10.10.21

"The Father" by Florian Zeller (2020)



This is something I wanted to see for a long time, but postponed because in the last moment it occurred to me it probably might disturb me. But since I gravitate towards serious movies, it was inevitable that I will eventually go and see it - one of those strange days when deciding to have some quality time by myself, without anybody around. I took a beautiful, long walk towards the cinema, admiring window shops, inhaling the beautiful, sunny day and being very much aware of myself walking along the streets. No headphones - sometimes its enough just to listen to the buzz of life around. So I was actually in a good mood. 

"The Father" is adaptation of a highly successful French stage play "Le Père" that had previously won truckloads of international awards and have been staged in Paris, London, on Broadway, in Los Angeles, Australia and in more than 45 countries. Nothing of this would ever come to me if was not for Anthony Hopkins who has won "Oscar" for this role, against highly expected Chadwick Boseman. I have seen Boseman's role in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and he was electric - however, his one scene can't compare with full-length-movie virtuosity of Hopkins who switches between charming and menacing to lost and weeping. It was really tour de force and sensationally good role for any actor and I must say, I have never seen Hopkins acting better. True, in "The Remains of the Day"  he might have been more reserved and in zillion other roles he showed different types of personalities, but this one is extremely moving. 



The movie was directed by its original writer Florian Zeller who came on brilliant idea to show us dementia from the point of the view of The Father (Hopkins) - because he constantly forgets where he is and often gets disoriented, the space around him changes suddenly - the rooms in apartment switch and now he is in a waiting room of a hospital. Even better, his daughter Olivia Colman goes into the kitchen and comes out as a completely different actress (Olivia Williams who later comes as a nurse in a hospital). People around him are not who he expected them to be, he rages, laughs, argues and constantly fidgets about his hand watch that he suspects people want to steal. The whole story kind of goes in circles, where we slowly understand that he suffers from dementia and his long suffering daughter keeps him in her own apartment (with her marriage falling apart under pressure) while trying to arrange caregiver who might endure father's nasty personality. 


Its two-people show: Anthony Hopkins is heartbreaking as elderly eccentric who obviously was previously a strong man and a commanding personality but now is just a frail, old man holding to some ideas about still bossing people around. He even confides to a caregiver that younger daughter Lucy was always his favourite, not Colman (who is listening, in tears). But Lucy is nowhere around and he wonders why she doesn't come to visit him. Its very refreshing to see Olivia Colman out of period costume and she is excellent - she does not have to say much, because her role is one of a long suffering daughter who keeps the burden of the world on her shoulders. She does not have to scream and shout to project quiet tenderness and affection for her father. But we are aware that she is falling apart under the pressure and that eventually she will have to place him in the institution.


I must say that the movie affected me very much - left the cinema disoriented and had to take a long walk to go back to my senses. And its wonderful when movie can affects us so much, this was not just some entertainment but genuinely great art. I recommended it to everyone and will probably see it again. 

25.9.21

"Dune" by Denis Villeneuve (2021)

Yay, its here! Postponed and postponed and prolonged and re-scheduled, famously unfilmable and notoriously complicated SF saga is finally here. It is actually quite amazing that for such a legendary and influential novel, "Dune" does not have already million versions - apparently Hollywood could not simplify original novel enough for a successful movie. I have read the first three parts of the original novel by Frank Herbert and it was brilliant - not unlike "The Lord of The Rings", Herbert had created a universe by himself, with unforgettable and now immortal characters who all mingled, schemed, manipulated and fought amongst themselves like in some ancient Byzantine court. Almost like "Game of Thrones" but translated into SF world where action happens between different planets. In all honesty, "Dune" could have been a fantasy novel if placed in various kingdoms instead of between universe and open space. I have read with the greatest pleasure the first three parts and than stopped for the very same reason why I stopped with "Tales of the City" series - to this day, I find it unforgivable that author has such a low regard for his audience, that he can simply decide to skip the narrative and jump into the future, without preparing us for that. If I remember correctly, the "Dune" saga follows one particular story in the first three novels, than jumps 3,500 years in the future in the book nr.4. Well, this is where I stopped. You can't do this to me, I just won't accept it. (However, I might go back and re-read first three again)



There was some attempts to film the novel and the most famous was 1984. version by David Lynch (of all the people) which was unfortunately heavily edited - because of the gigantic costs, producers were afraid it might be too long & complicated so they edited and shortened the finished product to such extent that even Lynch himself had his name removed from the project. I mean, if you cut half of the movie out, there must be some differences. I actually have it on DVD and its magical - it helped that I read the books so I had no problems with following the story and loved how the characters basically work in SF world but they could be any medieval fantasy/ adventure story as well. It had Kyle MacLachlan, Francesca Annis, Linda Hunt (as a slave), fabulously grotesque Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonen and Sting as his sadistic nephew. AND legendary Swedish actor Max von Sydow, and the best of all, Siân Phillips as a Bene Gesserit  mother superior with magic powers. Fabulous. However, there are people who think its too complicated and too confusing, critics hated it and in general SF movies usually age very badly because our technical effects eclipse everything that came before, so the time was ripe for the new version. Here I also must add that "Star Wars" borrowed a LOT from "Dune" so it all kind of feels familiar but not really.



This new 2021. version by talented Denis Villeneuve was all special effects and no heart. Visually it was stunning, vast, hollow, empty, ominous and probably right in describing some far away space in the distant future where humans talk and behave completely different from us - but what was sacrificed was the heart, emotions and any sort of feelings for the characters. Because the attention is so heavily focused on special effects, flying machines, lasers, everything gigantic and planetary, suddenly I realised that I actually don't care for one single character here - they are all just running, screaming, fighting with some unusual weapons and saying empty phrases (desert power?) but do we actually care if any of them live or die? No. They are cartoons. Most of all, I couldn't stop comparing the old Lynch movie to this one and how fabulously the older movie made it somehow look magical - yes it was SF but placed in a medieval court so it made sense. I couldn't shake a feeling this might be the future of the cinema, all special effects and no heart. (This is just first part of planned two). Right now this very minute I am going back to watch the old 1984. version. 


19.9.21

"For Once In My Life" by Carmen McRae (1967)

 

When rock music swept everything away like a tide, the whole generation of musicians who harked back to big bands and American Songbook suddenly found themselves floundering aimlessly. Some found a haven in Las Vegas, others in Far East where Jazz market was the next new thing, than you have some really big names that gamely tried to adopt to new music. Almost without exception these attempts were half-hearted - one listening at pop crossover recordings by Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Tormé or any of them and its veering closely to easy-listening, but not smooth enough for radio play since they were Jazz based. Oddly enough, the most idiosyncratic and mannered vocalist of them actually sounds perfectly fine.



Carmen McRae might have not been the immediate choice for pop crossover but apparently Nesuhi Ertegun and the guys at Atlantic had a huge respect for her and were determined to give her a push in that direction: no less than four studio albums and one live recording served her nicely until she found her way to Blue Note and eventually later returned to American Songbook. Here I must say that out of all famous American Jazz vocalists who attempted pop crossover, hers are the most enjoyable. And this is not because she suddenly sounded pop - completely opposite, because she was so completely fully formed and charismatic (in her late forties at the time) McRae sounded exactly like her own self, no matter what material producers put in front of her. That ironic, tough attitude stance is always there, mixed with a sudden outbursts of unexpected tenderness and vulnerability - along with covers which were back than expected, as Stevie Wonder, Beach Boys, Dusty Springfield or The Beatles, the biggest surprise is her version of stately Italian ballad "La Musica È Finita" that great lady covered as "Our Song" with a perfect ease and it suits her to a T. It might not have been a great commercial success because rock bands were all the rage, but it worked perfectly fine as the step into current direction for McRae who have not changed a single bit and sounded as she always did. 




Four Generations, circa 1905


 

16.9.21

"Naked at the Albert Hall" by Tracey Thorn (2015)

 

Oh, this was excellent!

I knew Tracey Thorn as a oddly haunting voice from the pop band "Everything But The Girl" and even loved their 1994. album "Amplified Heart" a lot, but this is type of music that I listen for a while before returning to Bessie Smith and my old favourites. No matter what I listen, you can bet that sooner or later it all goes back to Bessie or Edith Piaf. This is where my heart truly is. Because I am not really following pop music anymore, I was not aware that Thorn had quit live performing and somehow channelled her singing voice into a writing one: she had published three books and writes occasional columns about music - this is how I came to this, by reading her enthusiastic review of Kate Bush concert. The article was so interesting, inspired and idiosyncratic that it was clear this is someone with a special kind of writing voice. 



Than a friend suggested I should check more of her writing and since I just finished meandering courtroom thriller by John Grisham (it took me months), I decided to have a peek at Thorn and gulped it in two days. Now, this came as a surprise because I have problems with focusing on reading books for some time now (internet is basically distracting me) but this one read itself. I even went back to some chapters because they were written so well. I truly never knew Thorn is such interesting person and such well-read, engaging writer - in fact, I hardly knew any other singers who had shown such amazing talent for writing prose. Now, majority of singers use their craft intuitively and could probably not explain what is it that makes this special connection between the heart, the mind and the throat. In fact, I still remember someone's description of audition of young and unknown Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli as "surprisingly intelligent for his profession". Singers are simply placed on pedestals as they are more visible than for example instrumentalists in the background, but here we are talking about being celebrity, not being a good writer. The only singer who actually wrote genuinely brilliant autobiography is to my knowledge, Marianne Faithfull ("Memories, Dreams & Reflections", 2007.) And naturally songwriters like Cohen and Dylan would have talent to pull such project off without embarrassment. 



The best thing about this book is that is not a celebrity autobiography. That would just have been too easy, besides Thorn already wrote about herself in "Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star"  which was highly praised and showed what a stunning way with words she has. (I still need to read that one) This particular book is a collection of essays about the singing. Not in a sense of singing lessons or technical details how to open your mouth and straighten your back, but discussions about how singing actually happens, what is the difference between singing for oneself and performing in public, what it means "authentic voice" or "mannered voice", how in various genres voice means something completely different (in folk music voice is second to the lyrics and story itself), its full of research, quotes from books and interviews with other musicians. I was honestly just flabbergasted how interesting, inspiring and fluid this all was - there was even a chapter about the singers who stopped singing and what power has a silence if coming from mythological sirens - it is, in my opinion, the best non-autobiographical book by any singer that I have read so far in my life. Loved it! 

15.9.21

Josipa still going strong


Not long ago I was alarmed with the amount of hatred and negativity focused on 72 year old Croatian rock icon Josipa Lisac who was invited as a special guest on the inauguration of latest president and dared to perform very unorthodox, jazzed up version of the Croatian national anthem - what was meant to be a prestigious gig, turned into a huge scandal because apparently people were not accustomed on any liberties being taken with the anthem and there were all sort of accusations made against her, people took it as she was a traitor who purposely mocked it, etc. There was a call to boycott her concerts and even a legal court complaint against her. It was a huge storm (fanned by media who just wouldn't leave it alone and were constantly provoking another survey after survey about public opinion).


In the middle of all this storm, lady herself stayed quiet and would not discuss her musical choices. She did came to collect her lifetime achievement award on TV and firmly but politely skipped the question about the anthem. While the public roared in angry arguments, it became clear what a polarising artist she always has been: people either absolutely love her or can't stand her. There was never middle ground with her, as long as I can remember. This is probably the fate of all genuine giants, they are just so darn individual. I was upset and even myself got into arguments with complete strangers online, it was tooth and nail for a while. I felt as this was culmination of accumulated anger and frustration that has nothing really to do with great lady herself but people were just so darn miserable for too long and probably felt she was too big diva. On the other hand, if you dare to throw mud on one of the major cornerstones in our music, well who is the next than? 



Before you know it, Covid virus erupted and put this scandal aside: suddenly something that people did not take seriously at all ("Its something happening far away") stopped our everyday lives completely and there were no concerts or performances anymore. On top of it all, Croatia got struck with series of earthquakes and than it snowed on them all, it was as end of the world for a while. And guess who still continued - as much as it was possible in the circumstances - you are right, no other but 72 year old, ex enfant terrible Josipa who somehow managed to record a new video clip in a damaged museum space (where she used to sing, I was on those concerts) and slowly but surely continued to give performances when it was allowed. She even gave first ever Croatian virtual concert for which audience had to buy the ticket and log in at exact time. 




Contrary to what I thought, that anthem scandal with turn people against her, it showed who her public is. Perhaps this is why she didn't bother to explain herself to inquisitive journalists: probably she understood long ago that its not critics but supporters who truly matter. The public opinion is still divided and will forever be, when she is concerned - but there is a very strong support amongst the audience flocking to her concerts, buying her music and showing a great affection for her. Judging from the pictures from her live concerts, there is nothing to worry about. I am actually pleasantly surprised. 





14.9.21

"Respect" by Liesl Tommy (2021)


Aretha Franklin
was still lying in her golden coffin (with a sparkling red shoes) when the plans were already made how to profit from sudden media interest in her: before you could say Re-Re-Re not less than three movies were ready for release. First was the never before seen footage of documentary "Amazing Grace" taped simultaneously with the now legendary gospel album, than National Geographic made eight-part TV show about her life as a part of their series "Genius" (other subjects being Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso) and finally Hollywood came around to create long-awaited Franklin biopic for which she herself selected Jennifer Hudson for the main role. And this is just the movies - compilations and re-releases of the old material poured like avalanche. I have seen "Amazing Grace" and heard all the best about TV series but the major media attention was focused on the big screen biopic that seems to have been in making since forever. 



I have always found it amusing that Franklin - a famously tight-lipped and private person who occasionally took a swipe at any perceived competition - wanted to play celebrity game but on her own terms. For example, since David Ritz wrote celebrated biographies of Marvin Gaye, Jerry Wexler, Etta James and Ray Charles, Franklin decided she must have him as a helper for her own autobiography and than remained determinedly silent about everything that he wanted to really discuss and investigate. Because the biopic of Tina Turner made such a big splash, Franklin decided she must have her own biopic and naturally any project that must have blessing of its star or the family or the estate, will eventually come out as a vanity project.



To be honest, I expected "Respect" to be much worse and the critics have already killed it. I assumed they will whitewash the main character and make her into a saint. If it fails - and ultimately it does - is because it plays too safe: it follows a very predictable cliché that we have seen countless times in other biopics, a story where main protagonist rises, falls and rises again. So all the way trough, there is this odd sensation of déjà vu like we have seen this already before. A talented black singer with an asshole husband who is domineering and physically abusive, hm, I wonder where have we seen that one? On the positive note, there is a beautiful work done with period clothes, hairstyles and visual aspects of the production. So the movie is beautiful to watch but it goes on for too long and it treats its subject with such overt reverence that as a result, hundreds of things were just glossed over and never discussed. My overall impression was not too bad actually - it will be perfectly adequate introduction to new generations who might never heard of singer. But its not very engaging, its not exciting and it feels as just another artificial, laboured biopic. Lady herself was a thrilling artist and perhaps we just expected too much that movie about her life will be thrilling as well. 




13.9.21

"A Time to Kill" by John Grisham (1989)

 

John Grisham is one of those people who apparently live and work very successfully completely outside of my orbit. I could name countless celebrities whose activities somehow absolutely don't interest me whatsoever, although I know they exist and they might be very important to millions. In a way, to me Grisham is like Beyoncé - I know she is out there somewhere, breaking all the records and selling tons of whatever she is selling, but I live my life without her interference. And just like out of curiosity I gave her a youtube listening, I decided to check out Grisham. In both cases, one dose was enough to make up my mind this is not for me.


"A Time to Kill" was this legendary debut that no one bought initially but it became huge success after his second novel "The Firm" established him as a best-selling author. It is made into a Hollywood movie and a theatre play. Basically it is a courtroom thriller. It is happening in a fictional little provincial town of Clanton, somewhere in  Mississippi, where court have to decide a fate of a father who killed the rapists of his ten year old daughter. This is American South so the race of the involved is very important - if the father was white and the rapists black, the situation would be clear but it is the other way around - the father is black and the rapists white. While the black community is on his side, KKK gets involved and the sleepy little town becomes magnet for journalists and even the National Guard. 


What really bugged me here was not the story - which was gripping enough for me to plough until the end - but the storytelling and Grisham's style. He introduces the characters, explains the story and than he goes on endless meandering about the law and how basically everybody is corrupted and can be manipulated one way or the other. It is clear that author has a background in a law but this has been rammed into our throats. As in "I know what I'm talking about". The worst of all, I just couldn't find one single character to connect to because they are all so one dimensional + the main character Jake Brigance is a very annoying, amoral and greedy lawyer who smugly gloats in media attention and love pressing the buttons of his court enemy district attorney. I find very hard to read the book where the main character is so decidedly arrogant. Honestly, if this is what Grisham is all about, I had enough.

3.9.21

The return of Abba (and the best birthday present)

 


Honestly, I didn't expect it would move me so much.

A friend was bugging me for days about upcoming "something" from Abba and nobody knew what it is for sure but we expected release of the few songs, first new material in 40 years since they quietly disbanded. (There was never a big official announcement that group will stop, basically as two couples divorced, they find it distasteful to continue working together and they simply stopped.) And to be honest, I dreaded the disappointment. The more my friend was getting hysterical, the more I wanted to tell him "Stop it! What if they embarrass themselves? What can they possibly do in pop music now as 70+ years old? What if the new music is not close to iconic heights achieved decades ago?" So I wasn't really looking forward, specially now when we have social media and tons of hatred floating around in cyberspace. I thought maybe it would have been better to leave it as it was, safe in the memories and not attempt to compete with the new pop stars.


Than the day arrived - 2.September - only 24 hours after my birthday which was miserable - and I actually got really excited. Set my alarm on mobile phone not to forget to tune in youtube live announcement because I was at work, hoping to dear God that guests would not arrive in hotel exactly at that time. And trough all those annoying TV presenters and crying audience, I could not hide my joy when both Björn and Benny came for an interview and announced that not only they prepared some kind of hologram/avatar Abba show (to be played in London, venue specifically built for this) but they actually recorded a whole album of new songs, to be released later in the year. Yes, all four of them went together in the studio and worked for first time in 40 years as a band again. And both guys were serious about the fact that they would not do anything if they were not 100% standing behind the music and are proud and satisfied with the results. I knew about planned hologram tour and had a feeling that guys were excited about the possibility of virtual immortality of the band, but never imagined that they would actually want to make music together. And they did. 


So far they presented two new songs - majestic, moody Nordic ballad "I Still Have Faith in You" and catchy, classic Abba-pop "Don't Shut Me Down". I must say that I was moved to tears. Seriously and genuinely. Listened them over and over, crying my eyes out from sheer joy. Because contrary to my fears, they were still on top of their game and the magic is still there. All those gorgeous harmonies, delicate little musical touches, melancholy and melodrama, everything is surprisingly intact. And when ladies joined the voices together, my heart wanted to burst. I even felt a little embarrassed that I ever doubted them. Musically they didn't broke any new ground - they are exactly where we left them 40 years ago and this is a good thing, because they separated at the peak of their powers, just as their music turned darker and serious - now they are older, mature and everything is more reflective. In my mind Abba bloomed as a flower - initially bursting with contagious joy, than blossoming into bittersweet colours and later growing darker as both couples divorced (at this point they were not fun anymore and it reflected in their music). I never expected that they will even want to work together but here they are, 40 years after and the magic is still here. All four of them were sporadically working in music trough the years (guys more so as composers, ladies kind of half-heartedly because it was impossible to escape Abba's shadow and comparisons) but honestly I never expected they would do this again.


Scanning the media this morning, I see return of critics again - same people who never accepted Abba in the first place, still bowing to Led Zeppelin and somehow finding faults in everything that could be loved by mainstream. And I thought, how interesting, these same people are not listening music for itself but for  the opinion of others, because they need to appear hip and cool. Luckily I was never concerned with this and I listen music for the joy and beauty of it. In fact, I couldn't give a fig for the opinions of others. I saw Abba's popularity going up and down and up again, so they have definitely survived the test of time much more than countless other bands. This morning the sun finally came out after what appears to be infinite rainy month and honestly I felt so happy with new Abba songs playing constantly - the world just feels as so much better place with them around. 

29.8.21

"And Then We Danced" by Levan Akin (2019)

 

This is something I always wanted to see but postponed time and time again until now I had to because local movie online platform that screens it, is closing due to cinemas being completely re-opened again. (It worked as alternative, during lockdowns) And it might all worked out perfectly in my favour because the last night I was actually just in the right frame of mind to watch it and enjoyed it immensely. I do remember it vaguely as a 2019 hit in the art cinemas, but than epidemic came and swept everything away, its truly like B.C (before Covid) and A.C. (after Covid). 


Director Levan Akin is Swedish born and lives there but he has Georgian background, so for this movie he decided to create affectionate portrait of a (gasp!) gay love story in a deeply conservative and hard-core traditional Tbilisi. He actually had to lie about the movie story, to secure shooting locations. And afterwards there was a big deal about conservative protestors outside of the cinemas, troops guarding the peace and naturally a huge international celebration (it was the biggest hit on  2019 Cannes Film Festival). In discussing the movie I will try to explain what fascinated and impressed me without going on too much into details of the script itself - basically it is a forbidden and secret love story between two dancers in Georgian traditional dance school who also happened to be rivals for spot in the main ensemble. Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is sweet, young and fragile boy who carries the troubles of this whole family on his shoulders, while Irakli (Bachi Valishvili) comes out of nowhere as replacement dancer and he is basically charm personified. Now, I knew absolutely nothing about Georgia, I actually had to look on the map where is it - from my perspective it appears as a typical East European place (not unlike where I am from) with most of the people just surviving and living quite apocalyptic lives, youngsters smoking like chimneys and boasting about aunt bringing them fancy cigarettes from London. In all of this - divorced parents, bills unpaid, electricity cut off, nasty part-time job in a restaurant - Merab has his dreams about becoming a professional dancer and he has quite tunnel-vision until the arrival of the new dancer changes everything.


I must admit that I have never seen a movie (O.K. with the exception of "Nomadland" recently) where I felt as the actors were not acting at all and this is all real. Young dancer Levan Gelbakhiani is central here, not only because he is a main role but also because the whole movie depends on how believable he is - and he is astonishing. When first we see him, he is just a skinny boy sulking because someone else might eclipse his dancing success but along the way he falls in love and something magical happens - he becomes giddy with his first love, he blossoms, he somehow becomes beautiful. No one else in a movie (and basically everybody is doing great job) has such magnificent effect like Levian, compared to him everyone else is simple, one sided character but this boy simply explodes in defiance to authority, to criticism, to society. I mean, not for nothing he won tons of awards on the international film festivals. I also must mention that there is quite a lot of spectacular dancing and gorgeous music included, there is one scene where out of the blue some men sing A Capella and this is apparently traditional Georgian thing but my oh my was it breathtaking - kind of combination of ancient music I heard in places like Sardinia, Bulgaria and Byzantine chant. I am listening the soundtrack as I am writing this, its really special. It could be that last night I was in a specific mood when it really touched me, but it was just so perfect. One of the best movies I have seen. 

23.8.21

Downton Abbey

OK so I am really late with this one. I heard about it, saw the pictures and knew it was a huge TV phenomenon but the timing was bad - the celebrated British series started in 2010 but I sailed around the world until 2018 and there was just so much I could catch up on my vacations. Often I felt as I have returned from out of space, because so many things happened in the meantime - neighbours had died, new babies were born, there was a lot of new music and movies, new books ... - I would hoard as much as I could for my next ship assignment but eventually it became clear that one lifetime is not enough to soak everything in. 



Anyway - I had glanced at Netflix and there it was, Downton Abbey in all its glory. And I must say that I fell for it like a sucker. Like a silly fly right into a spider's web. I mean, after years of reading historical novels, I was conditioned to love anything that is British, costumed and has this kind of cast. Even the first 10 minutes - a unforgettable introduction to a huge mansion where servants are busy ants and aristocrats are lazying upstairs - already got me hooked, with servants ironing the newspapers (so the lord won't get dirty fingers from the print) that bring the news about sinking of Titanic. And this changes everything because with the ship went two heirs to this estate (the lord has only daughters and they don't count). This means that the new inheritor must be some distant cousin who (gasp) works as attorney and when he and his widowed mother move to a house nearby, the whole mansion is against them. It would eventually make more sense to get him married to one of the lord's daughters but they were brought as spoiled brats and would not lower themselves to marry someone who is attorney. So the saga goes on and on.





The sheer explosion of visual beauty - interiors, exteriors, costumes, hairstyles, jewellery - the attention to details, the poise of the butlers and the nonchalance of aristocrats, is hypnotising. It all reminded me on "Gosford Park" and that was not accidental as both share the same creator Julian Fellowes who had also decided that series must include Maggie Smith. And now we come to the cast - it feels like there is a cast of hundreds but actually the story really follows around sixteen characters (which is complicated enough, though it flows effortlessly). Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern are Earl and his American wife (its wonderful to see her again after so many years) who have three daughters: Lady Mary, Lady Edith and Lady Sybil. The girls initially appear spoiled and bored but somehow trough the series we start feeling sympathy for them. Maggie Smith is delightful dowager grandmother who might be the quintessential British aristocrat, sarcastic and witty - she steals every single scene. Dan Stevens is a distant cousin who inherits the estate and excellent Penelope Wilton his strong willed mother who is the only one who can stand up to the old dowager. And these are just characters upstairs - servants downstairs are world in itself, with their own bosses, leaders, followers, good and bad guys, love affairs, etc. 





I have binged on the first season without doing anything else and loved it - was a little embarrassed that it took me so long to discover it and could not really share my enthusiasm with the world because basically everybody knew about it already. Last night I even moved into season two - at this point I can tell its turning into soap opera with never ending bubbles, but its so skilfully done that I don't mind. I am aware this is not a genuine historical fact but a TV entertainment - still, lots of attention was paid in creation of it. Irresistible and addictive, this is a top shelf costume soap opera. 

22.8.21

The National Museum of Antiquities, Leiden



Recently I wrote a post about visit to Amsterdam's archeological museum and at the back of my mind I always had friend's suggestion to check out the one on Leiden which is supposedly much bigger and more interesting. Now, you would expect that Amsterdam has much bigger collection than one in some small provincial town, but Leiden is apparently university town full of interesting things to see and only 30 minutes away, their archeological museum actually genuinely blew me away. 




The collection started as a private inheritance bequeathed to Leiden University. And then it just grew and grew until today we have a spectacular building in the centre of the old town, where on three floors you have archeological artifacts creating the stories about Ancient Egypt, Etruscans, Ancient Greece, Rome, Prehistoric Netherlands, etc. I must mention how cleverly they put a roof above the original old house, creating extra space on the very top - it is a marvellous and very intelligent design. I went there with two friends who live nearby and accordingly, never bothered to visit the place before - we had a great time and I loved that they both enjoyed it so much. The very first thing we saw on the entrance was magnificent ancient Egyptian temple called Temple of Taffeh and this is a real deal, Egyptian temple given as a gift from Egypt and transported here in 1971, rebuilt stone by stone. It was done as a gratitude because The Netherlands helped to save numerous archeological sites from floods with buildings of Aswan High Dam - here we have a real Egyptian temple from Roman times, built during the emperor Augustus.





I knew we made a mistake immediately when we spent too much time on the ground floor - it is a matter of pacing yourself, because if you get too carried away on the start, you will probably loose attention later. But Ancient Egypt was so fascinating that we just couldn't skip it. Than Greece, Rome, Stone Age Netherlands and on top of this, two more current exhibitions - one about mysterious stone temples in Malta and another about so called "Doggerland" that thousands of years ago connected continental Europe with England (in the period of low sea levels). We have spent four hours in the museum and it was fantastic - I am already making plans to visit again and explore the building from the different direction, perhaps from the top floor downwards. Or perhaps only a floor at the time. Brilliant. 

18.8.21

"Amsterdam: A History of the World's Most Liberal City" by Russell Shorto


I have read Shorto's wonderful "Island at the Center of the World" (about the beginnings of New Amsterdam that later grew into New York) some years ago and always loved it - its kind of non-fiction, historical book that I always gravitate towards, the books that are not stuffy or pretentious but great fun, filled with real characters, anecdotes and informations I can learn from. Shortly after writing that book, Shorto actually moved to Amsterdam, where he lived for a while and was inspired to describe his take on the city's history. And since I have moved in the very same town recently, it was just a matter of time before I will read this book.

It is a very ambitious task that Shorto took - after all, we are talking about the centuries after centuries - he valiantly tries to explain the socio-political atmosphere, while simultaneously talking about certain everyday characters or personalities connected to specific chapter. True, these two are intertwined but to be honest, he lost me every time he went on about philosophy, liberalism and generic themes - I could focus much, much better when he spoke about genuine names, someone I could identify with or at least connect the dots. I absolutely love his writing style and could probably just go on with Shorto right after this, but I feel as I might need a break from non fiction and get something lighter - it has been a while now that I have noticed that internet has completely killed my passion for reading and I have serious attention span problems now, making it very difficult to actually read the books - this one I enjoyed very much and took zillion of notes to discuss with my friends, but it took me forever to finish it. 

16.8.21

1001 Album Club: Podcast

 

A friend mentioned this to me and I gave it a listen - the idea was that a few casual friends meet every week and discuss the quintessential albums listed as 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. 

What was immediately obvious was that these are not educated (or even well read) music critics, these are completely regular guys meeting and discussing what they just heard. My initial reaction was very negative because they come across as children of their own times and completely unaware of anything that has ever been done before - obviously they are stuck in their own time frames and can't wrap their heads around something that was a product of previous era. Lots of giggling, guessing, absolute no knowledge or previous research about the artists and some quasi-serious, authoritative insights that most of the time just made me angry.


However, I found that later I actually go back to this Podcast when I'm in a tram on my way home from work or even as I walk in the street. It took me a few episodes to warm up to them and something strange happened: I realised they are good guys. Yes, they are totally naive and uninformed, they still giggle and say stupid things but what matters is they actually go and listen these old music albums and try to figure them out. Obviously, they are children of their times so its very difficult for them to understand the atmosphere of 1950s and 1960s, but at least they are trying: there is 0 insight or anything fresh they have to say about music itself, since all they do is read Wikipedia. On the positive side, because they are not professionals, the guys react to the music with a clean heart and open ears, so when they really enjoy something, they embrace it with open arms.

For example, they hated debut album by Joan Baez but were absolutely enamoured with Dave Brubeck (so much that one of the guys later went out and bought a record), they very passionately discuss why this particular album is listed as must hear, etc. There is a warm atmosphere around the table and each episode (annoying as they might be, when they talk about my favourite artists and have absolutely no clue) and a feeling that I am a fly on the wall where friends just chat about the music.