Saturday, July 6, 2019

MORE THAN AN OLD ELVIS SONG

By Dominique Paul Noth


Arlo Guthrie whimsy.
Pete Seeger died in 2014 but at his Wolf Trap concert in 1993  before thousands, co-star Arlo Guthrie took the stage after him with one of his fabulous and  typical whimsical side trips mentioning how Pete,  the ultimate song leader, had just  played  about every folk song Arlo knew and then handed him the mike—again! 

The first time, he recalled, was a concert in Denmark right after the Berlin Wall came down when 30,000 fans of himself, Pete and American music flocked to a folk festival.  Somehow the crowd knew all the songs Pete led them in, and he again exhausted Arlo’s handbook before turning the mike over to him. 


So Arlo said he would sing an old song from the king of folk singers, Elvis Presley. 

Risking Pete’s glare– Seeger was a fervent defender of folk tradition – he launched into “Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” 

He was blithely inviting the  wrath of the  folk icon who had once yanked the electric amplifier  away from Bob Dylan – but not only did all the fans know the words,  Pete picked up his banjo and proved that he knew it too.

Arlo’s point was that the public determines what is a folk song and maybe like this one it can be about nothing -- unlike “all those we shall overcome songs that once meant something in my country and around the world.”  But more was being said, Arlo continued, by who was singing it and how they were feeling.

What Arlo didn’t mention or probably know, and I suspect
Is this the real father of 'Can't Help Fallin' in Love' . . . ?
Pete did, was this was more than “an old Elvis song.” The melody of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” was already famous in France as “Plaisir d’Amour,” composed in 1784 but well established as a popular French folk song.  Though written in the 18th century by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini (pictured), the 1961 Elvis release was credited to Hugo Peretti, Luigi Creatore, and George David Weiss.  The new words were originally intended to be sung by a woman.


It’s a reminder that the first true superstar of rock n roll may have also been the last rock superstar to rely on songs written by others.  Elvis’ manager, Colonel Tom Parker, made sure he was surrounded by the best studio musicians but also the pre-eminent songwriters who stockpiled “Hound Dog” type rockabilly but had no problem reaching far and wide for tunes.

Or should it be Elvis?
In music, imitation is often the sincerest flattery, and one early Elvis hit, “Love Me Tender” for his movie debut in 1956, was actually an old American folk song, perhaps chosen to prove to the early doubters that the guy could really sing.

When Elvis went into the Army in Germany in the 1950s, the songwriters remained well stocked with hits to feed his growing popularity. But they also dipped into European sources.  In 1960, it was an old German folk song that provided Elvis with a hit.  Though “Wooden Heart” was credited to  Fred Wise, Ben Weisman, Kay Twomey and German bandleader Bert Kaempfert,   it was based on a German folk song by Friedrich Silcher, "Muss i denn" and originated from the Rems Valley in Württemberg, southwest Germany. 

Way before Elvis, Marlene Dietrich recorded a full German language version

Many of those old songs are just remembered today as Elvis landmarks, but something has memorialized “Can’t Help Falling in Love” into much more after his recording more than 50 years ago.  It is now being sung by classical singers and pop stars. It is popular in many venues, particularly as a wedding song, as enshrined in the hit movie “Crazy Rich Asians” sung by Kina Grannis.  

It  took on a personal “full circle” meaning for me after I decided to write about this song.  A month ago, Louise and I were attending a grandchild’s bar mitzvah in New Jersey when the remaining eight of our grandchildren joined Isaiah onstage to sing us a 50th wedding anniversary tribute. You guessed it:  “Can’t Help Falling in Love.”


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

‘COLD WAR’ COULD LEAD OSCAR TO VOTE AGAINST ITS OWN BEST FILM

Joanna Klug, the Polish actress who illuminates "Cold War"
By Dominique Paul Noth 

Is it possible that the film Oscar names best of the year February 24 simultaneously loses the best foreign film category? The academy may have set it up that way.

“Roma” is my personal choice for best film out the eight nominated (the others in order of likes  are Green Book, The Favourite, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born,  Blackkklansman, Vice and Black Panther – and none come up to “Roma” in artistic worth).

Alfonso Cuarón is also my choice for best director and “Roma” is also nominated in the lead actress, supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing and production design categories.

It is also, understandably, Mexico’s entry for best foreign language film and that is where the fun begins.

Because also nominated is an international festival favorite talked up by academy voters, Poland’s “Cold War.”  And – a rare honor for a foreign film -- it is also nominated for best director, Pawel Pawlikowski, against Cuarón.  Usually this category in terms of foreign recognition is reserved for the likes of Fellini, Truffaut and Ingmar Bergman.

Its cinematographer, Lukasz Zal, is also going directly against Cuarón in that category. That may reflect the movie industry’s fondness for excellent black and white photography, which is not a commercial favorite at the box office.

Pawlikowski, an intellectual who resists putting film-making first on his resume though previous films have also won awards, is the only case this year of a director nominated whose film is not nominated for best picture.

Voters may start overthinking this.  If “Roma” has a good chance at best picture and a very likely chance at best director, they may be tempted to give the foreign picture nod to “Cold War,” which despite the title renews my faith that the movies can deal intelligently with romance and not succumb to some kneejerk expectation of shallow audience-pleasing resolution. In any event, the Polish film deserves attention from moviegoers.

Like “Roma,” “Cold War” is in black and white and fictionalizes historical events from its director’s family.  From there the films stylistically part company.

While “Roma” creates panoramic views of Mexican society in the 1970s  and the social pressures in one year over the life of its domestic servant, played so winningly by Yalitza Aparicio, “Cold War” leap-frogs over 20 years (late 40s to 60s) in a series of powerful blackout scenes crossing the Iron Curtain.  The action moves from Poland to Paris to Yugoslavia to Poland and Paris and Poland again, plus some ports never specified.

The cinematography has more in common with John Ford than Cuarón. Every shot can be isolated as a marvelously composed frame while knit together to expose the casual and intense relationship of its central lovers.  When the camera stops to look at seemingly passing items, record them away for future reference.  Political factors are not emphasized but they hover in thought-inducing ways.

Joanna Klug and Tomasz Kot in "Cold War"
The faces in the romance are bewitching. The turbulent Zula is played by Joanna Klug, a luminous Polish actress who does her own singing and has brought comparison in looks and magnetism to Marilyn Monroe, largely because of an impulsive dance she does to “Rock Around the Clock” in one of her rebellious moods. The fact she is not nominated for best actress though the director is nominated has many in the movie industry shaking their heads.

Her lover, Wiktor, is a tall, gaunt Polish actor with haunting eyes, Tomasz Kot, playing a musician touring the Polish provinces in search of folk songs and young, raw country performers.  He is hunting a native musical purity that soon will get in the way of the wishes of his Soviet masters.

The plot centers at first on this Polish folk troupe, amusingly called Mazurek (a Polish cake) but based on a real folk troupe founded after World War II that toured the world, Mazowske.  Wiktor becomes enamored and beds a young singer with a troubled past.  When the troupe is corrupted to perform Stalinist anthems, he goes along though a colleague, played by Agata Kulesza whose expressive face conveys novels, is disturbed into departure.

There is also a cunning performance by Borys Szyc as the Soviet mole, also enamored of Zula and one of her later paramours.

When Wiktor decides to jump to the West, Zula gets cold feet.  Years later they hook up again in Paris but he has temperamentally changed from the stolid Pole she knew into a more worldly jazz musician.  Both have sexual dalliances, hers to both anger and punish him, though later she moves to save him from Soviet prison.  The audience sees all this somewhat after the events, through such things as Wiktor’s broken fingers and Zula’s drunken career as a pop singer. The movie explores a chain that neither can break. 

It is a fascinating journey without the artifice of violent events that most movies rely on and without explaining except in intense performances and meaningful shots the issues driving them apart or together.  Next to “Roma” it is my favorite film of the season being recognized by Oscar.  How much or how little it is recognized – well, that’s the challenge facing the academy voters.

Other current film reviews:
Mary Poppins Returns Updated with Oscar News

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite

The Wife and best actress Oscar race

Blackkklansman

Green Book

Bohemian Rhapsody

Black Panther

RBG On the Basis of Sex


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.




Thursday, February 14, 2019

RBG PLUS CONTROVERSIAL DECISIONS HAUNT OSCARS

Felicity Jones as the young lawyer Ruth Bader Ginsburg in "On the Basis of Sex" and (at right) RBG herself in the
same time period in a documentary photo.
By Dominique Paul Noth

Having failed to find and keep a host for this year’s Oscars, the Academy should have turned around and offered the job to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. One way or the other she is all over the movie industry at age 85. Maybe more involvement by her would keep the Academy from shooting itself in the foot.

The Notorious RBG as she has become known is a more popular coffee mug and T-shirt icon for the nation than movies. Her liberal dissents add mightily to the legend she established as a young lawyer in promoting equal rights for men and women.  I can hardly think of anyone else who would get such a standing ovation from the Hollywood crowd.

Her petite, seemingly frail and partly stooped posture behind enormous glasses has become one of the most famous images in modern times, so much that few realize she was a lively young lawyer with a tall funny husband who were such attractive opposite – he full of humor, she a serious brain – that not only clients but fellow lawyers flocked to them. Today her fierce exercise routine makes headlines and her health has a nation of supporters openly pleading for her to not die.  The Internet even briefly thought she was dead last November when she underwent surgery on her left lung to remove malignant nodules – her third bout with cancer yet she’s back at work.

What has this to do with Oscar?  A documentary about her life, “RBG,” was a movie theater money-maker after its May release and is nominated as one of this year’s Oscar best documentaries.

The Ginsburg family and many notables from Bill Clinton to conservative icon Ted Olson contributed. RBG herself is said to have provided a list of events approved for shooting by film-makers Betsy West and Julie Cohen. The film is now available for rent on Amazon and YouTube.

Included in the best song Oscar list is the song Diane Warren wrote for the end credits, “I’ll Fight,” sung by Jennifer Hudson, who was all set to perform it on the Feb. 24 TV broadcast.

(Oscar Notes: Now there is considerable fury that neither it nor nominated songs from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” and “Mary Poppins Returns” will be performed during the telecast. Such was the latest word –not just shortening the telecast but making sure three songs don’t get in the way of Lady Gaga’s “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”  or the “Black Panther” pop hit “All the Stars” by rapper Kendrick Lamar.)

(Oscar also said, to eliminate time,  it was excluding from TV broadcast several technical categories and relegating them  to commercial breaks with highlights of acceptance speeches broadcast later in the show.  Assuming, I would add, if there is time. This covers cinematography, film editing, live-action short and makeup-hairstyling. That decision inflamed hundreds of big names in the industry who sent a letter February 13 calling the idea “nothing less than an insult.”

(Added Oscar News Feb. 15:  Bowing to internal pressure, the Academy restored the four categories to telecast and even will have them go first.)

The Notorious RBG’s fighting spirit almost put a second tune  on the best song Oscar list.  Nominated and played under final credits for “On the Basis of Sex” is a powerful song by Kesha that almost made the final cut and I frankly found even more meaningful and triumphant than “I’ll Fight." It was aptly called “Here Comes the Change.”

Would that had been the title of the movie.  “On the Basis of Sex” sounds like a Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis sex comedy.  For sake of box office, the movie ignored how RBG herself in a court brief decades ago changed “sex” to “gender” to seduce the judicial panel of men hearing the case. Now the moviemakers hope the word “sex” will seduce the public.

Filmgoers would be best off seeing the documentary “RGB” before the biopic “On the Basis of Sex,” because her real life gives some credulity to the movie, which heavy handedly borrows elements from her life for its most interesting scenes. 

Turns out she was a comely young wife, played well by Felicity Jones who seamlessly drops her British accent for Brooklyn exactitude, married to a tall popular lawyer, played almost too tall and too handsomely by Armie Hammer.  (Martin Ginsburg was a pre-eminent tax lawyer who more than supported his wife’s career and died of cancer in 2010.)

Turns out she did take legal notes for him in college while also caring for him during his first bout with cancer, while also caring for their child while she aced her classes.  Turns out her daughter Jane, a law professor today, was the plucky blunt adolescent pictured so rawly in “On the Basis of Sex” that her frontal assault modernistic manners make us feel we have stumbled into a Lifetime movie.

The film sought but never got a single Oscar nomination.  I blame director Mimi Leder’s decision to not let the story breathe on its own without constant intrusive shaping.

 Despite Sam Waterston as the ultimate Harvard chauvinist, despite Kathy Bates in a blunt cameo as a no-nonsense civil rights legend, the movie has too many scenes of hostile judges melting into smiles in the face of RBG arguments, of the timid young wife bumping a mike or otherwise showing nerves and then becoming more eloquent than Meryl Streep, of solo shot after solo shot of male justices moved to acceptance by Ginsburg’s court persuasion. If only it would have worked that way, without the blunt opposition or hard-to-pin-down resistance to legal reality the courts showed when it came to women.  Speeches praising what she did are not a substitute for real drama.

The barriers the film throws in her way from colleagues as well as opponents feel manufactured into simplicity and conversational giveaways.  Even today we don’t fully realize how many rights we presume to have are not secure; they are still being fought for by Ginsburg and her acolytes. 

Despite some well-meaning acting, the biopic is so blatantly a tribute and scene-by-scene commentary on Ginsburg’s importance – and a pointed guide to the obstacles she had to overcome -- that it comes across as a breed of fawning she never sought nor needed.

Other current film reviews:
Mary Poppins Returns

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite

The Wife and best actress Oscar race

Blackkklansman

Green Book

Bohemian Rhapsody

Black Panther

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.




Wednesday, February 13, 2019

IT’S TAKEN A YEAR TO VIEW ‘BLACK PANTHER’ REALISTICALLY

Colliding in "Black Panther" are Michael Jordan (left) and Chadwick Boseman
By Dominique Paul Noth

“Black Panther” was released to US theaters exactly a year ago and it is still hanging on (or picked up) at area theaters.  A film that cost $200 million made that back its opening weekend in February of 2018 and has gone on to gross $1.4 billion (!) worldwide.

It is the first Marvel Comics movie to be nominated among eight for the best picture Oscar, which is not tied to how well it was made but to how much media attention it has gotten. Yet it has been praised as an important step forward in African Futurism since it has elevated all its nations in the world’s awareness and borrowed from several of the continent’s cultures and languages.

It created a sort of master race of benevolence for Africa’s self-image (or to fix Trump’s image of the continent’s backwardness and poverty, a view many refuse to buy into). Its worldwide box office reminds the US that what is a minority culture view in this country sure ain’t the same internationally.

Some of the attention is a godsend for Oscar, which decided this year not to have a solo host, not after comedian Kevin Hart ran afoul of sexual behavior reports.  Among the rumors of replacing ideas was having the cast of the Marvel “Avengers” series play bigger roles – a fruitful tie-in for an enormous franchise including “Black Panther.”  Look for cast members Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong'o and Danai Gurira to at least have roles as presenters.

To many in the cast, just being on the awards lists is a rare honor. The thought of it winning best picture I admit fills me with dread.

For the black community it invented an entirely different culture using the Marvel model. It employed thousands of roto, paint, matte and other specialists on several continents, involving several studios and shops.  It is a mammoth example of what the movie industry can muster in the era of cgi and digital effects.  It is both a sad and wondrous example of what Steven Spielberg launched more than a quarter century ago with “Jurassic Park,” the first blockbuster to elevate this technological computer world into studio dominance. An entire generation has been raised on this sort of film, making traditional cinematic storytelling look a bit old-fashioned.

If the Oscars are about honoring the brutal kinetic power that studios can bring to bear on the screen, this is probably the best example.  If the ability to look inside our behavior and values is what movies should value most, that is more of an artistic standard, which I prefer. “Black Panther,” despite all the hoopla, is not about that except in its side elements.

For many in the black community, though, it has had the positive impact of dam bursting.  All those years of Tarzan movies defaming the African culture, all those years of only stereotype roles for black actors – either super good like Poitier or relegated to the alleys -- have fallen away with “Black Panther,” or so the hope goes. Maybe finally, the lives of so-called ethnic minorities can drive the movie business as they rule the music and television business, as seems to have become partly true in the last few months.

One thing is sure. From an economic as well as a storytelling viewpoint, black artisans should never be ignored again. That would be quite an accomplishment on its own.  But let’s not pretend the movie is something it isn’t.

Special effects, flashy explosions, rapid battlefield cuts, magical spears, martial arts wizardry, mechanical rhinos (horses restructured on computers), smart talking women, elaborate manufactured ceremonies based on African cultures, costumes flowing on or off the bodies --  are all mashed together in a typical Marvel plot. The power of acting some have praised is really the power of personality, how capably under the makeup the actors are moving within these strictures.  

This is movie acting in the modern era but how much Michael Jordan’s hair-do and body scars from the makeup crew have to do with his impact as Killmonger – that’s hard to figure, even for the actor.  We do know that some strong actors, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, barely survive their costumes, though the costumes may well be the movie’s most artistic element. 

It’s a thrill ride adding pride and proof of economic clout to black audiences.  But in many ways, the black culture has been painted over with a winning Marvel Comics formula. A year in, we should at least realize there is a limit to how much pleasure our society can take from that.

Other current film reviews:
Mary Poppins Returns

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite

The Wife and best actress Oscar race

Blackkklansman

Green Book

Bohemian Rhapsody



About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Tuesday, February 12, 2019

CHAMPION PERFORMANCE LIFTS ‘BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY’

Rami Malek channeling Freddie Mercury in 'Bohemian Rhapsody'
By Dominique Paul Noth

To students of rock ‘n’ roll, the title “Bohemian Rhapsody” immediately signaled a story about the 1980s greatest crowd-rousing rockers Queen and the incredible vocal ability of lead singer Freddie Mercury.  To most moviegoers it probably sounded like a bio of Brahms.

But not anymore, now that “Bohemian Rhapsody” has climbed not only the heights of the movie box office but also the awards ladder. This is also a movie where you want to catch the credits.  The famous opening 20th Century Fox fanfare is played as if Queen had hijacked the studio orchestra and the closing credits give you the real Freddie Mercury in concert to compare how smartly the movie has matched the people and times.

It is also up for best movie in the Oscar race, a tribute to how professionally it has been handled and polished, even exaggerating the historical connection between that Freddie performance at the Live Aid concert in 1985 and his AIDS related death six years later.  But all movie bios of celebrities play with events and mainly “Bohemian Rhapsody” plays purposefully in emphasizing the private life and public persona of Freddie (birth name Farrokh Bulsara).

It carries viewers  from long-haired in-your-face mocking club strut  at  the start of his career to the flamboyant, mustached master of virile stage antics at mammoth auditoriums, even as his private life became more bisexual and dangerous.

Rami Malek gives the performance of the year, seamlessly adopting Freddie’s movements and excesses without condescension or comment, exploring his impulsive private demons and flights from responsibility. 

A certain zealous adulation is involved in any such biopic. Here it certainly paints Queen as the greatest rock band of all times.  Well, certainly they had the most fantastic lead singer and the movie will bring a needed re-evaluation of just how high in the annals of rock Queen should be placed.  Its anthems seeking crowd participation, its long lyrical phrasings have endured over time, but so has some pedestrian output as the band itself cheerfully admits and the movie even jokes about.

The movie can’t resist making a major romantic subplot about the wonderful girl that Mercury’s flings with men cost him, but there is truth within. The film’s Mary, played with vivid knowing looks by Lucy Boynton, was often called by Mercury his best friend and even wife. Her direct warmth is countered by Allen Leech’s portrayal of an attractive slimeball, Paul, the manager who helps lead Mercury into moral ruin (again a bit of playing with historical events).

The film has attractive expert cinematic elements under director Bryan Singer, famous for the X-men franchise but, more notoriously, for accusations of sexual misconduct that he vehemently denies.  Nevertheless, that offscreen controversy has influenced attitudes about the movie and its awards likelihood.

But the technical expertise deserves recognition, including fast and pertinent editing by John Ottman.  The makeup and casting physically duplicate the famous onstage and backstage teams of musicians and even more amazing is the camera magic that re-creates the enormous crowd and emotion at the Live Aid concert.

The sound effects team deserves every award in sight, matching Malek to outtakes and actual takes of Mercury performances, niftily interlocked with actual studio dialog.
 Malek has the square jaw and large eyes to convey the Freddie of legend, but it is his acting that makes the central driving story work.  His sync is masterful through false teeth that mimic the profound overbite that Freddie credited for his vocal technique and endurance (though I know many a music teacher who would say this was not the central factor given his smooth three-octave range). 

For degree of difficulty Malek wins the Oscar hands down.  But it will not be that simple, given how well Bradley Cooper directs himself in “A Star Is Born” and given that Christian Bale could share (but isn’t required to) co-credit with his Dick Cheney makeup artists should he win for “Vice.” Also in the race is a Wisconsin native for a film most people haven’t seen --Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh in “At Eternity’s Gate,” a film already on DVD release and at Amazon. 

But there is a strong dark horse in the race who was passed up last year for “Captain Fantastic” – Viggo Mortensen, delightfully a New York wise guy in “Green Book.”

Other current film reviews:
Mary Poppins Returns

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite

The Wife and Oscar’s best actress race

Blackkklansman

Green Book


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.




Sunday, February 10, 2019

DESPITE NAYSAYERS, ‘GREEN BOOK’ INFORMS BLACK AND WHITE DEBATE

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, the driving forces of "Green Book."
By Dominique Paul Noth

“Green Book,” a fine, funny yet thoughtful movie that deserves consideration in end of the year awards,  seems to have run into an undeserved headwind.

The headwind is an attitude. In some circles and in parts of the black community their spokesmen say they have no patience anymore, and the awards shows shouldn’t either,  with those lessons from the past they regard as one-sided, made by whites mainly for whites.  That’s how they view those little steps of understanding between blacks and whites in past decades,   in what was and is so clearly a white supremacy society. In this view, it matters not the color of the film makers but the interior bias of the studio system for which they work.

It was an issue unleashed in live theater terms  in Shorewood over “To Kill a Mockingbird” onstage – is there any justification, even as a well-intentioned lesson, of having whites use the “n” word in dialog?  If white supremacy made the 1930s a racist time in America, who benefits by revisiting even the steps against that racism by whites who lived in that society?

Scholars go back to 19th century black thinker W.E.B. Du Bois discussing the “double consciousness” imposed on American blacks --  “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”

Another way of saying it -- what’s the value for a black audience of a white author pretending to be a child writing from her own perspective within a white supremacist society? Is a “literary relic” – as some describe “Mockingbird” -- holding extreme sway over modern intellectual black thought? Aren’t those gains against racial slurs just a white dominant culture praising itself for bitsy steps forward? 

The criticism has extended beyond  “Mockingbird” (published in 1960)  to a number of films from the 1960s such as “A Patch of Blue” (black Sidney Poitier becomes helpful to a blind white girl, who falls in love with him) and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (white family struggles to embrace a black suitor), but also to more recent movies like “A Time to Kill” (jury’s eyes are opened when they mentally flip the skin color of the victim, and this one I also thought hard to swallow). 

Yet it still seems  all right for black films to mock the consequences of  this white privilege past, as both “Get Out” (reviewed here) and “Blackkklansman” do, though the latter makes a big angry point about such racism continuing from on high in Trump’s White House.  

“Green Book” is intelligently done. It should rise in value as part of this social debate, largely because it is not what some critics have dismissively labeled the inverse of “Driving Miss Daisy,” this time the white chauffeur up front while the black man proudly pays for the back seat.

Not quite.  It is based on a true story of a cosmopolitan, finicky black jazz and classical pianist, Don Shirley (and if you haven’t heard his playing, please take some time). He (as the movie quietly relates) took a pay cut from his normal elegant concert popularity in the early 1960s  to tour the deep South to rich white folks, hoping to break through some established customs without having to be a black honky-tonk pianist with a jar for tips and a drink alongside.

To that end, he hires an aggressive New York wise guy who loves his family, loves eating contests and knows how to finagle extra credit from his job as a bouncer at the Copacabana –broadly but deftly played by Viggo Mortensen as if he were  channeling a younger Robert De Niro. And in case we needed to pin further his prejudiced  Italian American attitude toward blacks in the 1960s, we see him toss away two drinking glasses in his kitchen that black lips have touched.

So here comes this unlikely duo touring the Deep South by auto (the green book of the title is the Negro motorists guide to places in the South where blacks could eat and stay), with Tony Lip eager for money to send back to his wife and two kids in New York City and Shirley loath to speak to this hulking gangster type so prickly in his own right. 

Director Peter Farrelly has combined his flair for comedy with a gift for interesting “on the road”  scenarios.  Shirley evokes a brilliant performance from Mahershala Ali as an aloof, lonely and even insultingly rigid genius of the keyboard restrained in manners and expression.  He is so different from the blacks he encounters  that the black milieu in the South doesn’t  know how to deal with him. Until he sits down at a local bar’s piano and dazzles them with a bit of Chopin followed by boogie-woogie.

The music of the 1960s is almost a co-star. The film opens with a great Copa sequence that reveals a lot of Tony’s swaggering personality and familiarity with the nightclub and Mafia  scene. There is tremendous doubling of Shirley’s piano style that we think is Ali but is really the film’s composer, Kris Bowers.

Tony Lip is dumbfounded that Shirley, as great a player as he is, doesn’t know who Little Richard or Chubby Checker really are.  He sarcastically suggests he is closer to black culture than the pianist is.

Shirley’s sad problems with drink and sex require Tony’s intercession while Tony’s temper requires Shirley to call in his good friend Bobby Kennedy. The whites in the South are almost uniformly painted as rednecks, a tendency in films that explore this period though totally without the tolerant affection you do pick up in movies from this period, like “In the Heat of the Night.”  But the police up North have a sweet moment.

There are also subtle exchanges that force both men to confront the stereotypes they have inherited from their cultures. There’s an intriguing sequence when Dr. Shirley, so designated by his fellow musicians because of his academic degrees, abandons walking away and directly confronts a sophisticated Birmingham racist – putting Tony in the unusual role of calming presence. 

The film is set in a particularly blatant time of open white privilege, but the racism is a framework for motivating and observing human behavior.  There is something to learn from seeing how unusual representatives of their races find ways to re-examine themselves rather than let the racism of the times consume them.  

There are a few moments when the lesson side of the movie proves a bit too obvious, but the basic restraint is letting the events speak for themselves. Ali’s performance is fine tuned in every gesture and reaction.  Mortensen is wonderfully rich and believable as Tony, whether consuming enormous quantities of food or accepting Shirley’s help in his letters home.  Not nominated for anything, more’s the pity, is a warm and playful performance from Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife.

Other current film reviews:
Mary Poppins Returns

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite

The Wife and best actress Oscar race

Blackkklansman


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Thursday, February 7, 2019

‘BLACKKKLANSMAN’ SPIKED WITH LEE’S SAVVY FURY

John David Washington as a most unlikely KKKlansman
By Dominique Paul Noth

A full useful grab bag of cinema is at Spike Lee’s beck and call after decades of occasionally marvelous films (“Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “4 Little Girls”) – and he unloads that expertise in righteous anger, righteous finesse and righteous overreach in an Oscar nominated best film (with Spike nominated as best director). It’s titled, alphabet tongue-in-cheek, “Blackkklansman.”

It begins brilliantly with a long tracking shot from “Gone With the Wind” and an extensive Alec Baldwin imitation, quite frighteningly funny of a racist spokesman from maybe the McCarthy era.  Then we get Spike’s take on a real 1979 story, a slightly unbelievable tale of a black police officer who joins the KKK over the phone while a fellow officer, white, continues the masquerade in person.  Tensions and guessing games ensue.

The director has running cinematic  threads throughout, including whether the screen splits horizontal or diagonal during conversations;  how in the real Black Panther era every black person sported the same Afro; and  how the faces become zombie-like threatening when the film sweeps into the black exploitation “wave your gun SuperFly” style.

Running jokes, too.  How both the police bosses and the KKK can’t believe the black officer, played with a smidge of Richard Pryor impishness by John David Washington, speaks perfect King’s English.  How the white officer who imitates him with the Klan, Adam Driver (nominated for a supporting actor Oscar), is actually Jewish.  How a noted group of actors grimace and holler as a bumbling white supremacist cell.  Among them are Jasper Paakkonen and Ashlie Atkinson as the Jack Sprat comedic opposites (he thin, she not) eager to dynamite blacks while cuddling. 

There is a winning cameo from Harry Belafonte as an old man recalling the horrors of watching the Klan kill blacks in his youth.  The film’s structure is a mocking internal reminder that subterfuge is not just a plotting device but reflects the entire double-dealing of America’s race relations.  Walking the line in the racial divide is another of Lee’s many subtexts. 

Along with the plot twists, there is a lot of ribaldry.  It becomes hard by the end to know whether Spike Lee is trying to get us involved or has tongue firmly in cheek as he wraps up the story in neat Hollywood bows -- cop falls for the revolutionary black chick, officers race to break up a bomb threat, David Duke (played like a young Bill Macy by Topher Grace) as the ultimate stooge in the plotting. It’s so over the top we get the messages clearly.

After some police jesting over how they made the Klan look dumb, and some billing and cooing by the lead couple, the film turns deadly serious at the end.  It links the KKK to Trump and the Charlottesville marches, a reminder that the story may mock and defeat the Klan but white supremacy rolls on in America’s highest echelons. 

The film’s enjoyable showing off of Lee’s filmic mastery and social conscience winds up too elfin for its own good. It’s a reminder in a way Lee may not have intended -- that a film can throw off so much heat that it gets in the way of the sunlight.

Other current film reviews:
Mary Poppins Returns

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite

The Wife and Oscar’s best actress race

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

‘THE WIFE’ HAS FEW SHOTS AT AN OSCAR AND IT LOOKS TO BE CLOSE

Glenn Close as "The Wife"
By Dominique Paul Noth

Perhaps deliberately, the Oscars best actress category is set up as a clear division between first timers remarkably good in roles created around them and veteran actresses who have displayed artistic longevity.

And standing out among the veterans is Glenn Close, six previous times an Oscar bridesmaid seeing others win the top award. She and the Academy voters well know, at a remarkably young looking 71,  this may be her last go-round at the prize, and that reality will work positively for Close, who is highly regarded by her peers.

A good thing, too.  While her work in “The Wife” is powerful, a mixture of the restraint and sudden human fury that Close brings to the screen, she would be the first to suggest it was not her most difficult role, though clearly required acting of her caliber to keep us so engaged in a domestic drama about the interactions of a couple whose husband in the 1990s wins the Nobel Prize for Literature.  A film that elevates the importance of the traditional forgotten woman is also in tune with the times.

Swedish director Björn Runge relishes the trappings and intrigue of the real Nobel ceremony and quietly amuses us with the sort of intrusions that slowly make privacy impossible for  the Castlemans, he the prize winner.  Christian Slater does believably charming but creepy work as a biographer trying to dig out the family secrets.

Jonathan Pryce makes sure we understand Castleman’s randy yet romantic literary nature from the get-go while Close is clearly the mature one keeping the novelist’s worst tendencies in check -- until she blossoms forth in her own right, desperate to maintain her own terms.

These are the domestic firecrackers that break through the film’s stiller surfaces to keep us absorbed without thinking we are watching a masterwork – except in Close’s brilliant dissection of Jane Anderson’s script. There is a plot revelation that the audience may well guess early but the unfolding is quite startling and somewhat surprising.

In other words, it’s good enough to win an Oscar, especially when rated, as the voters will, with Close’s superior presence in movies since 1975 (“The World According to Garp,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Albert Nobbs”) not to mention stellar Broadway and TV work. (With those past experiences, her surprise this year at winning both the Golden Globes and SAG do not fall into that typical apple-polishing moment of  “Oh gosh! Little old me?”  I suspect she was genuinely surprised given the field of contenders.)
Lady Gaga in "A Star Is Born"

In that new girl in town contrast comes a terrifically enjoyable Lady Gaga in “A Star Is Born,” a movie about an unknown singer whose frank unassuming personality elevates her to fame, even as the boy friend who started the journey succumbs to drink and deafness. 

It is a role from Bradley Cooper (co-star and director) that gives us the most human likable side of la Gaga we have ever seen and there is a lot of creativity not only in the songs she sings but the scenes she nails.  But again, this was her maiden voyage for all cinematic intents and purposes, and it was shaped to bring out and challenge her best.

The most radiant and touching performance of the year probably belongs to indigenous Mexican native Yalitza Aparicio whose humanity invests nearly every frame of “Roma.”  Director Alfonso Cuarón has challenged her through a range of naturalistic and extraordinarily painful moments, writing and directing her each step of the way.

If we judge only what comes back to us on the screen and not weigh who was responsible, her performance is stunning.  Whether she can stun again in a different role is something we may never know since she is unsure about continuing to act.

That is why the Oscars are set up as a rather stringent test of what it means to be a film actress and it will be hard to not consider endurance.

All this to and fro may actually benefit the other two candidates in the race.

British veteran Olivia Colman plays gout-ridden imperious Queen Anne, the half-crazed and supremely powerful – and the supremely manipulated focus of “The Favourite,” as two women compete with ferociously different skills for her favor.  Actually I think the performances of Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz as the competitors will be a more demanding dilemma for Oscar voters since both are up for supporting actress and may cancel each other out, which could be a shame.  
Melissa McCarthy in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

The last nominee is Melissa McCarthy, who does what I would call a nice job of sticking to naturalism in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” based on the real story of what drove a hard-drinking, down on her luck writer to turn to forging literary letters to keep herself fed.

Anyone who understands what goes into comedy should not be surprised at how well McCarthy pulls off turning serious, almost too serious in that she has to hold back on the snappy comebacks and resentments within the character.

But proving she is not a one-trick pony in a film that flows with nice performances (Richard Grant, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith) should not be enough to land this prize.  I’m looking for a Close encounter.

Other current film reviews:

Mary Poppins Returns

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Roma

Vice

The Favourite



About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He became 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 and 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 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 DomsDomain dual culture and politics outlets.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.