House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)

House-of-Cards-Poster1TV Series – Francis J. Underwood, or Frank, has done all he can to ensure that Garrett Walker will be the 45th President of the United States. In return for doing his part, Frank only asks for what he deserves: to be made Secretary of State. Things take a startling turn when those in power whom Frank believed he could persuade, manipulate and control decide to give his position to someone else.

Frank is not content treated so poorly, nor is he willing to remain House Majority Whip forever. Instead, with his wife, Claire, he begins to plot a fitting revenge. A scheme worthy of Shakespearean play and, in many ways, quite similar.

To achieve their own joint (and personal) goals, they will use the President, the Vice President, the Chief of Staff, the Chief of Police, Senators, Representatives, Governors, Ambassadors, billionaires, photographers and reporters as pawns. All the while both of them know they can’t really rely on or confide in those around them.

And if they can’t trust anyone, can they even trust each other?

The acting throughout is consistently excellent. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright do a brilliant job of playing the lead characters. Superbly written and darkly entertaining, House of Cards Season 1 (as well as Season 2 and Season 3) is well worth a watch. Or, in my case, a very frequent re-watch.

Penny Dreadful (2014)

Penny DreadfulTV Series – Sir Malcolm Murray’s daughter Mina has disappeared, probably in connection with whatever terrible thing killed her husband Jonathan Harker. He and his daughter’s best friend, Miss Vanessa Ives, are collecting a team of people to help them bring her home, including Sembene, Malcom’s African servant; Ethan Chandler, an American gunslinger; and Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, an anatomist who’s desperate enough for money he’s willing to ask no questions. But everyone has their own secrets to keep, and the monster hiding Mina is more dangerous than they supposed.

Penny Dreadful is a terrific mash-up of Victorian horror – the old stories, not the Universal monster movies based on them. It’s not for everyone; airing originally on Showtime, there are lots of opportunities for blood, violence, nudity, and swarms of spiders. But for a horror fan, this is a wonderful treat: cleverly written, complex, and fascinating. Vanessa Ives is the role Eva Green has been waiting to play, and she does it to perfection.

Inequality for All (2013)

inequalityMovie –This is the award winning 2013 documentary about the widening income gap and its devastating impact on the American economy.  It features Robert Reich, an American political economist, professor, author, and political commentator.  Time magazine named him one of the Ten Best Cabinet Members of the Century, and the Wall Street Journal placed him sixth on its list of the “Most Influential Business Thinkers.”  Inequality for All is both an interesting history of the life of Rhodes Scholar Robert Reich, and a penetrating explanation of the erosion of the middle class in America.  The film is an intimate portrait of a man whose lifelong goal remains protecting those who are unable to protect themselves. It describes the historical events that have led to massive consolidation of wealth by a precious few and why this threatens the viability of the American workforce and the foundation of democracy itself. Dr. Reich is funny, engaging, critical, realistic, and humane in his moral message about the current crisis of the U.S. income gap and the growth of poverty in the United States. Reich has published 14 books, including Reason, Supercapitalism, and the best selling Beyond Outrage. The film is well researched and valid and throws a very bright light on why ordinary people can barely make ends meet. Reich is currently Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

The Hundred Foot Journey (2014)

The_Hundred_Foot_Journey_(film)_posterMovie – The Hundred Foot Journey is a wonderful movie about rivalry, family, love and self-discovery. In the midst of political unrest, the Kadam family’s restaurant is set on fire resulting in the death of their matriarch and chef and loss of their family business. The father and his children flee India for Europe and by chance they settle in a small village in France. The oldest son Hassan learned much about cooking from his mother, so the family decides to open a restaurant. It is located directly across the street from an exclusive haute cuisine restaurant owned by Madame Mallory, who is obsessed with earning another Michelin star for fine dining. As you can imagine, Madame is none too pleased with her new neighbors’ eatery complete with a garish Taj Mahal facade and blasting Bollywood music. To further complicate things there is a growing romance between Kadam and Madame’s sous chef, Marguerite.  Totally delightful and guaranteed to stimulate your culinary senses.  We also have the book by Richard C. Morais, The Hundred Foot Journey, that the move is based on.

Groundhog Day (1993)

groundhogMovie – After last year’s extended winter freeze I’m skeptical that the famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, will have mercy and cast no shadow on February 2nd. Regardless of prognostications I can make the most of inclement weather by enjoying an old favorite, Groundhog Day, which was filmed not so far away in Woodstock, Illinois.

Woodstock annually celebrates the holiday and their brush with movie-making fame. Past festivities have included the director/writer Harold Ramis as well as other cast and crew. (Ramis is featured in And here’s the kicker : conversations with 21 top humor writers on their craft by Mike Sacks. Punxsutawney Pennsylvania celebrations, which the film depicts, have also garnered participation from the film’s celebrities and boast crowds of 20,000+.

This film about a self-centered news announcer stranded in small-town limbo appears to be an ordinary comedy, filled with Ramis and Murray’s witty brand of humor; but like other classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life, it contains deeper themes that resonate with many people. For example, the importance of community and connecting with others, especially during bleak days, appears in both classics. How one uses the time one is given is also a shared theme. So is the idea of receiving a second chance to learn life lessons.This film resonates with so many filmgoers that it has made numerous top movie lists and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. Despite the weather outside being dreadful, this film has inspired folks around Woodstock to emerge from their homes and celebrate.

Anita O’Day: The Life of a Jazz Singer (2007)

anita o'dayMovie – This is the award-winning documentary about the life of the great jazz vocalist Anita O’Day (born Anita Belle Colton in Chicago). Anita provides reflections and candid recollections on her life and music, and the documentary is packed with interviews and performances. Her career was long and eventful, spanning seven decades; her last album recorded when she was 84. She left an unhappy home at age 14 and toured the Midwest “Walk-a- thons” as a marathon dancer and singer. Then, she started singing in little clubs around Chicago from 1936 to 1939 – clubs in Uptown, such as the Ball of Fire, the Vialago, the Planet Mars, the Off-Beat and the Three Deuces. At the Off-Beat she met Gene Krupa, and in 1941 he asked her to start touring and recording with his band. That year, Down Beat named her “New Star of the Year.” She sang with the Woody Herman band in 1943, and then joined the Stan Kenton band in 1944, where she recorded several hit songs and rose to fame. Subsequently, she became a solo artist. Many placed her in the same category of such jazz vocalists as Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughn, saying her talents matched theirs. She toured Japan for three decades with a big band and was hugely successful. Along with Mel Torme, she is often grouped with the West Coast cool school of jazz, and her skills in improvisation of rhythm and melody put her squarely among the pioneers of bebop.

Fed Up (2014)

fed upMovie – This 2014 advocacy documentary was produced by journalist and TV personality Katie Couric, who narrates it. According to this movie, the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and other serious conditions is due to the high-sugar diet consumed by millions of Americans, especially children. Fed Up blows the lid off everything we thought we knew about food and exercise, and exposes the hidden truths contributing to our serious health crises. The film features interviews with the country’s leading diet experts, as well as former President Bill Clinton, who is now a vegan. Sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, “pure” cane sugar, and similar sweeteners are found in countless products, which are constantly marketed to small children. The fast food industry is pushing these products on all of us in the same way that the tobacco industry used to glamorize cancer-causing cigarettes. It shows why ‘calories in, calories out’ is a useless model for explaining why we’re growing around the waist as a society. The basic premise of the documentary is that sugar is the primary culprit in our diet, and that the big sugar lobby in Washington mitigates against efforts to challenge this problem. We need to improve education and get consumers to demand products that have less sugar. Similarly, the documentary posits that a return to cooking real food in our school cafeterias, and in our homes, instead of buying processed food, would result in healthier kids, and save money. Fed Up accurately highlights the multiple factors which directly interfere with getting to the truth about obesity.

Mr. Selfridge (2013)

mr-selfridge-first-season_17180TV Series – Another winning series from Masterpiece Theater – Mr. Selfridge is the ultimate armchair shopping experience.  The story revolves around the actual American retail magnate, Harry Selfridge, who owned and operated an exclusive department store in London called Selfridges which opened in 1909.  Born in Wisconsin he married Chicago socialite Rose Buckingham.  He gained his retail experience from Marshall Field’s where he worked for 25 years.  Selfridge wanted to bring shopping to a new level for Londoners.  He wanted his customers to view shopping as a pleasure instead of a necessity and he embraced the philosophy of “the customer is always right”.  He wanted Selfridges to be a place to spend the day and money as customers dined in one of the elegant restaurants, relaxed in the library or reading and writing rooms, and perused extensive displays of merchandise handled by an expert sales staff. The series magnificently portrays the glamor of the store, as well as gives us an intimate look into the lives of Harry and his family, and some of the fascinating characters of Selfridges.  A must see.  Fans of Downton Abbey will be sure to enjoy this too.

The Rolling Stones 1969-1974: the Mick Taylor Years

rollingMovie – This is an interesting documentary of a time period, after the death of Brian Jones, when Mick Taylor became the fifth Rolling Stone. If you look at the overall history of the Rolling Stones, the depth of musicianship in the late 1960s (post Brian Jones) to the mid-1970s (pre-Ron Wood) was unmatched, and they were arguably the best live band around. At that time, a young Mick Taylor was regarded as the best guitarist in the UK, and bringing in his talent to the band was a great move. Taylor’s brilliant guitar virtuosity greatly complimented the tough blues guitar riffs of Keith Richards. Mick Taylor’s presence on guitar gave the Stones a depth that allowed them to tighten up, explore different musical genres, and produced the Stones two most wholly realized albums: Exile on Main Street and Sticky Fingers.  The documentary uses penetrating interviews with noted rock music critics, remarkable behind the scenes film footage, and discussions of the group’s problems with finances, drugs and girlfriends.  The Rolling Stones are ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as fourth on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and their estimated album sales are above 250 million. They have released 29 studio albums, 18 live albums and numerous compilations. Sticky Fingers (1971), for example, was the first of eight consecutive number one studio albums in the US. This documentary is not as good as Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones (1974), but it is certainly a must see.

Mushi-shi (2005)

mu2TV Series – Ginko is a mushi-shi, a scholar of those invisible, mysterious creatures called mushi which sometimes, through no fault of their own, cause serious problems for the humans and animals with which they interact. Each episode of the show follows Ginko’s attempts to resolve a particular situation caused by mushi, from the family who cannot leave a bamboo forest no matter how hard they try to the boy whose drawings come to life but only if he draws with his left hand. Because Ginko himself attracts mushi, he can’t stay in one place for too long, so he wanders from one place to another, helping others with their problems while he attempts to understand the creatures that cause so much trouble.

Mushi-shi is a faithful adaptation of the manga series by Yuki Urushibara, originally published in Japan from 1999-2008. It’s absolutely beautiful, with gorgeous animation reminiscent of both Studio Ghibli films and the watercolor paintings used for the book covers. The stories are similarly haunting, emotional pieces very like ghost stories in most cases. Since there’s no overarching plot, they’re great to watch one at a time and savor.