Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

"Let us hunt some orc!"

Even after all this time, I think this is one of the best lines in a trilogy that is filled with great lines. It's funny, I only realized more than ten years had passed since these movies came out (The Fellowship of the Ring appeared in 2001! Can you believe it?!) when I went to see the Hobbit, and for some reason I saw the dates of the previous movies online.

I then decided to undertake the huge task of seeing the whole extended trilogy again, both to plunge into Middle Earth again after The Hobbit did nothing more than whet my appetite for good fantasy, and for the Golden Gentlemen Challenge at Persie's blog. 

I had forgotten how long the films were (and btw, I deserve extra points for this - these monstrosities should count double, lol) but it is a good sort of long, with character development, amazing fight scenes, and beautiful scenery. I can't deny they have aged very well - there are amazingly few cringe worthy moments (and most of them revolve around an overly emotional Frodo) and all the films are still as exciting and visually impressive as ever.

Since there isn't much of interest to be said about these films that hasn't been said before, I thought I would go over some of my favourite scenes in each movie, and indulge in some fangirl babbling.

I used to think that the first movie, Fellowship of the Ring, was my favourite. It still has the most scenes that I love, but as a whole, I think I actually preferred Return of the King this time around - there is more Aragorn in it, and Eowyn kicking ass.

There are some seminal moments in the Fellowship movie, particularly Gandalf fighting the Balrog in Moria, with those lines we will never forget: "You shall not pass!" and "Fly, you fools!" but also Boromir's death and some of the scenes with Galadriel. But I think my favourite moment might be the scene where we first meet strider, in the tavern, and his face is lit by the red glow of his pipe.

In The Two Towers, I enjoyed everything that had to do with Rohan (I might have a thing for big bad Eomer *sigh*). The scene where our three heroes meet the war party and are surrounded by horses is impressive, and I love the first view of Rohan - it might not be as sophisticated as Rivendell or Minas Tirith, but I find that Hall and that empty town has a tragic beauty as well. The films ends in a high note, with The Battle at Helm's Deep, and it also has some brilliant scenes: Gimli trying to see over the edge of the ramparts, Legolas sliding down the stairs shooting orcs, Aragorn tossing Gimli to the bridge in front of the doors, Eomer's charge as dawn breaks... But the funniest moment is certainly when Merry and Pip discover pipe weed form the shire in the pantry in Isengard.

As for the last movie, I have a harder time putting my finger on exact moments I like - there is a beautiful sequence when the signals asking Rohan for help are being lit, for example, but that is due mostly to the beauty of the landscape. There is also a wonderful scene that is hauntingly beautiful when Faramir decides to follow his father's delusional orders and go defend Osgiliath, while the old man eats his dinner in the safety of the city. But mostly, there are a lot of good guys taking charge and kicking evil's ass, which always makes for brilliant entertainment.

Points tally: 3 films with 1 actor = 6 points + 5 from before for a total of 11 points.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

As has probably become painfully obvious by now, I am something of a fantasy junky. And like most fantasy fans of my generation, I can trace the beginnings of this - let's call it fondness to avoid the (probably more accurate) word obsession - to a few very good books I read as a teen. There was the obvious Harry Potter series, Ursula K. Leguin Tales of Earthsea, some Douglas Adams and some Narnia and a lot of Philip Pullman, but also, and maybe most importantly Tolkien. 

The thing about Middle Earth is that it is a world that never seems to end - I read Lord of the Rings a couple of years before the movies came out, and then suddenly there were all those other books set up in this amazing world, and I simply had to read them all - The Silmarilion, Unfinished Tales, The Hobbit, to name a few. So, in short: I blame Tolkien.

Much of the hype was due to the success of Peter Jackson's trilogy, and it was well deserved. High Fantasy is a difficult genre, often long, with so many characters you can't keep them straight (cf- the hilarious cheat sheet for the Dwarves of Thorin's Company!) and meandering plots that take thousands of pages to get to the point, in language that is not always very straightforward. If you are an impatient reader, or have a short attention span, it can get tiring and confusing very quickly, and people just give up. So, good movies, that are faithful to the books they are based on, is a great compromise, a perfect way to delve into this new world and maybe grab the attention of people. Unlike some other die-hard fans, I am not at all opposed to movie adaptations of books I like (even if I have been disappointed before *cough* Eragon *cough*) and the Hobbit was just the same - I was there on opening night.

So, ten years after giving us the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson comes back with three new films that tell the tale of how Bilbo Baggins, Frodo's uncle, was hired as a burglar in Thorin Oakshield's Company, and set out on a quest to reclaim Eresbor, the last great dwarf kingdom of Middle Earth, from the dragon Smaug. The story is set 60 years before the events of Lord of the Rings, and is a prequel to that story, setting the scene from some very important plot points.

As always with Peter Jackson, the cast is superb:

Martin Freeman .......... Young Bilbo Baggins
Ian McKellan .............. Gandalf the Grey
Richard Armitage ....... Thorin Oakshield
Ken Stott .................... Balin
Aidan Turner .............. Kili
Dean O'Gorman ......... Fili
Hugo Weaving .......... Lord Elrond
Cate Blanchett ........... Lady Galadriel
Christopher Lee ......... Saruman the White
Sylvester McCoy........ Radagast the Brown
Andy Serkis ............... Gollum

I don't think I have seen such a perfect fit as Armitage in the role of Thorin in a long time - the voice, the bearing,  the frown, everything fits perfectly. Kili and Fili are delightful, and really, all the company as a group have great chemistry (even if I have a soft spot for Kili and his bow). The opening scenes in Bilbo's house are truly terrific - between the comedy of the kitchen raid, and the aching melancholy of the dwarves singing Mysty Mountain  in front of the fire - they set the tone for the quest perfectly.

The rest of the film continues much as a quest would - there are amazing location shots, and very good fight scenes (the running battle against the Goblins under the mountain is particularly good). The plot advances at a brisk pace, with new enemies and old foes appearing at regular intervals. 

Don't take this the wrong way - the film was great. Even knowing what was going to happen in advance (and isn't that a bittersweet thing!) I was still bitting my nails off when Thorin jumped from his tree to confront Azog, and cheering Bilbo when he followed (on a side note, isn't Bilbo a much more engaging hero than Frodo? I certainly think so!). It was a long movie, and some scenes dragged a bit but most did not. In fact the only thing I found really longwinded was the meeting with Gollum - it is an extremely important scene, in terms of longterm plot-lines, but a couple of times I got tired of dealing with Gollum's multiple personalities and just wanted everything to move on and to go back to the characters I actually care about.

Still, to feel that only once in a movie that is nearly 3 hours long is something. All in all, it was a great film.

A few more points for the Golden Gentlemen Challenge:
- 1 film + 1 actor = 2 points + 3 points from before for a total of 5 points in the challenge so far.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Anna Karenina - Joe Wright

When I saw this movie come out, I was in a bit of a quandary. You see, I really like Joe Wright, and I have since I saw his perfect adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. However, on the other hand, I strongly dislike Anna Karenina. It is such a melodramatic story, and I simply can't relate to the main characters, no matter how masterful the writing (the book is largely considered to be Tolstoy's masterpiece). On top of that, I had seen a couple of previous adaptations, and been largely underwhelmed - I don't like drama for drama's sake, and I always felt that the films tried too hard to force an emotional response.

But then, I saw the trailer for this latest adaptation, and was intrigued. It might not have been enough to drag me to a movie theater, but my mom insisted, and in the end, it was worth it.

Director ............................... Joe Wright
Screenplay ........................... Tom Stoppard

Keira Knightley .................. Anna Karenina
Jude Law ............................ Alexei Karenin
Aaron Taylor-Johnson ....... Count Vronsky
Matthew Macfadyen ........... Prince Oblonsky
Kelly MacDonald ............... Dolly
Domhnall Gleeson ............. Levin
Alicia Vikander .................. Kitty

The plot of Anna Karenina is well-known: set in late 19th century Russian high society, Anna Karenina, the wife of a high ranking imperial officer, starts an affair with the dashing Count Vronsky, which changes all their lives and ends up tragically. What I liked about this adaptation is that it moved beyond the novel's overflowing emotions by setting it in a theater. The whole feature is a long mise en abyme, where the world of the novel is represented in a place - the theater - where overflowing emotions are expected, are a part of the language.

This was a very bold move on Joe Wright's part, that in my opinion made this adaptation great. The visual sequences are so striking, the scenes so fluid (there are whole sequences that haven't been cut even once, all the actors hitting their marks perfectly - it is one of Wright's obvious strengths) that the plot becomes almost secondary. There are a few scenes that escape from this place, and open to a wider world, but they serve mostly to bring what is inside into starker focus.

The music and the acting both helped to maintain the illusion of reality - and I found there was an appealing sobriety in the expressions that made a pleasant counterpoint to the rich clothes and jewels.

There is probably more to say about the film - how funny and sensitive Macfadyen is as Oblonsky, about how this adaptation only touches lightly on the second part of the novel, the whole Levin story, etc... But really, the most impressive thing, what makes this adaptation stand out, are the visual choices, the creation of this permeable reality of the theater where the whole action takes place.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The King's Speech

Most people who know me, and tried to decide on a film to see with me on a given day, know that as I got older I started developing a strong aversion to anything that is overly dramatic and/or tragic. It might be childish of me (though I've decided to see it as a sign of intellectual maturity, so blame me if you dare) but I don't like coming away from a movie depressed and teary eyed. Before, I used to think that all really good movies had to involve tragedy (a belief steaming from the absolutely overwhelming number of bad endings in everything that is popularly considered high culture), but while I still appreciate conflict and tension, I no longer think a film (or a book for that matter) needs to end badly to be considered a masterpiece.

The King's Speech is one of these films that proves my point for me.

The cast for this movie is absolutely amazing, and they made one of the very best films I have seen in the last few years.

Tom Hooper..............................................Director

Colin Firth.................................................King George "Bertie" VI
Helena Bonham Carter..............................Duchess of York / Queen Elizabeth
Geoffrey Rush...........................................Lionel Logue
Derek Jacobi..............................................Archbishop Cosmo Langi
Jennifer Ehle..............................................Myrtle Logue
Timothy Spall............................................Winston Churchill
Guy Pearce................................................King Edward VIII
Michael Gambon.......................................King George V
Eve Best....................................................Wallis Simpson

This film is based on the story of King George VI, the current Queen' father, on the years surrounding his accession to the throne. It is an intimate portrayal of the royal family, centred on his struggles with his speech impediment, and the friendship he developed with Lionel Logue in his attempts to overcome it, as well as his reluctance to accept the responsibility of the crown which is finally trust upon him after his older brother abdicates in order to marry the woman he loves.

The acting in the film is absolutely phenomenal - there are no excesses, every actor plays vividly, but never garishly. Collin Firth, in particular, delivers a very moving performance, and the stutter of his character is present but never exaggerated, never turning ridiculous, which I greatly appreciate. 

I particularly loved Helena Bonham Carter as the Duchess of York - her first meeting with Lionel Logue is one of the funniest scenes I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. She is also amazing as the supporting and loving wife - often staying hopeful for her husband when he has all but given up. 

And one can not talk about this film without mentioning the amazing performance of Geoffrey Rush, who makes an amazing duo with Collin Firth. Their therapy sessions are great as moments of comic relief, and are the basis of a lifelong friendship.

Funny, intense, moving, profoundly human - this is one of those films that should not be missed.

I saw this film again for the Challenges over at Persephone's blog, and kind of hit the jackpot with this one as we have both Colin Firth and Michael Gambon for the Gentlemen, and Helena Bonham Carter for the Ladies.

My point tally is therefore:

- Gentlemen: 2 actors + 1 film = 3 points
- Ladies: 1 actress + 1 film = 2 points + 4 from before for a total 6 points at this time

Yay me!

Monday, February 4, 2013


I have been a fan of Pixar since their very first movie, Toy Story, came out in 1995. Indeed, much like Harry Potter, they were an integral part of my childhood and I believe the only films from them I haven't seen are Cars 1 and 2 (talking cars creep me out). 

As I grew older, I realized there was a reason for that - there was something special about Pixar movies that eluded the more traditional Disney animations: their stories were designed to please not only children, but adults as well. That is particularly visible in The Incredibles (2004), WALL-E (2008) and Up (2009) which have important plot points designed to speak to a mature audience. With that in mind, I didn't hesitate to go see Brave, their latest animation which won a Golden Globe for best animated feature film.

Brave follows the heroic journey of Merida, a skilled archer and headstrong daughter of King Fergus (voice of Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (voice of Emma Thompson). Determined to carve her own path in life, Merida defies an age-old custom sacred to the unruly and uproarious lords of the land: surly Lord Macintosh (voice of Craig Ferguson), massive Lord MacGuffin (voice of Kevin McKidd) and cantankerous Lord Dingwall (voice of Robbie Coltrane). Merida's actions inadvertently unleash chaos and fury in the kingdom, and when she turns to an eccentric Witch (voice of Julie Walters) for help, she is granted an ill-fated wish. The ensuing peril forces Merida to harness all of her skills and resources - including her clever and mischievous triplet brothers - to undo a beastly curse before it's too late, discovering the meaning of true bravery.

As always with Pixar, the animation was superbly done - the scottish highlands are beautifully drawn, and the characters are great (did you see Merida's hair? Isn't that just great?). The music as well is amazing (Mumford and Sons anyone?) and sets the tone for the story perfectly.

This was the first time Pixar ventured into the fairytale realm, and gave us a Disneylike princess. I wasn't very worried about that, being somewhat fond of the genre, but I was very glad that Brave was closer to Mulan than to Cinderella, with a strong leading female character, who isn't afraid to fight for what she wants.

The plot is a little more complex than we might be used to in an animation, and I've heard people who didn't enjoy the movie call it everything from "patchy" to "nonsensical" - and my response is that if you are unable to follow two or three different plotlines that come together in the end, you should try watching it again, in slow motion so you catch all the dialogue.

On the contrary, I thought that the film had surprising depth considering the audience it was intended to attract, as well as a lot of humour. It wasn't as original as Up or WALL-E, I agree, mostly because it draws very heavily from both the traditional stories of the young girl fighting an unwanted marriage and defying tradition, and the one of the girl warrior taking up arms in place of a man.

But despite all that, I absolutely loved it. Everything came together perfectly, and even if it isn't as groundbreaking as some of Pixar's previous works, it is a very pleasant movie, of the kind you can watch again and again without ever getting tired.

I watched this again for the Golden Ladies 2013 challenge, and so here are my current scores:
1 actress + 1 film = 2 point + 2 from before = 4 points 

A little snippet of what awaits you (check out the scottish accents, och!):

Saturday, February 2, 2013


My good friend Gigi is running two challenges through her blog, Down the Rabbit Hole: Persephone and the Cheshire Cat, the 2013 Golden Ladies and Golden Gentlemen challenges. The rules are somewhat complicated (and available in her blog) but basically, one cumulates points by seeing movies, series or performances which feature one or more of the actors and actresses in a selected list – this year Colin Firth, Ian Mckellen, Gary Oldman and Michael Gambon for the guys and Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carte, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren for the girls – and then writing a review of the work.

This seemed like a nice idea (especially since there are some amazing talents on that list) and a good way to force me to start writing again, after more than a whole year of silence. Besides, honestly, Collin Firth is irresistible and the rest is just icing on the cake.

My first stop – chosen at random from the list, and mostly because it had a strange title – was called Toast, featuring the amazing Helena Bonham Carter.

Director  .................................... S. J. Clarckson
Oscar Kennedy ......................... Young Nigel Slater
Freddie Highmore ................... Nigel Slater
Victoria Hamilton .................... Mrs. Slater
Ken Stott .................................. Mr. Slater
Helena Bonham Carter ........... Mrs. Potter
Matthew McNulty .................... Josh

When I went looking for the film, I discovered a few other appealing things about it. First, Lee Hall - the same person who gave us Billy Elliot - wrote it based on the memoir of the same name by Nigel Slater, and food plays an important part in the plot (I saw Julie and Julia recently, and it seemed fitting to stay on the same note).

Thus motivated, I went ahead and whiled away a few hours of a Saturday afternoon in front of my computer, and came away not exactly blown away, but by no means feeling as if it was a waste of time.

Indeed, the film has some of the same characteristic that made Billy Elliot such an amazing work: it is satirical and funny without demeaning the characters; it has drama and psychological depth without taking itself too seriously; it has conflict and an engaging plot, but doesn’t leave us reeling afterwards.

So far, so good, right? There is one major difference, however, and it is not in Toast’s favour: the main character in Billy Elliot is great – he is strong, and sensitive, and talented and despite all the hardships, he still loves and is loved by his family. Nigel Slater, in Toast, comes across as an annoying, spoilt, self-centred little twerp, who is incapable of taking other people’s feelings into consideration before doing anything. Very different levels of empathy towards the main character there, which have an impact on how touched the viewer is by the film.

All in all, Toast is a nice, light-hearted movie, with some very good acting (the boy who plays Nigel in the first part is particularly good, and Helena Bonham Carter is, as always, flawless even in the role of a very unsavoury character).

My point tally: 1 actress + 1 film = 2 points in the Golden Ladies Challenge.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Lord Ramage Novels - Dudley Pope

I am fond of historical novels, particularly those concerning naval history and the Napoleonic wars. I mean, boats, winds, sailing. The search for honor and adventure in the midst of the blue sea – it appeals to my imagination.

For me, it started with the film Master and Commander, and the more or less faithful account it gives of life in Nelson’s navy - it convinced me to try Patrick O’Brian and the Aubrey/Maturin series. Now, I’ve sailed a few times in my life, and know the difference between bow and stern, but O’Brian, in my opinion, loses the plot in the midst of the nautical details. So, I moved on to C. S. Forester and Horatio Hornblower – a nice enough series (and so very educational – I learned more than I ever thought to know about sailing a 19th century frigate) but the central character is too cold, too rational, to be entirely likable – so it was entertaining but left something to be desired.

It all came together, for me, with Dudley Pope’s 18 book series featuring Nicholas, Lord Ramage and his career from Lieutenant to captain of a Ship of the Line in the East Indies and the Mediterranean. It starts with Nicholas, still a lieutenant, being woken by the crew of a frigate under attack because he is the last surviving officer. From then on, action follows action – luck and skill playing equal parts in the plot. One interesting point (and originality of the series) is that Nicholas has to face, in addition to the enemy, various political plots in the Navy from his family’s enemies among the hierarchy. Indeed, his father, the Earl, was disgraced by these men, and Nicholas is constantly at risk, his every decision double and triple-checked. But he prevails against his enemies, as any hero worth his salt must, and emerges vindicated from it all, to fight and command another day.

Dudley Pope is a scholar – his descriptions of ships, rules, regulations, crews and ports are detailed and accurate (in fact, many of the actions described are based on real events), if sometimes a little long winded. But what I enjoyed the most, and what I think makes the biggest difference in the series, are the characters. Nicholas Ramage, certainly – the heir of the Earl of Blazey, who grew up in Tuscany and learned knife-throwing from a Neapolitan servant. At ease among lords, admirals and merchants or sharing a cell with his men. He is an interesting mix of intuition and wisdom and tactical genius, of aristocratic breeding and down to earth experience. The supporting character are also colourful and varied – Jackson, the American seaman serving in the British navy, Stafford, the cockney lock-pick who accompanies Nicholas in a dangerous spying mission and a number of others – my favourite is Sidney York, heir to a large merchant family and one of Nicholas closest friends. This care in populating the story with varied personalities from many origins and social classes is what made the difference for me – it made the story more human and more real than most naval histories. The fact that there are more details about the captain’s personal life doesn’t hurt, either – romantic entanglements, lost fiancées, damsels in distress. All is there, for our reading amusement.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

A Game Of Thrones - George R. R. Martin

In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister and supernatural forces are massing beyond the kingdom's protective Wall. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the land they were born to. Sweeping from a land of brutal cold to a distant summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, here is a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Amid plots and counterplots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, the fate of the Starks, their allies, and their enemies hangs perilously in the balance, as each endeavors to win the deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.

Three days, 807 pages, and I finished A Game of Thrones. It’s been quite a ride – I can’t deny that George R. R. Martin is a brilliant storyteller. He grabbed me with the simple premise of his book – the struggle of an honorable family to survive in the midst of the pitfalls of political intrigue. I got hooked because of the new HBO series (for once I started with the film and then moved on to the book) and wasn’t disappointed. Either by the book, or the adaptation – I found the photography simply beautiful, the cast is very faithful to their descriptions in the book, and from what I could glean from online chatter, the writers plan to follow the plot very closely. I couldn’t be happier.

As for the book - the characters the author creates are very compelling. One can’t help falling in love with honorable Ned Stark, Robb and Bran, little Arya who is simply a joy, and Jon Snow (my favorite, I think). I took a strong dislike from the first to Catlyn Stark (probably because I love Jon so much and she treats him so very poorly, but also because she is the cause of much grief – some of her decisions are so very, very stupid) and some of the other character we follow aren’t so easy to empathize with (I could throttle Sansa with my bare hands), but they are all extremely human – struggling with fear and duty and having to grow up in the midst of a war. It’s brilliant character development, and very good writing.

Indeed, it’s amazing how Martin manages to communicate so much with so few words – Bran, when talking about his sister says “She lost her wolf.” And that wolf was so much more than a mere puppy: it’s that, but also symbolic of a proper respect for her origins, loyalty to family, duty and honor. Sansa, in her naïve awe for the court and all its dazzling lights as well as a mindless adherence to courtly ways, ends up being the unwitting pawn for the destruction of a lot of good things. The author makes all that fit into just four words – and for us to immediately grasp what these four words mean, there is a whole lot of work involved in the creation of a universe and a code of behavior that we can understand and immerse ourselves in. By the time Sansa looses her way, the reader knows that the Dyrewolf is the symbol of House Stark, and most of all, we know what being a Stark means. When she stops acting like one, her wolf dies.

There is much tragedy and sadness in the book as well – what good fantasy series doesn’t? – and the consequence is that the villains are truly horrid. As the plot develops and more details of their characters are made clear, we end up absolutely hating them (I cannot say “I hope Jeoffrey dies a slow and painful death” enough times) – and yet also understanding their motives and behavior somehow, particularly when we see them through Tyrion’s eyes. He is a very interesting character – theoretically a villain, attached to his horrid family, and yet, despised and humiliated by them and more conscious of their shortcomings than anyone else. I can’t wait to see what will become of him!

As for the plot – it’s complex, but not convoluted – I guessed the great revelation about the royal children by page 200, and in the scene with Bran and Rykon in the crypt, I think I also guessed the great secret about Jon Snow’s birth that Eddard never got to tell him (since the answer was not in book one, I won’t know for sure until I finish reading the rest). So if you read carefully, the clues are all there, and you can glimpse how things will turn out. But there are so many parallel storylines, different geographical areas (have I mentioned how detailed is this universe? I love the different societies, different orders, different places) that one has to wonder how it will all come together. I have a few guesses, but since I am only a quarter of the way through what is published of the series, I guess I should carry on, and find out for sure.

So – taking a deep breath and diving into the next volume, A Clash of Kings.

And another clip, because the series is SO awesome:

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Chronicles of King Rolen's Kin - Rowena Cory Daniells

Only seven minutes younger than Rolencia’s heir, Byren has never hungered for the throne. He laughs when a seer predicts that he will kill his twin. But the royal heir resents Byren’s growing popularity. Across the land the untamed magic of the gods wells up out of the earth’s heart. It sends exotic creatures to stalk the wintry nights and it twists men’s minds, granting them terrible visions. Those so touched are sent to the Abbey to control their gift, or die. At King Rolen’s court, enemies plot to take the throne, even as secrets within his own household threaten to tear his family apart.

High Fantasy is a complicated genre – I find it incredibly appealing (all that magic, political intrigue, warriors, quests – it’s just about irresistible) but at the same time very easy to spoil. A little too much gore, a plot that is too complex to follow, too many characters to try to like, writing that starts to turn stale, and I might lose interest (I’ve had it happen with Robin Hobb and Terry Goodkind, for example).

My latest foray into the genre was with Rowena Cory Daniells’ The Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin and it was not a disappointment. I had never heard about her before I saw the beautiful cover art in the bookstore (I find the second tome particularly pretty), and as a complete bookaholic, I had to have them.

The main story revolves around a battle for succession in the kingdom of Rolencia – it is a tale of political intrigue and complicated familial relations (a newly acknowledged bastard, some healthy sibling rivalry, a few dangerous secrets, and the scene is set). I love political mayhem and I found that the plot of this book had the perfect balance of complexity and just plain misinformation (innocent situations that turn into something else, to our despair as readers actively engaged in the fate of our favourite characters). This balance is the key to a plot that keeps us immersed in the story (I must have read the three tomes in four or five days) but never confuses the reader with too many fiddly details.

The universe where the action takes place is also very well developed – the author pays attention to small details that give it life in our eyes – my favourite was the favourite transportation method – skating the frozen canals during the winter (I found that so refreshingly original!). The system of magic – called Affinity here – is well construed, and well thought out – I loved all the ‘Affinity beasts’ that can cause problems but also be favoured companions and have an important role to play in the novels.

The magic is also the source of many of the problems in the world – not only because it attracts dangerous animals, but also because it is extremely restricted in its use – a person with affinity has two choices, either devote his or her life to the abbeys and learn to use it ‘for the greater good’ or risk death as a Renegade Practitioner. So there is not much freedom to chose, as the King rules with a heavy hand. The price one pays to live with secrets is an interesting leitmotiv in the series – particularly with Piro, the young princess who is actively trying to hide her powers. But with the other characters as well, in smaller measures, and this makes them vulnerable, but also extremely engaging.

The second volumes is basically a follow-up to the first – a continual building of tension that picks up after the near destruction of the kingdom and the escape or capture of most of the characters. The relief from tension arrives with the third volume, that resolves most of the previous volumes story-arcs, while also opening up to the rest of the universe imagined – particularly the rival kingdom of Merofynia, from whence most of the villains come.

As for the denouement – I am almost afraid to say. My reaction was something like: “What??? No, no, no, no, no, no – I want mooooooore!!! There has to be mooooore!!! Where is the fourth volume???”

Because the truth is, while much has been resolved (most of the political intrigue, for example, is completely settled), much is also left in suspense – particularly relating to personal relationships and romantic entanglements, but also the reclaiming of a whole occupied kingdom. I found the ending abrupt – there really is no other word. It does not take away from all that came before – it is a very good series – but it is the major problem in my opinion: I don’t much like to be left hanging after becoming so very enmeshed in a story. So I certainly recommend the books – but beware the sudden fall that comes right after the end of the action. No awkward epilogues here!

Addendum: I was very happy to learn that there will be three more books, sometime in the distant, distant future. Apparently the author has one more trilogy planned, but wants to finish a new series she is working on before tackling the project.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Do we control our destiny, or do unseen forces manipulate us? Matt Damon stars in the thriller The Adjustment Bureau as a man who glimpses the future Fate has planned for him and realizes he wants something else. To get it, he must pursue the only woman he's ever loved across, under and through the streets of modern-day New York. On the brink of winning a seat in the U.S. Senate, ambitious politician David Norris (Damon) meets beautiful contemporary ballet dancer Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt)-a woman like none he's ever known. But just as he realizes he's falling for her, mysterious men conspire to keep the two apart. David learns he is up against the agents of Fate itself-the men of The Adjustment Bureau-who will do everything in their considerable power to prevent David and Elise from being together. In the face of overwhelming odds, he must either let her go and accept a predetermined path...or risk everything to defy Fate and be with her.

Director...............................George Nolfi
Matt Damon........................David Norris
Emily Blunt.........................Elise Sellas
John Slattery.......................Richardson
Anthony Mackie.................Henry Mitchell
Michael Kelly......................Charlie Traynor

    I enjoy going to the movies, so when my friends invite me, I don’t usually bother to check what we are going to see. This has led me astray a few times, but I’m not a difficult customer – and I have reasonable friends – so mostly, I can’t complain. My last experience was with The Adjustment Bureau, a delightful little gem. They translated the title here in France as L’Agence, so, when I was told we were going to see a film called The Agency I was more or less certain I would be enjoying two hours of secret agents, foreign operatives, and everything else you can expect from a spy thriller. I could not possibly have been more wrong!

    The Adjustment Bureau is adapted from a short story by Philip K. Dick, published in 1954 as The Adjustment Team. It's not the first movie to have originated from the mind of this author – Blade Runner and Minority Report are only two of the most well known. In this instance, the story was transformed into a modern day dark comedy that touches upon such hefty subjects as fate, free will, and the active presence of a divine force interfering in the day to day running of our lives.

    The film centers on the life of David Norris, an up and coming politician, who is obviously meant for more than the seat in the Senate he is going for – young, a self-made man from a difficult background, confident but also conflicted by what his role is supposed to be - he is everything a voter could hope for in a candidate. Enter Elise, wild, free, a contemporary Ballet dancer. It’s love at first sight. Except, that love is apparently not part of The Plan. So, exit the happily ever after and enter The Adjustment Team, to correct all deviations and put History back on track.

    I appreciated the light feel of the film – it could easily have become maudlin or overly emotional – the hero’s fight against an unforgiving destiny is a dramatic ploy we see often enough. But here there is laughter, and there is style – I simply adored the jaunty little hats on all the operatives of the Bureau. The fantastic elements are also incredibly appropriate – note, the doors. How I love the endless possibilities of analysis and interpretations that little piece of imagery allows – and very well integrated to the reality of the movie.

    I am not saying this is a very serious movie – I don’t think that is the purpose at all. But it is believable. It is interesting. It is funny and thrilling. What more can you wish for when you sit down to the dark delights of the cinema?

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