Wednesday, October 6, 2021

“SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE” THE 2021 MOVIE VERSION DRAWS MIXED REVIEWS FROM CRITICS

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in HBO's
2021 remake of "Scenes from a Marriage"

When it comes to original stories made into movies and TV films, about the subject of love and marriage, one would be hard pressed to ignore the angst-filled dramas of the great Swedish filmmaker and writer-director Ingmar Bergman.

Bergman brought to the screen his series of reality-based films about the lives of Scandinavian marriages to insulated uninformed American audiences that didn’t like the feel of foreign films due to their annoying and off-putting subtitles.

Most Americans thought Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark were countries where people were tall, blonde, sexy, and were countries filled with lots of snow and ice during the winter months that made for great skiing and skating but also made for boring weeks where the sun was rarely seen.  Actually, there was a lot more happening in their marriages than we realized. After all, sex is universally practiced and so is its appeal.

Israeli filmmaker Hagai Levi decided he wanted to do a more modern updated version of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 seminal film “Scenes from a Marriage” that originally starred Liv Ullman, Erland Joseph, Bibi Andersson, Jan Malmsjo, and Gunnel Lindblom.  However, writer/adaptor/director Levi trimmed several characters for his 2021 version. The film cast now features Jessica Chastain as Mira, Oscar Isaac as Jonathan, Nicole Beharie as Kate, and Corey Stoll as Peter, as their married friends and Sophia Kopera as Ava, their three year-old daughter.

The eponymous 2021 movie version currently streaming on HBO platforms stars the always fiercely bold and exciting actor Jessica Chastain as Mira, a shallow, narcissistic, young mother and wife married to Oscar Isaac as Jonathan, a philosophy college professor who rarely challenges Mira when messy home life and workplace confrontations occur.  He prefers the rational approach much like that of a Talmudic scholar in discussions with the ambivalent, passive-aggressive Mira.

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac in "Scenes from a Marriage"

We meet them nearing the end of their marital bliss days that are now turning into thoughts of separation on Mira’s part. This is the tipping point in their marriage where the rubber will soon meet the road of reality.  Their marital life has been tedious, slowly paced and is loaded with dialogue that strains one’s credulity and authenticity. For starters, where is Mira’s concern for how she and Jonathan’s actions will forever affect their daughter?

Jonathan has been blind-sided and shell-shocked by Mira’s decision and in her unreal delusional attitude of being a parent and mother. Jonathan suggests they take some time to discuss this, but Mira demurs. Her mind is already made up; she has other plans in her future.

I seriously doubt that many female viewers will embrace the behavior of Mira.  And, yes, the film is not all “sturm and drang”. There are many moments of aching poignancy in Levi’s script about the ups and downs of married life that affect everyone in the film and as well as in real life.       

If one had to choose a character in this story to root for, I suspect it would be Jonathan based on his fatherly love and deep concern for Ava’s future. Levi leaves such decisions up to his audience when it comes to choosing one parent over the other.  Regardless, their marriage had all the elements of an impending train wreck right from the get go, but it is not the screaming, drunken, bombastic sort depicted in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, but it’s close enough on an intellectual level to claim a ‘civilized’ kinship.  

Most of the dialogue scenes are delivered in hushed and whispered tones - so make sure seniors are wearing their hearing aids while watching.  I get the ‘stylistic’ decision that signals intimacy, and as such, demands that the love scenes be spoken in tones that are low and slowly delivered for maximum effect; however, employing that directorial crutch only heightens the glacial pacing even more. There are more surprises and twists in this marital disintegration tale, but no more spoiler alerts here.

Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll in HBO's "Scenes from a Marriage

I suspect the excesses of our 21st century liberated society influenced this adaptation of ”Scenes From a Marriage”, which resulted in it receiving mixed reviews. After all, the actors are working to execute the writer/director’s vision which they did in highly nuanced tour de force performances.  The talents of Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll, however, are wasted here. One could make a case that the ubiquitous prop of red and white wine consumed by all (save Ava) has the largest on-screen time in the film.

With respect to the actors, who had nothing to do with the uneven moments in the script, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are gifted actors and it’s a joy to watch their sublime performances.  Isaac’s “Ex Machina” film about Artificial Intelligence and Chastain’s performances in “Zero Dark Thirty” about the search for Osama Bin Laden, and “The Help” respectively, were breakthrough film performances where audiences and producers took notice.

I can’t wait to see “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”, staring Ms. Chastain as the televangelist partner and wife of disgraced preacher Jim Bakker, that opens in theatres this month.

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

-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL THE ENIGMATIST, THE NEWEST MAGICAL PRESENTATION AT GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE


David Kwong is THE ENIGMATIST at the Geffen Playhouse.
Photos by Jeff Lorch.

If you are looking for a show that will astound, confound and thoroughly entertain you, look no further than THE ENIGMATIST, the first presentation of the esteemed Geffen Playhouse's 25th season, written and performed by illusionist David Kwong at Westwood's Geffen Playhouse.

Showcasing the incredible skill and charm of Kwong, a New York Times crossword puzzle creator and sleight of hand magician, the show is a delightful combination of mind games, code breaking, fascinating history and jaw-dropping illusions that leave the audience gasping in glee.

Last year, Kwong took the stage in the Audrey Kenis Skirball Theatre in "Inside the Box," a salute to crossword puzzle fans everywhere. He has a can't-miss combination of smarts and humor with a touch of vulnerability, that pulls the audience into the act with ease.

The theatrical experience begins before one even enters the theatre, as an outdoor patio has been transformed into a "clue gallery" where the audience is strongly encouraged to try and solve the presented puzzles before entering the intimate stage set. By the time I sat down, I was hopelessly lost and feeling like a high school dropout, but I still got caught up in the rhythm Kwong creates.

His audience was all too eager to participate, providing assistance in some fairly impressive magic that left them agape. 

Hats off to the imaginative production designers at the Geffen who transform this small space in myriad ways, all of which work brilliantly. THE ENIGMATIST reconfigures the space as a cross between an elegant wood panelled library and a cocktail lounge...and it works. A series of small tables for two, along with banquettes and some traditional theatre seats, encourages the shared experience; the walls feature framed images which are vital clues to solving some of the challenges posed by Kwong. 

And he does challenge you, believe me. If you think you are pretty knowledgeable about puzzles, acrostics, cyphers and the like, you will leave this show feeling like a novice but eager to pursue more information about the nature and meaning of puzzles in our lives.

After his show last year, I wrote that Kwong would be an excellent choice to replace Alex Trebek on Jeopardy when the time came. Too bad the producers of that show didn't read my review, because this ingratiating magician and "cruciverbalist" (aka a crossword puzzle constructor) would give the TV audience what they are demanding in a host: intellect, heart, humor and a waggish personality. It's not too late, you know...

The show runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission and is a perfect family-friendly show with nothing but clean jokes and amazing illusions. It's scheduled to run until November 14, 2021.

Tickets can be purchased through the Geffen Playhouse website at geffenplayhouse.org. Don't miss it!

-- Lisa Lyons

Sunday, September 19, 2021

OPINION: Why Are We Still Mired in That Infamous Swamp That Was Promised to Be Drained Five Years Ago?


Image: dean65/Thinkstock

It’s been almost a year since November 2020 when Mr. Trump lost his presidential reelection bid but secretly refuses to accept his defeat.  And “the big lie’ theory continues to poison the political well of the nation. Since then, the country has been in a constant state of fear, division and distrust. 

Timing and choices that effect everything in our lives, also may be influencing the almost uncontrollable events sent by Mother Nature in the form of a worldwide pandemic which has been exacerbating our civil turmoil and political unrest for over fifteen months.

When we the people ask for answers and solutions to issues that are plaguing our democracy we’re denied the full truth.  Instead, we’re handed even more obfuscation and finger pointing along with shifting the blame and stonewalling in the hope that we the people will tire of the issue.

And, if that wasn’t enough of red flag warnings to concern our elected officials, the country then had to deal with the ignominious January 6, 2021 insurrection.  The storming of the Capitol by a band of self-proclaimed Trump loyalists and barbarians who breached the gates at his behest, causing our allies and friends to refer to the USA as a South American banana-styled republic.

The beacon of democracy and hope has not only been dimmed, it’s literally been taken away from us inside our borders by our own countrymen.  All this was made crystal clear prior to January 6, 2021 in screenwriter and director Billy May’s powerful and provocative 2017 film “The Comey Rule” that covers the Trump presidency prior to the first of his two impeachment trials.  It was a prescient signal to America to be on guard to the possibility of losing our democracy from within by those who covet autocracy over democracy.   


Jeff Daniels and Brendan Gleeson in Showtime's THE COMEY RULE

May’s film highlights the lengths then president Trump was willing to go in his war with the FBI and its director James Comey.   Their relationship was poisoned from moment the director was handed a loyalty oath to sign.  If signed, that would clear the way for the president to co-opt the FBI by allowing it to become politicized and weaponized for Trump’s personal war on his perceived enemies in violation of FBI rules and regulations.

The president’s revenge for “disloyalty” was to fire director Comey, then continue his feud with the Agency by symbolically throwing certain FBI civil servants out with Jim Comey’s bath water, despite its 112 years of outstanding agency service, credibility, reputation and its effectiveness to the country.

Trump constantly demonized his own FBI agency at every opportunity in his vendetta to destroy it with a king-like edict of a loyalty oath he demanded from all his cabinet and department heads who were forced to sign it. Comey, however, demurred when asked to sign the oath and his refusal cost him his job.

One of the main reasons the arts and the media are still available to us is due in part to the boldness and fearlessness of both communities.   It is a testament to their resolve in keeping our 2021 democracy and the people well informed.  The main underpinning of our democracy, after all, relies on free speech and the rule of law in America.  Both of those concepts have come under heavy attack over the last five years. 

Now is the time for using “better late than never” as a prudent rationale for reexamining why our current political leaders lately appear to be tired of living in our 245 year-old democracy.  I still feel the sting of the ominous words spoken by Russian Premier Nikita Khruschev who smugly said  “We will bury you from within without firing a single shot.” Nonetheless, the threat of losing our democracy by any means is totally unacceptable especially in today’s politically divided and angst-filled society. 

Khruschev’s chilling words spoken over 55 years ago seem less chilling and more perplexing in 2021 because of the actions on the part of what some of our elected officials are saying and doing is definitely head-scratching.  They have all sworn an oath to protect the Constitution and by extension, we the people, along with our democracy-based way of life.

Alas, it’s a pity but understandable why some Americans today feel the need to ask where one stands when it comes to politics and the nation’s future.  The autocrats of the world are popping champagne corks to celebrate our embarrassment and fall from grace and in their eyes the United States of America, is no longer the world’s greatest democracy.

Also vexing is why some of our elected officials appear to be recanting or abandoning their original sworn oaths?  We have been taught that the truth to power pushback from the people will set us free.   If so, why is our American way of life over the last five years beginning to look a little frayed around the edges?  The arts and our media are the best pathways to reach the people who, allegedly and ultimately, are in charge of America via the power given them through our Constitution that guarantees all U.S. citizens the right to vote.  Remember, Congress works for us.

We owe it to all the people that we remain a refuge for free speech in these politically charged and perilous times.  Every day in America that brings more troubling new facts, and/or news about a new scandal relating to our politicians makes my heart sink a little more and I begin to worry again for our future as a democracy.

Also I believe that it’s safe to say that most Americans are familiar with the political term “drain the swamp.”  Five years ago the incoming political players promised to drain the swamp and “Make America Great Again.”  Most of our countrymen are law abiding, God fearing, patient folks who are still waiting…and waiting… and waiting… for that change to take place.

As a country we have survived many ups and downs because we are a unique and special nation.  We have worked very hard in our 245 years of existence to become the envy of the world.  We, however, are not perfect but we continue in the pursuit of seeking perfection.  After all, life on planet earth is a complicated, on-going work in progress.  Personally, I find it more rewarding these days to be an optimist rather than a cynic.  So, this time, let’s really “drain the swamp” for the right and honorable reasons.

-- Jack Lyons

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Local Playwright John Guerra Reinvisions "Our Town" for Our Times


Driving up a winding highway that snakes its way through the Topanga Canyon area of Los Angeles, one becomes immersed in the rural beauty of the canyons above swanky Malibu. I almost miss the slight turn in for the legendary Theatricum Botanicum, a hidden gem of a theatre founded in 1973 by actor Will Geer (Grandpa Zeb on The Waltons), where I am meeting John Guerra, a local playwright born in Carpinteria, a beach community located between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Despite the dust and heat of the day, the affable Guerra is energized and excited to talk about the premiere production of his play "The Last Best Small Town."

"I am so excited for this production, and honestly. I can't think of a more perfect place to see live theatre than here," he says. "The combination of the setting and the exceptional talent, both on stage and behind, is magical. It reminds me of the original form of theatre in the Greek tradition, and it's a perfect fit for this particular story."

"The Last Best Small Town," tells the story of the Miller and Gonzalez families who are neighbors in the small town of Fillmore in Ventura county. The year is 2008, and the country is in the early stages of the financial crisis that will devastate communities and alter the meaning of the American Dream. The age-old expectation that each generation will do better than their parents has been destroyed; what once seemed guaranteed is now fraught with uncertainty. The play's young protagonists, Maya and Elliot, personify the heavy toll on families who had counted on a bright future and now had to reimagine their lives with lowered expectations.

"Growing up, my parents loved road trips, so we would often just jump in the car and ride to an adventure," he lovingly recalls. "We drove through Fillmore a lot on our way to visit family in Burbank, and I watched it expand from a sleepy burb to a bustling community with housing developments and strip malls. I remember what a big deal it was when the first Starbucks opened there. But when the recession hit, everything seemed to freeze. That image just stuck with me."

After graduating from Carpinteria High School, Guerra attended the University of California Irvine and earned his MFA in Playwriting from the California Institute of the Arts in 2015. Starting as an actor with such local theatre companies as the Blank Theatre, the Fountain Theatre, and the Ghost Road Theatre Ensemble, Guerra soon realized a shortage of plays resonated with his Millennial generation. This led to the seed of an idea for a play that would mirror his own coming of age in the early 2000s. He saw how money, status and racial bias had altered the American Dream forever.

When the Los Angeles-based Vagrancy Theatre's Blossoming program put out a call for reimagining a classic theatre piece, Guerra started to mine his own background to create "The Last Best Small Town" as a modern-day "Our Town" using Fillmore as the setting. "The play was a way for me to reckon with my own identity," Guerra reveals. "A lot of the issues that Maya and Elliot struggle with were my own as I came of age, and the conversations about race they are forced to confront are ones that, as someone who is mixed, are constantly going on within myself."

"I set out to write a play without any bad guys - except for the impossibility of the American Dream," he admits. "Hopefully, I have portrayed it with kindness and compassion."

With a humble yet confident tone, Guerra states, "Every playwright looks forward to seeing the ideas in their head realized. I'm hoping that these words and ideas that have kept me up at night will reach across the stage and allow the audience to really feel that they are seen and understood. And isn't that the basis of all great drama?"

"The Last Best Small Town" opened July 31 and will play in repertory at Will Geer's Theatricum Botanicum through November 6. Tickets can be purchased in advance through their website at https://theatricum.com/the-last-best-small-town/.

-- Lisa Lyons


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Friday, June 25, 2021

NORTH COAST REP THEATRE DRAMA “DR.GLAS” PRESENTS ITS FINAL STREAMING PLAY OF 2021 SEASON

Daniel Gerroll plays the title role in "Dr. Glas"
at North Coast Repertory Theatre. Photo by Aaron Rumley

It’s amazing what the human mind can understand and accomplish when it comes to the world of theatre and its sister art form the motion picture.  Both are potent art forms that appeal to audiences worldwide.

Creative arts practitioners of today however, are still traditionally bonded to the western culture of the Greek Theatre of 2500 years ago.  It’s a base that has served us well. The immediacy of the written word spoken on a stage by live actors resonates with live audiences everywhere, just on a different level than film. The world of theatre is the province of the playwright, ideas, words and actors.

The motion picture camera, on the other hand, with its sweeping mobility for vistas and action sequences or for capturing the intimacy of a moment in a close-up, has the luxury of taking the audience anywhere during its presentations along with an unseen technical army of highly skilled professional artists that make the screen magic happen. 

Film is the kingdom of the director and his or her vision and together with the actors can at times become an out-of-body experience. Think Emile Zola's “Therese Raquin” or Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” for sci fi junkies or “The Exorcist” directed by William Friedkin, for fans of the horror genre. Add Ridley Scott’s “Alien”, the film that scared the wits out of half the known world, to the list as well. Yes, film is powerful as well as the stage. We the audience are the beneficiaries of both art forms.

North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, CA, produces and presents world, state, city and regional premieres with Equity cast productions.  NCRT’s current streaming production “Dr. Glas” is based on the original novel written by 19th century Norwegian author Hjalmar Soderberg in 1905.

American journeyman playwright and author Jeremy Hatcher has fashioned a new version that takes into consideration the heart of the story set in 1905 Sweden, while creating a riveting psychological thriller. It's a perfect vehicle for the talent of polished British actor Daniel Gerroll, in a solo tour-de-force performance that is smartly directed by NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein. 

The story in short is about Dr. Gabriel Glas a respected doctor in Stockholm, is told in the form of a epistolary diary and follows Dr. Glas as he struggles with his depression - a favorite Scandinavian subject matter along with sexual fantasies - that fueled the plays of the great Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and literary giant Swedish playwright August Strindberg.  Swedish film director, playwright and author Ingmar Bergman became a world celebrity in the 20th century with his provocative and profound movies that forever changed the world’s image of Scandinavia as a region of Europe with stern moralists, repressed females and lots of snow.

The antagonist in this Chekovian-like play is Reverend Gregorius, a morally corrupt clergyman. Gregorius’ beautiful young wife confesses to Dr. Glas that her sex life is making her miserable and asks for his help. Glas is immediately smitten with the young wife to the point where he agrees to help even though he’s aware she already has a much younger lover.


Glas attempts to intervene, but 56 year-old Reverend Gregorius refuses to give up his “marital rights” of having sex with his own wife. Glas reluctantly advises her that she must have sex with Gregorius whether she likes it or not. So, in order to make his ‘fantasy lover’ happy, he begins to plot her husband’s murder. Shades of Emile Zola’s novel and later the movie “Therese Raquin” or the film “Double Indemnity” both plotlines were bold and scandalous for their time.  

The real beauty of this streaming production lies in the professionally nuanced, modulated performance of Daniel Gerroll.  He is also a voice-over actor whose silky delivery keeps the audience fully engaged right from the get-go in the excellent 65 minute film adaptation. It’s obvious to the viewer of the rapport and trust that exists between director Ellenstein and Mr. Gerroll. Timing in solo actor productions is critical and are visually evident in this excellent production at North Coast Rep.

The technical credits at NCRT are always first rate.  Director Ellenstein is fortunate in having a team of technical wizards close by.  First and foremost is the camera crew of cinematographers; Aaron Rumley,  Christopher Williams and Philip Korth nicely capture the shifting drama components and deliver another winning production for NCRT’s “Filmed Plays OnLine” series during the pandemic. 

In addition, resident set designer-magician Marty Burnett, Costume designer Elisa Benzoni’s costume for Mr. Gerroll is evocative of the period and spot on for the eyes and authenticity. Props are by Phillip Korth and the production is managed by Aaron Rumley. This will be the final NCRT production in a streaming movie format; the theatre returns to live performances this fall with a charming production of “Dancing Lessons” written by Mark St. Germain and directed by Richard Baird.  It debuts September 8th and runs through October 3rd 2021.

For reservations and ticket information contact the box office at 858 – 481 – 1055 or go online to NorthCoastRep.org. 

And remember: A great nation deserves great art. Support all the Arts!

-- Jack Lyons


Sunday, June 13, 2021

BROADWAY AND FILM STAR TOVAH FELDSHUH MORPHS INTO “BECOMING DR RUTH” AT NCRT

Tovah Feldshuh as beloved 'sexologist' Dr. Ruth Westheimer in North Coast
Repertory's production of "Becoming Dr. Ruth"

North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, CA, brings gifted, multiple award-winning actor Tovah Feldshuh to their stage to star in playwright Mark St. Germain’s breezy and delightful one-woman stage play “Becoming Dr. Ruth” in the platform streaming movie format. 

Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Ph.D., the diminutive (4’ 7”) munchkin-like, giggling, ‘grandma’ image and author of some 40 plus books on human sexuality became an overnight sensation back in 1980 with her open, fresh approach to the subject of sex.  Dr. Ruth, as she is popularly known, is a licensed sexual therapist and grandmother.  

Call-in listeners to her 1980 radio show on station NYNY 103.5 FM in New York City would ask for her advice on personal sexual matters, which she discussed in an open, straightforward, professional medical manner.  Listeners heard words they thought they would never hear coming from their radios. The popular show went viral when Dr. Ruth moved one year later from radio to America’s television screens, becoming; a worldwide celebrity in the process.  

Playwright Mark St. Germain was of the opinion that the life and career of the pixie-like German-born American citizen and holocaust survivor would make for a wonderful uplifting stage play.  He was absolutely correct, of course.  “Becoming Dr. Ruth,” his stage play, is filled with drama, bravery, courage, wisdom, wit, tragedy and yes, comedy.  All of the components necessary for a wonderfully poignant and compelling stage play for all to enjoy in its 2021 streaming movie format. 

In 2019, the uninvited pandemic guest of covid-19 forced brick and mortar venues to switch their productions from ‘live stage mounted’ to ‘streaming service’ in the movie format.  NCRT has been a leader in the vanguard of presenting quality entertainment in Southern California both on stage and now in the pandemic era of streaming movie formats.  All of their 39th season of productions have been presented in the movie-style format.  But it appears that these restrictions are about to be lifted by California Governor Gavin Newsom on June 15, 2021.  Stay tuned.

The next step and challenge facing David Ellenstein, North Coast Rep Theatre artistic director - who directs “Becoming Dr. Ruth - was to cast an actor who has the talent and skills to breathe life into St. Germain’s insightful and entertaining 90-minute play.  Not to worry, Ellenstein’s search was a no-brainer.

Actor Tovah Feldshuh is a theatrical force of nature in performance and a six-time Tony and Emmy nominee who, as Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Ms. Feldshuh not only immerses herself literally into becoming Dr. Ruth (no pun intended) that one forgets she’s also an actor of uncommon talent who happens to specialize in one woman productions.  Who can forget her powerful and riveting performance as Golda Meir in “Golda’s Balcony”?  Or laugh at her antics in TV’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” series as the yenta-like Naomi Bunch, mother of the show’s lead character Rebecca Bunch that starred Rachel Bloom.

Ms. Feldshuh’s mesmerizing performance as Dr. Ruth gives her audience a peek into the life of a holocaust survivor from the POV of a young girl to becoming a famous elderly celebrity whose personal philosophy of never giving in to the ups and downs of life; it's what makes her performance so compelling to watch.

Director Ellenstein’s many clever directorial touches are so seamless that one is unaware of the movie being directed at all.  The rapport between director Edelstein and Ms. Feldshuh is evidence of two pros doing their thing.  One marvels at her stamina, range, and pace while we embrace and laud the vision of director David Edelstein.  It’s great stuff.

The technical team that makes the movie magic happen includes Aaron Rumley, as director of photography and co-camera operator along with Phil Korth and Chris Williams; Marty Burnett, Set Designer extraordinaire, transfers the Solana beach stage into a New York City Condo with a sweeping view of the Hudson River from Dr. Ruth’s front room window that lends additional authenticity to this, at times, inspiring story about the celebration of life and the human condition.  

Costumes by Elisa Benzoni and Properties by Phil Korth; Wig designs by Peter Herman along with Camera operators Phil Korth, Aaron Rumley and Chris Williams, complete the technical film unit team.  The Board Operator is Matt Fitzgerald.

“Becoming Dr. Ruth” streams until July 11, 2021.  For ticket information, go online to NorthCoastRep.Org It’s a must-see production! 

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

Monday, June 7, 2021

HBO SCORES WITH A NEW RIVETING FILM VERSION OF THE BROADWAY STAGE DRAMA “OSLO”


If this Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything it’s forced the American viewing public to think outside the traditional creative arts box when it comes to entertainment. “Streaming” was not a familiar term a couple of years or so ago, unless one was speaking of water or possibly flags streaming in the wind on National Holidays.

Today “streaming” is how a majority of Americans view their entertainment options at home. But the light at the end of this runaway train nightmare pandemic is finally coming into sharper focus as long as we continue to follow the CDC guidelines. Vaccination is free and relatively painless and it contributes to the health and well-being of all Americans. It works! Do It!

It’s anticipated that most brick-and-mortar venues will open in 2022. In the meantime, one can still enjoy quality stories and productions via streaming services. For anxious brick and mortar theatre owners, however, their concerns about returning audiences is an unknown X factor. Will audiences indeed return or stay at home and view plays on film with a snack and a beverage? Time will tell whether live theatre audiences, moviegoers, and the moviemakers themselves will win the fancy of future fickle audiences.

The “theatre” has long been the province of the playwright and the actors. Movies, on the other hand, belong to the vision of the director. Thanks to the breadth and sweep of the motion picture camera the movie industry’s technical wizards bring the insights and emotions of the screenwriter, the actors, and the director front and center in producing astonishing scenes with mind-blowing Hollywood-style CGI techniques.

The camera, with its creative and powerful use of movement and the intimacy of the close-up, would appear to have an audience advantage. Each medium, however, has its fans and followers. For variety, why not embrace both mediums, where and when possible, making the choice a win-win entertainment decision?

Savvy heavyweight Hollywood movers and shakers like Steven Spielberg, Marc Platt, Kristie Macosko Krieger, producer Mark Taylor, and director Bartlett Sher lend their considerable talents and heft into a timely remake of the 2017 Tony-winning stage production “Oslo”. The 2021 movie version is also written by J.T. Rogers from his eponymous stage play, adding new inputs as a way of sharpening and updating the dialogue by Rogers and others.

We live in an ever-changing society. What passed for questionable dialogue a generation ago is now woefully considered passe and behind the times. Today, four-letter word expletives are increasingly being hurled from the stage as well as from the TV and movie screens.

Think of all the film and plays we’ve seen in our lifetimes…how did we ever survive or enjoy those plays and movies without using those expletives in dialogue compared to now where every other word to describe what is happening begins or ends with the letters ‘F’ or ‘S’. Back in the day, it was the job of the actor to breathe life into the characters created by the playwrights or screenwriters. But I digress…

The movie version of the Tony-winning “Oslo” stage play follows the plot line pretty faithfully. The difference comes in the editing of the talky stage version that ran a tad over three hours. The 2021 film production only runs about two hours. Having seen both stage and film versions I would be hard-pressed to favor one over the other. However, when the story elements and the performers engage the audience, the litmus test of acceptance and success is when the performance time-elements seemed to have whizzed by.

The story of “Oslo” is how one international ‘shadow diplomacy’ coup – one that actually worked - was ‘touch and go’; based on true events that revolved around the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. The shadow diplomacy occurring in the film became a fraught tool with secret negotiations taking place in distant Norway between trenchant enemies Israel and the PLO who were forbidden to acknowledge even the existence of one other, let alone discuss a covert peace plan for the Middle East.


The air in the initial meeting fairly crackles with electricity and pent-up emotions, along with nervous energy and uncertainty. The characters appear to be walking on eggs and holding their breath waiting to see what happens next in this intriguing and gripping drama - just like we the viewers. It's great stuff and so compelling to watch.

We can all thank a secret back-channel operation created and brokered by Norwegian husband and wife team of Mona and Terje Jull (brilliantly portrayed by Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott) that followed two years of facilitated discussions. It was one of thorniest and incendiary-filled series of meetings ever undertaken by sworn enemies who rise above their personal feelings to come together in safe and neutral Norway, in the name of world peace.

The word “trust” was a keyword that kept the participants coming back to their secret meetings. The ground rules, laid down by facilitators Mona and Terje Jull, were only that the four diplomats present would be responsible for advancing forward the peace process. The only gathering and interactions of everyone occurs outside the meeting room at mealtimes and during personal time and relaxation.

Getting to know one another as human beings and 'friends', helps grease the wheels of understanding and generates a sense of trust in one another which becomes the mother’s milk of their dangerous undertaking. Despite the seriousness of what’s at stake, there are light moments that run throughout the movie… just as in real life.

In defense of no spoiler alerts here, it would be better if readers of this review search out the date and time of HBO’s next scheduled screening. “Oslo” is an important film that will resonate with many because it’s 2021 ‘déjà vu moments that are currently playing out in the Middle East to a shaky cease-fire agreement between Hamas and Israel. The burning question for all is: Will this latest attempt for a peace process hold?

The beauty of this movie relies on the collaborative efforts of many talented individuals. If one buys the premise of the story then you will probably buy the bits it takes to accept it. “Oslo” is blessed with a sublime cast of highly skilled and creative professionals. Some you will recognize, others will be newcomers to the American viewing public, but all will be remembered.

I consider this casting aspect to be a plus for viewers. The ring of authenticity as to what takes place at these meetings has been scrupulously researched by screenwriter J.T. Rogers and is smartly and deftly directed with insightful and creative touches by Bartlett Sher. Shout-outs also for the inventive, lush photography of Janusz Kaminski and to Jay Rabinowitz for his effective and nicely paced film editing.

The ensemble cast responds accordingly with a series of nuanced and finely judged performances. The aforementioned actors Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott lead a list of wonderfully dedicated actors that include Salim Daw as Ahmed Qurie; Waleed Zuaiter as Hassan Asfour (both speaking for the Palestinian side); Jeff Wilbusch as Uri Savir; Igal Naor as Joel Singer; Dov Glickman as Yair Hirschfield; and Rotem Keinan as Ron Pundak.

This HBO production, which no doubt will be rescheduled, is well worth the wait. Quality filmmaking is still available for those who are not only discerning but are patient as well. A note of caution, however. “Oslo” has a boatload of expletives running throughout the film.

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