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.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

HOPED FOR GREAT BUT ‘SELMA’ GOOD WITH QUESTION MARKS

By Dominique Paul Noth


David Oyelowo as King and Andre Holland as
Andrew Young in a still from "Selma."
By legacy and belief, every fiber of my being wanted “Selma” to be more than worthy of its subject and to resonate with human lessons even more deeply than what I grew up with in college.

I lived that era, participated in the civil rights movement, was horrified by the newsreels and recognized 50 years ago that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had shrewdly forced America to witness up close not just the bigoted words but the raw and brutal treatment of blacks in Alabama – by whites in power who acted proud of their bestiality.

When TV was young and mass street protests topped the nightly news, that brought support for civil rights and Selma’s voting rights push from across the country. The inescapable spurs were disturbing images of white cops snarling, charging on horseback, clubbing defenseless bodies, the Unitarian minister beaten to death that stirred national outrage, the defiance of federal law by Gov. George Wallace, all stirred up again and close up in the movie.  When the full weight of all that flooded black and white into the living rooms, though the deaths of whites more than blacks drew the gasps in redder states, it engendered near  universal endorsement of  federal action just as King had wanted and the nation sorely needed.

When LBJ used a “We shall overcome” phrase in 1965 to propel voting rights through Congress, that national  speech is dropped into the film as his  cynical political calculation, while King’s sermons urging defiance of civil authorities are treated as a holy moment.  And that stirs the issue of political even-handedness. It has also caused some controversy and deep questions about director Ava DuVernay’s contradictory claims –that she is no documentarian though that is her past and some of the film’s best moments, or that her portrayal of King is nothing more than “an ordinary man doing extraordinary things,” or that her treatment of Lyndon Johnson was simply to avoid any sense of another “white savior” pulling black causes out of the fire.

The truth lies in the middle, as she should know even within poetic license. Every film is entitled to its own fictionalization of history, within reason, and certainly King’s cause was just and blacks were the chief actors in the success.  But the film also fails for good and ill to use the time capsule on hand – 50 years of re-examination – with balanced measure.

Much of the screenplay openly explores King’s tactics in a way that only the passage of time and intellectual analysis would allow -- perhaps a bit of editorializing for current black protesters:

Choose a ripe community, drop in, agitate and force public attention through the violent reaction of bigots. His worst enemy, he suggests, is a tolerant opposition that keeps its head. So the beaten black bodies of civil disobedience, as painful as they may be to the minister, is what he needed, counting on bigots who would make his point visible to the public.

In a way, the film almost draws a road map more for the opposition than the protesters. These days, the opponents of voting rights have clearly learned they can do much damage with nasty words and legal finesse but they know better than to pull out the broom handles. What lessons are being draw for today’s protesters for civil rights? Old time religion or new tactics?  Which path is the film editorializing for? It’s one reason that a film so much aware of the present in its messaging needs balance and accuracy as audiences compare and contrast Selma with today.

LBJ is too big a character to ignore and the always great Tom Wilkinson wraps his own lanky frame around the Texan’s lean-in mannerisms.  But when LBJ is treated as the blitzing blocker against King in Selma, that neglects how he wanted the voting rights act as the feather in his legislative cap, so much so that he encouraged choosing a virulent place like Selma for King to bring his Nobel reputation.  Which means there was interest in achievement on both sides. 

Academics defending the film dismiss painting LBJ as the obstructionist as a side element, but it is built throughout as a central element, and it is not the only historical manipulation.

The FBI tapes to demean King were started under JFK and clearly used by J. Edgar Hoover to pressure not just King but all presidents as a sign of his dark power, and one can easily envision LBJ savoring the more unseemly parts. Except there is no record of that. The film casts those surveillance tapes as a continuing screen typing device -- fair to the context of the times that King was under constant threat and surveillance, but unfair to so cavalierly tie the texts to the LBJ-MLK tactical disagreements. 

In fact, the film deliberately sets up LBJ’s confrontation with the overt racist Wallace as the reason he finally acts, which is over-simplistic.  (Note how America's most repellent power giants, Wilkinson glaring as LBJ and Wallace in the hateful cadences of Tim Roth, are handed to British actors! They just sound so much more rotten.)

The film is pushed along by historic events that weren’t directly connected – the bombing of four black girls in the Birmingham church in 1963, used early in the 1964-65 story to inflame our emotional disgust at Southern attitudes, as if we need such inflaming.

While there were contentious debates in the White House and Congress about voting rights language, which is still coming back to haunt US courts, the only argument shown is a fabricated intense debate in King’s headquarters. It's dramatic compression but still one-sided. Political hesitations in D.C.  are put under a demeaning microscope but the film ducks whether King’s decision to abandon one bridge march was out of fear for the lives of his followers or because the white police were clearly pulling back and he wanted a more intense confrontation to echo the previous horrific “Bloody Sunday.” The film should be credited with raising the possibility, but if this were a White House ploy it wouldn’t be left hanging.
Carmen Ejogo and Oyelowo as the Kings.

DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb were also constricted by the lingering larger than life reputation of Martin and Coretta King. Even their private encounters are constrained, though King’s unhappiness about wearing an ascot to accept the Nobel was a wonderful way to start the film. This King is allowed to be casually congenial with followers but largely soberly uncommunicative with Coretta. Only in pregnant pauses after a clearly concocted FBI tape do we suspect King of adultery, which he eventually denies to her, and only in her response to others do we sense the steel that Coretta had to possess in the face of death threats and white hatred. She is allowed to believe Malcolm X while he is still disturbed by that black leader calling him an Uncle Tom – but that’s dramatization of public record. Nothing much beyond is revealed in a movie about the extraordinary actions of an ordinary man.

Granted, King was a far more noble character and LBJ was a rampant self-promoter, but both were expert strategists in this chess game of voting rights. The black and white pieces on the board have been rearranged so that one side’s gambits are honorable and the others are bluntly self-serving, which does not take on either side as honestly as an exploration of racism and social strategy should. 

Some fictionalization is inevitable and even welcome, but these voting rights issues are still so hot and the tactics so intense that missteps are magnified.  There are imagined scenes of King confronting private doubts – a fine one in jail with Colman Domingo as the Rev. Abernathy that rings believable and a car ride with a young John Lewis that doesn’t.  

That screenwriting approach doesn’t give room to the charisma and technical chops of David Oyelowo as King, though he is magnificently alive in the three-quarters of the part that is actually King’s words, words that every actor in America would die to sink their teeth into.

Similarly, I would rather see the elegant beauty and dignity of Carmen Ejogo as Coretta in the Oscar race than the inexplicable presence of Reese Witherspoon for “Wild,” but it is a well-executed role of respectful reflection rather than cutting a fresh path to the heart.

On the Selma bridge in particular, the editing contrasts and tensions speed into climaxes. At such moments the film truly soars and tears of compassion flow -- and what faces and presence! To signal a few out, Andre Holland as Andrew Young, Lorraine Toussiant as Amelia Boynton (the 103 year old guest at the 2015 State of the Union), Wendell Pierce as Hosei Williams and Stephan James, forced to take in events and react as John Lewis.

Oprah Winfrey does a cameo as a Selma woman but her main purpose for the film since has been to promote it -- vital for black education and excellent in all regards, she has said.  The trouble is, Oprah pumped the same last year for what turned out to be a mediocre film, “The Butler,” and while she is more right this time, the whole argument over “Selma” has been riddled with exaggeration.  On all sides.

Despite excessive claims, capable is the correct word for the direction with moments of thoughtful tableaus and editing.  But DuVernay has a world class topic – one that most directors would do well with and more would exercise better balance of elements and more finesse with the screenplay.  I think the belief that she was snubbed in the best director race, as were Oyelowo and Ejogo in their categories, may result in an Oscar for “Selma” as best picture, certainly an honorable choice  even from that much maligned 63% white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

But hold on here. While there are Koch-like money figures in the studio system, these film artisans have over the years championed civil rights causes with money and prestige despite their whiteness and if anything the actors I know agree overall that their established industry organizations lack diversity for either women or ethnic minorities. (They just may not be ready to abandon their own jobs to give way.) All this may make them vulnerable to accusations of prejudice, which would be a poor reason to vote for “Selma.”

There are other films out there that touch our minds and souls with creativity in less immediate or sensational topics (Alzheimer’s, a wrestling setting, a fantasy of fame, a comedy of manners and greed).  If films are going to be measured by the importance of their topic as opposed to the genius of their vision, the Oscars and other awards will become even more a promotional pimping game than they are now.

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


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 25, 2015

‘AMERICAN SNIPER’ BOILS UP THE DREGS OF US FOR GREATER BOX OFFICE

By Dominique Paul Noth

During filming  of "American Sniper" and before
 controversy, Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood 
Politics – not Hollywood politics but global politics – have intruded on the Oscars in a way that forces to the surface a particularly ugly profile: The meager brain power of a segment of the American moviegoing public who may be spending way too much time playing video war games and misunderstanding the dimensions of patriotism, courage and real blood.

If news reports and box office explosion are to be believed, “American Sniper” has released a new wave of anti-Muslim hatred --- to the degree that both director and star have been urged to step in and speak up. Routinely they have defended the film as just a portrait of men at war and the price they pay, which is proving a simplistic interpretation of what their methods have engendered.

 “War is ugly and no matter how bad those guys might be, Clint Eastwood makes sure the audience knows Americans don’t take lives out of any motive other than self-defense.”  That was the advance sales pitch.  But those darned details of how we justify self-defense seem different in the movie’s ambivalences, since dismissive slurs or doubts about the mission happen even as Iraqi families and children are steered into the dispute. These are wrinkles too many in the audience run right past.

The result has been a new fever– I hope mainly from adolescents and right-wing stooges – to use more firepower to rid the world of what the twitter feeds describe as towel-headed terrorists. 

The derogatory terms are both subtle and inflammatory, and we can also indict as co-conspirators those members of Congress who complain that Obama didn’t use Isis or Al Qaeda or particularly their favorite slur on Muslims -- “radical Islamic terrorists” -- in his State of the Union speech. They hoped the president would cave in to their limited view and fears of the current beheading movements (and elevate those passing movements in self-importance) rather than Obama’s realization that the fight is against terrorism whatever the source or methods.

Now Americans seem to be doing the same dance of the veiled perspective, misinterpreting “American Sniper” – with some unintentional collusion from director Eastwood -- as a glorification of bloodlust and sniperland. But note how it is only glorified when it is American. The snipers on the other side are portrayed as evil personified.

Even current and past survivors of battlefield conflict understand better the complexities of ferocious attacks and question mightily the cutout images that the non-draftable current moviegoing youth seem to be obsessed with, in their veteran eyes. 

Eastwood made the Olympic trained Syrian sniper on the other side a hated comic book figure because he is killing American soldiers while all Chris Kyle on the American side is doing is killing Muslims (and interesting how media describes them as Muslims – are protesters in Ferguson described as Christians?). They are Arabs trying to kill the American invaders he is assigned to protect, and from cheering for his success we seem to have moved to embracing the entire Mideast concept. 

Kyle in his memoirs did proclaim a religious war and call the enemy “savages” (imagine what they called him as soldiers stormed through villages) and said he was only killing unrelenting evil lowlifes as the sheepdog protecting the American sheep from the Arab wolves. So what if some offended or too young to understand Arab sheep get caught in or participate in the wartime crossfire.

Eastwood stayed away from Kyle’s statements, a decision many criticize.  But others apparently brought to the movie this Chris Kyle publicized view of Arabs in general and Muslims in particular, ignoring that most of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world are quite different and that terrorists,  as they did in American sects of Christendom or in Irish sects of the IRA, will hide behind any weird veil of religion that allows them to recruit and kill their enemies – and that,  in times of war , military leaders go out of their way to paint the enemy in the ugliest terms.

One of the distinction of America is the value we put on all human life even when dealing with cults that don’t, so I think Eastwood meant better than to inflame xenophobic passions.  But he has.

I thought audiences would more appreciate the internal moments of doubt and the finesse of self-denial that actor Bradley Cooper brought to the portrayal of Kyle.  I even credited Eastwood with dwelling in that denial when he clearly didn’t have to and seemed moved by growing evidence of the impact of killing on the caring solider, regardless of what Kyle wrote.  I thought that -- as horribly embarrassing an improviser in front of the Republican convention as he had been – his ridiculous side tended to disappear in his professionalism behind the camera where he knows how to explore characters as well as manipulate reactions in an audience. In my naiveté I may have underestimated that he intended to play a double game from the start – several colleagues now think I was foolish to believe him more mature than that.

Cooper set his sights on getting under
Chris Kyle's skin.
Eastwood, who has thrived by playing onscreen with the lone gunman image, at least had sought moment after moment to suggest that the military indoctrination reinforced Kyle into over demonizing the enemy, that his acts on the battlefield and his suggestion that he would willingly “face my Creator and justify every shot” were contradicted by what we saw of his internal doubts and growing mental disturbance, a good ole American boy carried into near dementia by the battlefield.

I thought audiences would grasp that if even Eastwood that right-wing libertarian was ambiguous, they should be, too. Sure he’s suggesting we need sheepdogs, but sheepdogs really stand there in case wolves don’t back away. That’s quite different than recruiting for more sheepdogs than manageable or issuing hurrahs when they are turned loose. After all, it was a war-infected veteran that killed Kyle at a shooting range.

So I thought what would resonate was Eastwood’s deeper moments of arguing we need warriors but pay a huge price in humanity for having them.

Apparently not, judging by the press reports and judging by some now outrageous attacks on Eastwood as a genocidal anti-Muslim, which I don’t think true.  But by golly, a large portion of the public is cheering what I thought they would question and I worry that Eastwood was shrewder about the audience than I was and knew they would react thusly for his box office glory as his career winds down.

I took it as acceptable license – all these films are individual fictionalized interpretations of history and generally deserve that freedom -- that Eastwood didn’t dwell on Kyle’s postwar behavior, his controversial self-glorification, and claims that he killed truck hijackers, punched out Jesse Ventura or shot looters during Hurricane Katrina, none of which has any proof.  But by then he may have been suffering PTSD and certainly was suffering from delusions of grandeur in his tales about his exploits -- furthered by the realization that he could make a lot of money and attract conservative speech dates by elevating his appeal as drawling two-fisted cowboy war hero. 

In the film he acts somewhat sheepish over hero-rizing by fellow soldiers. Apparently true, though he was certainly never comparable to Gary Cooper’s Sgt. York as the reluctant pacifist killing machine of World War I. Yet too many are rushing right  by such  nuances of the movie  to simplify Kyle as either a kill-happy psychopath or the kind of American macho man we need in times of trouble. Pitiful petty minds exist on both the left and the right.

In my review I did worry that Eastwood was for commercial reasons trying to have it both ways – reveling in the fury of war while exposing the horror. I thought the blurring of the battle scenes, so that we sometimes can’t tell who is being mowed down so indiscriminately, was a comment on the blindness on both sides. Instead it seems to have created a patriotic battle cry at the box office – proving if I ever had any doubt that there is a portion of the movie audience that reacts out of upbringing and Fox News simplicities rather than the contemplation that good movies are supposed to create even through their emotional peaks.

I don’t think that reaction should be the measure of “American Sniper,” but now the idiocies it encouraged from its largely male  audiences – and looking back some such reactions were encouraged – and its  interpretation of patriotism have to be factored in to any evaluation.  The shame is that Cooper’s portrayal is spot on and it is mainly the director’s plot compressions, twists of emphasis and battle elongations that are causing the anti-intellectual outpouring. 

To be fair, there are similar problems on the other side of the political landscape  that I want to discuss in a review of “Selma.” But right now the reactions surrounding “American Sniper” are far more damaging.

“Selma” is at least overstepping in the cause of moral justice and individual rights.  “American Sniper” is being used to return to the cartooning needed during World War II that I thought we grew out of – you know, portraying yipping “Japs” and goose-stepping “Krauts.”  But today it’s radical Islamic "ragheads."  This box office outpouring may even be manipulated into a political tool to invite further invasion and more sniper and killing machines to protect ourselves in advance of actual attack  (which is, need I point out, historically un-American in our values) and to hell with the effect on the American psyche. 

When or if we go to war  is an issue worth debating, but rather than “American Sniper” stirring thoughtful debate,  it seems to be kicking up the least thoughtful devils within us.

Original American Sniper review.   Other reviews: Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Relativity, Birdman,  Imitation Game, Foxcatcher

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.


Friday, January 23, 2015

ACTING, PSYCHOLOGY GRIP US IN ‘FOXCATCHER’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Steve Carrel works on the mental mindset of Channing
Tatum (right) in 'Foxcatcher.'
The excellence of “Foxcatcher” headlocked me. Not because I didn’t know the historic outline of the story (though many don’t and may be more blessed by surprise). Only partly because we have not been as inundated with ads and media goose-goose for this film as for the competitors.  (Indeed, some “Foxcatcher” interview hype turns out to be misdirected.) Mainly my positive reaction was to a film proud of its psychological nuance and fidelity to style, while not pretending in ads or attitudes to be explosive and epic, which so many studios think is the key to attracting audiences. 

Honoring the discipline of editing and the subtlety of acting, director Bennett Miller expertly captures the bright colors and darkening tones that move us  from the grubby world of workmanlike gyms and lonely meals -- endured in the 1980s by the world’s best freestyle wresters -- to the lure of Virginia estates, helicopter rides, protective security and all the prestige and largesse of America’s richest family, the du Ponts.

I hadn’t expected Miller deserved an Oscar nomination for directing but he does. I don’t think he will win but he is a far more acceptable Oscar choice than “Imitation Game’s” Morten Tyldum. Particularly since Miller’s original work was so detailed that the film is strengthened by expert shortening while Tyldum never seems to know when to quit

You would probably grab your wallet and head for the hills if someone came to you asking for money with the outlines of the “Foxcatcher” story.  I mean, come on! Two brothers, Olympic Gold freestyle wrestlers from the wrong side of the tracks,  running afoul of a rich man who wants to be called “Golden Eagle” and lards them with attention.  Sounds like a bit of masculine overkill of class clichés and Nixonian style establishment pretenses.  But this unfolding, while allowing us to revel in the greenery of the rich and grunt in the sweat of the gym, produces something deeper than peasant roots confronting aristocratic stock. 

Miller’s care with place and contrasts of values means he doesn’t have to spell out social messages, they just pop up and pop in.  How the rich in their wealthy isolation are not only catered to but rewarded when they come down from Olympus to back the routine athletes of the Olympics.  How family envy underlies disappointment whatever the class. How people obviously crazy but filthy rich are excused and even rewarded for the craziness. How the virtues of hard basic achievement can be corrupted all too easily. How the wealthy are allowed “idiosyncrasies” that on the street corner would be labeled dangerous nuttiness.

Even the casual cameos – Vanessa Redgrave as the matriarchal du Pont rich with stylish disapproval – further the emotional impact.

There is terrific physical control and emotionally exact acting from the leading trio.  There are also  liberties with the actual story to create growing tension, an emotional seduction by an aloof and demanding patron who wants to be a leader of men and must subtly destroy any opposing worthy. When he can’t, we sense impending doom that can’t be dismissed as random mental illness.

A revelation awaits those who only came to watch screen heartthrob  Channing Tatum flex his abs. His portrayal of Mark Schultz, the younger brother hungry for fame and resisting the supportive shadow of David, his down to earth brother, carries us from concentrated simple-minded focus on his craft to blind destructive devotion to a substitute father of great wealth and growing scariness,  then on into glowering hatred over what has happened to his central worth.

It is portrait internally believable but has angered the real-life Mark whose memoirs inspired the film. He has openly questioned where the director has taken his character (cocaine use, social and sexual naiveté) – but the character decisions actually allow believable inner conflicts to dramatically surface. The approach also gives Tatum the role of his life, and he meets every tic.

Tatum turns away from older brother Dave, played
by Mark Ruffalo in 'Foxcatcher.'
But as good as he is, Mark Ruffalo is better as the  family centered older brother. It is almost harder to make simply virtues real, but Ruffalo provides the self-assuredness of a husband, father and brother who is also a champion wrestler and teacher – a certainty about his place in life that increases the paranoia  of  John E. du Pont.

And that is the acting that is getting the most attention at awards time – Steve Carrel as the quietly creepy du Pont, with his slow cadences, bizarre strains of thought, disturbing manners and spread-leg walk like a turtle pretending to be an athlete.  It is a fine performance that reminds everyone that Carrel is more than the  comic actor that has brought him fame.  Yet  because he has a sense of comic timing he never misses an opportunity to evoke edgy laughter from the quirkiest remarks. A part of me thinks  he is getting  the award nominations  because of the great proboscis given him by the makeup department, but it takes a fine actor to turn that physical gimmick into a natural enhancement of the emotional realities.

It is wise not to reveal too much of the events, but in  “Foxcatcher” the characters circle each other in psychological arenas far more dangerous than a gym mat. It is a grappling of minds you don’t completely anticipate, but stunning to sink into.


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.


Friday, January 16, 2015

TARGETS WORTH WATCHING IN ‘AMERICAN SNIPER’

By Dominique Paul Noth

Bradley Cooper in "American Sniper."
In discussing “Unbroken,” I chided director Angelina Jolie that, of all the people she’d worked with, she would be better emulating Clint Eastwood. He has shown a capacity under his cantankerous personality to explore the flaws in a hero, let the story unfold by trusting actors and conveying brutality without artificial hype.

I had not seen “American Sniper” when I wrote that, so I was taking a chance with what is now a clear contender for awards honors. Today I admit Eastwood -- though not as much as Jolie -- did push too hard on the technical cinematic effects and engaged in some story omissions. But largely as director he proved my case with a much better movie than hers.

“American Sniper” is worth watching and thinking about, reflecting in familiar military adventure form our controversial war culture that many question. But Eastwood questions it, too, exploring how the cost of war to patriotic Americans is the horror visited on what we think of as the good guys. In film, protagonists must avoid the one-dimensional caricatures of endurance and noble dedication, and the jingoism of the religion and society they are defending, and Eastwood did, opening our minds with his ambivalence while pounding our sensory nerves.

Leaning on Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, he has allowed a fascinating mixture of ignorance and warfare accomplishment, of acts regarded as bravery and medal-earning that on close examination turn into something far less laudable. And again he trusts the look in the eyes of the actor even more than the manipulations of the camera, though not as much as he should have.

As Kyle, Cooper shows a devout Texas macho man cheated on by his girl friend and inspired by his upbringing and sense of protecting us all from terrorists to head into war mode with extreme self-confidence in his family values.  He endures physical training and embraces psychological indoctrination by the US military – and Eastwood is not shy to let the officers parrot the messaging and manners knowing full well that historical events have since proved their patter excessive and unreliable.

But in this environment blindly endorsed by Kyle and most Americans  – 9/11 and its wake --  and during  four tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq (the film reminds us this is way too much for any human to endure while showing how few survive, which makes Kyle stand out even more), he proves the best of the best in calm sniping to protect his troops and anticipate the enemy, along with a devotion to protecting the weaker and a  steadfast embrace of the warrior myth that God and nation require of him, he fervently believes,  to kill to protect the American style of living. “I’m doing all for you, baby,” he tells his disbelieving wife.

It is largely a true story about Kyle, credited -- if that is the word -- with 168 battlefield kills, touted as a hero by the Pentagon. Viewers embrace the outlines of his heroism while also being forced by Eastwood and Cooper to confront how deeply in denial he has become, since we see in his remoteness and mental calculations how internally wounded the process has left him and his fellow soldiers.

The film omits elements of braggadocio and disputes involving Kyle after he left the military and leaves to hints and final titles his death on a gun range while trying to help a fellow troubled veteran. But it doesn’t duck the moral complications of his self-delusion.

This is far from a perfect film, but at least Eastwood is willing to raise some of the right questions.  This is what is making him a creative commercial film-maker since he is willing to look under the surface – maybe not far enough for some, but he is looking. 

Eastwood,  as he demonstrated at  the 2012 Republican convention where he endlessly talked emptily to an empty chair, still personally  reflects a school of tired ideology that has become as disturbing to me as the Wahhabism schools in Saudi Arabia that mislead Muslim students about the Koran.

It is rather telling about the American psyche that “American Sniper” is a big screen big box office attraction while the excellent documentary, “The Kill Team,” must rely on TV and Internet exposure to more accurately explain how this Mideast war turned nice American boys into brutal murderers.   Same lesson but far more truth in the documentary.  But far bigger audience for Eastwood, who grew to fame in spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry movies representing the lone gunman killing for justice.

Only in the 1990s was he drawn to stories that more roundly confronted the ethical conscience of independent idealism and the supposed necessity and sure damage of the lone gunman mentality.

Such conflicts are now his intellectual balancing act between commercial viability and humane storyline, and it is quite a seesaw in an era of self-indulgent bang-bang epics, though his methods here bring down his insights. On the one hand he embraces the high tech protracted battles and on the other seeks those moments where Kyle’s humanity is vanishing before our eyes as he quietly explodes body after body from long range.  

Cooper and Sienna Miller in 'American Sniper.'
Some of the devices don’t ring true – especially on the domestic front despite some personable acting by Sienna Miller as Kyle’s wife. There is an inconsequence to her articulate confrontations with him. Then there is how she is listening safe statewide on field phones to what is happening to him on the distant battlefield. Somewhat more convincing as a plot fabrication  is when a maternity nurse pops a blood pressure kit on him to reveal that sitting quietly he is way too  tense, a neat way of contrasting his exterior calm with his interior tension. 

It all feels like screenwriter concoctions of convenience requiring Cooper mainly to 
humanize the character’s self-deception, confident at home and with his buddies but letting the deterioration peek out bit by bit. In fact, the actor’s sense of character progression justifies the film. When he stays focused and calm on the battlefield, as if the decision to stop a child with a grenade is not weighing on him and was simply logical, we see otherwise. The ethical dilemma is ticking underneath.

When he tells a doubting fellow SEAL that he would rather fight the  terrorists in Mosul than in San Diego, we later see the enemy come to San Diego in the form of maimed veterans that neither Kyle nor the community at large are ready to accept.

Some other storytelling devices are clearly more token than convincing, as if the film doesn’t want to offend its young male audience with too much moralizing. While there is no “Battle Cry” World War II moment, while the firefights are sometimes so blurred that we can’t tell one side from the other (which I take as a moral comment), and we are shown Kyle caring about some innocent Iraqis, there is still a one-sided vision of implacable enemies streaming over the hill no matter what the American soldiers mean to nobly do.

This protection of US stalwartness in the face of evil may have had some original validity, but it becomes the film’s most laughable conceit, setting up a super-villain Syrian sniper on the other side to serve as Kyle’s nemesis and prime target.

It is a clumsy throwback to Eastwood’s days of western strutting, the ultimate good guy versus the bad guy escapism.  This extended plot device almost destroys better aspects of the film, including  how Kyle is slow or even angry to recognized the maimed veterans as the new breed of helpless victims his America-first thinking requires him to protect. 

I am hearing from many women, who make up the majority of today’s movie audience, that this is hardly a date film and certainly not an exercise in masculine strutting they want to see. The Miller character is a rather typical Hollywood mix of sexual flirtation and moral compass, seen through chauvinistic eyes.  But put aside the appeal to men of the combat mode, Eastwood is at least giving notice to the ambiguity – we may think we need these warriors, but when we see the price they pay and that our values pay, do we? So all should appreciate the attempt to ask questions.

Moreover, there’s the hunkdom appeal of Cooper, though I would rather moviegoers recognized his disciplined skilled acting.  While respecting Eastwood’s interest in the moral dilemma, and feeling he leaned too heavily on the comic book Syrian sniper and other shortcuts, when he turns toward the humanity of the characters as the doorway to understanding, be glad that Cooper is there.

Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Relativity, Birdman,  Imitation Game.

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.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

THE ENIGMA IS WHY ‘IMITATION GAME’ TANKS HALFWAY THROUGH

By Dominique Paul Noth
Benedict Cumberbatch in "Imitation Game."

For the first 50 minutes of a nearly two hour movie, “The Imitation Game” has the qualities we associate with a crackerjack historical thriller, mixing dramatic invention with World War II attitudes in England  as it explores the long-hidden role of Alan Turig in saving millions of Allied lives with his innovative machine that broke the Nazi Enigma code.

There is some acceptable fictionalization and character development early on as the aloof anti-social mathematical genius who relishes crosswords more than people displays his knack for offending academic colleagues and the military establishment. The cinematic devices are acceptable because they hold our interest and  it’s past time to tell the hidden story of his breakthrough in machine intelligence (today we call that computers) that saved millions of lives.

There was real drama in Turig’s fight to create his brain of dials rather than labor futilely to solve the code line by line before a new encryption flipped in at midnight. Initially, he was not at war against the Nazis as much as the hidebound British military. Any hint of exposing his homosexuality (a continuing plot element) would doom him and his beloved machine to destruction. As it was, his oddball manners did put him in danger of being accused of spying for the Soviets.

Then there is massive  fictionalization in how the movie uses Keira Knightley as the unexpected mathematical genius whose mere presences softens Turig and his male colleagues.  It is true that society of the era didn’t believe women had the competence to escape the kitchen or thought any camaraderie a sign of sluthood, so Knightley’s plucky British manner and concern about decorum provide a way to humanize Turig – and initially we almost accept the overall fabrications.  Frankly, though, despite chauvinistic attitudes, computer explorers even in the 1930s relied on women for mathematical skills.  So eventually as weird as the era seems to modern audiences, this plot bridge becomes shaky.

But where the movie really  goes awry is in overly concocting eureka moments  – that “bulb lights up in the head” that has become a movie cliché.  It then concocts a situations to humanize the ethical dilemma (once Enigma was broken, the success had to stay secret to mislead the Germans, which means many innocents would continue to die) and further exaggerates into Shakespearean tragedy the manipulations that did happen – how Turig gets caught up in the spy game, conveyed in stunned looks at the camera and exaggerated moments of betrayal and class arrogance.

Director Morton Tydlum and screenwriter Graham Moore (from a book about Turig) are authentic to the times and manners, but there is a sort of Games of Throne scheming (not a totally random allusion since you’ll spot several actors from HBO’s Games of Throne) in the growing sneers of the upper class, the violence motif  and the militaristic mannerisms. The director and screenplay go  off the rails to pound the points home about homosexual secrets, human betrayal and the British caste system, overusing the actors to make the larger points.

Which brings us to Benedict  Cumberbatch,  an excellent actor who has illuminated many films and handled many characterizations over recent years with a technique that usually surprises and engages.  But this film relies so heavily on his gifts for robotic aloofness -- with a stutter and a  tiny creeping smile to break the coldness -- that he could pretty much retire that method from his repertoire for a decade.

The film need not have signaled  so heavily how badly Britain treated its gay population and how oddballs of all stripes were mistreated. The film holds us better with gentler discovery than telling us time and again how to react.  It’s not surprising that Cumberbatch couldn’t resist every opportunity to convey that quirkiness, but someone should have called a halt to this side of  “The Imitation Game.”

Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Relativity, Birdman


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 14, 2015

CINEMA FLIES PAST COMIC REALITY IN ‘BIRDMAN’

By Dominique Paul Noth


A bored Alfred Hitchcock some 66 years ago decided to push the technical envelope of film as it existed, which was limited to 10 minutes for a continuous take, so he wheeled actors, cables and drama around furiously to make “Rope.”

Today Alejandro González Iñárritu is making Hitchcock look like a wussy. 



'Birdman' Michael Keaton exposed in Times Square
Famous as one of the Three Amigos whose magical visions and technical prowess have changed international cinema, he has set out to stretch patrons’ minds and expectations with “Birdman,” pushing what cinema can now do to imaginative extremes.

“Birdman” (subtitled “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is filmed as if it were a single continuous shot careening down the narrow corridors, cramped dressing rooms and walkways of Broadway’s St. James Theater, then wheeling high above the city through day and night (an homage to Truffaut?) and through windows (an homage to Michelangelo Antonioni?).

The single take styling combined with long walking-talking dialog dominates to create such vertigo and claustrophobia as to mesmerize viewers.

It’s not just a technical style but a way of forcing us into “no time to escape” and little time to evaluate the meanings, It also, unintended, takes away from our ability to laugh, empathize and understand.  We are just supposed to give over to a great throbbing  ride. The drum score of Antonio Sanchez should win every award in sight, the unknown SteadiCam operators deserve huzzahs and the technical accomplishments including costuming are simply astounding.

Iñárritu has also sought out remarkable actors and challenged them into impossible elongated sequences and surprise peeks around the corner interplay, attempting black comedy without the crutch of cuts and inserted close-ups, taking his second language (English) to endlessly winding heights of commentary on celebrity, tweets, randiness and artistic intents.

He has created a deliberate tour de force not just for himself, but his crew and cast -- and for the public at awards time that means the cast is getting the salute for Olympic endurance and degrees of difficulty, surpassing what the rating judges could expect.

Those with the clearest through-line and most understandable desires strike the hardest:  Naomi Watts as a would-be Broadway star, Emma Stone as a drugged-out daughter, Zach Galifianakis as the ultimate say-anything do-anything agent, Andrea Riseborough as the on-again off-again pregnant interest, Amy Ryan as the injured but enduring wife. All grab their moments in a hurricane of motion as opening night disaster approaches, echoing the passionate excesses of the play they are doing. 

Popping in constantly as the last-minute stage replacement, a Broadway draw  trying to take over the play,  is Ed Norton, having the time of his acting life as the most outrageously methody actor in captivity  who can never decide whether his ego or his penis controls his behavior.

But the tour de all tours most  remarkably relied on and carried out belongs to Michael Keaton as Riggin, once a Hollywood star as an aviary  superhero now  trying to reclaim artistic greatness as director and star on Broadway. Except the voice and powers of Birdman, the hero he abandoned, pound in his head and on his doubts and behavior.  Few actors have even been asked to show such range so interminably. Other actors can only admire how deftly and intensely Keaton rises to not just endure but succeed in a role that is meant to be deliberately destructive and myth bending.

Intellectually as well as emotionally, Iñárritu is attempting suggestive layers upon layers – Mexican colors in a liquor store, Macbeth echoing in the interior voice as well as from a madman on the street, a gun motif that turns realism into horrific unreality, metaphors for every actor’s worst nightmares (such as running near naked through Times Square), the inner jokes about George Clooney, Robert Downey and even Broadway’s Spiderman, all cases of  people moving back and forth in media comfort between art and commerce.

I think Iñárritu is also laughing at the pretensions of faux artiste fascination with super-realism (the entire film smells like a riff on the pretentious).  The messaging suggests we all really live in a fantastical interior life that must cope with the physical earthbound. The device of the one-shot tricks us into a finale of flight into the comets anchored almost casually by the real world. It may be advertised as a comedy but only in the same way “Tempest” is a comedy. It is a dream of what fools we mortals be over what we consider success.

Ten years after “Rope,” Hitchcock dismissed his incredible planning as a stunt. I doubt that 10 years from now Iñárritu will admit the same. But he is expanding our concept of what cinema can be even more than what it can reveal.  For him over-the-edge existence is the revelation -– and fascinating to watch. 

Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood,  Theory of Everything. 



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, January 13, 2015

TWO GREAT ACTING OUTINGS SPUR ‘THEORY OF EVERYTHING’

By Dominique Paul Noth


Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones in a publicity still
for "The Theory of Everything."
Movie awards seem to have a great affinity for infirmities and the physically crippled and the ability of healthy actors to take on such roles. Honorable efforts have been rewarded, such as Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” but sometimes it’s just a star willing to disguise natural allure into a physical limitation, such as Jane Wyman in “Johnny Belinda” (I just named two Oscar winners decades apart – feel free to create your own list, there are many examples.) 

Sometimes it’s needed recognition of how stirring when humans conquer physical setbacks.  But then comes the danger – honoring the infirm by honoring the actor who may not deserve it. That is a constant worry at awards time, since awards also translate into box office come-ons. It sure raced through my head January 11 when Eddie Redmayne won best actor at the Golden Globes for portraying Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”

But then I saw the film. Now my only question is why Felicity Jones didn’t win equally big as Jane Hawking.

Granted she had no crippling disease, except British stiff upper lip. But she actually has the bigger role in this human take on the accomplishments and the larger emotional journey, displaying Cambridge patience over things Americans would scream about, tapping reservoirs of feeling into a glance or a movement.  I have not seen all the nominated leading performances, but it is hard to imagine one better. In fact, in acting diligence and emotional appeal you will not find a better pairing.

I’m saying all this about a film that is quite restrained and intelligently handled by director James Marsh, but not quite a masterpiece except for the performances.  Scientific genius is hard to simplify for the screen, forcing equivalencies that don’t quite make it and straining screenwriter Andrew McCarten to no end of compression and combinations.  Human relationships are the easier cup of tea, yet this one is hardly a straight line and while cleverly distilled we sense the distilment where it should just flow over us. The quality of the acting creates the flow.

 “Theory” also explores the most significant real life imaginable on the contemporary screen, guiding us with an unconventional romantic thread and an optimistic determination that reflects its characters and leaves us staggered with their perseverance. There are also some unusual provocative technical elements including a surging emotional score by Danish composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Hawking, if you have been living inside a distant galaxy, is the cosmologist whose theories and constructs involving black holes, the universe and time have illuminated scientific thinking for 50 years – more remarkable by his example of the mind conquering physical deterioration.  The motor-neuron disease (ALS) hit him so hard in 1963 that physicians gave him two years to live, but he not only lived but thrived with a series of mathematical and geometrical conceits and theorems more amazing for the acts of memory and transcription involved as his faculties deteriorated to a cheek muscle to maneuver an artificial voice and a series of motorized wheelchairs to haul him from place to place – while also fathering three children and displaying an antic sense of humor.

Even as his body deteriorated, even as his fingers twisted into knuckles and his limbs went from contorted walks to wheelchairs, he and his wife ignored realities to tirelessly provide a semblance of family life until the constraints of his illness forced a parade of helpers and intruders into her strength of character.  Meanwhile, to oversimplify, both sought emotional attachments in other places without destroying the essential bond – something fictionalized a bit but still factual in the movie. 

There are themes of love and ideology at work here, from the place of God in the mutual universe to the place of Penthouse in Hawking’s sexual dynamics.  Director Marsh employs considerable skills in weaving the tale, always with great taste often oversimplified for the masses.

When Hawking conceives an insight into black holes through a hole in his sweater, this is a cinematic visualization exaggerating reality, much as saying that Einstein saw his theory of relativity in a swirling coffer cup. Well, he did but that was barely the start. Cinema needs such stuff as  cream circling  in coffee employed here again to help us understand the Hawking ideas  The need to compress and simplify sends the movie down several paths that injure  conviction, which should underlie our appreciation of what the actors didn’t do, even more than what they actually do so wonderfully.  There is no prolonged agony or extended dragging climb up and down stairs, just what the art of editing and acting can do in combination.

Let me go way out on a limb. I am predicting that Redmayne is about to explode as the new great figure of acting in the English language, likely to surpass Olivier in legend and Guinness in variety – and believe me I know what a daring statement that is to make about a largely unknown 33 year old who doesn’t even enjoy the female camp followers of his eminent colleague and friend, Benedict Cumberbatch, another fine actor many make the same prediction about.

But I have been watching Redmayne in his film outings where he combines considerable technical skill with a direct human sincerity mainly in ensemble forays, not showcases. I hope that continues if he doesn’t fall into celebrity adulation.  I didn’t much like the film “Les Miserables,” but his Marius was the best I’ve seen in both acting and singing. He almost stole “My Week With Marilyn” because he goes right after the material, worries it to death, but doesn’t show the worry so we just appreciate the diligence. There is an underlying honesty to his approach combined with enormous technical gifts.

Both are on display as Hawking, confusing many viewers into thinking he has lost some six inches in height and 40 pounds in weight. No such thing. When needed full visual span he has carefully studied how ALS has twisted and shrunk Hawking’s body but the actor understands the personality does not admit deformity but fights for normalcy. The intellect and humor is conveyed not just in director Marsh’s choice of angles around Hawking’s eyeglasses but in Redmayne’s understanding from the start how a twisted grin and particularly communicative eyebrows can convey both the alert mind and the flirtatious romance.

It is fine work matched totally by the methods and manners of Felicity Jones, whose growing love for Stephen and then affection for her choir director, yet her completely honorable British mannerisms and sense of domestic propriety, are a remarkable human orchestration. You emerge from this movie loving and admiring both.


Other notable end of year reviews:  Whiplash, Wild, Into the Woods, Unbroken, Boyhood  



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.