Sunday, July 31, 2011

Review: Perfectly Invisible by Kristin Billerbeck

Perfectly Invisible (A Universally Misunderstood Novel)
By: Kristin Billerbeck
Publisher: Revell
ISBN: 978-0-8007-1973-9

About the book:

It's Daisy Crispin's final semester of high school, and she plans to make it count. Her long-awaited freedom is mere months away, and her big plans for college loom in the future. Everything is under control.

Or is it?

Her boyfriend is treating her like she's invisible, and her best friend is selling bad costume jewelry in the school quad--and hanging out with her boyfriend. To top it off, Daisy's major humiliation for the year will be remembered in the yearbook for all eternity. It's enough to make her wonder if maybe being invisible isn't so bad after all.

Can Daisy get her life back on track? Or is she stuck in this town forever?


With three months left in high school, Daisy Crispin knows she has little time if she hopes to permanently reverse her reputation as the school's social pariah. She has a partial scholarship to an elite university lined up and the interest of a handsome foreign exchange student. Life is look up - or did she speak too soon? Before Daisy can say "Class of 2011," her crush is ignoring her, her job falls victim to the recession, and her ultra-conservative, flaky parents squash her dreams of making university a reality (and move her into their garage). Her quest to be known is succeeding for all the wrong reasons in a spectacular fashion. Before the year ends, Daisy has some eye-opening lessons to learn on the subject of perception versus reality if she has any hope of a normal life post-high school.

Daisy's introduction in Perfectly Dateless was a fresh, funny, and authentic slice of teenage angst and drama shot through with solid truths. Her second adventure, while retaining much of Daisy's fresh, honest voice, gets bogged down by an increased dose of negativity and whininess. I love a healthy dose of snarky humor, but Daisy seems to have lost all the personal ground she gained in Dateless, instead reverting to levels of self-centeredness and self-pity that are more than a bit off-putting.

Despite my issues with Daisy's near-constant and unproductive moaning about her unfortunate lot in life, Perfectly Invisible isn't without its charms. The pacing and story flow are noticeably improved in comparison to its predecessor. Billerbeck maintains her gift for capturing a realistic, snarky-but-(generally) likeable teen voice. And while Daisy's parents are so ultra-conservative they unfortunately border too often on caricatures, when it comes to her teenage heroine Billerbeck is a master at balancing cultural relevance with genuine faith. One hopes that if we get to follow Daisy's adventures to college, some of the lessons she learns here stick.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Zen concludes tomorrow

Zen concludes tomorrow on Masterpiece Mystery, and I have to admit I'm already anticipating the sure-to-be acute withdrawal symptoms (hence the picture). *wink* Here's a bit about tomorrow's episode:
Don't miss the finale of Zen starring Rufus Sewell, this Sunday, July 31, 2011 at 9pm (check local listings) on MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! In Ratking, a wealthy industrialist is kidnapped, and Zen must get him back alive at any cost. Back at the office, Zen has a new boss who is a stickler for the rules — including the one prohibiting office romance.
Check out my reviews of episodes one and two if you need a refresher:

Cowboys & Aliens

Last night I went to see Cowboys & Aliens, and let me tell you this movie may just be the surprise of my summer. Despite my long-term love affairs with Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, and my deep appreciation of director Jon Favreau's work with the Iron Man films, I had extremely LOW expectations for this movie. I wasn't sure how the film's high-concept, genre-bending goal would play out on-screen. Amazingly enough - and perhaps because they played to the conventions of the western genre so well - the film manages to work. Cowboys & Aliens plays it straight when it comes to the western - this is a western so western John Ford would recognize it, that just happens to feature hostile aliens (as opposed to any of the western's traditional "big bads").

Craig is the mysterious stranger, who wakes up in the desert with no memory of his past and a mysterious shackle on one wrist. After acquiring the necessary trappings - boots, gun, horse, and the requisite scruffy and loyal dog - he rides into the desolate (and aptly) named Absolution. But Absolution is a town that doesn't welcome strangers, and lives in fear of crossing the wealthy and iron-willed Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford). The stranger quickly makes powerful enemies when he crosses Dolarhyde's wastrel son Percy (Paul Dano), an idiot with an entitlement complex (Dano played the inventor Simon Feck in Knight and Day). Like some of my favorite westerns, the idea of complex father/son relationships and the search for redemption play large roles in this character-driven drama's storyline.

Daniel Craig was MADE for the trappings of the western. Fifty years ago, he would have been a staple of the western film genre. Not only does he have the look nailed (a fact I greatly appreciated), but he owns the manner and the attitude. He can say more with a look than most actors can say with pages of script. He brings the same intensity and depth to the role of amnesiac outlaw Jake Lonergan that allowed him to reinvent Bond in Casino Royale. What I loved about Jake - besides the fact that Daniel Craig's blue eyes shine all the brighter for the layer of dirt he's covered in for the film - is the way his experience with the aliens, his amnesia, gives him the opportunity to start over. It's emblematic of why so many people journeyed west -the chance for a fresh start, the opportunity to reinvent yourself uninhibited, or perhaps in spite of? - by the shackles of past sins.

I love Harrison Ford (hello Indy and Han!), but he's been so defined by those franchises sometimes it's difficult to see him in a role and not project either of his two most famous personas on the current role. His turn as Dolarhyde really makes me wish he'd had the opportunity to make more westerns in the last ten years or so - Ford fits in the genre so comfortably, one is able to forget for the length of the film that he is best known as adventurer Indiana Jones or roguish space captain Han Solo. I absolutely loved Dolarhyde's troublesome family relationships. It really reminded me of Robert Mitchum's character in the fabulous Home from the Hill, and the conflict that arises between his son and the unacknowledged, illegitimate son who desperately longs for his father's approval and affirmation. In this case, you have Dolarhyde's over-indulged and spoiled son Percy, and Nat Colorado (Adam Beach), the orphaned Indian boy Dolarhyde took in, who views the hard-nosed rancher as a surrogate father. Ford starts out as quite unlikable, and over the course of the film and the experiences his character endures softens, transforming him into a leader worthy of respect.

Ford and Craig play off each other so incredibly well in this movie. There are several occasions where they just look at each other, and don't have to say a word because their expressions say it all, and it is hilarious. The quirk of a mouth, the lift of an eyebrow, and like the best leading men in classic westerns they make know their intentions. How their characters move from distrust and animosity (in Jake's pre-alien encounter life, he robbed a stagecoach carrying Dolarhyde's gold) to mutual respect, and dare I say it - liking each other, is a lot of fun to watch unfold. The alien threat forces them to become allies, and over the course of the film they both gain a fresh start - absolution, if you will, for their pasts.

I suppose I should mention the aliens. Honestly, they were completely incidental to my enjoyment of the film. The whole concept worked because the filmmakers played the fantastical alien incursion so straight. This wasn't like a steampunk or even sci-fi western, this was a straightforward western where the adversary of choice just happened to be really revolting, disgusting, gold-seeking aliens. Ultimately, its the seriousness with which the film takes the conventions of the western genre that allow the high-concept alien-incursion thing to work. The townsmen and their eventual native allies view the aliens and fight them in ways that feel completely authentic to the 1870s setting.

I've never really been a fan of Olivia Wilde, but as the mysterious traveler Ella, who knows a lot more about the aliens than she's willing to divulge, she works really well. She has this angular, slightly hardened look that fits the rigors of the time period in quite an authentic manner. I really loved the way the film introduces Alice (Abigail Spencer), the woman Jake leaves his life of crime for, but only after one last score - one last score that makes them a target, ultimately resulting in Alice's death. As his memory gradually returns, that burden of guilt and the empathy Ella's past allows her to provide, sets the stage for a tenuous relationship that faces certain death in the best "against all odds" convention of the western film.

A few other quick performance notes - Clancy Brown turns in a memorable performance as the gun-toting town preacher Meacham. Keith Carradine is terrific as Absolution's Sheriff Taggart, who owes his job to Dolarhyde but desperately wants to do the right thing for the townspeople, in spite of the pressure of his benefactor's heavy-handed patronage. Sam Rockwell is fantastic and funny as the put-upon Doc, the saloonkeeper who longs for the respect of the town and wants nothing more than to be a hero to his wife. And in a blink-and-you'll miss him role, Brendan Wayne, grandson of John, makes his big-screen western debut as Charlie Lyle, one of Taggart's deputies (look for him in the saloon fight towards the beginning of the film).

Full of glorious western vistas (shot mostly in New Mexico) and packed with slickly-produced action sequences (I loved the creepy, displaced riverboat scenes), Cowboys & Aliens is a thoroughly enjoyable entry in the western film genre. The aliens are revolting, and a stark reminder of why I am never going to be a fan of straight alien flicks, but the western sequences are so wonderfully realized and its that gritty, persevering spirit that pervades the film and leaves a lasting impression. Kudos to Favreau and his co-producers (among them Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard) for making this high-concept genre-mashing idea work (for me, at any rate). Oh, and Harry Gregson-Williams a fantastic score that evokes the spirit of classic westerns of the past.

Filled with a smart sensibility towards the conventions of film westerns and a deliciously funny, self-deprecating sense of humor, Cowboys & Aliens is a surprisingly well-realized, wildly entertaining adventure. If you've seen it, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stage Fright

I have always considered myself an aficionada of Alfred Hitchcock's films, but somehow 1950's Stage Fright completely escaped my notice until I caught a recent airing on TCM. Though not quite on par with Hitchcock masterpieces like Rear Window or North by Northwest, Stage Fright is a fine example of the director's "lighter efforts," exhibiting an utterly charming, distinctly British sensibility. The delightfully dry, understated humor in the script combine with Hitchcock's signature flair for suspense, resulting in a droll, appealing slice of 1950s cinema.

The film opens with a "curtain" raising on the city of London, a blatant signal that everything which follows is a fiction. But the question is, does that fiction operate according to the usual filmmaking "rules"? Hitchcock starts the action immediately, cutting to Eve Gill (Jane Wyman) and Jonathan Cooper (Richard Todd) fleeing the city. Jonathan confesses to Eve that he's the secret lover of Charlotte Inwood (Marlene Dietrich) a popular and married actress. In flashback Jonathan narrates the events that brought him to Eve for help - Charlotte came to his apartment wearing a bloodstained dress, frantic after killing her husband during an argument. Jonathan agreed to return to her home to procure a fresh gown, and while attempting to stage a fake robbery is spotted by Charlotte's maid, Nellie Goode (Kay Walsh) - and now he's the police's number one suspect.

Eve, an aspiring actress, has long been in love with Jonathan, and determines to get her father the Commodore's (Alastair Sim) assistance in clearing Jonathan's name (and perhaps in the process at long last turning his affections toward herself). What follows is a thoroughly enjoyable mix of humor, heart, mystery, and suspense, delivered with a deftness of touch and a finesse like only Hitchcock could deliver. This is a cast that works really well together, and is one of the movie's biggest strengths - perhaps all the more notable because it was peopled with performers that weren't part of Hitchcock's list of usual "suspects" (i.e. Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, etc.). Stage Fright was the first almost entirely British film - filming locations and cast (with the exceptions of Wyman and Dietrich) that Hitchcock had made since the 1930s, lending it a feel and flavor rarely since in full force during his Hollywood tenure.

I've never really been a big Jane Wyman fan, probably because my exposure to her work has been limited to her roles in soapy, melodramatic films like Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, and Miracle in the Rain. The character of Eve is by contrast a revelation - Wyman plays the wide-eyed, determined ingenue with a touch of spunk and an affinity for comedy (especially when Eve masquerades as a dowdy lady's maid to spy on Charlotte) that I never would've suspected. Stage Fright is perhaps the loveliest I've ever seen Wyman on film, and she brings a warmth and humor to the production that play extraordinarily well in the context of the story.

As Eve's crush Jonathan, Richard Todd is absolutely fantastic. My earliest memories of Todd go back to my childhood, when I watched his Disney films (The Story of Robin Hood, The Sword and the Rose, and Rob Roy) endlessly, and developed a huge crush on his classic good looks and boyish charm. Hitchcock puts those qualities to excellent use here. It's easy to see why Eve loves him, but should she is another matter entirely - there's an unsettling tension and energy underscoring Todd's performance that explodes in the final scenes in a wholly satisfying and surprisingly creepy manner.

The cast is liberally peppered with great British acting talent in memorable character roles, among them Kay Walsh as the hard-nosed maid Nellie with a propensity for blackmail, Joyce Grenfell in a hilarious scene as a carnival booth operator, and even Hitchcock's own daughter Patricia as "Chubby" Bannister, one of Eve's friends and a fellow student. But the award for the best and most hilarious performance must go to Alastair Sim as Commodore Gill, Eve's father and partner in crime (the crime being their amateur criminal investigation). I suspect Sim is perhaps most familiar (to American audiences, anyway) for his turn as Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 production of A Christmas Carol. As the Commodore, Sim is hysterically funny, practically stealing every scene in which he appears. Eve's somewhat unconventional father absolutely relishes anything that smacks of a slightly unsavory scandal, loves the idea of having a less-than-stellar reputation, and does everything he can to support his daughter's investigation - all with a delightfully droll, witty British sensibility.

I've always been rather ambivalent about Dietrich, and to be quite honest it's a little freaky how eerily "ageless" she appears in this film. But it's undeniable that she is probably the perfect foil for Wyman's Eve. Cold and icy, brittle and calculating, Dietrich's Charlotte is the antithesis of everything Eve represents - and quite frankly it's kind of fun to watch her mack for the camera and unravel as the film heads towards its climax. She even gets a Cole Porter penned song ("The Laziest Gal in Town"), a lyric that is deliciously ironic when considered in the contex of the film (and, according to the "making of" featurette included on the DVD, a number she regularly resurrected in her shows years later).

My absolute favorite part of this film is any scene featuring Michael Wilding (also known as Elizabeth Taylor's second husband) as "Ordinary" Smith, the detective investigating the murder of Charlotte's husband. Now I've seen Wilding in a handful of films (Torch Song, The Egyptian, and The Glass Slipper), and while he was good in those films, those characters didn't make me sit up and take notice of his urbane good looks and delicious voice. As the sweet and a bit shy Smith, Wilding is positively delightful. DELIGHTFUL, I tell you! The "meet cute" with Eve is just too adorable for words - and the fact that he basically loves her from the moment they meet? Be still my heart. :)

Spoilers...There is apparently some controversy about this film due to Hitchcock's decision to open with Jonathan's "lying flashback" (a decision he later regretted according to the "making of" documentary). After spending some time mulling over this storytelling technique, I've got to conclude that the decision to tell the story of the murder from the point-of-view of an unreliable narrator was perhaps ahead of its time, but ultimately serves the film well and makes the final "reveal" of Jonathan's true nature all the more chilling. As an audience we're used to a film being presented as "reality" from start to finish - but by raising the curtain on London over the opening credits signals the film's awareness that it is a fiction - and the lying flashback is an interesting method of messing with audience expectations and perceptions of the action playing out on-screen.

While it lacks some of the finesse and sophistication of other Hitchcock classics, Stage Fright is an entertaining, quirky, character-driven piece that I'm happy to have finally discovered. If you're a fan of Hitchcock's work - especially if you enjoy the "lighter" films like To Catch a Thief or The Trouble with Harry, this is a diverting little gem that is worth checking out, probably moreso because if my experience is any indication, it's been sadly overlooked!

Purchase Stage Fright on DVD.

Other Hitchcock films I've reviewed:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Downton Abbey Series 2 teaser

It isn't much to go on, and the video quality is atrocious, but I am SO EXCITED about Downton Abbey Series 2! Getting a teaser promo means we're THAT MUCH CLOSER to new episodes!

Thanks to Charleybrown at Enchanted Serenity for posting this!

the power of pink

"I believe in pink. I believe that laughing is the best calorie burner. I believe in kissing, kissing a lot. I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong. I believe that happy girls are the prettiest girls. I believe that tomorrow is another day and I believe in miracles."

~ Audrey Hepburn

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

so says Marilyn...

"I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they're right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together."

"I'm selfish, impatient and a little insecure. I make mistakes, I am out of control and at times hard to handle. But if you can't handle me at my worst, then you sure as hell don't deserve me at my best."

Monday, July 25, 2011

Zen: Cabal

Masterpiece Mystery continued its love-fest with Rufus Sewell...I mean its three-part run of Zen mysteries this weekend with an episoded entitled Cabal. This episode further involves Zen in the increasingly dangerous world of political intrigue and cover-ups, where a slip-up might not just cost him his career, but his life. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

The dashing Roman detective Aurelio Zen is stuck in the hot seat when an important aristocratic family's disreputable son falls to his death from a bridge over the Tiber River. The powerful Ministry, to insulate itself against scandal, puts Zen on the case and demands his swift dismissal of the death as suicide. But the beautiful prosecutor Pirlo, exuding power and no shortage of allure, presses for a probing investigation...and a little something with Zen on the side.

With these cross-purposed powers breathing down his neck, Zen then learns of the Cabal, a shadowy criminal organization at the highest levels of Italian society. But Zen isn't buying conspiracy theories. He's simply trying to survive his dilemma as a pawn in a potentially sinister political game.

It's a case that demands a calm and delicate touch, and the stress is showing for Zen, even at home, where the stylish reputed maverick lives...with his mother. But he's relieving some tension in the arms of the murder squad's gorgeous secretary Tania Moretti. That is, until smug colleague Vincenzo Fabri moves in, leaving Zen in the hands of the overeager Pirlo, and a case that threatens to alienate Zen from everything — and everyone — he finds important.

Based on Michael Dibdin's Aurelio Zen novel, Cabal stars Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch), Caterina Murino (Casino Royale), and Stanley Townsend (Sherlock).
The episode opens with a shocking death. Umberto Ruspanti, the troubled scion of an aristocratic and well-connected family, falls from a bridge near the Tiber River to his death. Zen (Rufus Sewell) is called out to investigate in the wee hours of the morning. Poor Ruspanti's untimely demise allowed for some major Zen/Mamma (Catherine Spaak) as he gets ready to leave his apartment and discovers that his mother has made him an espresso. BESIDES the obvious fact that no man should look that good in a suit (really, where are the guys who wear suits like that?) that early in the morning, how cute was Rufus being all concerned about waking his mother up? ADORABLE. *sigh* :)

Unfortunately for Zen, Colonna (Ben Miles), the aide to Minister Guerchini (Anthony Higgins), requested Zen's presence on the case. The government wants Ruspanti's death quickly ruled a suicide and quietly hushed up, since there is fear that any investigation would raise unnecessary questions about the current government. Where there's smoke there's usually fire, no? Seriously, this whole "there's not a problem, but just in case we need THIS outcome" directive thing is a bit humorous. OF COURSE in Zen's life no investigation can be straightforward. Despite the discovery of an apparent suicide note at Ruspanti's apartment, there's the fact that the apartment was ransacked, and marks on the deceased's face indicate a struggle immediately prior to his death. Zen also discovers that Colonna's desire for a swift suicide ruling is at odds with gorgeous prosecutor Nadia Pirlo's (Cosima Shaw) desire to see Ruspanti's death further investigated. She wants Zen personally and professionally, if you catch my drift, and keeping both her and the government at bay just so he can attempt to do his job becomes a tricky balancing act.

I really love Zen's self-depracting nature and his near complete lack of self-assurance, the latter especially when it comes to his personal life. On one hand I have trouble buying the idea that a man who looks like Rufus does, who carries himself like Rufus does, who can friggin' wear a suit as well as Rufus does would have ANY insecurity issues. But the fact that Zen does have these struggles in his personal life is really part of his charm, no? :) He has this lost little boy quality, and his insecurity that someone like Tania (Caterina Murino) could be well and truly interested in him (their mutal infidelity issues aside) is just ADORABLE. And on yet another completely superficial, massive Rufus Sewell fangirl note, does he not seem like one of the best kissers ever captured on film? EVER? Because the coffee shop kiss at the beginning of the episode floored me. Floored me, I tell you.

Personally and professionally it seems like Zen is viewed as a bit of an underdog - and really wouldn't you say that's due to his rather quiet nature (which is so precious it KILLS me...I am SO easily distracted...)? The moments when someone is under-estimating Zen are some of the funniest in the film. This script has a real dry, sarcastic wit - mostly coming from Zen's character - which I just adore (since I have joked on occasion that sarcasm is my love language). *wink* Power players like Colonna and Pirlo seem to always under-estimate his intelligence and grasp of a situation - they may think they're playing him, but really they are the ones being played.

The web of intrigue surrounding Ruspanti's death gets more tangled when the man's lawyer, Gattuso (Allan Corduner) comes forward, claiming that Ruspanti was murdered because he was trying to sell the secrets of a group of powerful men. This concept is reinforced when Zen is kidnapped at gunpoint by Gianni (Hilton McRae) who claims that the Cabal, a highly secretive and powerful organization, killed Ruspanti for attempting to defect. Gianni has been living in hiding for years, and wants to help Zen expose the Cabal's secrets. Zen, however, is a little to practical for the conspiracy theories. I thought Corduner looked extraordinarily familiar - turns out he's appeared in Foyle's War, Daniel Deronda, De-Lovely, and Defiance, to name a few of his credits. And McRae might look familiar to fans of the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, as he played Mr. Price.

This issue of the Cabal - who they are, what they do, the very question of their existence - introduces an over-arching theme to the Zen series with pretty much limitless possibilities for danger and intrigue. When watching last night's episode I couldn't help but bemoan my foreknowledge of Zen's cancellation - after watching only two episodes I have to rate that a terribly short-sighted move on the BBC's part. But, looking on the bright side of things, if Zen was destined to be a one-season wonder, at least I am getting the chance to revel in what has so far been consistently high-class television. :)

In his quest to uncover the true nature of Ruspanti's death, Zen falls in with Arianna (Valentina Cervi), a high-priced call girl (or courtesan, as she prefers), who was Ruspanti's friend and sometime lover, and who has very highly-placed clients (namely Guerchini). While I think her multiple clothes-changing scene could've been shortened significantly, I will own that Zen's awkwardness at her lack of inhibitions was hilariously cute. I really liked Arianna's character - she was nice and street-smart and savvy, and I loved the fact that she and Zen seemed to fall into an easy friendship (nothing more, really!) over the course of the investigation.

This episode introduces Mara (Julie Cox), Zen's estranged wife who wants to finalize their divorce. She and Zen were so genteel when trading barbs, weren't they? Cox is a familiar face I haven't seen on-screen in ages - she appeared in an episode of The Scarlet Pimpernel film series, as well as Marple and Poirot. Since Zen and Tania's "affair" is progressing, I'm a bit relieved that they're both taking steps to finalize their splits, since that is the route they've oh-so-clearly settled on. It was interesting to see the impact of the divorce talk on Zen's psyche - he has no desire whatsoever to remain wed to Mara, but the idea of putting a "period" to that epoch in his life - a failure at that - is extremely troubling. He's a character who feels deeply, and that "unfortunate reputation for integrity" creates some moments of painful introspection.

In addition to the introduction of the shadowy Cabal, my favorite aspect of this episode was Zen's longing for Tania. Rufus Sewell just does this adorable lost puppy-dog expression thing so friggin' WELL. Vincenzo Fabri (Ed Stoppard) is still determined to bed Tania - so its rather sweetly satisfying when it's revealed that Zen's jealousy is for nothing, because Tania was playing him. And the way Zen acquires a "free" apartment for Tania in the heart of Rome is just genius. I love the way he holds that chip in reserve, so to speak. The "reveal" to Tania is just priceless. What I really loved was watching Zen watch her - Sewell's face just seems to light up from deep within, his chemistry with Murino is so on fire. And the kiss? Holy cow, two kisses like that in one episode. I die of joy, I really do. *swoon*

While this episode didn't have action sequences quite on the level of Vendetta, I loved the introduction of the Cabal - especially when it's revealed at the end of the episode that Colonna is a member and Gianni's BROTHER. Loving the drama. *wink* People, Ben Miles SHED A TEAR!

With nice little touches - like Zen conspiring with his co-worker, de Angelis (Vincent Riotta), to extend their investigation, or when he beats up a co-worker for placing crass bets after their boss, Moscati (Stanley Townsend), ends up in the hospital from a heart attack - this episode further established Zen's world and his glorious, wonderful, messed-up character. Oh, before I forget - regarding Zen's coworkers - I really want Gilberto (Francesco Quinn) to get more screentime. I'm already sorry there's only one episode left next week - this is a world I've really enjoyed spending time in. Okay fine, I admit it - this show is basically my Rufus Sewell dream-come-true. :P Full of gorgeous Italian scenery and fascinating characters, Zen has been a welcome change-of-pace for Masterpiece, and personally I've been loving it. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger

This summer has been an extraordinarily good one for Marvel. First they gave us Thor (my review), which was a delightful little surprise, and now the star-spangled Captain America, which, for a World War II history nut like myself, was pretty much a guaranteed win. Happily it delivered on all fronts, and now I really can't wait for the star-packed Avengers film next summer. That, my friends, promises to be EPIC.

A period superhero flick could have easily fallen flat on its face. Thankfully the team that crafted Captain America hit all the right notes character and nostalgia-wise while providing plenty of flash and spectacle to keep things interesting. It feels a bit like the 21st-century equivalent of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I am an admitted comic-book movie geek, but I never thought I'd have my love of 1940s history so gloriously mashed-up with the superhero film genre. It's a fantastically realized dream come true, one that I didn't even quite realize I had. *wink*

Chris Evans just owns this movie as Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. I am seriously crushing on the man now. :) His all-American good looks and boyish earnestness are pitch-perfect for the role and the time period. His turn as Steve manages a delicate balance between the conventions of modern superhero movies and the innocence and idealism of Hollywood flicks from the 1940s, when "men were men," if you will, fighting against the unfathomable might of the Nazi war machine. The special effects that transform Chris Evans from the 90 lb weakling version of Steve into the unstoppable hunk that becomes a patriotic symbol of the American war effort are, quite frankly, amazing. It would be easy for the CGI to overshadow the characters, and it is a credit to Evans and director Joe Johnston that they don't allow the on-screen magic to usurp the kindness that is the bedrock of Steve's character. Steve's never-say-die determination and gentle spirit are what set him apart, and ultimately it are those qualities that transform him into a leader of men.

As I mentioned in my Thor post, I find myself getting educated on the "standards" of the Marvel comic universe a little more as each film releases. This is probably the way to go, for me anyway, as keeping things straight in the 21st-century film universe is job enough (when compared to reconciling the sprawling, over-lapping, and in some cases contradictory comics canon). The focus of the power struggle in Captain America is a "cosmic cube" stolen by Nazi/HYDRA big bad Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), a source of unlimited power that he refers to as "the jewel of Odin's treasure room." With that you have the Thor tie-in (the cube is briefly seen in the bonus scene at the end of the credits), and prior to Thor, the cube was seen in Howard Stark's notes in Iron Man 2. HYDRA is apparently the evil-terrorist version of S.H.I.E.L.D., which I suspect will be the crux of the conflict in The Avengers.

I absolutely LOVED the film's recreation of 1940s New York. It's chock-full of delicious period detail, from the clothing to the props to the cars, that all work together to set this film apart from your typical superhero flick. All through Steve's multiple attempts to enlist in the army, his best friend is the dashing and confident James "Bucky" Barnes, played by Sebastian Stan. Stan first came to my attention in the all-too short-lived television series Kings, where he played Jack Benjamin. I really loved the friendship between Steve and Bucky, and their later role-reversal - when Steve becomes the guy women swoon over, a reality he does not know how to handle - is really quite humorous to watch play out. Barnes, and indeed the whole motley crew Steve assembles to take down Schmidt, have this great Band of Brothers-style vibe, a bit reminscent of the elites that took on the Nazis in classic films like Von Ryan's Express or The Great Escape. More on the rest of the team in a bit...

Much has been made in the blogosphere of Richard Armitage's appearance in this film as the evil Heinz Kruger. Kruger is a small but pivotal role in the movie, and if you overlook Armitage's gosh-awful take on an "American" accent he does make the most of his screentime. :) Kruger infilitrates the top-secret lab where Steve is turned into a super soldier, and after Steve's treatments prove successful Kruger starts to wreak havoc right and left, blowing things up, shooting secret agent old ladies, and threatening plucky small children (all in his best Guy of Gisborne fashion *wink*). When Kruger flees, Steve gives chase, and the ensuing action sequence is a great introduction to Steve's new powers - and I'm not gonna lie, I kinda enjoyed watching Evans throttle Armitage, and I couldn't help but chuckle at his death scene with a mouth full of foam. However, for as nice as Richard looked with his slicked-back hair and 1940s-era suit, I do wish he'd been one of the good guys. Maybe next time... :)

In a stroke of genius the filmmakers cast Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man's daddy. Cooper's been extremely busy since his break-out turn as Willoughby in the 2008 Sense & Sensibility - he's also appeared in films like The Duchess and An Education. Here, Cooper has the retroactive advantage of being able to watch Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark in the two Iron Man films, and it's a great deal of fun seeing him bring the cocky, brilliant Tony's precursor to life, while bringing his own unique charisma to the legendary Stark family name. It was especially great fun watching Cooper mack for the audience at the 1940s equivalent of the Stark techonology expo seen in Iron Man 2.

I can't neglect mentioning Stanley Tucci's turn as Dr. Abraham Erskine, a refugee from Nazi Germany and a one-time colleague of Schmidt. Erskine is the one responsible for the super-soldier formula, and having seen the horror of the technology mis-used firsthand, he wisely picks Steve as the ideal candidate for the army's experiments because of his heart and great capacity for compassion. I love Tucci, and he does a great job playing Steve's surrogate father-figure. Tucci brought just the right amount of kindness and gravitas, I guess you could say to the character of Erskine, and I loved his mentorship of Steve.

Hayley Atwell plays Steve's love interest, Peggy Carter - a British member of the Strategic Scientific Reserve responsible for the program leading to Steve's transformation. Atwell worked with Cooper in The Duchess, and has also appeared in the Masterpiece productions The Ruby in the Smoke and Mansfield Park. Most of the time Atwell had a touch too much of the whole Brit "stiff upper lip" thing going on, which squashed any chemistry she could have with Evans pretty effectively for most of the film. However, she was made for the trappings of the time period - with her looks, curves, and hair she looks like she stepped out of a classic Hollywood film. And I did love how Steve's atypical background and the respect he exhibits for Peggy in her male-dominated military field start to win her over well before he proves himself on the battlefield.

Captain America is packed with great acting talent, but believe it or not I saved a favorite for the last. JJ Feild plays the British beret-wearing member of Steve's elite commando unit, James Montgomery Falsworth. Feild was just seen in the Marple episode The Pale Horse, and his upcoming appearance in Austenland can't come soon enough to suit me. Falsworth only gets a few lines, but he gets several nice close-ups, and Feild exhibits a nice intensity and heretofore unimagined flair for fight scenes that I really appreciated. *wink* Plus, the moustache was ADORABLE. FREAKING ADORABLE. Thank you for that, JJ. :) I also can't neglect to mention Neal McDonough (from the Tin Man series) as the moustache-gone-bad, bowler-hat-wearing "Dum Dum" Dugan. According to the IMDB, it looks like Marvel has green-lit Nick Fury's (Samuel L. Jackson) origin movie, and it's rumored Dugan will appear in it - that's something to look forward to, hmm?

So, just in case the length of this post didn't make it clear, I loved this movie. For a little over two hours I got to revel in the movie's glorious recreation of 1940s New York and the accompanying wartime ideals of heroism and patriotism. The trappings of the war bond rallies are a fantastic example of the film's nostalgic flavor, and Steve's first stage costume is a nice nod to the character's original look. The "Star-Spangled Man" theme song was a little slice of retro heaven, recalling the sound of acts like The Andrews Sisters, etc. The vibe of the stateside rallies stands in stark contrast to the newly-minted Captain America's first gig to overseas troops, who don't respond well to a rallying cry from a guy who has yet to see combat. Things like war bond rallies were feel-good shows for the homefront, far removed from the reality faced by troops on the ground. Steve's response to that reality, and his desire to prove himself, is just a small part of what makes his character one to cheer for.

I simultaneously loved and hated the ending of this movie - it's a fantastic set-up for Captain America's introduction to The Avengers team, but Steve's noble sacrifice that puts him in stasis for seventy years just killed me. K-I-L-L-E-D ME. Just as Steve is finally seeing Peggy's heart thaw, just as he's finally on the verge of getting the girl for the first time EVER, he has to crash-land in the Artic Circle. Life ain't perfect in superhero-land. *sigh* While I ultimately think Steve can do better than Peggy, he was so sweet being sweet on the unattainable girl my heart turned to MUSH MUSH MUSH. MUSH, I tell you. On the plus side, Steve's overwhelming angst at losing Peggy and waking up in the 21st-century should make for an interesting character arc in future films. :)

Full of heart, warmth, action, and adventure, Captain America has sky-rocketed to the top of my favorite superheroes movie list (top five at least). Be sure and stay through the end of the credits - the first part of the credits roll over some fantastic wartime American propaganda poster art, but the real treat is seeing the first trailer for The Avengers on the big screen. That, my friends, kicked the fangirl radar into overdrive. It's gonna be awesome. :) Captain America is a perfect summer movie  - brimming with humor, heart, and adventure, and  set apart by a fantastically realized period setting, it's a bit of a throwback movie, in the very best sense of that term. Highly recommended, and let me tell you I can't wait to see it again.

Zen continues tomorrow

It's no secret I loved the debut episode of Zen on Masterpiece Mystery last Sunday - you can check out my thoughts on the first episode, Vendetta, here. I loved it so much I even hunted up a new Rufus picture just for the reminder can thank me in the comments. *wink* Here's a bit about the new episode:
Rufus Sewell stars as the sometimes bumbling but always stylish Aurelio Zen in Zen: Cabal, airing Sunday, July 24, 2011 at 9pm (check local listings) on MASTERPIECE MYSTERY! When a disgraced aristocrat falls to his death, Zen must determine suicide or murder even as his smug rival moves in on Tania. Caterina Murino (Casino Royale) and Ed Stoppard (Upstairs Downstairs) also star in this adaptation of Michael Dibdin's novel.
Oh I can't wait. Can. Not. WAIT. :)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Amazing Spider-Man trailer

Apparently today's a good day for looking ahead to the 2012 movie season (Comic-Con, I love you).

Spider-Man and Wonder Woman are the two superheroes I remember loving most from my childhood, so the webslinger and I go way back. :) I know the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man films have their detractors, but I love them, and I think director Sam Raimi did a genius job helming the trilogy. So it was with a GREAT deal of trepidation that I heard about the Spidey re-boot. Now that the trailer's been released I can say, with no small measure of relief, that I'm intrigued.

The Amazing Spider-Man releases in July 2012, with Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben, and Sally Field as Aunt May (and Campbell Scott as Peter's father - love him!).

The Dark Knight Rises trailer

I am so ridiculously excited about this film.

Thoughts? I think Christopher Nolan has done a brilliant job with the character of Batman, and from the looks of the teaser trailer and the cast list ("series" regulars Christian Bale, Gary Oldman, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman are being joined by Tom Hardy, Joseph Godon-Levitt, Anne Hathaway, and Marion Cotillard), The Dark Knight Rises will be the best installment - and a fitting conclusion - to Nolan's richly compelling, dark, and gritty reimaging of the Batman story. It'll certainly be one of my most anticipated films of 2012 at the very least. :)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Zen: Vendetta

How much fun was this, people? :)

Zen began its three-week run on Masterpiece Mystery last night with its first episode entitled Vendetta. Seeing as I am a rabid Rufus Sewell fangirl, I was predisposed to like this series - it also had in its favor that it shares much of the same production team that brought six superb episodes of the Kenneth Branagh vehicle Wallander to Masterpiece Mystery in previous seasons. Happily Vendetta delivered on all fronts, providing me with a heckuvalot of fodder for my Rufus Sewell obsession as well as a fast-paced, entertaining storyline and gorgeous, absolutely beautiful Italian scenery. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

Meet Zen. He has an unusual (Venetian) name and, in the shark tank of Roman politics, has an even more unusual reputation — as an honest detective. Aurelio Zen, the sometimes cool, sometimes bumbling, but always impeccably stylish murder squad detective is saddled with an "unfortunate" reputation for integrity, and it hasn't exactly helped his career. Nor is his personal life thriving. In spite of advances from female suspects as and colleagues alike, he is pushing 40 and living with his doting mother after a failed marriage.

But Zen is handed a chance to play politics and salvage his career when a debauched billionaire construction magnate is murdered in his heavily fortified mountain retreat. Zen is driven to find something it seems only he wants — the truth. Well, the truth and the murder squad's new secretary, Tania Moretti.
Meanwhile, a vengeful killer is making his way to Rome, brutally executing those who sent him away to prison for murder. The final target of his vendetta: Aurelio Zen.

Adapted from Michael Dibdin's acclaimed crime novel Vendetta and from the producers of Wallander, Zen stars Rufus Sewell (Middlemarch), Caterina Murino (Casino Royale), and Ed Stoppard (Upstairs Downstairs).
First things first: Rufus Sewell was MADE to play a role like Aurelio Zen. Smart, stylish, charismatic, yet at the same time adorably, boyishly unsure of himself, he owns the screen every time his character appears (which, thankfully for me, is in nearly every frame of film). :) Similarly to Wallander, Zen is a character burdened by a drive to get the job right - only in Aurelio's case he handles the setbacks his predisposition for honesty and absolute forthrightness have handed him both personally a professionally (seemingly, anyway) better than his Swedish counterpart.

Vendetta opens with the first of two cases that will intersect in unexpected ways as Zen's investigations progress. A high-court judge is ambushed in the Italian countryside by a now-terminally ill ex-con (on compassionate release), Tito Spadola (Peter Guinness) and his son Pepe (Gregg Chillin), who are determined to hunt down and kill the men responsible for sending Tito to prison for a murder he didn't commit years earlier - including one unsuspecting Aurelio Zen. (Never mind that Tito isn't exactly as pure as the driven snow to begin with, or that he really doesn't have a good grasp on the concept that two wrongs don't make a right - it's all about nuance, people, nuance.) Guinness played a small role as the Coroner in Bleak House, while interestingly enough Chillin apparently plays the role of Ron Weasley in the Harry Potter videogames. Guinness, especially, does a superb job playing the unhinged, driven ex-convict determined to exact vengeance against those who wronged him - he's suitably cold-blooded and intense, a great villain for this type of story.

Meanwhile, Zen arrives at police headquarters in Rome, and with just a look as only Rufus Sewell can give we see just how smitten he is with his boss's new secretary, the gorgeous Tania Moretti (Caterina Murino). Murino should be familiar to fans of James Bond films, as she played the ill-fated Solange opposite Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Zen might not quite have down how to talk to Tania, but thank goodness he's classy enough not to participate in the office pool betting on who will sleep with her first (*sigh*). Moscati (Stanley Townsend), Zen's superior, informs him that they've been called to the Ministry for a pre-trial review of the evidence in the case of a murdered influential billionaire Oscar Faso (Alessandro Cica) and his call-girl "house guests." Minister Geurchini (Anthony Higgins) and his aide, Colonna (Ben Miles), want the case against the prime suspect (and Faso's business partner) Favelloni (Greg Wise) locked up tight, despite the lack of hard evidence and a sloppy investigation by the local police. Ed Stoppard is also introduced as Zen's workplace thorn, the oily, self-assured Vincenzo Fabri. Stoppard was seen earlier this year as Sir Hallam in the Masterpiece re-boot of Upstairs Downstairs.

The introduction of Zen's workplace introduces a slew of familiar faces. Stanley Townsend does an excellent job portraying Zen's gregarious, stressed-out supervisor, and if he looks familiar you might be a fan of Sherlock or Foyle's War. Anthony Higgins made a fairly recent appearance on the blog when I reviewed the Marple episode The Secret of Chimneys (my review). I vastly prefer Higgins's portrayal of a sauve Italian diplomat than a faux Herzoslovakian count. *wink* Ben Miles as his aide, Colonna, should be quite a familiar face to fans of period drama - he's appeared in the Marple episode A Pocket Full of Rye (my review), Lark Rise to Candleford, and Under the Greenwood Tree. As Colonna, Miles just exudes danger, a politician who'll do whatever it takes to achieve his goals, and I look forward to seeing how Colonna's somewhat strained interactions with Zen develop over the course of this series. And finally, I was thrilled to see Greg Wise as prime suspect #1 Favelloni, who "finds God" in prison and recants his "forced" confession, to the government's everlasting chagrin. Wise has been a favorite of mine ever since his unforgettable turn as Willoughby in the 1995 Sense and Sensibility. More recently he appeared in Cranford. I never would've imagined Wise playing an Italian, but with his lean good looks and sauve manners he acquits himself with aplomb in this episode.

In a nutshell, Moscati wants Zen to ensure Favelloni's conviction, Colonna wants Zen to prove Favelloni's innocence, otherwise the businessman might reveal unsavory secrets about his dealings with the current government, and he has to avoid getting killed by Tito & company. For help in unraveling the tangled mess of his professional life, Zen turns to a former associate now working in the private sector, Gilberto Nieddu (Francesco Quinn). If Quinn looked familiar, it turns out he's the son of legendary actor Anthony Quinn, who also did a stint on 24 (back in 2003 when I still watched that show).

At this point I feel the need to just break off and discuss various points of Rufus Sewell-related awesomeness in this episode. So if you'll indulge me... :)

  • Zen gets offended when the Minister & his aide comment on his reputation for scrupulous honesty. Disturbing questions aside that this moment raises about the Italian justice system, isn't Rufus's faux outrage adorable?
  • Zen wears Armani suits and lives with his Mamma (Catherine Spaak). Only someone who looks like Rufus Sewell and is all attentive and solicitous as only he can be is capable of making this work, nevermind APPEALING. *wink*
  • When Tania asks for Zen's help in fabricating an excuse to leave her (presumably) overbearing husband for the evening, he gets so worried when she doesn't answer the phone that he drives to her apartment building (so sweet!). Then, when he drops her off at a bar and sees her leave shortly thereafter with a guy (who turns out to be a gay best friend), HE BANGS HIS HEAD AGAINST THE STEERING WHEEL. I don't think I can begin to fully articulate how perfect that moment was. *swoon*
  • Zen can wake up in a cold sweat from a bad dream, retch in the bathroom sink, and then don a sharp suit and slurp down espresso, all while allaying his mother's concerns. Rufus Sewell should look into patenting this highly effective retch-to-heartwarming pivot thing. He has it down.
  • After Zen and Tania have after-hours drinks and share a sort of His Girl Friday moment, he kisses her goodbye on the cheek. Check that, BOTH cheeks. Excuse me while I swoon, again.
More on Rufus later...this is an ongoing theme, obviously.

Filmed on location in Italy, besides Rufus Sewell's presence the film's gorgeous scenery and architecture are some of its biggest strengths. The film is saturated with warmth and color and history that adds a wonderfully exotic, intoxicating atmosphere to the storyline. Perhaps one of this episode's biggest draws is that it just feels so different from the normal mystery program Masterpiece airs (never underestimate the power of something new, hmm?). One of my favorite scenes is the episode's most harrowing - when Zen follows the itinerant girl Lucia into the network of caves that lead into Faso's mansion and is carried deep underground, lost in the watery maze. I don't know that I'm outright clausterphobic, but tight spaces aren't my favorite thing in the world, and that scene was tense, suspensful, and well-constructed. (And only Rufus could come out of that scenario battered and bloodied and still looking remarkably well put-together.)

I will confess that until reading the episode summary I had a little trouble keeping all of the characters' names straight and following some of the finer plot points as they unfolded. I attribute some of that to the mix of British and Italian actors, the latter with heavier accents, and PBS trimming potential five-plus minutes of the episode runtime for commercials (as is their norm for Masterpiece broadcasts, unfortunately). It probably goes without saying, but I'm looking forward to reviewing this episode on DVD.

It's probably hard to believe that I could find more to gush about, but really this episode does deliver the proverbial icing on the cake in spades. SPADES, I tell you! This episode ends with Zen and Tania passionately kissing in the elevator, and in case you're new to this blog I'm a big fan of Rufus Sewell in elevators (for prior evidence see the ShakespeaRe-Told adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew - my review). People, Rufus Sewell in an elevator makes my heart sing. MY HEART SINGS, I TELL YOU! (Yes, I can be that shallow. Indulge me and let me revel in it for a bit, please? *wink*).

Sewell and Murino have off-the-charts chemistry, and while I'd certainly prefer that  Zen was officially divorced, and not pursuing a relationship with a married woman, I can only say that when watching this show I was just seeing  Rufus being amazing, and wishing I was Tania. SHALLOW WISH FULFILLMENT, yes people, you read that right. :P

Zen proved to be a thoroughly enjoyable film, an intriguing blend of mystery, political drama, and humor, with a dash of old-school sensibility that recalls the Sean Connery-era James Bond films or the Roger Moore-helmed adventure show The Saint. (Adrian Johnston's quirky, sunny score really reinforces the "throwback" feel of the episode.) And with Rufus Sewell being freaking fantastic, it's a guaranteed bet I'll be tuning in next week. If you watched Zen's debut, I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Exit Question: Can a post contain "too many" Rufus Sewell-as-Zen photos? (Think carefully before you reply in the negative...) *wink*

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Review: The Clocks by Agatha Christie

The Clocks
By: Agatha Christie
Publisher: Berkley Mystery
ISBN: 0-425-17391-7

About the book:

As she waits in her new employer's living room, typist-for-hire Sheila Webb stumbles upon a strange scene: a well-dressed corpse surrounded by six clocks - clocks set to the wrong time. Even more mysterious is the fact that no one claims to have requested Miss Webb's services. One thing's for certain - it's time for Hercule Poirot to piece together a baffling mystery.


When Sheila Webb, a typist-for-hire, is particularly requested for her latest assignment, she expects a routine hour of work, not the discovery of a recently murdered elderly man behind the sitting room sofa, surrounded by clocks set to the wrong time. Horrified, she flees from the scene and straight into the arms of intelligence agent Colin Lamb, pursuing his own line of investigation, on the tail of a nest of spies. The victim has no identification on him, and both Sheila and her would-be-employer, a Miss Pebmarsh, claim to have no knowledge of the victim's identity. Even stranger, Miss Pebmarsh claims to never requested a typist's services. Colin feels an immediate kinship with Sheila, and determines to see the investigation through and the lovely stenographer cleared of all suspicion. But as the investigation progresses, and lead after lead fails to reveal motive or the victim's identity, Colin turns to his old friend Hercule Poirot for help in unraveling the tangled web of murder, lies, and deceit that have taken up residence in the seemingly genteel neighborhood of Wilbraham Crescent...

The Clocks is one of Christie's later Poirot novels, and I feel like it shows. Most obviously, Poirot barely appears in the novel, and the need for his investigative acumen feels a little forced as opposed to an organic part of the storyline. I also found the narrative style a bit cumbersome. Christie alternates between third-person narration and first-person narration, from Colin's point-of-view, and with the exception of the prologue, I would've preferred to read the entire novel from Colin's perspective. In many respects Colin is a classic Christie hero, a bright young thing, burdened with questions about the nature of his profession. Whether from his viewpoint or third-person, experiencing the entire story in one narrative style would have, I believe, tightened the narrative flow and raised the suspense factor.

In this adventure Christie employs an interesting mix of international espionage and neighborhood dynamics. The latter is more effective than the former, as Christie was a master at misdirection and an adept at slyly suggesting danger or subterfuge in that most genteel of locations - the proper English village or neighborhood. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Colin and Inspector Hardcastle attempted to glean clues about the murdered man from the odd assortment of neighbors surrounding Miss Pebmarsh's home. I wish Poirot had been given more "screentime," if you will, but I enjoyed the detective's lengthy discussion of contemporary crime fiction (including Christie creation Ariadne Oliver) and its reliance on coincidence and chance. In a novel perhaps over-populated with red herrings, Poirot's commentary is perhaps Christie's own sly comment on the conventions of a genre she largely helped define in the twentieth century. Ultimately while not one of my favorite Poirot novels, The Clocks benefits from a strong, unique opening while providing a showcase for Christie's trademark red herrings and carefully constructed, twisting plotlines.

Book vs. Film:

There are several substantial differences between the book and the recent Masterpiece Mystery film version of The Clocks, not the least of which is transferring the setting from the 1960s Cold War to pre-World War II. In many respects, including the time period change, I feel like the film improves a bit on the novel's storyline. While I felt that the film got a little crazy plot-wise, over-packed, if you will, with red herrings, it's not nothing on the book. *wink* I do wish that the script hadn't invented a previous love interest for Colin, and had instead let his burgeoning romance with typist Sheila Webb unfold as the investigation progressed. One of the reasons I loved Colin's interest in Sheila in the book is that almost from the first he recognizes Sheila as his girl, despite knowing nothing about her and her propensity for stretching the truth.

I am so thankful the script gave Poirot a greater role than he possesses in the novel. David Suchet gives one of his strongest performances in recent years as Poirot in The Clocks, brimming with the detective's trademark idiosyncrasises, warmth, understated wit, and intelligence. In the novel, Poirot is relegated to three or four scenes, while the film allows Poirot to develop a real rapport with Colin which is a lot of fun to watch. While both the novel and film have their merits, in this case I think I have to give the edge to the film adaptation for giving Poirot a greater role and tightening the narrative flow of the storyline.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Zen begins this weekend!

I feel as though I've been waiting for the new Rufus Sewell mystery series, Zen, to begin for AGES. My wish will at last come true this weekend, when Zen debuts on Masterpiece Mystery with its first episode entitled Vendetta. Here's a bit about the episode:
Rufus Sewell stars as MASTERPIECE MYSTERY's newest sleuth Aurelio Zen in Zen, premiering Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 9pm (check local listings). In Vendetta, Zen navigates the perils of corrupt Roman politicians and his first crush since the demise of his marriage. Caterina Murino (Casino Royale), and Ed Stoppard (Upstairs Downstairs) also star in this adaptation of British crime writer Michael Dibdin's acclaimed book.
Personally, I have to think this series is a guaranteed win. Even if I end up not liking the story, I still get to see Rufus in a sharp suit. I can't lose, right? *wink*

Thursday, July 14, 2011

I've got you under my skin...

"In Sinatra's time, his fame as a singer spread from his own country to the world. His turbulent personality, often shadowed by notoriety, seemed inseparable from the style and originality of his art and gave him an essential place on the public stage of the American century. Now he is gone, taking with him all his anger, cruelty, generosity, and personal style. The music remains. In times to come, that music will continue to matter, whatever happens to our evolving popular culture....Long after his death, Charlie Parker still plays his version of the urban blues. Billie Holiday still whispers her anguish. Mozart still erupts in joy. Every day, in cities and towns all over the planet, someone discovers them for the first time and finds in their art that mysterious quality that makes the listener more human. In their work all great artists help transcend the solitude of individuals; they relieve the ache of loneliness; they supply a partial response to the urging of writer E. M. Forster: 'Only connect.' In their ultimate triumph over the banality of death, such artists continue to matter. So will Frank Sinatra."
                                                                    ~ Excerpt from Why Sinatra Matters by Pete Hamill

Team Rochester

Traxy at The Squeee is in the middle of hosting a "Wuthering Week" blog event (you may remember Traxy's name from her All Things Jane guest post a couple months ago). After a Team Rochester vs. Team Heathcliff guest post, Traxy posted links to a whole slew of wonderfully fun Team Rochester badges she created, free for anyone to download!

I just had to share a couple of my favorites:

Michael Fassbender - I know ya'll aren't really surprised. :)

Toby Stephens - no surprise here, either, I'm sure. :)

To check out the rest of Traxy's creations, click here. She's got a badge for just about every incarnation of Rochester in existence!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Miss Marple: The Pale Horse

Masterpiece Mystery concluded the Agatha Christie portion of its season with a Miss Marple episode entitled The Pale Horse. For some reason, Masterpiece elected to hold this episode in reserve from the 2010 season, so this is the only Marple episode we're getting this year which feels a little odd. But that aside, The Pale Horse was one of Julia McKenzie's better outings as Miss Marple in my opinion, and an enjoyable ninety minutes of 1950s period drama bliss. Here's the story summary from the PBS website:

Fair is foul and foul is fair in the hamlet of Much Deeping, where the Pale Horse Inn is run by a trio of entrepreneurial witches, and the annual celebration of the town's witch trials of 1664 is about to commence. Arriving just in time is Miss Marple (Julia McKenzie, Cranford), who has set her knitting aside to pursue the murderer of her old friend, Father Gorman. Armed with a cryptic list of names sent to her by the good clergyman just prior to his death, Miss Marple follows clues as she joins the assemblage of eccentric guests and infiltrates the witches' sanctum santorum. But when a fellow guest at the Pale Horse Inn is found dead, the tidily tailored and unassuming sleuth must determine whether black magic or something even more sinister is at work. The Pale Horse is based on the novel by Agatha Christie. (One episode; 90 minutes)
The Pale Horse is another case of filmmakers taking a standalone Agatha Christie novel and inserting Miss Marple into the storyline. Sometimes this plot device works better than others. :) I haven't yet read The Pale Horse, so I have nothing with which to compare the film adaptation - and that said, I really enjoyed watching the mystery unfold. The story opens with Father Gorman (Nicholas Parsons) called to the bedside of a dying woman (Elizabeth Rider), tormented by guilt and knowledge of "wickedness." She entrusts Father Gorman with a list of names and dates, which he immediately mails to his old friend (HAHA so convenient) Miss Marple for safe-keeping, with a promise of a phone call the next day. Father Gorman's only addendum to the list is a biblical reference - Revelation 6:8 ("And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.") - a cryptic clue for Miss Marple to decipher as the next day she receives the news that the priest was brutally murdered.

Miss Marple cannot, of course, leave her friend's murder investigation to the police, no matter how capable or interested in the case the assigned detective, Inspector Lejeune (Neil Pearson) seems to be. Pearson is another Inspector Lewis veteran, having appeared in the episode And the Moonbeams Kiss the Sea (my review). I really  enjoyed Lejeune's interactions with Miss Marple. Whether face-to-face or through the telephone, his befuddlement and exasperation at Miss Marple's insistence on getting involved in the investigation provided some of the episode's most humorous moments. I cackled when Miss Marple played the old "bad phone connection" gag on him - one doesn't expect that in 1950s-era films. :) Pearson had a great rapport with McKenzie, definitely one of the better Marple/Inspector pairings in this film series.

The investigation leads Miss Marple to The Pale Horse Inn, which she discovers is run by a pair of self-styled (and stylish - HA) witches, Sybil (Susan Lynch) and Thyrza (Pauline Collins). It was great to see Collins on-screen again - she gave a memorable turn as Queen Victoria in Doctor Who, as well as playing Miss Flite in Bleak House and most recently, an appearance in the BBC series Merlin. Led by Thyrza, the witches have made a business of their reputation to "will people to death." This fits in nicely with the atmosphere of their town, Much Deeping, which makes a living drawing tourists for re-enactments of their version of the Salem witch trials. Individuals place "bets" with Thyrza's lawyer, Mr. Bradley (Bill Paterson), on whether or not the unlucky target will live past a certain date. If they don't, the death is credited to their "black magic" and the wager is paid off. It was fantastic to see Paterson on Masterpiece again - he's appeared in Wives and Daughters, Amazing Grace, Little Dorrit, and Doctor Who, to name just a few of his credits. And I really got a kick out of Collins's scenes with McKenzie - hedging around the issue that Thyrza is convinced Miss Marple has come to The Pale Horse to take advantage of her little "murder club," they dance around the issue in conversation resulting in Thyrza's hilarious puzzlement.

I was really looking forward to seeing JJ Feild's return to Masterpiece, even if he didn't play quite the heroic role I expected. :) Feild is a longtime favorite of mine, as I think he's just too adorable for words. He's appeared in a slew of Masterpiece productions, starting with The Railway Children, the Poirot episode Death on the Nile, The Ruby in the Smoke, and Northanger Abbey (my review), as well as the oustanding film O Jerusalem (my review). Looking forward, we'll get to see Feild in Captain America as Montgomery Falsworth/Union Jack and Austenland (squee!). Feild's character, Paul Osbourne, is introduced as an early investigative ally for Miss Marple - and he so adorable in his 1950s clothes, and so cute and respectful towards Marple, you can't help but like him - even if he seems a little *too* nice, if you know what I mean. :) All things considered, by the end of this episode it was a real treat to see Feild "flip" in his portrayal of Osbourne and play against his good guy, heroic image.

On the other hand, Jonathan Cake gave a much more satisfactory appearance as Mark Easterbrook, the godson of one of the names on Father Gorman's list. Cake is notable for having one of my all-time favorite guest stints on Chuck, playing spy Cole Barker in a two-part story arc. Considering Easterbrook's character is the hero of the actual novel, I was a bit surprised by just how much the script sidelined him in this production. I would've liked to have seen his reasons for "shadowing" Miss Marple's investigation better articulated - that way, when he jumps in to stage a death request, his willingness to participate would have seemed more organic to the storyline. But what the heck does Mark care about motivation, since he gets a love interest (Amy Manson)? :P

I can't forget to mention the appearance of Tom Ward as the unlucky Captain Cottham, staying at The Pale Horse with his wife and secretary after being displaced by a fire. Ward made an indelible impression on me in the A&E miniseries The Lost World (based on the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel), where he played the dashing adventurer Lord Roxton. It's been ages since I've seen him in anything, so his appearance in this episode was a real treat. And if you've never seen that version of The Lost World, I highly recommend it - it's highly watchable and wildly entertaining.

The whole "murder, inc." storyline was wildy intricate, and by its very nature threw red herrings left and right at the viewer, doing its best to leave you unsure of the identity of the man behind the curtain, pulling the strings of the suspicious deaths found on Marple's list. I thought the idea of using consumer research surveys to collect ideas for how to kill people was really terribly, fiendishly clever - the idea that an anonymous killer strikes with poisoned everyday products is rather unsettling, no?

This episode of Miss Marple was colorful, fast-paced, and nicely atmospheric. Despite the fact that Miss Marple was inserted into this storyline, I think this was one of McKenzie's better outings as the venerable sleuth, and one of the more effective examples of reworking a Christie plot to include one of her iconic characters. I loved watching this story unfold. McKenzie seemed genuinely, emotionally invested in her quest to bring justice to Father Gorman  - and since I have no idea if new episodes are going to be produced for this film series, if this is McKenzie's last appearance as Miss Marple it's a fitting coda to her tenure in the role. Though I sincerely hope that we'll see Miss Marple back on our screens as part of Masterpiece Mystery sooner rather than later!
If you've read the novel, I'd love to hear your take on how this film adaptation stacked up to the book. And if you're a Miss Marple film fan, where does this episode stand in your series ranking?