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Top Five Movie Weddings

April 29, 2011

In honor of today’s Royal Wedding extravaganza, here’s my list of Top Five Movie Weddings.   Congratulations to the happy couple.  

SPOILER ALERT:  See Kate’s dress below – created by Alexander McQueen head designer Sarah Burton.  Congratulations Kate and William, or should I say Prince William and HRH the Duchess of Cambridge – Kate’s spiffy new title!

5.) Muriel’s Wedding (1995)



In this Australian cult classic by director P.J. Hogan, a dowdy woman dreams of the perfect wedding.  When sad sack Muriel was transformed into the blushing, glowing “Mariel” for her green card wedding, she never looked lovelier.  Alas, her fairy tale ending was not meant to be, but having finally learned a little about how to stand up for herself, Muriel walked away with a best friend and the memory of a truly over-the-top confection of a ceremony, complete with Abba’s “I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do” playing for the march down the aisle.

4.) The Godfather (1972)


The wedding of Connie Corelone Rizzi (Talia Shire) would provide the audience with its first glimpse into the insular world of the crime family.  It was a lavish and deceptively jovial affair, providing the backdrop for several of the most immortal scenes in cinema history.  Still, what a wedding it was – from the dress to the flowers to the classic 70s bridesmaids dresses, it was one to remember for the ages.

3.) The Philadelphia Story (1939)


Katharine Hepburn’s Tracy Lord spends the entire movie man-swapping before she finally makes it down the aisle with the one you knew she was meant to be with in the first place.  Taking a jab at the emerging presence of the paparazzi  that would so come to dominate our current society, even Lady Gaga would be proud.  A simple country house wedding was designed in classic Kate style, right down to the gorgeous silk dress and matching hat.  Even Cary Grant doesn’t outshine a movie great on her big day.

2.) The Princess Bride (1987)


A sadder (or more hilarious) wedding day one can not quite recall.  As Princess Buttercup (Robin Wright) prepares to wed the arrogant and murderous Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon), Peter Cook’s “Impressive Clergyman” (as he is billed) steals the show with his unusual interpretation of the traditional vows.  Luckily, this wedding doesn’t stick, as Buttercup is saved by her true love, Westley.  But, oh, the dress.  This stunning and ornate number with matching tiara was one for the history books and fit for any princess, be it a runaway wedding or no.

1.) My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)


Director P.J. Hogan makes the list a second time, with another stellar romantic comedy that doesn’t have a traditional happy ending.  Julianne Potter (Julia Roberts) spends most of the movie trying to alienate everyone who cares about her in pursuit of a man destined to be just the best friend of the title.  Yet, it is her other loyal sidekick, the lovable George (Rupert Everett) who teaches her about dignity and sacrifice when doing the right thing.  Although the main character never makes it down the aisle, the right girl DOES get the right guy when Cameron Diaz’s charming Kimberley wears the perfect  vision of a society grand dame’s wedding gown.

Happy Royal Wedding Day!  Be sure and stop by the blog next week for my Rapid Review of Thor

U.K. Travel Diary – Day 4

April 25, 2011
 
 
Stow on the Wold

We drove out of Bath through the hilly Cotswolds country – where all the cream-colored stone houses dot the landscape.  When you think of quaint English villages (reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd), you think of the Cotswolds.   There were even plenty of border collies…

We passed by the gates to Charles’s and Camilla’s country house near the town of Tetbury, then stopped in Stow-on-the-Wold (whose name means “sheep pens on the hills”) for a loo break.  Basically, our driver Tom is required by union law to have 40 minutes of uninterrupted break time every 4 hours.  What a charming town it is, too.  There’s even a picturesque little inn tucked into a close off the square.

Anne Hathaway's House

Next we were off to the tourist haven of Stratford-Upon-Avon, Willy Shakespeare’s humble but proud birthplace.  We are visiting on the Ides of March, which made the literary nerd in me rejoice – how perfect!   We first stopped at Anne Hathaway’s cottage, which is across from a charming little stram with Mallard ducks lazily floating by.   The Hathaways were well-to-do merchants during Tudor times and they had quite a nice plot of land off the city centre, and the house has been restored pretty close to the original design, complete with thatched roof and a splendid garden.

The Shakespeares, by contrast, lived on one of the busiest streets in Stratford.  John, Will’s father, was a successful glovemaker.  The birthplace itself has been changed into a combination of library, research center, and tourist destination.  Such a tiny house, which would have been home to adults, children and possibly even William and Anne after they first got married.   One of my most iconic moments in England was to be able to walk around the same house where one of the world’s most important and dynamic writers was born and lived many of his early years.

in front of Shakespeare's House

I have no doubt that Willy is amused that his humble childhood dwelling has become the 2nd largest tourist attraction in England (after London itself). 

We finally had our first English fish and chips experience in Stratford for lunch, at Barnard’s Fish – a famous hole-in-the-wall shoppe that overlooks the river Avon.

Then, back on the bus for a short drive to Wales.

Llangollen (pronounced THLAN-GOTH-LEN) is a little Welsh town in the North that is known for its picturesque canal which goes over a historic Roman aqueduct.  It was also the home of the “Mary” in the famous nursery rhyme “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.  The rhyme was written by Mary’s American nanny on the day that Mary’s young lamb caused a town ruckus by following her to school. 

main street in Llangollen

We took the canal ride 45 minutes up the river Dee in a long boat.  Llangollen is tucked inside a valley (called a “vale” over here) – crossing the border was an instant change of landscape.  There are large hills with timbered houses built right into the side.  On the day we arrived, it was misty and had a romantic, rolling fog about the scenery.  It is a friendly, cute town.  Everyone was greeting each other warmly (and even greeting each others’ dogs with a pat on the head).

The canal ride was lovely, and then we stopped at a Georgian-era pub with a cavernous working fireplace.  It was right out of a period film – heaven for me.  I had a pint of Guiness and enjoyed the view over the Llangollen valley.

Truly Great Movies: Minority Report (2002)

April 21, 2011

John Anderton: There hasn’t been a murder in 6 years. There’s nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.
Danny Witwer: [simultaneously] – perfect. I agree. But if there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the one director in Hollywood’s whose name is greeted with instantaneous respect, even though his actual films run the gamut from stunning to forgettable.  Arguably, there are more thematic (Polanski), artistic (Cuaron) or technically skilled (Ridley Scott) filmmakers out there working in Spielberg’s general market.  What Spielberg does have a knack for is knowing what the average audience member wants to see.  With the possible exception of Schindler’s List (and most everyone  lists this film as the exception to SOMETHING when discussing his career), almost all of Spielberg’s films have been All-American crowd pleasers on some level.

There are quite a few of Spielberg’s films that could make a possible Truly Great Movie entry (most notably Empire of the Sun or Raiders of the Lost Ark), but the movie in his canon that I keep insisting to friends and family is under appreciated is Minority Report.  True, I have an unusual fondness for movies based on Philip K. Dick sci-fi tales (Blade Runner, anyone?), but Minority Report is a tense, well-acted, emotionally intriguing movie that didn’t get enough artistic applause on its first release.

manipulating the future

At the heart of Report’s success is its original story.  Based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 short story by the same name, it tells of a future where crime fighting has been revolutionized by the PreCrime unit, a police force dedicated to preventing crime before it happens.  This occurs thanks to the assistance of the mysterious “pre-cogs” (short for precognition), who “see” these crimes within the criminal’s head before they have actually occurred.  In the opening sequence, a future inmate is nabbed seconds before a murder of passion is committed.

Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise), our hero, is dedicated to his job.  Perhaps too much so.  Like Dick’s other hero, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner, Anderton’s personal life is a wreck.  Maybe that’s what makes him so effective and even ruthless at what he does.  His son has died, and as a result his marriage has also failed.  He lives for watching home movies of happier times, lost in his addiction to illegal drugs that make the negative disappear.

Like most folks with a tendency towards addiction, he is almost manic in his approach to the business aspect of his life.  This especially applies to his obsession and devotion to the benefits of PreCrime investigation.  Of course, there is the underlying BIG question: is it morally acceptable to arrest and incarcerate criminals who haven’t ACTUALLY committed a crime?  Is the assumption or vision of the precogs enough to doom legions of criminals for all eternity based on what MIGHT come to pass?    Here’s where the plot kicks into gear.  One of the precogs has a vision of John himself committing a heinous crime and he is suddenly on the run from his own compatriots.

kidnapping pre-cog Agatha

The puzzle pieces finally begin to fall together.  Out of the three precogs, only two out of the three must “agree” on a vision in order for it to be actionable.  The third’s digression, the “minority report”, is discarded.  This leads to John’s kidnapping of the precog Agatha, who may hold the proof of John’s innocence.

Overall, the production value on Minority Report is second to none.  It is a realistic and jarring vision of the future, right down to the computer and automotive technology.  There is also a seedy underworld that must exist just outside the realm of all that is neat and clean, and this leads to one of the film’s most memorable sequences involving spider-like attack drones and a disturbing case of retina surgery.

The script by Scott Frank and Jon Cohen is fast-paced yet intelligent and thought-provoking.  It effectively adapts the original story as a frantic thriller without losing its emphasis on the thematic elements and moral questions involving free will and government control.

Tom Cruise, in the lead role, is admirably tough while being appropriately flawed, and Colin Farrell, in his breakout supporting role, is a detective I wouldn’t want on my tail.  Samantha Morton’s haunting and all-too-human portrayal of the precog Agatha is the lynchpin of the story, and her performance is the one that resonates long after the movie is over.

man with a mission

All in all, Minority Report is one of the best sci-fi thrillers of the decade.    Speilberg gives us a fractured vision of an imperfect, but admirable system.  Often the best sci-fi tales involve a contrast of opposites.  As the character of Dr. Iris Heneman states, “Sometimes, in order to see the light, you have to risk the dark.”

U.K. Travel Diary – Day 3

April 19, 2011

After our weekend in wonderful London, it was on to the coach to start our trip through the Isles.  On our way out of town, we got an early morning peek at the gardens at Hampton Court Palace, where we entered through Queen Anne’s Gate at the Tudor end of the palace.  We wandered

The Wilderness at Hampton Court

through the Tudor Privy garden, saw the world’s oldest grapevine, and then moved on to the Ornamental Gardens modeled after William and Mary’s time.  The Georgian part of the palace is not as interesting as the Tudor section, being a little too ornate and square for my tastes.

Queen Annes Gate at Hampton Court

My favorite area by far was the Tudor-style “Wilderness” park.  Walking through this open bit of land around where the jousting tiltyards would have been was so much fun.  It’s plush with wild flowers, daffodils in bloom and weeping willows.  It’s easy to imagine how many fascinating Tudor personages trod that same path:  Thomas More, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn…they all lived here at one point in their lives.

Next it was on to Stonehenge, on the Salisbury Plain, which looks surprisingly like… Platte County, Missouri.  Replace the cows with sheep and there is very little difference in the landscape.  Stonehenge is literally in the middle of nowhere – almost surreally lonesome on a

Stonehenge

small hill.  Approaching it is chill-inducing.  It almost looks fake.  The site itself is haphazardly put together – portable, mobile loos and a small ticket window/gift shop are all run by the English Heritage.   There are plans to make a more impressive Visitor’s Entrance and center in the near future.

Once there, you  grab your helpful audio guide and march through a tunnel and up to the site.  Tourists are no longer allowed near the inner circle, but just being nearby is incredible enough.  We were crammed in with a French student group, but on the whole it wasn’t very busy (most Monday mornings probably aren’t).  Stonehenge seems larger than I expected (too much influence from

ancient history comes to life

my movie memories, perhaps) and the very unusual burial mounds in the surrounding countryside are equally as interesting.

One thing I appreciate about England is how there is an unspoken code of civil and decent behavior.  At all the English Heritage sites, including Stonehenge, the Tower and Bath, there are no security guards lurking nearby, no one to stare menacingly at your for breathing on artwork or stepping too close.  At Stonehenge, all that separates you from the monument is a thin rope.  In America, there would no doubt be armed guards and barbed wire 24-7 to prevent lunatics from spray painting themselves blue and hurlilng themselves off the stones.  Here in England, it is just UNDERSTOOD that one does NOT behave in such a fashion.  England, I adore you.

From Stonehenge we traveled to Salisbury through Thomas Hardy’s Wessex.  Sting’s song “Fields of Gold” was written about this rural area with its rolling hills and farmland.   Salisbury Cathedral is the second most important cathedral in England after Canterbury, and its steeple is one of the

Salisbury Cathedral front

tallest in Europe.  Salisbury Cathedral also contains one of only four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, that famous document signed by King John in medieval times to give expanded rights to the barons.

My favorite clause in the Magna Carta:  “Widows shall not be forced to marry should they choose to remain without a husband”.  Amen, medieval barons.  And they say women’s rights was a recent invention.

I’ve walked through the Nelson’s re-creation of a medieval cloister, and now I can say I’ve eaten lunch in a REAL one.  Salisbury as a town and a cathedaral is a marvel.  Built in the 1200s, it is overpoweringly massive, yet the mullioned stained glass windows and carvings are almost delicate.

in front of the gothic magic

Such an incredible experience to walk through the close and look up at such a marvel of spirituality and engineering.  Human ingenuity is boundless.

Next, on to the Georgian city of Bath.  Bath sits on a hilly piece of land and the narrow, winding road into town is about as picturesque as a Dickens novel.  Bath is entirely made out of cream-colored Cotswolds stone.  Even modern buildings must match the original Georgian exteriors, which date from the 1700s.  It was the Regency era nobility that

the Roman Baths from above

made Bath a hot spot again, gathering in its Pump Room next to the Roman Hot Springs to drink the nasty, sulphur-tasting water.

The original Roman Baths, from when the city was called Aqua Sulis in Roman times, have been painstakingly excavated, and beneath the Georgian exterior of the Regency gathering place is a fascinating museum dedicated to a time when Rome ruled supreme and Bath was the vacation spot of patricians.

After viewing various artifcats and re-creations of a living, working Aqua Sulis, you end up at the main baths, which are serene despite the crowds.  If you look up, you can see the remarkable Bath Abbey towering overhead.  Bath is also a reminder that you are in Jane Austen country.  Bath is home to the Jane Austen Museum, and her novels Persuasion and Northanger Abbey are both partially set in Bath.  It’s easy to see why the rich and idle made Bath their favorite playground for so many years.

where Persuasion was set and filmed

Our hotel for the night, the Hilton Bath City, was off the charming river Avon and looked over the bustling city center.

Now for a good night’s sleep before hitting Shakespeare’s birthplace and the Lake District the next day…

Rapid Review: Jane Eyre

April 16, 2011

 

 

“Oh, comply!” it said. “. . . soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?” Still indomitable was the reply: “I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself.” Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre


Such a woman and a character who would utter the words above is an unusual one for Victorian times.  Jane Eyre is not a wilting violet waiting for her Prince Charming.  When this fabled love interest does show up, he is decidedly neither a prince nor very charming.  Jane is a smart gal who knows that losing herself may not be worth the hassle of a torrid romance.

Dear Reader: I have finally seen the most recent adaptation of Charlotte Bronte’s beloved book and I have come to issue thusly this unsurprising spoiler alert:  I have a huge, harmless crush on Michael Fassbender.  This should come as no big shock, but is nonetheless a tribute to both that actor and the film, for it is partially on the basis of his interpretation of Rochester that this film is one of the best adaptations of the classic book I’ve seen in a long time.

Jane walks the Yorkshire Dales

Here we have not just the hundredth or so adaptation of this tale of a lonely but proud and determined governess from the Yorkshire Moors, but also one coming on the heels of a pretty decent BBC teleplay released only four years ago and a flawed 1996 adaptation by Shakespearian director Franco Zefferelli starring the miscast John Hurt as the self-tormented Mr. Rochester.  The director of 2011’s incarnation of the romanticized, mock-gothic tale is Cary Fukunaga, a young director who has directed nothing you will have heard of in the past, but is obviously a fan of moody, dense cinematography and pointed, longing looks between his actors.  I have a feeling Mr. Fukunaga and I would get along fabulously.

I’m going to assume most of you reading this review know the basics of this time-honored classic tale, but for those who need a quick cheat sheet, here’s the lowdown.  Jane (played as an adult by Alice in Wonderland’s Mia Wasikowska) is the poor relation who, after being emotionally abused by her vain aunt (played with curling upper lip by the fabulous Sally Hawkins) and horrid cousins for no reason other than the fact that she won’t put up with the ridiculous, is promptly shipped off to Mr. Brocklehurst’s school for wayward (read: intelligent and self-aware) children who cannot behave in polite society.  Jane grows up to become a plain-faced but intense young governess who isn’t afraid to state her mind and values honesty and forthrightness above all else in life.  This does not make her popular among the locals. It also leads to a strong case of a disease much shunned by class-conscious Victorians: Independence of Thought and Action in Females.  Oh- the horror.

Jane and Rochester about to eat each other whole with their eyes

She finds a job at a mysterious manor house in the Yorkshire Dales, where fog, craggy haunted landscapes, and dark stormy nights aren’t just scenery for the tourists, they are a time-honored way of life (I’ve now been there and Bronte speaketh the truth on this).  This creepy Haunted Mansion is owned by the reclusive Mr. Rochester (played effectively by 300 and Inglourious Basterds star Michael Fassbender), who occupies this massive monument to loneliness with his kind-hearted but fierce housekeeper (who else but Dame Judi Dench – DUH), his precocious (which is Victorian slang for annoying) ward Adele and the various hundreds of servants it would take to run this massive joint.  Of course, no one ever sees these slaves to industry because they would clash with the decor.  This isn’t Upstairs, Downstairs.

Jane and Rochester meet cute when she almost kills him by running in front of his horse in the billowing Yorkshire fog.  This does not go over well with the moody and  brooding Rochester, who is not only used to getting his own way, but cannot understand why a silly governess would be out walking in the fog in the first place.    In this, he has a valid point.  Thus a star-crossed romance which must combat societal norms  and ghosts of the past (Rochester’s closet is occupied by far more skeletons than jaunty and stylish cravats) begins.

The key to both the novel and Fukunaga’s on-target interpretation of the relationship between the two leads is that both characters come to an understanding of each other because  no one else in Victorian-era England could fathom the value of honesty and practicality in romance and life the way Jane and Rochester do.  Neither one has the patience for polite small talk, the styling and care of floral arrangements, or three-hour long card parties.  They are soul mates from their very first conversation.  He refuses to be a gentlemen for the sake of propriety, and she refuses to tell him lies to flatter his vanity.  This is what Rochester finds intriguing about Jane, and so the dance begins.  Fukunaga, Fassbender and Wasikowska capture this dynamic with alacrity, originality and spark.  This Jane and Rochester have palpable chemistry, but in the film as well as the novel, they must combat both their own flaws and  deep-seated beliefs to find happiness.

Jane in her independence

There are the inevitable scenes of tortured looks and grasping at each other in the rain as secrets and skeletons from the closet come forth, but it is the journey that counts, Dear Reader, and in this Fukunaga’s film succeeds at a level where others have failed.   What’s important about this incarnation of Jane’s story is that it IS Jane’s story first and foremost, and the mood and romance of it all don’t rupture that core idea.  Fukunaga has an eye for details in both mannerism and costuming that make Jane more of an individual than a stereotype.  This Jane isn’t as plain as in past interpretations, but that fits.  Bronte didn’t mean for her to stoop about with eyes lowered wearing gray for three hours.  Jane is a force of nature barely contained, and Wasikowska’s performance is all in the eyes.  Jane could break loose at any time, and what a glorious show that would be.

The key performance that brings it all together, however, is by Fassbender.  Bronte’s Rochester was neither handsome nor charming and Fassbender gets half of that equation correct and can’t help the other half.  Still, he is a skillful actor who interprets Rochester as Jane’s equal, showing that he is as frightened and stubborn regarding their relationship as she is, but with more baggage to deal with along the way.  Fassbender also knows how to act with the eyes rather than the dialogue and it works well in the more sedated scenes.

Jane and St. John Rivers

There are many fine performances by some of Britain’s greatest character actors, including Jamie Bell as Jane’s other love possibility, St. John Rivers, Simon McBurney as a blustering and creepy Mr. Brocklehurst, and Romy Settbon Moore as the most realistic and least grating Adele I’ve seen on film to date.

This version of Jane Eyre is the most faithful and thoughtful adaptation of Bronte’s book in many years, and the first one I’ve seen in decades where not one actor is miscast, not one hem is out-of-place, and not one camera angle is inappropriate.   In short, dear reader, get thyself to a theater (the movie is currently playing at the Rio and at Town Center in Overland Park) for two hours of gothic romance you will not regret.

Overall Grade:  A

Nerd Alert: Dragon Age II Review

April 10, 2011

I am a HUGE fan of Dragon Age: Origins, Bioware’s epic fantasy RPG that was a stunning entry in the gaming world for many reasons: strong storyline, memorable characters, easy to master gameplay, and more.  Like many of the other rabid fans out there, I was on the edge of my seat waiting for the new game when it arrived earlier this month.

Once again, you are in control of  an epic hero, this time “Hawke” (you can be a male or female version of this standard archetype), a Lothering refugee who has washed up in the city of Kirkwall and must re-gain the family pride.   Now that I’m a decent way through Act I as far as plot and story are concerned, here’s my quick snapshot review

STORYLINE/CHARACTERS:  4/5

It’s hard to beat the first game’s companions as far as overall variety and interesting back stories.  My personal favorites were crazy bad-ass mage Morrigan and charmingly virginal Alistair.  None of the characters seemed randomly generated and all were relatively useful depending on how you chose to map out their various attributes.  The “romance” angle lent a fun air to the normally staid RPG hack and slash atmosphere, and the specializations such as Duelist and Champion allowed for your “tank” or average mage to have more adaptability to unique situations.

male version of main character Hawke

In Dragon Age II, Hawke (mine is a Rogue) starts off far more capable of reducing enemies to rubble (beginning with the prologue) skill-wise, and in a welcome change is actually voiced.  Still, his/her background story is far less compelling than the original, being offset by companion Varric’s story within a story fable.  Your companions are a capable but so far relatively bland bunch, including “tank” Aveline, metro hip mage with a “bad side” Anders and meek elven wunderkind Merrill.   So far, no major enemies stand out as intriguing or memorable, most of them fit into the category of “fighting against the ranks of the status quo”, whether those ranks be Templars or demons.  “Romancing” and inspiring character feats is limited to visiting characters at their “home base”, which can be inconvenient when you have to  back track during a string or series of missions.

OVERALL GAMEPLAY/CONTROLS/LANDSCAPE : 3/5

The standard potions/activated powers wheel is back in action with little change, although the graphics and font of the sequel are often distractingly dark and narrow.  For those of us NOT playing on a super size flat screen, this can prove irritating.  The mood and color scheme of II is notably a darker palette, mostly grays, blacks and reds.  Even the landscaping and location is bleak and harrowing.

tank warrior Aveline crushes Darkspawn

Gameplay moves faster than the original, and it is much easier to target and move your character in real time versus the original.  The skill trees are also more manageable this time around, with the next stages of each power/ability clearly outlined in a logical progression.

Most annoying, however, is that you are not allowed to upgrade or change out your companions’ armor.  The only upgrades available are when you max out that character’s friendship level.

On the bright side, crafting and buying weapons, potions and upgrades is much easier in II, with easy stops and one-click shopping never too far off the map.  No more having to worry about only one character being able to produce 18 health potions, for example.

On the negative side, the maps for each location are annoyingly re-used constantly, with only minimal changes in the landscape.  Also, there are relatively few areas to explore.  In contrast with Origins’ different and unique locations such as the Brecilian Forest and Circle Tower, here you are limited to the city of Kirkwall and its immediate outskirts, with one minor trip to the Deep Roads in Act I.  This leads to having to traverse the same maps over and over again with “new” missions.  What a drag.

Battles are often overwhelming in the first stages of the game,with waves of enemies spawning as if out of nowhere and blood flying furiously from enemies’ cuts for seemingly no purpose.  The graphics are much improved when it comes to seeing your mages actually damage the foes, although targeting long-range weaponry and spells is a bit more nerve-wracking  thanks to the overall increased pace of game play in general.

OVERALL GRADE:  4/5

 

 

 

 

UCC (Undeniably Cool Character) Flemeth, Witch of the Wilds

 

 

 

 

 

Although I will always have a soft spot in my heart for the original, Dragon Age II is an effective and engrossing sequel that will please most RPG fans and lovers of the world so painstakingly created by Bioware.  Although the characters are not as sentimentally pleasing or well-rounded, and the landscape is a bit bleak, the overall excitement of game play and investing in a storyline remains.

U.K. Travel Diary – Day 2

April 6, 2011

Day 2 starts off with our guided coach (don’t you DARE call it a “bus”) tour of London in the early morning hours.  Our tour guides, Carlotta and Seymour (I couldn’t have made those names up if I had tried) are very amusing, if only for the local insight they give about Londoners’ least favorite things: taxes, construction and street closures.  As Carlotta quips, “It’s as if they dig up holes in the street and then they all just RUN AWAY!”

The Victoria Monument in front of Buckingham Palace

We saw the usual touristy spots, driving by the Thames, the Tower and the various royal parks, finally stopping at St. Paul’s Cathedral, which was technically off-limits to tours because it was Sunday services, but Jeff and I snuck a discreet peek anyway.  There was an audible noise when we entered.  It was my jaw hitting the floor.  Built by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of London, St. Paul’s is a masterwork of design – literally fit for kings and paupers alike.  Such splendor is not to be found anywhere in America, although there is ironically enough an American chapel within St. Paul’s that is dedicated to the Americans killed in WWII.

We next stopped at the Royal Palace of St. James, which is where all great royal announcements have been proclaimed since the time of Elizabeth I.  There are guards everywhere monitoring the more Georgian Clarence House, which is the official London residence of Charles, Prince of Wales

in front of the palace at St. James

and Camilla, the Duchess of  Cornwall.  The Horse Guard marches from Buck House down the Mall to the end of the road.  All the Queen’s guards are active military men.  They serve one month rotations in the service of the crown, then they are off as Carlotta says, “to some tank in Afghanistan”.

We then went down the Mall to see the changing of the guard at “Buck House” (known to us Americans as Buckingham Palace).   The queen wasn’t in residence today, and it was beginning to look like rain, so Carlotta was worried the show wouldn’t happen.  The band started to play “Over the Rainbow” to the delight of Jeff and myself (Kansans abroad unite!), which was the kiss of death for the whole thing.  It immediately started to pour, disappointing both our tour group and a large mass of Japanese students. According to Carlotta, the “wet change” is merely a group of sad, wet guards running for the palace with little pomp and circumstance.  Oh, well.

the marching of the horse guards on the Mall

There is lots of restoration going on in London for both historical benefit and the upcoming Olympics.  It’s fascinating to watch.  The cleanup on St. Paul’s is almost complete, wiping away almost 200 years of coal dust leftover from England’s transition into the Industrial age.  Some original building faces haven’t been seen for centuries.  When then cleaned the National History Museum, for example, they were shocked to discover that there was actually pale blue colored patterned stone as well as the basic cream!

After our morning tour, Jeff and I took the Tube to Piccadilly Circus, London’s version of Times Square, which is  a tacky mecca for tourists like ourselves, containing the fabulous Cool Britannia store, which has all the London memorabilia you could possibly want, whether that be an ashtray in honor of the upcoming Royal Wedding, or salt and pepper shakers that look like double decker buses.

view from the Thames

We next traveled to the British Museum, one of the greatest collections of antiquities on the planet.  The most popular attraction by far is the Rosetta Stone, which is right off the main entryway and has people crowded around it trying to snap photos from every angle (including myself).  This key to deciphering Egyptian Hieroglypics is just one of the museum’s many rare treasures.  A group of Greek protesters were out front trying to make the British people give back the Elgin Marbles, a collection of statuary swiped from the Parthenon by a well-meaning Brit ambassador back in the Regency era.    The marbles themselves are impressive, but I was most fascinated by the Nereid Monument, a Greek tomb re-assembled in the museum, which is intimidatingly awesome.

the Nereid Monument at the British Museum

There’s also the Sutton Hoo treasure, which is a stunning collection of Anglo-Saxon weaponry, jewelry and pottery from the Dark Ages that gives great insight into a “lost” time in history.

Overall, day two was a busy but fun day.

That night, Jeff and I discovered our new favorite show, Guy Builds a Boat, which is pretty much exactly like it sounds.  Imagine Mythbusters crossed with Rick Steve’s Europe and melded with Antiques Roadshow.  Guy and his buddy are restoring an old canal boat (England and Wales are full of used and unused canal waterways).  Along the way, they build their own replicas of Industrial Age inventions (yep, it is as cool as it sounds).  On the show we watched, they created a gas-powered water heater for their shower, then used it to blow up a loo.  AWESOMENESS.  BBC, I love you.

The Rosetta Stone