Tuesday, May 4, 2021

TCM-TV ANNUAL PROGRAM SERIES “31 DAYS OF OSCAR” FEATURES FAN FAVORITE “THE RED SHOES” PLEASING NEW AND OLD ALIKE


Moira Shearer stars as tragic heroine Victoria Page in the 1948 classic film "The Red Shoes"

TCM is the gift that keeps on giving when it comes to movie fan loyalty and their classic favorites; especially when TCM’s “31 days of Oscars” program is screened nightly, one month ahead, to prepare the viewers for Hollywood’s annual Oscar bash, and the awarding of the best in filmmaking during the previous year.

English live theatre productions of Shakespeare’s plays for the stage have been nonpareil over the last 75 years.  It’s been baked into the British DNA for centuries. Very few performers could match the skill and talent of the man who made the English classics come alive for American audiences.   The brilliant British stage and film actor Laurence Olivier turned Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter speech and dialogue into scenes that both English and American audiences have come to embrace with increased clarity and understanding.  

American movie studios and stories of the 1930’s and 40’s generally wrote scripts and stories targeting American audiences.   The British cinema rarely produced films for American audiences.  They believed English comedies and dramas wouldn’t find their intended audience because of the differences in our language and culture.

Their shortsightedness allowed the wits and wags of the day to agree and credit George Bernard Shaw with the apocryphal biting quip; “Britain and America are two nations and people separated by a common language.”  Even English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a pretty fair writer himself, got to weigh-in concerning the English vs. the Americans quips.  After all, his mother Jennie Jerome was American-born in Brooklyn New York, making Churchill an Anglo-American.  He was awarded honorary American citizenship in 1963 by the Congress; the only such honor ever awarded to a foreigner.

All those cultural differences, however, came to a screeching halt, at least for me, when the formidable gifted English writing, producing, and directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger debuted their flawless 1948 movie gem “The Red Shoes” in London.

Set amid the world of modern ballet, the psychological romantic film wonderfully explores the beauty and discipline of the ballet world, one of the oldest of the art forms which they imbued with technical aspects that only the movie camera provides and captures:  Sweeping vistas, huge casts, unique camera angles, powerful close ups, interior dialogue, flash forward sequences, along with the magic that the editing process delivers in keeping film stories moving  forward, was a game-changing bonus for world cinema.

I would even venture further saying that the success of the “The Red Shoes” helped pave the way, two years later, for the 1950 dramatic non-musical Oscar winning film “All About Eve”, a bitingly, authentic, blistering dramedy and one of the best movies ever written about the stage and Broadway.

There would be no “Red Shoes” movie, however, without the sublime acting talents of Anton Walbrook as the charismatic, arrogant, curt and demanding ballet Impresario Boris Lermontov, who could also charrm his benefactors when required.  The film is loosely based on the life of Sergei Diaghilev founder of Ballets Russes of Monte Carlo.  Stories about Diaghilev and his martinet treatment of demanding loyalty and obedience from his dancers and ballerinas are legion even among his friends and associates. 
 
Moira Shearer and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes
I cannot, however, think of another actor to play the role of Lermontov as perfectly as Anton  Walbrook did.  His polished, nuanced and riveting performance elevates the ballet movie genre to a new level of excellence.  It was a real shame and pity that Walbrook wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor Oscar in 1948. He certainly deserved it.

Young, beautiful, Scottish ballerina Moira Shearer, who was just twenty-one when she was chosen to play Victoria Page, the uber-talented, dedicated and committed young dancer becomes a sensational overnight star in the world of ballet thanks to Julian Craster, a promising young English composer’s, new ballet called “The Red Shoes”.  

Marius Goring might appear to be a tad too old in playing brash, young, gifted, English composer Julian Craster who falls deeply in love with Vicky Page; He marries her, incurring the wrath of Lermontov for ‘stealing’ her away from her destiny of “becoming the greatest dancer who ever lived" only if she remains with Lermontov. Their sin in Lermontov’s world is the placing of one’s human interests and emotions above the interests of the ballet.  That act is an unforgivable betrayal in the eyes of Lermontov and results in Vicky being fired from the company as punishment. 

The film story owes its origins to Hans Christian Andersen’s somewhat dark fairy-tale of a young girl who sees and buys a pair of red ballet shoes from a sly shoemaker who knows the deadly secret that whomever wears the ballet shoes will die from continuous dancing and exhaustion because the shoes once slipped on cannot be removed.  Only upon the death of the wearer can the spell of the red shoes be broken.  Just as in real life, celluloid choices also have life altering consequences to consider as well.

The supporting cast is filled with terrific character actors who know their way around a movie set as well as a ballet stage.  Australian actor/choreographer Robert Helpmann, as Ivan Bolesla, created the 17 minute astonishing ballet sequences danced by Shearer and himself, and at times, with the full company.  The dance of the red shoes sequences are stunningly choreographed by Leonide Massine as Ballet Master Gricha Ljubov, who also portrays the shoemaker in the ballet scenes.

Moira Shearer and Leonide Massine i
Beloved character actor Albert Bassermann, as costume and set designer Sergei, and Esmond Knight as Livy, the music director and orchestra conductor bring authenticity and experience  to their performances. The vivid lush technicolor-filmed photography is lovingly created by award winning master cinematographer Jack Cardiff.  American film director Richard Fleischer (who directed Kirk Douglas in the “Vikings”) said “Jack is not only creative, he’s very fast and very good – two qualities that are absolutely necessary for a cameraman to possess.”

As a side bar, it is interesting to note the similarities in the character portrayal of Lermontov as directed by real life director Powell. Both are strong and opinionated men who are used to having their own way.

During the filming and editing process, co-director Emeric Pressburger questioned Powell on the efficacy of using the footage as shot in the film sequence where Vicky is seen running down the back-stage steps area just prior to making her initial stage entrance where we see she is already wearing her red ballet shoes as posed by Pressburger to Powell in their debate issue was shrugged off by Powell, who later wrote in his diary, that in the coda section of the script.  “I am a director, and a storyteller, and I knew she must (wear the shoes despite the anachronism) I didn’t try to explain it.  I just did it.”

Which to me underscores the mind-set of Powell, and by extension, the mind-set of Lermontov. There was a lot of Lermontov in Michael Powell’s DNA.  Tyrants come in different forms and the real problem in dealing with them is, they also make such wonderful and fabulous motion pictures.

TCM –TV films are free to view and are some of the finest motion pictures ever made. To enjoy “the Red Shoes” and a ton of other quality motion pictures keep checking your local TV listings for “The Red Shoes” screening dates and times for viewing.  You won’t be disappointed. It’s a Masterpiece!

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

KEN BURNS' PBS DOCUMENTARY "HEMINGWAY" EXAMINES THE MAN, THE MYTH, THE LEGEND



Ernest Hemingway, the American novelist and author, became a giant of American 20th century literature.  His style was new in the early 1920s.  It was fresh, and it was being embraced by readers. He loved in his later years being called "Papa" by his friends and admirers which were legion. But his admirers never knew of the ghosts and demons of his past that plagued him all his life.

"Hemingway," the film, epitomized the romantic idea and notions for a generation of young American writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, T. S. Eliot, and Edith Wharton, among others that were key in leaving the legacy of "the great war of 1914 to 18" to the dust bin of history.  

There is no glory or service in war only death and destruction was Hemingway's cynical observation. Yet he served honorably and bravely in both World Wars, receiving medals for his bravery and wounds received under fire, thus endearing him to men young and old worldwide. His three most successful novels came from war settings based mainly on his own life experiences:  "The Sun Also Rises," "A Farewell to Arms," "For Whom the Bell Tolls." 

Hemingway was an enigma wrapped in a mystery that could always get away with things that ordinary people could or words never do. He relished his celebrity status to the hilt, and he was a party-going charmer when he needed to be. He was envied by men and was desired by women from afar.  In his twenties, he had matinee idol looks and worked them to his advantage.

These 'Young Turks' of writing in the early 1920s discovered "the lost generation" and made decisions in their writing to revitalizing the style and subject matter of their current society into the new and exciting 'Roaring Twenties' Hemingway influenced a generation of writers who were eager to leave the literature of the early 20th century behind. They much preferred to tell their stories that appealed to mid-20th century America, placing them in the vanguard of America's emerging writer population.  (Many who read this essay/review, perhaps, are too young to remember this early to mid 20th century golden period of literature and films in America; fortunately, I am not one of them).

The brilliant American documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, America's foremost literary and film historians, have written and produced a monumental six-hour film chronical on the life and time of Ernest Hemingway that highlights and celebrates his tragic life warts and all.   

They have created this insightful, riveting film epic into three episodes of two hours each; that is to be viewed on three successive nights on PBS. I watched all three episodes from April 5 thru 7.

Genius in any form is always revealing, always engaging, and can, at times, be, dare I say it … be boring or even cruel.  Hemingway was a complicated, flawed, four times married man who had a penchant for younger women (the youngest of his four wives was just 18), and he could be difficult to be around when he dipped into his 'dark-night-of-the-soul periods.  He was an inveterate alcoholic with medical issues that went along with his disciplined writing genius.

He possessed a lust for life that endeared him to his many "he-man" image-driven acolytes everywhere. And his fans adored him; however, Celebrity can become a two-edged sword at times, as Geoffrey C. Ward's inspired script attests.

Ward is an award-winning writer who, with Burns and Novick, appears to do his best work when Ken and Lynn are together in this very created triumvirate. "Hemingway," along with "The Civil War" and "Baseball," are three of Ward's best efforts in a string of wonderful and insightfully written scripts.    

Make sure you see "Hemingway" on PBS when it next appears on your TV screens.  Check your local TY listings in your area.  You won't be disappointed that you did.

Monday, March 1, 2021

AWARD-WINNING ISRAELI FILMMAKER MAYA ZINSHTEIN TACKLES THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AMERICAN EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS AND THE NATION OF ISRAEL IN THOUGHT-PROVOKING DOCUMENTARY 'TIL KINGDOM COME


How does one cover 2000 years of religious history of the Jewish people and Gentles in the Common Era (CE)?   Perhaps, a good start would be seeing life through the lenses of the other regarding the impact that both religions have experienced on the planet we call Earth. 

For starters, it is necessary to approach such sensitive subject matter with openness, genuine respect and tolerance.  To agree to do so peacefully would be a giant step forward toward a better understanding of one another, especially now in the fraught nuclear arms race by more “wanna-be” players.  Their obsession to expand and join the world’s exclusive nuclear club could be dangerous for all concerned.  

The volatile Middle East, home to millions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, has been a festering, religious open sore for centuries.  It’s also ironic that the Holy City of Jerusalem, sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians has been the centerpiece and focus and the reason of how so much blood has been shed in the name of religion and God than all the military wars combined throughout recorded history, speaks volumes about man’s ambitions and priorities. 

Award-winning Israeli filmmaker Maya Zinshtein, tosses her director’s hat into modern-day Israel and America to document the 21st century relationships with its supporters, neighbors, and friends - mainly the United States – as the most loyal supporter of Israel since declaring itself a sovereign nation in 1948.  

Zinshtein’s documentary film ‘TIL KINGDOM COME chronicles the story of how one faith-based American Evangelical Baptist Church, owned and operated by the dynastic Bingham family of Middlesboro, Kentucky, embraced the prophecies and the authenticity of the Hebrew Bible concerning the “end of times” and the return of Jesus to Earth. 

Pastors Bingham II and Bingham III also talk about the prediction that the Armageddon that will follow will last for seven years.  When that “happening” or the “Rapture” occurs it’s not clear to what happens to non-believers.  The ‘when’ of such events, however, is still a work in progress waiting to happen. Scientists say our Sun still has about four billion years to go before the fat lady sings.

The American connection to the IFCJ featured in this film documentary is the Evangelical Baptist Church of Middlesboro, Kentucky, under the leadership of Pastor Boyd Bingham II and his son Boyd Bingham III, who fervently believe and preach that God gave the Holy Land to the Jewish people in perpetuity. 

The only problem with following the edict thousands of years later is that the area selected then is now, unfortunately, too small an area to protect and accommodate all the faithful from other religions who lived there before as well, and who still have the desire to live there; this is the sticking point for Middle East. peace

There are many video clips with speeches praising the work and dedication of IFCJ’s many humanitarian accomplishments, and rightly so.   In this documentary film viewers see and hear from celebrities and politicians; including former President Trump, Israel’s current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Pat Robertson, founder of The 700 Club, along with casino mogul billionaire and political donor Sheldon Adelson, and, of course, the people of Jerusalem and Middlesboro, KY. 

The documentary is a testament to what can be accomplished when people of Faith work together. That being said, the film also dips a toe into the toxic waters where religion meets the strange bedfellows of politics and politicians  One feels at times that one is watching an hour-long Republican political fund-raising dinner event.

Polite people years ago were urged to never mix or discuss politics and religion in the same conversation. That’s old fashioned thinking these days. It’s good business now to blur those old secular safety nets and “no-no” zones between politics, money, and religion.  It’s a changing and complicated, new world we have entered in dealing with such hot button issues as religion and politics in the 21st century.

‘TIL KINGDOM COME is a well-made, technically first rate, commercial film from director Maya Zinshtein  that shows off the important work being done, and rightly so, by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, who over its 38 year existence has raised more than $1.8 Billion to help Israel’s poor, elderly and all Jewish holocaust survivors. 

The welcome mat is still out for all far-flung Jews inviting them to return to their ancient homeland in Israel.  The IFCC’s new and dynamic President and CEO, is American-born Yael Eckstein of Chicago, who hosts the film.

‘TIL KINGDOM COME was released to selected theatres on February 26th  to coincide with the lifting of the quarantine ban for movie theatres.  Check your local schedules for dates and times of screenings.

-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

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

Jeff Daniels as Jim Comey and Brendan Gleesen as Do
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 TV channel 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” movie 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 versus 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.

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 who, when under stress, “walks on water” in the eyes of his close-knit staff of seven highly skilled analysts.

Jeff Daniels as James Comey
in THE COMEY RULE

It’s impossible to list the many deserving actors who bring this potent motion picture to life.  However, there are always stand-outs:  Led by actor 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 hard-ball.  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.

Brendan Gleesen as Donald Trump
in THE COMEY RULE

The performance of actor Brendan Gleesen as President Trump, however, is no joke.  Unlike his Saturday Night Live (SNL) comedy sketch impression as 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, his supportive wife Patrice, sensitively played by Jennifer Ehle, and thanks to an old theatrical device of a character/interlocutor in this case: the duplicitous Rod Rosenstein is deliciously played by Scoot McNairy in 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, includes 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 and Michael Hyatt as US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Barack Obama, have smaller but important key roles.

Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter as
Sally Yates in THE COMEY RULE

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

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