Friday, February 17, 2017

THE SILENCE SURROUNDING ‘SILENCE’

By Dominique Paul Noth
Liam Neeson in "Silence."

On paper, everything about “Silence” grabbed the wheelhouse of my interests – a favorite director, important novel, serious cinema and global moral dilemma.

It is faithful to the intentions of a renowned novel from 51 years ago -- the master culmination of the themes of Japan as a swampland of repression written by celebrated Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo. 

Or should that more clearly be Catholic Japanese? Because Endo reached into 17th century Japan with a semi-historic novel to make his emotional and theological point – unspeakably cruel rejection of Christian villagers (but not too cruel for the cinema).  They were forced into secret cults and then boiled, beheaded, crucified in the ocean or hung upside down like pigs to die.  Yet this was nothing compared to the elaborate physical and  mental torture inflicted on the Portuguese Jesuits who attempted to minister them, so ferociously did the dominant Japanese society reject the faith of the outsiders and compromise its leaders.

The mental chess match between priests and inquisitors, using the Jesuits’ own intellect and agony against them, becomes after the first hour the centerpiece of the film. So it was onstage in 1995 when the Milwaukee Rep collaborated with Japan’s Subaru Acting Company.  That production of “Silence” also asked whether a western religion could take root in Asian soil (much like people today ask if our western form of democracy can take root in the Middle East) and whether there wasn’t self-destruction in a religion built around blood and suffering. 

The priests of the story are seduced by their own concern for the lives of the faithful.

Another lifelong attraction is director Martin Scorsese, who has been exploring the nature of guilt and defiance since I admired his first film more than 40 years ago, “Mean Streets.”  Endlessly versatile, enamored of American and Japanese film history, Scorsese provides a nearly too perfect sheen of fog, unforgiving landscapes and grubby villagers, trying to marry the postures of Japanese behavior to the depths of physical discomfort the Jesuits – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver – must submit to in missionary zeal. 

Liam Neeson has an elaborate cameo as the fallen priest they have come to rescue – a mouthpiece for the nobility of compromise. The Japanese co-stars are effectively cast for looks and behavior, both malicious and noble. Tadanobu Asona, an incredible one-man theater comic, is a standout as the amusingly grim Inquisitor. The movie has its own Judas figure who again and again encapsulates the internal dilemma of the devout Christian’s belief in forgiveness while standing firm when God himself remains silent.

So in depth of purpose, nobility of style, cinematography that is its lone Oscar nomination and intent, the film cannot be questioned.  But as a film it can be questioned.

It is laboriously long, more to be studied than felt. Despite the brutality of its images the movie keeps us inspecting its protagonists more than sharing their conflict and pain.

At times, such as the head of Jesus shimmering in the water, the directorial choices can be misrepresented as selling Catholicism when the attempt is to dig inside the minds of the Jesuits.  It is something like Alfred Hitchcock thinking that superimposing opening doors in the head of Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” was saying something the actors couldn’t, but it still comes off as way too obvious.

“Silence” is a spectacular exercise in admiration more than the dive within characters that marks the best of Scorsese’s work.

No strong audience has found this film, though its hopes for coronation were high. It wasn’t even released until two days before Christmas of 2016 to be Oscar eligible and then generally released in January.  Within weeks despite the names involved, it disappeared from the nation’s main screens.

Other recent film reviews include “La La Land,” “Moonlight” and “Lion,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Jackie,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “20th Century Women” and “Loving”.


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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

HOW LOVING AND FRIENDSHIP HAD LITTLE PLACE IN OSCARS

By  Dominique Paul Noth


Ruth Negga is the lone Oscar nod despite Josh Edgerton's strong
performance in "Loving."
One measly nomination for “20th Century Women”? That  was not the intention of producing companies Annapurna Pictures, Archer Gray and Modern People, as this reviewer has discussed

It’s awards that help keep East Coast financiers interested in an era when most films need these multiple sources.  That’s  why most movies’ introductory logos convey a multitude of unknown investment companies, many of whom are also doled out “executive producer” credentials.

It takes a lot of cooperative money -- sometimes strange money. As hedge fund manager, new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin invested some $500 million in films, but he also  used the fortune he amassed on Wall Street, and  working for Goldman Sachs,  and running his own bank,  to finance other movies well into 2016, earning constant executive producer designations.

He actually has  one film in the Oscars – a sound editing nomination for “Sully,”  directed by Clint Eastwood. It also clearly had broader Oscar hopes and pumped in vain for Tom Hanks as best actor.   

The “20th Century Women” partners carefully released the film in New York and Los Angeles in December before turning to  general release the following year -- clearly hoping for deeper Oscar  recognition at the last minute for more nominations than the one they got.

Similarly  “Loving” chose a November release though ready six months earlier.  Its Oscar hopes were barely realized, not even a best picture nod in an expanded field of nine despite director-writer Jeff Nichols’ previous credentials and an entertaining cast.  

Joel Edgerton is remarkably good as the strong silent type --  Richard Loving, a reticent reluctant public figure even when sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for interracial marriage. But only Ruth Negga landed an Oscar nomination as his wife in a performance of luminous compassion and determination – and recognition that she is a star in the making. 

Negga’s Mildred, as seen by writer Nichols, is factually  fabricated to make her environment  friendlier and her heritage not the partial American Indian the real Mildred claimed in interviews but more outspokenly “black.” But the performance contains its own truths about human behavior even more than about the landmark Loving  case.

The Lovings couple took their 1950s  legal troubles to the Supreme Court in the 1960s and won an end to miscegenation laws nationwide -- certainly a timely reminder of the importance of the courts in social progress. The acting, the historical significance and the truthfulness of government indifference have kept the film around, which is not the fate of other 2016 entries that failed to win big respect at the Oscars.

(Looking back and being blunt, the producers of “Captain Fantastic” -- a July release that landed a best actor nod for Viggo Mortensen --  and crime thriller “Hell and High Water,” August release yet four Oscar nods and strong box office, are probably wishing they had pushed Hollywood voters even harder.)

Documentary and foreign film specialists can probably signal Oscar overlooks (though bravo for the documentaries including “I Am Not Your Negro”). But credit the Academy voters generally for coming down to mostly respectable choices (except for the strange placement of star Viola Davis of “Fences” in the supporting actress character and inserting Octavia Spencer there, the weakest performance but biggest female name in “Hidden Figures”). 

Never pretend there isn’t a lot gamesmanship behind the scenes -- nor how obvious it is  when studios give up despite positive sounding press releases.  A case in point is  “Love & Friendship” despite the awards  track record of films based on the  works and late blooming popularity (after more than two centuries!) of Jane Austen (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice”). The clarity of that times’ class structure and the pertinence of Austen’s verbal skewers always hold out great opportunity for film-making.


Kate Beckinsale as the venom-dipped Lady Susan.
Faithfully adapted by director Whit Stillman from the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan,”  the production promised elegant 18th century fashion and humorous dissection of the battle of the sexes, focused on an endlessly scheming penniless widow who uses her looks and shy daughter to force a lucrative outcome.

It was plugged hard in June . . . then  quietly  moved to Amazon’s DVD market by September. The industry pretty much knew then  the  producers had given up hope that either well-known Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan or Chloe Sevigny as her gossipy confidante would gain awards  attention. 

Quite right, too, because Beckinsale is concerned more with elegant style than internal conviction about  Lady Susan’s powers over men, an essential dramatic element even in comedy. Sevigny’s amused arched eyebrows are similarly not enough.

The film cannot be saved by some inventive visuals to keep the complicated plot from tangling – or  even by those delicious Austen bon mots. (Lady Susan’s vicious wit is on constant display: one targeted husband is  “too old to be governable and too young to die”; a miscarried scheme brings the Trump-like complaint, “Facts are horrid things.”) 

The epigrams cluster like locusts but except for Tom Bennett’s amusing turn as a rich ignoramus, what should have been a comedy of manners becomes a comedy of mannerisms.

Recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie, Hidden Figures, FencesManchester by the Sea and 20th Century Women.

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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Sunday, February 5, 2017

OSCAR SENSIBILITIES AND 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

By Dominique Paul Noth

The curious but understandable Oscar neglect of Annette
Bening in "20th Century Women."
A release date reveals a lot of what producers and studios are thinking about Oscar nominations – or lack of them.

Not seasonal perennials of course. The “Star Wars” franchise routinely locks up the family holiday audience ever year in December, not expecting much from the Oscars (good thing, too -- only a visual effects nomination for “Rogue One”). Action and superhero films think similarly, throwing in Thanksgiving. 

But more serious, explorative  and  socially comedic  films are given release times that will help them leap out of the pack and force industry Oscar voters (and the foreign press association, and the Screen Actors Guild and other much televised exercises) to pay attention.  These releases are often placed at the end of 2016. The studios don’t have much belief in their own industry’s attention span.  

Such was “Nocturnal Animals,” given a limited sneak peek for New York City and Los Angeles in November  (this big city  release is a condition of the Oscars) before entering general release December 9.  Try to find it now.

Supposedly a suspense film in which a violent rape in a novel affects the writer’s former wife, forcing her out of her  cocooned luxury, Tom Ford’s film is flat pretentious in its visually elegant stylings  and only partially believable in plot. 

That did result in one surprise and rather strange  Oscar nomination (supporting actor Michael Shannon as a cancerous quixotic sheriff) and an equally surprising  Golden Globe for Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a showy sometimes naked extreme villain, a role any good actor would kill for (figuratively).  There is strong screen presence from veterans Jack Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams (Amy in particular keeping us interested in a boring woman). But the film’s producers clearly hoped for much more.

Amy Adams (in "Arrival") failed to register with Oscar
in two films.
It is Adams’ misfortune that another Oscar hopeful starring her also  opened in November, partly to stir Oscar but mainly for Thanksgiving sc-fi attention  – “Arrival,” something of a cross in plot between “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Adams’ work in that seemed Oscar bound -- a linguistic professor with guts and curiosity (and a hidden mental insight) willing to risk exposure to alien visitors. Her acting keeps the movie palatable even more than the extensive visual effects – and remember, she has been much nominated in previous years.  This time she came a cropper despite (or maybe because of) two films in the crucial final months.

 The film got recognized in the best picture, best director, best director and five technical categories, but it wanted Oscar to fall in love with Amy, who one day will win one of these things.

But Adams is not the one cited as Oscar’s major oversight. That belongs to the frequently nominated   and always interesting Annette Bening. Her tabloid fame may come from domesticating Warren Beatty but her acting prowess has made her the most reliable inhabitant of diverse characters next to Meryl Steep.

She picked a doozy keeping  “20th Century Women” humorously afloat – as a mother who came of age well before feminism and open talk about sex in the 1970s. Clinging to old habits (chain-smoking Salems) she seeks to help adolescent son Jamie (played engagingly by Lucas Jade Zumann) safely navigate this raucous new world of punk dress and music,  jackass stunts and promiscuity. 

Director-writer Mike Mills has long tapped his personal experience and added playful memories. (A humorous moment comes when a devoted punk artist captures every moment in her day with her Polaroid, something hardly unique  today --  everyone has  a smart phone.) The movie dances among visual extremes (fast motion, acid blurrings and straight naturalism) with some blunt dialog that won Mills the film’s single Oscar nomination  in a category where he is outranked (best adapted screenplay).  Would you like to go up against Fences, Lion, Hidden Figures and Moonlight?

Elle Fanning (with Bening) in "20th Century Women."
Neglected were  pleasant but mainly behavioral acting exercises from Greta Gerwig as the punk artist and Elle Fanning as the object of Jamie’s unfulfilled desires.  Billy Crudup circles the feminist and documentary undertones as a securely hippie and hedonistic handyman. But the film becomes lost in episodic incidents and overly obvious social commentary. Where it should fly it swoons and even a final image intended to keep the film afloat drags the audience down to earth.

For these reasons, I don’t consider the general exclusion of “20th Century Women” a mistake --  though it is curious that Meryl Streep is again nominated for a film that is already on pay TV, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”  But hers  was a more impressive acting job. 

Bening’s character is a  less attractive acting challenge -- as much an object of helplessness as intended hopefulness.  The actress loved unearthing the contradictions and invests meaning even when there doesn’t seem much of a purpose. I would have preferred her in a New York minute over Natalie Portman, but the mystique of  Jackie won Oscar voters over the slightly comic portrait of a confused 1970s mother.

Recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie, Hidden Figures, Fences and Manchester by the Sea.

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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com


Saturday, January 28, 2017

MANCHESTER MORE A DIRECTOR'S TRIUMPH THAN AN ACTOR'S

By Dominique Paul Noth

Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"
Manchester by the Sea is being touted as an actors' movie (particularly one actor,  Casey Affleck), as a sad but gripping  excursion through a lost soul redeemed by having to care for his nephew, a meaningful and highly rated film about overlooked everyday reclamation.

Missed in that description is that it  is really  a director’s film  -- Kenneth Lonergan. It only works so well because he refused to gussy up the story with dramatic flourishes, letting the quiet reality unfold in flashbacks and careful revelations, trusting the audience to do the empathetic work. It is rooted in working class values so we can feel the New England cold, the drudge of snow shoveling, the blocked toilets, the gray highways,  the pain of a common hospital ward where sad news is delivered.

He keeps the cast and a fine technical crew completely at the service of the mood and the  writer –  Lonergan – staying true in story choices and interaction. This invests small variations  in character Lee Chandler’s focus that bring him not to redemption  but to the hint of changing back into a mensch (the Yiddish word for a good person). In other words, a truly believable reluctant change. 

We watch Lee (Affleck), a stoic uninvolved Boston custodian clearly smarter than his circumstances,  emptying trash and fixing plumbing in walled off manner, occasionally erupting over beer into fistfights -- clearly a lost human being with a dark hidden side.

Then his brother dies and leaves him sole guardian of 16 year old nephew Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges), at which point we get touches of his past life and tragedy that led him to this state of isolation and self-imposed emptiness.

Only in contemplation do we realize his late brother’s motivation (a role of observant watcher played  in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, in quite a departure from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”). Only after absorbing Affleck’s haunted eyes and locked off behavior do we comprehend the depth of the  family tragedy and self-loathing that have driven him to this stoic façade and his determination to stay there.

The story was apparently suggested to Lonergan in a down period  by friend and now an executive producer on the film, Matt Damon, who couldn’t star and suggested Casey Affleck (younger brother of Ben).  Damon couldn’t have made a better suggestion because Affleck becomes Lee with his vacant eyes, darting subdued looks  and hesitant hand gestures, refusing to break  open but clearly tempted to when encountered by his ex-wife (naturalistic fine work by Michelle Williams).  He has the stillness, the accent and the man of few words delivery needed for Lee.

We reach the point of understanding a more life-loving Lee in his past,  an indulgent belief in life that may have led to his tragedy.  We long for a smile to break that sullen face. That elevates our intensity in watching the performance. We are finally satisfied only when Lee is out on his family boat --   on the life-enhancing sea, the smooth glass ocean off of Manchester that fulfills the story’s contrast with Lee’s emptiness.

Never overlook how carefully director  Lonergan (also Oscar nominated) has modulated these performances, never stop appreciating what he left on the cutting from floor. The observation of people and of landscapes is expertly achieved by  cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes  and delicate film cutting from Jennifer Lane (neither are Oscar nominated).  

The film has also earned a supporting actor nomination  for  Lucas Hedges, who at age 20 perfectly captures the insolence, rebellion and budding sorrow of nephew Patrick.  I think the votes  in that category are going to lean to the screen magnetism of Mahershala Ali of Moonlight or rising star Dev Patel of Lion. But the largely unknown  Hedges deserves to be in such company.

Affleck is also nominated for best actor, amid some controversy because of  past sexual allegations that had been settled out of court.  Despite media comparisons to Cosby and Trump, it should be his performance that matters not speculation,  and he has been reputable in the past. But I’m not sure this isn’t a perfectly orchestrated one-off. I prefer the proven gifts and realizations of Denzel Washington in Fences

Other recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie and Hidden Figures.

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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 



Friday, January 27, 2017

‘FENCES’ BREAKS US DOWN WITH POWERHOUSE PERFORMANCES

By Dominique Paul Noth 


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in "Fences"
Fences is a hybrid -- transferring a stage giant to the big screen while retaining the structural outlines of the stage. That may work against it in the “best film” sweepstakes where originality is honored but it is working for it in terms of epic sweep and general audience response. 

Director Denzel Washington’s fidelity to the power of August Wilson’s play, adding  perfectly placed visual images, street scenes  and editing to deepen the overall poetry, deserves considerable recognition. Being Oscar nominated reflects that even though it also speaks to the Academy’s sensitivity to racial correctness.    

It could well mean a best actor Oscar for Washington, who invests 1950s garbage-man Troy with a defiant garrulous ego battling  weakness of the flesh, fighting against God and his own humanity as he tries to control the  world. Or rather his home, which he rules as a castle.

His backyard becomes a place to drink gin and subdue souls. His compassion and greed combine in his treatment of his brain-damaged brother, played full throttle by Mykelti Williamson.  His refusal to bend to human instincts is demonstrated in his treatment of sons by different mothers, played with straight honesty by Jovan Adepo and William Hornsby.

You don’t realize until the end how much desire, decency, loss and tragedy have been exposed in this journey. 

But he has a co-star. Rose as his wife doesn’t just move in his shadow though the production starts that way. She comes to dominate the screen with her natural manner and caring nature --  from amused tolerance to angry victim to accepting mother.  No one in the Oscar supporting actress category comes anywhere close  – definitely assuring a win for Viola Davis, though I think her presence in this category is something of a travesty. 

There are good performances here – Naomie Harris as the addicted mother in Moonlight, Nicole Kidman as the adoptive mother in Lion, Michelle Williams as the ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea and as a nod to Hidden Figures by picking Octavia Spencer, but they pale against Davis.

Trade reports say she chose  the supporting category. Perhaps she didn’t want to oppose good friend Meryl Streep, or new media sensation Emma Stone of La La Land,  though in that case she would have won hands down on degree of difficulty.  Certainly there is threat in the luminescence of Ruth Negga,  an emerging important actress in a neglected film, Loving, and certainly a bit of Oscar celebrity fawning for a performance I didn’t flip over, Natalie Portman as  Jackie.   The leaves two acting greats to consider – foreign legend Isabelle Huppert in the little seen Elle and Streep, who discounts herself as I have. Huppert could now sneak away with a category  Davis deserved to be in.

Her performance carries “Fences” as much as  Washington’s  – and more, in terms of liking and believing in him. Washington’s dissection of Troy – from a great ballplayer who missed his moment in the sun to a wannabe family man to an easily tempted ladies man and then into painful episodes as demanding and demeaning father – has as an inescapable rhythmic baseline in Wilson’s  language and insights. It’s a part that rivals Willie Loman of “Death of a Salesman” in dimension but with an added muscularity. 

As an actor even more than a director (who serves his cast with sensitivity)  Washington embraces and lives the human being that reveals  Wilson’s greatness. It is an acting performance that serves as  a welcome change from his recent screen persona,  which has become somewhat repetitious of late.

The price of fidelity to a role he also played on Broadway is some of the staginess cannot be disguised and the director cannot resist giving extra weight to the secondary deeper meanings (Troy’s fight is as much against the heavens as it is his own weaknesses; his brother’s trumpet and calls to St. Peter have a larger than naturalism purpose).

With  easy warmth and knowing directness, Stephen Henderson as he did onstage with Washington plays Bono, the best friend and good advice giver who by the end has learned to keep his distance.  It is because of Davis’ performance that we don’t similarly pull away.

The strength of this movie really comes from Wilson, lovingly transplanted by Washington and company.  Whenever we drift into contemplating the characters or merely admiring the artistry, the film leaps into a moment of raw power that wrestles us into submission. 

Other recent film reviews include La La Land, Lion and Moonlight, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie and Hidden Figures.


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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 




Tuesday, January 24, 2017

‘HIDDEN FIGURES’ RELIES ON HIDING REALITIES FOR A WILLING PUBLIC

By Dominique Paul Noth

From left: Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson and Janelle Monae in
Hidden Figures.
Unquestionably the surprise feel-good smash hit,  congratulatory slap on the American back and elevation of  black pride currently at the movie theaters  is  Hidden Figures, which has leapt to the forefront of national  attention and even awards consideration.  Sure,  La La Land  may win the Oscars and dominate the world box office,  but not far behind and winning the comfort vote of American self-satisfaction is  Hidden Figures.

It is a sign of how well the movie has absorbed the lessons of Hollywood’s narrative past and how desperate we are to believe in the fictional simplicities of re-shaping historical events into an acceptable formula of climax after climax. 

In 1960s America it was unusual for a major daring initiative – launching man into space – to seek help even in the  much maligned and neglected African American community for “human computers,” people so good with numbers and mathematical calculations  that the skin color did not matter as much as their science.

NASA was pioneering on many fronts and certainly could not afford to be petty on this one. This is the view of America we like to think of – that ability, content of character,  respect for the brain – outweighs all else.

There is actually a historical basis for Hidden Figures – black women whose talents fit into NASA’s needs to send Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space.  Katherine Johnson was  a whiz with numbers.  Dorothy Vaughan had a knack with mathematical  programming. Mary Jackson was determined to become NASA’s first black engineer. All have plaques and even buildings named after their work.

From such examples,  Hidden Figures has built a powerful myth – three black women escorted  into work at high speed by a white patrol office who momentarily out of patriotism sets aside his instinctive belligerence toward blacks.  Setting aside belligerence in the face of ability is the fiction the movie rides to death.

There is some justification in elevating a forgotten chapter in history, but it is a fabrication to suggest it deeply changed society, unless you are living in a different society than I am.

Romance  blossoms at a church picnic where a feisty black woman intellectually puts down a handsome officer to the amusement of her fellow workers. (At least this justifies the presence of another remarkable acting name to emerge this season, Mahershala Ali who is also in Moonlight.) 

The movie is built of little set pieces like this that proclaim the characters' worth, the indignities they suffer usually at white hands, how they persevere and on and on in clever but artificial elaborations of what was quiet pioneer heroism. It is how facts become legends, to paraphrase legendary director John Ford, whose movies preferred the legend but also showed the facts.

Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson in invented sequences of being forced to run to the colored woman’s restroom in a nearby building every time duty called, or confronting sympathetic but hard-nosed supervisor Kevin Costner about the demeaning treatment – which he rewards by offhand singular meetings and approval.  Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan not just as the trainer of numbers  teams but as the only person capable of figuring out the enormous IBM database of the time.  Janelle Monae, who also has  an impressive turn in Moonlight, is the sassy Jackson (at least sassy in this version) determined to become a combination engineer, matchmaker and liberated woman.
  
The actresses deserve credit for going right at the material. Henson conveys an intensity about her work that rides through all the diversions into Hollywood romantic territory.  Spencer cracks wise and knowing almost to the point of annoyance.  Monae may have been best known up to now as a singer and model but not anymore. Her screen magnetism and acting chops are going to be her hallmark from this moment forward.

All of this is enjoyable – in the sense of making the audience feel great about how openly and hard these women fight against prejudice and how the suspicious white world, mainly in the form of Costner and ever doubtful assistant Jim Parson, eventually bends to the value of these black women.  Of course, the hostility is exaggerated as is the acceptance.

If you trust the film, only because of these women’s involvement does Glenn make it around the world in space and return safely.  Only because of their programming expertise does the IBM computer kick out reliable data.  The film is smart enough not to say this directly but the images certainly imply that level of importance.

Director Theodore Melfi has absorbed well the lessons of movie construction of the past, how to build individual life lessons into an audience pleasing fairytale.  In seeking to glorify these women by exaggerating their circumstances, the film may be doing a disservice to them and to history. That certainly is the reaction on reflection, though I think audiences will enjoy being led down the  garden path of this vision of   the 1960s era.  Other movies set in the present are forcing reflection on a more genuine state of humanity


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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Saturday, January 21, 2017

DID MERYL CREATE A METAPHOR FOR OUR TIMES?

By Dominique Paul Noth


Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins
Pretty sure that the most difficult and successfully executed acting job of 2016 will not win the Oscar, though it might well be nominated. Also convinced, as Meryl Streep herself has suggested in interviews, that the most celebrated film actress of all time and the most ever nominated will not ever win again and certainly not for what was a fully realized performance in a not so fully realized film, Florence Foster Jenkins (first released in August but making the rounds again in Oscar anticipation).

Editor's note: And a good guess that re-release was. Streep landed her Oscar nomination January 24 and given a quirk in the nomination formula actually has some but not much chance to win.

A shame, too, because the movie and her character in some ways are  a metaphor for our times.   Here we have a woman who loved to sing, and did it so abominably in the 1940s as to inspire  laughter even as her celebrity commanded the stage. She was able through sheer financial prominence and the protection of sycophants  to force her way into Carnegie Hall and into legend. 

If this is not a metaphor for our age, the ability of money and conviction to rise to prominence despite realities, I don’t know what is.

There is a profound difference.  In pure acting ability Streep – a fine singer herself – captures without sarcastic comment the hilarious near misses of Jenkins and the sense of assurance that her love of music will  triumph over her inability to achieve it.  The shrills of her aria are chalkboard grating and just off the mark enough to be hysterical. She is somewhat aware of what she is doing but so absorbed in her self-worth that she plows ahead despite the obstacle of no real ability.

This is a difficult comic and human line to walk, and in her portrayal of a rich woman permanently damaged by youthful  exposure to syphilis, kept together by makeup and wigs to put on a public face, Streep makes most of the audience care for the human being  despite her faults and preposterous self-delusion.  The candor with which she approaches physical deterioration and camouflage serves as constant corrections to our sense of superiority – and yet does not stifle our desire to laugh.

The rest of the film does not rise to her level – and that may be the fault of director Stephen Frears realizing how good she is and trusting that would carry along the rest of the casting and shaky story development. 

Hugh Grant plays her husband who constantly has us on the edge of whether he truly loves her or is using her. It is among the better things Grant has done, since his self-contained British manner and aloofness fit perfectly the character, but it is still not convincing because the doubt about the character is more an intellectual mystery than a revelation from  the actor.

There is unabashed muggery from Simon Helberg as pianist Cosmé McMoon who takes the Jenkins’ job for money with full realization of the horror she is visiting on opera.  Helberg, a big success from TV’s “Big Bang Theory,” has the job of giving the audience the excuse to laugh and employs the bug-eyed reactions famous from the TV series, providing much mirth for a TV trained  audience visiting the movie theater.  I suspect he is a good actor directed into emphasizing his shtick but it does pull the film out of the reality of the times and personality that Streep has so effortlessly established.  (Effortless in the sense of how we accept her – the work that went into this is nigh impossible to imagine.)

Someday, years from now, an actor will come along to interpret Donald Trump with a combination of hilarity and understanding that will force a re-evaluation from supporters and foes alike. He should right now start praying that an actor of the self-effacing character and insight of Meryl Streep will take him on and re-interpret his reputation.



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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

OVERDOING THE NEUROTIC SIDE OF JACKIE

By Dominique Paul Noth

Natalie Portman as "Jackie."
In order to get inside the real Jacqueline Kennedy, masterful Chilean director Pablo Lorain has invented a biopic  of near mental breakdown.  Jackie may be an instinctive expert on her murdered husband’s legend and she may be meticulous about public comportment. But to that end she is put on a road of pill popping nerves, irrational reverie and anguish, fragmented  streams of consciousness, impulsive decision-making, afterwards anger on the edge of hysteria and determination to keep Camelot  alive in the mind of the nation.

In simple terms, this is Jackie as morbid neurosis.  

In some ways this may be an important albeit invented corrective  to the American image of her as  some sort of brave Mother Teresa of US sorrow whose dignity in the face of tragedy elevated her as well as JFK into an icon.

Historically it is true that Jackie had a ruthless analytical side, a communication skill long overlooked  and conviction in the face of opposition, plus  a determination that her husband’s image would long survive his presidency – but most other details of this story are fiction married to historic events.

Lorain and screenwriter Noah Oppenheim dig to turn inside out that standard image of Jackie, and there is some justification we need a fresh look at a familiar American story.  The nation has never acknowledged what it took for a young mother – even one raised in privilege -- whose husband was shot beside her in a motorcade, leaping in a frenzy to stop the bleeding and bring rescue. Then a widow with no time to grieve as she faced inevitable takeover by a new administration, the pressures about how she should behave  and the flood of events forcing her to deal lovingly with two children left orphaned by an assassin’s bullet.

There may also be elements of truth to the times in Jackie’s acceptance of her husband’s infidelities and lack of marital warmth – without impacting her devotion to his memory.

In the push to correct our image, Lorain has combined a fascinating level of invention and verisimilitude.   He’s recorded events better than the Warren Commission. We see the motorcade from every angle, the induction of a successor from Jackie’s viewpoint, the sense of being forced out of the White House taken personally, the rage and impotence over the public’s perception of why she did what she did, what motivated her to make sure her children were an integral part of the grief.

Also explored in depth is her struggle  to restore her Catholic faith, one of the most meandering conversations imaginable between her  and her largely ineffectual priest, actor John Hurt.

There is adoration of detail in how Lorain handles all this, and how he allows the musical assonance and anguish of composer Mica Levi to wail as a co-conspirator with lead actress Natalie Portman. As a critic I was struck by the impact  of what the industry calls “reveals”  -- how Lorain uses the famous pink dress Jackie refused to discard to slowly expose more blood on the skirt and in the stockings, driving home our pain about what an incredible emotional experience this all must have been.

Much of the movie’s genuine emotion comes from touches like this.  But very little from the actress despite pyrotechnics or from the progress of the script.  Portman has trouble maintaining the Jackie voice and style. She substitutes an abstract inner psychosis for specifics.  The script forces her into an almost inquisitorial interview with a reporter,  played strangely by Billy Crudup, and gives the actress a constant exercise in self-protection, candor and denial, which never quite fit.

The film becomes a showcase for Portman’s face in various throes of  engineered meanings, rescued somewhat by the sympathetic sounding board provided by a fine actress and writer, Greta Gerwig.

This can be regarded as a talented and perhaps needed new approach to the movie biopic. But in impact on audiences, it is also  way over the top, way too demanding of an emotional buy-in and way too pretentious to survive. It will be interesting to see if, except for the music, these are the reasons the film may be shut out of its anticipated Oscar attention in nominations January 24.

Previous film reviews for this year include La La Land, Lion and Moonlight.


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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Monday, January 16, 2017

MOONLIGHT ILLUMINATES FILM INDUSTRY, AS DOES LION

By Dominique Paul Noth

Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo
In a review of “La La Land,” I mentioned in passing that “Lion” was an important  film about human redemption while “Moonlight” was more importantly about human acceptance. That generality may be a bit simple but the contrasting messages and the breadth of humanity  make both films vital to see.

“Lion,”  based on real events, is about a person who becomes whole in spite of audience  expectations.  A five year old boy abandoned thousands of miles from home on the streets of India, surviving in the mud and poverty, barely escaping being sold into sex trafficking, is rescued by a white successful Australian family committed to black and brown children.  They are so committed they are willing to also take in a self-abusive “brother” whose destructive tendencies stand in sharp contrast to Saroo. Yet the adoptive parents cry for both.

The boy grows into manhood with gifts of friends, athletic ability and openness that make the middle class  simpletons within us admire how much progress  he has made and question any instinct to go back.  Why would anyone return to that squalor?

We almost expect him to keep forgetting the poverty and lost family from which he sprang. Indeed the first half of the film is effective because  it grabs us hard in the horrors while we are aware of how little he realizes about the trauma he is going through. Then so many things combine to make him forget even further.

Dev Patel as adult Saroo
Yet eventually he is haunted by the abandoned child he was and the family he lost, so much that it is destroying his life and mental security and forces mistreatment of his girl friend and adopted parents – and launches a secretive impossible journey 25 years later to discover his past.

Outlining the story without giving away its impact is difficult. I think parents in particular will find this an inescapable story. It is  aided enormously by the immediacy of the child actors in the first half, notably Sunny Pawar,  and by the hypnotic presence of Dev Patel as the adult Saroo.

Patel is a physically and emotionally arresting cinematic actor I first admired in both “Slumdog Millionaire” and the TV series “Newsroom.” His ability to command the screen without obvious effort is a major plus in film roles – and certainly is relied on in “Lion.” 

There is a capable supporting cast in Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara but the film is really Saroo’s struggles as a child and then an adult.  Director Garth Davis, who has a considerable British commercial reputation, can add a true human feeling as well as camera mastery to his repertoire. He  brings the streets of Calcutta alive in both frightening and convincing terms and delves almost too deeply into the technological frustrations of the adult Saroo’s search for a way into his past.

But the payoff is powerful.  Anyone who has ever cared about the bond between mother and child, brother and brother, will be torn up by the  movie.

“Moonlight” is a twilight vision of equally compelling humanity and probably even deeper and perhaps fatalistic insights into the human condition.  Director Barry Jenkins, working with a screenplay by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who also grew up in the same Miami slum during the drug wars), has fashioned details of life and place that are constantly faithful and provocative.

I understand the instinct of the LBGTQ community  to promote it as a mainstream queer movie, but I frankly worry that such a characterization limits for many audiences the scope of its message.

Naomie Harris as "Moonlight" mother
Three actors play the protagonist from elementary school to middle school to adulthood, from his earliest awareness of being gay, of his mother being a crack whore, of how to deal with the bullies at the school. The details are told without hype. The revelations come in quiet conversation or sudden acts of tenderness and  violence.  The audience is startled to see the child grow into the spitting image of the same muscular  drug dealer that first showed him kindness.

When I say this is a film of acceptance, that may be a bit misleading. The author is now a MacArthur genius and the story clearly contains elements of his life. The journey for Little/Chiron/Black as the character is variously known may be seen as  a  pre-determined journey for a black child from the slums. But in the story of acceptance of his homosexuality and awareness of what he is and how he will forever deal with his life, there is a journey of quiet discovery that is quite moving. It speaks to all genders and sexual identities. I never for a moment thought of it as anything but a movie for the ages.

The film is also arrestingly cast, led by strong acting presences of Mahershala Ali , Janelle Manoe and Naomie Harris. The cinematic quality is simply stark or poetically somber, creating an aura of believability that makes every incident a special moment to watch and empathize with.

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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


AUDACIOUS ADORABLE LA LA LAND STILL NOT BEST MOVIE OF YEAR


By Dominique Paul Noth

I would not hesitate to send every movie lover in the land, especially those with some cultural perspective, to relish the re-creation of Hollywood romance and exuberance represented in “La La Land.” It goes unabashedly after the main issue –accepting singing and dancing as an expression of emotion – from the opening dance number on a freeway and it creates in the tale of surprising nuance between Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling a joy in all the clichés of young love, of cute aggressive meeting, of slow unfolding of feelings, of rapturous joys in physical expression of dance and a thoughtful ending that cannot be revealed of how first love survives second circumstances in a poetic manner.

Two thing I dread about the movie -- one is the attitude that Stone and Gosling in their dancing under the clever choreography of Mandy Moore will be acclaimed as some sort of equal to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. They remain untouched

I do think part of Astaire’s appeal was he looks so ordinary that the perfection of his body lines and dexterity were all the more extraordinary.   Debbie Reynolds, who had not danced a lick before “Singing in the Rain” and was tirelessly drilled into grinning expertise under the relentless MGM system, represents a different school of learning though the same sort of drilling has been mastered in “La La Land.”

No, Gosling and Stone execute seemingly spontaneous turns in the park and float in space much as Astaire did in “The Belle of New York.” But the real music accomplishment for Gosling was learning the piano fingering throughout to represent the keyboardist he plays with such charm. 

Their dancing and singing is much more a case of feeling “we could do this!”  While time has revealed that Astaire and Rogers were the embodiment of versatile fluidity, Gosling and Stone are asked to be identifiable and they are. She is not so pretty as to be off-putting, he is not so handsome as to seem unavailable, their acting is not so formidable as to be out of reach (it is just cutesy right) and their emotional flirtation (which is what this openly is) are just giddy fantasy fulfillment for young couples in the audience.  It is only the older jaded cynics that will make the sad comparison to the greats of the 1930s – perhaps because they expect a blinded young audience to do the same.

My biggest fear is the clones this box office success will spawn, a series of romantic musicals as if this signals a rebirth rather than an encapsulation of the joys of musical romance. The film will kill at the box office, automatically forcing years of imitation. It will win every award in sight since it reflects that self-congratulatory tone of Hollywood legend that inevitably wins big.  “Chicago,” “The Artist” and “Argo” are all strong films but all won best picture Oscar because they were identified by the movie industry itself as saying what we do is significant to the human condition. Perhaps so, but glorification of the studio system?

(I think distaste for this self-congratulatory vision of Hollywood has a lot to do with the negative reaction to a speech I thought was wonderful, Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes, who was clearly dealing with her emotional reaction to the reality of Trump and willing to risk being accused of an ego trip because she has a conscience.)

The wide open embrace and updating of a Hollywood tradition is truly a major attraction of “La La Land,” but it especially rides on the sense of kinetic energy and fearless embrace of youthful feelings represented by writer-director Damien Chazelle.  Even before the awards came flooding in for his earlier film, “Whiplash,”  in 2015, I  applauded its quality and expressed anger for the audiences no longer being able to see the  film after its brief November sojourn.  (It came back).

In that movie I saw much of the Chazelle talent that underlies “La La Land,” which is far more his film than audiences will ever realize.  Whether something as good or better comes next, who knows, but knowledge of film and audacity of delivery can only bode good.

Something important also needs to be noted. The movie’s plot is built entirely around the Gosling character’s devotion to jazz, and there are fine jazz excursions within it. But that is not the music being promoted. It is pop songs like “City of Stars” – a tune that can be fingered out on the piano. A tune that belongs in the old fashioned vein with the same repetition of themes and memories to haunt the departing audience much like the waves of Kern and Gershwin did.  (To be fair, these are also the standards that often provided a base line for jazz.) 

The composer and frequent Chazelle collaborator Justin Hurwitz, who attended Nicolet High and employs his own team of lyricists,   has no hesitation of embracing those pop verities – or the frenetic methods of contemporary hip-hop embodied in the storyline for John Legend.

These excursions both comment on how they are not the Gosling character’s real cup of tea while reveling in their ability to entertain and make him money. The thread of what the characters want to do and have to do – she is an actress suffering endless demeaning auditions – remains a subtext that only makes the romance more endearing.

To try to keep my pleasure about “La La Land” in context, I have seen films of 2016 that I consider more lasting, even darker and truer in exploring the human condition.

While I have heard good things about but haven’t seen “Manchester by the Sea” I have seen two films that on the lasting depth of cinema I can consider more important than “La La Land.”  One is redemptive of the human spirit, “Lion,” the other is more accepting of the lessons of life from childhood to adulthood in a Florida drug slum, “Moonlight.”

The warranted attention to “La La Land” should not distract moviegoers from reaching out for the others.

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 also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as 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 culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.