Saturday, January 30, 2010

Emma, part 1


Spoilers...

This new adaptation of Jane Austen's Emma is, by many, the most anticipated title of the 2010 Masterpiece Classics season. Packed with well-known British acting talent, and with a script by Sandy Welch (who also adapted North & South and Jane Eyre), this new Emma has lots of potential - and I, for one, did not come away disappointed. :) Here's the summary of episode 1 from the PBS website:

Rich, independent and kind spirited, Emma Woodhouse has no interest in marriage herself, but is inspired by matchmaking for those around her. Once she has married off her close companions, she settles on the pretty Harriet Smith to fashion into her new playmate and ally. She persuades Harriet that she is too good for her suitor, the farmer Robert Martin, and encourages her to set her sights higher. But close family friend Mr. Knightley warns Emma that her meddling will cause great pain. Undaunted, Emma continues her efforts on Harriet's behalf.

Meanwhile, Emma is intrigued by the mysterious and elusive Frank Churchill, whom she hopes to meet at a party. Frank does not arrive, but instead Emma becomes the subject of unwanted attention from the vicar, Mr. Elton.

A few weeks later, village gossip focuses on the arrival of young Jane Fairfax and a large piano that she has been sent by a mystery admirer. Emma refuses to believe that Mr. Knightley could be the secret admirer.

When I heard another version of Emma was in the works, I confess to feeling less than excited - after all, Emma has been done many times before, and done well (I'm referring to the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions). However, with a runtime of nearly four hours, we're happily treated to much more expansive treatment of Austen's story. The first portion of this miniseries opens with a prologue revealing the childhood of three of the principle players - Emma, Jane Fairfax, and Frank Churchill - and how the events that occurred during their respective childhoods set each person on the path towards becoming the character seen in the novel.

Of course the star of the piece is Emma and all her machinations, played here by Romola Garai. I've been a fan of Garai's work since she played Gwendolen Harleth in Daniel Deronda. She just looks like an Emma, know what I mean? Garai's got the looks, personality, and vivaciousness to pull off the role, and her performance is full of energy and life. I liked the way this presentation balances Emma's busybody qualities with quieter moments, little hints of self-reflection that make you think that perhaps Emma is not quite as self-satisfied and assured as she would like the world to believe. She's a bit more sympathetically portrayed than she has been in previous films, methinks.

Michael Gambon plays Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father, and I think his take on the character has got to be the finest that I've ever seen. Mr. Woodhouse is such a fussy, needy character that it's easy for him to be portrayed strictly as comic relief. Here, Mr. Woodhouse is fussy and needy and constantly worried, but Gambon's performance adds some depth and real, almost tragic poignancy to the role. I also enjoyed seeing the interaction between Mr. Woodhouse and Emma, who I've always thought was a rather surprising caretaker. Garai's Emma may get a bit frustrated with her father, but her genuine regard and care for her anxiety-prone parent is abundantly apparent. Emma's never quite so self-absorbed that she loses patience with her father, and perhaps that is Austen's hidden saving grace that she imbued such duty and regard in a character she described as a "heroine whom no one but myself will much like."

I was quite pleased to see Jodhi May again, playing Emma's beloved Miss Taylor, her greatest matchmaking "success." May is probably best known for her performance as Alice Munro in The Last of the Mohicans, but she also made noteworthy appearances in films like Daniel Deronda and Defiance. Her quiet and elegant screen presence is the perfect foil to balance out Emma's energy and feverish matchmaking schemes. Blake Ritson is ideally cast as the pretentious curate, Mr. Elton. No stranger to Masterpiece viewers, he played Edmund in the 2007 version of Mansfield Park (a production that left MUCH to be desired, LOL) and one of the prisoners in the supberb film God on Trial. Ritson has this remote, aloof presence that's well suited to play a curate with aspirations to marry very, very well. The scene between Elton and Emma when he proposes, and all her schemes for marrying him and Harriet, is really quite funny. Another familiar face plays Highbury's most mysterious bachelor, Frank Churchill - actor Rupert Evans. Evans played Frederick Hale in the absolutely fantastic North & South, and Zander in ShakespeaRe-Told's modern take on A Midsummer Night's Dream. He's got the looks and personality in spades to carry off the rakish Frank Churchill role, and it's abundantly easy to see how Emma so quickly falls under his spell. :)

Now I've saved my favorite part for last - Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley. :) I absolutely fell in love with Miller after seeing his take on the character of Edmund Bertram in the much-debated 1999 version of Mansfield Park. I for one love that movie, and the last five minutes or so - sheer romantic heaven. :) Anyway, I don't think one can argue that it beats the 2007 version of Mansfield by a mile. Miller's casting was the first thing to really interest me in this production of Emma, and thankfully so far he's not disappointed me. This production of Emma really plays up the sparring between Knightley and Emma, and in this episode, during their scenes together, the sparks really fly. As much as I love Jeremy Northam and Mark Strong's takes on the Knightley character, I've got to say Miller probably gives the most intense, energetic performance of the three. I think one gets a better sense of Knightley's battle over his feelings for Emma and frustrations with her superficial pasttimes. This Knightley clearly not only wants better for Emma because he's known her basically since birth, but because he believes in her potential - and he also struggles with his attraction to her. And I'm all for more romantic tension, don't you know. :)

This epsiode of ends when Emma is faced with the horrifying realization that Mr. Knightley may have romantic intentions towards Jane Fairfax - and that would be an incomprehensible reality. So far I'm thoroughly pleased with the pacing, scripting, and acting that fills this latest adaptation of Emma. Definitely looking forward to seeing how the rest of this version unfolds. So, what did everyone else think? Part two airs Sunday night! :)

Review: The Sea of Monsters by Rick Riordan


The Sea Monsters (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #2)
By: Rick Riordan
Publisher: Miramax Books
ISBN: 978-142310334-9

About the book:

Percy Jackson’s seventh-grade year has been surprisingly quiet. Not a single monster has set foot on his New York prep-school campus. But when an innocent game of dodgeball among Percy and his classmates turns into a death match against an ugly gang of cannibal giants, things get…well, ugly. And the unexpected arrival of his friend Annabeth brings more bad news: the magical borders that protect Camp Half-Blood have been poisoned by a mysterious enemy, and unless a cure is found, the only safe haven for demigods will be destroyed.

In this fresh, funny, and wildly popular follow-up to The Lightning Thief, Percy and his friends must journey into the Sea of Monsters to save their camp. But first, Percy will discover a stunning new secret about his family – one that makes him question whether being claimed as Poseidon’s son is an honor or simply a cruel joke.

Review:

Percy Jackson’s second adventure picks up a year after he left Camp Half-Blood, training ground for demigods, discovered he was a son of Poseidon, and successfully averted World War III. The intervening school year has passed strangely without incident, until he’s attacked by man-eating giant monsters culminating in a fight that blows up his school gym – so much for anonymity. Seeking refuge at Camp Half-Blood, he’s shocked to discover that the magic that protects the camp from monster-related threats is being slowly poisoned, leaving all the half-blood children of the gods vulnerable to attack. Worse yet, his best friend, Grover the satyr, is missing, kidnapped by a Cyclops, and his mentor, Chiron the centaur, has been banished from the camp, suspected of traitorous activity. Percy, Annabeth, and his newly-discovered half-brother, Tyson, run away from the camp in search of the one item that could save it – the Golden Fleece and its restorative powers. But others are also after the fleece, with far more sinister purposes in mind, and Percy must use all his ingenuity and powers as a son of the sea god to avert a far greater threat than the destruction of Camp Half-Blood.

The Sea of Monsters is, for the most part, an excellent follow-up to The Lightning Thief, full of just as much adventure, humor, and mythological and real-world mash-ups as its predecessor. Accompanied by Annabeth and Tyson, Percy’s quest to save the camp and rescue Grover is a rollicking, non-stop adventure from start to finish. Pacing-wise, Riordan does an even better job with the action sequences this time around, making The Sea of Monsters an even fast read than the first book in the series. This installment gives liberal nods to Odysseus’s mythological quests, and Riordan infuses the classic story beats with distinctly modern touches. It’s this blending of myth and reality that makes the series so much fun – only in Percy’s world would Hermes bestow useful gifts such as magical multivitamins (instead of protective herbs) or help a hero control the wind by uncapping a thermos.

My only issue with Percy’s second adventure is that for a kid who has only recently discovered he’s half-god, he seems to have resolved many of his issues regarding his parentage rather quickly. Most of the questions Percy raised in The Lightning Thief, or his worries about his non-magical mother coping with the threats facing him as a demigod aren’t really addressed – it just seems a little too quickly resolved. However, in fairness to Percy’s character, he deals with a whole new set of father issues when it’s revealed that his half-brother is a Cyclops (Cyclops generally looked upon poorly by half-bloods). How Percy comes to appreciate and accept a brother so different from himself is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Luke, Percy’s nemesis, also makes an appearance and reveals more about the power-grabbing schemes only hinted at in The Lightning Thief (and yes, even I have to admit this plot point is VERY Harry Potter-esque). Meeting Luke’s father, Hermes, and gaining that god’s perspective on his wayward son gives Percy a better understanding of his own conflicting feelings about his parent/god relationship, which was nicely done. With a cliffhanger that promises to be a game-changer for Percy and his friends, The Sea of Monsters is another thoroughly entertaining, fast-paced chapter in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series that will leave you eager to read the next installment.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Becca By the Book by Laura Jensen Walker



This week, the


Christian Fiction Blog Alliance


is introducing


Becca By The Book


Zondervan (January 1, 2010)


by


Laura Jensen Walker


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:



Laura Jensen Walker is an award-winning writer, popular speaker, and breast-cancer survivor who loves to touch readers and audiences with the healing power of laughter.

Born in Racine, Wisconsin (home of Western Printing and Johnson’s Wax—maker of your favorite floor care products) Laura moved to Phoenix, Arizona when she was in high school. But not being a fan of blazing heat and knowing that Uncle Sam was looking for a few good women, she enlisted in the United States Air Force shortly after graduation and spent the next five years flying a typewriter through Europe.

Her lifelong dream of writing fiction came true in Spring 2005 with the release of her first chick lit novel, Dreaming in Black & White which won the Contemporary Fiction Book of the Year from American Christian Fiction Writers. Her sophomore novel, Dreaming in Technicolor was published in Fall 2005.

Laura’s third novel, Reconstructing Natalie, chosen as the Women of Faith Novel of the Year for 2006, is the funny and poignant story of a young, single woman who gets breast cancer and how her life is reconstructed as a result. This book was born out of Laura’s cancer speaking engagements where she started meeting younger and younger women stricken with this disease—some whose husbands had left them, and others who wondered what breast cancer would do to their dating life. She wanted to write a novel that would give voice to those women. Something real. And honest. And funny.

Because although cancer isn’t funny, humor is healing.

To learn more about Laura’s latest novels, please check out her Books page.

A popular speaker and teacher at writing conferences, Laura has also been a guest on hundreds of radio and TV shows around the country including the ABC Weekend News, The 700 Club, and The Jay Thomas Morning Show.

She lives in Northern California with her Renaissance-man husband Michael, and Gracie, their piano playing dog.

ABOUT THE BOOK



Sales clerk, barista, telemarketer, sign waver...


At twenty-five, free-spirited Becca Daniels is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up. What Becca doesn’t want to be is bored. She craves the rush of a new experience, whether it’s an extreme sport, a shocking hair color, or a new guy. That’s why she quit her bookstore job, used her last bit of credit to go skydiving, and broke her leg.


And that’s why, grounded and grumpy, Becca bristles when teased by friends for being commitment-phobic. In response, Becca issues an outrageous wager—that she can sustain a three-month or twenty-five date relationship with the next guy who asks her out. When the guy turns out to be “churchy” Ben—definitely not Becca’s type—she gamely embarks on a hilarious series of dates that plunge her purple-haired, free-speaking, commitment-phobic self into the alien world of church potlucks and prayer meetings.


This irrepressible Getaway Girl will have you cheering her on as she “suffers” through her dates, gains perspective on her life’s purpose, and ultimately begins her greatest adventure of all.

If you'd like to read the first chapter of Becca By The Book, go HERE

Monday, January 25, 2010

Return to Cranford, part 2


Spoilers...

I was so, so impressed with the conclusion of Return to Cranford. My only complaint about this second series is that is wasn’t longer. Here’s the brief episode summary of part two from the Masterpiece website:

William Buxton's big news is not warmly received by his father. William, in turn, decides to strike out on his own in an apprenticeship with Captain Brown on the railway. But the work is difficult, and his separation from Peggy problematic.

The social scene of Cranford becomes the center of focus when Mrs. Jamieson's sister-in-law Lady Glenmire arrives. The women of Cranford eagerly anticipate some interactions, but are seemingly spurned by their friend Mrs. Jamieson. Lady Glenmire, with the encouragement of Captain Brown, takes matters into her own hands, and plans a party.

In the meantime, Miss Galindo is concerned about Harry Gregson, who has disappeared from school. Worse still, it becomes clear he has a very good reason for running away.

The friendships in Cranford are strained when a surprise wedding shocks everyone. But no one can know the tragedy and challenge that await and will threaten the ties of the close-knit Cranford community, putting the women to their ultimate test.

As I mentioned in my review of part one, my favorite storyline in Return to Cranford is the romance that develops between William (Tom Hiddleston) and Peggy (Jodie Wittaker). I didn’t see how it would be possible, but this storyline gets oh so much better in part two when the stakes are raised. When William makes his intentions known regarding Peggy, his father (Jonathan Pryce) erupts in anger, since marriage to a woman of Peggy’s standing does not fit with his plans for William’s political future. Thankfully, William tells his father just what he can do with his plans (in a very respectful, 19th-century manner, of course – LOL), and goes to work for the first time in his life as an engineering apprentice to Captain Brown (Jim Carter), who’s overseeing construction of the new railway. William and Peggy become Cranford’s star-crossed lovers, the town’s own version of Romeo and Juliet, only much less annoying than those two and thankfully, with happy ending after much heartache. There is something so incredibly romantic watching William and Peggy’s relationship grow through secretly exchanged letters, and watching William struggle to establish himself as an engineer and prove that he can support himself, and a wife, without his father’s patronage. Tom Hiddleston is just swoon-worthy here – I loved every moment.

Since I mentioned Captain Brown, I’m going to backtrack here and discuss his surprising courtship and marriage, which resulted in some wonderfully funny and poignant scenes. Brown has mellowed out considerably since he first came to Cranford, learning to see the merits of Cranford’s slower pace of life, thanks to residents like Miss Matty. When the pretentious Mrs. Jamieson’s (Barbara Flynn) widowed sister-in-law, Lady Glenmire, comes to visit, the rumor mill starts wagging since she’s titled. Mrs. Jamieson offends everyone when she makes it known that the women of Cranford need not bother her illustrious relative (played by Celia Imrie). Brown intervenes when the newcomer is snubbed, resulting in an especially hilarious scene when Lady Glenmire takes Mrs. Jamieson’s dog for a walk near the railroad construction, and the dog apparently nearly dies or something and has to be “revived.” It was so funny to watch them “consult” over the proper course of treatment. When their friendship results in a whirlwind surprise marriage, it’s fascinating to watch the social ramifications of so “rash” an action play out in the small town atmosphere. Those obsessed with social status are horrified by the impropriety of such a match involving two people from very different social backgrounds, while others (like Miss Matty) love seeing a romance between two people “their own age” play out right before their eyes. The latter group breaks your heart just a bit, because you know these characters can’t help but relive their pasts and wonder what might have been.

Harry (Alex Etel) had returned to school at the end of part one. Several months later, his advocate in Cranford, Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding), is horrified to discover that he’s run away from school due to abuse suffered at the hands of his classmates. Though we only hear about these events after the fact, this is one more way in which this miniseries brings to light class distinctions during this time period and how incredibly hard it was to change one’s circumstances. When Harry runs away again, he sets in motion a chain of events that will bring great tragedy to Cranford – a fiery train wreck. This wreck is cause by, of all things, Mrs. Forrester’s pajama-wearing cow wandering onto the tracks. Honestly, and I promise I’m not overstating things here, the cow’s death is probably one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen in a BBC period drama. I was quite traumatized. :P Anyway, after this near death experience, Harry receives the happy ending he’s longed for – a home with Miss Galindo and the chance to attend school closer to Cranford. These two are bonded together by a shared love and admiration for Mr. Carter, Harry’s benefactor, and it brought a tear to my eye to see the two of them form their own little family.

The train wreck also proves to be the making of William and Peggy’s happiness, after a very close call of course. Throughout this series, Peggy’s been on a character-building fast-track, learning to stand up to her domineering mother and brother, and proving her mettle to William’s father. She also receives some romantic encouragement from Miss Matty (Judi Dench), who tragically had her own romantic hopes thwarted twice. When Matty informs William that Peggy is taking her embezzling, worthless brother out of the country, he races to intercept the train. And yes, maybe the whole racing-to-stop-the-train thing is clich├ęd, but I loved every moment of it. William really seizes the moment here and becomes even more of a romantic hero by rescuing Peggy from the overturned railcar – and then he nearly gets himself blown up. I could barely stand the drama, people!! The two are only reunited after William spends several weeks convalescing, and Peggy remains a faithful visitor even while being denied entrance to the house. The moment when they’re finally united, after months of hardship and separation, is oh so sweet.

Tom Hiddleston as William Buxton

Jodie Wittaker as Peggy Bell

Since the heart of Cranford is Miss Matty and her dearest friends, it’s only fitting that this series ends with Miss Matty using her savings to renovate the neglected assembly rooms and bring in an exotic magician for a Christmas performance. Along with Mrs. Jamieson, Mrs. Forrester, Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), and Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay), Miss Matty restores Cranford’s assembly rooms to their former glory, and the entire town is brought together to celebrate the power of community following the devastating shock of the train wreck. It’s touching and humbling, in a sense, to watch these women relive past glories through this process – but they don’t dwell on the past. No matter what happens, this core group of friends has always learned to look forward. I have to mention Tim Curry as Signor Brunoni, the visiting magician. He’s perfectly cast in the role, and the fact that Miss Pole is quite taken with him just adds to the fun. While much has changed in Cranford over the course of this series, the importance of family and friends has, if anything, only been amplified. Again, this show nearly made me cry when Miss Matty receives the best present she ever could’ve wished for – Martha’s daughter Tilly, and her now-widowed husband Jem have returned to Cranford for good. Though change can be indescribably difficult, it’s heartening to witness how the residents of Cranford have weathered the storms that come their way. I only hope that maybe, just maybe, we’ll get to visit this town again in the future.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Emma begins tonight!


I'm still working on my review of part two of Return to Cranford, but I didn't want to miss the opportunity to remind ya'll that the new version of Emma begins tonight on Masterpiece Classic, starring Romola Garai in the title role along with Jonny Lee Miller.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Return to Cranford, part 1


Spoilers...

My intention to blog about the return of Masterpiece Classic in a timely fashion went up in smoke (obviously). Blame the long-awaited (and awesome) return of Chuck and 24 on the last two Sundays. But I do intend to catch up. :) Here's the brief synopsis of episode one of Return to Cranford from the Masterpiece website:

New life is charmingly apparent in Cranford as Matty Jenkyns enjoys sharing her home with Tilly, the daughter of her maid Martha and carpenter Jem Hearne. Familiar faces including Miss Pole, Mrs. Forrester and Mrs. Jamieson surround Miss Matty in a loving community.

Some new faces have arrived as well — Mrs. Bell, her daughter Peggy and son Edward. Mr. Buxton and his son William have returned to town after years away. Young William eagerly aspires to be an engineer, while his father is grieving the loss of his wife.

The railway has crept closer to Cranford, but has been halted several miles outside the village. For it to move any further, Lady Ludlow would have to sell part of her land. Captain Brown is determined to make progress for the railway, but meets resistance from the village residents.

An unexpected and alarming shift signals yet more change in store for Cranford. Can Matty and the women of Cranford muster support for what inevitably awaits?


The original Cranford was a stand-out miniseries for the way in which it documented and relished the triumphs and tragedies of everyday life. Unlike many shows that keep characters around forever, for fear of losing an audience, no one is "safe" in Cranford, because changed, partings, and death are as much a constant of life as births, marriages, and the promise of new beginnings.

The heart of Cranford is Miss Matty Jenkyns, wonderfully played by Judi Dench, and her close circle of friends - Mrs. Jamieson (Barbara Flynn), Mrs. Forrester (Julia McKenzie), Miss Pole (Imelda Staunton), and Miss Tomkinson (Deborah Findlay). These women hold the traditions of village life near and dear to their hearts, but when Cranford is "threatened" by change - in the form of the highly contentious railway plans seen in the first series - they must decide if the bonds of friendship and the values forged in Cranford can survive the progress of industry that's changing the country.

This installment of Cranford contains a good balance of beloved, familiar characters (see above) and several new faces for the women of Cranford to interact with in their own special ways. I absolutely loved seeing Miss Matty play grandmother to her beloved maid Martha's (Claudie Blakley) first child. After all the heartbreak Miss Matty endured in the first series of Cranford, it's wonderful to see her so happy - for a while, anyway. Because it seems that in Cranford, happiness is all to often tempered with a healthy dose of heartbreak. The scene when Martha passes away giving birth to her stillborn second child absolutely broke my heart. And witnessing the women of the village come together to prepare her body for burial brought tears to my eyes. I was reminded of my grandmothers, and others, who over the course of their lives have lost so many who were near and dear to them - and I wonder and marvel at the strength they found to keep going. That's just one of the reasons I think Cranford is such a powerful little show, because it taps into the tried-and-true emotions and experiences of life that are timeless. Everything changes, yet some things stay the same, you know?

Another familiar face to Cranford fans is Lady Ludlow, played with an icy strength and dignity by the marvelous Francesca Annis. Can I just tell you, I had no idea Annis could play someone at death's door quite so well. The great tragedy of Lady Ludlow's character was always her refusal to see that her son, Septimus (Rory Kinnear) was such a freaking loser. All things considered, it's probably best she passed away before he returned to wreck her estate. Septimus's selfishness has grave ramifications for another favorite character - young Harry Gregson (Alex Etel), who benefited from the mentorship and generosity of Lady Ludlow's now-deceased estate manager. Harry's innocence and sense of responsibility towards Cranford and his inheritance makes him an easy mark for Septimus's machinations, and he stands to lose most of his promised inheritance unless his only advocate, Miss Galindo (Emma Fielding) can help. Whether or not they will be successful remains to be seen.

The romantic in me loved the Cinderella-esque romance that blooms between newcomers William Buxton, an aspiring engineer played by Tom Hiddleston, and Peggy Bell, played by Jodie Wittaker, who is constantly dumped on by her needy, controlling mother and pretentious brother. Hiddleston is a Masterpiece veteran, having played in Miss Austen Regrets and the Wallander mystery series, as the character Martinsson. I can't decide if I like him because he's a good actor, or because he's a dead ringer for an old favorite of mine - Sam West. *wink* I'm loving watching their romance play out.

I was quite pleased to see the return of Miss Matty's dear friend Mary Smith (Lisa Dillon). Mary's now engaged to some guy who owns a button factory, apparently. What I love about her character is that she's a sort of bridge between the past, and the traditions Miss Matty and her generation hold dear, and the future. It's Mary's support that helps Miss Matty muster the courage to reconsider her point of view on the advisability of the railroad entering the idyllic Cranford. I also loved little touches like seeing the return of Mrs. Forrester's pajama-wearing cow (Julia McKenzie's humor in this role is wonderful to see all the way around). Imelda Staunton is also absolutely hilarious as the gossipy, somewhat pretentious Miss Pole, especially once she acquires a rather exotic pet. :) There are also a few other familiar faces that I won't go into detail about here. This show is quite literally bursting at the seams with wonderful characters and interwoven storylines.

My review of part two will be coming shortly. So, if you watched Return to Cranford, did you enjoy it? Do you prefer the previous miniseries to this one? Chime in with your thoughts in the comments! :)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan


The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson & the Olympians #1)
By: Rick Riordan
Publisher: Miramax Books
ISBN: 978-078683865-3

About the book:

Percy Jackson is about to be kicked out of boarding school…again. And that’s the least of his troubles. Lately, mythological monsters and the gods of Mount Olympus seem to be walking straight out of the pages of Percy’s Greek mythology textbook and into his life. And worse, he’s angered a few of them. Zeus’s master lightning bolt has been stolen, and Percy is the prime suspect.

Now Percy and his friends have just ten days to find and return Zeus’s stolen property and bring peace to warring Mount Olympus. But to succeed on his quest, Percy will have to do more than catch the true thief: he must come to terms with the father who abandoned him; solve the riddle of the Oracle, which warns him of betrayal by a friend; and unravel a treachery more powerful than the gods themselves.

Review:

Once upon a time, I used to love reading the myths detailing the adventures of the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, and the exploits of heroes like Perseus and Theseus. Rick Riordan takes a unique approach to the old stories by updating the legends and placing them squarely in 21st-century America with his Percy Jackson & the Olympians series. The new Olympus (found by taking the elevator to the 600th floor of the Empire State Building, no less) relocated to America because the gods and goddesses, birthed in ancient Greece, the “cradle of Western Civilization,” must follow those ideals and principles wherever they exist the strongest in the world.

The Lightning Thief is the closest book I’ve read that’s come to capturing the charm, humor, and unbridled creativity found within the Harry Potter series. Comparisons are inevitable, and Riordan’s hero, Percy Jackson, owes much to Harry Potter. Both story arcs involve a troubled orphan discovering his magical heritage (wizard/half-blood son of a god), who goes to a special school (Hogwarts/half-blood summer camp), acquires some friends (a brainy, plucky girl and a loyal, but somewhat goofy best friend), and must save his world from destruction. But what sets Percy’s adventures apart is his voice, replete with a wry sense of humor and a healthy dash of sarcasm, and the way Riordan has placed age-old figures like Zeus and Poseidon in the modern-day world. Seeing the way the mythology now functions in a world of television, cell phones, and all other modern conveniences is hilarious and wildly entertaining. Mortals are blinded to the activities of the gods around them, making for some alternately funny and dangerous misunderstandings. It’s wildly funny but appropriate that Ares, the god of war, would masquerade as a threatening biker in California, and that Cerberus, the threatening three-headed dog guarding the entrance to the Underworld, would respond so well to modern-day obedience school techniques, just to name a few of the modern and ancient world mash-ups. Touches like these set The Lightning Thief apart, because the total integration of the real and mythological worlds is so fully-realized.

The Lightning Thief
is an excellent first chapter in Percy’s quest to become a hero worthy of his noble paternal heritage. I loved seeing the way Riordan made the mythological and modern-day worlds collide, like when one of the Furies masquerades as a math teacher or Percy’s sword is disguised as a ballpoint pen. Camp Half-Blood, where the children of the gods get their training (if they survive monster attacks to adolescence), is a fun little microcosm of what makes this story work. The modern attitudes of all the kids, and how they each express different traits inherited from their immortal parent (and constantly clash with each other) puts a really fun spin on the school/camp angle. Percy’s first quest is action-packed from start to finish, and the novel has this perfect balance of humor and intensity that makes it a real page-turner. There are some well-planted hints of the overall threat Percy will surely face by the end of the series, and like the Potter books I suspect each installment will take Percy one step closer to realizing his potential as a full-fledged hero. I’m definitely looking forward to reading the next installment in Percy’s adventures.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Robin Hood 3.13: Something Worth Fighting For, part two

Spoilers...

I honestly meant to get a post up on the Robin Hood finale Thursday or Friday, but I thought I was getting sick, and what with one thing or another it never happened. Where the first half of "Something Worth Fighting For" reminded me of many of the reasons I've been frustrated by the direction the show took in season 3, part two reminded me of everything I've ever loved about Robin Hood. It made me positively nostalgic, and I have to admit, I cried a bit at the end.

I neglected to mention in my previous post that we saw the return of the Sheriff - the real Sheriff, the supposed-to-be-dead Sheriff that all fans of the show know and love (played by Keith Allen). It's tempting to complain about the fact that Sheriff Vaisey disappeared for six episodes, with no logical explanation for why he faked his death or how he's managed to raise an army, with no one around Nottingham getting wind of the fact that he was alive. Speaking of the army thing - how did no one notice Vaisey & crew hauling freaking trebuchets across the countryside? Seriously, I would think it would be kind of hard to sneak up on someone with that kind of weaponry in tow. Anyway, seeing Allen back on-screen was a good reminder of the fact that no matter how interesting (or not, depending on your point of view) Isabella's (Lara Pulver) presence shook up Guy and Robin, she pales in comparison to the real Sheriff as the show's central baddie.

Guy (Richard Armitage) and Robin (Jonas Armstrong) made this episode, and as far as endings go, and as wrenching as it was to witness, I have to admit that the two one-time enemies ended very well, all things considered. Let's talk about Guy first, shall we? :) My hope for Guy's character, from season 1, was that he'd discover his inner good guy and turn heroic (and when Armstrong announced he was leaving the show, I wanted Richard Armitage to take over the lead!). But considering my dearly hoped-for dream scenario was not meant to be, I've got to give Armitage credit for once again taking Guy's scenes to a whole new level of emotional insight. It would've been so easy for Guy to abandon the beseiged outlaws, but instead he recognizes the fight as his moment to work towards redeeming the direction his life had taken thus far. He even has a moment of twisted brotherly consideration for Isabella, providing her with poison so she can kill herself before those she's wronged would try to harm her (that doesn't work out so well). The final confrontation, resulting in Guy's brilliantly played death scene, was fantastic because it was so focused on the principle players, especially Guy, Robin, and the Sheriff, since they are three of the main reasons the show worked as well as it did. If Guy had to die during this show's run, I'm glad he died as he did - fighting whole-heartedly for Robin & the people. And his last words, about losing the love of his life, but dying a free man - very classy Guy, and well played as always, Richard. :)

This final hour was also a fantastic send-off for Robin. The show has really come full circle, from the first episode in the courtyard where Robin stood alone against the Sheriff, to this finale where he's once again fighting the Sheriff, only this time he's surrounded by the people he's sacrificed so much to protect. It's LONG past due, but Robin & crew finally, finally get to see some action out of the villagers. Thankfully, even before he was poisoned, Robin really backed off his interaction with Kate (Joanne Froggatt). Words cannot describe how glad I am that Armstrong's last episode as Robin wasn't too polluted by Kate's presence. Robin's final conversation with Guy provided a bit of a reset for his romantic life, a reminder that there was only one woman for Robin. Speaking of Marian (Lucy Griffiths), part of me can't believe that the showrunners went for the whole "vision-of-beloved-dead-character" returns angle, but after the whole Kate debacle I was just relieved to see Marian again. She's completely forgiven for all of her too stupid to live moments during season 2. Armstrong and Griffiths at least had actual chemistry and affection for each other in their scenes, and their last moment together is even more poignant considering the show was ultimately not renewed.


Little John (Gordon Kennedy) and Much (Sam Troughton) both get some nice scenes in this episode. Little John gets to show off his strength in the tunnels, which is more than Kennedy's gotten to do for much of this season. And Much finally shows that he can operate outside Robin's shadow. He acts like a warrior instead of a mouse for once, and we finally get to see that there's a reason he survived the Crusades - he can actually fight effectively. That type of scene was LONG overdue. I have a sneaking suspicion that Kate would've turned into a love interest for Archer (Clive Standen) in season 4, but the final look she exchanges with Much makes me hope that the showrunners would've developed the Much/Kate angle. I think I could've stood that. :)

As far as Archer goes, I really am rather sorry that we didn't get to see more of Clive Standen. He fits the swashbuckling nature of the role probably better than Armstrong and yes, even Armitage, could. Archer would have proven a charismatic and capable leader, methinks. With the deaths of much of the original cast, and a nod to the actual historical timeline (Richard has been captured by Leopold of Austria, leaving the outlaws on their own a bit longer), the show was perfectly prepped for a fresh beginning. As much a I hate to say it, the show could've had a decent future beyond the departures of Robin, Guy, the Sheriff, and Isabella. But at least it's not a completely depressing ending for the show - Robin's battle against the Sheriff and fantastic reconciliation with Guy were just one chapter in the outlaws' story. And this chapter, all things considered, gave the characters I've grown to love over the last three years an ending I'm pleased with. Long live the outlaws!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Robin Hood 3.12: Something Worth Fighting For, part 1

(This picture isn't from episode 12, but it's a nice shot, don't ya think? *wink*)

Spoilers...

Well...I'm sure no one has noticed that I never got around to blogging about the conclusion - of season 3 and the show itself - of Robin Hood. However, because I am a COMPLETIST (*grin*) and the DVDs of season 3 just released on Tuesday, I thought I'd finally get around to checking this item off the blogging to-do list. This season was so hit-or-miss it was rather hard to get up the motivation, so it was extra easy for me to be distracted by the holidays.

Anyway - the last time I blogged about my favorite outlaws, Guy (Richard Armitage) and Robin (Jonas Armstrong) had reached a somewhat uneasy truce, bonded over the knowledge that Guy's mother and Robin's father had an affair that resulted in a heretofore unknown brother, the oh-so-conveniently named Archer (Clive Standen). Considering that the announcement of the show's cancellation was made after the season finished airing in the UK, but before it began on BBC America, it's even easier than it should be to recognize Archer as the heir apparent to the lead of the show, a cocky, self-assured mash-up of Robin and Guy's personalities. While I think the showrunners/scriptwriters completely killed this show due to lack of focus, lack of a plan, Clive Standen is enough of an Errol Flynn clone that I would've definitely continued to watch the show should it have produced a fourth season. Oh well, perhaps Clive will move on to more interesting roles (there was a rumor that he was in the running to star in the fourth Pirates film).

Let me back up for a second - so, the basic set up for this storyline is that King Richard (who was LAME, if you've seen the season 2 finale) is "supposedly" returning to England, and Prince John & his minions are planning a hostile takeover. Robin and Guy decide that they must take Nottingham Castle and imprison Sheriff Isabella (Lara Pulver). This is make it or break it time for Isabella, as she realizes if she doesn't deliver the men Prince John needs for his army he'll dispose of her as easily as he does all of his other enemies. In and of itself this isn't an awful set up for a climatic battle, (can you sense the "but" coming? LOL) BUT there's a few missed opportunties here in my view.

One: the return of Kate's (Joanne Froggatt) mother. Isabella blackmails her into tricking Kate that Robin still loves her. Kate, because she's an IDIOT, falls for it. And the fact that Kate's mother has suddenly, out of the blue lost all of her anti-Robin bias just adds insult to injury. I mean she hugged Robin in order to plant Isabella's evidence on him - and he didn't think that was freaky and insincere? Of course I should just acknowledge Robin's legendary stupidity about women, but this my friends is a new low. Also, for as much as I like Clive Standen because of his uncanny ability to channel Errol Flynn, his character arc here is quite dicey, even by this show's standards. Episode 11 did a fine job of establishing that Archer has a real mercenary streak, but since he's Robin's half brother, of course there's a heart of gold buried in there somewhere, right? :) So that makes his about-face in this episode a little puzzling. He goes from working for Isabella to turning outlaw as soon as he sees Kate willing to die for her principles (typing that last bit made me gag just a little, I can't lie). What is with the men on this show and KATE?! It's so WRONG!! Talking about Kate reminds me of another thing that bugged me about this episode - Tuck (David Harewood). How annoyingly sanctimonious can a character get, yeesh! His bright idea is having a sit-in with the men of the village to stop Isabella's supply train to Prince John from leaving the castle - a SIT-IN?! Seriously?! That was lame. Thankfully it only lasted for about three minutes.

One of my all-time favorite characters on the show bites the dust in this episode - Allan (Joe Armstrong), who was criminally under-used this season. There was a time, mind you, when Allan's death would've positively devastated me. But this season has been such a roller coaster of highs and lows that I really didn't care. The only thing that did bother me, though, is that he had to die all on his own, after Robin and his band of fickle men accept some rumor that he was working with Isabella, rather than pay attention to the fact that he'd been suffering through all of season 3 living in the woods with the gang. Would he do that if he was a double agent? I think not, just sayin'...Allan, you deserved a better end, methinks.

I realize this post is mostly a gripfest, but I figure the show's canceled, I might as well blow off some steam about how frustrating it's been to watch one of my all-time favorite shows just fizzle out. Not that this season has been all bad (see episode 9), but overall it's ended up more about missed opportunities than what I would've preferred. However, I'll end this episode commentary by reiterating what a dream come true it's been for Guy to finally, finally see the proverbial light and work with Robin instead of against him. Oh, what this show could've been if they'd made Richard Armitage the new lead. What a dream come true that would've been! *sigh* :)

Commentary on part 2 coming tomorrow...

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Leap Year


I went to see Leap Year with my friend Leah this afternoon, and I absolutely loved it. It doesn't break any new ground as far as romantic comedies go, but sometimes you need a touch of the familiar, right? :)

I knew I had to see this movie when I saw the trailer and recognized Matthew Goode (isn't he ADORABLE?!). Goode doesn't have an incredibly long filmography (yet), but he's appeared in several noticable roles, including Chasing Liberty, Match Point, and Watchmen. However, since so much of my blogging focuses on British film, I've got to point out the more interesting credits (to me, anyway) - Marple: A Murder is Announced, My Family and Other Animals, and Brideshead Revisited, the latter of which is a pretty abysmal film, can't even recommend it unless you just want to listen to Matthew talk. :) Goode's portrayal of Declan in this movie leaves me determined to seek out my own handsome, surly, angst-ridden Irish pub owner. Seriously, how hard can that be? ;-)

As far as Amy Adams goes, this kind of role is tailor-made for her - a bit moreso than her turn in Julie & Julia IMO. She ended up getting on my ever-loving last nerve by the end of J&J, but here she's straight up completely believable and likable as Anna, the frazzled, desperate to be engaged apartment "stager." She's got the perfect life, the perfect boyfriend (Jeremy, played by Adam Scott), and you just know it's all going to fall apart because Jeremy has this freakishly perfect, Kennedy-esque hair, and mad dedication to his work that spells disaster in rom-com relationships. Since the next step in making the perfect life involves marriage, Anna decides to follow Jeremy to his cardiology convention in Dublin (how convenient & random) and propose on February 29th, since that's some sort of Irish leap year tradition. Of course her plane is diverted, and she happens to show up in Declan's pub, and since he has money trouble of course he's going to take the job of seeing Anna to Dublin.

Adams and Goode are so stinking cute together, and the scenery is gorgeous. I wanted to be in this movie in the worst way. The little road trip they take, complete with disaster after disaster, reminded me just a bit of the Clark Gable/Claudette Colbert classic, It Happened One Night. The whole pacing and tone of the movie does have a rather old-fashioned, throwback feel to it. It keeps a snappy pace, and does an excellent job showcasing the Irish scenery. Everything is so wonderfully green, and has such a fantastic, fairy-tale feel to it, I loved every second. Randy Edelman also did a nice job with the score by incorporating some great little Irish-flavored flourishes into the instrumental cues. All of the songs used in the movie are great as well - you can read the list here.

Leap Year is a really, really cute film. Loved Adams and Goode's on-screen chemistry, loved every second Goode was on-screen, loved the scenery and music, and LOVED the end of the movie. Such a great payoff!! :) It's a fun little movie, definitely worth checking out if your in the mood for some Irish-themed escapism.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Masterpiece Classic returns!

After what seems like an interminable wait, the new season of Masterpiece Classic begins this Sunday with part one of Return to Cranford, the sequel series to the fabulous Cranford miniseries, based on the works of Elizabeth Gaskell. Here's just a bit about what's in store:

This Sunday, January 10, revisit Cranford — the sleepy English village that captured the hearts of MASTERPIECE viewers in 2008. In Return to Cranford, the distinguished cast is back, including Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie and Francesca Annis, as Cranford continues to come to terms with wrenching social change against the backdrop of a close-knit community. Return to Cranford is based on the works of Victorian-era writer Elizabeth Gaskell.

Isn't this cast fantastic? Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton, Julia McKenzie, and Francesca Annis are just a few of the familiar faces due to appear in this production. I don't know about you all, but I for one am very excited about Masterpiece Classics posts returning to the blog. :)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Review: Silent on the Moor by Deanna Raybourn


Silent on the Moor (A Lady Julia Grey Novel #3)
By: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: MIRA
ISBN: 978-0-7783-2614-4

About the book:

Despite his admonitions to stay away, Lady Julia arrives in Yorkshire to find Brisbane as remote and maddeningly attractive as ever. Cloistered together, they share the moldering house with the proud but impoverished remnants of an ancient family: the sort that keeps their bloodline pure and their secrets close. Lady Allenby and her daughters, dependent upon Brisbane and devastated by their fall in society, seem adrift on the moor winds, powerless to change their fortunes. But poison does not discriminate between the classes…

A mystery unfolds from the rotten heart of Grimsgrave, one Lady Julia may have to solve alone, as Brisbane appears inextricably tangled in its heinous twists and turns. But blood will out, and before spring touches the craggy northern landscape, Lady Julia will have uncovered a long-buried legacy of malevolence and evil.

Review:

How is it possible that Deanna Raybourn’s third Julia Grey novel is even better and more thoroughly enjoyable than the first two in the series? The mind boggles at the possibility, but it’s true – in my book Raybourn has achieved the rare feat of crafting characters and stories so engaging that each installment is more enthralling and satisfying than the last. Where the second book in the series, Silent in the Sanctuary, gave readers a more self-assured Lady Julia, now more than ever she wants and isn’t afraid to flout every convention society holds dear in order to live life on her own terms. Having reached the tipping point in her maddening on again, off again romance with Nicholas Brisbane, Julia decides to take matters into her own hands and force a resolution or walk away from him forever. Accompanied by siblings Portia and Valerius, she descends on Brisbane’s newly-acquired estate, appalled to find Grimsgrave in disrepair, the house occupied by the mysterious Allenby ladies with ties to Brisbane’s past, and Brisbane himself shockingly cold towards her. Never one to take no for an answer, Julia settles in for the duration, determined to break through the barriers Brisbane’s installed around his heart. What she doesn’t bargain on is the revelation of Nicholas's painful past, coupled with the discovery of horrifying secrets Grimsgrave manor has sheltered for years.

The biggest draw of this series isn’t the mysteries themselves (though I do think those have improved with each successive book), but Raybourn’s unique and engaging characters. It’s been so much fun to watch Julia embrace her unorthodox March family heritage, and grow into an independent, unconventional, wickedly funny and sarcastic heroine. That would perhaps be enough, but Julia’s wonderfully realized family of eccentrics and rebels tips the scales in the character development department from excellent to brilliant. Julia’s relationships with the various members of the March clan play a big role in what makes visiting her world so much fun, and such a sheer joy to read about. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this third Julia Grey novel is that finally, at long last, Raybourn gives us some answers regarding the frustrating yet ever-appealing Nicholas Brisbane’s past. Brisbane's past has always been closely guarded, shrouded in secrecy, but with Julia more determined than ever to break down his defenses we finally get to learn the man's secrets. It's a mark of just how much I love these characters that learning their secrets doesn't make them any less interesting - rather, all the revelations about Nicholas's character make me love him and his relationship with Julia all the more.

The atmosphere of the moor is the perfect setting for a story where long buried family secrets come to light and isolation fosters insane schemes for revenge. The setting seems to owe much inspiration to stories like The Hound of the Baskervilles and most especially, Wuthering Heights (some villagers are even named Earnshaw – loved that!). The mood and the long-festering revenge schemes all put one in mind of Ms. Bronte, only with Raybourn’s own unique and colorful spin. Her books have proven to be highly addictive; the only downside to this is that one tends to read them far too quickly. I find myself wanting to savor my time with Julia and Nicholas and the friends that people their world – but I fly through the pages of Raybourn’s novels at lightspeed (there’s worse problems, right? *wink*). Nicholas and Julia's story has been one of the best romances I've read in recent memory, each scene positively crackling with romantic tension. I only hope this isn't the end of Nicholas and Julia's adventures, as they're one of the most fascinating - and fun - pair of detectives you'd ever hope to come across. Ms. Raybourn's next book release can't come soon enough to suit me!

Click to read my reviews of the first two Julia Grey novels: Silent in the Grave and Silent in the Sanctuary. Oh, and in case you were wondering – after reading this installment of Nicholas and Julia’s romance, the verdict is in – Toby Stephens IS Brisbane in my book, hands down. Now we just need to get the BBC behind the idea of adapting these wonderfully entertaining books... :)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen


This week, the

Christian Fiction Blog Alliance

is introducing

The Silent Governess

Bethany House; Original edition (January 1, 2010)

by

Julie Klassen



ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Julie says: My background is in advertising and marketing, but I am blessed with a dream job—working as an editor of Christian fiction. I have been writing since childhood, but Lady of Milkweed Manor was my first novel. It was a finalist for a Christy Award and won second place in the Inspirational Reader's Choice Awards. My second novel, The Apothecary's Daughter, was a finalist in the ACFW Book of the Year awards. I am currently writing one novel a year.

I graduated from the University of Illinois and enjoy travel, research, BBC period dramas, long hikes, short naps, and coffee with friends.

My husband and I have two sons and live near St. Paul, Minnesota.


ABOUT THE BOOK


Olivia Keene is fleeing her own secret. She never intended to overhear his.

But now that she has, what is Lord Bradley to do with her? He cannot let her go, for were the truth to get out, he would lose everything--his reputation, his inheritance, his very home.

He gives Miss Keene little choice but to accept a post at Brightwell Court, where he can make certain she does not spread what she heard. Keeping an eye on the young woman as she cares for the children, he finds himself drawn to her, even as he struggles against the growing attraction. The clever Miss Keene is definitely hiding something.

Moving, mysterious, and romantic, The Silent Governess takes readers inside the intriguing life of a nineteenth-century governess in an English manor house where all is not as it appears.

If you would like to read the prologue and first chapter of The Silent Governess, go HERE. You can also sign up as a Follower when you get to that page, and get announcements of the first chapters for all the great books we tour!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Doctor Who series 5 trailer

I really do intend to blog about the past year's Doctor Who specials at some point. Maybe once I quit crying over David Tennant's spectacular farewell in The End of Time (just finished watching part two) and have time to process it all those posts will happen. Till then, I leave you with the trailer for series 5, which sees the debut of Matt Smith as the eleventh Doctor.



As much as I love and adore David Tennant as the Doctor - and really, one can't deny that he took the role to new heights, the man is a genius - this trailer leaves me very excited to see series 5. I think - and I hope this plays out - there's a reason I was so impressed with Smith in The Ruby in the Smoke and The Shadow in the North. He may just be able to pull this whole Doctor Who thing off. Keeping my fingers crossed... :)

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Young Victoria


I have been waiting probably about a year to see The Young Victoria. It finally opened around here on Christmas Day, and I went to see it with two friends on New Year's Eve. It was well worth the wait. It's costume drama and spectacle at its finest. :) When I was in college I went through this phase where I was really interested in Victoria and Albert. This was most likely spurred by the broadcast of the Victoria & Albert miniseries in 2001. That miniseries is a much more comprehensive look at Victoria's reign, and stars the aptly named Victoria Hamilton as the Queen (she's appeared in everything from Pride and Prejudice as Mrs. Forster to Lark Rise to Candleford) and Jonathan Firth (brother of Colin Firth!) as Prince Albert. However, for a shorter but equally enthralling glimpse at the early years of Victoria's reign, The Young Victoria can't be beat. :)

Emily Blunt gives, I think, one of the best performances of her relatively short career, transitioning easily from the teenage princess to young monarch and bride. Not being too far removed from the actual age Victoria was at the various points depicted in the film probably helped, too. Blunt is by turns spunky, vulnerable, and perfectly regal. Victoria's childhood is really incomprehensible to view, by today's standards or any other, really. Coddled in the extreme and sheltered from all outside influences by her mother the Duchess of Kent (played here by Miranda Richardson) and her mother's confident/probable lover Sir John Conroy (played by the delish Mark Strong *wink*), Victoria was raised in a bubble and it's really quite a testament to her character that she turned out as well as she did IMO. As the only heir of her uncle, William (wonderfully played here by the talented Jim Broadbent), Conroy and her mother made numerous futile attempts to get Victoria to sign papers authorizing a regency should the king die before she comes of age. Thankfully, the young princess withstood the tremendous pressure being brought to bear against her. I've got to say, the role of Conroy is probably the most distasteful bad guys I've seen my beloved Mark Strong play. The man is presented as so utterly amoral, so politically calculating and cold-hearted, the scenes showing his attempts to manipulate Victoria are rather chilling.

Rupert Friend's performance as Prince Albert was probably the surprise of the movie for me. I didn't know the guy had it in him, acting-wise. (Anyone think he's a dead ringer for Orlando Bloom?) He first gained notice in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice where he played Wickham. I have to confess, I placed him in a pretty-face-but-no-substance acting "box," and goodness I was wrong. The man has some serious potential. He and Blunt have terrific on-screen chemistry, which certainly helps and is needed when portraying a classic love story like Victoria & Albert's. This film drove home the point once again what a miracle, really, their love story was considering the restrictions and manuevering that their lives endured. The were pawns in the chess game of European politics, and there's a great little scene in this film that takes place shortly after Victoria and Albert first meet, where he urges her to find a husband who will play the politics game with her. And indeed that's what the pair of them did eventually - joined forces, mastered the rules of the game, and became formidable players in English and European politics.

Besides Mark Strong, another old favorite of mine makes a fantastic appearance in this movie - Paul Bettany does a fantastic job playing Lord Melbourne, Victoria's first prime minister. Melbourne was apparently quite a character, obviously adept at manipulating people in order to see his ends met. It's interesting to see how this works negatively when a young and very loyal Queen Victoria refuses to accept new election results that see Melbourne thrown from power. This leads to the first really tumultuous period of her reign when she falls drastically out of favor with the British people. It's a harsh lesson, and her subsequent marriage to Albert sees his influence helping her learn to better walk a political tightrope. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Albert confronts Melbourne about his rather condescending attitude towards him - not only is it historically interesting, but it's a very well-played moment between Friend and Bettany (the former really holding his own against the latter). This is followed by one of Bettany's strongest scenes in the film, when he admits that Albert could prove to be a valuable ally and partner in Victoria's reign. For a character like Melbourne, such a moment was humbling I'm sure, and Bettany played the scene really, really well.

The Young Victoria is sure to be a lock come Oscar nomination time for costumes and set design. Every little thing about the movie just looks spectacular, it's a positive visual feast for the eyes. Speaking of feasts, the banquet scene early in the film celebrating King William's birthday is an amazing spectacle. The richness and opulence in that scene alone is mind-blowing, even more so when you think of the traditions and discipline and planning that would have gone into such an event. I've also got to give a nod to the gorgeous score by composer Ilan Eshkeri. He's responsible for Stardust, one of my favorite film scores. And while TYV doesn't have quite the unique themes and flourishes appropriate to a fantasy film, it's a beautiful work nonetheless.

This is a movie that definitely leaves you wanting more - more story, more of Victoria and Albert's lives. I love their love story, and this movie more than delivers beautiful, heart-stopping look at the beginning of their legendary love affair. Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend both come out of this movie winners, delivering strong, memorable performances. This is particularly the case for Friend - Albert was, I think, really a Renaissance man, and a man of character and deeply held moral convictions. In many ways he is responsible for the advancements for which the Victorian Age is known. For Friend to be able to portray that in such a compelling way speaks well of his talent and acting future. Oh, this reminds me - another of my favorite moments in the movie is when we get to see Albert ever-so-gently engineering a tentative reconciliation between Victoria and her mother. Really, after the way she's treated by her mother it would be easy to understand if Victoria never wanted to see her again. But this effort on Albert's part, and seeing Victoria and her mother come to terms with each other is quite well done and moving. It was a powerful reminder to me of how much easier it is to hold on to grudges and wrongs, but the strength it can take to just come to terms with the past is another thing entirely.

Two books I highly recommend if you're interested in learning more about Victoria and her family are Victoria's Daughters by Jerrold M. Packard and Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey. Packard's book is especially interesting because you get a look at how Victoria engineered her children's marriages and gained the moniker "Grandmother of Europe." For someone who so resented being a manipulated "chess piece" in political dealings, she and Albert apparently had no qualms about doing the same thing to their children, sometimes with quite tragic results. It's a fascinating book.

The Young Victoria is a wonderful film, beautifully executed on all levels, and well worth seeing whether you're interested in the history or just in the mood for a great love story. :)

Upcoming Movies...

(The sappy romantic edition.)

Don't know how many of these I'll get to see in theaters, but I'll definitely be viewing them at some point. First up is Leap Year, starring Amy Adams and Matthew Goode. I heart Matthew...and this may be his ticket to bigger & better roles. He's appeared in Marple, My Family and Other Animals, and was the only interesting thing in the abysmal Brideshead Revisited.



Coming later this month is When In Rome, which really reminds me just a bit of Three Coins In the Fountain (only with a magical twist).



Next up is Letters to Juliet. I have to admit this trailer...was it the trailer or Vanessa Redgrave's fabulousness?...actually made me tear up. This movie also has the added draw of starring Christopher Egan, who played David in the all too short-lived TV show Kings (moment of silence for a truly great show...okay, thanks).



And lastly, Dear John, based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, comes out in April or May. I'm not a huge Sparks fan, but every once in a while he comes out with something that really gets me, like the whole soldier angle here. Doesn't hurt that in the movie Channing Tatum plays the soldier. :) It's not like he's a great actor or anything, but oh. my. WORD!! Have you seen Step Up?! ;-)

Happy New Year!

I shared this video on Facebook a few weeks ago, but I love it so much it deserves to be shared on the blog too, IMO. :) David Tennant and Doctor Who fans, enjoy!