Grant

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The History Channel offered a capitvating documentary mini-series on the life of Ulysses S. Grantthis week. It’s still available online. We saw it advertised when watching The Last Dance and thought it would be worth checking out. I didn’t know much about Grant other than he was an important General during the Civil War and not much of a president. I’ve learned that that was an inaccurate view of a brave, intelligent man.

Grant grew up poor. His father was a tanner and both parents were staunch abolitionists. He went to West Point where he wasn’t a shining star, but he met men like Robert E. Lee and other future Civil War leaders. When he fought in the Mexican-American War, his distaste for war was solidified, but he also proved to be unique in his ability to think clearly in the heat of battle.

This documentary features several notable historians and shows the complexity of a great military strategist and a popular President who’s become forgotten through the decades. The commentary is interspersed with excellent reenactments.

Part of the reason for Grant’s tarnished reputation is that in the 1960s, Southern historians published profusely and changed the narrative reshaping Grant’s life so that he came across as a drinker who became a corrupt President.

From this documentary you learn the complexity of Ulysses S. Grant. He was an abolitionist whose father-in-law bought him a slave, a slave that he soon freed. At the time Grant was poor and couldn’t support his family, but believed in equality and though he could have made a lot of money by selling rather than freeing this man, chose to free him. Yes, Grant drank, but he also knew that was a weakness and dealt with it. He’s a man who knew failure and poverty, but overcame them. He was an honest man, a military genius, and popular President who sought to bring a divided country together.

Grant is a gripping documentary from start to finish.

 

Henry V

For my Great Books Book Club, I read and watched Shakespeare’s Henry V. I saw the 1989 film directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also adapted the play and starred in it.

Filled with intrigue, camaraderie, betrayal, battles and even wooing, Henry V is compelling. The best speech is this “We few, we happy few” band of brothers speech. It’s right at the climax of the film as the Brits are about to battle the French who far outnumber them. Like many speeches in Shakespeare it’s stirring and wise.

I did fast-forward through much of the battle scenes because they were authentically brutal, but at the same time true to life. While the film doesn’t contain every line from the play, it’s a faithful version and still packs a wallop and ends with a cute flirtation between Henry and the French princess. The end does have a very different tone than the main part of the film. Is that an error?

If so, I’ll forgive it because it gave another facet of Hennry’s personality.

Victorian Slum House

I discovered the absorbing Victorian Slum House series last night and was blown away. It’s a British reality show, which like PBS’ Frontier House took a number of modern people and put them back in the past. The participants of Victorian Slum House go back to the late 19th century to live in poverty in a Victorian slum.

One family  of 5 lives in a one apartment. Another is a tailor’s family and the four of them live in two rooms. As a tailor, they expected to make clothes from scratch. What they learn is their assigned to buy highly worn used clothes and fix or modify them. During the 1860s, when episode 1 is set, poor people didn’t buy new clothes. They bought what was patched up.

There’s a single man who’s a rent collector and also does some woodwork. He did opt to switch his modern protheses for one that resembles what was used back then. The producers did add some material that made it more comfortable than what people of his class had. There’s a couple that are shop keepers and they live on the top floor of the slum. They have better clothing and furnishings. Yet their finances are precarious because they depend upon their customers being able to pay up at the end of the week. No one knows for sure what they’ll earn in a week so their fear is real.

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Sleeping on benches, Victorian era

Finally there’s a single mom with ten year old twins. Her lot is the most precarious. She works from home making fancy gift boxes. She starts with lots of optimism, but bought more food on credit than the others and her earnings fell far short of what she planned. So she’s very close to being evicted. In fact, in the 1860s, my guess is that she would have been and she’d have wound up down stairs in the sleeping room, where people slept on benches sitting up.

The program is full of interesting facts and the participants comments are enlightening.

Monsieur Vincent

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Vincent tries to get someone to adopt this orphan

When Monsieur Vincent opens, we see Vincent Depaul entering a deserted town. Whenever he knocks on a door, someone throws rocks at him from the second floor. Finally, Vincent who’s the new priest in town gets let inside. He discovers that the aristocrats inside are hiding hoping to avoid the plague. They’re in the midst of a wild party just in case they don’t escape the plague.

As the new priest, and one that lives the gospel, Vincent tries to convince the nobles to take in a girl whose mother has just died. They’re all to scared. He winds up taking her in a very modest room he’s rented.

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Vincent’s wisdom is revered by the rich. He’s soon the mentor and spiritual guide for a wealthy couple, but he wants to help the poor. When he tells his patrons that he plans to leave they keep him near by supporting his charity efforts more. This works for a while, but eventually Vincent goes to Paris where he begins a charity for the poorest of the poor.

Throughout his work with the poor, Vincent recruited wealthy women to help him and found great frustration when they didn’t agree with his ideas of expanding and expanding their charity programs. Eventually, realizing that people who understand the poor may be better to work with, he taps a poor girl to become one of his first nuns. Actually, she came to him and the light bulb went off.

I went to a high school named after Louise de Marillac, a wealthy woman, who became key to Vincent’s outreach to the poor. In the film, she’s just in a couple scenes. You can see that she’s a peer of the wealthy women, so Vincent wants her to lead them, though it’s tough to convince these opinionated women to trust Vincent. (St. Louise de Marillac wound up leading the Daughters of Charity, an order of nuns that serves the poor.)

This bio pic was interesting and well done. I was surprised that so much of the time Vincent Depaul dealt with administrative issues and trying to persuade the aristocracy to help him more. I thought he was more “hands on.” In any event, the film moved along well and introduces people to this 17th century saint.

In French with subtitles.

The Life of Émile Zola

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The film character doesn’t look like this

As I’ve recently finished Germinal, when I saw the film The Life of Émile Zola (1937) displayed with Oscar Best Picture winners, I had to watch it. Starring Paul Muni, The Life of Émile Zola begins with Zola sharing a cold garret apartment with Cezanne. Both are struggling to launch their creative careers, while trying not to freeze to death. Soon Zola meets a prostitute in a café, hears her life story, writes a novel based on it. When it’s published it’s criticized for its immorality and it flies off the bookstore shelves. Still poor, Zola goes to the book seller who published the book to beg for a small advance. Instead he gets a check for 30,000 francs. He’s rich!

Zola continues to write popular books and lives in comfort and luxury with his wife in Paris. One day his still struggling friend Cezanne drops by to announce that he’s off to the South of France to paint. Paris is no longer the place for him. Before leaving, he feels compelled to point out that Zola has become materialistic and complacent. He’s lost his ideals. This opens Zola’s eyes.

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The story shifts to the army office where treasonous letters are found and the innocent Captain Alfred Dreyfus is soon arrested and sent to prison. The Dreyfus Affair is a dark corner of French history, showing how quick the army leaders were to allow their Anti-Semitism to condemn an innocent man with out fair due process. The very odd aspect of this Warner Bros. film is that the anti-semitism is never mentioned. If you didn’t know about the history, you wouldn’t realize that Dreyfus was Jewish and that was a factor in his arrest and imprisonment. A 2013 New York Times article stated that studio head  Jack Warner, who was Jewish himself, insisted that any mention of Jewish heritage be removed from the film.

When Dreyfus’ wife pleads with the comfortable bourgeois Zola, she convinces him that the right thing to do is to take up Dreyfus’ cause. The famous article “J’accuse!” results and Zola’s soon arrested for libel. A fierce courtroom battle ensues where Zola is the David to the powerful government’s Goliath. (This time David loses though.)

While this chapter of history is worthy of a film, this production is outdated. To whitewash the events by editing out anti-semitism makes no sense. Muni’s Zola hops around the scenes and is so almost comical in his vibrancy, that it’s hard to take him seriously. Other characters like his wife, Cezanne and the military leaders are one dimensional. The film was the Best Picture of 1937 and won other awards, but it doesn’t stand up to the test of time.

South Shore, Most Violent Neighborhoods

The Seventh Most Violent Neighborhood in Chicago is my father’s old neighborhood, South Shore. All of these are tough to watch because but this is the one neighborhood I have memories of. My grandparents lived here up till the 70’s and we’d visit often. Their apartment was near Rainbow Beach.

By the way, Barak and Michelle Obama held their wedding reception at the South Shore Country Club.

The Pearls of the Crown

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Sacha Guitry as a writer tracking down rare pearls

Sacha Guitry created another light-hearted film with The Pearls of the Crown. In this movie, which Guitry wrote, directed and stars in, a French writer, a man works for the Pope and an English royal assistant, search for three, rare, matching pearls that have gone missing since the 16th century. As the three men hunt down these pearls, they discover the truth in the lives of historical figures like King Henry VIII. Throughout the film, the audience is treated to wry humour. Here Guitry, who’s something of a French Noel Coward, plays for roles: two kings, a writer and one more character.

The film is charming and you’ll even learn a bit about history. Good when you’re looking for light entertainment and don’t mind subtitles.

Poldark

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At first glance from my PBS emails, I didn’t think much of this summer’s Poldark. However, last week there wasn’t much to do in the evenings and I needed to keep awake to overcome my jet lag, so I watched an episode a night. While it’s not a top tier Masterpiece, it has grabbed me.

Poldark, Ross Poldark, had to fight for the red coats because he got in trouble gambling. In Virginia most of his company is killed. Ross survives but it takes him years to return home. When he’s back, he learns that his love, who though him dead, is about to marry his cousin, his richer cousin. Also, his father’s died and the family home and estate is in ruins. Poldark sets to regaining his wealth by reopening a mine and tending to his farm.

Unlike many in the town, Poldark is fair-minded and not blinded by status. He pays his workers well and lends a hand to those who fall on hard times. When he sees Demelza, a young village woman abused by her father, he hires her as a housemaid to work with his two unkempt, often drunk servants.

It’s tough seeing his love married to his weak, insipid cousin and the local society women do nothing but annoy Poldark. As time goes by he’s aware that Delmelza’s more than just a decent housekeeper. Under her rough manners, she’s wise, kind and beautiful. Rashly, he marries her upsetting all social proprieties.

I like that the show presents an era we rarely see on Masterpiece. Poldark’s house is dark and run down, unlike Downtown Abbey or The Paradise. It’s a rougher time, especially for the lower class. There’s a lot about borrowing money and wrangling to gain financial advantage. Even those draped in silk with their walls lined with ancestral portraits aren’t free from worry. It shows how the Crawley’s financial woes were more common throughout time.

The program can get a bit far fetched or descend to the bodice ripper conventions, but that’s easily forgiven. Overall, Poldark entertains and sheds light on 18th century Britain.

Downton Abbey, 5.3

Three weeks into Downton Abbey and the story is moving slowly along. We still get Edith pining for her daughter, some more conflict over the WWI memorial and just a bit of Thomas making a suspicious phone call. (He’s probably looking for a new job.)

The biggest event for me was that Violet’s butler saw Mary and Lord Gillingham coming out of the Grand Hotel in Liverpool. She called Mary in for a chastising tete-a-tete. As always, Violet was hard to out-reason. Cora wouldn’t have been as frank or strong. In fact, as a mother Cora just goes along with her daughters. They are adults now, but no one turns to her though she’s far from domineering. You’d think she’d be perceived as the approachable mother.

As for Cora, she went up to London to look at paintings with Simon Bricker, the art historian with the not so hidden agenda. They strolled through the galleries and Cora poured out her heart as Simon complimented and almost swooned over her. Cora seemed to enjoy the freshness of an admirer. When she got back to Rosamond’s apartment, Robert was waiting for her all dressed up in his tuxedo. He’d planned a surprise for her and was (rightly) suspicious of Bricker’s time with Cora. Cora was annoyed. They had a little spat since no one in Britain has ugly “Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf?”-type fights. Thank God.

Cora’s feeling restless wishing she had more purpose in her life. She’s just bored. Find a hobby and make some friends, Cora. You do need a life, but you don’t need an affair.

Mary seems tired of Lord Gillingham already. I wonder if he’ll gossip about her if she ends the relationship. She certainly isn’t excited about marrying him.

The police came by to question Bates, who made up a story about his day in York. If the screenwriter, Julian Fellows is gutsy, he’ll make Bates guilty, but I think we’ll go through a trial and then find out Bates is innocent. Sometimes I feel like a pawn in Fellows’ hands. He comes up with about half as many ideas as needed for a series and spreads them thin.

Will next week be more eventful? No spoilers, but a yes or no would be welcome.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

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When I was growing up I loved watching Mr. Peabody & Sherman’s cartoons as they traveled to various historical events. Now all the kids who have no idea who this famed pair is can see Mr. Peabody, the genius dog, and his boy Sherman right wrongs throughout time and space. The film, which I saw on a plane, captures the heart and soul of the original. Bravo!

The film moves quickly and is witty enough for adults and offers history with a spoonful of sugar for the young. I’m telling everyone I see that they should check this out whether they have kids or not. It’s just a fun film.