Tuesday, February 6, 2018

‘WONDER’ DOESN’T FACE UP TO ITS PROMISE

By Dominique Paul Noth

Julia Roberts and (behind the prosthetics) Jacob Tremblay in 'Wonder'
The most wondrous thing about “Wonder” is the level of teacher skills and classroom expectations in the sixth grade in what must be one of the finest schools film-makers could find in California.

The second most wondrous thing is how dutifully and simplistically the well dressed kids in the school reflect a stereotype adult concept of good kids, bullies, intervening kids, bullying situations, on-the-spot rethinking  and redemption when confronted by a kid whose face is like a slimmed down version of “The Elephant Man,” technically the incurable Treacher Collins syndrome

The movie is not meant to be a tale of absolute generalities, like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” which posited a perfect liberal household against the issue of interracial marriage.  Underneath it really means to be a sweet uplifting story pretending to real life about how the world should respond to a child whose face was messed up at birth and has evolved into a boy who only finds love within his family and hurtful stares everywhere else. 

Some noted actors are wasted in the effort to reassure him – Mandy Patinkin as a sympathetic principal, Owen Wilson as the hippest loving dad in captivity, Julia Roberts, aging openly into roles of maternal dimension, and newcomer Izabela Vidovic who has the difficult task of making at least one teenager seem normal and nice. 

In what this year seems a Hollywood trend, the good kids in schools are associated with the drama clubs that largely produced the current young writers of these movies. Personally, as a drama club enthusiast, I would like to believe that’s true. But like many things in the movie I feel the vision is from Hollywood on high.

The makeup artists for Jacob Tremblay – a normal looking youngster who is quite effective as the object of so much hate – merit a special award for his looks. They are totally in keeping with what the syndrome can do to a face, justifying why Auggie is so dismayingly stared at (and who among us wouldn’t), realistic enough to fool the audience and help the actor inside, and yet not so frightening that we don’t grow to like and even want to hug the son having so much trouble making connections.

It’s sort of a shame that director Stephen Chboskly (also co-screenwriter) went for students who melt so obviously in sympathy or behave so objectionably even when events and peer pressure are against them. There are also cardboard efforts to make unthinking parents at the school the real villains.

The need for the world to open up to kids like Auggie, who are just kids underneath though Auggie is also shown as a scientific genius, is a good message communicated in extreme examples, tear-inducing moments  and even an extended concluding hallelujah that puts this film on a curious list of 2017 wonders – Wonder Woman, Wonderstruck, Wonder Wheel and Wonder. 

Wonder what word will dominate Hollywood titles this  year?

OTHER RECENT FILM REVIEWS WITH OSCAR CONNECTIONS:
GET OUT

DUNKIRK and DARKEST HOUR

LADY BIRD

THE SHAPE OF WATER

THREE BILLBOARDS

THE POST

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

PHANTOM THREAD

MOLLY’S GAME

Or scroll all Noth's recent film reviews at domsdomain.blogspot.com

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 




Friday, February 2, 2018

THE WESTERN THAT WANTED TO BE PART OF OSCARS

By Dominique Paul Noth

Christian Bale in 'Hostiles'
If you were near a TV screen in December and then again January, you saw it hailed in its own ads as “the best western since Unforgiven” and star Christian Bale touted as “the new Marlon Brando.”

It’s a movie that tried mightily to be part of the Oscars (ceremony March 4) and failed.

It played many prestigious film festivals last fall and kept delaying its national opening hoping for some deeper praise from the awards givers, while picking up its TV advertising pace.

Finally it went national January 26 of this year – a delay that is also part of the awards game but in this case weeks after first planned.   Several noted films delayed national openings – notably “The Post” and “Phantom Thread” – in hope of standing out from the Christmas crowd. This one was a delay in search of a spark.

Strangely there wasn’t a heavy hostile reaction to “Hostiles” among the reviewers, which ranged from good to tepid, but there sure has been indifference among the public despite the high regard Bale is held in.  As a connoisseur of westerns – which often serve as an open range war for film-makers exploring good and evil, violence and redemption -- I think it is the film’s fault not the genre’s.  I would like to see more good westerns but not so obviously trudging ponderously over established paths.

Also I have been fascinated by Bale’s career and growth since he was a child actor in Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” (1987) through Batman movies and into several recent standouts such as “The Big Short” and “American Hustle.”

But this is straight-on two hours of Bale as suffering stoic, the retiring, brutal but infinitely polite Army captain in the Old West forced to gather up an ever-growing and sometimes slaughtered caravan of soldiers, Indians, pioneer widow and random horseback enemies in 1892.

His special mission involves a hated member of this caravan, Chief Yellow Hawk,  whom he watched kill close friends even as he was equally vicious killing the chief’s clan – both sides adept at massacres. Now he must safely deliver the dying chief to holy ground in Montana. That actor, Wes Studi, a Cherokee Indian famous for playing all manner of Indians with chiseled face and honest simple delivery, is one of the few plusses of seeing the film.

Bale is certainly a convincing one-note conflicted soldier – I doubt there are many actors who could keep us watching every twitch to see if anything important will crop up.  It doesn’t.

Rosamund Pike in 'Hostiles'
The film also has a convincing hysterical extended fit by Rosamund Pike as a pioneer wife who has seen her husband and three children brutally murdered by wildly painted renegades and attempts to bury them with her own hands as she screams the theater into silence.  And after accomplishing those extremes, she subdues into typical western ingénue willing to grab a rifle to help her savior, in this case Bale of course.

Director and screenwriter Scott Cooper clearly wanted to grab the mantle of western as soul redemption – a theme that sticks its head up not just in “Unforgiven” but also “Stagecoach” and “The Searchers,” films this plot strangely emulates.

But those films had a lot more hooks, variety and human connections going for them despite their old-fashioned lack of blood and accurate wardrobe. Making up with blood and accurate hairbraids is not the road forward.  The redemption message, subdued or complicated in the others, juts out of every scene in “Hostiles.”   The values of tight editing seem lost on Cooper.  He relishes every diversion as if in love with the terrain.  

Interestingly there is a bit part as an unskilled trooper for Timothee Chalamet, who was also a passing love interest in “Lady Bird” but got an early dismissal in these films while being Oscar front and center in “Call Me By Your Name.” 

The film expects focusing on Bale will make meaningful a parade of extended farewell scenes. Even those who like westerns may find this parade stupefying. 

“Hostiles” received funding and publicity efforts from a variety of introductory logos (I counted six), so the film can never claim they didn’t try.  But they didn’t succeed, and in this field of competition they shouldn’t.

OTHER RECENT FILM REVIEWS WITH OSCAR CONNECTIONS:

GET OUT

DUNKIRK and DARKEST HOUR

LADY BIRD

THE SHAPE OF WATER

THREE BILLBOARDS

THE POST

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

PHANTOM THREAD

MOLLY’S GAME

Or scroll all Noth's recent film reviews at domsdomain.blogspot.com

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 





Wednesday, January 31, 2018

SORKIN’S GAME ALWAYS CLEVER, SO IS ‘MOLLY’S GAME’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Jessica Chastain (left) and the real Molly Bloom she plays in
'Molly's Game.'
Director-writer Aaron Sorkin is moving so fast from the get-go of  “Molly’s Game” that audiences better know something about high-stakes poker and the millionaire rollers addicted to Playboy bunny-run tables where millions change hands on every pot and the money chips are digitally minted.

Sorkin has always been speed-demon at his signature best, from “West Wing” to “Newsroom” and movies as writer “A Few Good Men” and “The Social Network.” Here he drops even more historical and literary references than usual because the Molly Bloom of the title not only was an Olympic skier and operator of the most famous (notorious?) poker game in the nation, she also boasted an IQ of 173 and wrote a best-seller of the same  “Molly’s Game” name. 

By cleverly rearranging sequences and inventing several exchanges, Sorkin sticks close to a fascinating story.  Even without the “walk and talk”  technique which dominated “West Wing” and became a Sorkin script cliché, there is no mistaking his dialog rhythm, flights of rhetorical greatness  and electric pace – and even one traditional crutch that here he sure returns to way too hard:  a finale psychiatric evaluation of the protagonist.

But Sorkin as a director knows how to serve Sorkin the writer – rapid cuts back and forth in time, comic introduction and misdirections on main characters to keep the suspense, sharp major performances (mainly Idris Elba as a dubious lawyer and Jessica Chastain, wearing more bodice exposing dresses than usual and replacing Molly’s persona with her own).

Pretty well wasted (the script is way too obvious) is Kevin Costner as either the worst or the wisest father in captivity – take your pick.  But there is a wonderful cameo by a much used but much unknown actor, Bill Camp, as a gambler who totally loses his traditional cool.

No question, the movie is a romp through a high-rolling world of wealthy celebrities and secret Russian mobsters who made Molly wealthy and then tripped her into illegality, but not the illegality the government came after.

Sorkin has made a fun ride with an unlikely heroine into a speedy watchable movie with top production values –and he is probably the best known name in Oscar’s adapted screenplay nominations. But “Molly’s Game” is nowhere near the fresh artistry of other 2017 offerings,

Which is a shame. I think Sorkin is one of our best commercial writers and here proves he has the chops for directing. Someday that may produce a great movie.

For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.comAbout the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  


Monday, January 29, 2018

DAY-LEWIS HAUNTING IN ‘PHANTOM THREAD’

Vicky Krieps and Daniel Day-Lewis in 'Phantom Thread'
By Dominique Paul Noth

I confess that seeing the name Daniel Day-Lewis on the best actor Oscar list, and reading that “Phantom Thread” was announced as his last film, the first thought was “Here is a Hollywood gesture of respect” to the cinema’s most dynamic and individualistic actor with little thought of actually voting for him.

But then I saw “Phantom Thread.” His performance is even more amazing than expected in terms of acting ingenuity. If it weren’t so creepily illuminating about bizarre desire, if it weren’t up against an icon of British history, it deserves to be a real challenge to what I think will be the likely winner, Gary Oldman as Churchill in “Darkest Hour.”

Day-Lewis is riveting within the elegance of inventing Reynolds Woodcock, grey-haired confirmed bachelor and a gift to Britain’s upper class and royalty as a perfectionist dressmaker in the 1950s.   In his disciplined living patterns even more than his devotion to fabric, he insists on conformity to his persnickety tastes, his demands for silence as he thinks and sketches and his other fastidious quirks of which there are many. His high-society haughty manner and stylistic genius hide a man-child full of egotistical self-centeredness.

His devoted sister, as played with studied indifference by Lesley Manville, communicates tolerance and tacit support, but with steel underneath. She caters to his whims by ridding him one by one of female playmates when he becomes irritated with them.

And then Woodcock picks up Alma – literally.  A waitress at a posh eatery she quietly enjoys his hunger at breakfast (food is a theme throughout the film) and immediately agrees to a date. She is nowhere near the Hollywood ideal of beauty, but she is just the dress size Woodcock seeks (broad shoulders, tiny bosom) and she becomes his latest conquest and house guest in his personal suite and cutting salon.  

Except Alma is no pushover.  She genuinely loves this strange creature and will in her own housekeeper way bring him to heel.

The largely unknown Vicky Krieps sets up a fascinating character dance with Day-Lewis, whose intensity, quiet disgust and outbursts of verbal cruelty are handled with such brilliant control that he forces laughs and realizations that otherwise wouldn’t exist.  Fans of the #MeToo movement will herein discover there are other examples than they are attacking of demeaning male dominance -- and other weapons of getting even that Alma can employ.  

The father of this feast of love mania is director and here also screenwriter Paul Thomas Anderson – and I have long admired his brilliant streaks. He has in the past come a cropper (“The Master”) and also with Day-Lewis a marvel (“There Will Be Blood”).

A student of film yet with his own individual bent he has concocted a drama of manners involving a circular cinematic style (up and down the stairs and giddy on the highway). This approach develops a hypnotic even claustrophobic concentration when the duo is standing still or watching each other as antagonists (or lovers?).  The outside world becomes plaything in their battle.

Krieps in the watchful stillness of her body and the choking power of her conversational eruptions is an equal opponent in this dance of perverse love -- but “perverse” in a psychological whispering manner far removed from the usual meaning in today’s films.  Anderson is closer to Strindberg and Ibsen here than to Spielberg or Hitchcock.

While the techniques are all his own they did remind me of another film-maker -- the floating inquisitive camera of Max Ophuls in “La Ronde” and “The Earrings of Madame de” in the early 1950s.  It’s not quite a homage but it opens up another era of behavior, the secret impulses that seem at first of a different age but live in all of us.

The director could not have created such tension out of trivial details – toast crunching on the nerves, dress-making pinning the protagonists as they work – without the powerful acting ability of Day-Lewis in particular to foist such meaning on such sheltered lives.  I doubt that academy voters will recognize how much Day-Lewis is responsible for our rapt attention, but there must be some measure of recognition in nominating Anderson as best director as well as Day-Lewis as actor. Both would be surprising but understandable wins.

For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.com

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  



Wednesday, January 24, 2018

‘CALL ME BY YOUR NAME’ CALLS UP A DIFFERENT KIND OF FILMGOING

By Dominique Paul Noth


Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer in "Call
Me By Your Name."
In long ago Milwaukee college days of the 1950s, if you wanted to see a “foreign film” you had to sneak into an adult theater, the only place the earthy side of Bergman and Fellini films were allowed. Standards loosened in the late 1960s, international became respected (though Oscar still clings to the “foreign” category) and the movie industry even in the Midwest created “art houses” so that the growing audience could find what were now being called “art films” – long, thoughtful explorations of the human condition set on foreign soil, cinema which little cared for the frantic pace or dramatic pyrotechnics that so dominate today’s movies. 

Meet an art film that in this age has to compete on multiplex screens with more heavily touted and frankly more easily enjoyable offerings – “Call Me By Your Name,” American script with smatterings of French and other languages.  It has earned a somewhat premature best actor Oscar nomination for newcomer Timothee Chalamet, a slim tousled-hair hunk in the mold of director Francois Truffaut’s young alter-ego Jean-Pierre Léaud decades ago.

Granted he’s nominated for some good reasons – directness in teen angst, his body curled and his mouth hanging open in childlike passion, brave leaps into usually hidden adolescent behavior.  There is believability in his portrayal of precocious 17 year old Elio (intellectual, musical, freed by his loving parents in 1983 to explore his confusing feelings), living in an idyllic Italian villa with an idyllic Sephardic family reeking of academia, where nature, biking and antiquities dot every loving frame that so mesmerize director Luca Guadagnino.

With screenwriter and near co-creator James Ivory (yes, he of a series of those highly regarded Ivory-Merchant art films) the director approaches reverence in distilling  the first half of author Andre Acinman’s acclaimed  novel (the author also plays a minor role).

Idyllic is a hard word not to overuse as the film breathes in the fruit trees, the lakes, the stone pools that surround a house Monet could have painted, even the handsome young girls who bike in for a visit to this rural paradise. Into this landscape comes an Adonis from America (fine performance by mature  Armie Hammer as a brainy, stunningly attractive hedonist).  Oliver is to be the father’s research assistant living in the house all summer.  Elio is immediately wary and hypnotized by this self-confident, slightly mischievous, profound physical specimen who  maybe just maybe bears  equally hidden thoughts.

This is an examination of first love that is a homosexual love story. If I describe how Elio first dallies hungrily with a neighbor girl and then, thinking of Oliver, masturbates with a peach, the physical descriptions do the movie a disservice.  It is completely accessible and natural, in no scene prurient just a candid  treatment of sexual stirrings in this environment. 

But unfolding all this so carefully, letting the layers of physical allure and nature intermingle, teasing us  as if something unspeakable  is always about to happen, requires a laborious if loving method, in no hurry for the next revelation, deliberately and agonizingly languorous. It is a bit too married to this approach for its own good, but the gripping stretches these days are an acquired taste in film-making. They  require intense looking at the screen in different ways to pick up the subtler meanings. 

Religion and heritage are intertwined with love story. The parents clearly know what is going on with Elio and Oliver – they are letting their child grow his own path.  In fact, they are such ideal parents as to be unbelievable, but they are made convincing by Michael Stuhlberg and Amira Casar, he friendly with a knowing gaze and she warm and maternal with a knowing gaze.  Stuhlberg is in just about every movie being honored this award season and Cesar, better known in Europe, ought to be.

There is no sense of this Jewish family hiding its feelings or heritage, though the parents – an archeology professor and a translator who live like rustic royalty – do not display the star of David on chains around their necks.  Oliver does and then so does Elio, since the religious connection, the sense of character relationships are almost more magnetic to them than the sexual attraction.  

Guadagnino makes sure we recognize the story as pure by first having Elio test his feelings with a female friend. Heterosexuality does come across as somewhat lesser, so obsessively ardent is the longing between Elio and Oliver.  But while some patrons will twitch at the pace, and some may twitch at the life lesson, others may welcome the chance to slow down and savor a portrait of human passage.

For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.com


About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  


Friday, January 19, 2018

TOAST ‘THE POST’ BUT IT’S NOT SPIELBERG’S MOST

By Dominique Paul Noth

Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in 'The Post'
The most accomplished director right now – also the most influential producer --  is Steven Spielberg whose latest interests have see-sawed between provocative portraits of the future and re-examination of the real heroes of the past  (often unsung or erroneously sung such a Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, Munich, Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List). 

It is the latter vein that has produced “The Post” and Spielberg’s skills shine in every moment while assembling a cast that could well qualify for the Screen Actors Guild best ensemble award. Given the rush the production was in to catch a timely wave, the speed combined with the quality are stirring.

Using panning shots, striking cross-views and sudden close-ups of intriguing characters, with John Williams’ music this time providing a jaunty concept of the newspaper world of 1971, Spielberg has fashioned a thriller though we know the ending – how the Washington Post stepped in when the New York Times was blocked by the Nixon administration and then won in the Supreme Court to continue publishing the Pentagon Papers (which demonstrated how a succession of presidents had lied to the public about the Vietnam conflict).

Try making a suspense tale out of that!  Spielberg does, without a weak moment as the story unfolds, making publisher Katherine Graham the real hero and editor Ben Bradlee the true goad to heroism. 

As someone who grew up at a newspaper with hot type, hard deadlines and the thrill that only a rumbling printing press can bring, I can testify to the validity of most of these images (except no linotype operator I ever knew would let a female publisher look over his shoulder like that)  and further appreciate how Spielberg had chosen actors who look like and act like the times, particularly Bruce Greenwood as the conflicted Robert McNamara, who helped author the secret history and yet  fought its publication.

Unquestionably Spielberg has timed this film to our current political climate, reminding or warning America of a much neglected era before Watergate (which the film shrewdly ends with) when the press was the only blockade against executive overreach.

Out of real history, writers Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (with I am sure Spielberg breathing over their shoulders) have created a crisp stroll through the players and the key legal and logistical issues – concerns that exist today.  To elevate publisher Katherine Graham into a hero status does take a bit of doing that requires a Meryl Streep to portray her.

Graham in her memoir called herself an unlikely hero – the portraits of her surrounded by old white men who expected her to behave like a dutiful widow have strong visual accuracy.  And she did break out of her socialite image to go boldly where women of the period did not, though not quite as cleanly as “The Post” portrays. Streep has some effective moments portraying that internal clash of duties within her, a shrewdness of the actress to stay faithful to the times while we scream for women like her to break out of the shackles.

Steven Spielberg at work
But to make that cinematic event a pioneering moment in the MeToo movement, Spielberg piles it on a bit, particularly a moment when Graham leaves the Supreme Court as a row of young women in the crowd glowingly admire her.  

Streep and Spielberg neatly avoid any dramatic excesses in how Graham changes – no big speeches taking the chauvinists apart, just gentler expressions in keeping with her upbringing. But for the first time in a long time I could sense how hard Streep worked to find the truthful chords. That she accomplishes so much to make us feel the woman, that’s a credit to her talents that Spielberg of all directors shouldn’t have so openly relied on.

Quite successful is the tireless Bradlee of Tom Hanks, with a special voice, a lopsided grin and a feverish absolutism that is believable and fresh.  This is a Hanks many won’t recognize, leading but fitting into a fine supporting ensemble with some powerfully good actors – Bradley Whitford as a business side nasty, Bob Odenkirk as the key journalist on a  key mission and Tracy Letts as a supportive then uncertain confidante.  

Sarah Paulson is straight-on effective as Bradlee’s wife at the time, Tony, though in real life it was her indifference to journalism and his passion for it that led to a breakup. Perhaps that was too dangerous a side road to go down.

Spielberg has mined both the truth and fictionalized some encounters, as all good film biographies do. It’s a brilliantly paced and important film but not quite of the ranks of the other Spielbergs I have named.

For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.com

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 



Thursday, January 18, 2018

PUT ‘THREE BILLBOARDS’ ON YOUR MOVIEGOING HIGHWAY

By Dominique Paul Noth

Sam Rockwell and Frances McDormand in "Three
Billboards Outside Ebbeing, Missouri"
The stone-faced fury of an anguished mother envelops “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” an offbeat comedy drama that is grim and charming, then grim and charming again --  and then again and again as more characters, conflagrations  and sub-stories are swept into the tale.

The anchor appears to be Mildred  the mother whose ferocity hides self-guilt when she isn’t snapping off profane one-liners or literally taking chunks out of interfering townspeople.  That performance by Frances McDormand has Oscar written all over it because of the intensity and wholeness of how she moves from pent-up anger to sudden outbursts of feeling.  After the film I tried to think of actresses who could have also brought this off – and there are others who could have been cast, but none better and none a more perfect fit.

McDormand, married to Joel Coen of Coen Brothers fame, has long been recognized for her unconventional roles, mold breakers displaying an individuality of operation whose odds with community expectations make us freshly question society’s norms.

This part is even more on the edge of sanity yet McDormand makes Mildred’s rage and sorrow a whole with the rest of us, just braver and more amusing in her expressions. She’s even poignant when talking to her toes.

She also benefits from an ensemble generally so good it disguises how long the arm of coincidence is in the film, which may be one of the points.  Mildred, infuriated at how helpless the police have been in finding who raped and killed her daughter, is operating out of a total belief in her righteousness while coincidences and reversals play havoc with her expectations and ours. The ferocity of her cause sets others on edge. Events disrupt her commitment. Unforeseen consequences create quirky humor.

Woody Harrelson  at the police chief targeted by the billboards provides a life and family force of his own to the events, evoking sympathy and affection even as the message seems to go against him.  As his crazy dumb sidekick Dixon,  Sam Rockwell captures how buffoonery can give way to something more nobly buffoonish. It’s  another performance that will  draw attention at awards time, largely because of how the actor sneaks up on you, forcing a reassessment of what he is. 

Screenwriter and director Martin McDonagh
But McDormand is actually not the film’s main motor. That is the director and writer Martin McDonagh, a noted Irish and British playwright (he has dual citizenship). While he has done well in the first role,  he should be in the running for screenwriting for the  latter. There are great setpieces for the actors, particularly Sandy Martin as Momma Dixon and John Hawkes as Mildred’s ex-husband, not the villain you expect.

On the other hand the talents of Peter Dinklage (best know from “Game of Thrones”) are largely wasted and those of Lucas Hedges as Mildred’s son are strangely abandoned as events unfold.

This is  a darkly comic vision of how attitudes turn in on themselves.  Only quietly is there  a realization how McDonagh’s scene fluidity is holding a bizarre story together into an emotionally satisfying film with a deliberately unclosed ending. 

For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.com.

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

‘SHAPE OF WATER’ REDEEMS SHAPE OF FILM FANTASY

By Dominique Paul Noth

Sally Hawkins and friend in "The Shape of Water."
Director Guillermo del Toro’s fantasies don’t escape life. They spin visions out of our casual materialism and extreme savagery and use fantasy for poetic victory by the better angels of humanity – mainly trust and friendship.

“The Shape of Water,” like his  “Pan’s Labyrinth” before it, creates a dark fascist world, this time with  a US security expert  as its most hateful villain, brilliantly played by Michael Shannon.  Wielding a cattle prod and a perverted interpretation of the American cold war dream, he is the foremost figure in a militaristic society  where fantasy creature and the human misfits (a mute woman, a closeted gay) become the uplifting escape. 

All the audience has to do – and for many it will be a big step – is accept the pretext of  a mute making friends and falling in love with an amphibious monster. Del Toro makes it easier by starting with the monster being bloody scary so that we as well as Elisa grow to empathize with the gentler creature underneath.  That Elisa to her surprise finds him sexy is a jump to adulthood that del Toro almost makes work.

As a master of cinema with a budget as big as his abilities, del Toro employs hundreds of cinematic and matte artisans and they are not wasted in trivia, as is the case with so many computer graphics outings today.  The look of a del Toro film is for today’s audience as immediately identifiable as past generations used to say about Kurosawa, Kubrich and Fellini.

Now he may also have found his own Giulietta Masina, at least for this one film.  Masina was Fellini’s wife and muse in many films such as “La Strada” providing a vulnerable and even unconventional screen-star window into the human frailty within his extravagant fancies.

In “Shape of Water,” Sally Hawkins as Elisa provides a similar function, advancing from a brown-bag sharing common worker into a determined rescuer, facing up to the cold war’s only  solution to this weird sea monster -- kill him. She is ironically aided by a Russian agent (the versatile Michael Stuhlbarg) who wants the monster kept for study.

Hawkins is a talented actress who hides her full versatility until del Toro needs it, at first emphasizing the expressiveness of her animated face and a subtle self-sufficiency. She becomes our doorway into a romance that is truly out of this world. With unabashed reference and chameleon similarity to “The Creature From the Black Lagoon” – a 1954 film close in time to this movie’s 1962 Baltimore -- the monster of this film becomes kin with the beast in “Beauty and the Beast.”

Hawkins steals him into her own bathtub and then into her boudoir, as it were.  Actor Doug Jones under all those gills and scales  plays the monster, growing in appeal and graceful movement as the film progresses.

Elisa’s next door neighbor – played with quirky talkative tics by Richard Jenkins – steps into her plot, as does a fellow maintenance worker who cadges smokes on the security dock (Octavia Spencer, relishing another outing of slang domestic chatter, dirty looks and gigantic heart).  The technical elements of the escape are in some ways as unreal as the entire premise, but my,  how we want them to succeed.

Part of the film’s pleasure is the use of residuals from that era – cars, TV sets and shows, atmospherics that spur much of the humor and even sneak into the plot. For movie buffs there are added jokes in the double-bill playing at the movie house under Elisa’s apartment – the biblical epic “The Story of Ruth” and the Pat Boone film with a monster, “Mardi Gras.”

Hawkins, Shannon and Jenkins are particularly strong presences within del Toro’s style, which flies off into visual exclamation points at just the appropriate psychological moment.  Audiences that don’t think of themselves as sci-fi buffs will be drawn in. The movie lifts the concept of fantasy films far above the Marvel Comics world.

For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.com


About the author: North has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 


Sunday, January 14, 2018

'LADY BIRD' A CASE OF OVERSELLING A FINE FILM

By Dominique Paul Noth
Saoirse Ronan (left) being directed by
Greta Gerwig on the set of 'Lady Bird'.

Truly enjoyed and recommend “Lady Bird” as an insightful addition to the youth quest genre -- a teenage girl growing up in 21st century America buffeted by the currents of romance, politics, religion and class standing.

But may I couch my praise in caution involving director Greta Gerwig? She has clearly mastered the no-nonsense follow-the –walking-body jump-cut style of the camera, the use of quiet supportive music by Jon Brion, and has produced a perceptive screenplay of adolescent sensitivity. It’s full of the kind of snappy but disjointed dialog that could stem from an intelligent teen girl who feels isolated and confused.

Aside from a fresh take on the universality of dilemmas about sex and impermanence – as films like “The Graduate” before her that spoke to the confusions of the 1960s -- she has struck a chord in the social times this film arrives in.

A majority of the impact comes from the fine actors digging into the script under the writer’s guidance.  Saoirse Ronan, who had already won acclaim for portraying the young Irish maid in “Brooklyn,” is captivating as the self-proclaimed Lady Bird, blindly fighting with an overly controlling mother and toying with her hormones and social-climbing issues at a Catholic high school.  Ronan is a great screen-acting mixture of ugly duckling and momentary swan without which the part wouldn’t fly.  Her sharp tongue gets her in the sort of trouble and mischief that audiences cheer.

Ronan is blessed particularly in a supporting cast including Tracy Letts as her always cheerful,  doting but financially inept father. His income struggles weigh heavily in the family largely through the mother portrayed  spot-on with tight lip and welling eyes by Laurie Metcalf, who can’t keep from criticizing Lady Bird when she also loves her – a situation many mothers will identify with. It is in some of their exchanges that the screen play is both particularly good and particularly manipulating. 

The film also involves character insights that are convincingly executed when you watch them but seem a bit too stagey in contemplation. There are moments when the high school life and messages seem not much different than the “Dead Poets Society” 29 years ago in its view of what kind of people are attracted to drama and writing.

Even as I encourage audiences to cherish “Lady Bird” for its insights and heart-tugs, I am a bit put off by all the hailing of Gerwig as one of the “freshest female voices of her generation” and a brilliant – as opposed to definitely watchable – entry into the directorial ranks.

First, at age 34 she has already been a decade’s presence as actress and co-writer, providing pinpoint cameos in films like “20th Century Women” and “Jackie” and less impressive leading roles in films like “Maggie’s Plan” where her need for a coordinated ensemble is more evident – and that “Lady Bird” assuredly has, which seems a sign of real growth.

Her arrival comes at the height of feminine awareness when many of both sexes are  distressed by the lack of female voices in movies and in essential roles in society.  So the emergence of Gerwig and “Lady Bird” is also perfectly timed to our cultural interests.

This film, and some of her past writings, are also drawn from her life and family in Sacramento, tapping the feelings many share in adolescence.  Let’s not put her on a pedestal until she widens her character canvas – and just enjoy the one she has given us.


For all Noth's recent film reviews scroll domsdomain.blogspot.com

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with still active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 


Thursday, January 11, 2018

DUNKIRK & DARKEST HOUR – DOUBLE-TAKES AROUND SAME EVENTS

By Dominique Paul Noth

A vision from "Dunkirk"
We can’t call it nostalgia for WWII. That implies affection and a desire to bring it back, which would be horrible.  But in these weird political times, the US does seem to have warmth for that WWII clarity of good and bad, right and wrong, as long as grownup sentiment  and real cost (“blood, toil, tears and sweat") are applied to our re-creation of history.

In these times we seem to desperately need the familiar themes: the fight against evil, the reliance on the spirit of the common man and something we really do lack nowadays – the power of words to motivate and even do combat.

Whatever the reasons, WWII was all over the screens of 2017.  Even “Wonder Woman” was on the Allies’ side. Two current films in different genres – one a battlefield epic, the other a biography – look at British greatness and grief in 1940, before America dared enter the fray. These are overlapping examples, similar phrases from different angles with both films using some of Winston Churchill’s most famous words as a mutual crescendo.

“Dunkirk” is about the human desperation of 300,000 trapped soldiers clawing for survival, which came in the form of the average Briton -- platoons of civilian ships that crossed the choppy channel to their rescue. But many died along the way, and we are never allowed to forget that.

“Darkest Hour” is a more typically structured movie biography about Churchill in his greatest moments of challenge and despair. 

From a cinematic and technical standpoint, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is the more explorative work, while strangely enough “Darkest Hour” is the more emotionally influential. 

Nolan recognizes the need to tell the story of war through people -- a fleeing soldier desperate to survive, a ditched pilot struggling not to drown, a lad running toward war on his father’s private craft, a calm civilian helmsman whose resolve never bends even in the face of tragedy, a mission-fixated veteran pilot (actor Tom Hardy, his face hidden behind oxygen mask for much of the film) whose dogfights serve as codas for the story.

The scale of many of the Dunkirk sequences is admirable, only sometimes dragged down by the usual pyrotechnics of movie battle scenes and claustrophobic underwater tanks.  Nolan doesn’t quite break the mold despite the nonlinear storytelling that has become his signature (scene flips back and forth despite daylight or time expectations).  It’s a good method, though sometimes a trap for show more than purpose. His men are gripped in fear or isolation, soaked in sea water, oil and flames -- so we feel the same.

But the best score of 2017 comes from composer Hans Zimmer. He mixes orchestral themes with a background of percussion and surf-like waves that even substitute for the sounds of war.  

Nolan was smart to turn to two masters of stoic stage directness, Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance, to deliver the most pointed heroic lines in his minimalist screenplay.

“Dunkirk” sails its cameras along the sand, in the sky and in the water, “Darkest Hour” in moments of tension drops in close on an event and then climbs to a bird’s eye view in the same shot. Yet despite such theatrics, director Joe Wright keeps the acting most prominent.

Gary Oldman in "The Darkest Hour"
This film carries oomph because of the performance of Gary Oldman.  Credit the makeup all you want on the guy most people remember as the sneering terrorist Harrison Ford threw off “Air Force One,” but the actor uses the prosthetics rather than being owned by them and finds a voice that echoes Churchill’s presence and power.

The past seasons brought us two remarkable Churchills. (Actors including Richard Burton have always been attracted to his language and voice, but makeup technology has now brought actual impersonation.)  In TV’s “The Crown,” John Lithgow was a wonderfully salty Winston in his seventies.  Oldman has the more vigorous Churchill in his sixties, though he still dictates from his bathtub and telephones FDR from his privy.

This was truly his darkest hour when he took over as prime minister detested by Parliament and even by the king who later loved him. He was considered crazy in his insistence on fighting on, even as Hitler squeezed closer and closer.

Oldman handles many moods, more setbacks, more testiness -- even temptation to make a deal with the Germans.  In attempting to show the humanity of Churchill, director Wright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (otherwise fine work) push Oldman into the film’s most maudlin sequence – an impulsive ride on the underground where Churchill gets a trite chorus of moral support from subway riders.  There had to be a better way of honoring the common people for wartime normality amid perseverance.

There’s other strong acting work for Oldman to play off of, including Ben Mendelsohn as King George, Ronald Pickup as the doubting Neville Chamberlain and Stephen Dillane as the angry Halifax.  But Oldman’s best partner is Kristin Scott Thomas (20 years ago the love interest in “The Horse Whisperer”) who is only in her 50s. But she is shrewdly aged to look like Churchill’s wife Clemmie, who chides and encourages him in deft bossiness.

Both this film and “The Crown” seek to use Churchill’s secretary to explore his whims and word fixation.  In this film the task falls too much to Lily James of “Downtown Abbey” fame. Director Wright loves playing off the innocent loveliness of her face, and who can blame him?

Neither is a flawless film. But because of Oldman and the best portions of the screenplay, “Darkest Hour” is more triumphant while “Dunkirk” is more daring.

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Monday, January 8, 2018

Strong acting, flashy style elevate ‘I, Tonya’ as comedy drama

By Dominique Paul Noth

Margot Robbie brilliantly laces up the character work
for  'I, Tonya.'
It’s a sports movie of a most novel kind.  Documentary-like editing (built out of quickly abandoned real-life interviews) occasionally breaks the fourth wall (actors speaking directly to the audience particularly when blows are struck in domestic abuse or ecstasy dominates triumph in competition). 

It recounts and demonstrates contradictory accounts and biographical incidents from different viewpoints amid absurdist and pathetic justifications for one of the most bungled capers in tabloid history.

It was a truly infamous moment in sports history when Nancy Kerrigan, the judges’ model of American grace, was kneecapped on her way to the Olympics. It was an assault orchestrated by Tonya Harding’s estranged  husband and her bodyguard -- while many in the public assumed at the time and even now that “I, Tonya” was involved.

This black comedy with startling emotional power also has the timely thrill (a month before the winter Olympics) of ice skate competition,  realistically imitating (via special effects, doubles and consumer graphics) those triple axels and physical spins that made Tonya stand alone on the ice even as her home-made costumes and defiant attitudes brought her points down with the judges. 

Much of the film’s engine comes from the gap between Tonya from the wrong side of the tracks and the nitpicking judges determined to elevate American perfection of body, attitude and form.   (If you haven’t noticed, a similar conflict has emerged this year.)

The film makes Margot Robbie as Tonya seem to sparkle on the ice but she actually produces one of the top performances of the year in how she handles rage and self justification, establishing a middle ground where Tonya is her own victim and society’s victim in the crazy extremes of her choices and behavior.  I’m not sure what was the actress choice or the director’s, but there are haunting acting moments when Robbie uses makeup to turn her face into a grinning Japanese death mask.

As her brutal and devoted husband, who has an answer for every failing, Sebastian Stan is sturdily hateful with a little man lost appeal, while Paul Walter Hauser as the beefy bodyguard who conceives himself as some sort of giant brain superspy is painfully laughable.

One of my problems January 7 watching the Golden Globes on NBC – which only sometimes caught the proper balance between Hollywood glitter jokes and the Me-too movement -- is that neither I nor many in the audience had time or occasion to see all the nominations, especially since some were in limited release nationally (only New York City or Los Angeles showings before the end of the year qualify a film for the award season). So, without seeing “Lady Bird” and some other winners and losers, I can’t comment on the worth of the decisions.

But for my money, Robbie’s blunt, defiant performance, skirting the edge of painting Harding as heroic while rousing sympathy and laughter, deserved to be in the running.

Allison Janney manhandles the young Tonya and
deserved Golden Globe win.
And I applaud the win for Allison Janney as her mother from hell, pecking away at her daughter even as the bird on her shoulder pecks at her.  It is horrifyingly brutal yet audience pleasing tour de nastiness but it also strikes the heart of one of the movie’s main themes – setting aside how the working class often looks like the three stooges when confronting the upper class, there is a genuine class warfare in our society that explains a lot of how our attitudes and character judgments are formed.

In this regard and its fresh and flashy manner of storytelling, screenwriter Steve Rogers and director Craig Gillespie earn our gratitude.  In truth they are so carried away by the showmanship and comic aspects of the events and performance, they should have cut and honed a bit harder. One problem is that the storytelling style and the actors are so revealing in the early going that we don't need the minutaie that has to establish the machinations of the plot.

But “I, Tonya,” which only hit Milwaukee in January, deserves a winning skate at the box office.  I’m not sure it will melt the ice on America’s condemnation of Tonya, but it sure elevates our understanding – and does so with a humor that cuts both ways.

About the author: Noth has been a professional journalist since the 1960s, and a founding figure of the American Theatre Critics Association.  After stints as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, he was also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic on his way to becoming the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with active historic archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.