Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Possible spoilers…

I have to confess, I went into the new Sherlock Holmes movie with relatively low expectations. I’m an inveterate Jeremy Brett-IS-Sherlock Holmes fan, so the news that Robert Downey Jr. would be taking on the role was greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism. No one else can seriously compare to Brett in my view, end of story, period, the end. I’d say I was intrigued by the idea of the movie – I like Robert Downey Jr. well enough, and Jude Law is, well, JUDE LAW, but the movie was being directed by Guy Ritchie. I mean the guy married MADONNA for goodness’ sake (that does not gain one points in my book, just sayin’). However, color me shocked on all fronts – I loved this movie. Downey may not be “the” definitive version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation, but his take on the iconic character is the most fun and entertaining that I’ve seen in, well, ages. And I loved Law’s take on Watson – refreshingly, here Watson is mind-blowingly competent for once, and the movie gives you a good sense of the Holmes/Watson friendship, particularly the sacrifices Watson had to make in his personal life in order to make that friendship work. Downey and Law have a really wonderful best friends chemistry on-screen, and seeing that friendship play out is a big part of what made the movie so enjoyable for me.

The look of the film is spectacular. I loved every single thing about the way Ritchie presents his darkly foreboding vision of Victorian England. He gives the atmosphere of the movie a real gothic flair. I also loved the costumes – Downey and Law each wear their respective suits really well. And it’s nice to see Sherlock sans the deerstalker hat that’s become such a part of the character thanks to previous films. Here Holmes is a somewhat more bohemian dresser which fits with the character’s somewhat slapdash personal habits from the stories. Mark Strong’s costumes give his character, the villainous Lord Blackwood, a suitably Dracula-like flair. The only real punches of color in the film as regards costumes belong to Holmes’s muse, Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams). The shocking bursts of color in her costumes represent well, I think, what her character does for Holmes in the film (that is, shakes him up terribly!). Oh, and the Hans Zimmer score is just fantastic - definitely one of my favorites by him, full of cool themes and Holmesian flourishes. Probably my favorite work by Zimmer since the Pirates films.

This version of the Holmes story returns much of the character’s energy to the screen that’s lost or “toned down” in earlier film adaptations (like Basil Rathbone’s take on the character). Brett’s take on Holmes does a good job of balancing the more refined, aristocratic points of the character’s personality with his tendency towards rather manic bursts of energy, particularly in the middle of a chase. This is seen especially in the early Brett films, since as the series progressed the actor’s health grew progressively worse and the effects of those health problems can be seen on-screen. In 2009 much of the gentlemanly veneer Holmes has worn for the past 100 or so years is ripped away, and we get to see all of the character’s energy and brilliance on full display.

Which brings me to Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes – I LOVED every second of his performance. Downey’s Holmes is brilliant, eccentric, energetic, manic, selfish, mannerly, sensitive, and hopelessly inept at personal relationships. He’s extreme in all respects, but in the best possible way. One of the best aspects of how Holmes is portrayed in this movie is that you get to see how the detective thinks. Credit for successfully pulling off this not inconsiderable feat goes to both Downey's acting and Ritchie’s direction. Seeing the way the great detective’s brain views the world is not only fascinating, but it goes a long way towards explaining why he finds “normal” (haha) people so frustrating to deal with (and vice-versa). In addition to the really extraordinarily well-done depiction of Holmes’s mental acuity, this take on the character doesn’t shy away from any of Sherlock’s more sensational habits and skills. We get Holmes the drug addict, the fighter (fist-fighting, plus he’s quite handy with a cane), the amateur scientist, the disguise expert, and the violin aficionado.

Holmes’s ever-present friend and roommate is of course, Dr. Watson, whose film portrayals have ranged from the buffoonish to the competent (but never, ever approaching Holmes’s equal!). Jude Law’s take on Watson ranks as one of my favorites, not because of how it relates (or not) to the source material, but because it gives you such a great sense of the genuineness of the Holmes/Watson friendship. This movie comes at a rather trying time for the long-time residents of 221B Baker Street, since Watson is planning to get married. Of course marriage is going to alter some of Watson’s priorities, and that’s a change that the rather narcissistic Holmes is loathe to accept, which leads to some really funny scenes. I really liked how Law’s Watson is really competent, kind, loyal, and conscientious – he knows he’s not as flashy or quick-witted as Holmes, but he’s also not going to be taken advantage of (not without a fight, anyway!).

When I first saw the previews for Sherlock Holmes, I had somewhat mixed feelings toward the apparent steampunk direction of the storyline. It seemed as though Holmes was going to go all Van Helsing-like in this story, fighting baddies who can apparently raise themselves from the dead. The baddie in question is Lord Blackwood, played by the fantastic, fabulous, oh-my-gosh-his-voice-is-so-amazing-I-could-listen-to-it-all-day Mark Strong. Love him, in case you couldn’t tell. Strong is just terrific in this film – he’s scary, intense, evil, and wickedly smart, all in all a worthy adversary for Holmes. (He’s also gorgeous, weirdly crooked teeth notwithstanding. But that’s neither here nor there.) ;-) To speak to Blackwood’s methods – yes, he’s into all sorts of wonky spiritualism which fits well with the dark, gothic atmosphere of the movie. But the final confrontation at the end of the film neatly brings things back into Holmes’s most beloved area of expertise – that of a case solved through logical, well-ordered, scientific reasoning. I thought it was nicely done, and a touch I didn’t quite expect given the apparent tone of the movie. While I enjoyed the entire film, the concluding scenes are what really sold me on Downey as Holmes.

Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) is the one ever-so-slightly missed opportunity in this movie in my book. Adler is such a fascinating character in the Holmes canon. She's the only woman who ever managed to gain the detective's genuine admiration. All other women were only interesting if they brought a fascinating problem Holmes's way, while Adler was the only one whose personality, mind, and capabilities fascinated him. This time around Adler is a little more than an American "adventuress," now she's a spy/thief for hire. When Adler and Holmes meet, sparks fly (I loved the moment when Holmes tries to hide her photo!), and it's clear that in this Holmesian universe the two have a passionate and complicated past. McAdams and Downey have some nice on-screen chemistry, and the characters' reunion raises tons of questions, like how did they meet, why were they separated, etc.? It's such an interesting premise, to place an iconic character like Adler on the wrong side of the law, but I just don't feel like the script did her justice. I wanted more context for her character, but perhaps that will be supplied in the promised sequel. The final scene between McAdams and Downey is very well-played, and I look forward to seeing the relationship develop in Holmes #2.

There's a few minor characters that I simply must mention. Eddie Marsan, last seen in Me and Orson Welles and earlier this year in Little Dorrit, is the perfect Inspector Lestrade to Downey's Holmes. He's Holmes's friend, but he's also enough of a by-the-books policeman to get aggravated with the detective's sometimes unorthodox methods. Kelly Reilly, who also made a brief appearance in Me and Orson Welles, plays Watson's fiancee Mary Morstan. She at first catches absolute hell from Holmes for "stealing" away Watson, but in a refreshing turn of events she very classily rises above this and recognizes not only how much Watson regards Holmes's friendship, but how much the too really need each other. The scene in the hospital was extraordinarly well played. Hans Matheson makes a brief appearance as one of Blackwood's cronies, the aptly named Lord Coward. Matheson is quit good at playing bad guys as he previously appeared as Alec D'Urberville in Tess on Masterpiece Classic earlier this year. James Fox also continues his practice of making a guest appearance in just about everything by playing Blackwood's father, Sir Thomas.

This is a seriously fun movie, was for me anyway. I may go see it again if time and finances permit. And I can not wait for the sequel this movie promises - the introduction of Moriarty (did I let that slip? *wink*) is beautifully done. Can. Not. WAIT. :)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Me and Orson Welles

Me and Orson Welles opened in my area last Friday, and I went to see it Monday night with my friend Lori. It is SUCH a treat. I wrote a bit about the storyline a few weeks ago in my review of the novel on which the film is based (you can read my review of Robert Kaplow's novel here). Suffice it to say Me and Orson Welles is one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen. I haven’t verified this, but I’m pretty sure whole passages of dialogue were transferred to the script, practically verbatim. I loved everything about this movie. I’m a movie nut, as long time readers of this blog well know, but it’s a rare thing that a movie comes along that caters so perfectly to my tastes. This story is a love letter to the golden age of New York theater, when another world war probably seemed like an impossibility to anyone not deeply interested or involved in politics or foreign affairs. Nostalgic and funny, Me and Orson Welles is not only one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’ve ever seen, it’s also got to be one of the best theater movies ever made. All of the backstage drama makes the scenes showing the actual performance that much more powerful. You can’t help but stand in awe at the magic that’s possible on stage, and it’s such a treat to see it unfold.

The runaway star of the film is British actor Christian McKay as Orson Welles. The man deserves every single accolade and award thrown his way. His performance is absolutely spectacular. Now, remember that I’m not a Welles-ian scholar by any means, but having read the novel and seen several of Welles’s films multiple times, McKay doesn’t just play Orson Welles, he is Orson Welles. He manages to capture at the very least the public persona (and that is no small feat!), the essence of the man and the magnetic quality of his personality that comes through on screen. McKay’s performance is the center of the film, and deservedly so. McKay deserves every acting nomination possible IMO.

Zac Efron also rises above his High School Musical roots to deliver a surprisingly strong performance as the teenage Richard. While Richard’s role is of course prominent in the novel (it’s told from his point-of-view), you lose a little of that on screen. The movie is a little less heavy on Richard’s coming-of-age angst and school drama, choosing instead to focus on the backstage theatrics that ensue in the frantic days prior to the Mercury Theater’s first performance of Julius Caesar. He nails the role of Richard perfectly, balancing the character's bravado and uncertainty, a perfect foil for McKay's rather overwhelming Welles. Efron "fits" period roles really well - this and his turn in Hairspray being favorites of mine. Would love to see more of this type of work from him in the future.

The rest of the cast is chock-full of notable acting talent and strong performances - just want to mention a couple. Eddie Marsan, who was so wonderfully funny as Pancks in Little Dorrit earlier this year plays Welles's long-suffering business partner John Houseman. It was a real treat to see him on the big screen. :) Claire Danes was pretty good as Richard's crush, Sonja Jones. She fit the time period well, and delivered a good sense of Sonja's take no prisoners attitude towards achieving her goals that comes through in the novel. James Tupper really impressed me as Joseph Cotten, not only because he's cute (LOL) but because he's such a dead ringer for the real Joseph Cotten, in my opinion anyway. I must also mention Kelly Reilly as Muriel Brassler, one of the lead actresses in the Mercury Theater troupe. She's becoming something of a familiar face, since I've now seen her in Poirot, Mrs. Henderson Presents, Pride and Prejudice, and Sherlock Holmes (review of the latter forthcoming). I was also very impressed with Zoe Kazan's turn as Richard's more *ahem* age-appropriate love interest, Gretta. Kazan happens to be the granddaughter of Elia Kazan, which I thought was an interesting piece of trivia. She also had such a great "look" about her, not your typical Hollywood look which was rather refreshing to see. I could mention a laundry list of other enjoyable performances, but I'll leave it at that. Suffice it to say, the film is packed with top-notch work.

The success of the film rests in large part on director Richard Linklater's pacing and world-crafting, both of which are superb. This story covers just one short week in Richard's life, and due to that time constraint, the pace never lets up. The film practically hums with energy and life. And the movie's depiction of 1930s New York is just fantastic - I could've stayed in that world for ages. :) Also, the costumes and set pieces just scream authenticity - everything on-screen represents period drama at its finest. I also adored the music - both the original score pieces, and the use of period songs, the latter so important to Richard's character in the book. It's all very, very well done. Loved the movie, can't wait until it comes out on DVD. It's backstage drama at its finest. :)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Christmas!

Because I'm exhausted from cooking all day, and because I'm watching Doctor Who Christmas specials on BBC America, and because I'd really send Doctor Who Christmas cards if I could find them, here's my virtual Christmas card. :) Merry Christmas, everyone, and may God bless you in the coming year!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Review: Silent in the Sanctuary by Deanna Raybourn

Silent in the Sanctuary (A Lady Julia Grey Novel #2)
By: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: MIRA
ISBN: 978-0-7783-2603-8

About the book:

Fresh from a six-month sojourn in Italy, Lady Julia returns home to Sussex to find her father’s estate crowded with family and friends. Much to her surprise, the one man she had hoped to forget – the enigmatic and compelling Nicholas Brisbane – is among her father’s houseguests…and he is not alone. Not to be outdone, Julia shows him that two can play at flirtation and promptly introduces him to her devoted, younger, titled Italian count.

But the homecoming celebrations quickly take a ghastly turn when one of the guests is found brutally murdered in the chapel. Lady Julia resumes her unlikely and deliciously intriguing partnership with Nicholas Brisbane, setting out to unravel a tangle of deceit before the killer can strike again.


Deanna Raybourn suffers from no sophomore slump with her second Lady Julia Grey novel, Silent in the Sanctuary. This thoroughly engrossing, humorous sequel ranks even higher in my view than its predecessor, Silent in the Grave (which I absolutely loved!). Lady Julia’s second foray into the world of detection and mystery is just as un-put-downable as the first, and I was compelled to carry it with me everywhere until I finished it. This time, Raybourn gives readers a stronger, more self-assured Lady Julia, though she’s still learning to balance between societal expectations and her own new appreciation of independence, and an even more compelling, wonderfully and frustrating enigmatic Brisbane. When the two are reunited even more sparks fly, and you could cut the romantic tension with a knife, it’s that palpable. But of course nothing is going to come easy for two individuals whose strong wills and temperaments constantly put them at odds with convention and each other.

Following her brush with death in Grave, Lady Julia went to Italy to recover her health, and though she’s reluctant to admit it to herself, to forget inquiry agent Nicholas Brisbane. Though the connection between them is undeniable, when six months pass with nary a word she resolves to move on. When she and two of her brothers are recalled to the family estate for Christmas, she’s shocked and somewhat peeved to discover that Nicholas is in residence as well – with a completely unsuitable fiancĂ©e. However, her annoyance is pre-empted by the brutal murder of one of the houseguests, and her father charges her and Brisbane to work together to discover the culprit and minimize the scandal’s impact on the eccentric March family. Isolated by a snowstorm in the historic Abbey/family home, the pool of suspects is limited, casting a pall of suspicion over family, friends, and acquaintances alike. The truth must out before the snow melts, allowing a murderer to go free – or they may strike again.

One of this book’s greatest strengths is that Raybourn allows readers to spend more time with Julia’s delightfully eccentric family. They’re funny, sarcastic, irreverent, and fiercely loyal to each other, even the more questionable of their relations (like Aunt Dorcas, the ancient kleptomaniac). Sanctuary is rife with as much intrigue, misunderstandings, and hidden secrets as its predecessor. The storyline is multi-layered and fascinating, with enough twists and turns and red herrings to give a person whiplash. The fact that the family home was once an ancient Abbey adds to the atmosphere of the story – it’s as though anything is possible in a location where the very stones seem imbued with history and drama. At the center of it all lies Brisbane and Julia’s maddening relationship. Their relationship is like the ebb and flow of an intricate dance – just when events throw them together, something tears them apart. Raybourn excels at developing the romantic tension in this installment. Lady Julia’s world is one I love getting lost in – completely and utterly absorbing, and loads of fun to boot, Raybourn’s storytelling always leaves me wanting more.

So, in the comments section of my review of Silent in the Grave, there was some fun discussion about who should play Nicholas Brisbane, should this series ever be filmed. I bring you two other actors for your consideration:

First, Tom Hardy as Heathcliff in the 2009 version of Wuthering Heights. I honestly don't know why I didn't think of him first, as I am a big fan of his performance here. An added bonus in his favor is that Heathcliff and Brisbane share a very similar heritage...and that's all I'm gonna say about that. ;-)

My second choice today is the absolutely fabulous Richard Armitage. *swoon* I think Richard is a smidge too...hmm, aristocratic in his looks to perfectly fit the role of Brisbane as he's described in the novels. HOWEVER...Armitage's turn as Guy of Gisborne proved that he's a master at playing a dark, tortured, compelling leading man. If he played Brisbane on screen, I have no doubt he'd own the role. Happy thought. :)

So, to anyone who's read the books, please chime in with your opinion. Or, based on my reviews, which actor would you most like to see in the role?

*I have to say, while I don't like these "new" covers nearly as much as the first run designs for book one, I do appreciate how the cover artist nailed Julia's grey pearls - the necklace is exactly as described.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Julie & Julia

This is going to be relatively short since I watched this last week and never got around to blogging about it in a timely fashion. If you’re like me and maybe weren’t in the mood to blow $10 on a theater ticket when Julie & Julia was around, I recommend renting the film now that it’s on DVD. I really liked it. I absolutely loved 50% of the movie, the other 50% was just a little mehhh. But that's not a bad thing necessarily, just trying to be honest about my take on it. As I’m sure everyone knows from the film’s trailers, the movie is based on two true stories – Julia Child’s life in France and how she came to author her famous cookbook (and became, you know, Julia Child for goodness’ sake!), and Julie Powell, a dissatisfied cubicle worker who sets for herself the challenge of cooking through Child’s cookbook in one year and blogging about it. First off, I have to say I really admire Julie’s ability to set her goal and stick with it. Me? I’m lucky to still be blogging after all these years. But as for joining all of those fun and unique challenges that crop up in the blogosphere – well you can forget about that. My percent of successfully completed blogging challenges is woefully low.

Anyways, this film does quite a masterful job of interweaving Julie and Julia’s respective journeys. Though the two women are separated by time and wildly varied circumstances, their stories are remarkably similar. I suppose if you boil it down, the creative outlet of cooking provided the impetus for both women to find a renewed passion and focus for their lives. It’s here that I have to admit that I just wasn’t all about the Julie storyline. Amy Adams was her usual sweet self here, and while I really enjoyed her performances in films like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and Enchanted, she just didn’t do much for me here. Maybe it’s because I just don’t buy her portrayal of the combination of saccharine-sweet yet borderline bitterly dissatisfied wife & cubicle worker? I don’t think it was the character necessarily; more that I just didn’t really connect with Adams in this specific role. Not that she was bad, but I just didn’t really care about her one way or the other. When the moment comes when Julie discovers that Julia knows about her blogging venture and doesn't approve, and with a DEADLY SERIOUS look on her face she asks her husband if it's because she "occasionally uses the f-word," it's absolutely laughable. Because NOTHING in Adams's portrayal of hints at that. I know that's a trivial thing, probably, but it took me out of the film, you know?

Now the Julia portion of the story – that, my friends, was fantastic. I’ve never been what you might consider a huge Meryl Streep fan, but oh my WORD, she was wonderful as Julia Child. Every scene that showed Julia’s story, every scene that showcased Paris, made me want to live in that world. It was breath-taking and wonderful. I loved every single thing about those scenes. Not only was it a fascinating glimpse into Julia Child’s life before she became the Julia Child and unleashed that juggernaut of a cookbook on the world, but it was also a refreshing, sweet look at the Childs’ marriage. Stanley Tucci did an excellent job opposite Streep playing Paul, Julia's husband. The film offers some nice glimpses into his character & work, but the real jewel of his presence in the film is seeing Paul and Julia's devotion to each other play out on screen. It's got to be one of the most refreshing, positive portrayals of a "seasoned" marriage that I've seen in the movies in I don't know, ages. Love, love, loved everything about their relationship. In fact those scenes were so good, so absorbing to watch for me everything else paled in comparison. I rather wish the entire movie had been a Julia biopic. Oh well, c'est la vie. ;-)

Julie & Julia has all the hallmarks of a Nora Ephron film - sweet, romantic, and funny. I thought she did an excellent job navigating between Julia & Julie's worlds, particularly, of course, in bringing mid-20th century Paris to life. I've also got to mention Alexandre Desplat's absolutely lovely work on the film's score. It's light, airy, and gorgeous. Oh, and I seriously hope Streep is nominated for an Oscar for her work here, it's just that good IMO. This is definitely a movie I'll enjoy watching again & again, but perhaps the biggest thing I can thank this film for is that I now want to learn more about Julia Child's life. Off to track down a copy of her memoir... :)

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Sheriff's Surrender by Susan Page Davis

This week, the

Christian Fiction Blog Alliance

is introducing

The Sheriff’s Surrender

Barbour Books (December 1, 2009)


Susan Page Davis


I've always loved reading, history, and horses. These things come together in several of my historical books. My young adult novel, Sarah's Long Ride, also spotlights horses and the rugged sport of endurance riding, as does the contemporary romance Trail to Justice. I took a vocational course in horseshoeing after earning a bachelor's degree in history. I don't shoe horses anymore, but the experience has come in handy in writing my books.

Another longtime hobby of mine is genealogy, which has led me down many fascinating paths. I'm proud to be a DAR member! Some of Jim's and my quirkier ancestors have inspired fictional characters

For many years I worked for the Central Maine Morning Sentinel as a freelancer, covering local government, school board meetings, business news, fires, auto accidents, and other local events, including a murder trial. I've also written many profiles and features for the newspaper and its special sections. This experience was a great help in developing fictional characters and writing realistic scenes. I also published nonfiction articles in several magazines and had several short stories appear in Woman's World, Grit, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

My husband, Jim, and I moved to his birth state, Oregon, for a while after we were married, but decided to move back to Maine and be near my family. We're so glad we did. It allowed our six children to grow up feeling close to their cousins and grandparents, and some of Jim's family have even moved to Maine!


Gert Dooley can shoot the tail feathers off a jay at a hundred yards, but she wants Ethan Chapman to see she's more than a crack shot with a firearm. When the sheriff of Fergus, Idaho, is murdered and Ethan is named his replacement, Gert decides she has to do whatever she can to help him protect the citizenry. So she starts the Ladies Shooting Club. But when one of their numbers is murdered, these ladies are called on for more than target shooting and praying. Can Gert and the ladies of Fergus find the murderer before he strikes again?

If you would like to read the first chapter of The Sheriff’s Surrender , go HERE

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Review: The Unfinished Gift by Dan Walsh

The Unfinished Gift
By: Dan Walsh
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0-8007-1924-1

About the book:

Can a gift from the past mend a broken heart?

Ian Collins is an old man without his son. Patrick Collins is a young boy without his father. On his Christmas list are only three items. He wants the army to find his father. He wants to leave his grandfather’s house. And he wants the dusty wooden soldier in Grandfather’s attic – the one he is forbidden to touch.


It’s December 1943, and seven-year-old Patrick’s world had been rocked by the sudden death of his mother in a car accident. Sent to live with Ian Collins, the paternal grandfather he’s never even met, and who disowned Patrick’s father for his marriage and renewed faith in Christ – Patrick’s wishes are simple. He wants his father to come home and save him from his cold, unfeeling grandfather, and he wants the unfinished, hand carved wooden soldier hidden in his grandfather’s attic. The wooden soldier just happens to be a very painful reminder to Ian of the long standing rift between him & son. Ian has no intention of giving up that very tangible symbol of years of anger and bitterness, until unexpected truths are revealed and he may have a chance to restore his fractured family. But has his change of heart come too late to save a wounded little boy?

The Unfinished Gift is a sweet little story, especially heart-tugging this time of year, when families tend to be uppermost in one’s mind – those with us physically and those with us in spirit. This is the type of story that should definitely appeal to fans of Richard Paul Evans or even Nicholas Sparks’s at their heartwarming best. Gift is a nice, light diversion but personally, the message of reconciliation and forgiveness got just a bit overly didactic. Also, I had real trouble buying Patrick’s voice as that of a seven-year-old. He’s an adorable kid, but he comes off as way, way too mature for his age and too completely, well, perfect. By the time we meet him in the novel, his mother’s been dead just about a week – one week, and it felt like the narrative just barely scratched the surface of the pain and confusion that must surely be there, somewhere. However, as the impetus for facilitating reconciliation between father & son, Patrick’s character fits the bill perfectly.

Walsh does a commendable job evoking the setting of America during World War II. It’s a treat to read stories set in the homefront, especially ones like this that give you a real sense of the hardships war imposed on those left behind, waiting for and hoping loved ones would return safely from the conflict. That nostalgic sense of time and place is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. I think this story would make an ideal made-for-TV movie. The story is a great little reminder of the importance of faith and family. Though stylistically it’s a little too preachy for my tastes, Walsh does such a good job bringing the time period to life and introducing the Collins family that I want to check out the sequel – The Homecoming releases June 2010.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Public Enemies

This is probably going to be half history, half film commentary (and really long, LOL). Public Enemies is an interesting little film, a surprise because I’ve been mulling over the story and players ever since I finished it last night. It’s not your typical movie in that you’re given a clear beginning, middle, and end tied up neatly with a bow and plenty of closure. Instead, the movie drops you into the middle of the Great Depression, right when John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) boldly breaks several of his comrades out of prison and launches the infamous crime spree that catapulted him to the top of the FBI’s most wanted list. So, because this film doesn’t have a typical story structure, you’re thrust into the middle of the action, watching events unfold without the benefit of context. The result is that it feels like a docudrama, and that format brings with it pros and cons. The way Public Enemies is structured makes you strictly an observer – albeit a riveted, horrified one – but an outsider nonetheless. The sense of identification or knowledge of a character in a film that comes with a more traditional character and story arc is missing, and that’s a little disturbing – but ultimately in a good way, I think, because we see and judge the major players by their actions alone. This doesn’t allow for rationalizations or excuses, you just to see things as they are, so to speak.

Director Michael Mann based Public Enemies on the book of the same name by Bryan Burrough. I started that a while back but got distracted, however now I’ve got to finish in order to properly see how the movie compares to the entire book. I have to say, Burrough’s book is one of those rare non-fiction titles that read like a novel. The structure and pacing are superbly done, with dialogue lifted straight out of FBI interrogation transcripts. What it makes clear about the 1933-34 crime wave (that included not only Dillinger, but Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie & Clyde, etc.) is how it directly led to the birth of the modern FBI. Dillinger and his ilk changed the way crime was fought. It’s absolutely shocking to read about and witness in the film how freakishly inept and ill-equipped national law enforcement was to deal with fearless criminals who hit their targets hard and fast and crossed state lines with ease. Prior to this time period, the FBI was an organization with no real “teeth” – looked upon as more of an annoyance by state law enforcement than an asset, especially since agents didn’t even carry firearms (which made them pretty much useless, yes?).

This story gives an interesting glimpse into the rise of J. Edgar Hoover (played in the film by Billy Crudup) prior to the controversy that characterized his later career. Hoover was driven and focused, apparently obsessed with the idea that his bureau be made up of clean-cut Ivy League types – “nice young men” to fight the dirty nasty criminals running rampant across the country. Since these agents generally had no actual law enforcement experience, and weren’t even authorized to carry sidearms, you can imagine that didn’t end well. They were getting slaughtered until Hoover and one of his star agents, Melvin Purvis (Christian Bale) bring in some agents from out west with two very important qualifications: 1) actual law enforcement experience and 2) they knew how to use guns. Or in other words, they could get the job done. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when some Texas Rangers arrive, and they have this look on their faces that just screams they think the FBI agents are utter morons. The result is that the FBI learns to fight fire with fire, with pretty brutal consequences. But it’s also fascinating to see investigative techniques – like tailing suspects, effective stakeouts, wiretaps, or tracing purchases in order to pinpoint a suspect’s location (can you imagine doing that without the benefit of computers or traceable credit card purchases?) - taken for granted today being implemented as truly cutting edge technology. My, how times have changed.

Johnny Depp quite simply owns the role of Dillinger. He’s got this freakish ability to completely disappear into any character he plays. Physically, there is a resemblance (just compare their mug shots – the way Depp’s expression mirrors Dillinger’s is positively eerie). Fascinatingly enough Dillinger was a kind of folk hero to the masses during the Depression, robbing banks but courting the masses’ approval by letting customers keep their money (don’t try to figure that one out – whose money did he think was in the “evil” banks’ vaults?). He had a sort of honor code, never leaving one of his own behind, and a true belief in his own invincibility (just witness the scene where he waltzes in and out of the “Dillinger bureau” undetected). The movie makes it clear that Dillinger was a ruthless, dangerous man, but he also had a sort of charm and magnetic confidence that Depp does a good job of letting you see, particularly in his relationship with Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard), a down-on-her-luck coat check girl he plucks from obscurity to take on his “grand” adventures. She needs saving, and Dillinger needs to be a savior. Cotillard fits the time period perfectly, and she plays Billie with a world-weariness that tugs at the soul. However dysfunctional or by turns affectionate Dillinger and Billie’s relationship may have been, on-screen all you see is raw, almost painful neediness. I’ve got to hand it to Depp, though – the moment when Billie is arrested and he cries was riveting.

The third major player in this drama is Special Agent Melvin Purvis. Like Depp, Christian Bale really has a knack for fully inhabiting all the roles he takes on and this is no exception. Bale’s Purvis is driven and focused and utterly consumed with his mission to take down Dillinger. Perhaps even less than Dillinger, the film doesn’t give a viewer any real context for Purvis’s character. You know he’s obsessed with stopping Dillinger, but aside from that you don’t get a sense of what made him the man he is by the time he becomes Hoover’s golden poster boy for the FBI’s transformative War on Crime. He definitely seems to have a better handle than Hoover, at least initially, on what it would take to effectively shut down the gangs that were wreaking havoc across the country. I really would’ve liked more background on Purvis’s character, because the bulldog-like tenacity he exhibits in his work is fascinating, and by all appearances completely consuming. I do have to make a completely frivolous point before moving on – Christian Bale looks pretty dang fine in these suits. Wowzers.

Regarding the more technical aspects of the film – first, it looks spectacular. Every detail of the sets and costumes screams authenticity. Some of the camera work can be a little jarring, but if you can get past that it really adds a sense of immediacy to the events unfolding on-screen and reinforces the documentary feel of the film. The close-ups and quick angle changes are especially effective during the gunfights. Those are by turns intense, stressful, and horrifying. It’s quite easy to imagine being a random bystander suddenly caught up in one of these shoot-outs. The movie also makes really fine use of music, both original score pieces by Elliot Goldenthal and vocal performances, with quite striking results. The vocal tracks by Otis Taylor, Billie Holiday, and Blind Willie Johnson, to just name a few, are dark, gritty, and intense, and near perfect complements to the action unfolding on-screen. Diana Krall even makes a brief guest appearance. And when instrumental music is employed, everything else shuts down, so all you see are the visuals, such as the aftermath of a gunfight, accompanied by a haunting melody that really underscores the terrible intensity of what you’re watching unfold.

One final thing and then I promise I’ll shut up. *wink* I was pretty surprised to discover that I’m quite familiar with the film Dillinger saw just before he died (Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable, William Powell, and Myrna Loy – it’s notable as Powell and Loy’s first on-screen teaming). It’s an interesting enough movie, at times rather preachy but nonetheless a fascinating relic of its time. I’d definitely rate it as one of the lesser pictures in Gable, Powell, and Loy’s respective film canons. Taking what little I’ve read about Dillinger with Depp’s performance, the irony that this Gable gangster picture was the last film Dillinger ever saw is incredible. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between Dillinger and Gable’s character in the film – Blackie, the gangster with a heart of gold and his own peculiar honor code. Towards the end of the film, Blackie says something to the effect of wanting to go out of the world as fast as he entered it, and it’s chilling to realize that just minutes after that scene Dillinger would be dying on a sidewalk outside the theater. It’s an interesting collision of fiction and historical events, reality and perception. A person could write a really fascinating essay on Dillinger and crime as viewed in Manhattan Melodrama.

If you’re a history buff, especially as regards early 20th century America, Public Enemies can provide a lot of food for thought (or fodder for one’s blog, whatever the case may be). It’s not an easy film to watch by any stretch, but I found this story, and the time period and the players completely fascinating. I ended up wanting to know what makes them tick, and while this film only gives brief hints into their characters, Dillinger and Purvis remain for the most part enigmatic and fascinating rivals.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Review: A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas by Kristin Chenoweth

The last of my encore Christmas music reviews is from one of my all-time favorite vocalists, the fabulous, amazing Kristin Chenoweth. I originally reviewed this album in November 2008.

A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas is Kristin Chenoweth's third full-length studio album (following 2005's As I Am and 2001's Let Yourself Go). While she's been one of my favorite vocalists since her debut, her second disc fell a bit short. Let Yourself Go is a classic concept album - it flows perfectly, the entire disc a throwback to the 1930s big band sound, seamlessly blending classics with new songs. As I Am by comparison was more hit-or-miss. While Kristin's voice shines (most notably on my favorite, "Taylor, the Latte Boy"), the album lacks a cohesive style, running the gamut from country to Broadway to pop. Thankfully, A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas is a classic Christmas album from the first track to the last. The song selections and arrangements perfectly frame Chenoweth's soaring, sparkling voice. She covers many of the classics here, like her rich, emotional delivery of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" and the classically influenced "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "What Child Is This?". There's also lesser-known gems like "The Christmas Waltz" and "Christmas Island." The latter is the only "novelty" song on the album, but Kristin makes the song her own and turns it nto a showcase for the spunky and comic side of her personality. "Sing," "Silver Bells," and "Come On Ring Those Bells" have the pop-country feel that Chenoweth introduced on her second album, recalling her Oklahoma roots. "Sleigh Ride/Marshmallow World" is a fun, jazzy duet with John Pizzarelli - his laid-back vocal is a great counterpoint to Kristin's high energy delivery. The disc closes with the stunning, perfectly paired "Sleep Well Little Children/What a Wonderful World" where the richness and depth of Kristin's voice is on full display. A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas is an instant holiday classic. Kristin's so crystalline voice is so good here I'll be hard pressed not to listen to this album year-round.

Review: Noel by Josh Groban

I originally reviewed this modern Christmas classic in November 2007. It's become one of my Christmas favorites. If you have yet to check this one out, maybe this encore of my review will convince you. ;-)

Noel is the type of Christmas album Josh Groban’s fans have been hoping for ever since he burst on to the music scene in 2001 with his self-titled debut. The following year teased fans with the release of a gorgeous, classical rendering of “O Holy Night” – a bonus track on his Josh Groban In Concert DVD/CD package. It’s been a five year wait since then for a full Christmas album, but Noel proves it’s been worth the wait. It’s chock-full of Christmas classics, and thanks to production by David Foster, each song is now stamped with Groban’s signature sound – lush, orchestral arrangements that perfectly frame his exquisite vocals. What sets apart so many of the recordings of familiar carols on Noel from the countless other versions out there is the smart pop sensibility woven throughout many of the arrangements. While the songs feel familiar the arrangements are fresh and there are new melodic hooks that set Groban’s performances apart from the vast slew of Christmas music that’s available. For example, “Little Drummer Boy,” featuring guitarist Andy McKee, is one of the standout tracks on the album. It’s transformed from a sweet carol into a soaring pop anthem with a stirring penny whistle solo that lends it a Celtic feel (somewhat reminiscent of “You Raise Me Up”). Similar to this is “What Child Is This?,” where the lilting rhythm of the music turns it into pure ear candy. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” featuring Josh on the piano, is beautiful in it’s simplicity which How one views “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” depends on your tolerance for songs containing dialogue. Here, Groban’s exquisite reading of the lyric is interspersed with Christmas greetings from soldiers stationed overseas. The combination recalls the song’s origins as a World War II anthem of hope, and when you keep in mind the historical context of the song and listen to the heartfelt messages from soldiers today, the effect is incredibly moving. (And I’m not biased just because one of the solders is a friend of mine. ) The one original song on the album is “Thankful,” a lovely David Foster-Carol Bayer Sager ballad about remembering in the midst of the craziness of life to be thankful for the blessings in our lives. Only time will tell if this song will become a holiday classic like the Foster-penned “My Grown-Up Christmas List,” but the potential is there. Groban duets with Brian McKnight on laid-back, guitar driven version of “Angels We Have Heard On High” – McKnight’s smooth voice provides a nice counterpoint to Groban’s more robust baritone – it’s a nice juxtaposition of vocal styles. He also sings “The First Noel” with Faith Hill. I’m a huge Hill fan but she sounds a tad hoarse here, and one gets the sense singing opposite Groban really pushed her a bit beyond the range she sounds most comfortable singing. I would’ve preferred to hear Groban sing with the likes of Carrie Underwood on this track instead – she has a crystalline purity to her voice that would’ve been a gorgeous foil to Groban’s vocal. The disc closes with a stunner – “O Come All Ye Faithful,” featuring the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, where Groban unleashes the full power of his voice and soars. Noel is an instant Christmas classic, thanks to Groban’s magnificent voice, timeless songs, and fresh arrangements that play to Groban’s strengths as a vocalist and while breathing fresh life into beloved Christmas music.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review: Silent in the Grave by Deanna Raybourn

Silent in the Grave (A Lady Julia Grey Novel #1)
By: Deanna Raybourn
Publisher: MIRA
ISBN: 978-0-7783-2525-6

About the book:

“Let the wicked be ashamed, and let them be silent in the grave.”

These ominous words, slashed from the pages of a book of Psalms, are the last threat that the darling of London society, Sir Edward Grey, receives from his killer. Before he can show them to Nicholas Brisbane, the private inquiry agent he has retained for his protection, Sir Edward collapses and dies at his London home, in the presence of his wife, Julia, and a roomful of dinner guests.

Prepared to accept that Edward’s death was due to a long-standing physical infirmity, Julia is outraged when Brisbane visits and suggests that Sir Edward has been murdered. It is a reaction she comes to regret when she discovers the damning paper for herself, and realizes the truth.

Determined to bring her husband’s murderer to justice, Julia engages the enigmatic Brisbane to help her investigate Edward’s demise. Dismissing his warnings that the investigation will be difficult, if not impossible, Julia presses forward, following a trail of clues that lead her to even more unpleasant truths, and ever closer to a killer who waits expectantly for her arrival.


It’s taken me two years to finally read Deanna Raybourn’s novels, and after finishing Silent in the Grave I can’t believe I waited that long to lose myself in Lady Julia Grey’s world. Thanks to every book blogger who’s reviewed her work and inspired me to check it out. This book was just spectacular. It’s been years since I’ve read a novel that hooked me so utterly and completely from the first page that I had to carry it with me everywhere I went, so I could read a few pages here and there every time a chance presented itself. Grave has the romance of Jane Eyre, the dark passions of Wuthering Heights, and the dangerous atmosphere of Sherlock Holmes’s best adventures (think The Hound of the Baskervilles).

This isn’t your typical mystery novel. Silent in the Grave is a little less about what killed Julia’s husband (that investigation doesn’t really kick into high gear until about three quarters of the way through the book) then it is more about Julia’s growth from a traditional society wife to an independent, adventurous woman. Julia has always been the most “proper” member of a rather unorthodox, free-thinking family, and Edward’s death and the subsequent investigation into its cause forces Julia to come to terms with unsavory truths that force her to decide the type of woman she wants to become. I absolutely loved Julia’s voice – she’s funny, sarcastic, and at times painfully honest – a unique heroine to spend time with.

Julia’s partner in her investigation, the enigmatic Nicholas Brisbane, is an absolutely delicious character. He’s dark, brooding, intense, mysterious, and totally and completely swoon-worthy. :) A heady mix of classic figures such as Mr. Rochester, Heathcliff, and perhaps just a touch of Darcy-esque aloofness and control, Brisbane is the ideal character to rock Julia’s perfectly proper world. I loved the way Raybourn builds Julia and Brisbane’s relationship throughout the novel. The romantic tension unfolds at a maddeningly leisurely pace, but the fact that Raybourn always left me wanting more just goes to show how utterly and completely hooked her characters had me.

Silent in the Grave isn’t for everyone as Raybourn definitely explores the seamy side of Victorian life. It’s also a little overly long and occasionally meandering, but since I loved the world Raybourn created I can’t really complain. :) But the mystery, and what brings Julia to the point of learning all sorts of unsavory details about her husband, isn’t really the point of the book (it wasn’t for me, anyway). It’s the choices Julia must make, and how she rebuilds her life when everything she’s known, or thought she knew, turns her world on end, that makes Raybourn’s first novel a compulsive, unput-downable read. Silent in the Grave is a rich, meaty historical that’s moody, atmospheric, romantic, and unforgettable. Raybourn is now on my must-read list.

As an extra special bonus (haha), I thought I'd share my casting choice for the role of Brisbane on-screen (better yet, a BBC miniseries - please!!). I give you Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester...he's ABSOLUTELY perfect. Enjoy. :)

Alice preview

Tonight, part one of the new Alice miniseries airs on the SyFy Channel. I have high hopes for this show since it comes from the creators of the Tin Man miniseries which I absolutely love & adore (that would've made an excellent hour-long show, but one can't have everything...*sigh*). Plus, Andrew Lee Potts (from Primeval) plays the Mad Hatter!! If for no other reason than that wonderful bit of casting I have great hopes Alice lives up to it's Oz-inspired predecessor.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Masterpiece Classic 2010 Schedule

Oh happy day. :) The Masterpiece Classic schedule was released today, and all things considered I have to say I'm quite pleased and excited by the line up. Take a look:

December 20, 2009-January 3, 2010, 9pm
Cranford (Encore Presentation)
Three episodes (Episode one 120 minutes; episode two 60 minutes; episode three 120 minutes)
The Emmy-nominated drama about a small English village in 1842 on the brink of change — where some find romance and opportunity, and others fear the breakdown of social order.

January 10-17, 2010, 9pm
Return to Cranford
(Two 90-minute episodes)
The construction of a new railroad line is at once thrilling and threatening to the residents of Cranford. This sequel stars Judi Dench, Imelda Staunton and Julia McKenzie. New faces include Jonathan Pryce and Tim Curry.

January 24-February 7, 2010, 9pm
Three episodes (Episode one 120 minutes; episodes two and three 60 minutes)
A new adaptation of Jane Austen's comic tale of a headstrong young woman's failed matchmaking schemes. Starring Romola Garai, Michael Gambon and Jonny Lee Miller.

February 14, 2010, 9pm
Northanger Abbey (Encore Presentation)
One 90-minute episode
In a medieval house that appeals to her most lurid fantasies, romance addict Catherine Moreland (Felicity Jones) begins a relationship with the younger son of the estate in this adaptation of the Jane Austen novel.

February 21, 2010, 9pm
Persuasion (Encore Presentation)
One 90-minute episode
Sally Hawkins plays Jane Austen's Anne Elliot, a woman destined for spinsterhood after refusing a proposal eight years earlier. Then her spurned suitor reappears.

February 28, 2010, 9pm
The 39 Steps
One 90-minute episodeSecret agent Richard Hannay battles German spies on the eve of World War I in a riveting and romantic new version of the thriller by John Buchan. Rupert-Penry Jones (Persuasion) stars as Hannay.

March 28, 2010, 9pm
Sharpe's Challenge
One 120-minute episode
Soldier-adventurer Richard Sharpe comes out of retirement to quash a rebellion in British India. Sean Bean returns as the swashbuckling hero of this series based on Bernard Cornwell's novels. Top Chef's Padma Lakshmi guest stars.

April 4, 2010, 9pm
Sharpe's Peril
One 120-minute episode
The adventures of Colonel Richard Sharpe continue as he leads a ragtag party of civilians and soldiers on a march across India, with the murderous army of an opium lord in hot pursuit.

April 11, 2010, 9pm
The Diary of Anne Frank
One 120-minute episode
The most accurate adaptation of Anne Frank's account of hiding from the Nazis stars newcomer Ellie Kendrick as the maturing teenager undergoing an extraordinary ordeal. The Diary of Anne Frank airs on Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2010.

April 18-25, 2010, 9pm
Small Island
Two 90-minute episodes
When an ambitious Jamaican woman moves to gritty post-war London, she finds that the "Mother Country" is not the land of opportunity she had imagined. Starring Naomie Harries, Ruth Wilson and Benedict Cumberbatch.

You can watch a short preview of the new season here.

I realize I've already mentioned once or twice (HA!) that I'm looking forward to Return to Cranford and the new Emma (seriously, can not WAIT to see Jonny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley!). If you've never seen the first Cranford miniseries, be sure to take advantage of the encore presentation in a few weeks if it airs in your market.

I could've lived without the other Jane Austen encores, because 1) I have the DVDs and 2) I have an insatiable hunger for new British programs, but if you've never seen them they're definitely worth checking out. On the other hand, I'm positively thrilled at the inclusion of two World War II-era programs. I'm REALLY looking forward to checking out the new version of The 39 Steps starring the yummy Rupert Penry-Jones (if you've never seen the classic Alfred Hitchcock film version of this story, I have to recommend it as well - though my guess is TCM will probably schedule a showing around the time this new version debuts on PBS), and I vaguely recall hearing some pretty good things about the new version of the Anne Frank story. The Sharpe movies can be diverting, but frankly this is like Sean Bean's 500 millionth turn as Sharpe and he (and the series) is getting a little long in the tooth IMO. But whatever, like I said, will most likely be entertaining in some respect, if only to try and spot other British talent in guest star spots. However, I've got to end by saying I'm really looking forward to the final program of the season, Small Island. I read a bit about it a couple of months ago at the BBC press office, and the story sounds fascinating, and you can't beat the cast - Benedict Cumberbatch, Ruth Wilson, and Naomie Harris.

All in all, this is a season not to be missed, and you can be sure that it will be well blogged about here. :)