June 15, 2019

HBO – More than just Game of Thrones

Just when I was about to cancel my HBO subscription after the Game of Thrones final season, I discovered a few other worthy things to watch on this premium cable channel.

For those of you who have read one or more of the Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante, HBO’s treatment of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend may be your small cup of espresso. The eight episode season, in Italian with English subtitles, depicts the friendship between Lila Cerullo and Lenu Greco, two young girls living in 1950s Naples. We get a snapshot of the entire Italian neighborhood including parents, children, teachers and business owners.
Rivalries between families, romantic attachments and even gender discrimination are seen through the eyes of Lenu as she manages her relationship with her brilliant but troubled friend, Lila, in this literate mini-series.

Even darker is the five episode series, Chernobyl which gives an account of the infamous 1986 nuclear reactor accident that occurred in the former Soviet Union. Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard and Emily Watson give stellar performances as some of the professionals who try to discover what happened and what actions to take to limit damage to the area and its inhabitants.

The Soviet Union itself is the “bad guy” as officials try to cover up details, sacrifice workers knowing that radiation will kill them and search for the least politically damaging ways to contain the catastrophe.
This is a real life cautionary story that hardly seems 33 years old and has much to say about the current treatment of our environment today.

I give a guarded recommendation for Barry, a very dark comedy vehicle for the singular talents of Bill Hader (8 seasons on SNL) and Henry Winkler (the Fonz on Happy Days). Hader plays Barry Berkman, a contract killer who discovers a love of acting when he is tasked with murdering one of the acting students. Winkler is acting guru, Gene Cousineau who takes Barry under his wing. Stephen Root as Monroe Fuches, Barry’s murder pimp is outstanding, as is Sarah Goldberg as Barry’s actress girlfriend. Anthony Carrigan, he of the bald head and no eyebrows is hilarious as a Chechen crime lord wanna-be.

My reservations in heartily recommending this program stem from the amount of violence seen in every episode. This is the Three Stooges with lots of guns and bloodshed. If that does not put you off, this may be your gallows humor show for the acting alone.

HBO is trying to keep us watching and for now, it just may be succeeding.

Studio 54 documentary on Netflix

If you are intrigued by New York night life of the late 1970s, check out Studio 54 on Netflix. Half buddy flick and half documentary, the film portrays the business and personal relationship between Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager.

The pair opened the famous mid-town Manhattan dance club in 1977 and attracted celebrities such as David Bowie, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Calvin Klein, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Elton John and Liza Minnelli, among many others. It was the place to go for disco dancing and liquor, and for those so inclined, drugs and public sex.

The house of cards came tumbling down in 1980 as Rubell and Schrager were sentenced to jail for tax evasion. Rubell subsequently died of AIDS, but Schrager continues to this day to be an entrepreneur, hotelier and real estate developer. Interviews with Schrager are the heart of the film as he talks about this storied time decades ago.

The documentary features archival footage of the interior decor, the extravagant production effects and the array of revelers disco-dancing the night away.
Ah, for a time machine to take me back one night to Studio 54. The documentary is the next best thing.

The Last Days of Night by Graham Moore

During our recent tour, Claudia Hommel and I stayed with a wonderful couple in Pittsburgh. The husband had worked for years in the air brakes division of Westinghouse. As luck would have it, I had recently finished a book entitled The Last Days of Night, a delightful historical fiction account of the electric rivalry between Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse of Pittsburgh.

The author, Chicago-born Graham Moore, has used many real life characters and woven fictional adventure and romance into the engaging plot.

While Erik Larson’s Devil In the White City gives an historically accurate account of the battle between Edison’s direct current and Tesla’s (backed by Westinghouse) alternating current, Moore imagines how this rivalry played out in their personal lives.

If you are interested in late 19th century America, The Last Days of Night will be an illuminating reading experience. Owners of Teslas will surely be tickled to know more about their car’s namesake, a decidedly eccentric but brilliant inventor.

Chicago Architecture Center, new location on Wacker Drive

I finally got to check out the new Chicago Architecture Center (CAC) on Wacker just east of Michigan Avenue.

Architecture buffs will rejoice that Chicago architects get their due in this modern museum between the Hyatt Regency and One Illinois Center, the Mies Van de Rohe office center at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive.

Current exhibits include the stunning “Building Tall” on the second floor which contains models of famous skyscrapers throughout the world. Chicago architects came up with several building techniques that allowed ever higher structures including the Hancock and Sears/Willis
Tower.

Not to be missed is the Chicago City Model Experience in the lower level. A short, but comprehensive film on Chicago architecture informs both the tourists and the locals. The exhibit features 4,000 building models of downtown and environs.

Walking and boat tour tickets can be purchased at the CAC entrance. A gift shop is located in back of the ticket area.

As an added benefit, the CAC boat tours board just below at river level. The Chicago Architecture Center’s address is 111 E. Wacker Drive while the Chicago’s First Lady Cruises Dock is 112 E. Wacker Drive.

http://www.architecture.org/

Pachinko, a 2017 novel by Min Jin Lee

A book club-loving neighbor handed me a novel that received much critical praise in 2017. The book was Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and was a National Book Award Finalist. In all honesty, a family saga book set in Korea and Japan did not initially scream “Read me,” but I am so glad I read the first chapter which begins in 1910. We are introduced to Hoonie and his wife, Yangjin who are living in a Korean fishing village. Their teen-aged daughter, Sunja takes up with an older shady man named Koh Hansu. Pregnant, Sunja agrees to marry a tubercular Korean Protestant minister who is on his way to a job in Osaka, Japan.

So begins a four generation saga that will take place in a Japan of wars, poverty, illness and Korean discrimination, all the way to 1989. The Korean game of pachinko, a cross between a pinball machine and a slot machine, is a thread that runs throughout the story.

Pachinko not only has stellar writing but it magically puts you into a world that is unlike anything one has experienced, yet universally so familiar as well. I came away wanting to know more about Chinese, Japanese and Korean history. Min Jin Lee has opened that window for me with her gem-like novel, Pachinko.

Bag Man podcast on Agnew’s departure as VP

Sometimes I just want to get away from current political news and escape to……political history.

I confess to being quite ignorant of what happened during Watergate so I’m always open to learning more about that storied time in our country’s history.

I knew even less about Spiro T. Agnew’s departure from the Vice Presidency.
Along comes Rachel Maddow with Bag Man, a seven-episode podcast shedding light on this constitutional crisis that happened 45 years ago.

As Nixon was teetering towards impeachment or resignation, it came to light that our second-in-command was a big-time crook having taken bribes in Maryland and subsequently as VP in DC. Justice Department professionals were horrified at the possibility that Nixon could be ousted, only to have another suspect person slipping into the White House.

Bag Man not only recaps what happened but sheds new light on who was involved and how decisions were made. Particularly fascinating are interviews with members of Agnew’s defense team and the prosecutors who faced off with Nixon, Agnew and crew.

You can download the podcast app on your phone or find Bag Man at the MSNBC site to listen to the recordings or read the transcripts. However you access this fascinating story, you will feel just a little bit more “in the know.”

https://www.msnbc.com/bagman