Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Decoy Bride trailer

I love David Tennant. LOVE HIM. So when I heard about his romantic comedy The Decoy Bride, I was desperate to see it -- and this Friday, thanks to IFC, I'll finally have that opportunity. :)

About the film:
When the wedding of internationally famous film star Lara Tyler (ALICE EVE) to tweedy English author James Arber (DAVID TENNANT) is sabotaged by a paparazzo, they decide to relocate the event to the one place where the world’s press won’t find them: the sleepy Island of Hegg, as featured in James’ bestselling novel The Ornithologists Wife. But to the shock of Lara’s P.A Steve Korbitz (MICHAEL URIE), the reality of the island is different from the romanticised picture James has created (without ever visiting), and he has to transform this fantasy world before the superstar arrives.

However, dilapidated buildings and greedy islanders are the least of the problems that the wedding party and their Hollywood entourage have to deal with, as Marco (FEDERICO CASTELLUCCIO) the ingenious paparazzo tracks them down in his mission to photograph the celebrity wedding of the year.

Steve and his assistant Emma (SALLY PHILLIPS) must find a decoy bride and think that local girl Katie (KELLY MACDONALD) will be an ideal replacement. But when Katie meets James, sparks fly, dresses get ruined and love gets complicated.

Will Katie be able to fool the awaiting media and live up to being a stand-in for the world’s most famous movie star? Can an ordinary girl fill the most famous Manolos on the planet? And whatever will happen to her pledge never, under any circumstances, to fall in love again?
Here's the trailer:

I can't wait! David Tennant as a "tweedy English author"? I am SO there. :) Accordign to the IFC website, this film is available On Demand starting Friday, February 3rd, and in theaters March 9th.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal

Shades of Milk and Honey
By: Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 076532556X

About the book:

Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.

Jane resists this fate, and rightly so: while her skill with glamour is remarkable, it is her sister who is fair of face, and therefore wins the lion’s share of the attention. At the ripe old age of twenty-eight, Jane has resigned herself to being invisible forever. But when her family’s honor is threatened, she finds that she must push her skills to the limit in order to set things right--and, in the process, accidentally wanders into a love story of her own.

This debut novel from an award-winning talent scratches a literary itch you never knew you had. Like wandering onto a secret picnic attended by Pride and Prejudice and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Shades of Milk and Honey is precisely the sort of tale we would expect from Jane Austen…if only she had been a fantasy writer.


Mary Robinette Kowal's debut novel, Shades of Milk and Honey, is described as "Jane Austen with magic" -- while I wouldn't go quite that far, Kowal's premise sets Shades apart from typical Austen-esque tributes and retellings. In an age when women were taught all manner of drawing room accomplishments in the hope of securing a good marriage, the most desirable skill of all is the use and manipulation of glamour. Glamour folds are pulled from the atmosphere and woven into murals, used to enhance art or redecorate a room, create skits, or even change an individual's appearance. At the age of twenty-eight and plain of face, Jane Ellsworth is used to being overlooked in favor of her fairer sister Melody's fine form. But plain Jane possesses a skill her more beautiful sister cannot hope to surpass -- she is gifted and skilled glamourist. When Jane's impressive skill unwittingly draws the attention of not one but two gentlemen, arousing Melody's ire, driving a wedge between the formerly inseperable sisters. Jane finds herself navigating the murky waters of previously unimaginable romantic possibility while using all her skill and wits to save her rasher sister from making a tragic error in judgment.

What's most refreshing about Kowal's debut is how she peppers her story with Austen-inspired references without resorting to a straight retelling of a classic storyline. And the subtle use of glamour is an inspired touch -- going into the novel I expected an out-and-out fantasy, and was instead pleasantly surprised at the way Kowal develops glamour as a craft, a skill to be learned and practiced rather than an arbitrary or convenient plot device. Kowal possesses a decent grasp of the style and tone of the time period; however, she has an unfortunate habit of utilizing antiquated spellings of common words such as "shew" instead of "show" that weigh down her otherwise mostly serviceable prose. Her plotting and characterization could also use refining and tightening. The novel opens strong but lags in the second act, while the third and final section possesses such a tone of suspense and almost high adventure that while enjoyable is something of a surprise given the strict drawing room parameters of the storyline's setup.

Anyone familiar with Austen's novels or the films upon which they are based will recognize certain characters or story beats within Kowal's world. There is the henpecked, harried father whose estate is entailed away from his daughters and the flighty mother suffering from unspecified "nervous ailments" (Mr. and Mrs. Bennet from Pride and Prejudice), the flighty sister obsessed with transient beauty (suggestive of Marianne in Sense and Sensibility), and engagements kept secret from fear of scandal (think Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill in Emma). But my favorite nod to all things Austen is the character of Jane Ellsworth herself, an amalgamation of Elinor Dashwood's sense, Elizabeth Bennet's intelligence, and Anne Elliot's quiet fortitude. While I could wish for a less repetitive self-doubt/examination, Kowal sketches all of Jane's strengths and weaknesses in a highly relatable and period-appropriate fashion. I would've preferred more time devoted to the development of Jane's relationship with her chosen beau, but those issues aside as a light, diverting twist designed to feed the public's hunger for all things Austen related and inspired, Shades of Milk and Honey delivers a unique offering. With the promise of Jane's increasing confidence and aptitude as a glamourist, I look forward to the sequel!

Downton Abbey Series 2, Part 4

This week's installment of Downton Abbey once again covered a ridiculous amount of time, but I can't really complain because it was AWESOME. I've got to say between this week and last week, 1918 has got to be the longest year ever. Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:
Amiens, 1918

Devastating news from the front rocks the very foundations of Downton Abbey, and it is up to the Dowager Countess to buck bureaucratic protocol and bring Downton's men home. In an unwelcome return, Vera Bates threatens to make public the scandalous story of Lady Mary's ill-fated indiscretion. Desperate to contain the story, Mary appeals to the savvy opportunist Sir Richard Carlisle.

Mary is not the only woman to consider hard sacrifice. Some will make it against their will, some will be denied a chance, and some will refuse. Daisy may buckle from its pressure, while Lavinia desperately wishes for such a burden. Sybil must push back. And Cora, preoccupied with the running of the home, cannot see that a sacrifice may already have been made.

Well we all knew that Downton was going to be rocked to the core by devastating news from the front at some point, right? And it finally happens -- Matthew (Dan Stevens) and William (Thomas Howes) sustain severe injuries at the battle of Amiens. Plans are immediately put in place to bring Matthew to the Downton hospital, while William, as a lowly enlisted man, is denied transfer -- denied until Violet, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) steps in and has her most awesome moments yet this season. I absolutely love how driven Violet is to bring William home. He may "only" be a former footman, "only" be an enlisted man, but he is Downton and Violet is nothing if not loyal. The Dowager Countess calls in every favor, pulls every string, in order to bring William home and shows extraordinary kindness and sensitivity when she learns that he has no hope of survival, his lungs destroyed by the force of a shell explosion. (Plus she CRIES at his wedding!) Kudos also to Edith (Laura Carmichael) for continuing her compassionate transformation and agreeing to serve as William's primary nurse. And it was a wonderful surprise to see Paul Copley, a.k.a. Matthews from the Hornblower films, as William's devoted father!

This episode was also the hour where Mary (Michelle Dockery) steps up and is more awesome than ever before. The news of Matthew's severe injuries rocks her to the core, but rather than freak out or retreat within herself she steps into action and determines to serve as his personal nurse. The empathy! The devotion! When will these two crazy kids admit they still love each other?? *sigh* And with Matthew's injuries Julian Fellowes plays the "he'll never walk again OR father children card" -- which we all know is a bunch of baloney because Matthew and Mary are destined to be passionate lovers at some point. You can't create that much repressed tension between two characters and never have a payoff, hmm? *wink*

ANYWAYS...Matthew's injuries bring Lavinia (Zoe Boyle) back to Downton to play the doting fiancee, and she's very nice and concerned and everything but oh so very boring when compared to Mary. Not to mention that she looks to be completely incapable of nursing Matthew through this period or of caring for an invalid beyond that. When compared to Mary there is NO CONTEST in my opinion -- Matthew can rely on Mary to tell him the truth about his condition because they just "get" each other like that, Mary does everything to put his needs before her pain, encouraging him to focus on his future, and -- AND!! -- when she makes the comment about marrying someone in name only, because you just want to be with that person, you KNOW SHE MEANS IT (because in part that stupid Turkish diplomat mess haunts her to this day). Perhaps the best thing to come out of this whole mess is Isobel's (Penelope Wilton) perfectly timed return from France, when she witnesses Mary's care for Matthew -- she wouldn't make such a bad daughter-in-law after all, hmmm? :)

O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) is apparently having second thoughts about writing that EVIL CONNIVING Vera Bates (Maria Doyle Kennedy) that her husband has returned to Downton since the house is in such an uproar over their injured menfolk. And then she has the gall to be surprised that Vera seems determined to bring down the entire Crawley household in order to hurt Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt) by selling the Lady Mary scandal to the newspapers. Really O'Brien? Really, this is a surprise? SHE IS SO DUMB. *sigh* In other Bates & Anna news, though, how sweet was the moment when they go to church to pray? I loved that. Whenever they work through the crazy current Mrs. Bates issues they will be a SOLID couple. :)

I have never really understood why Vera thinks that releasing the story about Lady Mary's ill-fated encounter with the Turkish diplomat was the way to blackmail Bates. I appreciate the fact that Bates doesn't want Anna's name and reputation dragged through the mud, but Mary is the one who stands to be the real loser here -- and so, when Anna tips her off about Vera's plot, she bites the bullet and decides to level with Sir Richard (Iain Glen), her AWOL newspaper magnate suitor. From Sir Richard's brief introduction in Part 1, I knew he was manipulative, but Mary's humbling confession and plea for help  proves just how low the man will go to get what he wants -- marriage to a newly humbled Mary and all the prestige association with the Crawleys will provide. Despite the fact that Mary is making a deal with the devil himself to keep her reputation, I cannot lie I really enjoyed watching Sir Richard thwart Vera's plans and in the process nearly give the woman an apoplectic fit. That, my friends, was fun -- I'll come to terms with the fallout of Mary's lamentable association with Sir Richard next week.

William's presence at Downton is making poor Daisy's (Sophie McShera) life a living hell as anguish over her friend's imminent death and guilt over making him believe she loved him reaches a breaking point. Everyone from Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) to William's father and other assorted staff members seem determined to pressure Daisy to keep up the charade and marry William just so he can die a happy man. OH THE GUILT!!! I really feel like McShera delivers some of her finest acting in these scenes, and raises my respect for the character of Daisy to previously unimaginable heights. The least subterfuge in her actions just tears Daisy to pieces, and while I understand why William's friends want to do anything to keep him happy, I really respect Daisy for wanting to do the right, for wanting to be true to herself, even if she bows to pressure in the end and marries William on his deathbed. (Side note: what the heck was with the vicar and snotty conviction that Daisy wants to marry William for his pension? Way to go Violet for putting that man in his place!) Once committed, Daisy shows a great deal of strength in her determination to stay by William's side until the end -- the wedding and his death were heartbreaking -- way to break my heart, Fellowes, by killing one of Downton's kindest characters!

Meanwhile Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) reaffirms my suspicion that she is a SAINT by revealing that she's been secretly supporting THAT INGRATE EX-HOUSEMAID Ethel (Amy Nuttall) and her illegitimate child. Apparently it would kill Ethel to thank Mrs. Hughes for going out of her way to help her out, grr!!! She still has some delusions that her major will want to do the right thing by her and the baby, but of course THAT'S not going to happen. Interesting to contrast how society views Ethel and the difficulties she faces in being a single mother and Jane (Clare Calbraith), a war widow with a young child, who convinces Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson that she can juggle motherhood and work at Downton.

This episode provides some nice Branson (Allen Leech) and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) scenes -- I love these moments because there is always this delicious undercurrent of repressed romantic tension. Look, I cannot STAND Branson's politics, and the way he uses news of the murder of the tsar and his family in Russia as a springboard for romantic sacrifice is patently ridiculous -- but I still, still can't resist that look of utter devotion in Branson's eyes every time he looks at Sybil. I AM A SAP. (At least I own it, right?) I mean the moment where Branson touches Sybil's WAIST to stop her from leaving?! GAH!! Too perfect. The Romanov thing? That makes NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. Yet I cannot seem to resist Branson's jawline and puppy dog eyes! I NEED AN INTERVENTION PEOPLE. At this rate I am going to be clinging to Branson's devotion for Sybil and disregarding all else until having taken the leap of faith he makes her life a misery. WHO KNEW ALLEN LEECH HELD SUCH SWAY OVER MY EMOTIONS?! Bah!!!! :P

My hair curls! I can look super cute! Too bad this is not the wedding I've always dreamed of!

So as this episode ends, Mary has gotten herself in a royal mess with Sir Richard, who uses her moment of weakness to announce their engagement without any sort of discussion. Vera is TICKED that she can't sell the Mary story to the newspapers or Sir Richard will throw her in jail -- personally I think that woman needs to talk a long walk off a short pier if you know what I'm sayin'! :P With the war almost at an end everyone's life is closer than ever to completely falling apart. I LOVE THIS DRAMA! :)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

One for the Money

This afternoon Lori and I went to see One for the Money. Neither of us were sure what to expect as we haven't read the Janet Evanovich novel on which the film is based -- that said, I think it is safe to say we were both pleasantly surprised. I tend to like Katherine Heigl -- not all of her films by any stretch, but ever since 27 Dresses if I hear she's in a romantic comedy I'm at least willing to consider it (I never stopped to think until now just how much goodwill 27 Dresses gave Heigl in my book...yeesh I love that film). Here Heigl trades in her trademark blonde tresses for brunette and a serviceable Jersey accent to bring to life the character of Stephanie Plum, who after a string of personal and professional bad luck lands a job as a recovery agent for her cousin's bail-bond business. Stephanie is anything but ready to bring in fugitives, but the girl's got game and determines her first big success will be collecting the bounty on Joe Morelli's (Jason O'Mara) head, a cop wanted for questioning in a murder investigation and the one who got away in Stephanie's book.

Stephanie is a bit rougher around the edges than most characters I'm used to seeing Heigl play, and to her credit I think she does a fair job pulling it off. As befits her loveable misfit type character, she's got a mother who wants nothing more than to see her married, played with aplomb by Debra Monk. It was great to see Monk on-screen again -- I'm a big fan of her work from the short-lived Nero Wolfe television series. But hands-down the best supporting cast nod goes to Debbie Reynolds as Stephanie's boozy grandmother. Reynolds was HILARIOUS! I only wish she'd had more screentime. :) Oh, and fans of Grimm will recognize Stephanie's scummy cousin Vinnie, played by Patrick Fischler. Fischler was the "bluebeard" in the "Lonelyhearts" episode -- and let me tell you his role as Vinnie was no small stretch from that appearance.

Going into this movie, I was expecting a straight-up romantic comedy, so I was pleasantly surprised when this movie delivered a story in more of an action-adventure vein. As Stephanie relentlessly pursues the bounty on Joe Morelli's head, she gets drawn into a murder investigation that someone wants pinned on Morelli at all costs. I liked seeing Stephanie actually start to care about more than just the payday. This is particularly evident when her first "informant," Lula the hooker (Sherri Shepherd) is beaten for daring to talk to her. I absolutely loved Lula, she was flipping hilarious, and a great addition to Stephanie's quirky circle of friends.

My favorite part of the film is Stephanie's two love interests -- Ranger (Daniel Sunjata), an expert bounty hunter she enlists to help train her in the basics of becoming a successful recovery agent, and Morelli, her target. Sunjata is pretty drop-dead gorgeous, and as Ranger is hilariously deadpan -- nothing, and I mean nothing, rattles him. But Morelli is by far my favorite -- I just adore O'Mara, and give me O'Mara all scruffy and worried about Stephanie? Yes, please, I am so there. *wink* O'Mara is so ADORABLE! And there's a nice spark between him & Heigl (really I would worry if there wasn't, because I can't fathom that). Seeing as there's something ridiculous like eighteen Plum novels, I'd go see a second film for O'Mara's appearance alone.

Content-wise there's some language and innuendo in keeping with the film's rating, and similar to a completely unnecessary scene in The Proposal there's a moment where entirely too much of Heigl is on display when Morelli handcuffs her to her shower rod so she can't turn him in. That aside, the movie delivers some laughs and more action than I expected and yes, even a bit of heart. I suppose now I should give the book a shot, hmm? :)

Excuse me while I go dream that Jason O'Mara (or a reasonable facsimile) is going to show up at my door with a cupcake... *wink*

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Artist

The Artist is an exquisite love letter to cinema, a tribute in perhaps the highest form possible as it is couched within the framework of a silent film, where all the power of the story comes from the slightest expression, the cast of light and shadow, and a gloriously emotive score.

The film opens in 1927 at the premiere of A Russian Affair, the latest silent film from handsome and charismatic leading man George Valentin (Jean Dujardin). Valentin is a real charmer. :) As played by Dujardin (I confess to being completely in love with this man now), Valentin is a heady mixture of Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and Charles Boyer. I am not kidding people, he's that good.

After the premiere, while posing for photographers, Valentin meets Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), following the most adorable meet cute ever, and the two make a splash with the press. The chemistry between them is immediate and electric, and explodes on film when Peppy gets her big break and is cast as a dancer in Valentin's newest film. With some insightful guidance, veteran George gives Peppy the advice that sets her on the path to stardom, just as everything is about to change in Hollywood with the advent of sound.

If you've lived, breathed, and memorized large portions of Singin' In the Rain (just speaking for myself here), the basic plot threads will be familiar to you. While The Artist hearkens back to Singin' In the Rain, since it is a silent film it is a more powerful and heart-rending portrait of what an industry in flux, during the transition from silence to sound, what that meant for the artists whose whole lives were wrapped up in the world of silent films. There's also a moment in the film, when George's possessions are auctioned, that recalled another musical favorite -- The Band Wagon, where Fred Astaire faces the indignity of all of his trademarks and famous props being auctioned as supposedly his style of acting, his identity if you will, has fallen out of favor in Hollywood.

And, in a touch somewhat reminiscent of A Star is Born, as Peppy's star rises George finds his own dimming, as his brand of filmmaking -- and in many ways his identity itself -- falls out of favor and sets him adrift. I couldn't help but remember filmmaker Georges Melies and his story as told in Hugo -- how when he's forced into bankruptcy and his style of filmmaking falls out of favor, he has much of his work destroyed. In both of these films both Melies and Valentin are faced with extraordinarily painful circumstances that force them to question their chosen art and their very identities. And in both cases, each man is surrounded by those who would love them and remind them that the only limitations they place on themselves are self-imposed, and the choice is theirs to stagnate in heartbreak or embrace a new chapter in their lives.

I want to give a brief nod to some of the stellar supporting players that make up the cast of The Artist, starting with Missi Pyle as Constance, Valentin's temperamental costar in A Russian Affair. Pyle's performance is a spot-on imitiation of Jean Hagen's gloriously shrill Lina Lamont in Singin' In the Rain, right down to the posture and hairstyle. I also loved seeing Penelope Ann Miller as George's troubled wife Doris -- her clothes were to die for! And James Cromwell turns in a fantastic performance as George's ever-loyal chauffer/manservant.

Perhaps the best supporting performance, though, goes to Uggie the terrier as George's loyal dog. Uggie also appeared in Water for Elephants, and is apparently now retiring at the ripe old age of ten. Uggie is an absolute charmer, and his scenes with George -- oh my goodness I loved them. LOVED them!

There is apparently some controversy over the use of portions of Bernard Hermann's score for Vertigo in this film -- you can read about that here. That aside, Ludovic Bource's work on this film is absoutely amazing, a must-have for film score fans.  

It is no stretch to say that I loved absolutely everything about this film. The Artist begs to be seen on the big screen, and if you get the opportunity please, please go. From its presentation in the old aspect ratio of 1:33:1 ("full screen") to the costumes, lights, and sets, the film has an inimitible style and presence that fully immerses you in its world. It is a rare chance today to be given the opportunity to see a story unfold on-screen as our grandparents and great-grandparents did. Listen to the audience's reactions, pay attention to your own response to the film -- this is old school storytelling brilliantly realized on-screen. It's an experience this film junkie postively revelled in.

It is a rare film where I leave the theater feeling so thoroughly satisfied. As the credits began to roll my first thought was how on earth did this film get in my head and get me, because it is so completely tailored to everything I love about films and storytelling and the life-affirming power of such art. My heartfelt thanks to director Michel Hazanavicius and the entire team and cast who brought this film to life. The Artist is a perfect little gem of a film that is -- trust me on this -- not to be missed. I can't wait to revisit it!

Look at that smile!

upcoming films...

So I took the afternoon off and went to the movies this afternoon (more on that a bit later), and was pleasantly surprised by three trailers that look very promising --

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

Ewan McGregor! Emily Blunt! SALMON! Color me intrigued. According to the IMDB, the film is slated to open in the US March 9th -- though I suspect that is a limited release date.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Isn't this cast amazing? Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton!? Did I mention BILL NIGHY?! According to the IMDB, this is slated to open May 4th.


This film has been on my radar for a while now thanks to my interest in the history. But this film - James D'Arcy is playing Edward, LAURENCE FOX is playing his brother Bertie, and the rest of the cast of the historical portion of the film is equally pedigreed. I could care less about the Madonna connection...but with D'Arcy and Fox in this film I'm so there. :) According to the IMDB this one opens February 3rd, probably in limited release first.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Castle Film Noir Promo!

I've mentioned a time or two (HA) that I'm a fan of Castle (okay, I'm mad about the show!). I'm also a hugh fan of film noir classics (think Laura and I Wake Up Screaming). So I was THRILLED when I saw the preview for Castle's next brand-new episode (airing February 6th) entitled "The Blue Butterfly." Here's the trailer:

Here's a bit about the episode:

CASTLE - "The Blue Butterfly" - When Castle and Beckett investigate the killing of a treasure hunter, they discover the case is linked to a mysterious homicide from 1947 involving a hard-boiled private detective. Castle realizes the only way to solve the present-day murder is to solve the murder from the past. The 1947 case comes to life through stylized flashbacks, featuring Castle as the private eye and Beckett as a femme fatale, on "Castle," MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6 (10:01-11:00 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network. (ABC/KAREN NEAL) STANA KATIC, NATHAN FILLION

And here are a few of the promo shots ABC released -- aren't these absolutely AMAZING?! The rest of the set can be viewed here.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Downton Abbey Series 2, Part 3

This episode of Downton Abbey covered a ridiculous amount of time, I'd say probably six months of 1918 are crammed into this one hour installment. Ridiculous? Yes. Fun? Absolutely. :) Here's the episode summary from the Masterpiece Classic website:

Mary's new alliance has aroused Violet's interest in matters of suitability and love. With Sybil in mind, the Dowager Countess declares, "war breaks down barriers and when peacetime re-erects them, it's very easy to find oneself on the wrong side." Indeed, among war's greatest casualties at Downton are the prescribed roles and class boundaries. Thomas is exerting his authority over the servants with aplomb; Mrs. Patmore, Daisy and Mrs. Bird are cooking up a little something on the side; and Ethel has discovered an age-old way to support the war effort. But between Robert and Bates, faith and loyalty transcend class, offering hope when Robert needs it most. Because now, the war has threatened a far more serious casualty.
The simmering conflict between Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) over the management of the convalescent hospital at Downton Abbey boils over this week, and I have to say I come down whole-heartedly on Cora's side. Isobel is a whiny, entitled, immature BRAT. When she was introduced last season I rather admired her no-nonsense approach to life and her son's status as Downton's new heir, but clearly her proximity with aristocratic power has gone to her head. Seriously, an adult woman of Isobel's age throwing the equivalent of a toddler's hissy fit (the whole "I want to be needed! I'LL GO TO FRIGGIN' FRANCE!" thing cracked me up) is ridiculous. It's not your house YET Isobel, get over your stupid self. Relieved for once to see her out of the picture for a while. *sigh* Cora's schedule changes were completely reasonable (I really liked that she was paying attention to the needs of her staff), plus Downton is still her FLIPPIN' HOUSE for goodness' sake.

Now that there is no turning back from transforming Downton into a hospital and Mary seems resolved not to break up Matthew's engagement to Lavinia, Violet (Maggie Smith) seems itching for a new area where she can meddle with her inimitable style and sass. In a conversation with Mary (Michelle Dockery), Violet speculates that Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlaymust be crushing on a man beneath her social station since war breaks down class barriers and causes people to do all sorts of CRAZY things like that. (My question here is, even if Branson wasn't in the picture as far as Sybil is concerned, who the heck does Violet think she's going to fall for with most of the men her age 1) fighting at the front or 2) in a hospital ward?) ANYWAYS....this conversation puts Mary on the alert and she is shocked to discover her sister IN CONVERSATION with the CHAUFFEUR. Oh the scandal...(seriously Mary, give Sybil some credit, at least she was talking with him outdoors, in public as opposed to your episode with the Turkish diplomat...).

Speaking of Branson (Allen Leech), my chauffeur-loving-heart got a wonderful moment when he declared to Sybil that he would stay at Downton in this stupid job he hates until she decides to run away with him (my paraphrase). Seriously, Sybil, how can you just STAND there when he's laying bare his heart like that?! Sure, Branson is a little intense, a bit of a loose cannon, and goodness knows he has his issues but the way he looks at Sybil with such unabashed adoration -- gah! It slays me every single time -- see the final scene, during the hospital concert, as one of many excellent examples thus far this season. What interests me about Sybil and her views toward her privileged class -- I really do think that out of all the sisters she could throw everything off and end up genuinely happy. It would absolutely be a bumpy, likely rocky, road toward that end -- but the possibility is there, and her desire to follow the beat of her own drummer and stand on her own two feet, that would go a long way towards seeing her through (or so I like to think). :)

When Daisy (Sophie McShera) overhears that Bates (Brendan Coyle) is working in a local pub, one thing leads to another and word gets to a rather shocked Lord Robert (Hugh Bonneville) that his former valet has returned to the area and not let him know, or requested his job back. Considering the poor terms on which they parted in the first installment of this season, when Bates refused to divulge the Crawley family secrets his SKANK OF A WIFE threatened to reveal, it's no surprise Bates is unsure of his welcome. This is a classic example of why I love Robert's character -- he's not perfect but he really is a good man at heart, capable of great compassion, and when he takes the initiative to visit Bates, insisting to his wife that he must be the one to apologize to his former servant, I cheered. I loved the warmth and camaraderie of there reunion, the way that for a few moments, at least, class barriers were forgotten and two men with a long history together shared a moment as friends.

One of my favorite storylines in this episode is how a few of the servants start a soup kitchen for homeless former soldiers. This endeavor starts in Isobel's home, when after her departure for France Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and the Mrs. Bird (Christine Lohr) are left with little to do besides light house maintenance. Mrs. Bird starts the soup kitchen and is soon aided by Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) and Daisy, the former setting aside food from Downton's kitchens and raising the ever-nosy suspicions of O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran). Never one to waste an opportunity to get her coworkers in trouble, O'Brien alerts Cora, but her plan backfires deliciously when Cora is thrilled with the soup kitchen and volunteers BOTH their services and MORE of Downton's food stores! That was absolutely priceless! And speaking of O'Brien, she has lost any goodwill points she gained by her brief flashes of kindness toward the shell-shocked Mr. Lang. The woman is a conniving, harping shrew. When Thomas (Rob James-Collier) is appearing more reasonable than you, well you know you're in trouble. (Love Mrs. Patmore though -- she may be misguided in her encouragement of Daisy as regards William, but her heart's in the right place in so many ways!)

Another of this episode's main story threads involves the disturbing news that Matthew (Dan Stevens) and William (Thomas Howes), now his servant, have gone missing at the front. I really liked how this development highlighted just how much Matthew's come to mean to all of Downton since he was first announced as heir -- he really has become part of the family, the son Robert never had (despite his insistence on marrying Lavinia, HA!). Edith (Laura Carmichael) shares a surprisingly heartfelt moment with Mary when she goes against her father's injunction to keep the news about Matthew from her sister -- I really felt like there was no ulterior motive at work, this was one sister realizing that another would want to know the truth, no matter how painful. I will even own that I have really liked Edith over these past two weeks -- her work with the hospital has really allowed her to blossom and come into her own (here's hoping the positive sticks!).

Belowstairs endures some undesired drama when Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is caught by Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) sleeping with one of the officers she'd been seen flirting with repeatedly. Ethel is promptly dismissed without a reference and actually has the gall to be surprised. Ethel I have news for you, you too are a first-class IDIOT. It's like she seriously thought there would be no repercussions for her actions?! Yeesh. It's a lesson in how not to win friends and how TO alienate people. The moment where Ethel returns at the end of the episode, alone and scared to beg help from Mrs. Hughes because she's pregnant (SHOCKER! That's what HAPPENS when you carry flirting with randy officers too far!) is priceless -- talk about a humbling moment, being forced to beg help from the very people you made no secret of disdaining because they made their livelihood in a manner you despised. Third unbelievably frustrating female character to eat crow this episode, CHECK.

This episode ended on what was, for me, a really sublime moment of Downton drama. :) The time has come for the hospital concert where, miracle of miracles Mary has agreed to perform "If You Were the Only Girl in the World" with the accompaniment of her sister Edith. First of all, if you haven't purchased the Downton soundtrack, do so immediately -- Alfie Boe sings the song on that album, and you can hear a clip of his performance here. Mary's about to lose it because she's just learned Matthew's missing, and everyone is all tense and upset and TENSE, and then lo and behold midway through the song Matthew and William walk in. You could've heard a pin drop -- well, only if you could hear a pin over me yelling at Mary through the television to run down the aisle and kiss Matthew already (or vice-versa, at this point I don't really care who makes the first move)! *wink* It was just such a perfectly realized moment, and felt like the end of a season with the palpable emotion and attraction between Mary and Matthew and everyone SO HAPPY.

But it wouldn't be the Edwardian soap opera I love if happiness was achieved that easily, would it?! Sure, Matthew's alive but he's headed back to the front, and he's still engaged to that twit Lavinia, and Mary is determined to be all noble and self-sacrificing. SIGH. And Anna (Joanne Froggatt) is ridiculously happy that Bates is back at Downton, and of course they jinx themselves by revelling in HOW HAPPY they are and how close they are to their goals (silly kids!). While I have no idea where exactly we are in 1918, precisely, if there's one thing this show teaches us it is that a lot can happen in an hour. *wink* Here's to next week! In the mean time, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this episode!
In closing I want to share two behind-the-scenes images that I found absolutely hilarious! The first is from am Entertainment Weekly feature, showcasing Hugh Bonneville, Michelle Dockery, and Dan Stevens (I just love their expressions!):

And the second is the cast showing their affection for a very droll Mr. Carson (Jim Carter) from the PBS behind-the-scenes gallery for episode one:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Adventures of Tintin

With no afternoon plans and a movie pass that expires at the end of the month, I opted to go see The Adventures of Tintin which had been on my radar for months (thanks to an extensive ad campaign). I'm really curious how many Americans like myself had little to no knowledge of the film's source material prior to the movie promotional campaign kicking into high gear. I had never even heard of intrepid boy reporter Tintin and his adventures until I started reading about what massive fans director Steven Spielberg and producer Peter Jackson are of the apparently somewhat legendary comic book series by Belgian author and artist Herge (Georges Remi). So that's probably why I came away from this film with somewhat mixed feelings -- it was good, just not the exhilarating, escapist adventure that I was expecting given the enthusiasm and filmic pedigree of the team that brought the story to the screen. I suspect Tintin is a movie made by fans of the source material that will resonate most strongly with fans of the same -- but I am very much open to hearing other views. :)

Tintin (voiced by Jamie Bell) is a boy wonder reporter, somewhat in the mold of Jimmy Olsen or Lois Lane (please, don't throw stones at my comparison -- I work with what I know, people). :) He has a penchant for adventure and is never without the accompaniment of his crazy-smart, faithful dog Snowy (an adorable terrier with a weakness for unguarded sandwiches). In an unspecified but very European 1930s outdoor market, Tintin purchases a model of the lost ship Unicorn. When two individuals promptly attempt to purchase the ship from him, including an unsavory fellow with the delightful name of Sakharine (voiced by the one and only Daniel Craig!), he senses a story -- an opinion that is solidified when his apartment is trashed and the ship is stolen, leaving behind an overlooked scroll with a cryptic clue, referencing at least twin models (and by extension additional clues).

In his quest to uncover the secret of the Unicorn, Tintin joins forces with the alcohol-swigging Captain Haddock (voiced by Andy Serkis), the sole surviving descendant of the original Unicorn's captain and the unwitting target of Sakharine's machinations. The quest to retreive all three clues necessary to discover the location of a treasure missing for centuries takes the unlikely duo (well, trio if you count Snowy, and personally I would) from Europe to Morocco and back again, dodging bullets and danger along the way.

This film took me back to my preteen infatuation with The Young Indiana Jones series, and any comparisons drawn between Tintin and Young Indy are to my thinking quite apt -- both young men hungry for adventure, with conveniently unlimited funds with which to travel the world (ha!), and a penchant for stopping baddies in their tracks. But personally there was a spark missing that made it somewhat difficult for me to "connect" with Tintin, and I think that lies in the medium of performance capture 3D animation. Now the format and style of filmmaking has come a long way since The Polar Express, but despite its realism there is still something that strikes me as soulless about the animation -- the faces and expressions often appear "flat" to me, an effect perhaps exaggerated by the realism of the clothing, hair, etc. Now I'm not trying to throw Bell under the proverbial bus -- I think he is a fantastic actor -- but in comparing his performance as Tintin to 3D performance capture veteran Andy Serkis, Tintin seems a bit flat.

That said, I really enjoyed the world this film created, very evocative of Indiana Jones's globetrotting adventures, and reminscent of movie serial adventures from the 1930s with its spirit of never-say-die adventure and optimism. The detail is incredible, and I found myself more than once distracted by the texture of clothing, the subtle alterations in a character's skin tone, a breeze blowing through hair, or the sheen of perspiration on Haddock's brow as he (unwillingly) weans himself off the bottle midway through the film. I also have to note Doctor Who and Sherlock veteran Steven Moffat's script contributions, which given my history with the man's work I suspect is greatly responsible for much of the film's humor. And John Williams delivers another impeccable score, alternating cues of high adventure with a whimsical, francophile-inspired themes that hearken back to the movie's 1930s serial style and time period.

I'm definitely intrigued see the planned sequel, particularly since it will be penned by Anthony Horowitz (FOYLE'S WAR!!!). For a grey Sunday afternoon's entertainment, The Adventures of Tintin was an enjoyable introduction to a previously unknown hero, a throwback-style adventure, where the hero relies on smarts and ingenuity to save the day and land the story of a lifetime. :)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Grimm 1.9: "Of Mouse and Man"

In an interesting -- and I'll be honest, completely unexpected twist -- last night's episode of Grimm took its cue not from a classic fairy tale but from John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men. Okay, the English major in me isn't going to complain, but really? You're only in episode nine of season one, it's not like you've come close to exhausting the Brothers Grimm backlog. But whatevs.

I'll be honest, at first viewing the morphing and body-switching in this episode was a bit confusing -- I'd recommend the episode guide for helpful clarification if needed.. *wink* The hour opens with a brutal slaying in a parking garage, where an elderly man dressed in entirely age inappropriate (read: heavy metal) clothing gets a screwdriver sunk in his throat. The next day Nick (David Giuntoli) and Hank (Russell Hornsby) are called to a crime scene where a garbage truck drive discovered the body of a much younger man, identically dressed and dispatched as the victim we just saw killed, in the back of his truck. The trace the victim to a rather seedy-looking apartment complex where the manager (who I found to be freaking hilarious) tells them that the victim was last seen fighting with Mason Snyder, a lawyer living down the hall (really thought the lawyer could do better apartment-wise), and that his girlfriend Natalie, also present the previous evening, is now MIA. Nick and David track down Natalie, who brings another individual into the picture -- the meek and mild-mannered Marty who first attempted to break-up her fight with Lenny. When the brawnier Mason showed up, Natalie fled, last having seen Lenny alive and well.

It was no real surprise that the mild-mannered Marty turned out to be a Mauhertz, a mouse-like creature, who runs a junk shop. His manner, his work, heck even his living arrangements as later revealed all call to mind a life-size mouse's den (*shivers* ick, ick!!). Despite my aversion to mice in general, at first blush I thought Marty was actually kinda sweet -- and herein lies the genius of this episode's storytelling -- I pegged the flashier, more aggressive character as the villain. Maybe I'm just slow, maybe it's this stupid cold (I'm going with the latter option just for the record), but until about halfway through the episode when Nick and Hank discover the dead body of Marty's father, I really thought he was going to be an innocent, would-be victim. I mean Mason the snake (ignore the cliche of making a lawyer a snake *sigh*), or Lausenschlange as they are apparently known in the Grimm world, was SO. FLIPPING. COOL. Seriously, the Harry Potter make-up department could've taken lessons from this episode on how to up Voldemort's creep factor.

When an auto repair shop owner seemingly morphs into the same old guy killed at the opening of this episode, and later Mason the creeptastic lawyer meets the same fate, Nick and Hank turn their investigation to the mild-mannered Marty. And here's where this episode tricked me -- I wasn't paying close enough attention to the victims' transformations to realize they were identical -- I thought they were all mice creatures, which is why I thought Marty would end up being a target instead of a perp. Once it is revealed that Marty, the put-upon, brow-beaten son has snapped, taking to seeing his father everywhere and killing anyone who crosses him, well I thought it was just brilliant and tragic all at once. Because the script let us see that Marty could be nice, he wasn't a born killer like the Lausenschlange lawyer, he was gentle man where something when horribly, horribly wrong -- half the tragedy of the case.

The second half of this episode was devoted in part to Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell) discovering the costs of befriending Nick. First of all, how adorable was he getting all geeked out over the phone call he receives to repair an old clock tower? How is it that seeing Monroe so into clocks seems to never get old? LOL! Of course this was a set up (why I could figure that out, but the whole morphing mouse thing confused me??), and when he arrives at the job he's beaten up by a bunch of creepy looking Grimm creatures. When he awakens he discovers a reaper's scythe painted in blood on his car's hood -- clearly he's being warned away from Nick. But the best part of all this is how he refuses to be cowed. Nick is ready to dissolve their unofficial partnership in order to protect Monroe, and when Monroe is all "hell no!!" I cheered, yes I did. Loved the subtle glint of relief/thankfulness in Nick's eyes at that moment -- glad to know he recognizes the importance of what Monroe is doing in siding with his hereditary enemy.

This episode also sees Juliette (Bitsie Tulloch) running across more weirdness thanks to her relationship with Nick. Ever since the refrigerator repairman recognized Nick as a Grimm, it seems as though some of the creature world's more easily frightened types have taken to spying on his house, a fact that (understandably) creeps Juliette out. This raises a couple of interesting possibilities -- do they think she's a Grimm as well, or do they assume that because she lives with a Grimm she must be privvy to "trade secrets"? How long is it going to be before someone assumes she's a Grimm and attacks her, or attempts to use her as leverage to get to Nick? Clearly this whole not telling her thing is bound to backfire, the only question is when and how, no?

Even though "Of Mouse and Man" may not have had the awesome fairy tale retelling factor of previous episodes this season, it was still a solid hour and good procedural with an unexpected nod to a literary classic. Basically when it comes to me and this show it can do no wrong -- and least not yet, anyway. *wink* Thoughts?

Friday, January 20, 2012

My friends know me so well...

I love that friends will randomly send me pictures like this on Facebook to "brighten my day" --

Objective accomplished, Lori B. Thank you very much. :) Seriously people, look at this photo. Could it be any more perfect? The lighting, the composition? Josh Dallas, I HEART YOU. :)

And then this promo photo comes through my Facebook news feed for this Sunday's episode of Once Upon a Time. I'd seen the headshot before but not the full version.

I ask you, people, could there be a more perfect Prince? I think not. I've said it before but I think it bears repeating...Once writers, if you dare to harm a hair on Josh Dallas's head you are DEAD TO ME, do you hear?! I don't think I could take it. :)

Once Upon a Time 1.9: "True North"

Sorry about the delay in posting a recap/review of this week's episode of Once Upon a Time, but I've been sidelined with a horrible cold/sinus infection for most of the week. I HATE COLDS. All this to say this post may not make much sense. So let's attempt to talk about something fun, shall we? :) This episode introduced two more classic fairy characters to the realm of Storybrooke -- Hansel and Gretel. And much like the Cinderella-centric episode from earlier this year, the plight of these fairy tale characters provides a great window through which we're given insight into Emma's (Jennifer Morrison) past, an opportunity to see what makes her "tick."

The episode opens with Henry (Jared Gilmore) reading a Hulk vs. Wolverine comic (how frakkin' adorable is that?!). A young girl, Ava a.k.a. Gretel (Karley Scott Collins) introduces herself and Henry is instantly pierced by Cupid's arrow. You can just see him flash "Isn't she pretty?" and "She's talking to me?!" and "Maybe I'm going to make friends MY OWN AGE!" Sadly Henry's hopes of befriending Ava and her brother Nicholas a.k.a. Hansel (Quinn Lord) are crushed when he discovers that the pair only befriended him in order to use his handy backpack to shoplift assorted snacks and personal care items. At this point I was ready to smack Ava upside the head -- no one messes with Henry!!

In Fairy Tale Land we see the Hansel and Gretel story play out very similar to tradition, with a few exceptions -- the children's father (Nicholas Lea) gives Gretel a compass, a family heirloom, before sending the pair out to collect wood, along with words to live by -- "family should always be able to find each other." When the children can't find their father they (conveniently for her) run into the Evil Queen (Lana Parrilla), who blackmails them into retrieving an object for her from the Blind Witch's (Emma Caulfield) house, in return for its successful retrieval she promises to reunite the children with their MIA father. First thing's first, how awesome was it to see the Evil Queen really living up to her name, performing some sort of apparating magic and exploiting helpless kids? Yes we had the whole horrifying "I collect hearts" revelation, but there was something about her actions in this episode, the exploiting of kids, that brought a whole new level of meaning to the evil in her moniker.

Back in Storybrooke, Emma discovers that the two children have been living on their own, with a dead mother whom no one seems to remember and no record of who their father is or where he could be found. Given her own past in the foster system, Emma's determined these kids won't suffer the same fate -- being separated, unloved, etc., and resolves to find their missing dad. Emma takes Ava's compass as a clue, and interestingly enough it is Mr. Gold (Robert Carlyle) who provides her with the name of the children's father. This is one of those moments that make Gold such a fascinating character -- this *seems* to be a really nice thing to do, but given his past actions we know we shouldn't trust him -- so the question remains, why is he being helpful? Is this only to undermine Regina or is there more to the story?  

Emma's attempts to convince the children's father, now an auto mechanic named Michael, to step up really gives Morrison a chance to shine in the acting department. Emma's regret over giving up Henry has an almost palpable ache, and I just love seeing how much she's changed in just the brief time she's known her son (I thought it was interesting that apparently all that's happened this season has taken place in just a month's time, did anyone else catch it when Emma let that slip?). It just about broke my heart (this show is getting in the habit of that) when Emma fictionalized an account of Henry's father as a hero. It's clear that Henry just adores her, and Emma so desperately wants to live up to his faith in her that it just about kills her to tell him anything about her past. (HUGS ALL AROUND!) I also loved how this episode gave us some great moments where we could see Emma and Mary Margaret (Ginnifer Goodwin) just hanging out, becoming friends -- I suppose one "upside" to this curse (if you want to call it that) is that Mary Margaret and Emma will perhaps skip that awkward teenage parental rebellion phase and skip to the part where you actually realize it might be possible that you can be friends with your parents. *wink*

Back to Storybrooke -- the Blind Witch was extraordinarily creepy, and her house was a sugar lover's dream (I cannot tell you how badly I wanted a cupcake after viewing this episode!). I loved Gretel's moxie (really had trouble buying that these two were supposed to be twins, Gretel had such an older sister vibe) even though she had the worst Fairy Tale Land hair of ALL TIME, and I thought it was neat twist to have the Evil Queen responsible for the Blind Witch's death (who knew she could "throw" magical curses through her mirror?). I thought the reveal that the artifact was THE APPLE of legend was also a nice and unexpected touch. Also fascinating to see the Evil Queen attempt to befriend and "adopt" Hansel and Gretel -- apparently her desire to be loved, to have a family, has deep pre-curse roots, hmm?

So, while the "true north" aspect of this storyline may have lacked subtlety, I confess I was a total sucker for the moment when in Storybrooke the children's compass pointed directly to their father. This show really likes to play with the idea that family and soul mate bonds cannot be denied, a concept that is perhaps subconsciously reawakening Emma's desire to find her birth parents. This brings me to perhaps the most awesome moment of the episode, the final five minutes, where we get Henry and Emma having a lovely mother/son moment and the unthinkable happens. A black leather-clad STRANGER roars into Storybrooke on a motorcycle. The "what the HELL is happening?" looks on Emma and Henry's faces are just priceless, because this is the one thing that's never happened, even since Emma's arrival -- a stranger, with apparently no connections to anyone in Storybrooke, arrives, apparently having been LOOKING for Storybrooke (a.k.a. the town that must be a big black hole on all maps of Maine). But the reason I'm so excited? Said Stranger is played by Eion Bailey, also known as Ben Mercer from Covert Affairs (see picture above, isn't he ADORABLE?!). I adore him on CA to it follows that his tenure on Once, no matter how long or short that may be, is going to be AWESOME. Theories as to the Stranger's real identity and purpose in Storybrooke? Feel free to sound off in the comments!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Downton Abbey Series 2, Part Two

Downton Abbey's second season continued on Masterpiece Classic last nght with a on hour episode -- and I just have to tell you, seeing the story parsed out in a one hour installment gave me a renewed sympathy for the Brits who, I believe, received one hour PER WEEK. It's a delicious sort of torture, being forced to consume this story in one hour increments. *sigh* :) Here's the episode summary from the PBS website:

As a convalescent home for wounded officers, Downton Abbey offers respite from the front. But Cora and Isobel, locked in a power struggle over running the home, wage domestic war, and Thomas in his new rank as acting-Sergeant is not one to broker peace.
Mary rejects Rosamund's dubious advice while Daisy reluctantly accepts Mrs. Patmore's — in both cases, new bonds are irreversibly forged. Meanwhile, Anna dares to hope when she spies a familiar figure in the village.

When Matthew accompanies a visiting General to Downton, a dinner party brings much of the war's painful demands into sharp relief, claiming one victim and very nearly several others. Branson's ambitions are revealed and William's aspirations are fulfilled. And Edith, finally, catches someone's eye.

This episode sees plans to transform Downton Abbey into a convalescent home for wounded officers realized, a move that results in no end of disruption and family drama among the Crawleys. Knowing that the real "Downton," Highclere Castle, actually served this purpose during World War I, I am curious as to how much of the home was given over to this wartime benevolence. As an outside viewer it certainly *seems* as if the house is large enough to still afford the family a good deal of private quarters, no? But all that aside, the turmoil that the convalescent hospital brings to Downton results in some fantastic drama, particularly between Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton). I've always rather liked Isobel's non-nonsense approach to life in general, but I confess that after this hour I wouldn't have blamed Cora if she'd yanked out all of her hair. The way Isobel bullied and pushed herself into "commanding" Downton's hospital was ridiculous -- I found myself wondering if the chance to exert some power within Downton's walls as the heir-apparent's mother was too great a temptation to resist. All I have to say to that, Isobel, is Matthew's (Dan Stevens) not in charge quite yet...

The changes at Downton bring the changing times into sharp relief, revealing the cracks in the foundation of what has always been and ceding power and influence to "upstarts," if you will, like Isobel and (*shudders*) Thomas (Rob James-Collier). I thought it was fascinating when O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) suggests her old cohort Thomas would be an ideal manager for the "new" Downton (since he's always had SUCH a soft spot in his heart for the house and family...yeah right). When Thomas "dared" walk in the FRONT DOOR I thought Carson (Jim Carter) would have a heart attack -- it's ON between those two! It was interesting to see how upset O'Brien is on Cora's behalf at Isobel's encroaching influence -- it appears that her guilt over causing Cora's miscarriage runs much, much deeper than I'd ever dared imagine.That kind of complicated loyalty and relationship dynamic is just one of the reasons this show is so fascinating. Out of the two Series 1 "villains" at this point I hold out more hope for O'Brien's redemption -- she's abrasive, manipulative, and more often than not misguided but the fact that she's capable of regret (and compassion towards former soldiers like Mr. Lang) gives me hope.

Regarding the Crawley sisters, I loved seeing the kind Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) take the lead thanks to her nursing experience and serve as an example to her sisters Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Edith (Laura Carmichael). Edith was a pleasant surprise in this episode, I have to give credit where credit is due! The only good thing to come from Edith's sojourn to the local farm was discovering that she really was more than just a "fine lady," she had a real aptitude for unexpected things like farming when given the chance to apply herself. I LOVED seeing her throw herself into the hospital work, getting patients books to read, helping them write letters home, and most of all showing them real warmth, kindness, and compassion. I've decided Edith needs to marry a soldier, the end. *wink* When visiting General Sir Herbert Strutt (Julian Wadham for the win!) takes the time to call Edith's work to the surprised attention of her family I could've cheered. If this keeps up she could become a favorite of mine once again.

We also see Mary work in the hospital, though she doesn't seem to click with this work as much as her sisters do (though to her credit, this new, nicer Mary 2.0 is astonishingly nice and patient and not all about herself, yay for the transformative power of heartbreak!). :P I was rather surprised at the pressure Mary receives from her aunt Rosamund (Samantha Bond) to discredit Lavinia (Zoe Boyle) in Matthew's eyes, because OF COURSE a tale-bearer is going to win Matthew's heart after first crushing it to pieces. *rollseyes* Lavinia's big secret, the reason Sir Richard Carlisle was threatening her last week -- she apparently delivered secrets about her uncle's political activities to Sir Richard, which he then published, precipitating the Marconi Scandal of 1912. Kudos to Mary for not wanting to stoop to her aunt's level, though it does force her into the unenviable position of bonding with her romantic rival. *sigh* And how hilarious are Rosamund and Violet's (Maggie Smith) exchanges? The apple didn't fall too far from the tree with that one, hmm? And I think it is hilarious that Rosamund can go too far for Violet's taste -- the Dowager Countess is clearly in denial about what an influence she's been on her daughter's life!

Bates (Brendan Coyle) makes an all-too-brief reapparance for both me and Anna (Joanne Froggatt). :) Just a costuming note -- Froggatt looked absolutely adorable in her regular "street clothes," a refreshing change of pace from her servant's uniform. And I thought it was so neat seeing her experiment with Lady Mary's new curling iron -- I couldn't help but think how stressed I'd be if I was wielding styling tool like that, one that had to be manually heated on someone else's head -- I'd be concerned about burning off great chunks of their hair! ANYWAYS, so my dear darling Bates is back, secretly working in a pub while he tries to arrange a divorce from THAT EVIL SKANK VERA who surprise, surprise, wasn't faithful to him. I love the Bates/Anna scenes -- they are of course an adorable couple, but I think what I like best is the depth and intensity of the emotion between them, all the more powerful, perhaps, because they hardly ever touch. I love how Bates just treasures Anna, drinks her in with his eyes, wants to honor her, and even comments on her newly styled hair. *swoons*

My dear darling Branson's (Allen Leech) radical politics come once again to the foreground in this episode. While he certainly has cause to be upset with the establishment (a cousin was murdered in the Easter Rising hostilities), like so many who, I think, held up the politics of the likes of Lenin as an ideal but didn't live under them, he has a rather idealized view of a people's revolution (yeah, right, the tsar's daughters will be safe...). I loved the twist in having his plans to become a conscientious objector to the war thwarted by a legitimate health issue -- you can see this troubles him, since it is one thing perhaps to refuse to fight on idealistic grounds, but another to have that option forcibly removed from you -- thoughts? I feel as though being forcibly sidelined threatens to unman him, and his scenes with Sybil are frought with tension as she attempts to be a friend, to relate, to care for him. When Anna uncovers his plot to disrupt the general's visit to Downton, the tension in those scenes were just brilliantly played. I really thought for a second that Branson might have gone off the deep end and actually threatened the man with physical harm instead of cow dung. Branson's shock that the staff thought he'd murder someone was, in retrospect, actually pretty comical.

Mr. Lang (Cal Macaninch) brought the horrors of war home ot the downstairs staff in a heartbreaking way, as this episode revealed that he just couldn't cope with being around all of the officers that now call Downton home. This ends any speculation I had that his presence would make a lasting impact on the prickly O'Brien, but who knows? Fellowes could pull a fast one on us. :) I loved how classy Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Mr. Carson were about Lang's unsuitability for the job, not focusing on that but recognizing his emotional problems and need for healing. Thankfully "protocol" wasn't at the forefront of anyone's mind. Also, Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nichol) -- good grief I love her, even though her advice to Daisy (Sophie McShera) is misguided. The woman is a gem and seeing her transfer her broken heart over her nephew's death to the newly enlisted William (Thomas Howes) just breaks my heart. The idea of kindly William in the trenches just KILLS me! Poor Daisy is, I'm afraid, in for a world of heart-ache if she doesn't summon the courage to be honest about her lack of feelings for William. THOSE POOR CRAZY KIDS!! Side note: Between Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) mothering William, the genuine family dynamic that develops belowstairs between THE NICE PEOPLE is on full display -- love it.

Looking forward, I expect a royal catfight to erupt between Isobel and Cora at any moment. And new housemaid Ethel (Amy Nuttall) is in for a world of hurt if she doesn't watch herself around the officers! Also, something is up with Robert and Cora's relationship...something is "off" and I'm anxious for the reveal! The unspoken pull between Mary and Matthew is just tearing me to pieces as well -- Mary is proving to be a far stronger, and far classier, person in many respects than I ever gave her credit for. And this is RIDICULOUS...this episode was an hour, half the lenght of last week's installment and this post is nearly as long as last week's. CRAZINESS. But that's how much I love this show. :) I'd love to hear your thoughts on how the story is progressing -- please remember to keep the comments as spoiler-free as possible if you've seen all of Series 2!