of Jack Taylor, Set 1, from Acorn Media Group. Adapted from the bestselling crime novels of Ken Bruen, this Irish TV series follows the title character (Glen), a former Irish Garda (policeman), through his gritty life in his native Galway, where he recently was bounced from the force after a run-in with a pompous official. Now trying to support himself as a private detective, Jack Taylor carries around a host of personal demons, among them a serious drinking problem, exacerbated by his widowed mother’s pious disapproval.
This DVD set, which consists of three 90-minute episodes on three discs, starts out shakily with an episode that tries to juggle an already complicated case involving a spate of apparent suicides with establishing Jack’s complicated back story and setting up his new friendship with Kate Noonan (Nora-Jane Noone), a rookie Garda who quickly becomes Jack’s informal associate inside the department. Things improve strikingly with the second episode, wherein Jack pursues a series of vigilantes dispensing their own nasty brand of justice in the Galway streets, and meets the show’s most endearing character: Cody Farraher (Killian Scott), a worshipful young man who becomes Jack’s improbable yet highly resourceful new partner and helps him clean up his act. The third and final episode is a complete success, a very suspenseful thriller tied to Galway’s controversial Magdalen laundries half a century ago, where young “bad girls” were often sadistically abused by some of the most vicious nuns imaginable.
For the most part, Jack Taylor is compelling yet downbeat and very dark, anchored by a hero who often behaves decidedly unheroically, but Glen’s performance is superb. Don’t expect any very special guest stars – I didn’t recognize a single actor apart from Glen in any of the episodes – but the series is definitely worth checking out for anyone who likes his police dramas pretty hardcore.
Another Tuesday release from Acorn, the thoroughly engaging 2008 British dramedy Honest, just wants to keep you entertained, and it does so splendidly. The series, which lasted for only six episodes during its British run, stars Amanda Redman (from New Tricks, currently airing widely in syndication on many PBS affiliates) as Lindsay Carter, wife of a career criminal (Danny Webb) who unexpectedly gets sentenced to four years in prison for his latest caper. It’s a wakeup call for Lindsay, who resolves to keep her four children out of trouble and make sure the Carter clan rehabilitates its notorious local image. The series also stars Laura Haddock, recently seen as Leonardo’s faithless lover in the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons, as one of Lindsay’s daughters, a bubbleheaded model wannabe.
If this premise sounds vaguely familiar to you, you may have caught the shortlived ABC 2010 summer series Scoundrels, which starred Virginia Madsen in Redman’s role and a post-JAG David James Elliott as her convict-hubby. It ran for only eight episodes before being canceled due to low ratings.
Both of these new Acorn sets include closed captioning for the hearing-impaired, but not much else in the way of extras.
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Starz conjures some devilishly entertaining ‘Demons’

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Tom Riley and Laura Haddock
The life of Leonardo da Vinci was dazzling and eventful enough that, even played straight, it probably could drive a successful historical drama series. Instead, however, David S. Goyer (FlashForward) has used Da Vinci and his world as a jumping-off point for Da Vinci’s Demons, a very promising new historical fantasy premiering tonight on Starz.
Set primarily in 15th century Florence, Italy, the series introduces us to Leonardo (Tom Riley) in his twenties, on the cusp of fame but still searching for a patron. Cocky and impetuous, he looks like a rock star in his provocative leather outfits (by all appearances, Leonardo apparently invented hair gel at some point), but as the illegitimate offspring of a local nobleman and a servant whose face he can’t remember, Leonardo is haunted by a need to clarify his identity – particularly regarding a mysterious episode in his childhood that he can recall only in fragments.
He crosses paths with Al-Rahim (Alexander Siddig, 24, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), aka The Turk, an enigmatic figure who shares a mind-expanding pipe bowl with Leonardo and tells him some of the answers he is seeking may be found in a mystic volume called The Book of Leaves, which, alas, is also highly sought after by the ruthless Count Riario (Blake Ritson), nephew to Pope Sixtus (James Faulkner) in Rome.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo Medici (Elliot Cowan), the de facto ruler of Florence, commissions Leonardo to paint a portrait of his mistress, the beautiful Lucrezia Donati (Laura Haddock), but Medici also becomes fascinated with Leonardo’s sketches for war machines and hires him to create new weaponry to help protect Florence in the looming conflict with the surrounding papal states, whose formidable armies are led by Count Riario. Smitten by Lucrezia’s breathtaking beauty, Leonardo rashly embarks on a torrid affair with her, one that could turn deadly: Unbeknownst to both Medici and Leonardo, Lucrezia is working her own agenda, one that is unlikely to help either man.
It’s probably obvious to you by now that Goyer throws a staggering amount of information at us in tonight’s premiere episode, and forgive yourself if you find yourself struggling to sort out all the characters and where they stand in the immensely complicated Renaissance power plays that figure throughout the story. Just go with it: By the time you hit the second episode, the storytelling becomes much more focused and you’ll start to work things out with relative ease.
And trust me, Da Vinci’s Demons is worth the effort. I know Starz has had a somewhat spotty track record with its original series, apart from its guilty-pleasure Spartacus saga, but Goyer’s series is intelligently written, well acted and lushly produced. As we expect these days, the scenery is CGI-enhanced, but the juncture of what is real and what is computer-generated is surprisingly seamless, and designer Annie Symons’ eye-popping costumes give a fantastic twist to historically accurate garb of the period. And while Goyer does take Leonardo on flights of fancy, he’s careful to keep the story anchored in Italian Renaissance reality.
This being Starz, I probably don’t need to add that sex and nudity are plentiful, yet not truly gratuitous (although Downton Abbey fans may be stunned to see a major cast member from that international smash contributing a small, uncredited and extensively nude cameo appearance during the opening moments of tonight’s premiere). So if you were thinking this might be an ideal way to spoonfeed the kids some world history: not so much.
I’ve seen the first three episodes and they only left me wanting to see more. Riley is ideally cast as the mercurial title character and so far, the story moves at a very brisk clip, and looks glorious as it does so. Da Vinci’s Demons just may be the most promising original series Starz has fielded to date. If adult sexual content isn’t an automatic deal-breaker for you, check it out.