Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law, Jared Harris, Noomi Rapace, Stephen Fry
Directed By: Guy Ritchie
Written By: Michele Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney (screenplay), from the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle
Warner Bros., 2011
PG-13; 129 minutes
3 stars (out of 5)


Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is a fun movie. Entertaining. Which is what it's supposed to be. But it's not a great movie. I found my mind wandering at moments. And when you're talking Sherlock Holmes--a man whose mind moves so quickly that one should have to pay attention to keep up--well, it's kind of a shame that it didn't engage me more or require more effort.

The movie brings us back to Jude Law playing Watson to Downey's Holmes. (View my review of the first film for a refresher.) Watson has removed himself from Baker Street in advance of his coming marriage. Meanwhile, Holmes has become obsessed with the nefarious dealings of Professor James Moriarty (Jared Harris). When Moriarty threatens Watson and his new bride, Holmes has no choice but to hijack their honeymoon. Mrs. Watson is shipped off to Holmes' brother Mycroft (Fry) for safe keeping while Holmes and Watson trek from Paris to Germany to Switzerland, putting together the pieces of their adversary's great puzzle. There is no question how it will end--anyone who knows anything about Sherlock Holmes knows Switzerland means only one thing, and Mycroft mentions Reichenbach early in the movie--but the getting there is half the fun, right?

Well, yes and no. A lot of the film is a game of dress up more than shadows; Downey sports innumerable disguises throughout. Meanwhile, what passes for intrigue is thin indeed, hence my ability to check out a couple times without really having missed much. Rapace as a Gypsy in search of her missing brother is an excuse for the plot, leaving her to act as so much wallpaper during much of the movie. Still, there is humor, and while some of the visual effects are gimmicky (the fight between Holmes and the Cossack can barely be followed due to cuts, dark lighting, and sped up film), the scene in which they run through the forest is optically interesting, making a scene that would otherwise be too long seem just right.

SH:AGOS attempts a nod at the bromance aspect of Holmes' and Watson's relationship (sharing tight quarters! and they dance together!) but it falls short of homoerotic, probably due to not wanting to risk the male audience's discomfort. Here Holmes and Watson are more like frat brothers than anything romantic.

To summarize: the dialogue is clunky in places and the plot is thin, but SH:AGOS still manages to please on a few levels. The chemistry between Downey and Law is distinct and almost tangible, entertaining enough in its own right. Paul Anderson did an especially fine job as sharpshooter Colonel Sebastian Moran. And watching Holmes and Moriarty play chess--both literally and mentally--is compelling at times as well, making one wish they'd interacted a bit more. Also, if they'd played Holmes as a bit more manic, more obsessed with Moriarty, almost to the point that one would have to wonder if he wasn't just losing it . . . That would have added some dimension and made the whole of the story that much more involving. Alas, the down side of having a well-known character with an equally well-known nemesis is that you can't really pull something like that off very easily; everyone knows Moriarty is evil. Right? (Maybe with the next one they can have Holmes insisting Moriarty is alive, but nobody believes him?)

The first film had a stronger plot and was better written. That one also had a sort of "play along" feel that allowed the audience to gather the clues along with Holmes, something SH:AGOS sort of cheats on. But this one is still fun, a solid enough entry in what is looking to become another big franchise for Downey & co.


Movie Review: Midnight in Paris

Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard
Directed By: Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen
Gravier Productions, 2011
PG-13; 94 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


IMDB has this movie listed as a comedy, which surprised me because I didn't see a whole lot of funny in it. But then again, comedy has a lot of different flavors, and Woody Allen isn't known for belly laughs. His comedy tends toward the more thought-inducing and neurotic.

I'll start out by admitting I'm no huge fan of Woody Allen; I haven't seen more than a handful of his movies. We had to watch Annie Hall in film school, of course, and while I thought that was an okay film, I had a difficult time understanding all the hype around it. Maybe I was born in the wrong era, or maybe I just don't think that way.

But I really liked Midnight in Paris. This is probably because I'm a writer in love with a foreign city myself and so I could completely identify with Wilson's character. He plays Gil, an established screenwriter who is taking a sabbatical of sorts in Paris so he can write what he hopes will be a great literary novel. Tagging along are his fiancée Inez and her parents, as well as some other friends of hers . . . Gil evidently has inherited all friends and family and has none of his own.

If I have one bone to pick with Midnight in Paris, it's that I cannot for the life of me figure out why Gil and Inez are together. They have nothing in common, and she has a terrible habit of making fun of him by relating sensitive and embarrassing anecdotes to others. Gil is a nice-guy liberal; Inez and her family are stuck-up right-wingers. If I had to guess, I'd say Inez was originally drawn by Gil's prospects, his connections as a screenwriter, which is likely why she fights him so hard when Gil mentions (repeatedly) that he might prefer to settle in the City of Lights indefinitely.

This is all prologue, of course; the real story here is how every night at midnight, Gil gets magically swept into the 1920s Parisian scene. While there he meets Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Dali, the Fitzgeralds, Cole Porter, and Gertrude Stein (portrayed quite well by Kathy Bates) among others. Meeting these icons gives Gil a shot of literary mojo. In fact, it seems almost addictive for him; Gil begins retreating from the modern world more and more as he begins to dwell on and within this fantastical space.

Of course, the underlying theme in Midnight in Paris is about the grass being greener. When Gil and a 1920s artists' model named Adriana (Cotillard) get swept back into the 1890s, she proclaims that she never wants to return to the present--her present, the 1920s. After all, the "now" is boring; things were so much better in the good ol' days. As Gil tries to convince her otherwise, he comes to the realization that escapism is no answer to life's problems.

It's a delicate balance; as a writer I know the value of living within one's imagination, sometimes for long periods of time. Breaking the dreamy concentration can be costly to a story or script. Interruption is generally unwelcome. But one also has to surface now and again, participate in real life, and be present in the present, else life can come crashing down while you're living and breathing an otherwhere.

Midnight in Paris is a gentle film, and beautiful in a cinematographic way, even if it carries no heavy insights into life. The motion in the film, both outward and introspectively, is slow, like a dawning. This is not a movie designed to jolt, or even to prompt great discussion; instead it is a love letter to the creative mind, and to all the influences that crowd it.


Movie Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Starring: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, A Bunch of Other British Dudes
Directed By: Tomas Alfredson
Written By: John Le Carré (novel), Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan (screenplay)
Focus Features/Studio Canal, 2011
R; 127 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


I recently read and reviewed the book this movie was based on, and I have to say it did help that I was already familiar with the source material because the movie has the potential to be confusing to those who don't already know the story. And yet the writers made enough alterations from the novel that, having just read it, I was very aware of what was different and missing, too. It was a little like one of those picture games where you have two images and are told to find all the changes.

As a film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a Cold War-era tale of British espionage in which Oldman plays "retired" (read: booted) MI6 agent George Smiley, who is pulled back into the world of "The Circus" in order to help smoke out a mole working for the Russians. That sounds like a simple enough story, but these are spies, remember, so everything becomes very convoluted very quickly. And while the film is good—better than good, actually—it suffers a little in comparison to the book, not because of the changes that have been made (the changes work very well), but because the characters don't get enough of an introduction for the viewers to necessarily follow them easily or get any real sense of them at all. If I hadn't only just read the novel, I would almost certainly have been asking myself, Which one is that guy again? and Wait, what was his story? Maybe even, Why should I care about him, exactly?

TTSS requires undivided attention. There are a lot of people and a lot of cuts between past and present. Still, the story is good enough to hold an audience's interest, which makes it somewhat better than the book in that respect, since parts of the novel were prone to drag. As Smiley, Oldman is able to pull all focus to him; his smallest motions convey as much as any length of dialogue might. Flashbacks to what must have been the worst Christmas party in history add a strange weight, a sorrow, to the whole of the film.

Along with Oldman, Mark Strong, whom I usually think of as a villain, has a small, non-evil role, and the quiet strength of his performance is lovely. Tom Hardy, too, shines a bit as a rogue agent whose emotions get the better of him, even as he tries to do the right thing.

It's a nice-looking film, too, the bad 70s haircuts notwithstanding. A sort of sodium filter gives everything the tint of an old photograph, which lends itself to the story quite well.

Still and all, it isn't edge-of-your-seat spy thriller entertainment. Nothing is exploding. There are one or two tense scenes in which someone is in jeopardy—and maybe I would have felt it more if I hadn't already known the outcomes—but the overall feel is one of quiet reflection and semi-nostalgia. Which sounds boring, but somehow TTSS (and Oldman) pulls it off.

And at the end of the day, as the credits roll, one could easily imagine another George Smiley movie to follow. Even hope for one. Just give me enough warning so I can read the novel first, please.


Two Questions

If I could ask Benedict Cumberbatch two questions:

1. Would you name your son Timothy?
2. What did you do for Speech Day?


Book Review: Thomas and Friends On Track with Phonics: Fox in the Box

This is a little book that came in a set of 12 I bought for my 2-year-old at the book fair at his school last week. He loves Thomas the Tank Engine, and the minute he saw these books he had to have them. They were produced by Random House, copyrighted 2010.

Tonight I read him the book titled Fox in the Box, and I have to say: it is a terrible book. I understand the need to use certain words and sounds when teaching phonics, but they could have done better than this.

The story begins with Thomas and Percy (another train engine, for those not versed in Thomas lore) wanting to have a party. There's no clear reason for this celebration; they're just party animals, those two. Lucky for them they have a box filled with nuts, bags, and caps. Woo-hoo! Bring it!

Things go awry, however, when a fox comes along and gets into the box. This fox eats the nuts and "nips and rips" the bags, which sends tattle-tale Thomas running to Driver Dan to beg him to do something. But before Dan can come up with a plan, it starts to rain.

Turns out the fox doesn't like rain. So he runs off to another box—this one empty—seeking refuge. It's not entirely clear why the fox didn't just stay in the first box, which appeared to be inside and sheltered from the rain. But we'll let that pass and focus on the truly dreadful outcome of this story.

The fox is in the empty box, hiding from the rain. Driver Dan then comes along and puts a lid on the box so that only the fox's tail is hanging out. Meanwhile, Thomas and Percy get to throw their wild party, nuts, bags, caps and all. And the final page? It reads: "The party was fun. But not for the fox."

Sure enough, with confetti flying, there are Thomas and Percy having a party and the box with the fox's tail sitting in the middle of it all. Instead of letting this poor fox go free somewhere, Driver Dan and the tank engines have apparently decided to subject it to captivity and mockery. (They also haven't invited any of the other trains from what I can tell.) It's not a terribly edifying lesson, is almost baffling in its bizarre "twist ending."

I haven't read any of the other books in this collection, though my husband assures me Go, Bertie, Go features Dan wielding a bat for no apparent reason. I'm starting to think Dan needs a holiday or therapy or something. I fear he's encouraging anti-social behavior in the sheds.


Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John Le Carré
Alfred A. Knopf, 1974
355 pages


This book was kind of excruciating to read, but I dogged my way through it because I wanted to know the story before the film opens in the U.S. in December. I'd never read anything by Le Carré before, so I don't know if all his books are as much of a slog as this one. Or maybe it's just that I'm out of practice with the whole spy thriller genre; I go through cycles with what I read and haven't done Clancy and his ilk in at least a decade or more.

While reading TTSS, I could absolutely picture how I would script it for film, but it works better that way than in prose, I think. A lot of the story involves the main character—a British spy named George Smiley who has been forced into retirement—reading old dossiers and interviewing witnesses. Not terribly engaging in and of itself, but easy to fix with visuals within a movie.

There are a handful of honestly intense moments, but they are outweighed by the long intervals of reminiscences. I think some of the flashbacks are intended to be intense, too, but since the reader already knows who came out alive, there's little to sustain the tension.

The core of the story is Smiley attempting to ferret out a double agent, or "mole," but finding out who, or even why (and admittedly the "why" is flimsy in any case), ends up being not so interesting as how.

I know TTSS was not Le Carré's first novel, and knowing so little about his catalogue of work, I have no idea if I was supposed to know Smiley and some of the other characters from previous tales. If so, this may have been one of the reasons I found the book a bit thin on character development. All these potentially interesting people, but it was more tell than show when it came to interior dialogue and motives. I wanted to see them do things that would inform me about their characters, but it was a lot of sitting and talking, or sitting and reading, or walking and talking, or riding in cars and talking (which is more or less the same as sitting and talking), or the author simply telling the reader what the character felt. In the end, all this gave the feeling that the characters lacked depth.

Or maybe that's the point. Maybe spies lack depth because they're all façade in any case. But really, that makes the meal somewhat unsatisfying. Considering the time I'm devoting to the story, I'd like to think all the people I'm reading about have complex makeups, even when showing only one facet—the reader should be led to believe it's one facet of many. In TTSS, whether it be the British rectitude or secret agent reserve, the reader may not be convinced there's any more to the men than the little that is shown.


Movie Review: Thor

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Written By: Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne (screenplay); J Michael Straczynski, Mark Protosevich (story); Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby (comic book)
Paramount Pictures/Marvel Entertainment, 2011
PG-13; 115 minutes
2 stars (out of 5)


This is how I envision Thor having been written: J Michael Straczynski (creator of Babylon 5) sketched out the story on a napkin while spending a good deal of time at a bar, probably celebrating however much they paid him to do the job. All well and good until he set his drink on the napkin. Then some of what he wrote got a little blurry. And by the time Protosevich got hold of it, he could only read about half. He made some additional notes—that may or may not have had anything to do with anything JMS had written—then faxed the napkin to the screenwriters, but of course it got shredded by the fax machine. This left the screenwriters with no choice but to try to piece together what they could of what had probably been something decent if not brilliant but was now the screenplay equivalent of mincemeat. They threw in some filler for the parts they couldn't find or decipher. The end result: the mess that is Thor.

Truthfully, it's a textbook movie. It's so predictable one thinks it must have been written by film students who only just learned about plot and three-act structure. And it's streamlined all to hell—most character development has been cut in favor of action sequences. If we're supposed to believe there's some kind of chemistry between Jane Foster (Portman) and Thor (Hemsworth), well . . . Let's just say even my rather extensive ability to suspend my disbelief doesn't stretch quite so far.

As my husband put it, a lot of the movie is about a woman who doesn't drive very well. And I just had that "Rainbow Road" video from YouTube stuck in my head the entire time.

It probably didn't help that our cat's name is Loki. He would have made a much better villain, I think; especially if we got him that horned helmet and a cape.

All the scenes in Asgard look like cut scenes from a Final Fantasy game. And everything there is very shiny. Are Norse gods also magpies or something? They seem to really, really like shiny things is all I'm saying.

It wouldn't have hurt if Thor had had a tad more humor, either. I wanted a reason to laugh, even just once or twice, but most of the dialogue falls flat. That is to say, the stuff that maybe is supposed to be funny isn't, and none of it is unintentionally funny either, so the movie ends up feeling monotonous in overall tone.

As a whole, the feeling is they made Thor simply because they felt they had to in order to introduce the character in advance of The Avengers. If you do bother to watch, wait for the scene after the end credits; it was reportedly done by Joss Whedon (uncredited) and is in the style the rest of the movie should have been. Not that I don't love Branagh, and I'm sure he did the best he could with what he had for material, but . . . Seriously. Does Asgard really need to be that shiny?


Book Review: Becoming Jane Austen

Jon Spence
Continuum, 2007
312 pages
trade paperback


This is the book the film Becoming Jane was based on. Now to be fair, my husband and I had tried to watch Becoming Jane a couple years back and couldn't get into it, so we turned it off after 15 minutes. Maybe we were just in the wrong frame of mind, or maybe this is the kind of story that doesn't translate so smoothly. Dunno.

I picked up the book because at some point it occurred to me that although I like Austen's writing (and yet I haven't read all of her work, though I probably should), I knew very little about her as a person. So I got curious. And then I went to the library, and this was one of the most recent books they had on the biography shelf. I figured recent information was probably better than, say, books from the 60s and 70s, so . . .

Becoming Jane Austen is good. It's well written, thorough, but not dry. Very accessible. It's almost a shame there's not more concrete information about Austen's life, but Spence does very well with what's available.

And I have to say I find it a fun fact that Jane and I were born almost exactly 200 years apart, plus one day . . . I guess I'd better hope I don't die at age 41, though.

Bottom line is I now know more about Jane Austen than I did, which was the goal. And had a nice time learning, thanks to this book.


Television: Doctor Who finale

All right, let's start from the tippy top. My dad used to watch Doctor Who when I was a kid, and I'd sometimes sit with him (we only had the one television), but I never did follow what was going on exactly, and it all looked a bit silly to me. Still and all, when the program was rebooted in 2005, my husband and I tried it out. We didn't get more than a couple episodes in, however. Maybe it was that we had other demands on our time—our first son was born that November—and/or that, in the list of shows we had time to fit in, Doctor Who fell toward the end.

NOW, a few years later, with kids a little older and us having a bit more free time to ourselves (and our almost 6-year-old finding DW to be a treat), and also the advent of streaming video, we've had the chance to catch up. And as a rule I do enjoy Doctor Who. I could debate the pros and cons of Tennant versus Smith all day, I could delve into the darker side of the Doctor and his psyche, what-have-you. But I really want to focus on the two Smith finales, by which I mean that of the last series (what we in the States would call "last season") and this past one as well. Because they seemed remarkably similar in tone and execution, which makes me worry that Steven Moffat might be dipping too often from the same well.

Here's the thing: last year the finale was "The Big Bang," in which the Doctor was in the Pandorica, but then he wasn't, and then he was going to die in 12 minutes, but then he didn't, and they had to recreate the Big Bang so the world could go back to normal. This year's finale was "The Wedding of River Song," in which the Doctor was once again going to die on a certain day and time, but then he didn't, and that messed things up in the world, so he had to fake his death so time could go back to normal.

Point 1. In each case, at least part if not most of the tension was predicated on the anticipation of the coming death of the Doctor. If this is your go-to crisis for every series finale, something is wrong. How many times can he die, or almost die, but not really die, or else come back from the dead, before the audience ceases to care? The only time this works is (a) if the program is in real danger of cancelation and the audience isn't sure if it's ending, and/or (b) there's a real chance the actor is leaving and the audience wants to see if there's a new Doctor.

Point 2. In both these finales, the pseudo-science causing the problem was, er . . . Jumbled? Not compelling? The core plots seemed flimsy. They were excuses for the characters to have long-winded conversations about their emotions. If you pay attention, that's how Doctor Who functions: the science is rattled off at light speed while the soapy interactions are prolonged. I don't have a problem with this as a rule; I'm the kind of person who enjoys character development. And if any of these characters were actually developing, I'd be ecstatic. But they all appear to be a bit stuck in their ways, forms and functions these days. River Song will always save the day and Rory will always be the underdog, while Amy usually has to step in and help him. If Rory does happen to rescue someone or something, it's generally by accident, a happy byproduct of his own clumsy existence. For once I'd like to see River Song not so sure of herself. I'd like to see Rory put his foot down in a way that the others can't railroad him. It's not in his established character makeup for him to walk away, but what if he finally did? That would be interesting. Not only because it'd be new for the character, but because the situation that would cause such a fundamentally changed reaction in him would have to be fascinating in and of itself.

Point 3. This is a more general point, but I do wish Moffat and company would give the audience a tad more credit. I mean, the minute they started talking about "the question" (a few episodes back), it was clear to me that they meant the show title. And it's no stretch to go from there to the Doctor's name. (That's old school mythology right there: look at Isis and Set.) So when the question was finally "revealed" at the end of "The Wedding of River Song," it was really more of a confirmation. The excess of drama around it was unnecessary. It smacked of a smugness that was unmerited, rather like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat with an exaggerated flourish while the audience sits there and says, "Uh, yeah. We know. Rabbit. Duh."

Okay, so to sum up: I like Doctor Who and want to continue to like Doctor Who, but in order for that to happen, we need some real shake-ups as opposed to these sort of smoke-and-mirror tactics. Let's get out of the comfort zone here, people. Really surprise us. If he can do that—if he can make us go, "Holy s***, really? I never saw that coming!"—Moffat and his crew will have earned the right to pat themselves on the backs.


Book Review: Instruments of Darkness

Imogen Robertson
Pamela Dorman Books, 2011
384 pages


This was one of those books I lucked into at the library while browsing the "new releases" shelves. Picked it up, read the flap, and added it to my stack. That's what's grand about libraries--getting to taste-test the wares at no cost.

And so here was this book that I'd never heard of by an author I'd never heard of, but once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. It's always nice to find one of those kinds of books now and then.

The story is a sort of murder mystery set in 1780 England, a twisted rope made of three distinct strands: a series of murders in Sussex, another murder in London, and a dark past history of some of the characters involved. All very engaging, particularly for someone like me who (a) likes historical stories, (b) is an Anglophile, and (c) likes anything that smacks even distantly of Sherlock Holmes, which one of the chief characters certainly does. Indeed, I would say Robertson split the archetypical Holmes into two: a man with a scientific and methodical mind and a woman with an intelligent and inquisitive nature. Together they make a formidable crime-solving team. Maybe they could get their own TV series on the BBC.

While some of the story seemed obvious by the time the explanations began to trickle through, and the end of the book sways somewhat toward the Gothic in flavor, the whole of it is satisfying. Definitely worth the read.


Movie Review: Fright Night

Starring: Anton Yelchin, Colin Farrell, Toni Collette, David Tennant, Imogen Poots
Directed By: Craig Gillespie
Written By: Marti Noxon (screenplay), Tom Holland (story)
Albuquerque Studios/Dreamworks SKG, 2011
R; 106 minutes
2.5 stars (out of 5)


I went into Fright Night wanting to like it, and I did, but not as much as I hoped.

The story itself is pretty rote: high school nerd-turned-cool kid Charlie (Yelchin) discovers the new neighbor Jerry (Farrell) is a vampire. Hilarity ensues. Except not really because the movie wasn't very funny. At least, not in any intentional way.

Marti Noxon, best known for her work on Buffy: The Vampire Slayer, does a fair job of delivering an even-handed script for this remake (and to be clear, I never saw the original and know nothing about the original, so I have nothing to compare this to in that sense). But the jumps are minimal; viewers can see what's coming from a mile away, so there are few surprises.

It seems like the movie isn't sure how seriously it wants to be taken, so it skimps on both horror and humor and instead ends up rather flat. Farrell does an amusing job of vamping it up, Collette is great as Charlie's mom, and Tennant is underutilized (way to throw in a quick backstory and then drop the ball, guys). Meanwhile, Charlie and his girlfriend Amy (Poots) get the most screen time but are the weakest links. Yelchin does a so-so job of portraying someone whose whole life has been turned upside down by a horrific revelation--he even sees a neighbor burst into flame after he rescues her from Jerry's house and brings her out into dawn's early light--and while Poots is believable as the sweet girlfriend, she's mostly a plot device. In fact, all of Fright Night is so carefully plotted one can pretty much recreate the beat sheet from memory.

However. Because I went in with little or no expectations—just a desire to have fun—I did enjoy the movie. Fright Night flies on autopilot, sure, but it's a smooth enough ride. It entertains, though it could have taken me farther in any direction without my protesting too much. It functions mostly as an extremely diluted R or a trumped-up PG-13. (In fact, I thought it was PG-13 while watching it and found out later it was R, more likely due to all the swearing rather than any excess of gore.)

As for the 3D aspect, this movie, like so many others, really didn't benefit from the added dimension. But at least it didn't give me a headache either.

Fright Night is solidly middle-of-the-road fare, more a rental than a big screen flick.


Book Review: Bespelling Jane Austen

Featuring Stories by: Mary Balogh, Colleen Gleason, Susan Krinard, Janet Mullany
HQN, 2010
378 pages
trade paperback


I totally picked this one up off the library shelf as a "maybe," you know, the way one does when one is browsing and begins collecting a giant pile of stuff that might be interesting. It's the same thing that happens when you're at the grocery store and aren't entirely sure what you might be hungry for later, so you toss anything that might seem likely into the cart.

Okay, so first off, I'm not familiar with any of these authors. I do read romances from time to time--used to read Regency romances quite regularly before so many of the romance publishers nixed them. And I do like Jane Austen. And I like a little magic and/or magical realism every now and then, too. So this one seemed like an interesting mix.

The conceit of the collection is that the four authors have each taken a Jane Austen novel and rewritten it in some way while also inserting a sort of paranormal or Gothic/horror element into it. Think of that whole Pride and Prejudice and Zombies phenomenon that occurred a couple years back and you're on the right track, but this is on a smaller scale, the stories much reduced to fit the collection.

So taken one by one, Mary Balogh turned Austen's Persuasion into a story about soul mates and reincarnation. It's a nice idea but I didn't love the execution. As I've mentioned, I'm not familiar with Balogh's other works--according to the blurb she's written 70+ books, many of them set in Regency England. But this one just didn't ring right to me somehow. There seemed to be a lot of tell and less show. Or maybe the problem was she showed and then, just to be sure the reader understood, she then told as well, so it seemed like overkill.

Gleason took Northanger Abbey, which quite lends itself to the whole idea of Gothic horror, and had Catherine hunting vampires at Bath and then, naturally, at Northanger, which for the purposes of the story became a castle. This one was cute, and I liked it, but I felt it could have been fleshed out a bit more; the ending seemed rushed.

Krinard did a nice job of turning Mr Darcy--and numerous other characters--of Pride and Prejudice into a vampire. Though the story is set in modern day Manhattan, Darcy is able to keep all the lusture of his prim and exacting personality by dint of the fact that he is 200 or so years old and, as they say, old habits . . . While I didn't 100% believe the way these "modern" Bennet girls talked and behaved, the story as a whole was well done.

And finally, Mullany cast Emma into modern day Washington D.C., where the title character is a witch running an online dating service for paranormal creatures such as vampires, elves, werewolves . . . Now, I've never read Emma (though I know she is supposedly a would-be matchmaker), so I can't say whether the characters in Mullany's story bear any resemblance to the originals--their magical abilities notwithstanding. But honestly, there wasn't a single person (creature) that I could like in the whole thing. They were all of them obnoxious. (My husband assures me this is true of Austen's book as well.) At any rate, the tale seemed a bit cobbled and cliched.

All in all, I'm not sorry I took the time to read it. Out of sheer curiosity I might consider taking a look at any one of the authors' other books to see how they measure up.


Movie Review: The Other Boleyn Girl

Starring: Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana
Directed By: Justin Chadwick
Written By: Peter Morgan, from the novel by Philippa Gregory
BBC Films, 2008
PG-13; 115 minutes
2 stars (out of 5)


The Other Boleyn Girl was the first of Philippa Gregory's novels that I ever read—I picked it up at an airport bookstore, as I recall, prior to some trip—and probably still my favorite. So maybe this movie already had a strike against it going in, or at the very least some prejudice to overcome.

But here's the thing: while I can remember liking the book quite a lot, it's been long enough since I read it (and I've read enough other stuff since then) that I only remember a few details from the novel. So it's not as if I were watching this movie and saying to myself, "Well, in the book . . ."

What I was doing was thinking, "None of this rings much of a bell."

That is to say, the movie itself felt vague and without substance. I know enough about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn to pick out the historical blurs in the story, but that didn't bother me so much; it's happened often enough that film and television punch things up, move things around, for the sake of a better story. Fine. But this didn't feel like a better story. It felt like a mishmash, a jumble of events that were weirdly disconnected, or maybe only thinly connected, like pearls held apart from one another on the same string. For example, William Carey at some point dies, though one either has to know the history or watch the deleted scenes to figure that out.

Johansson, for her part, did a lovely job as the demur Mary Boleyn. And Portman is believable as someone underhanded and nasty, though her luring of Bana's Henry didn't play quite true. The tension was lacking. In fact, every actor did a fair to fantastic job, but when put all together, the movie fell short of the sum of its parts. Baffling.

Makes me want to go re-read the book.


Book Review: A Little Folly

Jude Morgan
Review, 2010
384 pages
hard cover


I have a fondness for Jude Morgan. I especially enjoyed his novel Indiscretion, and I rather liked this one as well. Morgan takes on the mantel of a would-be Austen with relative ease, peppering his prose with just the right balance of wit and sensibility. His characters are flawed and quirky and interesting enough to pull the reader through the story, even when it starts to be clear exactly how and where that story is likely to end.

At first I could see A Little Folly going in any number of directions, but at a little shy of halfway through it became clear where Morgan was aiming. I don't know how much of this was due to Morgan tipping his hand and how much was simply because I've read enough of these kinds of books to see what's coming. In in case, it only diminished the enjoyment very slightly. The prose bears up even when the reader knows how the story will finish.

An example of Morgan's pitch-perfect humor:
To excite in a man a state of violent loathing was, as any novel-reader knew, to stand in a fair light of winning him at last; but no woman could ever recover from the humiliation of being respected.
Morgan's writing is full of these lovely tidbits, and I often recommend his books to friends who enjoy Austen or Regency stories in general. A Little Folly is, then, another in a list of his good works.


Movie Review: The Adjustment Bureau

Starring: Matt Damon, Emily Blunt, John Slattery
Directed By: George Nolfi
Written By: George Nolfi, from the story by Philip K. Dick
Universal Pictures, 2011
PG-13; 106 minutes
3 stars (out of 5)


I wanted to see this in the theater when it came out but never got the chance. That's okay. It's not some big spectacle movie that benefits from a big screen.

The story is solid, thanks to Philip K. Dick's "The Adjustment Team." The directing is textbook, which is to say it isn't bad and isn't particularly memorable, either. Some of the dialogue, particularly toward the end, is a bit of a groaner. It takes a special kind of actor (Damon) to deliver such lines evenly and sincerely.

In short, The Adjustment Bureau is the story of politician David Norris, played by Damon, whose destiny is to be great . . . Except he has a run-in with a ballerina (Blunt) that throws him off course. And her, too, by default. Meanwhile, the whole "plan" is maintained by pseudo-angelic businessmen in natty suits and hats (which I suppose are stand-ins for halos), including Slattery. When Norris accidentally gets a glimpse inside the mechanism that maps his existence, he becomes determined to change his fate. It seems he can be a great politician or get the girl but not both.

Of course, the movie is designed to be a discussion piece. Free will? Preordained destiny? But The Adjustment Bureau is almost too sweet-tempered to foster any dialogue. There's nothing in it to get fired up about. Which is a shame, because with a little more punch, it would have been a great movie instead of just a good one.

Guess it wasn't meant to be.


Currently Reading . . .

Throne of Fire by Rick Riordan, though I'm not sure why. I seem compelled to read these books--the Percy Jackson ones and now these Kane Chronicles--even though they all have the exact same formula. Admittedly, I still have The Lost Hero on my bookshelf. I nearly finished reading it. Nearly. And I'm struggling with Throne of Fire, too.

What I'd like right about now is a nice Jude Morgan book that I haven't already read. I don't guess there are many of them out there, though, from what I can see. The only one I haven't read yet is on my Amazon wish list because our library doesn't have it.

I also keep meaning to grab Andromeda Klein off the hubby's bookshelf and read it. I bought it for him for some holiday or birthday a year or so ago because he liked the other Frank Portman book so much, but he never finished that one. #wifefail

And I want to try Andrew Lane's Young Sherlock series, too, but (and this is me being picky) I don't like the artwork for the U.S. books, so . . . Maybe I'll have to order them? Haven't decided.


Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Stacy Schiff
Little Brown, 2010
384 pages
hard cover


Full disclosure up front. I like history. I minored in ancient and classical history as an undergrad. (Well, we didn't have "minors." We had "secondary concentrations," but it's the same idea.) So this book might not be everybody's cup of tea, but if you like history—or are at least curious about it—but find a lot of the texts dry and lacking in flavor, try this one. Assuming you're at all interested in Cleopatra, of course.

People have been fascinated with Cleopatra VII for centuries. Hell, they were fascinated with her when she was alive, much less afterward. And for all that—all that people think they know, all that people believe to be true about her—we actually know very little. The asp, for example? No one knows for sure, but it's highly unlikely Cleopatra died of a snakebite.

It was nice of Schiff to write this book. In my mind, it's kind of a service. To put in plainer English the truths, to parse out what has been said and the biases involved, the political spins, etc.—this book works as a nice summary for all that. Saves one the work of reading Dio and Plutarch and trying to cut through their agenda. Octavian (aka Augustus) won, after all, which means he and his had the final word. Those words weren't always flattering, nevermind true. Schiff does a nice job of picking them apart.

Still and all, much of Cleopatra's life, what she said or did and why, continues to be a mystery. Conjecture at best. Which is probably why people continue to be fascinated. Tragic love story? Political thriller? All these elements contribute to the lore of Cleopatra, a lore that has been fodder for innumerable books (fiction and non), movies and television mini-series. And will for a long time yet. Even now there is discussion of bringing Schiff's book to the big screen, rumors of having Angelina Jolie play the title role. What other larger-than-life character could any actress aspire to? Cleopatra might define the actress--look at the late Liz Taylor--but she herself refuses to be conscribed.

Though Schiff does a fine job of trying.

Book Preview: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Mindy Kaling
Crown Archetype, 2011
224 pages
hard cover


To be clear, this book won't be out until November, and I've only read selected excerpts.

But I like what I've seen. It's difficult to tell from the selections how cohesive the book is likely to be as a whole; the flavor thus far is very sort of Dave Barry essay-esque. And so there's a lot of humor, which one would expect from one of the writers and actors for The Office, but also some sensitivity and sweetness.

Then again, maybe I only like it because I can totally relate to Kaling's high school experiences and the fact that she likes Sherlock Holmes.

In any case, IEHOWM? is on my Amazon.com wish list. You know, if anyone is looking to buy me something. In November.


Why I'm Not Renewing My Subscription to Entertainment Weekly

I've been reading Entertainment Weekly since it first came to newsstands when I was a teenager. I didn't have a job, but I dedicated a significant amount of my allowance for a subscription. Because it was awesome. The photos, the articles—I ate it all up. I have many issues of the magazine stockpiled in my collection, and many more were sacrificed to be cut up for my scrapbooks. And while there have been lapses in my subscriptions (lack of funds, too many moves), I've more or less been a consistent subscriber. But we received our renewal notice in the mail yesterday, and I'm thinking I won't be renewing.

Why now? After I've stuck it out through many EW changes in format and tone? The bottom line is that I find less and less in each issue that I actually want to read. The stuff they cover just doesn't interest me. I flip past article after article and can finish the magazine in roughly an hour, whereas it used to be that I curled up with it every Friday evening to read it cover-to-cover and still sometimes fell asleep before I could finish.

This might say more about me than about EW. Maybe I'm just old and EW is looking for that hot, hip young audience. (Sorry to break it to you, Eebz, but those kids don't read magazines; they're all online.) Maybe I've outgrown it, or maybe I'm just too much in the minority when it comes to my entertainment tastes. (For example, I don't watch reality television and couldn't give a rat's ass about Twilight.) Or it's just as likely that I can glean the things I want to know from the Internet. I can follow my favorite shows and musicians that way . . . Though I do miss all the nice pictures.

Meanwhile, I don't visit EW.com much, either. In part because they don't cover much of what I like, and in part because I dislike the format of the site itself, which I find busy and somewhat irritating. They also seemed to have struggled in finding quality writing in recent years, which is kind of a shame since there was a time when I used to think being a writer for EW would be just about the Best. Thing. Ever. But with so many media outlets now—a sea of them as opposed to the pool there used to be—the cream that rises to the top also sort of floats away in various directions.

A few months ago, my parents shipped me one of many boxes of my old stuff they'd had in storage, and there were many old issues of EW included. My husband and I took the time to flip through a few, and he said to me: "Remember when EW was good?" Yeah, I do, even if the memory is faded. And that's why I won't be renewing my subscription now.



Okay, so I decided to try a free trial of BookSwim. They bill themselves as a way to "rent" books the way you do movies from Netflix. One could easily ask, "Isn't that what a library is for?" And the answer would be: yes, yes it is. BUT . . . BookSwim delivers to your door. So no pesky driving or walking or taking the bus--whatever it is you, personally, do to get to your local library.

It's a good idea in theory, but I found the execution lacking. Maybe BookSwim is still getting its sea legs. For one thing, their inventory is not very broad. A lot of what I looked for they didn't have. And the one book at the top of my "pool" (as they call your queue) was never available. Even when I was supposed to be able to guarantee it. In an age when I can go online to my local library's site and request books and see where I place on the waiting list for books, BookSwim comes up a little short.

Maybe it works better for college kids wanting to "rent" textbooks instead of buying them. I wouldn't know, since I've been out of grad school for a decade now. But maybe BookSwim has some great storehouse of college textbooks somewhere; they just don't have much by way of "regular" titles. Yet. I would like to think it's coming, that they're building on what they have or something. But there are difficulties. Imagine trying to retain enough books for several thousand people to borrow--from anywhere in the U.S. and with no return due date. Tricky.

Also, the books I did receive were not in very good condition. Worse than what you'd expect from very old library books.

My free trial is coming to an end, and I'll be canceling my subscription. It's back to my public library for me.


Movie Review: The Ghost Writer

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan, Olivia Williams, Tom Wilkinson
Directed By: Roman Polanski
Written By: Robert Harris (novel, screenplay), Roman Polanski (screenplay)
R.P. Films, 2010
PG-13; 128 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)


I had been meaning to see this one for a while. The premise wasn't all that catchy: a ghost writer is hired to spruce of the memoirs of an ex-Prime Minister of Great Britain. But all the reviews I read were remarkably good, and I usually enjoy Ewan McGregor, so I thought I'd give it a whirl. And I'm glad I did. As my husband pointed out, they don't really make suspense movies like The Ghost Writer any more. There's something very old school about it; maybe it has to do with Polanski and Harris, who are themselves somewhat old guard. But the tone of the film, the lighting and such, is all very well done. Never mind that I had it more or less sorted out at the halfway mark; it was still enjoyable to watch play out.

The Ghost Writer isn't perfect. It has the distinct feeling of having been cut down from something fattier (the novel, one supposes). Sometimes that's good, but in this case one almost wants the added flavor of the fat, metaphorically speaking. I was left satisfied but still thinking a few deeper insights into the characters might have been nice. In the end it only serves to whet my appetite for the novel, which I hadn't ever considered reading, but now I might, if only to feel like I got a full meal.


Movie Review: Atonement

Starring: James McAvoy, Keira Knightly, Saorsie Ronan
Directed By: Joe Wright
Written By: Ian McEwan (novel), Christopher Hampton (screenplay)
Universal, 2007 (limited release)
R; 123 minutes
2 stars (out of 5)


I realize I'm really late on this one. I recall trying to read an Ian McEwan novel--can't remember which--some years ago and being bored to tears within a handful of pages. So I didn't finish it and I never tried another. This one fact should have tipped me off about this movie, but it was so widely well received, I felt it deserved a chance. So one night when my husband was traveling, I watched Atonement via Vudu.

It was a waste of time, for me at least. The characters I might have liked or at least found interesting didn't get enough screen time or development. And the chief characters were difficult to like or care about. At the end of it all, I felt like I'd just watched a two-hour movie about a bunch of British people falling into various bodies of water. And I understand that water is recognized by literati as the token symbol of baptism and being washed clean, etc., but honest to God, talk about overkill. If it had been a pie-in-the-face comedy routine, there would have been a dozen pies and the audience would have stopped laughing long before it was finished. As it was, the movie is a drama/tragedy sort of thing, so it's both a downer and--with all that water--a drowner.

The catalytic moment in the story relies heavily on both coincidence and poor decision making. Several people must make a series of bad choices to get to the point where the main character finds she must atone(!) for what she's done and what has befallen the other characters. It's something of a stretch, and not even that compelling. By the time I got to what's supposed to be the Big Twist, I really didn't care any more.

Anyway, I can't look at James McAvoy and not think, Mr. Tumnus! I think I could have liked him in the film if I could've brought myself to care. Maybe something vital was left on the cutting room floor. Maybe the book really is better. Not that it would take much.


Book Review: Disaster Preparedness

Heather Havrilesky
Riverhead Books, 2010
240 pages
hard cover


I picked this one up from the library because one of the myriad of magazines I receive each month did a blurb recommending it. And it was a cute, sweet read, a quick read, something I could take in bite-sized chunks between the kids' naps and such. Nothing I couldn't put down, which sometimes is better because otherwise you let the television babysit a bit too much.

Havrilesky does a nice job of capturing a particular time, growing up in the 70s and 80s, though by my estimation she has about five years on me. Still, my experiences were similar, even though my parents aren't divorced and I don't have siblings--which is a credit to the writer, that I could still relate to what she had to say despite differing circumstances. Maybe it's something about the parents of our generation, or maybe it's that we grew up during the tail end of the Cold War and had to live through the drills of hunkering under our desks as if that would ever do anything to save us if the bombs fell. Maybe it's because I, too, had a day when it was made clear to me that my clothes did not come from a "good" store (weren't clothes just clothes?) and learned then to begin longing for and aspiring to something better. Like her, I had a moment of wondering whether the people at church were all wrong. And like Haverilesky, I can look back and simultaneously mourn my lost innocence and kick a little dirt at it. We all use our histories to our own ends, after all, and sometimes we can extend them for others' use, which is more or less what Havrilesky does. Whether the reader can find anything to use will probably be a more personal issue; the book wouldn't work for a different generation, perhaps, or maybe it breaks along gender lines. I don't know.

What it comes down to is that I can recommend it in general, but at the same time I understand that this book won't be for everybody. Chalk it up to "worth a shot."