Are You Not Entertained?

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I was. Here continues a monthly series featuring the music, the books, and the movies that occupied my time.  

MUSIC

Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos epitomized the Baroque period. Introduced to them twenty years ago, and despite my leaning toward the passionate Russian romantics, I learned to appreciate the symmetrical beauty of Bach’s piano works. In the 1950s and 60s, no one denied Glenn Gould the title of genius when performing them. A quirky man in a world of his own, humming on his own recordings, I highly recommend the unusual, artistic film of 32 vignettes by Director François Girard (The Red Violin) and Colm Feore starring as Gould.

And then, for a musical treat, I got a kick out watching an old television program which featured some fabulous icons–Leonard Bernstein, Glenn Gould, and Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. You can watch Glenn Gould play around the 18:00-minute mark.

BOOKS 

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It’s been all about Steve McQueen in my house this past month. For the winter project, I’ve immersed myself in Marshall Terrill’s biography. As a cultural icon of the 1960s and 70s, I was reminded how free-flowing the sex, drugs, fast cars, and fashion mattered. McQueen loved it all and was an international star, commanding at his zenith almost a million dollars a film. In 1980, he died at the age of 50 of Mesothelioma from his days as a Marine, scraping asbestos off the walls of a ship. Did I like Steve McQueen after reading all about him? Not particularly, but he was cool to watch on the screen, and the biography was fast and fun, just like the man. 4/5.

MOVIES (TV)

st-vinyl-vol-1-front-cover_3000Stranger Things, the Netflix series starred a shrilled, hyperventilating Winona Rider, an ensemble of geeky pre-teens, stereotypical high schoolers, and two actors whose characters were interesting: Chief Hopper (David Harbour) and the fantastic Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) who reminded me of a young Natalie Portman. Nostalgic, dripping with Steven Spielberg tricks, it is my new guilty pleasure. 4/5

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Controversial director, Roman Polanski, has a gift for making beautiful films, and this political thriller is no exception. You may think you are on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but not so. The sand dunes, bulbous gray clouds, and windy spray was located on the North Sea island of Sylt. The Ghost Writer matched style with substance. Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan lead a fine ensemble cast with enough twists and turns to keep you engaged. And that closing shot is one of the best I’ve seen in a while.   4/5.

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Quiz Show(1994). Directed by Robert Redford. Stars Ralph Fiennes, John Turturro, Rob Morrow, and Paul Scofield. It’s funny. It’s smart. Based on true events, Ralph Fiennes plays Charlie Van Dorena WASP, a professor of literature, whose ivy-league-Brahmin-of-a-father has basked in fame and respect for decades and junior sets out to make a name for himself. Unfortunately, his moral dilemma piques the journalistic interest of a brilliant investigative reporter played by Rob Morrow. The acting is outstanding and Paul Attanasio‘s adapted screenplay is an English major’s dream. Who wouldn’t want to sit at the family picnic table with academian greats and listen to them recite Hawthorne and Shakespeare while munching on corn on the cob? Okay, well, I would. Robert Redford warns us of television’s manipulative power, run by executives, who will do anything for ratings. Sound familiar?  Mark Van Doren: Cheating on a quiz show? That’s sort of like plagiarizing a comic strip.”  4.5/5. 

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For the Love of Spock (2016). Even if you aren’t a Star Trek fan, I forgive you; everyone should watch this outstanding documentary for the cultural-historical relevance (breaking television boundaries with interracial mixing and science fiction influencing the leading scientists of today) and insight as to why Star Trek fans are a loyal bunch. On Netflix, it’s perfect entertainment during a work week evening when you are loafing on the couch with not much going on. Nimoy’s son chronicles his father’s life with balance and grace. I vividly remember as a girl lying on the floor in front of the TV mesmerized during all 79 episodes. Then came the movies. That’s a lot of emotional bonding and why creator Gene Roddenberry and Leonard Nimoy are tops in my book. 4.5/5 

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The Innocents (2016). At first, I wondered if this was a remake of the 1961 Jack Clayton film with the same title starring Deborah Kerr during Victorian England. Looks great! However, this is not the case. This French film directed by Anna Fontaine is about a young French Red Cross doctor (Lou de Laâge) who is sent in 1945 Poland to assist the survivors of the German camps and discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent. It is a fantastic based-on-true-events effort by Fontaine.  My only criticism is the space between the doctor and the nuns. The nuns remain “others” and in spite of the intimacy of delivering baby after baby; the nuns remain foreign entities other than a couple of brief conversations. On the plus side, I thought it a good call in the script to avoid flashbacks of the rapes. 4/5.

 A Man Called Ove (2016) This Swedish gem directed by Hannes Holms and his screenplay adapted from Fredrik Backman‘s novel of the same name was a surprise treat. This dark comedy affected me to tears which I wasn’t expecting. The grumpy old man, Ove, (Rolf Lassgård) who can’t come to terms with his wife’s death, discovers there’s still meaning in life. He seems like the dull model of mediocrity, but his love story told through flashbacks about his beautiful wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll) provides depth and surprises. The grumpy old man stereotype turns into a complex character when the people in his present like the Middle Eastern young wife (Bahar Pars) who helps him realize that life has a purpose even when you think you’re done with it. Touching and beautiful. 4.5/5.

 

Winter Project: actor Steve McQueen

Here continues an annual series exploring the filmography of a male film legend I know little about. I grew up with those blue eyes and wrinkled face in the setting of my early childhood, but I’ve only seen a couple of his films. This winter, I’ll set to task to read Marshall Terrill‘s biography on Steve McQueen. I’ll revisit his iconic roles, the lesser known, and check out the films you think I shouldn’t miss. Please join me with your thoughts and observations.

Nevada Smith (1966)

Directed by Henry Hathaway and starring: Karl Malden, Brian Keith, Suzanne Pleshette, Arthur Kennedy and Martin Landau. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes adapted the film based on a character from The Carpetbaggers(1961), a novel by Harold Robbins.

Steve McQueen was 36, the wrinkles in his forehead deeply etched, when he played Max Sand, a naive “kid” seeking revenge on the murder of his parents. The tale is a good one where Max establishes a mentor-master relationship with Jonas Cord (Brian Keith) who teaches him how to shoot and attempts to dissuade him from his route as the avenger. Along with his journey, he is loved and assisted by women who get him out of tight fixes like Neesa, (Janet Margolin) an Ojibwe or the cajun girl, Pilar (Suzanne Pleshette), who knows the Louisana swamps better than anyone. McQueen has a gift for picking roles that showcase his life talents such as riding a horse and shooting a gun. He acrobatically leaps up out of his saddle and jumps from fence to fence to sidestep an attacker. McQueen was wiry, dexterous; his complicated childhood as farmer-vagabond-Marine-circus traveler had a silver lining; hard knocks infused a graceful, effortlessness to his future characters. The cinematography of the Nevada mountains to the Louisiana swamps where he is a prisoner of a chain gang adds to the expansiveness of the story. 3.5/5.

The Sand Pebbles (1966)

Directed by Robert Wise and starring: Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen, Marayat Andriane, Mako, Charles Robinson, and Simon Oakland.   

Nominated for 8 Academy awards and 8 Globes, including Steve McQueen’s only Oscar nomination, Robert Wise’s pet project took years to bring to fruition, but it was worth the trouble. Clocked at 3 hours long, I split the experience into two days. It is one of the better classics I’ve seen — a great blind spot choice for anyone who wants to watch a highly satisfying film. It’s 1926 China, and the gunboat USS San Pablo (Sailors are nicknamed Sand Pebbles.) cuts through the Yangtze and Xiang River.  It is a love story. It is a historical drama about communists, xenophobia, and international intrigue. It is a sensory treat visually and aurally, with a dramatic Jerry Goldsmith score, engaging sub-plots, and great acting by the entire cast. A youthful Richard Attenborough provided sensitivity and compassion as Frenchy, in love with a Chinese girl named Maily. How was Steve McQueen? His style of acting is minimalism. He appears to stand around a lot doing nothing, saying little, but he creates a type of realism that is surprising. It is hard to keep your eyes off him. He is the core and the actors revolve around him. The tricks he employs to manipulate the audience to keep looking at him is natural and deliberate. I’m trying not to give away spoilers, but in the comment section, feel free to discuss your favorite scenes or thoughts about Steve McQueen. If you haven’t seen The Sand Pebbles, here is a descriptive trailer. 4.5/5. 

Oscar Wilde

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He was a flamboyant fop, a man ahead of his time, a brilliant playwright and rebel of the Victorian period. He was a staple in the Western literary tradition since I’ve been alive, so I was amazed the other day when a few younger colleagues had never heard of him.

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FOP: a man who is concerned with his clothes and appearance in an affected and excessive way; a dandy.

Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 and died at the age of 46. He was raised by intellectual parents from Dublin. He was a scholar from Trinity College and Oxford College, and he was an advocate for the rising literary movement called aestheticism. He rubbed elbows with the wealthy. He was popular and funny. Because he was a homosexual, he was sent to prison for hard labor and exiled from both London and Dublin. Sadly, he died destitute in Paris from an ear infection and meningitis.

His epigrams and aphorisms abound with wit and sarcasm. Which one resonates with you?

To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.

The heart was made to be broken.

Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.

Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.

There is only one thing in the world that is worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.

The only way a woman can ever reform her husband is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life.

Religion is the fashionable substitute for belief.

Men always want to be a woman`s first love – women like to be a man`s last romance.

No man is rich enough to buy back his past.

The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.

Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.

In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

The biography of Wilde by Richard Ellmann, is a staple even though controversy surrounds his account of Oscar’s demise. Ellmann suggests Oscar died of syphilis instead of meningitis. I’d like to read about other Irish writers like Yeats and James Joyce by Ellmann, too.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). It’s the manual for aestheticism.  He worshiped the Romantic poets of the 18th century. In the prelude, Oscar described the tenants of aestheticism. Natural beauty, created by God, and conceived beauty by humans are linked. To surround oneself with beauty is essential for happiness. The artist strives to reveal beauty, and in doing so, the artist’s profession is elevated. “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.”  Ah, well, cultivation has problematic side effects. Taken to extremes, surrounding oneself with luxury could create a pompous and shallow personality. It is a spooky classic–the book and the 1945 film contains a great cast: Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray, George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Lowell Gilmore as Basil Hallward, Donna Reed as Gladys Hallward, Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane, Peter Lawford as David Stone, Richard Fraser as James Vane, and Douglas Walton as Alan Campbell.

 

The Importance of Being Ernest (1895)His famous play is lighthearted fun and full of witticisms and puns. It was a favorite choice for high schools and colleges productions for a hundred years. If you liked the recent 2016 Jane Austen film,  Love & Friendship,  you would enjoy the 2002 period comedy adaptation starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, and Frances O’Connor. 

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I few years ago when I visited Paris, I had to visit the tomb of Oscar Wilde at Père Lachaise cemetery. Marked on a pane of glass in front of his tomb was my favorite epigram:

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

Unconventional and smart, he was an entertaining character.

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