Tuesday, January 12, 2021

BBC/PBS MOVIE” ELIZABETH IS MISSING” EXPLORES THE WORLD OF ALZHEIMER’S AND DEMENTIA

 
Dame Glenda Jackson stars in the BBC/PBS drama "Elizabeth Is  Missing"

I’ve been asked over the years, “what is it that makes these British actors so good at what they do on stage or in the cinema?  Is it something in their drinking water or their food choices perhaps, or is it a cultural thing that sets them apart from their peers.

Shakespeare was indeed correct when he penned the words “the Play's the thing” over 450 years ago.  And, no, it’s not their water or food that gives them their abundance of rich acting talent.  It’s their dedication and unwavering commitment and discipline to their profession of acting that gives them an edge.  And it’s baked into their cultural DNA.

I honor talent and creativity knowing what both of those gifts can do for audiences.  I’m not too doctrinaire or picky either when it comes to where talent originates or resides. For me, performance is where the rubber meets the road period.

Which brings us to the great 84-year-old British actress Dame Glenda Jackson, who starred “Elizabeth is Missing,” an emotional and moving BBC/PBS TV film production centering around the frightening subject matter of dementia and how to deal with it; each in our own way. 

As an actor of uncommon talent and energy with a boatload of awards and trophies (two Tony Awards, two Emmy Awards several BAFTA awards, Golden Globe Awards and other honors, Glenda Jackson managed to take a hiatus from acting to “squeeze in” a 23-year career as a political member of Britain’s Parliament serving as a Labor MP.  

Following her retirement from government at age 80, Dame Glenda heard the siren call of her old acting days. As the saying goes, if one wants to get a job done, give it to a busy person.  Jackson still has the fire in the belly when it comes to energy along with the stamina required to go the distance in the physically demanding plays and TV movies she selects.

The lure of the theatre and films brought her back to her first love – the stage.  And she returned in 2016 with a vengeance playing Shakespeare’s most demanding role of King Lear in an astonishing-gender-bending, stamina-driven, brilliant performance. She is known and most admired for her fearless, bold and ferocious performances – when they come along – in creating memorable characters and theatrical moments.   

Jackson’s dedication and loyalty to the play and to theatre, in general, is legendary.   When theatre discipline is discussed, she ranks among the best: Olivier, Chaplin, Daniel Day Lewis, Judith Anderson, Peggy Ashcroft, and Leslie Manville, plus an illustrious list of British performers too numerous to mention here; who still practice their craft well into their 80’s.  In America, however, female actor careers are over at 50 or 60.

Apparently, in Hollywood, producers think there are no stories worth writing roles for elderly actors. The art of writing nowadays is very formulaic. Good actors, however, need quality writing to soar in their performances.  I’ve been waiting for over ten years for a return to quality writing that playwright Tom Stoppard used to deliver to stages and movie screens.

In the U.K., stories are character-driven.  However, in the states, they’re action-driven, i.e., explosions, car chases, Half-humans, and robots causing mayhem are more in vogue thanks to today’s SyFy, dystopian-based locations that now boast more scenes by computer-generated imagery (CGI) than live actors, making these ‘technical gurus” the new “stars” of modern film productions.

Glenda Jackson at age 82 returned to the Broadway stage in playwright Edward Albee’s “Three Tall Women” (2018) winning another Tony Award.  Two years later she was nominated for her astonishing, gender-bending, stamina-driven performance as an addled King Lear in the throes of dementia.

2020 found the acting legend up to her old tricks of winning another BAFTA acting award.  This time she starred as Maud Horsham, an elderly woman struggling with dementia.  The subject matter may be fraught with old age issues; however, thanks to a spot-on cast of solid actors, the audience is drawn into this compelling, mystery/drama despite its off-putting subject matter.


None-the-less, the performances are just sublime, especially Glenda Jackson.  One has the sense that one is eavesdropping on a real person/patient session as to what the patient/person is experiencing with their memory issues. The 97-minute poignant movie that in the future may come calling on you or me, it might help in understanding the plight of ageing in the 21st Century. 

“Elizabeth is Missing” is sensitively and empathetically directed by Aisling Walsh, with a screenplay by Andrea Gibb, from a story by Emma Heney.  Lucas Strebal is the Cinematographer, and the TV movie is edited by Alex Mackie.  

The film debuted on PBS, January 4, 2021.  Check your local TV guide for the date and time of its next screening.  It’s worth the wait.

And remember, a great nation deserves great art.  Support all the arts.

Monday, December 28, 2020

“CASABLANCA”: HOW AND WHY IT BECAME AN ICONIC HOLLYWOOD MOVIE


A PERSONAL OBSERVATION ON AMERICAN FILMMAKING EXCEPTIONALISM

When the movie “Casablanca” merged the powerful elements of love, war, and destiny in 1942, the film and its producers never saw the phenomenal appeal or its success coming until it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1943.  Seventy-seven years later it still deserves a shout-out for American filmmaking exceptionalism.

It seems the world can never get enough stories about romance, loves won and lost, exciting adventures or the drama of the human condition. Even with its flaws and its foibles laid bare, such stories keep tugging us into this intriguing, exciting, complicated short journey we call life but it doesn’t explain where we came from, why we’re here or where we are going. 

It’s not only profound, it’s a little scary when one thinks about it.  No wonder the world is constantly in a state of flux, chaos, and uncertainty.  The best medium for me in bringing some sense of understanding and clarity to life’s unanswered questions has been the cinema.

“Casablanca” starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid, as one of the best examples of American filmmaking.  The story encompassed a unique entertainment value amid the potent and poignant backdrop of World War II.  It allowed Americans, for the first time, to see others through the lenses of empathy and their fight for a just and good cause, pitting the Allies – America, England, France, and Russia – against the Axis powers – Germany, Japan and Italy.     

Americans have always prided themselves as being a nation of rugged individualists.  We believe that with our love of freedom, our love of country, and our love of democracy, anything is possible.  All we need to do is put our minds, muscles, and money in motion and we become invincible. We are a nation of optimists, but also a nation of nationalists.  The pressure to keep America neutral and out of “Europe’s War” was extremely intense.  Yet we still admire the qualities and characteristics of our Wild West history and those non-conforming individuals who loved doing things their way. 

“Casablanca” came along in American cinema at just the right time.  Before John Wayne ‘won’ WW II on the silver screens of the country, this relevant and significant movie produced by Warner Brothers, helped explain America’s necessity for entering the war and did so with honesty, style, and a wonderfully patriotic script.  Deftly directed by Michael Curtiz, featuring  a brilliant cast, the movie  would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar of 1943, also winning Best Screenplay Oscar statuettes for twin brothers Julian and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch.

The timeless romantic war story made a huge international star of journeyman actor Humphrey Bogart, who was used to playing hard-boiled tough guys, convicts, and outsiders in B movies.  However, his luminous young Swedish co-star, Ingrid Bergman, was already an established and accomplished actor in Europe and England. Her beauty and his talent made them an acceptable romantic on-screen couple, despite their age gap (he was 42 and she was 27).  Bergman would go on to win three Academy Awards; Bogart would win only one.  Handsome leading man Paul Henried, the ‘other man’ in this love-triangle, would later go on to woo Bette Davis in “Now Voyager”, another Warner Brothers romantic film directed, once again, by Michael Curtiz.

The genesis of “Casablanca” began as the love-child of playwrights Murray Bennet and Joan Alison who wrote an unproduced stage play called “ Everybody Goes to Rick’s” which they couldn’t sell to Broadway.  However, savvy movie producer Hal B. Wallis got a hold of the stage-script and thought with changes it would make a wonderful and much needed World War II propaganda movie. He bought the film rights from Bennet and Alison for $20,000, then a princely sum of money for an unproduced stage play.

Many extraordinary and wonderful films were produced during the height of Hollywood’s Golden Age when the studio system was in its full glory.  Producer Wallis enjoyed the freedom of the Warner Brothers backlot that was overflowing with actors, writers, producers, directors, and movie technicians. It afforded him the luxury to cast his movie directly from the studio’s list of long-term contract players, many who fled Europe earlier to England and America as immigrants when Hitler became Germany’s Chancellor in 1933.

The now-rewritten movie script by the Epstein brothers and Koch depicted Rick Blaine as a cynical American, ex-pat soldier of fortune with a mysterious past who settled in Casablanca, French Morocco running his own cabaret and gambling casino called Rick’s Café Americain. 

The heart of the story, revolved around Rick and his struggle to decide whether to help his former lover Ilsa Lund (Bergman) and her Czech husband Victor Lazlo (Henreid), a wanted underground resistance leader on the run from the Nazi government, to escape from Casablanca to America and continue the fight against the Axis powers.  It’s obvious that both men are in love with the same beautiful woman.  The burning question for audiences was which man will win Isa’s heart in the end?  Rick, the exciting soldier of fortune she met and fell in love with in pre-war Paris or Victor, the dedicated and committed leader for the cause of freedom. 

Rick’s was frequented by the wealthy and the not-so-wealthy of those fleeing the war in Europe seeking passage to the safety of America.  Casablanca was a melting pot of characters who conducted negotiations for coveted travel visas by black market profiteers, all under the watchful eye of ‘mildly-corrupt’ French Prefect of Police Captain Louis Renault, brilliantly played by charming character actor Claude Rains.  Renault never met an attractive female seeking an exit visa that didn’t require his special personal attention – validating the practice of “quid pro quo” that has been a powerful negotiating force since the world began.

Producer Wallis knew he had a solid film on his hands when he saw the early footage from Curtiz.  Only generations later would everyone realize that the film was made, not only to help defeat Nazism and Fascism, but that it also told a wartime love story that resonated with practically everyone; as a result “Casablanca” has been a consistent Top Ten movie in fan popularity polls for more than seven decades.  American Film Institute’s (AFI) Top 100 Films List of All Time ranks it as number three.

“Casablanca” is a master class on how to write a successful screenplay.  Most films back in the 1940s ran about 90 minutes.  There wasn’t a lot of time spent on exposition or explaining character development for audiences.  Writers learned quickly that they had to grab the audience both emotionally and viscerally to guide them as to whom to root for or whom to dislike in the story.  In Westerns, for example, if the character kicked a slinking dog crossing the dusty main street at night, that would be your “heavy” regardless if he was wearing a black hat or not.  Character not costumes informed the screenplay.  In more modern settings it is the action or reaction that defines the “good guy”. 


In “Casablanca”, Rick jealously guarded his past life, opting outwardly to not pick sides in the wars raging in Europe and Asia.  He claimed he was just a saloon keeper trying to make a living.  “I stick my neck out for nobody” was his standard working class-type reply when the police made an occasional arrest in his nightclub.  But Rick; was never personally involved in illegal activities. He was ‘clean’ as far as the authorities were concerned. 

Bogart was the perfect choice to portray Rick.  He brought his cynical, rough-around-the edges-vocal quality and the street smarts of a take-charge guy when needed.  He’s the sort of man that men liked and he had a vulnerability that women found attractive.  It may be hard to believe now, but studio head Jack Warner, seriously thought at one time that actor Ronald Reagan would be a perfect Rick.  After all, Warner was alleged to have said “we’ve got him under a long term contract.”  Producer Wallis said just one word – “Bogart”.  And the rest thankfully is history.

And what was not to like about Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund?  Her on-screen luminosity was breathtaking, her acting skills spoke for themselves, and the camera adored her – it was a slam dunk decision!

Rick always appeared aloof and indifferent about what went on inside his cabaret and private casino.  But he was keenly aware of the intrigues and illegal dealings that took place, but his public stance was just a smokescreen to mask his idealistic side.  He ran guns to Ethiopia and fought alongside the Spanish Republican/Loyalists against Spain’s Fascist dictator Francisco Franco in the 1930s.  He had a strict rule of never sitting with his patrons at their tables, but he made sure that Captain Renault always won at roulette, as well as having complete carte blanche in the dining room with a tab that he rarely paid. 

At one point in the film, Captain Renault is forced to close Rick’s for a short period, following an incident involving the cafe’s French patrons and their spirited rendition of their national anthem to the displeasure of dining German officers.  German Major Strasser demands that the café be immediately closed down.  Rick quickly finds Renault among the departing patrons to ask why his café was being closed.  Renault replies with mock anger, “I’m shocked, shocked, to find out that gambling is going on here”, all the while stuffing his pockets with his roulette winnings that are being personally delivered by Rick’s croupier. “Casablanca” is a very rich source for what we now call clichés.  However, back in 1943, it was just called clever dialogue from a team of very sharp and talented screenwriters.

I have yet to see and hear character dialogue in any movie that so quickly and succinctly captures the male essence, confidence, and power of the Ricks of the world, especially when dealing with women.  The ‘discovery shot’ that introduces Rick to the audience occurs about four minutes into the film. Yvonne, a neglected former lover of Rick, enters.  She walks slowly past him, seated alone at his private table, and asks him tentatively “Where were you last night?”  “That’s so long ago I can’t remember.”  “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”  Rick’s brush-off dialogue is delivered in a bored monotone without ever looking up at Yvonne.  The curt exchange only lasts about 10 seconds but it speaks volumes about Rick’s character.  He’s direct, crafty but trustworthy and very resourceful.  Talk about a power trip of male ego and confidence!  


“Casablanca” takes place during the early stages of WW II and is put in motion by Peter Lorre as Ugarte, a petty criminal who often frequents Rick’s.  When the news that two German couriers carrying important documents have been found murdered on their way to Casablanca, the event sends the police and the black market into a frenzy of searches for those missing documents. The fact they are “irrevocable” exit visas’ authorized and signed by French General Charles De Gaulle, suddenly makes them priceless to many interested parties.  Ugarte, asks Rick to hide his stolen documents for safe keeping with Rick replying in a steely voice that said he didn’t want them in the club overnight for obvious reasons.  His club would be the first place to be searched by the German occupiers. When Ugarte presses Rick, he reluctantly agrees, but just for one night.

As the story unfolds, we also learn via a flashback montage that Rick and Ilsa were lovers in pre-war Paris.  Again, a love triangle plot set against the backdrop of World War II just upped the ante of the plot points of intrigue and riveting suspense that viewers relished then and still do today.  

Sidney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, Conrad Veidt, S.Z. Sakall, Leonid Kinskey, Marcel Dalio, John Qualen, Joy Paige and Helmut Dantine play indelible, memorable supporting characters.   All are fine actors who brought a wealth of experience, authenticity and charm to their nicely nuanced performances.  When appropriately leavened with light comedic moments, charm is always a welcomed ingredient in good screen stories. 

Some movie viewers of today might find the film a little old fashioned with values we rarely honor in our dystopian-based movies nowadays.  Many of these films, however, are ‘computer generated imagery’ (CGI) produced creations: car chases, shoot-outs, and action sequences are now, technically, the “stars” of today’s films.  Additionally, many of these films rely on a ton of F-bomb-laden dialogue as a way of telling the story.  Back in the day, moviemaking relied more on actor talent and subtlety of performance and less on high-octane action scenes and movie director excesses.  

Hungarian-born film director Michael Curtiz was a master of large cast movies and an expert at telling stories and films set in Europe.  His “Casablanca” brims with many brilliant directorial touches too numerous to mention here. The screenplay is an excellent example of the collaborative effort between the writers and the director that is so necessary for good films to become great films. 

My major concern now is whether future top-tier character-driven movies will become an endangered species. The industry is struggling for relevancy right now; it’s on life support thanks to cultural and societal changes along with streaming platforms vying for product exposure and income.  Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived placing everyone and everything in a holding pattern until 2021.

“Casablanca” reruns, however, are still keeping its audiences fully engaged just as it has been doing for the last seven decades. I’m glad to learn it’s been embraced by younger modern audiences too.   One would think an older, senior audience would be its largest demographic, but not necessarily so.  This wonderfully enduring movie still remains one of Hollywood’s all-time favorites across all age groups.

Do yourself a favor if the opportunity presents itself:  Enjoy one more time the magic of Hollywood’s Golden Age of filmmaking with its memorable moments, dramatic scenes, and nostalgia-fueled dialogue from ”Casablanca” that Bogie and other actors forever immortalized.  Who could forget Captain Renault’s memorable “Round up the usual suspects”, or Rick’s drunken lamentation, “Of all the gin joints of all the towns in all the world, she has to walk into mine.”  Just sublime stuff.

Then there’s the exquisitely poignant and iconic exchange between Rick and IIsa on that foggy tarmac late at night when a plane awaits to take her and Victor to America.  In one impassioned speech, Rick lays out the ultimate rationale for supporting the Allied cause and steps up to the moral plate to remind Ilsa of her destiny.  His achingly tender reminder that “We’ll always have Paris…” and his parting comment “Here’s looking at you kid” have been seared into the memories of moviegoers across the world for decades.  This kind of romantically-inspired writing is what sets “Casablanca” apart from other hallmark films in Hollywood’s pantheon of cinematic classics accompanied by the perfect, iconic, leitmotif song, “As Time Goes By”. 

It’s the one film that stays firmly lodged in my heart and the hearts of passionate cinephiles and ardent aficionados of romantic films like “Casablanca” forever.

-- Jack Lyons

Sunday, December 13, 2020

NORTH COAST REP THEATRE BRILLIANTLY REIMAGINES HOMER’S EPIC POEM “THE ILIAD” AS A MODERN DRESS PRODUCTION ON STAGE IN SOLANA BEACH

“An Iliad” stars award winning actor Richard Baird in a powerful, mesmerizing, tour-de-force, performance

When theatre aficionados and scholars gather to think about the origins of the western art form we call ‘the theatre’, they often harken back to the ancient Greeks and their culture to see how far their creation has evolved over some twenty seven centuries.  Homer’s two major literary works or poems are “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, with “Iliad” being written first.  It may be skimpy when compared to Shakespeare’s canon but its impact none-the-less, has been enormous to the art form of storytelling over the centuries.

 In 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic caused all entertainment venues to become more creative when it came to following CDC guidelines concerning the pandemic.  Traditional theatre audiences morphed into film format viewers.  Live theatre audiences became a No-No. The world of brick and mortar venues went silent, however, most live theatres still honor the theatrical tradition of keeping a ‘ghost-light’ burning through the night (tradition and superstition runs deep in show business).  

Undaunted, North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) began to mount productions on its theatre stage and then capture the story and the action on film, to be seen at a later time in a streaming movie format.  Challenging times for the actors, the technical staff and the absent audience you wonder?  You bet!  But creative artists like actors, directors and producers thrive in such situations.

NCRT latest foray into filmed stage plays which ‘opened’ on December 9th is streaming the play “An Iliad” through January 3, 2021.  The play, freely adapted, by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare from ancient Greek playwright Homer, creates a modern dress production of Homer’s “Iliad’.  Deftly directed by savvy NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein, “An Iliad” stars award winning actor Richard Baird in a powerful, mesmerizing, tour-de-force, performance that leaves the streaming home audience in a state of awe.

His jaw-dropping solo performance keeps the viewer completely engaged and enthralled as he relives the nine year-old Trojan War saga without ever leaving the stage in its 93 minute production.  Baird, an accomplished actor-director in his own right, runs the gamut of emotions from rage to irony to light humor, to the horrors and folly of war. playing all the parts in Homer’s epic saga The Trojan War.

The story revolves around three classic Greek events: the kidnapping of Queen Helen of Sparta by Troy; the great battles between Grecian and feared warrior Achilles and Hector of Troy, the greatest warrior of the Trojan army in a test  as to which side will prevail in their attempts to rescue and return Helen to her husband in Sparta. Or will Hector of Troy win the siege therefore keeping Helen in Troy with Paris, the son of King Priam of Troy.

The chemistry between theatre and film director Ellenstein and actor Richard Baird is palpable as each compliments the gifts of the other with the audience being the beneficiaries of their rich collaboration.  North Coast Rep’s bold, and enlightened, adaptation of Homer’s “Iliad” explores the nobility, savagery and the valor of the battles while insightfully revealing the human cost of war over the centuries.  I would even go so far as to offer “An Iliad” as the first anti-war movement story to confront the perfidy of those who profit from war.  And yet, we humans continue to ignore the efficacy and truth of history.  But, I digress.

Ellenstein’s “An Iliad”, despite the play’s gruesome references, is filled with modern language when it’s spoken by Baird in a sort of interlocutory-styled “asides” in their delivery.  His deep, modulated, baritone voice keeps the viewer fully enthralled.  His asides to the viewer are sly, amusing, and refreshing, in that they lend authenticity to the story and events that concerned Homer back in Eighth century BC Greece sadly, still plague world societies in the 21st century.

Ancient Greek culture was rife with God-like references, myths, and polytheism.  Statuary depicted some gods as half human and half animal even fish, or birds dominated their spiritual and societal lives where practically everyone prayed to multiple gods much like the Egyptians when it was an important request.  Times haven’t really changed all that much when it comes to asking for additional help with a problem, no matter the religion or the importance of the supplicant.  And the beat goes on …

Kudos to North Coast Repertory Theatre for selecting a relatively unknown play to produce for their audiences during the time of a worldwide pandemic, which for now, must be seen by audiences via collaboration with their sister art-forms of film and television.

In the technical department, NCRT Set Design wizard Marty Burnett celebrates his two hundredth design for the Solana Beach Equity theatre.   NCRT artisans who make this outstanding production a must see experience under the direction of David Ellenstein are: designer Marty Burnett with his spare but functional set, Aaron Rumley’s smooth cinematography and editing, along with camera assistant and editor Christopher Williams. 

Cellist Amanda Schaar provides the musical accompaniment throughout the performance.  The choice of the cello is a nice touch. Cello’s deliver just the right amount of melancholy that serves as the spot-on leitmotif that pervades this excellent production.

For tickets on how to view “An Iliad”, go online to: www. northcoastrep.org.  

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

-- Jack Lyons


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

GEFFEN STAYHOUSE HAS ANOTHER CLEVERLY CONSTRUCTED HIT ON ITS HANDS IN "INSIDE THE BOX'

David Kwong stars in "Inside the Box" at the Geffen Stayhouse 
now through Jan. 2021. Photo by Jeff Lorch

Apart from being known as one of the best regional theaters in the country, the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, was one of the first local venues to successfully take aim at the attack on live entertainment by COVID-19. The first production, the Frank Marshall-directed "The Present" starring master prestidigitator and performer Helmer Guimaraes, allowed the show's compact staging to easily transition to the Zoom platform. While it sounded risky, it actually brought audience members into even more intimacy with the star and the unique story of art, love, memory and card tricks.

The latest production from the Geffen, "Inside the Box" is even better suited to the livestream format as its entire concept is based on boxes -- that is grids, squares and puzzles. The world-premiere production from writer and performer David Kwong is described as an exhilarating glimpse into the world of games. Kwong is one of the crossword puzzle constructors at the New York Times, the gold standard for puzzle fans around the world. With a combination of keen insight, sly wit and personal history, the affable Kwong displays his knowledge of the subject without ever sounding like a puzzle wonk...well, almost ever.

Twenty-four guests all have a front row seat in the evening's entertainment and in the Zoom proscenium, resemble a slightly whack "Hollywood Squares" episode. When you purchase your ticket for the show, you receive a package a day or two before the performance with interactive props and instructions for your participation. In between solving puzzles, Kwong regales the crowd with stories of the most celebrated puzzle makers throughout history while letting his audience create their own moments of head-scratching joy.  

Even if you aren't a puzzle fan, this 85-minute long peek into the world of words and wordplay is vastly entertaining and you actually get to share that "communal experience" that live theatre provides. Some participants eagerly raised their hands when they had solved a particular clue, while others never said a word but doggedly stayed the course, mostly due to the star's pun-kish humor and charm. "Jeopardy" producers, are you listening? He'd make a perfect host someday, and I'm sure his mother would agree.

The show has proven so successful that it has been extended beyond the initial run; the show is sold out through January 3, 2021 but additional dates are being added. The Geffen is also offering five $25 Mobile Rush tickets at each performance on a first-come, first-served basis. More information on tickets can be found on the website at www.geffenplayhouse.org.

The Geffen has just announced its upcoming three-play "virtual season" and I can hardly wait to join in the magic.

-- Lisa Lyons

Sunday, October 4, 2020

SHOWTIME SCREENS THE INCENDIARY POLITICAL POWER PACKED DRAMA “THE COMEY RULE”

Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleesen star in "The Comey Rule" on Showtime

PART ONE:  The Comey POV

On the subject of “timing” in politics, it is said that nothing is ever coincidental or random.  It’s always well thought out and planned for maximum impact right down to the “leaks”.  Showtime premiered its long awaited two-part political drama series “The Comey Rule”, on Monday and Tuesday, September 27 and 28, 2020.  

It screened two nights before the 2020 Presidential debates that the country was salivating to see on practically every TV set in America.  Coincidence?  Or was it by design?  Television programmers are clever manipulators when it comes to maximizing audience ratings, and of course, monetizing their film product revenue dollars.  Regardless, “The Comey Rule” will no doubt please some and upset others depending on your political party affiliation and for its treatment and/or bias of its potent subject matter: The 2016 Presidential Campaign.  

I prefer not to dwell on the public hullabaloo and the circus-like political firestorm surrounding the firing by President Trump of former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017.  Those are actual historic events familiar to all; I’m interested in seeing how this first rate, complicated, and very compelling movie by screenwriter and director Billy May, was able to pull-off the making of one of the most powerful, thorniest, and anticipated movies about the FBI verses the President of the United States of America, in a long, long time. 

There are echoes of the writing style and familiar character types that screenwriter/producer Aaron Sorkin created with the brilliant casts of individual and ensemble performances in his “West Wing” set–stories from 1999 to 2006.  That’s pretty heady company for comparison.  “The West Wing” garnered tons of awards in its seven seasons on TV.

Jeff Daniels as James Comey

In the film drama “The Comey Rule,” writer-director May bases his script on many sources; first and foremost, however, is Jim Comey’s 2018 tell-all book “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”.  It is a principal source that has been fleshed out with authenticated facts, notes, memos, interviews with high level Washington insiders and political players on both sides of the aisle. It provided rich anecdotal information for journalists who then authored books on the first three years of the Trump presidency. The research and time spent on the script has been exhaustive in its veracity and plausibility. Once again, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

There have been volumes written that include conversations from government eyewitnesses familiar with the Comey/Trump affair that led to Comey’s ultimate firing.  In short, there is a wealth of research to support May’s screenplay; but ultimately it will be the viewers who will determine the success of the film by an outstanding huge cast.

There are over seventy roles for actors in this compelling production, with fifteen of them playing themselves as journalists, White House staff, and elected or appointed government officials, culled from archival television footage of the 2016 Presidential Campaign. The sensational story is well documented with an ending already known to the audience who have been waiting four years for someone to offer clarity on what really has been going on with a group of people who are loyal to one man, and are sworn to Omerta-like secrecy to protect him.  

James Comey, the ex FBI director, is a truth-teller to power.  He’s a dedicated, decisive, intelligent, highly principled FBI officer whose raison d’etre in life is the “Bureau” as it’s known in Washington D.C.   He’s a cool, composed, customer when under stress, who “walks on water” in the eyes of his close knit staff of seven highly skilled analysts. 

Holly Hunter as Sally Yates

It’s impossible to list the many deserving actors who bring this potent motion picture to life.  However, there are always stand-outs:  Jeff Daniels, fresh from his Tony Nominated Lead Actor performance on Broadway in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, plays James Comey. His portrayal is a study in how actors stay in the moment when story-wise, chaos is exploding all around them. It’s a finely judged performance that floats all the boats in Billy May’s highly-charged, politically explosive showdown with President Trump who is sensationally played by Irish actor Brendan Gleesen. More about him later.

The main sticking point between Trump and Comey is the FBI director’s refusal to politicize the FBI for Trump’s “personal war” on his perceived enemies. The president wants Comey to agree to a loyalty oath as a way of leveraging his cooperation when National Security Advisor Mike Flynn becomes compromised by Russian GRU agents and diplomats. A request for leniency for Flynn comes personally from Trump, asking Comey to let this pass as Flynn is “really a good guy”.  The FBI director eloquently refuses to let Flynn off the hook for his political indiscretions with Russia as a violation of FBI policy and rules. His decision, however, motivates President Trump to seek revenge.  

 PART TWO: The Trump POV

The movie is about our newly practiced American politics, warts and all, under Trump. It’s no more Mr. Nice Guys,  just raw, brutal, win-at-all-costs hardball.  The actors sound like characters from “The Sopranos” in their portrayals at times.  The only prop missing in the “highlight” dinner scene between Trump and Comey as solo diners was a baseball bat, a favorite “convincing tool” of Al Capone back in his day when his problems didn’t go away quickly enough. (Just joking; as the President often says these days). But mobsters over the years have had unique and odd ways of eliminating their competition.

The performance of actor Brendan Gleesen as President Trump, however, is no joke.  Unlike Alec Baldwin's Saturday Night Live (SNL) comedy sketch impression of Trump, Gleesen’s frighteningly menacing and thug-like portrayal is an eye opener. As the antagonist in the movie, Gleesen preens, glowers, and speaks in low breathy exchanges intended to intimidate.  It’s a highly nuanced, eerily performed characterization that will no doubt be discussed long after Mr. Gleesen moves on with his career. Great stuff from both Daniels and Gleesen.

Part One was getting to know Comey, and his supportive wife Patrice, sensitively played by Jennifer Ehle, thanks to an old theatrical device of a character/interlocutor, in this case the duplicitous Rod Rosenstein. Deliciously played by Scoot McNairy, it's a performance that would please Shakespeare’s Iago.

Comey’s brilliant staffer/analysts team, led by Michael Kelly as Andrew McCabe, Comey’s number One; also Amy Seimetz as Trisha Anderson, Steven Pasquale as Peter Strzok, Oona Chaplin as Lisa Page (who are having an affair at work), Jonathan Banks as James Clapper, Brian d’Arcy James as Mark Giuliano,, and Sean Gallagher as Jim Rybicki, deliver solid support.  Holly Hunter as US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Michael Hyatt as US Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Barack Obama, have smaller but important key roles. 

I believe it’s safe to say that most American viewers are familiar with the term “drain the swamp”.  Four years ago the incoming players promised to drain the swamp and ‘Make America Great Again’.  Some in the country are still waiting for that to happen.   

Today, we have a politically divided country that appears to be doing very little to bring the nation together. Instead, we’re mired in partisan chaos, protests, looting, police violating their sworn oaths to protect the public and property from violence, random shootings etc.  

Film director Billy May, and his inspired cast offer his view of the first three years under the presidency of Donald Trump. Part Two is a peek into the machinations of how our two-party Democracy system works under Trump and his Republican party enablers. The more the country knows, the more we become concerned as to just how much there is to know and how to handle that information when the American people begin to process the truth.

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

-- Jack Lyons

Saturday, September 26, 2020

INTRIGUING PLAY ABOUT PRESIDENT LINCOLN AND ABOLITIONIST FREDERICK DOUGLASS STREAMS AT NORTH COAST REP THEATRE IN MOVIE FORMAT

Hawthorne James as abolitionist Frederick Douglass
and Ray Chambers as President Abraham Lincoln
face off in North Coast Repertory's streaming presentation
"Necessary Sacrifices". All photos by Aaron Rumley.

COVID-19 may still be with us but that hasn’t slowed down the creative theatrical efforts of North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT). The Solana Beach equity theatre company under the creative leadership of artistic director David Ellenstein, officially celebrated the opening of its 39th season last month.

Theatre is addictive. And loyal NCRT audiences have been hungering for the oldest of the fine art forms – live theatre – to re-open. San Diego and North County live theatres have been chomping at the bit since Governor Newson closed down all brick and mortar entertainment venues in California six months ago.  He lifted the ban on Wednesday, September 23rd for movie theatres, but not yet for live theatre performances.

Undaunted, by the ban and the pandemic NCRT decided to think outside the traditional ‘theatrical box’, as a way of keeping in touch with its subscriber base. Translation: NCRT current production is a play written in 2012 by award-winning prolific regional theatre playwright Richard Helleson, titled “Necessary Sacrifices”, directed by Peter Ellenstein.

The first thing we need to clarify at the outset is this quasi-historical, drama being streamed to viewers and NCRT audiences in “movie style” format is that it is not the famous 1858 Presidential debates between Republican Abe Lincoln and Democrat Stephen Douglas both of Illinois vying for the Presidential nomination of 1860.

“Necessary Sacrifices” deals with the relationship between US President Abraham Lincoln and the acclaimed abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  Douglass was an escaped slave who became a prominent activist, author, public speaker and a leader in the abolitionist movement during the Civil War.

America’s Civil War is probably the most written about conflict in our nation’s history, yet it’s still a story without an ending one hundred and fifty-five years after the war ended.  Yes. We reunited our country into a single nation again, however, if one looks back some fifty-five years, as well as what one is seeing taking place in America of 2020, one could make a case that the conflict is still festering; not as an overt shooting war, but more like legal political guerilla warfare. But I digress.

Playwright Helleson, a Californian by birth, is considered to be an expert on “Southern-based issues” having written several plays when it comes to stories about the Civil War, or what older entrenched Southerners used to refer to as “the war of the late unpleasantness”.

What North Coast Repertory Theatre has mounted is Helleson’s intelligent, insightful, engaging play where two literary giants:  Lincoln and Douglass, meet in August of 1863 in the White House to discuss the immediate future of the Republic and beyond, in respectful and honest dialogue. Lincoln the great Emancipator and Douglass the passionate abolitionist, each with agendas seeking common ground of agreement that only hard sacrifices can achieve.

Ray Chambers is Abraham Lincoln in
Necessary Sacrifices

Douglass tells Lincoln that all the black man, free or slave, is asking from the white man is respect and dignity; one human being to another.  Lincoln is empathetic but knows the climate of the country and the Congress at the moment is in their ‘punish the South’ mood. He tells Douglass, in all honesty his hands are tied.  “I’m just an old mule at the front of the line of old mules.” He resignedly replies to Douglass (or as Bill Clinton might have said, “I feel your pain”).  However, the dilemma of who can remedy the situation, is why Douglass came to the White House to see him.  Lincoln gently reminds Douglass, “I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution.  In the long run it’s really a States Rights issue”.

The Congress is always in the driver’s seat.  Political plays and movies used to be a way for the average citizen to learn the basics of how our government worked. Politicians by nature serve more than one master.  But ultimately it’s the people who have the power to change the status quo via the elective process.

Hawthorne James as Frederick
Douglass in Necessary Sacrifices

Hawthorne James as Frederick Douglass, is a magnetic actor. When the camera is on him, so are all eyes.  It’s a nicely nuanced performance.  As an audience, we’re pulling for Douglass to succeed in his mission of having Lincoln intercede for equal pay and the recognition of bravery in action and death benefits for the families of the segregated colored Union army units.

Ray Chambers as Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, has the tougher image battle for the audience.  Not many can remember what Frederick Douglass looked like in real life.  But every school boy and girl over the age of five know who Abraham Lincoln is, how he dressed, and what he wrote and said.

To his credit and that of director Peter Ellenstein, Mr. Chambers creates a President Lincoln persona that both compliments his performance and resonates with the audience (like Daniel Day Lewis did with his portrayal of Lincoln in the eponymous movie and the persona he created).   Both Mr. James and Mr. Chambers acquit themselves with honesty and conviction in their portrayals of real historical figures. “Necessary Sacrifices” is a talky two-hander play. However, I feel the time spent with them is well worth it.

In the technical department led by Director Ellenstein, Aaron Rumley’s cinematography and editing skills hit the mark. Set and Scenic renderings is courtesy of design wizard Marty Burnett who recreates the 1863 Oval Office; providing plenty space for the actors to work their magic.

Costume designs by Elisa Benzoni are spot-on, with camera operators Chris Williams and Aaron Rumley, and music provided by Michael Silversher, along with Hair and Wig design by Peter Herman, make it a compelling North Coast Repertory Theatre production to see.

For tickets to see “Necessary Sacrifices” contact the NCRT Box Office at 858-481-1055.

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

--Jack Lyons

Sunday, September 20, 2020

HBO SPECIAL “COASTAL ELITES” NAVIGATES THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH HUMOR

The Cast of "Coastal Elites" on HBO:
Clockwise from left: Dan Levy, Bette Midler,
Sarah Paulson, Kaitlyn Dever and Issa Rae 

This insidious, if not invidious, COVID-19 pandemic has engulfed the world in fear and chaos. It also has taken with it over 950,000 unsuspecting lives as of September 17, 2020, most of whom didn’t understand or believe what was happening to them.

Society, in times of plagues or pandemics, has learned to embrace some unorthodox methods of coping when dangerous events in life’s journeys are present.  People resort to wrapping themselves in the safety net of comedy or satire, especially during this on-going quarantine mandate period of 2020. Without humor, society would be in worse shape than it already is.

HBO’s just released film “Coastal Elites”, navigates the COVID-19 experience in a comedic and satirical way (for a deadly subject matter)  with five vignette monologues, by five actors; each breathing life into playwright Paul Rudnick’s spot-on slices of pandemic life during this unprecedented experience, and all deftly directed by Jay Roach.

Leading off the first of five segments is one of America’s finest comedienne/Broadway baby/singer and actor is the irrepressible Bette Midler.  “The Divine Miss M”, as she was known back in her cabaret days in the 70s, has, over the years, perfected the persona of America’s Jewish mother comedy image, with a Yiddish-fueled saucy tongue that is blessed with impeccable comedy timing and talent. She hasn’t lost her star quality edge as an actor and comedienne over the years either. Her Miriam role is biting, funny and flirts with over-the-top moments. 

The legendary Bette Midler

As obsessed NYC school teacher Miriam Nessler, Midler’s take and the effect on her students and Trump’s role in the pandemic is classic Midler.  It’s a 20 minute comedic rant that leaves the viewer exhauster by her stamina and focus.  It’s ageless Midler returning to her early form.

Next batter up is beautiful, slender, stunning Issa Rae as Callie Josephson, the uber-rich socialite daughter and classmate of vapid Ivanka Trump.  Rae, or Rudnick, or both, have a field day recalling the shallowness and obsession with possessions and money, in a segment titled “The Blonde Cloud”.  Ivanka Trump is a true chip off the old money tree block revered by the Trump family, in Rae’s scathing comedy turn.

Apparently actors and psychiatrists are kindred souls; that’s why there are so many of them and they’re proud of it. Segment Three features actor Dan Levy as gay actor Mark Hesterman, revealing to his psychiatrist during their regular session his most recent audition for a role that didn’t quite turn out the way he imagined it should.

Emmy winning actor Dan Levy

He explains that VP Mike Pence is partly responsible for the gay community’s negative image and the paucity of openly gay acting roles (could this be a case of the pot calling the kettle black?). Comedians, however, view life’s vicissitudes from a different mind-set.  Thank God that they do or we would all be so anxious and up-tight we wouldn’t be able function at all.  We have seen this rodeo before.  Dan Levy, however, shines his special comedy spin on Gays vs. Trump/Pence in a political light perhaps a little too forcefully.

In Segment Four, Sarah Paulson is Clarissa Montgomery, a meditation guru who delivers her performance as a sweet but somewhat unsure guru of her own advice.  Later, as we listen to her and her message of easing the anxiety and depression of the pandemic for her clients, she reveals her failed attempt to get her Republican family to stop drinking the “kool-ade” that they have been steadily gulping down since 2016 via the cup of “cult mentality” – to the now newly updated – “herd mentality” label, but to no avail.  Her dilemma, no doubt, resonates with many in similar circumstances.

The final and fifth vignette of “Coastal Elites” is the best of the five, at least for me.  It sums up the 2019-2020 pandemic POV more soberly than comedic when viewed through the eyes of Sharynn Tarrows, a young, dedicated, volunteering Wyoming Nurse – who is terrifically, poignantly, and understatedly – played by Kaitlyn Dever.

Nurse Sharynn, who came to NYC to help her colleagues fight the pandemic is the one that hits home the hardest and is the most poignant of playwright Rudnick’s screenplay characters in “Coastal Elites”. One can really feel the ordeal that NYC health professionals went through and are still going through when viewing Dever's outstanding performance.

One must remember that “Coastal Elites” bills itself as a comedy-satire movie, even though were looking at a series of stand-alone, static, comedy monologues in the age of Trump. I doubt the Trump family or its red MAGA-hatted supporters will read or care what is said by playwright Rudnick, or director Roach, and the actors who perform as the characters. But I do think people with a sense of humor will smile, laugh and enjoy the antics of those of the political circus we all seemed to be trapped in these days.

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

--Jack Lyons