Movie – Mark 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.
DVDs -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.
Movie – 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.
TV 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.
Movie – 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).
TV – 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.
Movie – 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.
Movie - Hemingway and Gellhorn is HBO’s prestige movie featuring the tempestuous relationship between the two great writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha (“Marty”) Gellhorn. Hemingway wrote 25 books and won the Nobel Prize, as well as a Pulitzer Prize. Marty Gellhorn is known as America’s greatest war correspondent, male or female. The movie is really about her and her amazing career. She liked to say “I do not see myself as a footnote to someone else’s life.” In the late 1930s, she met Hemingway and the two of them traveled to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, and the movie uses black and while film to depict war scenes from that time. She and Hemingway lived together for four years (they were married in 1940; she was Ernest’s 3rd wife). Nicole Kidman is absolutely brilliant as Martha Gellhorn, but to me Clive Owen was not very convincing as Hemingway. The movie features a lot of sex, drinking and violence, but does not delve very deeply into the writing. However, Hemingway’s most famous book, For Whom the Bell Tolls, was inspired by Gellhorn. Hemingway and Gellhorn is set against a backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, and homes in Key West, Florida, the Finca Vigia in Cuba, and Ketchum, Idaho.
TV Series – When I was exploring the library collection for Halloween related material, I came across the comedy series Reaper. Reaper was a funny television series lasting two seasons, and after flying through it on DVD, I was disappointed to reach the end. The show’s main character Sam learned his parents had sold his soul to the Devil (played fabulously by Ray Wise), and Sam was forced to work as the Devil’s bounty hunter. Sam’s friends helped him out, and his sidekick Sock often stole the scene with idiosyncratic humor. Part of the fun of the series were the creative antics of Sam and his friends while they were at their day jobs at a big-box home store. The comedy also had romantic story-lines, and engaging mysteries threaded through the series. The show ended before all of these loose ends were tied up. This was due to the stalling of syndication talks, during which time the show’s stars were recruited to other projects. In a 2010 interview with CliqueClack TV, creators Fazekas and Butters revealed many of the unresolved plots from the series: How Reaper would have ended.
TV series – I was hooked on Homeland from the very first episode. Nicolas Brody (played by English actor Damian Lewis) is a marine returning to the United States and his family after eight years of captivity in Iraq. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes), an Intelligence Officer for the CIA, spent several years in Iraq trying to infiltrate terrorist organizations. Both Brody and Carrie carry psychological scars from their experiences in the Middle East which continue to plague them. Carrie suspects that Brody may not be what he seems and has her own secrets to protect as well. The cast of interesting and conflicted characters, including Mandy Patinkin as Carrie’s boss and mentor, contributes to the depth and intrigue of the show. The plot twists and turns, the characters grapple with difficult choices and their own vulnerabilities and the result is a riveting TV drama. Season 2 has just been released on DVD. Since its first season aired in 2011, Homeland has won five Golden Globes.