Recent enjoyments

As usual I’ve been watching quite a lot of things over the past two months or so and some of that I have really enjoyed. I always mean to blog about what I enjoyed but somehow other things come up and I don’t write about as much as I could have done, mostly because I’m too lazy to go into more lengthy critiques. So, now I am summing up some things I’ve been enjoying entertainment wise recently, with shorter comments instead of lengthy reviews.

Let me start with Hallmark, which are basically mindless movies that I can enjoy after intense periods such as closely following elections in the USA or dealing with work stuff that frustrates me. I needed to take my mind off things for a bit, so after a bit of a Hallmark hiatus, I dove back into it to watch some of the Christmas Hallmark movies these past two months. Although most of them were fast forward worthy (I was again reminded of my Hallmark Christmas movie nightmare I once had), there were a few that I did quite enjoy. My fave (of the ones I have seen) is a movie with Warren Christie and Candace Cameron Bure with the very uninspiring title If I Only Had Christmas. It’s about a cheerful publicist teaming up with a cynical undercover rich business owner as they help a charity in need at Christmastime. I found especially the performance of Warren Christie to be quite soulful, which gave the not too surprising story (no Hallmark story ever is) an extra dimension.

I also liked the Paul Campbell and Kimberley Sustad movie, which they also co-wrote together, called Christmas By Starlight. The story is about a lawyer who makes a deal with the heir to a development firm to spare her family’s restaurant from demolition. She spends the week with him posing as the legal counsel his father is demanding he hire in the wake of some costly mistakes. I’ve blogged about Paul Campbell before, I always enjoy watching him, and Kimberley Sustad really is a perfect partner for him and he for her, this is their third film (I think) together. Again, the story isn’t too surprising but there are some fun scenes and there’s some amusing easy banter that goes along well with their easy rapport with each other; I enjoyed watching this.

Last month I already mentioned the Lucas Bryant movie (The Angel Tree) that I also enjoyed, so those were the end of year Hallmark highlights for me.

Putting Hallmark aside (it needs to be enjoyed in not too large doses) I also watched a German movie called Der Vorname (thank you Herba for the suggestion!) about a family dinner where a family member, who is an expectant father, announces that he wants to name his baby son Adolf. Not only the controversy over the name makes this movie good, it’s also very funny at times and the family dynamics and annoyances are very real and relatable. I know not all my German readers will agree, but German movies can be really good and usually tend to be way better than Dutch ones, this is another example of that. I really enjoyed it and actually ended up watching this twice to make sure I caught all the nuances.

I watched the second season of The Alienist (8 sepisodes) at the beginning of November which I really enjoyed, just as I had enjoyed the first season when I first saw it last year or so. Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) now has her own detective agency and teams up again with Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Brühl) and reporter John Moore (Luke Evans) to find a serial kidnapper and killer of babies. I didn’t like the ending between Sara and John very much, so I hope a third season will come to correct that.

The Alienist lead me to another period drama detective series which I finally got around to watching about two weeks ago. It’s called Miss Scarlet and the Duke, starring Kate Philips as Eliza Scarlet and Stuart Martin as the duke/inspector William Wellington. It’s set in Victorian London and is about the headstrong Eliza Scarlet who is left penniless when her father dies and decides to continue her father’s detective agency, to the annoyance of her childhood friend and also Scotland Yard detective inspector William Wellington. She becomes the first-ever female detective in Victorian London and is soon solving murders. Of course there is some sexual tension between the two but this series isn’t only about that. There is only one season (consisting of 6 episodes) of this show and I especially liked the last two episodes, which left me wanting more. Apparently filming for a second season was halted due to the Covid 19 epidemic but I really hope that second season will come.

I also watched some more serious stuff that I enjoyed, mostly US political stuff around the time of the US presidential elections. I saw The Way I See It, a documentary about White House photographer Pete Souza, who closely documented the 8 years of Barack Obama’s presidency and also did some photography of Ronald Reagan. It’s a fascinating portrait of the Obama presidency as seen through his lense and from a human standpoint shows such a stark contrast with the current US president. Pete Souza is a soft-spoken, almost shy man, who likes to blend into the background, but for this documentary takes up a bit more of the stage as he presents his work.

In more politics, I also finally got around to watching the four part documentary series Hillary last month, which is an intimate portrait of former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and how she became one of the most admired and also vilified women in the world. It was a fascinating watch and though, yes, she may have her faults, she still would have made a far better president than Donald Trump.

Recently I also watched The Long Song, a three part BBC series from 2018 that I had meant to watch but never got around to until now. It’s about the end of slavery in 19th century Jamaica and follows the life of slave girl July (Tamara Lawrance). The tone of the drama is a bit mixed, in parts trying to be humorous in its voiceover and that feels off, but the story is very compelling nonetheless and I was fascinated throughout. I don’t know how truthful the narrative is, but it really is worth a watch. Tamara Lawrance is awesome as the feisty and rebellious July and so were Hayley Atwell who played her spoiled owner and Jack Lowden as the idealistic overseer who loses himself.

The only book on this list of things I enjoyed these past two months or so, is the only book I actually got around to reading during this time (yeah, too little reading going on here!). Over Christmas I read Michelle Obama’s Becoming. It was a great read and helped me understand more about who she is, her background, and also gave me a little insight into the dynamics of her marriage to Barack. The telling of her years before she became First Lady is almost more compelling than the last part of the book set during the presidency, as the formative years are very much the foundation of who she came to be and those stories were (to me) less known. The book was a very thoughtful telling of her life and was a bit of an analysis of her character as well. I’d already seen (and enjoyed) the documentary of her book tour a while back, I was glad to now finally read the book itself, giving me more insight in the woman behind the icon.

The book reminded me that I had once read about a movie that had been made about the young Obamas love story. It turned out to be a 2016 film that was made about the Obama’s first date back in 1989 called Southside With You. The film is of course speculative in its dialogue but, knowing a bit more about that first date and about the Obamas through the Becoming book, it really felt true to Barack and Michelle to me. It’s got a very calm and thoughtful feel to it (I really liked Parker Sawyers as Barack Obama) and although I wouldn’t give it the 4 stars it gets on this promo picture, I still thought it was very nicely done. Over time I’ve watched a couple of Harry and Meghan love story adaptations, a TV film about the Danish crown princess Mary (who was born Australian) and her prince’s love story; way back I once saw an awful adaptation of William and Kate’s love story and not long ago I saw bits and pieces of the latest season of The Crown. Of all these true story adaptations that I’ve seen, I thought Southside With You was way better than any of them.

Last but not least, and on a completely different note, just after Christmas I binge-watched the new costume drama Bridgerton on Netflix. It’s set in Jane Austen times at the beginning of the 19th century and centers around the Bridgerton family (a widowed mother and her 4 sons and 4 daughters), the eldest daughter Daphne ‘coming out’ during the London season and falling in love with a duke. It’s apparently an adaptation of a romance novel, and while it looks and is set in Regency times, it has some modern twists, with most notably a truly wonderful diverse cast that I love. The characters are all fun and it has quite a lot of sexy times in it too (which I really didn’t need to see that much of but was fine). It’s filled with clichés but boy, is it a fun watch!

This adaptation is made after the Bridgerton romance novel series written by Julia Quinn, aparently there is a book each for each of the siblings. I found them online, dipped through the first book and the story looks to be pretty much like the Netflix series. Instead of reading that, I went on to actually read all of the second book (The Viscount Who Loved Me) yesterday afternoon/evening (it’s a quick and fun read), which centers on the love story of oldest brother Anthony. Yes, I will be reading more because I want to know what becomes of all these Bridgerton siblings and Penelope (from a neighbouring family). I hope Netflix will renew Bridgerton for a second series. For all it’s love story clichés, it’s very well done, it has a light touch, good characters, some nice thoughts on how society became so diverse (which is a series thing and not in the books, by the way) and also dives into the roles of women, their status, conforming where they don’t necessarily want to conform and showing how keeping genteel women in the dark about sex really disenfranchises them. It really is a fun and sometimes even thought provoking world to get lost in for a while. I’m already waiting for more.

That’s it, my recent enjoyments (off the top of my head). This afternoon my new Kobo e-reader that I ordered yesterday should be arriving (the old Sony one I had had its issues and with the Christmas bonus I got from work I figured it was time for a new one). I think I may be ensconced in the Bridgerton books for a while on my new e-reader before I delve into Barack Obama’s biography, so there’s a chance there may be less blogging going on for a while. Two more days till the New Year and I intend to spend it reading a lot. 🙂

Christmas tree & Talmudic law

Learning and questioning and arguing certain points of life, philosophy, theology, etc. are central elements of Judaism. The Talmud (Jewish law with countless commentaries on it) is made up of thousands of arguments rabbis have made about everything that governs life, it’s basically a sacred book (made up of several volumes) of arguments. In yeshivas (Jewish religious schools), the Talmud is studied and the endless laws and arguments are argued about. To give you a little idea, the kashrut (the dietary laws for eating kosher) alone are made up of 613 rules!

Historically, yeshivas have only been open to boys although nowadays in non-Orthodox Judaism women are allowed as well. In the 1983 movie Yentl, Barbra Streisand decided to dress up as a boy, just so that she could try to enter a yeshiva in early 20th century Poland to broaden her learning. Her happiness at being accepted into one is a beautiful moment of triumph in the movie. It also gives you a little glimpse at what a yeshiva looks like…

Anyway, all this yeshiva explaining is just the context for the video I actually wanted to show.

My sister shared a comedy video in our family group chat that is a couple of years old but that I’d never seen before. Watching this, you just know that the comedian, Elon Gold, must have attended a yeshiva himself as the arguing of rules and regulations in it is just so typically Jewish (useful to know before you watch this: “Shecht” = ritual slaughter / “Bracha” = a blessing)…

As someone who grew up around and with Jews and has Jewish family, this just feels so familiar and is really the funniest thing I have seen this Christmas season! I do wonder, however, if it as funny to people who are less familiar with Judaism. Regardless, I thought I’d share anyway, along with just about all the basic knowledge I have of yeshivas and Talmud. And hey, if you’re not familiar with Judaism, at least you’ll have learned something, i.e. it’s a good thing Jews don’t do Christmas trees. 🙂

Uncle Vanya at the cinema

This afternoon Mr Esther and I drove for an hour to the university town of Wageningen to see the filmed version of the Uncle Vanya stage play that I had seen live at the Harold Pinter theatre in London back in February. It was a bit of a weird experience. We parked, walked to the arthouse cinema that was showing the film, went straight in wearing our masks, took them off while we sat, saw the film and then immediately afterwards it was off home again.

No exploring around town where almost everything was closed, no drinks in a café beforehand, no sitting down at a restaurant for dinner afterwards, no socializing and maybe finding other Richard Armitage fangirls before or after the screening; we just drove in, saw the film and drove home again, like checking off a matter of business on a to do list. None of the joys surrounding such an event for a day out were to be had due to the semi lockdown Corona measures in The Netherlands. Yes, that felt weird but it was maybe also very fitting for the mood the play had left us in.

The cinema version of Uncle Vanya incorporated the empty Harold Pinter theatre at the beginning and the end of the play, which felt sad and almost a little eery. Due to the camera being right in there on stage and the very many close ups (be still my beating heart every time the camera was all zoomed in on Richard Armitage!) this felt even more initmate than it had felt back in February on stage in that relatively small theatre. The soliloquys directed in part straight to camera also gave it an initmate feel, it was as if the viewer was right there on the stage as well.

As I had seen the play before, I was curious to see what Mr Esther’s reaction would be to the play. He was struck by the desperation of the characters and how little change was possible for them but also by the references to climate change and how modern that seemed, along with how topical the references to a pandemic were. When the play was in the third act and it was mentioned that they were in September now and everything just seemed the same, day in and day out, Mr Esther turned to me and whispered, “This sounds just like 2020!”

As we discussed the characters afterwards, I realized that this time around I felt more empathy for Richard’s Dr. Astrov than I had back in February. His mention of coming through a pandemic, and how experiencing the death of a boy patient had finally broken him, just hit home more now than ever, now that we are also in a pandemic and we hear the harrowing stories of health care workers in hospitals. He also seemed less negatively pushy with Yelena (Rosalind Eleazar) than I had remembered and the scene when he talks with her and flirts with her over the maps is just so good, with all the underlying tensions and emotions on display.

With Sonya (Aimee Lou Wood), where in February his leading her on elicited gasps of frustration in the audience, this time around the reaction was not quite as strong, you just realized he could not give that kind of love to that young woman. Mr Esther admitted to even being glad those two didn’t end up together.

Also, his scenes with Vanya (Toby Jones), drunk or otherwise, were mesmerizing to watch.

Toby Jones as Vanya was just as heartbreaking and disappointed as I had remembered him and just as funny too. However, to me in this filmed version, his connection with Yelena was less close than it had seemed on stage in February. His desperation for her was still there but she seemed to reciprocate less than I remembered.

With all the actors, and most notably for me with Nana (Anna Calder-Marshall) and Yelena, the emotions were far more there and well visible in the close ups. Especially Yelena was stronger here than I had remembered her on stage, more emotional and desperate than I remembered, yet just as much a fish out of water as she had been then. Mr Esther mentioned how he found it hardest to connect with her because we somehow get to know too little of her back story. Yet, her feeling trapped came across stronger than ever to me.

As for Sonya, I found her in general less patronizing than I had found her to sometimes be when I saw her live on stage and her monologue at the end was just as touching as I had found it live. The Professor (Roger Allam) was just as narcissistic and too self-obsessed to really care about the people’s lives around him, which somehow reminded me of certain world leaders. I could so identify with Uncle Vanya’s frustration with the Professor.

Mr Esther was most impressed by Toby Jones (he loves how expressive Jones is) and Richard Armitage in this. No, he did not say that just to please me. So, as a fangirl, it’s extra nice to hear such praise from a non-fangirl (or -boy) for my main actor squeeze. In the end, after all the desperation and midlife crisis elements in the story, he found that the most realistic and hopeful one of them all was also the youngest of them all, Sonya. We left the movie theatre feeling a little otherworldly and yet some of it had also felt so familiar.

We had some time to discuss all this on our hour long drive home and Mr Esther and I were very glad we had shared this experience with each other. We ordered sushi from the car which was delivered ten minutes after we arrived home…

We now move on back to real life, stuck at home again during this pandemic. Just as the Uncle Vanya characters, we are also not able to change much in our lives right now with the restrictions around us that are there to protect us all. To quote Sonya at the end of the play:

What can we do? We must live out our lives. Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live all through the endless procession of days ahead of us, and through the long evenings. We shall bear patiently the burdens that fate imposes on us. We shall work without rest for others, both now and when we are old.

And in the end we shall hope for the best.

I will survive

When I want to feel good, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive will always do it for me. I already mentioned that that song was brilliantly used in an episode of Lucifer but it was also briefly used on the final episode of the wonderful BBC sitcom Miranda and it was used in my favourite German movie called Jenseits der Stille (1996). I was just looking at all the versions this evening and decided to stick them back to back in one video…

So, now, when I need a smile, I can watch this on loop and my heart will explode with happiness and warmth each time. I recommend this as happiness tonic for everyone. 🙂

Vote him out!

I probably shouldn’t post this – this is not a political blog after all and I am not an American (nor would I ever wish to be) – but oh my goodness, I can’t keep quiet! What is happening in the US affects the world and it affects me and I just need to let it out. So, look away now if you are sick of (left wing) politics and here goes…

From my perspective the US is completely falling apart under the current ‘leadership’ and my heart breaks. It’s one drama after the other coming from the US. This past week alone it’s been voter suppression, lying speeches at the Republican National Convention (RNC) that the Trump base will just lap up as truth and now the shooting of Jacob Blake and the inadequate response to that (#BlackLivesMatter people!)… I just can’t handle it anymore.

Here at home, we already call that man in the White House a wannabe dictator and if that man isn’t checked or, best yet, thrown out (how hasn’t that happened yet?!?), he will turn into one and that will be the end of US democracy. It is so painful to watch what has become of a country that the world, and my kids, used to look up to; the admiration has gone, my kids are disillusioned and stunned at the lies and the nationalist arrogance on display. We now feel disbelief and horror when we look at the US and the way in which this president and his cronies can not show any adequate leadership and, worst of all, are unable to show human decency. Well, First Lady Melania tried in her RNC speech, but her words sounded completely hollow, knowing to what a diseased administration she belongs.

I came across this the other evening: Charlie Chaplin in 1940 from the movie The Great Dictator and his attack on Hitler and Nazism. For a while there, after the Second World War, it seemed like we as a Western society were working towards the ideals he mentioned but we seem to be sliding away again…

It’s time that man in the White House is voted out with a very clear majority in November… I fear it won’t happen (I just can’t understand that Trump still has an over 40% approval rating!) but I so very fervently hope it will. The world, and my family, will be grateful.