Are You Not Entertained?

Here resumes a monthly recap of better music, books, films, and television that entertained me. 

MUSIC

We’ve had a lot of visiting relatives this past month, and Neil Young seemed to be the background noise for much of it. At one point, I actually got tired of listening to him. But he is a staple in our home, and with healthy intermissions, I enjoy listening to his albums. He’s a fun one to mimic with those notes delivered at the back of the throat. He is a mood-setter. In my world, there’s nothing better than sitting by a fire outdoors or in, with wine and Neil singing in the background. How do you pick a favorite? This love ballad released in 1992 never grows old.

BOOKS 

 

Who was the first woman to obtain a glider pilot’s license? Anne Morrow Lindbergh. That’s understandably overshadowed by her husband’s accolades. The most famous man in the world in 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis near Paris and completed the first solo airplane flight across the Atlantic. She was his co-pilot literally and figuratively throughout their 45-year marriage. Author Melanie Benjamin‘s historical fiction account is a refreshing twist showcasing the complicated life of the couple from Anne’s perspective. It is a novel full of intrigue, adventure, and scandal without sounding like a soap opera. Melanie Benjamin keeps the narrative cool enough to avoid melodrama, but close enough for the reader to feel like they’re privy to the introverted couple, and it is easy to care for Anne in her unique position. The Aviator’s Wife is gracefully written, entertaining novel. 4/5.

Edward Rutherford’s books are fun history. New York follows the chronological format as the other novel of his I read, The Princes of Ireland. Rutherford created an epic by placing fictional characters that represented a class or social group and placed them into historical events. My favorite section in New York was the July 1863 New York City draft riots. A husband tried to find his abolitionist wife who faced a mob who wanted to kill the African American orphans at her school. I kept thinking about Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York when I read this part of the novel; not too surprised to realize I liked the book version more. 4/5. 

TELEVISION

I didn’t like it–I loved every episode including the cool intro music and artwork. Why? I’m a fan of 20th Century social history especially of film. Plus, I think it’s peculiar–America’s obsession with movie stars and the interworkings of making a movie. Although Susan Sarandon portrayed Bette Davis and Jessica Lange depicted Joan Crawford with admirable effort, the most convincing performances went to the entire supporting cast notably Stanley Tucci as Jack L. Warner, Alfred Molina as Robert Aldrich, and Jackie Hoffman as Mamasita. The 8 episode series juggled two stories–the actual feud between Davis and Crawford (I love Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so the drama behind the film attracted me.) The other story was the Hollywood climate surrounding the casting couch and the manipulative power of male movie moguls. By the end of the series, I had an itch to explore director Robert Aldrich’s filmography.

Movies 

I’ve seen a lot of films lately, especially starring Gene Hackman, but for this post, I picked a pair that had me thinking and feeling.

Predestination(2015). This is a mind-bending, science fiction thriller film written and directed by Michael and Peter Spierig with screenplay help by Robert A. Heinlein.  Time travel is an easier concept to play out in books than in films because the price asked for the suspension of disbelief is high. In books, your imagination fills in the holes while not so at the movies. In this story, agent (Ethan Hawke) embarks on a final time-traveling assignment to prevent an elusive criminal from launching an attack that kills thousands of people. A fine performance by Hawke, but the show goes to the creative performance by Sarah Snook. It’s one I’d watch again. 4/5.

Wind River (2017).  It’s a mystery, crime thriller that personifies the cold, spring of Wyoming on an American Indian reservation. A daughter is raped and runs six miles in her bare feet across the winter landscape. A pretty FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate, ill-suited but determined to solve the mystery, and teams up with wildlife officer Lambert (Jeremy Renner). Despite the somber premise, the movie is moving because the theme of loss permeates all the characters and is allowed to surface in a way that is harmonic with the whispering wind and frozen landscape and a satisfying resolution. It is a strangely beautiful film. Plus, if you want to see a pair from Dances with Wolves, Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal were a sight for sore eyes. Actor Gil Birmingham returns from Hell or High Water (2016) to give the best performance of the film as the grieving father. Director and writer Taylor Sheridan is fast becoming a favorite with Sicario (2015), and Hell or High Water (2016) to his credit. He seems to be carrying a freshly-lit torch as writer and director of the post-modern Western. Taylor Sheridan’s ability to make the natural setting an integral part of the plot and his willingness to let an ensemble cast have lines and scenes that foster true characterization are reminiscent of the Coen Brothers. 4.2/5.

Gene Hackman: The French Connection & The Conversation

This year’s winter project featuring a classic male actor I am sketchy about is Gene Hackman. Based upon recommendations, I’m starting off with a strong pair that many have remarked were Gene’s best-known or favorite performance.

Competing against The Last Picture Show at the 1972 Oscars, The French Connection won the major awards of the night: Best Picture Philip D’Antoni, Best Actor in a Leading Role Gene Hackman, Best Director William Friedkin, Best Adapted Screenplay Ernest Tidyman, and Best Film Editing Gerald B. GreenbergRoy Scheider was nominated for Best Supporting Role, but he lost to Ben Johnson (LPS).

I have read that this was a film that set a precedent in police dramas or at least led the charge in portraying cops of dubious morality as the anti-hero. In the 1970s, television shows continued the trend to supply squeaky-clean officers catching the bad guy, but films such as Dirty Harry(1971), Serpico (1973), and The Seven-Ups(1973) show tainted cops ruthlessly taking charge of their urban backdrop. In the case of The French Connection, New York City never looked rawer or more treacherous. In this way, the buddy pair, Popeye (Hackman) and Cloudy (Scheider) fit right in chasing down gangsters, druggies, and deadbeats of the city. 4/5

What stood out:

1. The filming of the ugly alleys, subways, and desecrated buildings of NYC and the beautiful seaside port of Marseille, France was a fine contrast.

2. Roy Scheider’s bubbly performance was his second-best. (All That Jazz, #1)

3. Popeye’s obsession with catching the French kingpin Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) drew me in and held my attention.

4. The disgusting building where the climax was shot. The echoes, the shadows, and the reflections–you could smell the mold, feel the contaminated, cold air seep into your skin while Popeye sloshed around the debris. What a visceral experience.

5. Based on a true story, it was an intriguing, albeit, dreary story.

The Conversation is a 1974 American mystery thriller film written, produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and included a fantastic supporting team by John Cazale, Allen Garfield, Cindy Williams, Frederic Forrest, Harrison Ford, Teri Garr, and Robert Duvall. 

Gene Hackman has the reputation for playing characters that were hard-shelled jerks over his career. His voice is icy to listen to, his jaws set, and his characters won’t budge. Gene Hackman does this well, but I prefer his characters when they have a vulnerable side. Gene Hackman was perfect in this role as the surveillance expert, Harry Caul. He can’t help the fact he must live a lonely life, isolated and inadequate around others, unable to commit to friendships or relationships with females. His eyes suggest he was a product of the system, and his dislike for himself bubbles to the surface, and that’s a tricky acting job. 4.5/5.

What stood out: 

  1. Francis Ford Coppola‘s direction. The opening shot of the San Francisco city Union Square with happy citizens soaking up the midday sun, the mime leading your eyes, and the fuzzy conversation between Ann (Cindy Williams) and her lover Mark (Frederic Forrest).
  2. The ending shot of Harry Caul’s stripped apartment that suggested Caul’s paranoid demise instigated by his own obsessions.
  3. The jazzy piano score composed and performed by David Shire.
  4. The stellar supporting cast by everyone. It was great to see Harrison Ford as the young, smug executive. Teri Garr as the probing, sweet lover of Harry and the sad dance in the parking garage by the ambitious floozie Meridith by Elizabeth MacRae. Robert Duvall’s role was small but powerful as the jealous husband, “The Director”. Hotel toilets take on a new, repugnant level in cinema.
  5. The surprise twist at the end. Francis Ford Coppola’s script was smart and his narrative compact and interesting.  I was surprised how much I liked this film.

DeNiro & Pfeiffer: Wizard of Lies

Watching the recent HBO movie, Wizard of Lies, familiarizing myself with the story of Bernie Madoff was like watching a modern twist on Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy, Doctor Faustus. Madoff’s hubris gets the better of him over a period of eighteen years after selling his soul to begin a hedge fund and fraudulent operation which over time grows into an insidious secret monster. In 2008, he told his sons, and they turned him. Thousands of investors suffered, families, including his own, were destroyed and now he rots in jail with his accusors hoping he suffers eternal damnation. Here’s a timeline of his history if you are interested from CNN, Bernard Madoff Time Line. 

The HBO film directed by Barry Levinson and written by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum, and John Burnham Schwartz, based on the non-fiction book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques focused on the relationships of his family and his wife of over 50 years, Ruth. Bernie and Ruth Madoff backstory.

DeNiro gives an impressive performance who manages to portray the human side of the man with varying emotions from bellicose barking to stone-faced resignation.  The strongest moments of the film are when he is interacting with his wife, Ruth, played perfectly by Michelle Pfeiffer. She simply nailed it. Her accent, her dependency on her “lifeguard”, their intrinsic life put her in a heart-breaking situation several times. In fact, if Pfeiffer had not starred in the film or had a sizable chunk of the narrative, it would have been another biopic; a mediocre, flash-back narrative that’s overdone and predictable. Rent this on Amazon for fine acting by DeNiro and Pfeiffer. 4/5. 

Was Madoff evil? A sociopath? When you are on top of the world, with all the power (he created NASDAQ), and are revered by contemporaries and more power than the President, how could one avoid the lure of manipulation and greed? At the very least, invincibility was his cloak and he became larger than life. Madoff said he thought, in the beginning, he could fix his problems, and then smooth over the bending of the rules. That was his downfall. He could not admit he was at fault. He was addicted to power. He was addicted to his Ponzi Scheme–regardless of the consequences.

What exactly, did he do wrong? For almost twenty years, Madoff convinced rich and poor clients they were buying into an elite private hedge fund. He funneled their money to other clients, who believed the payments to be deserved returns on shrewd financial planning. When his escapades were revealed in December 2008, 65 billion imaginary dollars evaporated. Elie Wiesel and Steven Spielberg were victims as well as thousands of “ordinary” folks. There’s a cool moment in the film where his victim’s faces make a montage of Bernie Madoff’s face. A nice touch.

According to the film, Madoff felt relief he went to jail–a self-imposed recovery institution that will last long after he naturally dies. They say money is the root of all evil; Madoff is the personification of the maxim.

Fifth Anniversary

Woah! WordPress notified me that today my blog is five years old. Thank you, friends, for liking and commenting over the years. You make me happy, and I appreciate the time you’ve taken to comment and share your thoughts. This marker made me wonder–what was my first post on November 25, 2012?

Illinois Slag Pile

Hail to the Litvak, the Pole, and the Italian.

I started looking through the gallery of posts, almost 500, varying from film to photography and other cultural topics like art, books, and music and thought I’d share several that meant something to me for varying reasons.

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1. I spent many seasons hiking around this Virginia lake before moving to Arizona.

Hiking Around Lake Laura. Virginia

 

2. I enjoyed connecting a pair of films and placing them side by side for analysis. I fell away from doing that; it was an activity that attracted traffic and encouraged fun conversations.

Blue Jasmine vs. A Streetcar Named Desire

3. I enjoy sharing my favorite music. The musicianship from these three favorites never grows old. Here’s a preview — start at 3:00 for the Tony Banks solo.

YES, RUSH, GENESIS

4. When I started the Lucky 13 Film Club 3 years ago–yes, three–this entry wins for the most thought-provoking conversation with 123 comments.

L13FC: The Revenant

5. I spent time creating this pairing between the film and the book with hopes it would be intellectually interesting to those who appreciate history.

In the Heart of the Sea

6. I was in the right place at the right time when the desert cacti exploded into magnificence.

Five Shots: Cacti Blooming

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7. Greece. It’s hard to take a bad picture in a beautiful place.

Rhodes

8. Creative Writing–The research behind the writing was fun to post.

Saloons and Theaters in Jerome, Arizona

Two dogs leaped out of a canoe and flipped the boat, and the lady went flying. We thought that funny.

9. “In My Opinion” posts are personal. I’d like my children and grandchildren to get to know me through these posts one day.

Time Passes

 

Looking forward to 2018. Thanks, everyone! 

Winter Project 2017: Gene Hackman

In a career that spanned nearly five decades, Hackman was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning Best Actor in The French Connection and Best Supporting Actor in Unforgiven. He is retired and 87, and I regret to admit I have seen probably ten of his movies–but they seem a long time ago, and I was too young to appreciate him. I think it will be fun to revisit his classics with older, fresh eyes. As far as his personal life is concerned, I know nothing about him.

Every winter I assign myself a male actor who has made an impact on the movie industry, but I know little about. I will read a biography, watch films I missed and revisit the ones I’ve seen him in before. Starting in December through January, I’ll try to connect the film to the man in an effort to get to know him better. What would you recommend I see?

L13FC: The Music in Animated Films

Welcome back to the Lucky 13 Film Club. Traditionally, a co-host joins me, and we approach a topic of the film industry and talk to visitors all day on the thirteenth of the month. It’s great to hear from one and all, so add to the conversation. Would you like to lead a discussion you are passionate about? Let’s figure out a topic together and select a month that works for you. It’s easy and fun. Email me with your idea:  cbruchman@yahoo.com. 

For the last four years, I’ve been reintroduced to animation after a twenty-odd year hiatus. That was the time frame from when my kids were too old to watch animated films to when it took them to have kids of their own. Then I became a grandmother and started revisiting old favorites like Pinocchio (1940) and The Jungle Book (1967) and tried to catch up on the newer ones like the Toy Story set or Shrek. In fact, I watch more animated films than I do adult films these days. For example, I know every line in Frozen and Moana and Trolls is fast approaching the how-many-times-can-one-possibly-watch-a-film?

I’d like to introduce to you my co-host, Milly, who is the orchestrator of entertainment when we are together. While her articulation skills are developing, she has definite opinions about animation in films.

Shooting a bow and arrow after watching Mulan. Again.

Milly’s thoughts:

Grandma, Walt Disney cartoon movies are musicals and I like to sing. How can I sing the songs to you in the car if I don’t watch them over and over? They make me happy and you are my best friend like Pumba and Timon when they sing “Hakuna Matata”. I am Elsa because I wear my Elsa dress all day long. For two years and counting. I have magical powers. For example, I can sing all the words of “Your Welcome” in Moana. Not bad for a four-year-old girl. All the songs in Trolls are fun to dance in my socks. But Bridget the scullery maid cries because she loves King Gristle and he doesn’t love her yet, so not that one. Grandma, I know you would rather watch other cartoon movies, but they don’t have much singing. And you cry at the sad parts. I don’t like to see you cry, so let’s watch the ones I want. Over and Over. I will love them forever.

Grandma’s thoughts:

Some animation films these days are just too loud and silly for my liking. While Disney’s Cinderella is my all-time favorite princess, I like to remind Milly when she’s acting more like the step-sister Drisella, and she giggles at the thought. I must admit, some recent animated films have moved me to tears. I don’t mind watching them over and over.

Let’s talk about the two music styles in animated films. There are the Shrek films that have a great time with pop music, but I find I appreciate animated films that take advantage of creating a mood with orchestral scores like John Powell‘s How to Train Your Dragon 

and Michael Giacchino who has racked up beautiful scores for UP, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille.

Proportionally, I don’t hear sophisticated scores in adult films as I do in animated films, and that seems ironic that I have come to rely on a Pixar film take me away on a magical adventure or exotic location with music.

Do you like your animation with songs, or do you like your animation with a solid score? 

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