Saturday, February 6, 2016

TOO MUCH HOOPLA FOR ‘REVENANT’ NOT ENOUGH FOR ‘TRUMBO’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (Tom Hardy in
background left). Is this really deserving best actor?
“The Revenant” is a gripping wilderness revenge drama pretending to be about something more than revenge. It has a special look and verisimilitude of agony that warrants some attention from the Oscars, where it leads (mostly in technical categories) with 10 nominations.

But let’s avoid if we can one of the big awards -- the travesty of rewarding Leonardo DiCaprio as best actor. He is a versatile movie performer whose output and personality deserve accolades and who handles this role of Glass quite grimly and convincingly. But I’d plead with his believers to wait for another outing.

He is the Las Vegas odds-on favorite for best actor in a season where others have done better work. His competition for Oscar doesn’t really reflect this strong year. It  includes Matt Damon for “The Martian,” which I cannot yet judge, Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs,” which I honor as precisely modulated in a modulated reading of the Apple guru written by Aaron Sorkin; Eddie Redmayne, a true champion of physical and vocal acting unlikely to win two years in a row for the transgender nuances of “The Danish Girl,” and Bryan Cranston who is wonderfully human and immediate in a film likely to be overlooked (I’ll review this “Trumbo” at the end of this piece).

It’s painful for me to oppose DiCaprio especially since I sense Hollywood feet stampeding toward rewarding him after passing him over in countless other roles where he could have been considered. And here is a film trailing excellent credentials and box office response – what the blurbs love to refer to as “gut-wrenching” “rip-roaring” “blood and bones” frontier western. So why not use it to honor someone who actually is a practiced accomplished film actor not to mention a major heartthrob at the box office?

Because I totally disagree with the Washington Post, which called the prospect of his losing an “unthinkable fraud.” It would be quite thinkable fraud like “Butterfield 8” (1960) in which Elizabeth Taylor was rewarded with an Oscar because the academy had failed to do its job with her in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” two years earlier and  because a reaction to scandal had turned to sympathy when she became ill. So the voters went for a lousy outing in a lousy film to make amends.

In this case, “Revenant” (the title quite accurately means someone returned as if from the dead) is not lousy but it is just not my idea of all the aspects of great acting that should go into the industry’s top honor.

The physical agony that DiCaprio (and the entire company) went through in Canadian wilderness filming was brutal and riveting. It uses every facet of screen magic surrounded with barren expanses of running river water, ice, savages gnawing on raw meat, entrails and untamed animals spilling everywhere. It is a visual feast apparently shot with all natural light by amazing cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, who seems to have played with incredibly wide lenses and advance edge camera.  

The movie will get attention for the extensive bear mauling that DiCaprio as Glass endures (watch out, the bear comes back!), his burning his throat with gunpowder to heal a wound, his climbing inside a dead horse (shades of “Rob Roy”) and other believably done re-creations of early 19th century primitive survival – and this is aside from the stark portrayal of Indians and trappers.

The makeup for DiCaprio’s face, hands and decaying body is remarkable and he occupies it in full glory, also whispering and croaking his love for his son affectively and wearing grimaces, spitting drool and hatred for the paid companion who abandons him. It’s effective ferocity. But it is normal ferocity for film actors that begins to fade with repetition toward the end.

In fact, combining dialog, poetic nastiness and sly bile as the hard-bitten scoundrel of the piece, Tom Hardy is closer to deserving the Oscar supporting actor nomination he received, though I still lean toward Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies,” if you want to see what a great actor can do with the flick of the eyes and the subtle sarcasm of tone.

“Revenant” particularly benefits from the cinematic intensity of director Alejandro Iñárritu, last year’s winner for “Birdman,” here showing a complete command of more traditional genres.  “Birdman” had a totally urban feel and emulated the idea of unfolding in a single cinematic shot while dazzling us with virtuoso.  “Revenant” is different but still virtuoso, with the camera hugging the water and then peering up at the skies as arrows fly in and bodies fall in some of the most stylistic tracking shots since Michelangelo Antonioni, followed by rapidly cut sequences. There is relentless attention to retaining a storytelling style of deep detail. There is a constant stereo soundtrack in which voices whisper in the ear as if from the minds as well as the voices of the characters and the ghosts they conjure up. 

The music punctuates. The mists off the mountains gather and fly at us. The landscape seems untouched by human hands, totally primitive with sudden symbolic bursts that, quite frankly, in lesser hands would seem corny since they lack emotional weight beyond the sense of constant corpses being piled on. The screenplay has wonderful scenes and maudlin moments where Iñárritu seems tugging too hard to find a deeper meaning in tragedy and trauma, as if the pull of revenge can somehow be contradicted by poetic comments on the limitation of the vengeance, though it is this sense of vengeance that drives the film.

The director’s techniques and his ability to evoke total commitment from his actors and crew are praiseworthy, but he is sort of like a visionary shaman trying to suck the Hollywood out of Howard Hawks’ 1952 “The Big Sky,” also about trappers fighting natural elements though in those days it was on a soundstage and certainly lacked such brutal realistic exactitude. 

DiCaprio certainly should be applauded for both surviving this shoot, maybe even relishing it according to stories  and accomplishing it so well, but I am not comfortable with so much camouflage of makeup, blood squibs and costumes and so many broken sequences of bodies crawling and suffering to stand in for exceptional acting.

I found myself thinking more and more of what sort of screen acting I think deserves such attention – and quite frankly, given what DiCaprio has said in the past about naturalness, he might agree if Oscar honors weren’t involved.  I think particularly of how Bryan Cranston makes writing screenplays in a bathtub so endearing as “Trumbo” and also finds that moment of disappointment and forgiveness at the sudden flight to the dark side of friend and threatened star Edward G. Robinson (performed well and without impersonation by Michael Stuhlbarg).

Bryan Cranston in 'Trumbo.'
I have been reluctant to write about “Trumbo” though I saw it in late November.  because Dalton Trumbo is one of my heroes in fighting the blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s, not only winning Oscars under pseudonyms when the industry joined the barring of writers deemed by McCarthyism to have Communist leanings (many of whom wrote the most American films of World War II and some of the best screenplays of the ‘30s and ‘40s).

So I was fearful that my well-known affection for how Trumbo stood up in that horrifying era would get in the way of watching the film as a critic, and I was particularly aware of where the film bent the truth for dramatic impact.  I think if anything such knowledge made me dismiss it, as I fear many in Hollywood will since the movie does feel a bit like Hollywood admiring its later morality. Over time it is sticking in my memory, not just for Trumbo and the lessons he represents but because of Cranston.

It was Trumbo who penned forgettable B movies under false names, even creating an army of such blacklisted writers (an episode that movie has a little too much fun with) and then finally helped blow the lid off the blacklist when he was named as the screenwriter for films like “Exodus” and “Spartacus” while the blacklist was still technically in effect.

Cranston softens the abrasive edges of Trumbo’s  personality without denying them – he does better than the screenplay here --  and emphasizes what many in the movie industry still fondly  remember about him: His energy even fever to write and write and write,  his curious courtesy toward enemies, his willingness to park his ego on the shelf if he could make money, his  combination of abrasive wit  (he memorably called those who testified for HUAC “the time of the toad”) and yet willingness to forgive and work with those who failed to meet his principles. 

So it was hard to be objective about the film. I confess to having a fondness for the archival footage and the parade of actors doing a nifty job imitating big names (David James Elliott as a surprisingly nuanced John Wayne, Dean O’Gorman as a remarkable lookalike Kirk Douglas and most deliciously, Helen Mirren as a nasty Hedda Hopper).  There is also the family Trumbo including nice turns by Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as wife and daughter. 

Director Jay Roach does not have an Iñárritu reputation. He is better known for films like “Meet the Fockers” and “Austin Powers,” but he understands the period, the style and what his actors can do with John McNamara’s “then Trumbo did this” script.  But it is Cranston who holds it all together with a performance of significant natural power and he wears makeup as comfortably as DiCaprio and spreads a human warmth out from under the mustache and constant cigaret.  

In many ways, his performance is more worthy of honor for rising above circumstances, though I suspect it is not his turn or time even after both theater and television have recognized him. I’m just sad Grand Guignol is what DiCaprio will be honored for.

ALSO ABOUT OSCAR: A discussion of the strange Oscar year pulling out for inspection “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl” and “Carol.” Make “Room” for a thrilling film.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Sunday, January 31, 2016

MAKE ’ROOM’ IN YOUR OSCAR VIEWING

By Dominique Paul Noth

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in "Room."
“Room” is a fine film that grips veteran moviegoers with panic and identification one moment and tears of anger and recognition the next. It is a small film in production terms  that crept into Oscar consideration – a longshot for best picture and best director, a more likely winner for actress Brie Larson whose believability and determined protective nature as a lonely mother  is a model of controlled presence and is certainly as good as any of the competition in this category.  This is an example of film acting in which behavior and natural reaction are difficult to achieve and brilliant when pulled off.

It is also one of those films that reviewers should tell you as little about, plot-wise, as possible. Much of its success comes from our naturally identifying with mother and child without quite knowing how and why they are caught in such a dilemma. Lindsay Abrahamson’s direction is spot-on in keeping us off balance with claustrophobia constantly in the frame. Yet even as the  behavior and cast of characters spread out, the audience is still trapped in a focus  on  a desperate mother and a five year old she has kept sane and natural by keeping in the dark.

The story goes through many shifts – so that we wind up as scared and apprehensive of the adult invasion as the child is.  It does in a tight story what far more sweeping epics have failed to accomplish. It holds our attention when the real world intrudes and the ugly simplicities of social attitudes are revealed.

This is a good point to reveal that a story that feels factual is fictional.  Emma Donoghue has precisely adapted her best seller and while many could argue the events are inspired by many real life cases, she  has compressed and illuminated a rare but real horror that waits outside our door.

Half of whatever awards Larson wins should be shared with 
Jacob Tremblay, now 9, a member of a family of actors who seems the most natural and independent-minded member of the ensemble. Her accomplishment of playing off him is considerable, but so is his natural behavior as determined by the director.

 Normally, a reviewer would be  skittish of praising a film that relies so heavily on a child, but Abrahamson – employing whatever tricks and psychology he could muster – marries the performance to a constantly purposeful editing method in which continuity is never lost and even enhanced though it is actually being chopped up. The Irish director whose previous work few know has come out of nowhere to reflect a mastery of the director’s art.

There is also a performance by the excellent Joan Allen that should be worthy of Oscar consideration.  As her husband, the fine William Macy is given an almost impossible moment of tension that is in spirit true to the character but in writing is the one false shortcut note in Donoghue’s excellent screenplay.

Embrace the caution of scant details in talking about the movie – and see it.  I doubt if the Oscar ceremony will spend a lot of time on it, but audiences should.

ALSO ABOUT OSCAR: A discussion of the strange Oscar year pulling out for inspection “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl” and “Carol.” 

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

IN WEIRDEST OSCAR RACE EVER, PAUSE TO HONOR SPOLIGHT, DANISH GIRL AND CAROL

By Dominique Paul Noth

This is the most confused, unpredictable, self-immolating Oscar contest in my memory.


If Oscar had an ensemble category, the cast of 'Spotlight" (from left
Michael Keaton, Liev Shreiber, Mark Ruffalo. Rachel McAdams
John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James) would be shoo-ins.
And my memory goes way back to that studio monopoly era when box office and big stars more than artistic merit signaled the winners—and then came the era when, in bursts of conscience and artistic salute, Oscar tried to marry artistic achievement with celebrity, recognizing that a Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, for Stanislavsky’s sake, actually were great actors and not just box office draws.  

Well, artistry is somewhat an inbred given  into the award these days, but 2016 has succumbed into erratic impulses in all directions. Artistic merit, yes,  but boy do  box office and studio intrigue hover!  The self-interest that long embraced the Oscar ceremonies seemed in recent years to finally strike some balance worthy of intellectual debate.  But this year I am primed to abandon the journey of self- improvement that Oscar once seemed capable of.

A new style of gamesmanship abounds in how studios try to sneak entries into awards categories. Threatened by a host of other celebrity ceremonies, all of which enjoy good ratings, the Oscars no longer know who to honor – and how to distinguish Oscar from the multiple other accumulations of stars drinking champagne and laughing at each others’ jokes.

 The categories represent a  mumble of uncertainty about standout accomplishments and values commercial or cultural. Along with triumph of arts and crafts come the salutes to cgi wizardry and similar technical fancies, to auto chases and the visceral dash of great editing.  It is impossible even for experts to watch a movie scene these days and separate the computer from the human --  and industry insiders have good reason to think they know better about what expertise was involved than either critics or the public. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (awards telecast Feb. 28) seems confused exactly where to draw the line on nominations and honors, on valuing the past and anticipating the present – and cinema has become a marketplace where millions know the stars of “Mad Max” and millions others could care less.

 The audience has expanded (fragmented)  into more than 16-30 yahoo boys looking for a thrill. There is now  a regular older audience, a female audience, a politically provocative audience,  but how do the movies recognize true diversity in age, audience and ethnicities? Are they confusing socially meaningful topics with good films? Is time spent at theaters as good a time spent on Netflix, Amazon or cable TV? Why are some movies sold to a sliver of the audience and upset when a more critical audience pays attention?

Those films  that dominate awards categories  have to contort themselves to fit categories of Oscars’  own making that don’t reflect the reality of what is on the screen. 

 Which brings us to the hoopla that no black actor or actress was recognized this year despite some notable cutting edge work – and despite the  huzzahs of recent years for “12 Years a Slave” (good film) and “Selma” (important topic that sometimes felt like a civil rights subject more deserving awards recognition than execution, leading black film makers to hype the film beyond its worth). Yet this was the year of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Chi-Raq” and “Beasts of No Nation.”

Somehow a white actor, Sylvester Stallone, resurrecting his Rocky role as the trainer of a young  black fighter in “Creed,” ends up emerging as the almost black almost traditional supporting actor winner, which is going to be a disfavor in sheer acting chops  to the better work of Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies.”

The absence of black artists  brings commentaries from all side – and rule changes to encourage diversity that some see as signs of ageism on the industry’s part,  dissing its own elders to make a contemporary point. 

 Actor Michael Caine rightly points out that someone should never win for just being black, while Danny De Vito acknowledges it just proves racism really exists. Others comment on how slow the industry has been to embrace the real variety that has occupied the local cinema. Ian McKellan suggests  that older women and gays have also been treated shallowly by Oscars. The more one looks at the boycotts and reluctant participation it seems we have returned to treating the Oscar ceremony as an opportunity for social commentary not because of accomplishment but because of  absent values. 

Truth is, this year the industry is having great difficulties marrying its  sense of importance and broad reach with its actual grip on the public’s imagination.  There are more than ever a range of stars millions have never heard of competing with ranges of stars that have been names for generations. 

Consider the film not nominated as best picture that would win hands down if it were.  That’s my bet.  It  drove audiences to the theaters to receive full satisfaction – the return to the “Star Wars” of imagination. “The Force Awakens” ruled the box office, satisfied customers and has probably launched a new wave of hits, but in nominations it has been limited to technical Oscar awards. I suspect it could win best picture in a walk were it among the magic eight.

Oscar must wish this year it could emulate the Screen Actors Guild, which  offers an award for best acting ensemble.  It has one clear such  standout in “Spotlight”  -- and some long to honor “The Big Short” in this way, though I am deeper into the “Spotlight” camp.

As it stands now “Spotlight” is the most balanced and insightful movie of the year, with a fidelity of purpose and execution worthy of honor. I would hesitate to call it best picture of the year, but by default it ought to be. It portrays the Boston Globe investigative team exposing not just the culpability of the Catholic Church in pedophilia but the range of culpability within the whole of society. It is  focused on the system more than the victims, thus making the victims all the more real in the bargain.

Among the standout performances are  Liev Schreiber as the buddha cool editor, Mark Ruffalo as the journalistic hot-rod and Stanley Tucci as the suspicious lawyer. Solid  character work is magnified by director Tom McCarthy’s driving soft-spoken writing and almost seamless sense of moving from place to place.  The movie takes time to let an actor’s look land and hold the audience  – bravo!

‘The Big Short” is also done well but a bit more tortured (even winking at the audience)  in explaining the financial crisis that buried the US. To make it accessible to the average audience it uses building blocks and extended examples of how Wall Street types bundled mortgages into disaster, and in showing how individuals either did the dirty  or realized the dirty. It  combines comedy with horror relying on some strong performances. But there are too many explanatory devices,  semantic games in the unfolding, and some weird examples of how the studios managed to fit the actors and technicians into Oscar’s nominating categories. (Christian Bale as supporting actor when he carries the flavor of the  film?)

No, Oscar nominations are all over the map and it is hard to pick one picture or one performance for that matter as the standout. Maybe that is as it should be and will be for the future.  But it all came together this year   Many compare Oscar’s confusion to the lost direction of the Republican party, once at least a distinctive part of the American firmament. Just don’t ask folks today what being a Republican means. 

But here is the strange thing.  Oscars this year are speaking piecemeal – in individual offerings --  to the full humanity of the human experience, something that dramatic films can do well.  They just don’t realize how in total they’ve become schizophrenic.

Yet there are  two movies that are standouts in humanity. They  might initially be accused of sensationalism since their topics are pointedly controversial – transgender  impulse and lesbian attraction.  Indeed the topics may be why they got financing.

How on earth can these be among Oscar’s leading  meaningful explorations of the power of love, romance and commitment? Can they really represent the central personal impulse of society toward love and sacrifice? 

Yes.  They are  “The Danish Girl” and “Carol,” both relishing a period style in order to allow the potency of human relationships to emerge in full passion and meaning.  In very different methods, they reflect the power of love and human commitment beyond the fabric of what society deems customary.


Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in "The Danish Girl."
“Danish Girl” has to concoct it own special world to allow this. Loosely based on history of the first male to risk gender shifting under a knife, it is set in a high European  Bohemian world of the late 1920s, the color yellow dominating as the wind whips through the alleys and wharfs. It is  rife with sensitive artists, ballet costumes, high fashion  and silk fabrics as young lovers and young painters Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are aroused in their most  basic senses.  And make no mistake, their physical attraction to each other as man-woman is intense and erotic). They are surrounded.  even imbued by a palette of special allure, of oval faces carved out of their living spaces (the camera keeps moving in to blur the normal rectangle of the screen), of  gestures and poses as controlled and alive as life itself.  

He prefers abstracts of nature, she is a portrait artist --  and she  teases him into dressing like a woman,  only to see him seized by a powerful sense of being reborn in his female personality. It makes no rational sense, but “Danish Girl” creates a world in which rationality gives way to mental desire, to even pores attacked by where the mind is taking the characters.

Normally this transgender grip is something foreign to most humans and indeed most moviegoers, surrounded as we are not just by Puritan values but inherited revulsion within the standard modes of society. But director Tom Hooper has created a world which this impulse to changing skin  is not particularly foreign or aberrant but almost a consequence of feeling so sensations so deeply. His most profound observation is that Alicia’s love for Eddie surpasses any sense of where he physically started – wherever he’s headed, whatever the doubts of established society, she will observe him and go with him – no matter how this may undo their  original relationship. Her willingness to journey with him forces the audience to examine any reluctance it may have. 

Let’s not pretend this is only a love story. It is edged with profound sadness. It raises dimensions for the actors and for the audience that require a suspension of disbelief. It is the soul more than the transgender world that is being uplifted.   The artistry of the two in conveying the  relationship, the doubts and impulses, the ugly confrontations and the underlying warmth, require the director to tastefully frame their faces, bodies and dress and for the actors to engage in some extraordinary moments of self-recognition and self-doubt.

This is actually one reason the Oscar division of nominations angers me.  Redmayne is nominated as best actor, deserving in his minimal gestures and mastery of behavior,  though I don’t think he has a chance of winning given how the academy is likely to deal with his gender change. 

But to sneak Vikander into an awards category as best supporting actress! As opposed to equal!  This fails to recognize some fine work indeed and makes her nomination a farce not an honor.  She carries the movie in direct weight to him and should be honored for that.


Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol."
Something similar has happened in “Carol,” set in the 1950s and involving a lesbian relationship between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – and a recognition that society regarded this as a taboo of such power as to represent moral banishment. In fact the two actors make their relationship such a meeting of the minds that while the film has its mandatory bedroom scene, even done tastefully, it is  completely unneeded so strong to we feel the pull between the characters.

 But here again to sneak into Oscar consideration, Blanchett is best actress and Mara best supporting actress. Yet the whole film requires the  two to be balanced  – Blanchett as the alluring, perfectly coiffed rich housewife whose simply motion under furs and within perfume fills the senses of Mara as  the shopgirl,  who not only waits on her but feels a completely mutual attraction.  Yet there is in the Mara character an  almost hypnotic pull but the story goes out of the way to show she is a willing partner – expecting the danger and accepting  the full range of responsibility.  That, given the trauma both grow through, is essential.  So it becomes shameful to nominate an equal actress in a lesser category.

Director Todd Haynes does careful character work to suggest that Mara is more than the department store  doll Carol has found, and offers Carol's relationship to her young daughter fully vital as any mother would fee. Slowly Haynes reveals Blanchett as  more an emotional volcano under wraps than the outline of the story initially suggests.  But Oscars clearly robbed Sarah Paulson of a likely nomination as best supporting actress (she plays an understanding former lover), substituting Mara in that category. That is a hard twist to take for a mere award -- and probably means no one from this film  will walk away  with a victory.


Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

NATION’S NEWSPAPERS PUMPING ‘THE JIM GAFFIGAN SHOW’

By Dominique Paul Noth
Executive producers Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan during
NY filming of  their 'Jim Gaffigan Show."

The preview reviews are flooding in for "The Jim Gaffigan Show" with its  July 15 debut of its 10-week season on TV Land (Central Time 9 p.m., check the channel number with your provider)

In an era when many viewers still only expect smart sophisticated comedies from the bigwig traditional networks or maybe HBO and Showtime, newspaper reviewers coast to coast not known as pushovers were provided multiple episodes and are clearly startled. Several are  forced to confirm that an unlikely source, TV Land, is making waves built around the Gaffigan show, which was filmed with full blown cast and crew on the streets of New York City in the spring. Hitherto, though attempting their own sitcom or two, TV Land has been best known on cable for recycling sometimes generations-old syndicated sitcoms, not with the  possible exception of  “Younger”  creating modern forward looking  comedy series.

In the case of “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” taking advantage of the tremendous popularity of his concert stand-up tours and the successful specials and two best sellers written with his wife, the episodes will be repeated each week on Comedy Central (7 p.m. Thursdays in Milwaukee). 

Newsday flatly calls the result the smash sitcom of the summer

The New York Times is not far behind, putting it miles above the other TV Land sitcom premiering July 15. 

The Minneapolis Star Tribune says the series means TV Land "slides neatly up to the grown-ups' table“ with “sharp and sophisticated" turns and guest stars. These include, depending on episode,  Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo. Steve Buscemi and others (some still surprises). 

Executive produced and written by Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan, up-playing their marriage and downplaying their writing teamwork, the series is based on his stand-up career  and their raising five children in a two bedroom New York apartment in the Soho region before moving to a bigger place last year.

 (The television version of Jeannie, played by Ashley Williams, who gained a TV following on “How I Met Your Mother,” was cast, both Gaffigans have said, because her high energy, maternal instincts and flair for their brand of comedy. Jim has joked he remembered selling her to the money folks by saying, ‘This woman could come at Jim with a chainsaw and still be likable.")

West Virginia's Herald Dispatch, after receiving a preview of three episodes,  raves that the "The Jim Gaffigan Show" "is incredibly funny and has a really fresh look for a family sitcom. Within five minutes, you have to wonder why another network didn't think of doing this one any earlier." 

Well, the networks sort of did – and many  reviewers now are wondering aloud  why the  networks passed this up .  That touches on a history the Gaffigans are open about, stretching back years as he succeeded in many films and TV shows while becoming one of the nation’s most successful concert stand-up solo comics. The journey heated up when they had four children (they now have five, the oldest 11 years old). NBC saw a script.  Then with a different cast, CBS actually filmed a pilot, ordered recasting and rewriting  and then commissioned another. 
Consulting during filming.

The Gaffigans have recounted that history in several interviews, quite candidly discussing the process and how once  granted full creative control and a network budget  they became part of a rebranding effort by TV Land. 

The  history of the development is complicated and while it makes for great reading in Vanity Fair explaining  the couple’s meeting and  mutual comedic  affinity, the nature of the  relationship still  seems to confuse some journalists. So it is no wonder that while praising the results ("a sunnier look than Louie")  the Washington Post reviewer screwed up the actual development curve, not recognizing how many of the episodes that are emerging are totally new and jointly written by the couple.

Philadelphia's prestigious philly.com did  recognize that TV Land is making a serious inroad into innovative new half hour comedy.  It singled out "The Jim Gaffigan Show" as the channel’s new quality  hallmark because "Gaffigan chooses not to play it safe. He tweaks both his nice-guy image and the family-sitcom formula just enough to make his show feel new - yet he retains the sense of familiarity that beckons viewers and keeps them watching."

The Detroit Free Press joined the parade of analysis and high expectations: "A solid supporting cast (Michael Ian Black, Adam Goldberg and Tongayi Chirisa) and a willingness to stay true to Gaffigan’s low-key sensibility are among the many pleasures of the series. Given time, it could rise to the height of a very tasty soufflé."

"Everyone is so gosh darn likeable," noted The San Francisco Chronicle in calling the show "a blessing."

The Colorado Gazette, while suggesting that one episode won't give viewers the full weight of the delight,  was also impressed. "Gaffigan plays an endearing and playful everyman. When someone else teases him, Jim gives as good as he gets. Much of the humor consists of the behind-closed-doors verbal sparring I imagine professional comics have with each other, without the cursing. Jim happens to be the butt of most of the show's humor, but he takes it in stride and viewers laugh along with him, not at him."  

The raves keep coming. "Really really funny" says Nebraska's Journal Star. 

"Sharp-witted, funny,  unafraid,” said  the Salt Lake Tribune. "Absolutely hilarious." And July 15 all were joined by the Los Angeles Times calling the show "a humane, human comedy, fun and funny." 

Frankly, I’ve held off writing on how good this show is because of a family connection well known in Milwaukee where Jim packs the Pabst Theater in shows around New Year’s Eve, coming back to the city where he and Jeannie became engaged.  She is my daughter so their children are my grandkids and I visited them in New York and was on the set many times during filming.  I was smart enough to watch, laugh and say nothing.  They were filming with a large expert crew on the streets of  New York City, knew what they were doing down the millisecond  and clearly didn’t need some old-timer butting in.  

Now normally such family connections would keep me silent, following long-standing journalistic practice,  and I have been.  But now that  the nation’s reviewers  who don’t know me or my past as a journalist started shouting from the rooftops, I figured no one could blame me for joining the parade of positive reaction. I'm just a tagalong.  It is no longer family pride, unless Jeannie and Jim have a lot more relatives in journalism than I ever knew about.


Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  And by the way, Jim gave him  that T-shirt.




Tuesday, February 17, 2015

WHAT TO EXPECT FROM OSCAR, ASIDE FROM COMPROMISE

By Dominique Paul Noth

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne met the real
Stephen Hawking during making of
"Theory of Everything."
All night Sunday Feb. 22 at the Oscars, ABC unspools its red carpet fashions and its pageant of celebrity presenters, plus newcomers who have movies waiting in the wings -- and that  launches a game I have played for 50 years with curiosity, derision, shock  and agreement.

For the last 40 years much of that game has been in writing, guessing who will win compared to what I WANTED to win.  Other people play along at home or with smart remarks on social media, but I’ve long dared to put it out there in analytic critiques based on actually seeing the movies and incorporating the reviews.

Seldom has there been so much outside pressure and talking heads scoffing  about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  In essence, though, little has changed. The Oscars in their 87th version remain primarily a movie industry publicity stunt now leaning more to seem artistic oriented than celebrity oriented.  What I wrote  a year ago still largely applies:  “Movie industry campaigns, studio pressure, media bustle, box office receipts and drawing power are still a big part of the game, a combustible mixture of tendencies to honor the most creative of peers and the sensibilities to promote, highlight and showcase friendships.”

This time there is, frankly, no best movie. There are two visionary choices carved out of directorial minds and probably too extreme for Oscar’s tastes. There are two topical choices mired in sideshow controversies and several other choices of mixed quality, one of which will probably win. 

If the best picture race is the most vulnerable to hidden politics and hardest to predict, many   other contests played their politics in the selection process. These categories are more predictable and reflect quite respectable choices, though the coverage has been dominated by grumbles about omissions. 

Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and David Oyelowo as King in the
"Selma" controversy that brought scholarly fire.
Let’s pump right into that.  Supporters of black artists have made an enormous point that “Selma” while nominated for best picture, was passed over for its female director -- Ava DuVernay, authoritative in crescendos and competent in other arenas -- and its lead actor, the charismatic David Oyelowo who has some of the mightiest words in the English language to wrap around. Don’t think the voters didn’t take that into account. They relish originality of scripts. 

The lack of their nominations – and of Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King who almost deserves a spot in a crowded supporting actress category – renewed charges that the academy members are too white and biased. 

No, actually, they are too male and much older than the moviegoing norm.  Sixty-six percent white, right or wrong, reflects not just national makeup but the heritage of who made enough money in this world and became prominent and successful enough to join – and maybe keep others at bay.  That’s capitalism.  Right now it’s white and older male American. But just wait.

I question how many powerhouse PR, execs  and agent types are labeled film artisans and how slow the academy has been to lure in minorities and the female majority (they are the majority,  you know, both in population and movie-going) though I suspect that overall the awards will recognize mature women other than giggle starlets in many categories.  Meanwhile black artists will again dominate the televised performances.

It is a complicated issue because if anything a year ago the importance of black subjects, from slavery to revenge drama, dominated the Oscars. This year all sides can take some blame. Whose fault is it that so many black hopes centered around one civil rights film, “Selma”? Otherwise there was catering to comedy stereotypes or pop music icons financed by black and white producers alike. It’s not so much that the ceiling closes in on  blacks and older women (though it does) but the case for profits has to be sold first in academy prestige. Don’t let the pretense that artistry  and fairness come first fool you.

Yet I think it is quite likely that “Selma” may cause what became known two years ago as the “Argo” backlash. That was a good thriller whose director and star were snubbed in the nominations, so industry fans took revenge in the best picture race over the film that will actually live in artistic legend, “Lincoln.”  The same anger about snubbery could elevate “Selma” to the top prize.

Bradley Cooper inserted nuance into
"American Sniper."
If box office power were the only factor, upset at backlash would have done the same for “American Sniper,” which has raised such controversy that I reviewed it twice.  First I tried to point out the more thoughtful elements of the movie while not hesitant to criticize its Blackhawks DC Comics simplicities.   There ought to be some way to reward the nuances about  self-delusion Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood inserted into the story  of Chris Kyle, since only his later  death confirmed that insight into the  price warriors pay for being sheepdogs cut loose from their leashes.

But my second review exploded with disgust at how gung-ho the box office response had been because I didn’t think it was about the nuances but the ennobling of the war mentality.  That was my interpretation and could be questioned. It has been. But there has been a surge of anti-Muslim attitudes in the wake of a film that never explains the false assumptions that even Texan Chris Kyle brought into battle after seeing terrorist bombings on TV in Africa and New York and not questioning, in fact applauding, where his country was sending him.  

Now Eastwood and company are doing a fictionalized slice focused on the impact on American soldiers, so they cannot be held responsible for a misguided war, nor for capturing so well that “my country right or wrong” machismo.  Except virtually everyone now acknowledges it was a misguided foray into Iraqi villages where Kyle made his sniper bones and there is no direct sense of that in the film. There are still people who question the reality that Saddam Hussein wasn’t involved in 9/11, and I admit worrying that most of them flocked to the theaters.  But it does seem most people now understand that America’s overwrought response has something to do with the current surge of ISIS, and if you grasp that you have to react negatively to much of the film’s metaphor about sheep and sheepdogs.

The moviemakers now respond that the film is bringing important attention to the plight of returning veterans with damaged psyches, and that is good but I don’t think good enough to rescue an Oscar. The failure to question why Kyle and Americans felt so proud of the war against villages  has created a gap in understanding that  is too fresh in our minds to be overlooked by an Oscar community that gives heavily to political causes on both sides.

“Selma” could also be accused of historical simplicities as my review explains in detail.  But it bends toward restorative justice and serves as a needed reminder to a younger audience that is failing the vital lessons of history. For those reasons and the distance in time that diminishes fictionalization,   it could flourish beyond the likelihood that “Glory” will win best song.

That unexpected win could happen because the Oscars often need a sense of social conscience in its decision. There are two best picture nominees that speak to the visionary individuality that should be the height of movie achievement but they are so removed from today’s central events that they  may be too big a jump for these voters -- “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a manic comedy that embodies Wes Anderson’s flair for originality, and the stylistic comedy fantasy “Birdman.”  I would be astounded if Oscar went to either, though I would prefer “Budapest” and believe Anderson ought to take best director over “Birdman’s” remarkable Alejandro G. Iñárritu.  I don’t think any of that will happen.  Two other films, “The Imitation Game” and “Whiplash,” strike me as placeholders to bring the final best picture field up to eight.

A younger Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood."
The one I fear will get the best picture nod is “Boyhood.”  It was in effect a daring 12 year stunt of following one character and his growing, aging and changing family, improvising a script around their struggles, social climbing and family values. Richard Linklater, who is also likely to win best director, found optimistic echoes of how people climb past drunkards and broken homes to security – with so many familiar notes that both critics wholesale and Hollywood types in abundance have raved about its verisimilitude. 

I don’t agree. In fact, in my original review I speculated at length why the critics overreacted. I think the dialog and story wind up contrived, some good actors cover for the clichés, and the insights into Americana are comforting but weak and narrow.  But in a year of controversy it will probably be the compromise pick.

I actually prefer in this environment another film I think has holes but also more profound acting and a more magnificent understanding of the hope of the human spirit, “The Theory of Everything.”  Along those humanitarian lines I would actually settle for “Selma” -- as long as the word “best” was not attached.

Many other categories offer quite respectable choices and probably some clear winners for both artistry and sentiment.

J.K. Simmons, my choice and I think Oscar's
for "Whiplash."
Take best supporting actor. There is not a broken egg in the bunch.  Robert Duvall of “The Judge” is again more powerful than the film.  Mark Ruffalo is an astonishingly good actor in a good movie, “Foxcatcher,” that deserves more notice. Ed Norton is outstandingly Methody  manic in “Birdman,” the competent Ethan Hawke is Ethan Hawke on steroids in “Boyhood.”  That’s already a strong field but my sentimental and artistic pick is J.K. Simmons, who has worked with everyone in the film and TV vineyards and deserves this shot at the sun for “Whiplash.”  I reviewed it early but my predictions about its power are holding up.

There are also good choices in the best actor race. Michael Keaton displayed nonstop virtuosity in “Birdman,” Steve Carell exudes restraint and quality and may win by a nose (inside joke) in “Foxcatcher,” Cooper brought stature to “American Sniper” however the movie is finally judged, and  Benedict Cumberbatch is a  proven great actor and emerging  star attraction somewhat overused in “Imitation Game.”   For subtlety of acting skills and for drawing out emotional sympathy in unlikely ways as ALS crippled Stephen Hawking, my choice is a young actor I expect even greater things from, Eddie Redmayne.  But there is considerable fever for the resurrection of Keaton.

Like most audiences and many of the voters, it is hard in the best actress race to talk about Marion Cotillard, a strong actress in past films, since hardly anyone has seen “Two Days, One Night” (a hit in Europe barely visible in America).  The presence of Reese Witherspoon in this category for “Wild” is nigh impossible to justify on acting depth in a  well meaning but tiresome movie.  There is also a good actress in a ridiculously twisting and  inflated role, Rosamund Pike of  “Gone Girl.”   I think Felicity Jones will be an also-ran here but she is a perfect acting complement to Redmayne and found intriguing nuances in “Theory” that should be noticed somewhere sometime.

Oscar and I should agree on Julianne Moore
in "Still Alice."
But I think there is a runaway choice both in long-term proof and immediate artistry, Julianne Moore. While some critics have dismissed “Still Alice” as a Lifetime cable movie fabrication about illness, they didn’t look hard enough. This is a profoundly deeper take than past showcases. In remarkably detailing the advances of Alzheimer’s, Moore haunts us with a woman losing her mental faculties with no hope of redemption, though she uses every trick a superior mind can think of to fight the inevitable. I know the topic sounds like a downer, but she not only deserves the award --  the movie deserves the attention that prime time TV once upon a time delivered to Hollywood. I think this time the Oscars will.

The wrong winner is pre-ordained in the best supporting actress category though she is an actress I like. Patricia Arquette could have been nominated where she wouldn’t be a shoo-in -- for best actress for “Boyhood” (she has been so designated in other awards shows). But  the fever for the movie is so high I think she is going to run away with this, with only upcoming star of the big eyes, Emma Stone of “Birdman,” peeking in from the outside rail.  Why Keira Knightley is nominated for “Imitation Game” escapes me and the always likeable Laura Dern is mainly there for the luminosity she brings to “Wild.”

My best supporting actress will not be picked
-- Meryl Streep.
The best performance in this category is a misfit, since the Oscars have never quite known what to do with musicals and certainly with fantasy or where to place these standouts. Even insiders find it hard to separate fairytale impact from melodramatic realism, though both are enhanced by cinematic methods.  If they could and if they do, Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl again) of “Into the Woods”  should win this category hands down. Does anyone want to seriously compare how Arquette chats with children in bed to the whirlwind difficulty of singing, dancing and driving the tale that Streep brings to the woods? 

But I am sure she is prepared to dutifully smile and applaud for the likely Arquette.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

JULIANNE MOORE MOVES ‘STILL ALICE’ INTO GREATNESS

By Dominique Paul Noth


Julianne Moore in "Still Alice."
Disease has almost become a movie genre of its own, creating showcases for good actors and for fading stars who use onscreen suffering to redeem reputation.  But the actual genre  requires the sort of disease that lets the human spirit rise above adversity and actors who catch us in the spiritual journey upward. 

But what if the illness has nothing but a downward intellectual spiral and no rescue for the mind of man? What if it actually destroys both logic and memory, the essential tools that actors need and that man uses to elevate himself above the Earth’s other species?
  
No wonder the topic of Alzheimer’s in books, plays and movies so seldom focuses on the victim but more on those coping.  No wonder it sounds depressing rather than mesmerizing to movie audiences.

It will be hard to reboot that thinking, but I would love to transport everyone in the nation to “Still Alice” and watch their emotions flow.  It stands as one of the master achievements in using acting creativity to impale our beings – not just with disease but with the human condition. 

It is far more than a touching portrayal of a perfectly normal family undone by the illness. That is almost a side reality that is happening with more than 5 million victims in the US and more than 200,000 under age 60.

“Still Alice” drills in on the victim. It would not be possible without this magnificently observant and rawly honest demonstration of screen acting from Julianne Moore. She studies a part with great fidelity, unfolds it without artificial flourish or fanfare, justifies each scene and nuance step by step and allows the spontaneity of her emotional immediacy to grab us by the throat.  The painful intimacy of watching is balanced by the power of the recognition she forces us to share.

Moore plays Alice, an American upper middle class whiz of domestic and work achievement – a renowned linguistics professor, a kitchen and organizational master, model for her three grown children, a wizard of computer word games, adored by her similarly bright and workaholic physician husband.

Until she starts dropping a train of thought here and there or loses track of time and place when jogging. 

Now all of us as we age – particularly those particularly reliant on mastery of language -- worry when we drop a word or misplace a key, which is normal. But something worse is happening to Alice and she senses it from classroom to kitchen. She is bright enough to realize a deeper problem and she turns to the most advanced doctors – a professionally compassionate neurosurgeon played with telling calm and sympathy by Stephen Kunken – to realize the worst.

This is early onset Alzheimer’s, in her case at the height of her career and attractiveness but more devastating because it is also the hereditary strain that will creep up on her children. 

When Alice bluntly tells her husband she wishes it were cancer, we are dumbstruck with agreement. People survive heart attacks and each hour brings new treatments for cancer.  But Alzheimer’s, in which the memory, mind and bodily functions diminish in odd fits at frightening speeds, is inexorable.  It is the ultimate fear -- that the common act of remembering events and people will remorselessly disappear while the vacant body is the last to go, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  

Adaptive as well as bright, Alice clings to mental tricks and outguessing her watchers. She previews the antiseptic housing warehouses for the empty shell she is becoming.  She analyzes the medical data.  She speaks eloquently to others about what is happening, underlining her thoughts with yellow marker so she doesn’t mess up.  She even uses her computer skills to plant “eggs” and video messages to steer the crumbling Alice she knows is coming into how to kill herself. Her panic and efforts at self-control may seem plucky, but what is the use when soon you can’t remember where the bathroom is or which daughter you’re talking to.

Family fabric is built into every moment of decline. Kate Bosworth perfectly delineates in behavioral glimpses the older daughter, loving but prickly and combatively self-centered.  The younger daughter, Lydia, defensive about her independence, determined to make it as an actress without college, proves more emotionally attuned to her mother.  

The Lydia part, the major secondary role, calls out the best so far in the calculated brooding style of actress Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame.  But this is not consistently great work since Moore’s intensity in dialog – and her insight into how maternal authority survives even as the mind fades -- spurs Stewart to her best moments.

Playing off an explorative actress elevates everyone. In fact the film is unintentionally a crystal demonstration of the difference between competent and great.  Stewart reads from and performs in plays in moments that should leap off the page back into the heart of the story, but they stay on the page.  Moore rips those old arguments about euthanasia out of the textbooks and out of the pulpits into a frighteningly believable option that makes our hearts jump. 

Alec Baldwin reminds us that he can be a pinpoint actor in character exposure as Alice’s husband, disbelieving that this creature he adores for her mind and body is wasting away, caring and politically correct in his supportive role. But Baldwin lets us see glimpses of what Alice even in her growing remoteness and self-loathing senses. His work ethic is a more selfish mirror of her assumptions in the past and while he would never openly abandon her, he is pulling away – in a way most spouses would.

Moore deserves the attention but she has a well constructed and observational road map that is not getting sufficient praise. There is the thoughtful mind-opening best-selling book by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. And then Richard Glatzer (himself an ALS victim) and Wash Westmoreland, co-credited as director and screenwriter, have fashioned an intelligent plot with faithfulness to the material and skill with cinematic methods.  Where their input and Moore’s fidelity and acting instincts merge may be unclear from the outside but the merger is profound.

Despite the quality of the script, I can name on one hand the film actresses who could come anywhere close to the impact of Moore as Alice.  It’s not just how Alice lashes out at what is happening or accedes to what is happening or attempts self-control as she wastes away before our eyes until there is nothing left to control or learn from. It is all illuminatingly combined. 

It would be small compensation for how she guides our understanding and involvement to get every acting award in sight. It may have started. She has already been honored by her peers in the Screen Actors Guild.

Other notable end of year reviews: Into the Woods, Theory of Relativity, Whiplash, Wild,  Unbroken, Boyhood,  American Sniper, Birdman,  Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, a new look at American Sniper controversies  and Selma


Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.