Are You Not Entertained? Books, TV, Movies

Always on the quest for excellent entertainment, here continues a series of a quick report of above-average finds.

BOOKS

 

The German Girl (2016) by Armando Lucas Correa. Historical Fiction. A fine opportunity to tell the story of the plight of the passengers of the St. Louis, when in 1939, 900 passengers sailed from Hamburg to Havana. They were mostly German-Jewish refugees escaping from the Nazi regime. The protagonist is a 12-year-old girl named Hannah Rosenthal. Her wealthy family hoped to start a new life in Cuba. Her best friend Leo and her father are refused entry. The ship leaves without Hannah and her mother who are forced to live in Cuba. After failed attempts to disembark in Canada or the United States, the St. Louis is forced to return to Germany where the passengers meet their demise. There is a duo narration between Hannah the girl who grows and ages in Cuba and her eventual grand-niece, who pieces together the mysterious puzzle of her aunt’s life.  It’s a good story but falls short at times. Hannah’s life in Cuba is glossed over. It would have been better had Correa devoted more time to the challenges facing the Jewish pair living in Cuba. 4/5.

Lilac Girls (2017)  by Martha Hall Kelly. Historical Fiction. A fascinating topic concerning the Rabbits, the female concentration camp victims at Ravensbrück, who suffered medical experiments. The POV alternates between three characters based on real people. It’s sophisticated, interesting and a gripping account of WWII and the aftermath. Set in New York, Paris, Germany, and Poland, Caroline the New York sophisticate and survivor Kasia bring justice to those that time has forgotten. 4.2/5

MOVIES

A Fortunate Man (2018)2018 Danish drama film directed by Bille August. Starring Esben Smed Jensen, it’s an intellectual film about a nineteenth-century ambitious young man named Lykke-Per who escapes his strict Lutheran family in remote Denmark and becomes an important engineer in Copenhagen. He is a man who seeks opportunity and advances himself in any way possible. He’s a flawed character which makes him interesting to watch and Jensen gives a fine performance. It’s a beautiful film about the possibilities of technology from the 1880s and Lykke-Per is complex and likable despite poor decisions. Equally important is the role of Katrine Rosenthal, the spinsterly oldest daughter of a Jewish family who sponsors Lykke-Per’s projects. The actress who plays the progressive feminist is Jakobe Salamon. She is marvelous. It’s long with a running time of 2 hours and 42 minutes. If you have time to kill and want sumptuous scenery and fine acting with interesting ideas and a convincing protagonist, you can find it on Netflix. 4/5

The Professor and the Madman (2019). Great fun seeing Mel Gibson and Sean Penn give convincing performances depicting the making of the OED. The irony does not fail me — how odd that a Scotsman and an American would have a huge influence over the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary. I loved it. The story, the acting, the story-line. I don’t know how authentic this film is based on “the incredible true story”, but I was greatly entertained. Check out the trailer. 4/5

TELEVISION

So as I was preparing to go to Scotland and London this summer, I watched a lot of United Kingdom storylines. Purely to get me in the mood.

Outlander (2014 -) At first I thought it was a Harlequin Romance put to television, but I did have to concede how historically interesting and the culture of the highlanders were displayed to my utter satisfaction. Details were accurate and the setting was absolutely what I was looking for. Of all things, my mother (at 78) recommended it to me. I was shocked at the graphic sex in the first season. I blushed. Now I understood what my young colleagues were talking about when they mentioned how exquisite Jamie Fraser was played by the buffy actor Sam Eughan. I offhandedly heard of the novels written in the 1990s by the author Diana Gabaldon but I was unaware Dr. Gabaldon holds three degrees in science: Zoology, Marine Biology, and a Ph.D. in Quantitative Behavioral Ecology. I am growing restless at the end of season two and might switch to Reign. It is about Queen of Scotland Mary Stuart. My mom says it’s better. We’ll see. 4/5

Luther (2010-)  This was easy to binge on. My blogging buddies, Pete and Abbi O, raved about it so I gave it a go. I got through a few seasons easily. Idris Elba plays Luther, a brilliant but emotionally impulsive detective who is tormented by the dark side of humanity while hunting down murderers. The cat and mouse plots are top-rate albeit gory. The best part of the series is the unusual relationship he has with psychopath Alice Morgan played to perfection by Ruth Wilson. 4.5/5

DOCUMENTARY

May it Last (2017) The Avett Brothers are refreshing because they don’t follow the pattern of a band rising up to stardom via sex, drugs, and rock and roll. I love their music and their relationships are heartwarming. Authentic and beautiful, their story will move you to tears in parts. 4/5.

This is the prettiest, astute song I’ve heard in ages. “No Hard Feelings”

Are you not entertained? Chekhov

Anton Chekhov‘s characters suffer. They lament because life is a waste, or they suffer from the sharp blade of unrequited love. Life is a jail sentence, and each stage is a desperate attempt at happiness that rarely endures. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite stories by him.

(1860-1904) 205 short stories, fourteen plays, and several novels and novellas.

“The Kiss”

A shy soldier with no experience with women is forced to attend a party when something miraculous happens. Taking a wrong turn in the mansion, he finds himself in a study in complete darkness.

Ryabovitch stood still in hesitation. . . . At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered “At last!” And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door. . . .

     When he went back into the drawing-room his heart was beating and his hands were trembling so noticeably that he made haste to hide them behind his back. At first, he was tormented by shame and dread that the whole drawing-room knew that he had just been kissed and embraced by a woman. He shrank into himself and looked uneasily about him, but as he became convinced that people were dancing and talking as calmly as ever, he gave himself up entirely to the new sensation which he had never experienced before in his life. Something strange was happening to him. . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his mustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger. . . . He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud. . . . He quite forgot that he was round-shouldered and uninteresting, that he had lynx-like whiskers and an “undistinguished appearance” (that was how his appearance had been described by some ladies whose conversation he had accidentally overheard). When Von Rabbek’s wife happened to pass by him, he gave her such a broad and friendly smile that she stood still and looked at him inquiringly.

     “I like your house immensely!” he said, setting his spectacles straight.

Here’s a link to read the story in its entirety found on East of the Web.com

A single incident transforms Ryabovitch. From his dutiful existence, conditioned and dull, he intercepts the force of surprise and experiences the warmth of attraction. A soul unaware of how starved it is for romance and attention. One moment unmindful. The next, the flicker bursts to flame. I like stories written around turning point moments in life.

The Lady with the Dog (1960) 

Yalta. Who wouldn’t fall in love? Anna Sergeyevna (Iya Savvina) is a young wife and alone. She parades around the boardwalk with her fluffy white dog looking beautiful. She attracts the handsome, older banker Dmitriy Dmitrich Gurov (Aleksey Batalov), who is also married and alone. The two experience a passionate affair. When responsibilities separate them, Gurov returns home to his privileged life no longer satisfied. I don’t think Chekhov is saying we should dishonor our reputations and responsibilities. I think he means that we choose our lives and then find we are eventually stuck in them. His story may feel dated to viewers today, but his truths about love and relationships are universal.     

Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

Louis Malle directed this twist on Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya. Theater director Andre Gregory and his actors, including Wallace Shawn as Vanya and Julianne Moore as Yelena, arrive at the New Amsterdam Theater in New York’s Times Square, making casual conversation among themselves. While still wearing their street clothes, the actors perform the play on a nearly blank stage. Julianne Moore is young and gorgeous as her presence tempts the frustrated Vanya. His life has been wasted behind the shadow of others. The film has a slow start which gains momentum and eventually becomes exciting. Chekhov’s language is mesmerizing. The questions raised by Vanya stay with you long after the film is over. Not sure I buy Wallace Shawn as Vanya, but Julianne Moore was marvelous. 3.8/5

The Seagull (2018) 

Do you like love triangles? Then you’d enjoy The Seagull. Age and unrequited love are major themes in this Chekhov play adaptation. Saoirse Ronan gives a satisfying performance as the ingenue Irena who falls for older Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) who is the lover of Russian diva Irina (Annette Bening). The cast delivered but none better than Elisabeth Moss who makes the most of her tragic character, Masha. I thought the execution of time by director Mayer disjointed. But I enjoyed the subtle interplay between the characters even though the large personalities were melodramatic to the point of distraction–but that just might be the camera editing which at times seemed choppy. Overall, the setting, the cast, the plot by Chekhov is an entertaining dark comedy. 4.5

What are your favorite adaptations, short stories or plays by Chekhov? 

Are you not entertained? Films & TV

Here is what I have seen lately. Did you like these, too? 

FILMS     

First Man (2018) I like all director Damien Chazelle’s films and several times I have enjoyed watching Ryan Gosling on the screen. There was a lot to appreciate in First Man, the story behind NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the years 1961-1969. The acting of Claire Foy and the entire ensemble cast including (Kyle Chandler, Pablo Schreiber, Corey Stoll, and Jason Clarke) combined with the launching of Apollo 11, all shots on the moon from the first imprint to the epic “A small step for man; a giant leap for mankind,” the absence of sound, the contrast of heat and ice, the sacrifices of the pilots, and the tragedy of the daughter all took my breath away. The only issue I had with the film was Ryan Gosling’s performance. Yes, Neil Armstrong was a cool cucumber under crazy twisty-turvy situations. Gosling interpreted Armstrong by standing devoid of emotion for two hours. Despite the weeping scene at the beginning, Gosling performance was much like Officer K in Blade Runner 2. Maybe you liked how Ryan played the engineer, the emotionally distant husband and father, Neil Armstrong? Regardless, the movie made feel like I was an astronaut with the shaky camera making me dizzy at times, and I suspect that was Damien Chazelle’s intention. I like visceral films. It was well worth the price of admission.  4.2/5

  Look Who’s Back (2015) is a satirical, black comedy from the best-selling book by Timur Vermes, published in 2012 by Eichborn Verlag. Hitler comes back through some cosmic time hole and wakes up in present-day Berlin. The gag is people around him think he’s an actor in costume. People think it is some type of joke and amuse Adolf (Oliver Masucci) asking at times, “Don’t you ever break character?”  Hitler is introduced on a comedy show and he goes viral. As his confidence grows, his rhetoric turns dark but those around him are enjoying the advance in their careers and tolerate the kinks in his personality because they want to milk the cash cow. There are a couple of obstacles. One lone studio colleague points out the crass, despicable raising of another Hitler to popularity, but he is ignored by ambitious Katja (Katja Riemann) — she is omnipresent in all German or Holocaust movies, doesn’t it seem? Fabian (Fabian Busch), a character who accompanies Hitler throughout the film,  brings him home to visit his girlfriend’s family. The Grandmother recognizes Hitler and screams at him with hatred to leave. Hitler is unperturbed and discounts her behavior as a hag who is a Jew. Fabian realizes, finally, that this befuddled man is really Hitler. Fabian tries to take matters in his own hands with predictable results that still shock. The seductive power of the media is the heart of this satire and serves as a powerful reminder of letting history repeat itself. Who would helm the fourth Reich? That character Christoph, the media mogul, in a scene mimicking Downfall when Hitler closes the door and yells at his minions while everyone in the office listens in shock is suggestive. 4.2/5

Fugitive Pieces (2007) focuses on the imprint from the Holocaust on a boy (Robbie Kay), raised by Athos, (Rade Šerbedžija, Harry Potter, Downton Abbey) a teacher from Greece. He sells his home and moves to Toronto. The boy becomes a man with an excellent acting performance given by Stephen Dillane (The Hours, Stannis in GoT) with lasting issues like the incapability of intimacy with amiable, exciting Alex (Rosamund Pike). Eventually, the serious intellectual Bella (Nina Dobrev) understands the depths of his loss and saves him. The film is beautiful; the passion and poetry of love is the cause of his blossoming. It was rewarding to watch him overcome his personal demons. For some, it might move too slow, but engaged was I from beginning to end. It’s one of the better Holocaust films and stories about love that I have seen in ages. Highly recommended. 4.5/5  

Did there need to be the fourth rendition of A Star is Born? Regardless of how you feel about remakes and the challenge it sets to create a fresh approach which will rise above the nostalgic emotional connection of its predecessor, I’m happy for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga who expanded their talents to give directing and acting a go. They created a convincing chemistry not seen since Walk the Line (2005). Cooper sounded like Kris Kristofferson and looked like a younger version of Jeff Bridges playing his Oscar-winning role in Crazy Heart. Throw in another cowboy, The Stranger, from The Big Lebowski, actor Sam Elliot, who sure felt like the real-life brother of Bradley Cooper, and it all felt cozy including the usual dysfunctional topics that plague the Rock and Roll family. On Gaga’s side, she was beautiful sans makeup and outlandish costumes. Her on-screen father Andrew Dice Clay surprised me with his portrayal of the NY/NJ blue-collar father. Was Cooper’s direction a tender-footed misstep? The editing spotty at times? What of Lady Gaga’s voice? I don’t think she sits with Barbara Streisand or Judy Garland, but her presence is impossible to discount as she is the diva of today. All in all, it was more entertaining than distracting.  4/5 

TELEVISION 

Benedict Cumberbatch can do no wrong in my eyes. It takes a lot of talent to deliver fast, intellectually difficult monologues and manic-depressive facial expressions like an opera singer’s trill, and that’s what he does. His Shakespearean background combined with sardonic humor–well, no one does it better. I thought he was magnificent in the dark comedy Patrick Melrose, a five-part television series based on the novels by Edward St. Aubyn. Patrick Melrose (Benedict Cumberbatch) is from a privileged but traumatic childhood stemming from abusive parents (Hugo Weaving & Jennifer Jason Leigh). As a boy, the story is set in the South of France. In his 1980s, Patrick is in his twenties and hooked hard on alcohol and drugs with an NYC backdrop. The story ends with his attempt at recovery back home in Britain. If you like your stories dark and sassy with great performances, you shouldn’t miss this. 4.8/5

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