Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Film Review: Swept from the Sea

Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story “Amy Foster,” “Swept from the Sea” chronicles the ill-fated romance between a shipwreck survivor and the outcast of a coastal village. Bound for a better life in America, European emigrant Yanko (Vincent Perez, “Indochine,” “Queen Margot,”) is stranded in a vaguely hostile English coastal farming community after he survives a violent storm at sea. Initially believed to be a thief or a madman, Yanko is mistreated by all except Amy until the local country doctor, (Sir Ian McKellen, “Lord of the Rings,” “Gods and Monsters,” “X-Men,”) realizes that the non-English speaking stranger in their midst is the sole survivor of the shipwreck.

The connection between Yanko and Amy (Rachel Weitz, “About a Boy,” “The Mummy,” “Stealing Beauty,”) is immediate and electric, and Yanko is enthralled by her. He is motivated to learn English and earn money so that he can eventually come courting, and the scene in which he shyly comes to call on Amy for the first time is awkward and endearing. The fact that Amy and Yanko are both outcasts in the community forges a bond between them. Yanko is not accepted because of his foreign-ness and Amy is shunned for no discernable reason other than she is perceived to be different. This film presents an unflinching view of how intolerance isolates people, and the tragic conclusion only underscores the importance of acceptance and community. This lyrical, well-acted period piece will appeal to those who find a film satisfying even when the conclusion is not the requisite happy ending one expects from a romance.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Film Review: Dear Frankie

“Dear Frankie” is one of those extremely satisfying small films that often get lost in the crush of the major motion picture distribution machine. How do you market a film that does not boast A-list stars, a multi-million dollar budget, car chases, wars, police dramas, historical sagas or monsters of either the human or alien kind? This film stars Emily Mortimer (“Bright Young Things,” “Young Adam,”) and Gerard Butler (“Phantom of the Opera,” “Timeline,” “Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life,” “Dracula 2000”) in lyrical performances that both entertain and touch the heart. Lizzie (played by Mortimer) is a single mother with a nine year old son named Frankie. Frankie has grown up believing that his absent father is a seaman assigned to the HMS Accra. Frankie has been writing letters to his Dad for years, and Lizzie has been reading and replying to Frankie’s letters. Frankie is deaf and is not a particularly communicative child, so Lizzie depends upon the letters to provide insight into what is going on in her child’s mind. Lizzie has fostered the lie about Frankie’s father in order to protect her son from the truth, but when Frankie learns that the HMS Accra is scheduled to dock in the small village where he and his mother currently live, Frankie is thrilled by the idea of a reunion with his father, while Lizzie is horrified by her predicament. Convinced that telling Frankie the truth will destroy their relationship, Lizzie decides to pay a stranger to play the part of Frankie’s father for the brief duration of the visit. The stranger (played by Butler) is somewhat judgmental about Lizzie in the beginning, but he quickly bonds with Frankie and as he learns the reasons behind the lengths to which Lizzie has gone to protect her son, he finds himself being drawn into their lives. “Dear Frankie” employs sentiment in moderation, so it’s not a cloying film, and the quality of the acting makes the characters multi-dimensional, even edgy, with a human heart.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Film Review: Ladyhawke

1985’s “Ladyhawke” is a well-acted, unabashedly romantic medieval fairy-tale. Rutger Hauer (of “Blade Runner”) and Michelle Pfeifer (of “White Oleander” and “The Fabulous Baker Boys”) star as two lovers separated by a curse placed upon them by an evil bishop. The story begins as wily thief “Mouse” (played by film and Broadway veteran Matthew Broderick) crosses paths with intrepid knight Navarre and quickly finds himself entangled in Navarre’s quest to find a way to end the spell that causes Navarre to take the form of a wolf by night while his beloved Isabeau is trapped in the body of a falcon by day. The curse is a cruel enchantment that allows the two lovers only brief glimpses of each other as they shape shift into their animal counterparts each day. Despite strong elements of fantasy in the plot, “Ladyhawke” contains a strong emotional core. By the time Navarre and Isabeau are finally able to confront the evil bishop side by side in their human form, we share their triumph because we’ve shared their journey and witnessed the torment and danger they’ve faced. The dialogue is witty, the action is well-choreographed, and the poignant characters and satisfying ending will appeal to viewers who enjoyed such films as “Ever After” and “A Knight’s Tale.” Fans who enjoyed Rutger Hauer in the medieval setting of “Ladyhawke” might also enjoy the adult-themed “Flesh and Blood.”

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Film Review: Jane Eyre

My first exposure to the 1983 version of “Jane Eyre” starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke was over 10 years ago when I happened to tune in on an installment of it on my local PBS station. Even though I had tuned in mid-story, it was apparent that I had stumbled upon a treasure. When it was released on VHS, I immediately added a copy of it to my video collection, and when I learned that it was about to be released on DVD, I was thrilled that this masterwork would be available in DVD format. If you have enjoyed any of the many filmed versions of “Jane Eyre,” do not hesitate to add this one to your rental queue, because it is inarguably the best of the lot. The performances in this version capture the complexities and nuances of these complicated characters at a level that transcends simple acting technique; Dalton and Clarke ARE Rochester and Jane. Actor Timothy Dalton can claim the distinction of having played both of the Bronte sisters’ classic male leads (Edward Rochester in “Jane Eyre” and Heathcliff in 1970’s “Wuthering Heights,”) and his multi-layered, complex interpretation of Rochester is both haunting and mesmerizing. Stage actress Zelah Clark provides the pluck and fortitude that embody the title character. It is the sparkling chemistry between the two actors that elevates this “Jane Eyre” above other versions that also feature noteworthy actors. (Other film versions pair Orson Welles/ Joan Fontaine, Ciaran Hinds/Samantha Morton, William Hurt/Charlotte Gainsbourg, and George C. Scott/Susannah York). This longer (330 minutes) version is faithful to the book; the well-crafted dialogue is preserved and the story is allowed to progress at the rate necessary for development of the passionate romance that forms the heart of the story. If you are a Charlotte Bronte fan who has been disappointed by other attempts to bring “Jane Eyre” to the screen, you should enjoy this exquisite interpretation

Friday, May 16, 2008

Book Review: Scandal's Daughter by Christine Wells

The aspirations of many an unpublished romance writer includes winning the coveted "Golden Heart" award sponsored by Romance Writers of America. In 2006, "Scandal's Daughter" won the Best Short Historical Romance category, and after reading this charming Regency-set novel, I believe the accolade was well-deserved.

Author Christine Wells paints the English setting beautifully and introduces us to Gemma and Sebastian, two likeable characters whose lifelong friendship forms a bond that gradually evolves through tenuous bouts of passion into a deep love capable of healing the wounds of the past.
Gemma is plucky without being obnoxious, and Sebastian is a complex character driven by a dark childhood filled with abuse and culminating in the loss of his beloved brother. The author's skill at portraying the deep emotional ties between the hero and heroine brings an emotional context to the story that makes it a very satisfying romance.

Ms. Wells employs a skillful balance, using humor to occasionally lighten the mood and deftly working in the Regency-era details that form the flagstone of this type of novel without making them an intrusion. She creates an interesting world populated with endearing characters and provides the requisite happy ending. As a reader of romance, I couldn't have asked for more.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Book Review: First, There is a River, by Kathy Steffen

After I finished reading 'First, There is a River,' by Kathy Steffen, I started thinking about what makes a book memorable. Out of the thousands of books we read in our lives, what is it that makes us remember plotlines and characters years after we've read a particular book? I think part of it might be that something about the story resonates with the reader. Another component could be that the characters are so well-drawn that they become real people to the reader and as the story unfolds, the reader comes to feel he or she has a vested interest in the outcome. This novel about a wife's escape from her abusive husband is just such a story. 'First, There is a River' should not be dismissed as a story about abuse. This story is more about hope and redemption as heroine Emma Perkins flees from her abusive husband Jared, taking a job as a cook aboard the 'Spirit,' a riverboat co-owned by her uncle Quentin. The journey down the river parallels Emma's path to regaining her sense of self-worth as she struggles to find the courage to escape the cycle of abuse her life has become and find a way to regain her children, who have been sold into labor by Jared. As Emma emerges from her cocoon of fear and begins to thrive aboard 'The Spirit,' her tentative friendship with Gage, an engineer scarred from youth from an explosion aboard a riverboat, becomes a poignant romance. Gage is the quiet, reflective antithesis of Emma's brutal husband Jared, and Emma gradually falls for the kind, perceptive engineer, unaware that Jared remains on shore, following the path of the riverboat, waiting for the opportunity to exact his revenge, not only against Emma, but against all those who have assisted her in reclaiming her life, especially Gage. Set during the days when elaborate excursion boats paraded up and down the Ohio river, the author infuses her story with fascinating descriptions of the riverboats and details about life on the river, using her research to form a framework for her story without detracting from the story by inundating the reader with too much detail. The result is an engrossing, exciting story set against a colorful, unusual backdrop. I will remember Emma and Gage's story for a long time to come.

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