Tuesday, September 1, 2020

HISTORIC JOHN GLENN NASA SPACE LAUNCH MOVIE “HIDDEN FIGURES” STILL WORTH A LOOK


Taraji P. Henson and Kevin Costner lead an all star cast in the Oscar-nominated film "Hidden Figures"

The 2017 sleeper hit movie “Hidden Figures” began its worldwide $ 326 million dollar box-office bonanza with the relatively small budget of $ 50 million dollars. Those kind of figures (no pun intended) put a wide smile on the faces of 20th Century Fox executives when all was said and done.

The story and cast responsible for its wide appeal put smiles as well on the faces of its stars Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Mahershala Ali, Kirsten Dunst, and Glen Powell as John Glenn.  It proved once again that creative quality films, intelligently written by talented writers, sensitively played, in this case, by an inspired cast all under the insightful, smart direction of Theodore Melfi, can indeed entertain audiences worldwide without a single F-bomb being uttered.

Taraji P. Henson

Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae

Set in 1961, “Hidden Figures” centers around the true story of three brilliant African-American female mathematicians who worked at the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, during America’s era of the odious Jim Crow Law – from 1887 to 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 finally nullified the repellent second-class distinction law, by recognizing that all citizens of America are to be accorded full and equal protection under the law authorized by the US Constitution.

There have been many bodies lost on the barricades over the centuries.  However, it took the courage of African-American woman Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a public bus to a white passenger, that set in motion the ‘freedom’ movement which requested that all racial discrimination and segregation laws be declared unconstitutional.

The “Hidden Figures” screenplay written by Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi is based on the eponymous non-fiction book by Marge Lee Shetterly which scrupulously followed the key NASA events in her well documented book. Some critics of the movie, however, felt that technically speaking screenwriter Schroeder and director/co-screenwriter Melfi injected a character or two which altered somewhat the dramatic intention of the book Ms. Shetterly authored. However, she, didn’t find that to be an issue in the movie.

Melfi and Schroeder countered that the character of Al Harrison, the chief project engineer as played by Kevin Costner, was a composite character of several NASA managers.  Harrison, who is often grumpy, consumed and focused to the project at hand, is charged with the important and critical assignment of getting astronaut John Glenn to orbit the earth several times and then bring him safely back to earth to tell us what he saw. Yes, that’s an ulcer-producing assignment and it’s all true.

Harrison was a constant gum-chewer, no doubt to calm his nerves, and was a NASA manager who didn’t suffer fools easily. His frustrations over having to play catch-up with Russia’s space program success of sending a man into space, albeit a sub-orbital effort, is what drove the American space program.

Director Melfi ignored his critics knowing a government project like space travel required the coordinated efforts of thousands of highly skilled employees, so compressing the timelines, and the number actors required to produce what the scientists and engineers did for rapt audiences and the government, was definitely worth the effort.  Above all, he had to produce a very compelling movie that involved three African-American families and how they each fit into this terrifically entertaining movie story puzzle.   

In a side bar regarding filmmaking for or about a government entity, I wrote, produced, and directed industrial and marketing films for five years often arm-wrestling with the client as what to keep or remove; to listening to ‘that’s not exactly how we do this or that’.  Once my script was approved to go, I’m the person accountable for the end product not the client.  So, I can empathize, in a small way with Mr. Melfi’s plight.  And the beat goes on…. but I digress.

The technical aspects of space travel is a bit old hat now, but some 60 years ago it was mind-boggling stuff.  Compelling stories with issues that confronted everyday life, however, are still the best sources for making movies.  It’s still the best way to watch talented actors do their thing for audiences, except here they’re doing it in front of the camera.

“Hidden Figures” is blessed with a terrific cast led by Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson, a young widow with three young daughters to raise.  She is mathematical whiz in quantum geometry and possesses a mastery of numbers bordering on genius and works in the NASA East computer division, with her two friends Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) an aspiring engineering candidate, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, who runs the East Building Computing department as its temporary Supervisor, but is waiting for her promotion to full Supervisor.  All are women of color in this NASA facility were located in the East Wing of the complexes of offices.

Academy Award winning actor Octavia Spencer

Solid support comes from Kirsten Dunst as Vivian, the white supervisor of the all colored computing department employees. Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, lead engineer and assistant to Costner’s Al Harrison, has the unfortunate luck to play the film’s antagonist toward Ms. Henson’s quiet, gracious and gentle, Katherine. Both actors deliver nicely nuanced performances. Mahershala Ali, as dignified Colonel Jim Johnson of the National Guard, becomes the love interest to Katherine’s shy demeanor.  Also, Glen Powell portrays a winning John Glenn.

The beauty of “Hidden Figures” lies in the power of its poignant and inspirational script performed by a fabulous ensemble cast. There are three Academy Award winners up on the screen of your computers to appreciate:  Costner, Spencer, and Ali.  We’re all stuck at home riding out this pandemic, so streaming services and platforms are your options at the moment.  Check your TV listings to see when “Hidden Figures” will be streaming or screening in your area again.  I viewed it on the FX channel last week. If you’ve seen it before, see it again.  It’s definitely worth a second look.

Remember, a great nation deserves great art.  Support all the arts.

-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

DOWNTON ABBEY THE MOVIE IS CHALLENGED BY THE PHENOMENAL SUCCESS OF ITS PBS TV SERIES

Jim Carter as the imperturbable Mr. Carson in the feature film "Downton Abbey"
In the world of show business – plays, films, TV, cabaret, ballet, and the performing arts in general – the most formidable challenge to master is the one of coming up with a winning “sequel” when a smash hit presents the opportunity.

Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee were ‘one novel wonders’.  Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind” (ten years to write) and Lee’s “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (her only novel) is the proof that it’s extremely difficult to top a worldwide, runaway, smash-hit novel with a sequel.  Both authors eventually settled for a no sequel career to their one-time enormous success that each enjoyed as novelists.

Money in today’s entertainment commercial market place is a powerful and seductive business aphrodisiac. The best vehicles for making millions of dollars today belong to the mediums of film and series TV.  Loyal book readers become eager movie patrons and fans for the ubiquitous sequel and alas, therein lies the producer’s dilemma.

Will it be the pot of gold waiting at the end of the rainbow become a blockbuster or a critical and box office disaster with disappointed fans? And let’s not forget the investors who will be expecting a big monetary reward in their bank accounts.  Of course that was back in the halcyon days before the current COVID-19 pandemic arrived that changed the rules regarding all forms of the entertainment industry.

Fan favorites Mr. Bates and wife
Anna in "Downton Abbey"
Which brings us to “Downtown Abbey” the movie whose fans have been waiting to see it for two years.  It’s the love-child of the eponymous BBC-TV series, “smashingly” written as they say in the U.K., from the brilliant pen of actor/producer/director/writer Lord Julian Fellowes.  Fellowes is Life Peer, the Earl of West Stafford, Dorsett, England.  Fame is indeed illusive but some are destined to be selected for it. Writer Julian Fellowes became not only one of the anointed ones, but also a victim of his own incredible success.

Who could have foreseen worldwide audiences take to their hearts the story of an English aristocratic family and the lives of their servants at the beginning of the 20th century? Most of Europe for years had been distancing themselves from monarchies not embracing them, to say nothing of Americans now being asked to accept a TV series on the lifestyle they fought a war two hundred and twenty years ago to prevent it from ever happening to them again.

A crew member, Lord Julian Fellowes and Michelle Dockery
Just how successful was the popular TV series phenomena known as “Downton Abbey”?  Mind boggling and totally entertaining and one of the most endearing and engagingly written Masterpiece Theatre/ BBC co-productions in the history of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).  It ran for six seasons with audiences clamoring for Julian Fellowes to write another season. He authored all 70 episodes of the series.  He breathed a sigh of relief after season six ended.  Frankly, he needed a rest from the pressure of writing creative weekly scripts of such high quality for six straight years.

But success only breeds more success.  So, it was “once more dear friends into the breach” to quote “Henry V”.  Inevitably, “Downton Abbey” simply had to become a major motion picture written by Lord Julian Fellowes that the world was expecting.  But what would be the storyline? The series ended two years ago with all the various story lines of the characters neatly wrapped up by Fellowes. What possibly could a new feature film storyline contain?  What indeed? After six seasons of episodes, viewers and fans knew more about the characters of Downton Abbey than they did about their own relatives.

A two year hiatus from the season finale of the highly successful TV series provided the now movie company creators time to dream up a storyline and begin to prepare the actors, the technicians, and the various technical components to do their “due diligence things” before filming actually would begin.

The Crawleys host Queen Mary
and King George V at Downton Abbey.
The creative team of the old TV series noodled over a variety of suitable premises for the feature movie. The executives at the BBC and Masterpiece Theatre went “underground” so to speak, in not revealing any plot points of the movie everyone was eager to see. It’s a clever marketing ploy to keep the “loyalists” panting for news of what the movie will be about and when it will be ready for viewing, etc. It’s always good business to keep the project in the forefront of movie fans and the general public until D-Day arrives.

The movie’s exciting premise, however, was finally leaked.  The King and Queen of England, George V and Queen Mary, will make a Royal Visit to Downton Abbey in Yorkshire. The visit will be part of a scheduled series of visits by their majesties to some of their favored aristocratic loyal subjects. Downton being high on their Majesties to visit list.

Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode in "Downton Abbey"
A storyline event like a Royal visit allows director Michael Engler to pull out all production stops.  It’s pretty much a given that no one does more colorful pageantry, pomp and ceremony than the Brits. It in their DNA; which leaves one scratching one’s head to learn that Mr. Engler is an American movie director.

Lord & Lady Crawley welcome back daughter
Edith (Laura Carmichael) and family to "Downton Abbey"
for the Royal Visit.
The Crawley family scored another ‘honor notch’ on their family’s coat-of-arms with this impending visit. The news brings Mr. Carson, the Butler and protector of all things Royal at Downton, out of retirement to once again take command of Downton Abbey’s downstairs household staff, including most of the principal characters who participated the original TV show.

The story in this dramedy ‘movie sequel’ includes political intrigue, as well scandalous story points into the machinations of the Crawley family: Lord Grantham, Countess Cora, Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Tom Branson, Lady Isobel Merton, and the inimitable Dowager Countess Violet, the zinger Queen of Downton (Maggie Smith),  plus a would-be assassination plot against the King and Queen, tossed in for good measure; it should make loyal fans of the Crawley family delighted with their lovable and redoubtable servants Mrs, Hughes, Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, the scullery maid, Anna, Mr. Bates, Mr. Mosely, and yes, even Peck’s bad boy, Thomas, who behaves himself.

The Downstairs Staff of "Downton Abbey"
Let’s face it “Downton Abbey” is the most popular and successful worldwide aristocratic-based “soap opera” in the history of television. And what was not to like about it? It’s every little English girl and boy’s fantasy to grow up to marry either a handsome prince or a beautiful princess. It was the appealing stories in every episode that captured the hearts and emotions of its viewers regardless of country of origin. TV’s “Downton Abbey” has been seen by more than 150 million viewers worldwide in some fifteen countries. It’s the reigning champion in Masterpiece Theatre’s Pantheon of award winning television productions.

For me, Downton Abbey the sequel falls into the category of a nice film with a great pedigree but couldn’t quite reach the heights that everyone expected for the sequel.  It received mixed critical reviews, but that doesn’t mean fans won’t like it.  As I said in the opening paragraph, coming up with a winning sequel is a formidable challenge indeed, and difficult to write a sequel that will please everyone. Kudos to all who made “Downton Abbey” so memorable over six seasons and so compelling and enjoyable to watch.  And it’s always a pleasure to see old friends like the Crawleys drop by to visit us every now and then.

Remember, a great nation deserves great Art.  Support all the Arts.

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

LOS ANGELES OF THE LATE 1930S IS BRILLIANTLY CHRONICLED IN SHOWTIME SERIES “PENNY DREADFUL: CITY OF ANGELS”

Natalie Dormer (center) leads an impressive cast in Showtime's "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels"

Los Angeles California today is a sprawling, iconic, American city that defies categorizing because it’s constantly reinventing itself; it’s better known worldwide for its Hollywood film industry history and its “dream factories” that produced the stuff that those dreams were made of for over 100 years.  Hollywood movies came in the form of celluloid gift packages to dull the pain of the Great Depression with millions out of work, and soup kitchens a common sight.

Broadway may have its Great White Way, a street of four blocks or so lined with live theatre venues in the middle of New York City, but Hollywood has the magic of the camera with the intimacy of the close-up along with its freedom to roam and its ability to reach worldwide audiences and capture their minds and imaginations, if not forever, then at least, for a couple of hours.  And all for the price of about 10 cents a ticket when I was growing up. That combination proved too seductive and too profitable to pass up for the early Hollywood pioneer moguls and their studio executives back in the salad days of movies.

This newly discovered power and sophistication that was “film”, however, came with great responsibility.  Yes, we did indeed, inform, influence and promote the product without interference from the law back in the late 1920’s and early ‘30’s.  Eventually, however, movies began pushing the envelope too hard and too fast as a way to make movies more relevant as to what was taking place in society.

Being told to clean up its depictions of life, language, and sex in its movies or face government oversight – which the studios then did – until, that is, the sexual revolution of the 1960s arrived.  Quickly, both Hollywood and world cinema producers returned to the societal mores and acceptance of the “swinging ‘60s and beyond.  Once the 21st century arrived Hollywood producers took off their family-styled movie-making gloves opting for the high octane action films and adult themed movies in pushing the envelope once again.  When new emerging streaming platforms via the internet, became popular the producers quickly adapted the vernacular of street language which now ends up serving as the dialogue of the characters in many films.  The 2020 worldwide pandemic of COVID-19, however, changed everything connected with the entertainment industry possibly forever.

This brings us to the Showtime presentation currently being screened across the country on various streaming platforms.  “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” is a taut, well made television series that features ten episodes, each boasting  an engaging and fascinating storyline, loaded with superb performances from a gifted cast who breathe life into a long forgotten story about LA’s race relations that’s been festering in  “LaLa Land” for decades.

Johnathan Nieves, Sebastian Chacon and Natalie Dormer
The tensions between LA’s Chicano community and the corrupt white power structure within the city government of 80 years ago centers around the more militant factions of young Mexican-Americans known as ‘Pachucos.   They were eager to confront the White power structures by provocation, intimidation and confrontation. Simply put, the Spanish speaking population became citizen/victims in their own city by those charged to govern and protect them.  White privilege had been effectively controlling and pressuring them by law, into ghetto-like East LA neighborhoods for years.  Corrupt and greedy politicians were ably abetted by a brutal and bigoted LA Police Department.  The elements of fear of other cultures plus the loss of power and governance by White privilege made Los Angeles of the late 1930’s a white-hot, race relations melting pot, just waiting to boil over.

“City of Angels”, the Showtime TV Movie series, is a powerfully relevant TV series and a sharp reminder not only of why the painful American Civil War of 1861 was fought, only later to introduce new Jim Crow laws in the South.  These laws were the forerunners of the 2019/2020 societal movements like “Black Lives Matter”, along with changing attitudes of many Southern states when it comes to the troublesome legacy of the four-year-old Confederacy (1861 –1865) and its impact on today’s modern America after the conflict ended 155 years ago.  Time is now on the side of righting the wrongs of the past, not just for African-Americans, but for Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans as well.

“City of Angels” as a whole, is a dark, gritty, raw, fantasy-fueled TV drama series created by writer/director John Logan that is set in Los Angeles in 1938.  It’s a time fraught with racial tensions between the Mexican-American community and LA’s city government and police force.

The characters are connected via the conflict between the Mexican folklore deities of Santa Muerta (Lorenza Izzo), the caretaker of the dead and guide to the great beyond and by Magda, her malevolent provocateur sister of chaos who believes mankind is inherently evil and aims to prove her point.

Natalie Dormer as Elsa
Magda is sensationally portrayed by Natalie Dormer in a tour de force performance playing four different characters: Magda/ Rio/Elsa/Alex, throughout all ten episodes.  “City of Angels” is a classic good vs. evil tale told amid a passionate love story between Detective Tiago Vega (Daniel Zavatto) and Sister Molly Finnister (Kerry Bische), a host of a mega radio church in downtown Los Angeles.  Their on-screen chemistry is palpable and their in-the-moment performances are compelling and poignant.  Additionally, Ms. Bishe is an actor the camera loves. Young, beautiful and talented, she delivers a series of haunting moments in all her scenes; especially those with Mr. Zavatto.

Detective Vega is LA’s handsome and dedicated first Mexican-American police detective and his partner veteran detective Lewis Michner (a terrific Emmy-worthy performance by Nathan Lane) are tasked with a gruesome murder case, and soon become embroiled in Los Angeles’ history as well as its present local White verses Mexican-American racial tensions, plus the looming threat of WW II, including Nazi conspiracies that threaten to derail the investigation at every turn. are present. There is a lot of potent meat and potato issues on the plates of all characters to feast on, which everyone does with gusto throughout all ten episodes.

Nathan Lane and Daniel Zavatto
First-rate nuanced performances also come from Adriana Barraza as Maria Vega, as the widowed matriarch of the Vega family, poignantly played by Ms. Barraza (who also is a worthy candidate for an Emmy nomination), Josefina Vega, the young vulnerable daughter of Maria, is nicely played by Jessica Garza; LA City Councilman Charlton Townsend (Michael Gladis) chews up the scenery as a bullying, closeted, gay man whose ambition is to become Mayor of Los Angeles and exact revenge on all those who humiliated him in the past.

Peter Craft (Rory Kinnear) is a successful German-American pediatrician and head of the German- American Bund who is in the thrall of Elsa (Natalie Dormer), a German refugee, who woos Peter away from his wife (Piper Perabo). Also a strong performance comes from Johnathan Nieves, as the conflicted young Mateo Vega who connects himself to the “Pachuco” community as his way of rebelling against the establishment and the wishes of his mother, with both paying a high price for their decisions.

Kerry Bishe and Daniel Zavatto
Young people are passionate and must have their say regarding the changing world in which they live.   However, their passion can get out of control at times resulting in violence, murder, and chaos for both sides. But in “City of Angels”, the beat goes on with many echoes of familiar movies and landmarks like “West Side Story”, and the unrest between the Jets and Sharks gangs that keep the NYPD busy, LA’s famous Four Square Pentecostal mega church founded in 1927 by Sister Aimee Semple McPherson who plays a major role as do other locales and events in this quasi-historical/fictional TV drama series.   

As a side bar of “déjà vu” for background, New York City’s Lincoln Center Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera House complex is the result of a NYC government fiat that displaced the Puerto Rican population in that area by eminent domain.  In Los Angeles, the Mexican-American population experienced a similar fate, when the then Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team moved in 1956 to the Chavez Ravine area of LA to await the completion of their new home “Dodger Stadium”, in a ‘fait accompli’ deal by the Walter O’Malley family and the city fathers of Los Angeles.  Progress always produces winners and losers. And not all are happy with the results.

Lorenza Izzo
If all this convoluted byzantine-like storyline that intersects back and forth sounds more like a soap opera on steroids, it’s because it is, but with a difference.  It’s a quality production written by John Logan, and his team of writers and directors, and top-tier creative technical artists dedicated to paying attention to the smallest of details in making this slick TV series is a must see TV movie event.  With the coronavirus-19 pandemic still calling the shots and keeping people at home for the Summer, the chances of catching episodes of “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels” is very high indeed.  Make sure you see it.

Another reason for watching this $99 million dollar budgeted TV series production is that 80 percent of the performers and technical crews are of Spanish heritage. It appears that true and refreshing diversity stories have finally arrived in Southern California for people who look like themselves.  Muchas Gracias!

Having said all of the above, I am a little disappointed, however, in the wrap up finale segment which for obvious reason cannot be discussed so as not to spoil the series for those who will hopefully tune in later. The finale episode left me with the feeling that the creators said to themselves it’s time to end the show. More than that I cannot say except to state it’s a series that one should definitely see.  Check your local TV listings for dates, times, and channel.

Remember a great nation deserves great Art.  Support all the Arts.

-- Jack Lyons

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

POIGNANT DRAMA OF LOVE LOST AND FOUND IN THE BBC-TV MOVIE ”MAN IN AN ORANGE SHIRT”

Julian Morris and Vanessa Redgrave in a scene from "Man in an Orange Shirt"
Our British cousins shared with us their language, customs and laws for 169 years before we subjects of the Crown and colonists too, decided that we preferred to govern ourselves; opting to be free and independent, going so far as to fight a war with ‘Mother England’ to make sure that the American experiment would become a reality. Moving pictures may have been invented by the French, but the Brits and the Americans have turned the magic of the movie experience into a worldwide phenomenon. True, there are practitioners worldwide, but America and the United Kingdom (UK) are preeminent as creative visual artisans when it comes to the stage and/or the unlimited flexibility and range of the motion picture camera in creative hands.

The British film “Man in an Orange Shirt”, is one example of how a poignantly written romance drama, performed by gifted actors, all of whom have been deftly directed by their countryman Michael Samuelson, can take a small, intimate film dealing with the highly emotional and radio-active subject of homosexuality, then turn it into a compelling and relevant movie about England’s punitive homosexuality laws that have existed for decades is worthy of one’s attention regardless of one’s sexual identity or preference.

The British government has been slow in coming to the party of legally joining the rest of Western society in realizing that all people have inalienable rights as human beings to live, love, and marry whomever they please. The English “Gross Indecency” laws concerning males – like those that ensnared and ended the career of famed playwright and author Oscar Wilde at the end of the 19th century – were finally decriminalized and removed from the law statutes with Parliament’s passage of the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967.

In a sidebar digression it might be interesting to share some statistical clarity for context and perspective of the film written by novelist Patrick Gale, based in part on his novel and his family’s history. The UK is a country of some 53 million people. According to 2018 government records, only 6 per cent of the population identifies as LGBT. In America a country with 328 million citizens, the LGBT community consists of only 4.5 per cent of individuals 16 years and older who so identify; according a May 5th Gallup Poll taken in 2018. I believe it’s a safe bet to say that the gay population is not planning on taking over the world.

The film “Man in an Orange Shirt” was originally produced as a two-part British TV miniseries. But for American audiences, the two interwoven stories of love relationships over a period of two generations, have been joined into a single film presentation that screened on PBS stations across the country. I reviewed it earlier this month.

Oliver Jackson-Cohen and James McArdle
portray star-crossed lovers in "Man in an Orange Shirt"
The richly textured film features an inter-generational story that tells of the obstacles that Western society and England in particular is placing on love relationships of two veterans. Captain Michael Berryman (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) and Captain Thomas March (James McArdle) who briefly meet during the waning days WW II. Their attraction for one another however is immediate, passionate, and incendiary. It’s also against English law; men cannot have sex with or marry another man.

Once back in civilian life, Michael and Thomas have been meeting secretly, which places a huge strain on Michael’s marriage to young Flora, played by Joanna Vanderham (later to be played by Vanessa Redgrave). From the day Flora discovers love letters from Michael to Thomas is the day Flora burns the letters signifying that their marriage has changed to that of a brother-sister like relationship. Betrayal produces emotions that are difficult to control. Beware the woman scorned…

Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Joanna Vanderham, and
James McArdle in "Man in an Orange Shirt"
The story thread then moves on to the trials and tribulations of 21st-century partnerships using the example of Captain Berryman’s grandson Adam (Julian Morris) and architect Steve (David Gyasi). Their story is filled with obstacles that also seem insurmountable. Steve leaves his twenty-year relationship with his partner and art designer to begin anew with the younger Adam. The film’s nexus point of the two stories are linked by Flora Berryman, (Vanessa Redgrave) as Michael’s grieving wife and Adam’s grandmother, whose unrequited love over the years for the long-deceased Michael, keeps her from confronting Adam with the truth about his grandfather. Flora finally expiates her secrets and betrayal by erupting into a hateful response to Adam’s news about his coming out and planning on spending his life with his architect companion Steve with the hope that love which has the redeeming power of forgiveness will win over his grandmother.

The real beauty of this engaging, powerful and achingly poignant film lies in the performances of its sublime ensemble cast. They’re experienced, talented, and spot-on in their portrayals, and all are in the thrall of the great 80-year-old (when she made the film) Vanessa Redgrave. The great ones never seem to lose that special gift of star quality. “Man in an Orange Shirt” should be on your “must-see” list so keep checking your local TV listings for dates and times of its screening. Remember a great nation deserves great art. Support all the Arts.

  -- Jack Lyons

Saturday, June 13, 2020

BRITISH GOVERNMENT WHISTLEBLOWER DEFENDS DECISION AND CHALLENGES THE GOVERNMENT IN GAVIN HOOD'S "OFFICIAL SECRETS"

Keira Knightley portrays real life British whistleblower Margaret Gun in "Official Secrets"
Nobody beats the Brits when it comes to stories and movies that deal with their Intelligence services. They have at least a three hundred year advantage over the world’s other agencies in protecting their state secrets and clandestine operations.

In the world of espionage and/or governmental networks and agencies, there are literally legions of people who tirelessly and secretly work to keep their respective countries safe from foreign agents and spies attempting to steal highly classified state secrets and confidential files and documents.

Two American security breach cases spring to mind: In 2010, U.S. intelligence analyst Bradley Chelsea Manning, was charged with espionage by delivering hundreds of thousands of classified documents to Wikipedia, a foreign-based company. Then in 2013, American ex-CIA/NSA contractor Edward Snowden, released hundreds of thousands of government files and documents to Wikipedia and Julian Assange, revealing our own NSA involvement in the surveilling of American citizens without their knowledge.

Every now and then, however, a riveting movie arrives based on the machinations and perfidy by a government official or the actions of a “whistleblower” that screams for full transparency and full disclosure from the media; first via newspapers and then to TV and ultimately the internet.

In the dog eat dog world of journalism, scoops abound on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean along with the baggage of embarrassment and the urgency to deny or confirm the rushes to judgement in order to quell a whistleblower’s coup or actions plus the downplay on the government’s culpability in failing to protect the country and its people from such exposures is what’s at stake in all cases.

Security breaches like the one in Director/Co-screenwriter Gavin Hood’s deftly directed, fact-based movie “Official Secrets”, did indeed occur in Great Britain in 2003 on the eve of the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. At the constant urging of U.S. VP Dick Cheney, the reason for the U.S. going to war in Iraq was allegedly to search for and destroy hidden weapons of mass destruction claimed by Chaney, which in the final analysis revealed that there never were any hidden nuclear weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

This intense BBC-PBS co-production movie stars Keira Knightley, Ralph Fiennes, Matt Smith, Matthew Goode, Adam Bakri, Indira Varma, MyAnna Buring and Tamsin Grieg. Screenwriters Gregory and Sara Bernstein chronicle the events that place Ms. Knightley, who portrays real-life British civil servant Margaret Gun, in legal jeopardy for violating Britain’s Official Secrets Act.

In Great Britain, UK law forbids any employee who signs the Official Secrets Act from ever revealing anything about the work they did for the government. To do so brings a charge of treason and jail time.

Ralph Fiennes is brilliant attorney Ben Emmerson in "Official Secrets"
Conscience plays a huge role in this gripping story of UK analyst Margaret Gun, an educated, articulate multi-lingual, principled young woman married to a Turkish national. In the story line, she inadvertently comes into possession of a top secret American document that might possibly save thousands of lives in the impending Iraq war.  She mails the information in an unsigned letter to aggressive young newspaper journalist Martin Bright (Matt Smith), who writes an incendiary expose setting in motion a search for the writer of the letter in UK intelligence agencies including Margaret’s own special branch unit.

Matt Smith as British journalist Martin Bright
in "Official Secrets"
At first, she denies knowing anything; but introspectively, she has been having mixed emotions about the letter she wrote to journalist Bright and why she did it. Eventually, she voluntarily informs her superiors that she was the whistleblower. She is arrested and placed in jail to await her trial.

Brilliant English actor Ralph Fiennes plays Margaret’s stoic top-rated defense lawyer Ben Emmerson, who, along with her colleagues Matthew Goode, Indira Varma, Rhys Ifans, and Adam Bakri, as her husband, offer strong support.

However, no more spoiler alerts from me. One will have to see for one’s self how this well made, tautly written film about the efficacy of truth, honesty, loyalty, and duty comes front and center when one is confronted in making life-altering decisions.

This I will say this about “Official Secrets” - it’s one of Keira Knightley’s best performances. Gone is the young beauty from Jane Austen-like roles.  Her screen persona now displays the full range of her talent. We now see a confident, mature actor capable of handling any role she may want to tackle.  And it doesn’t hurt to have one of England’s finest classical actors in a movie with you either.

The technical credits are first-rate as well. “Official Secrets” will no doubt be screened again, but if you can’t wait for it on PBS or Showtime, perhaps your local superstore will have rental copies available.Then again there’s always Netflix.

Remember a great nation deserves great art. Support all Arts!

-- Jack Lyons

Friday, May 22, 2020

GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE OFFERS WORLD PREMIERE OF LIVE, VIRTUAL AND INTERACTIVE THEATRICAL EXPERIENCE “THE PRESENT”


One of the most successful series of performances at the Geffen Playhouse have been the one man shows by Helmer Guimarães; the most recent was last summer's hit "Invisible Tango" directed by Frank Marshall. Guimarães's mix of mind-boggling magic combined with autobiographical memoir, has proven to be box office magic for the Geffen.

When COVID-19 put an end to live theatre as we know it, theaters were scrambling to reinvent themselves. The Geffen Playhouse (now known as the Geffen Stayhouse) was one of the first legit houses in Los Angeles that expanded their vision beyond the parameters of the physical building to create a vehicle by which starved theatergoers can get their fill of live performance. Using the Zoom platform, the Geffen has created THE PRESENT, an interactive show that not only invites the audience to view, but also to participate in real time, with magical results.

Portuguese native Guimarães is a gifted illusionist and master storyteller, as well as trained actor and writer; this collaboration with Frank Marshall has shown once again what can be accomplished when two great creators join forces for good. 

Rather than ignoring the fact that we are in a global pandemic, Guimarães hearkens back to a time in his own childhood where he endured three months of quarantine following a serious hit and run accident where he sustained cranial trauma. His parents keep him from school and, as they both work, have his grandfather come and keep an eye on him all day. The reserved grandfather and the recovering grandson forge a hard-won friendship over a deck of cards. The young Guimarães both teaches and learns about the power of magic and also discovers, albeit some years later, that his grandfather is a man of great depth and wisdom. The lessons they both experience change both of their lives profoundly.

Helmer Guimarães stars in a one-man
autobiography with illusions at
the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.
Photo by Ger Ger.
THE PRESENT takes place virtually via the Zoom platform with a maximum of 25 participants per show. Each participant is mailed a sealed mystery package in advance, the contents of which are only revealed during the course of each performance as Guimarães’ story unfolds. In a unique twist, the show provides both a virtual and physical experience for the audience, as magic also takes place in their own hands, in their own home environment.

The most intriguing item in the mystery box is a deck of cards; it's not a special deck, just your standard playing cards, but it allows the participants to actively do their own card magic at home and believe me, it's a stunner.

I have always believed in magic; I don't want to know how it's done, I just thrill over the "wow" moment that occurs at a trick's conclusion and enjoy the feeling of being a child all over again.
Kudos to the always excellent production team at the Geffen, including production design consultant Francois-Pierre Couture, costume design consultant E.B. Brooks, lighting design consultant Daniel Ionazzi and dramaturg Amy Levinson.

The show has proven to be a solid hit for the Geffen; there was a first extension, then a second, both which sold out within 30 minutes of being released. Currently, the show is playing through August 16, but may be extended again. Visit https://www.geffenplayhouse.org/tickets/the-present-notification/ to be notified when/if additional shows are added. Tickets are currently priced at $85.00 per household.   

The title THE PRESENT has multiple meanings: it deals with the here and now, as well as the infinite joy of discovering something that is unexpected and to be treasured. The same can be said of the talents of Guimarães and Marshall (who has a gentle, gifted hand with his star performer) and I eagerly await further collaborations between these two kindred spirits. If you get a chance to attend, you won't be disappointed.

-- Lisa Lyons

Saturday, May 2, 2020

INTRIGUING BIBLICAL FILM “MARY MAGDALENE” EXPLORES PROFOUND VISION OF THE APOSTLES


The Easter Holidays usually brings not only religious celebrations like Passover and Easter, but other arts entertainment as well.  For years audiences have been treated to the retelling of and recreating the lives of historical religious figures both of the Christian and Jewish faiths through books, plays, TV and films.

This year, however, an uninvited guest engulfed the entire globe with a visit from what we now know to be the COVID-19 Pandemic, resulting in the cancellation or postponement of all arts entertainment venues in California and across the country.

Frustrated theatre critics and arts writers have resorted to writing about the current state of theatre and its future and by reviewing films that appear on TV streaming platforms or by video rentals as a way of surviving during the country’s shutdown. The public’s appetite for entertainment, however, has not abated.  It keeps growing with lengthy quarantine lock downs fueling the need for coming to grips with those pesky “sheltering in place” mandates.

Showtime, recently screened the intriguing 2018 movie “Mary Magdalene”, written by Helen Edmundson and Phillipa Goslett, directed by Garth Davis.  This provocative, revisionist, version (with undertones of the current worldwide feminism movement) gives one the opportunity to think outside the accepted “biblical box” concerning the role of women in history both religiously and socially.

Patriarchy has been with us since first cave man ventured out with his club and returned with his mate; who no doubt was probably kicking and screaming all the way.  Mary Magdalene of the movie is a free spirited young woman who flees the marriage her family has arranged for her.  Mary, who prefers to make her own decisions about her life is hauntingly and introspectively portrayed by Rooney Mara, who projects an inner grace and glow of knowledge and enlightenment whereas the close male followers of Jesus – the twelve Apostles; in particular, Peter (nicely played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Judas Iscariot (solidly portrayed by Tahar Rahm, are not always convinced of the efficacy of Jesus’ mission.

Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene
in "Mary Magdalene" on Showtime
Will this new movement succeed in proselytizing others into joining it?  The obvious answer is yes.  However, it will take 300 years of incubation before Christianity becomes a major player on the religious landscape.  The beauty of this film lies in the bold approach of screenwriters Edmundson and Goslett in making Mary Magdalene the main protagonist, under the brilliant revisionist direction of Garth Davis.

The movie story set in the first century in the Holy Land during the time of Roman rule, explores the heightened messianic period of the time.  The Jews under the rule of King Herod a Roman puppet, are steadfast in honoring their traditions and loyalty to their messianic expectation; which one day will be fulfilled as their core prophecy states.

Amid the unrest and turmoil of these turbulent times Jesus of Nazareth played by gifted but quirky Academy Award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, is costumed to look more like the middle-eastern Jews of the period.  He has the look of authenticity: He is somewhat short, bearded, swarthy complexion, unkempt black hair, dark eyes and soft spoken.  Ironically, Phoenix’s Jesus visually resembles Charles Manson.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus
in Showtime's "Mary Magdalene"
Jesus, a young rabbi and carpenter is gathering large crowds wherever he goes to listen to his powerful message of a new beginning for the Jewish people and all others:  simply put, the redemptive power of Love and not the folly of war, is the answer to mankind’s tribulations and suffering.  God is still the Supreme entity, but this new message of “Love” is being introduced through the presence of Jesus, a member of the Jewish underclass who is its Herald of ‘the good news’ for earth from the Father, by way of the Son.

Director Garth Davis has gathered an international cast of talented actors to flesh out the familiar New Testament story line often referred to as ‘the greatest story ever told’, which in my opinion faithfully follows the biblical journey of Jesus. The freshness and POV of Davis’ creative team of artists, however, is what makes this film so compelling to watch.

Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus and
Rooney Mara as Mary Magdalene in
"Mary Magdalene" on Showtime.
Rooney Mara’s Mary performance brings an almost ethereal inner quality of insight to her spiritual awareness portrayal.  It’s reverential and understated but it’s totally honest. And the camera loves her: high cheekbones, classical profile and the ability to sustain her on camera moments long after the scenes are over become performance pluses.  Noel Coward called actors who possess these attributes and gifts as having “star quality”. The on-screen chemistry between Ms. Mara and Mr. Phoenix is palpable. The two stars off-screen are a real-life couple which might account for their on-screen compatibility as both creative artists and as screen characters.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as the apostle Peter
in "Mary Magdalene" on Showtime.
Additionally, players delivering solid support include Irit Sheleg as Mother Mary; Theodoros Theodoridis as Lazarus; Luba Azabal as Susannah; and Shira Hass as Leah; nonetheless, “Mary Magdalene” is Rooney Mara’s movie. The irony of Mary Magdalene is that, of the twelve apostles who followed Jesus, she was the only one who actually “got” the message that he was preaching. In 2016, Pope Francis rectified this oversight, rightfully restoring St. Mary Magdalene as Christ’s true 13th Apostle.


There is a saying in Hollywood…”if you buy the premise, then you will also buy the bits.” It’s one of the best biblical movies I’ve seen in a long, long, time. But, it’s not without some required tidying up.  One, its pacing is glacial at times which doesn’t sit well with younger audiences or with this audience of one.  Two, it’s tad too long for some audiences with short attention spans, and three its biblical subject matter unfortunately is viewed as bit of a turn off by some audiences without ever seeing it.

It’s a pity that this provocative and intriguing movie with top-tier talent only earned $ 11.7 million in box office receipts. Now that America is experiencing stay-at-home warnings for a spell, you can now see it on various platforms and streaming services without ever leaving your couch or favorite chair.  Don’t keep challenging the premise of the film as you watch. Let it unfold on screen and go with its flow…then form your opinion.

 Remember a great nation deserves great art.  Support all the Arts!

-- Jack Lyons