Scandal (2012)

scandalTV Show – If you want fast paced juicy escapism then you should watch the TV series Scandal. This is about dirty politics and politicians in Washington, D.C. and their greed for power. Sometimes reputations get tarnished and scandals arise. That’s where Olivia Pope comes in.  She is a professional “fixer” who makes problems go away before anyone knows they exist. Kerry Washington stars as Olivia who worked previously as the White House Communications Director for the current President of the United States and was instrumental in helping him get elected to the Oval Office. Her crisis management firm has a staff of intelligent devoted operatives, who like Olivia, are very good at keeping secrets, perhaps because they all have secrets of their own.  These people devote their lives to managing crisis after crisis and they work very hard at trying to punish the bad guys and reward the deserving.  The characters are well developed and the twists and turns in the storylines will keep you watching. Shonda Rhimes of Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice is the creator of Scandal.

The Bletchley Circle (2012)

bletchleyTV Show – The Bletchley Circle is a new British crime drama, premiering on ITV in 2012 and on PBS in America in 2013. The main character, Susan, was a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during World War II, and although nine years later she’s now a housewife, she’s also been following the news reports on the murders of several young women in the area. She enlists the help of three of her old friends from Bletchley to help her decipher the pattern she’s sure is buried in the crimes to stop a killer the police can’t seem to catch up with.

I wasn’t expecting to love this show as much as I did. I tore through all three episodes in a day and a half. The show was a little more graphic than I expected – not gory, but they don’t shy away from describing the horrible things the killer does to his victims. It’s a delight, though, to watch a serious crime drama so completely focused on women that most of the men have only a few minutes of screen time. For any fan of British crime drama, this is a must-see.

Shutter Island (2010)

shutter islandMovie – Shutter Island  is  a psychological thriller directed by Martin Scorsese starring Leonardo DiCaprio. The film opens in 1954 as federal marshal Teddy Daniels and his partner, Chuck Auel are on their way to Shutter Island, a mental hospital for the criminally insane off the coast of Massachusetts. They have been asked to investigate the disappearance of Rachel Solando a patient admitted to the asylum after she murdered her three children. It is a mystery that Rachel was able to escape barefooted from a locked cell and no trace of her had been found after a thorough search by the staff of the island and its buildings.  As Teddy question staff, patients, and Dr. Cawley, the head of the institution, it seems like everyone has a secret. He begins to suspect that a terrible fate may be in store for the inmates in Ward C  which houses the hospital’s most dangerous and evil patients. There are hints of experimental, unconventional, and cruel treatments.  Teddy also has a secret, his wife’s murderer is a patient at the institution.  Not only is Daniels driven to find Rachel Solando, but he wants to confront his wife’s killer. The gothic tone of the movie is spooky and unsettling with unexpected twists and turns.  The storyline closely follows the book by the same title written by Dennis Lehane, which I also highly recommend.

Mark Twain (2004)

twainMovieMark Twain is a biographical documentary about the great 19th-century American author Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), directed by Ken Burns. Burns distills the essence of Samuel Clemens into almost four hours via interviews with many Twain scholars, plus other authors, such as Arthur Miller and William Styron. Hemingway called Twain’s book, Huckleberry Finn, the beginning of American literature. The character “nigger Jim” represented the first time that a black man was given a voice in literature. No aspect of Clemens’ life was omitted from this documentary – his family and relationships, his failed businesses, and his travels through Europe. Burns documents Clemens’ life with hundreds of photographs, maps, journal entries, readings and even a few very early film clips of Clemens himself. Clemens was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, along the Mississippi River. As a young man, he traveled west and moved frequently from city to city working as a printer’s apprentice, a steamboat pilot, an unsuccessful prospector and a newspaper reporter. He later became an essayist and novelist, and his comic genius was soon apparent. Twain made money doing speaking tours, where he regaled audiences with humorous stories of his travels and life on the Mississippi. He was a poor kid who became very wealthy and built a fabulous mansion, yet railed against the indulgences of capitalism. I loved this documentary about Mark Twain’s legendary life. Did you know that Mark Twain was a lifelong creator and keeper of scrapbooks? He took them with him everywhere and filled them with souvenirs, pictures, and articles about his books and performances.

Upstairs, Downstairs (1971)

UpDown_TitleCard2DVDs -The Library will be hosting the program Below Stairs: Meet the Kitchen Maid Whose Memoirs Helped Inspire Downton Abbey on Thursday, January 23, 7p.m.  British servant Margaret Powell wrote the best-selling memoir Below Stairs and she will be portrayed by Leslie Goddard.  Powell’s 1968 book was among the inspirations for Downtown Abbey and directly inspired the 1970s series Upstairs, Downstairs. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, I would highly recommend the series Upstairs Downstairs. Hard to believe that it first aired over 40 years ago on Masterpiece Theater.  It won seven Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Peabody.

The series tells the stories of the residents of 165 Eaton Place a townhouse in a posh London neighborhood.  The “Upstairs” is comprised of the wealthy and aristocratic heads of household Richard Bellamy a member of Parliament and his wife Lady Marjorie. They have two children, Elizabeth who is in her late teens and James who is in his early twenties. The “Downstairs” consists of the Bellamy’s lively and devoted servants overseen by Hudson the butler and Mrs. Bridges the cook.  Other servants include parlor maids, Rose, Daisy, and Sarah, kitchen maids Emily and Ruby, footmen Alfred and Edward,  coachman Pearce, chauffeur Thomas, and Lady Marjorie’s Maid Maude.  The series covers almost a 30 year time period and shows all the characters surviving social change, political upheaval, scandals and the horrors of the First World War. Most importantly you get a sense of the relationships formed between those upstairs and downstairs and their loyalties to each other.

Home for the Holidays with Andre Rieu

home for the holidaysMovie – Andre Rieu’s Home for the Holidays is a two-hour DVD of beautiful Christmas melodies. Andre conducts his world famous Johann Strauss Orchestra and Choir along with six powerful soloists, and an Austrian children’s choir in a spectacular setting in and around Andre’s fabled castle in Maastrict, The Netherlands. He presents 26 classics, including Silent Night, Ave Maria and O Come All Ye Faithful, as well as unforgettable renditions of all-time favorites like Jingle Bells and Go Tell It on the Mountain. Home for the Holidays is perfect in every way: dazzling, intimate, warm, and visually beautiful. Snow is used throughout this production to create a certain winter ambience. The white of the snow is in contrast to the pastels of the lovely gowns worn by the women in the orchestra and the women soloists. The concert was performed in Andre Riue’s home and garden for a small audience. It is the best Christmas DVD I have ever seen! Andre is simply the most commercially successful classical musician in history, having sold 30 million CDs worldwide. He conducts the orchestra with great energy, verve, and visual effect playing his 1667 Stradivarius violin. Rieu and his orchestra (between 80 and 150 musicians) have performed throughout Europe, North and South America, and Japan. Their recordings have gone gold and platinum in many countries, including 8-times Platinum in the Netherlands, plus two World Music Awards. I found that every detail was exquisite, and I plan to play this in my home every Christmas.

Horatio Hornblower (1998)

Horatio hTV series – There’s nothing the BBC does better than a good period drama, and their adaptation of the Horatio Hornblower series by C.S. Forester is, in my opinion, one of their best. Produced in the early years of the 2000′s, it stars Welsh actor Ioan Griffudd as Hornblower and co-stars Jamie Bamber (more recently of Battlestar Galactica fame) as his friend and fellow officer Archie Kennedy – a part much expanded from the books, but to great effect.

In eight episodes, the series follows Hornblower from his first posting as a midshipman (at nearly twice the age most young officers started in that position), just at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars, through his tenure as a lieutenant under an abusive captain, and up to his promotion to Captain at last. Of the series, the two episodes based on the book Lieutenant Hornblower, Mutiny and Retribution, are by far my favorite, adding Paul McGann to the regular cast as Lieutenant Bush, and featuring an excellent performance by David Warner as the dangerously unstable Captain Sawyer.

Samsara (2011)

SamsaraMovie – If you are in the mood for something different, or want to do a bit of armchair traveling via stunning visuals from distant locations, Samsara may interest you. It is a movie that is experienced rather than simply watched because of the impact of the graphic imagery of landscapes and human culture that are presented without a defined context. Filmed over four years, the images were photographed entirely in 70mm and transferred to 4K digital projection format. I’ve read recommendations for seeing this film on as large a screen as possible because of the splendid visuals, and I completely agree. Amazing real-time and time-lapse images that are as diverse as natural landscapes, spiritual sites, and industrial settings are accompanied only by ambient sound and music, and no dialog accompanies the film. This enriching film alternates between soothing meditative scenes of aesthetic grace and thought-provoking, slightly disturbing, scenes evoking social commentary. Samsara follows in the footsteps of two award-winning predecessors Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi (which was accompanied by the music of Philip Glass).

Elementary (2012)

elementaryTV – It’s New York City in 2012, and Sherlock Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) has just been released from rehab where he finally managed to kick his cocaine addiction. His father, however, thinks he needs some additional looking after. Enter Joan Watson (Lucy Liu), former surgeon, current sober companion. Her plan is simple: she’ll live with him, escort him to NA meetings, and try to keep him on the straight and narrow. But Holmes is convinced that he needs an assistant.

It’s been a while since I loved a new TV show as much as I love Elementary. It really isn’t fair to compare this to the other currently-running modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation, BBC’s Sherlock; the two shows are doing completely different things. While Sherlock is adapting Doyle’s stories directly, Elementary is using the framework of a familiar set of characters to talk about the importance of friendship and loyalty, and it does so beautifully.

Constitution USA (2013)

ConstitutionMovie – Constitution USA is a new PBS four-part series about America’s ever-disputed founding document, directed by Ken Burns and hosted by NPR’s Peter Sagal of Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! It attempts to bring light and understanding to the nearly 4,500-word document, its history and important moments in its development. Peter Sagal (who is from Oak Park, IL) buys a motorcycle in Villa Park and rides all around the USA, from New England to the Hoover Dam to the Golden Gate Bridge to Little Rock, Ark., Montana and Texas.  He interviews scholars, lawyers, pundits and ordinary people about the relevance of the Constitution in the 21st Century.  Without being overly technical or dumbed-down it shows the role the Constitution plays in our everyday life. It has four segments: A More Perfect Union (federal, state and local questions), It’s a Free Country (the Bill of Rights and controversies surrounding it), Created Equal (about the Fourteenth Amendment and equal protection for individuals and groups) and finally Built to Last (the vitality and staying-power of the Constitution). All four segments have a very nice balance of commentary from scholars and regular folks, and Sagal provides a lot of wit and humor along the way.  There are many fascinating stories touching on free speech in the digital age, same-sex marriage, voting rights, separation of church and state, and presidential power in the post-9/11 world.  Each one-hour episode of Constitution USA vividly illuminates a central theme essential to the Constitution.