Thursday, December 25, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Jack O'Connell meets his tormenter in "Unbroken."
What movies do well, and do quite frequently, are tales of fortitude – the survival of one remarkable individual against nigh impossible odds.  Done well it has us internally screaming for the protagonist  to persevere and even praying for some sort of revenge against his enemies while knowing that  in the real world there is at best only psychological vindication.

 “Unbroken” has all that going for it if only director Angelina Jolie would stop punching up the tortured lessons.

She was inspired by the astonishing first half of Louie Zamperini’s life -- from juvenile delinquent  to Olympic track star to survivor of 45 days afloat on a life raft to prisoner of war under the sadistic mind-games and face punches of a frustrated Japanese officer.

That’s what Jolie conceived as the commercial spine, something of her judgment on the nature of the movie audience.  What is not explored  is Zamperini’s plunge into postwar despair and drinking, followed by evangelical rededication to faith and forgiveness.  Perhaps that would have been more artistically challenging and certainly less prone to  wartime scene contrivances.  

Jolie has a slick professional understanding of where the obvious audience grabbers are.  That holds us in the first half, especially since she has surrounded herself with world class talent -- the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, helping on the screenplay, a top cinematographer and two accomplished film editors among a battery of experts.  On her own she adds an expert tracking eye to give   an epic feel to the 1936 Olympics in Germany and  a visceral pounding to air fights,  leading to the unending agony of being adrift in the Pacific. 

There are gifts here, but Jolie can’t resist over-tightening the screws, even lingering over beatings and starvations during interment.  The best of these films don’t pretend there is about to be a Sylvester Stallone moment of breakout revenge against state  villainy.  They fashion interior hope without operatic flourishes

The actual events are horrifying enough without this gussying. Inevitably our mind wanders to inspecting the gimmicks, such as how much makeup and organized tableaus have been employed on the robotic POWs. Were platitudes and snappy remarks really how GIs always talked? Did Japanese sadists take lessons from Hammer horror films? 

Hero-making lies behind the mounting scenes of nearly superhuman strength and defiance. It’s so pointed with lingering close-ups that the real purpose  seems to be converting Jack O’Connell into a matinee idol rather than exploring the heart of Louie’s stamina.

Still, it’s too easy to beat up on  Jolie as an overrated tabloid curiosity (her affairs, her adoptions, and her charity work) or to suggest she is tramping an overfamiliar landscape.   But the genre is not the problem, no more than if someone made a film about the life of Malala and  it was shot down by critics because Helen Keller was also brave and  proved that first. 

No, the dilemma here is execution, how to control the heavy weaponry a big name in cinema commands. With such power comes a need to raise the standards.

But Jolie is not the only Hollywood big shot dismissed by critics before going on to better things. There are meaningful parables in comparing her and Clint Eastwood, who is actually a competitor in awards shows with his “American Sniper” that won’t be seen in Milwaukee until January. Eastwood is still hit and miss and a clear embarrassment when his ego gets ahead of his technical abilities as happened at the 2012 Republican convention. 

For decades Clint had a box office aura of machismo far more than any artistic aura, even as he directed his own films. No one took him seriously until 1992’s “Unforgiven” -- interesting similarity of titles – and since then, along with failures, he has been drawn to stories that combine his sense of justice with a moral ambiguity of how curiously life works.  He brings a compressed focus, a relaxed trust that actors respond to, an authoritative professionalism from “Million Dollar Baby” to “Mystic River.”  Private ideology takes a backseat to verity of characters and subduing the message within the actual behavior.

Jolie should have learned that on “Changeling,” a 2008 film directed by Eastwood.  Probably she was first chosen since she looked the fashion ideal of a 1920s mother, and it’s not a perfect film, but the brutality of the LA police state was more convincing in letting our desire for justice excuse the pyrotechnics. If there was wish fulfillment in how she handled the opposition, it seemed more natural moment to moment. That is the sort of balance “Unbroken” couldn’t find.

Without pretending to be more than a professional moviemaker, Eastwood has learned how to make a story seem to tell itself.   Not yet Jolie. 


The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews at


By Dominique Paul Noth

Meryl Streep as the Witch with Mackenzie Mauzy as Rapunzel
in "Into the Woods."
Movie audiences are going to have to look hard on Christmas Day. Even the most excellent choice I have seen so far, “Into the Woods,” has to be thought about, because being emotionally and intellectually explorative in music is not everyone’s idea of a family night at the movies. 

Options? Both “Selma” about a crucial civil rights era, and “American Sniper,” the tribulations of a battlefield marksman, have to wait for Milwaukee January despite coastal showings in time for awards.  Right now there are such picks as “Unbroken,” an Olympic track star of the 1930s surviving life as a Japanese POW in World War II; “The Imitation Game,” about a mathematical genius later reviled for being a homosexual who cracked the Enigma code to win World War II; “Big Eyes,” Tim Burton’s comedy about an audacious art fraud (all to be reviewed later), and my current choice.

Obviously, hopes there might be a holiday connection rather than commercial crassness in what films are pouring into general release have totally vanished. That was confirmed  when Sony and giant theater chains capitulated to an outlandish North Korean threat and  pulled a satire few had previously thought of even seeing --  “The Interview,” a “Freaks and Geeks” style comedy about assassinating Kim Jong-un. And while a few hundred independent theaters are moving to save Sony’s bacon after criticism from the president -- and, probably more important, from angry celebrity power names the company needs  to do new business with -- the incident certainly confirmed that commercialism is rampant in this supposed season of religious thought and gift giving.

There is hardly a journey to Bethlehem or an appeal to kiddies fare in the outpouring, more a movie industry occasion to capitalize on families having vacation time to attend films or timing releases to upset the end of the year awards sweepstakes. 

And thus, because of the Disney label and the famous reputation of musical theater fare set in fairy-tale land, you might well think this is the one to pack the entire family off to. Well, it depends on how well you know your family and how willing you are to be challenged about your escapist tendencies. 

“Into the Woods” challenges in ways many in the audience aren’t accustomed to. While it  blends fairy-tale mosaic and momentous music and was a hit 27 years ago on Broadway –  it has played around the globe and  on PBS --  it is best known for a junior version emphasizing the merrier first act of its Grimm roots (as in Grimm Brothers).

As such it has become a staple of schools, colleges and recitals everywhere.  In one of the movie’s many ideal casting coups, Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother recalled in interviews a middle school production years ago with her own son as Jack and a papier-mâché cow that she thought was just great.  That’s an experience many parents will identify with.

Here it is impeccably cast and stunningly performed, but it is also  a faithful and fully adult musical wonderfully translated to the screen as hardly something your six-year-old will last through.  

This “Into the Woods” – far from the middle school land of papier-mâché – does employ the full-bore technical crafts of Disney Studios, surpassing stage concepts to create a magical kingdom of swirling spells and impenetrable forests and castles. But director Rob Marshall, a stage and film veteran, has also resisted most of the tendencies to succumb to the Disney formulaic green screen. He pointedly enhances the original unsettling intent of composer Stephen Sondheim and writer James Lapine – entertain with depth.

They favor human behavior however fantastical the premise or settings. So the film unleashes a dark side of fairyland that goes far harder than most of what Disney traditionally packages.

I suspect this version has created a peculiar marketing dilemma.  Disney has been playing with the fairytale for years but mainly with sly humor and topical joking – not with these touches. Nor is this really a musical  where you enter already humming the tunes, a la “Frozen” or even ”South Pacific.” While Sondheim has changed the expectations in major musical theater, it is something of an acquired taste to recognize that movie musicals need not be of the old-fashioned Doris Day tea-for-two variety. Here the music advances characters and meanings, the performers sing and act simultaneously and marvelously. Distraction is constant and attractive – and yet the door has been opened to demand mental agility. 

 Of course there is some aural as well as visual cinematic heightening, mixing prerecording with live singing. But this is a cast that can do it all ways, onstage, onscreen and probably in the bathtub, and without a single name familiar to Disney faithful. That creates a lingering joy in every sequence but a thoughtful exploration of hidden dangers in the woods. 

Purists may be bothered that two stage numbers have been cut as has a reprise of a wonderful song, “Agony,” or that Sondheim wrote two new pieces the movie rejected and  some characters and sideblows have been eliminated or truncated.

But make no mistake. This is not the junior version – mainly the first act romp in the woods seeking to solve a riddle and achieve the various happy endings That first act is a concoction of delightful inventiveness with subtler hints at what can come, sly comments on parenting and on our childish visions of attractive princes and maidens, all brisk in the dash for solving the central riddle. The interactive recitative and subtly haunting melodic themes employ great humor and impish comments and only subtler warnings as the nasty neighborhood Witch, the Beanstalk Jack, the Baker and his Wife, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Red Riding Hood run violently into each other to achieve their respective happy endings.

But after an hour life crashes in and turns endings upside down.  The lyrics reveal ominous sides. The comically frightening interplay with the witch has ramifications. Hidden messages emerge about barrenness and child rearing as do hints of infidelity among the good characters. Comfort in our ideas of heroism and our cleverness in grasping the jests about romance backfire as the townspeople turn accusatorily upon each other.  
Disney in its classic animations often brought children to attention with the killing or loss of a mother (“Bambi,” “Dumbo”) but here there are sudden surprise losses of figures we have developed affection for, and warnings of brutal self-interest among so-called good and evil that force us to wonder how we the audience can ever find a way back to “once upon a time.”

So praise Disney for being willing in a 125 minute film, down from three hours onstage, to communicate   the weight of a serious musical that has long had this built-in schizophrenia for the public: Charm and visual imagination in creating a wondrous woods – very popular -- and then getting the hell away from the woods when consequences turn ugly – definitely not as easy to swallow.

Maybe a precocious 10 year old will stick with this past the first hour and embrace the second where the pace is less brisk and the actors and story fully embrace the extended suggestions in the lyrics and plot manipulations. Not to say “Into the “Woods” isn’t a delight for the eyes and ears, but it shapes musical memories for progressive purposes. The eyes and ears work harder as the story moves on. Many moviegoers are not accustomed to this shift.  If theater audiences had trouble adapting, to the point of popularizing a junior version, the same is likely for a film heavily advertising the Disney brand.

I can quibble here and there with what Marshall has done. I certainly did with his popular 2002 “Chicago.” Part of me wonders if the film director could have better  anticipated how to handle the shift to the serious where the singing actors have to work harder to convey the dramatic dimensions. The actors could only forecast so much (and they do that most capably, as you will perceive on multiple viewings).

Overriding all quibbles are Marshall’s fidelity to the Sondheim-Lapine intent and the brilliance of the casting.

Ullman is a seriously believable and desperate mother to Jack, who is played by young phenom Daniel Huttlestone (previously seen in “Les Miserable”).  Little Red’s petulance and self-absorbed childlike qualities are acted and sung like it was all perfectly normal, as opposed to vocally difficult, by Lilla Crawford. 

There are more delicious turns: Christine Baranski as the evil stepmother, Mackenzie Mauzy as a Rapunzel who must be magnetic in brief moments, and Chris Pines moving from preening fancy in every girl’s eye as the prince to a scary echo of Johnny Depp’s Wolf (a capable five minute cameo that earns top billing). 

To astute observers and listeners, Emily Blunt is providing some intriguing culpability to the Baker’s lovable wife desperate for a child while  James Corden is  the most likeable and convincing Baker in memory. Anna Kendrick, while known for her perfect pitch singing, also provides quicksilver comedic pathos as the ambivalent Cinderella.

But if there is a top of this remarkable pile of actors and singers, there stands Meryl Streep, who rivets even beyond the expectations of her reputation, hardly needing wind, animation and cosmetic effects to spin us from cutting words to spiteful rejected parent to demon troublemaker.  The actress is a whirlwind of her own.

This is a most intriguing movie musical for the fully engaged, but it is not a low-hanging sugar plum artificially sweetened to fit the season’s commercial fashion. These are woods to fall into and wander with full attention. The film-makers have jumped at the opportunity. Now we have to see if audiences join them.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews at

Monday, December 15, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

Reese Witherspoon in the 'Wild.'
You can give high marks for belief in the power of self-discovery and mental healing through nature represented in “Wild,” Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of a 1,000 mile agonizing  trek  through desert and hills restoring her sense of worth and family.

Normally a vehicle commissioned for and funded by a celebrity name like Reese Witherspoon would not insist on such fidelity in using cinematic techniques to explore the facts. If only belief in the message automatically translated into artistry.

The movie uses  every established repertory of time-shifting and languorous landscape loving, of alternating long and tight dark and light shots, of varying trail and camp  locales, of  fast cut and slow cut  contrasts, of samples of great pop tunes, of  using the lines of literary poetry that drive Cheryl along as devices to keep us engaged.

By suppressing any impulse toward glamorization and almost relishing the pain Witherspoon goes through hauling her monster backpack and bleeding feet up and down the wilderness trails, director Jean-Marc Valee has prevented a vanity outing. But he is almost showing off his training in tried and true cinematic contrivances. Witherspoon provides a surface faithfulness and vulnerability that her fans may confuse with deep acting.

The film also benefits from an ensemble perfectly cast to fit the needs, including a progression of hikers and outdoor types who embrace or frighten Cheryl on her journey. The matter of fact honesty of Thomas Sadowski as her abandoned husband (the actor is a regular on “The Newsroom”) is pleasant, though he may well long for the writing magic provided on TV by Aaron Sorkin rather than the strands of naturalness left him here by screenwriter Nick Hornby.

The film also depends on the luminescence of Laura Dern -- a fleeting but powerful presence whose simple smiling behavior explains Cheryl’s devotion to her departed mother and how that loss plunged her into heroin and sex before she finds holistic redemption through physical self-reliance.

That journey is not something to make light of.  In fact, the movie holds us in a suspense warring with boredom for an hour, disguising why Cheryl has taken such an extreme hiking path, complaining all the way, only fully developing her motives in a stronger final 45 minutes than the total two hours we are subjected to.

This testing of our patience by relying on star names and hidden developments (cancer, pill abuse and other ailments are powerful audience grabbers) has become something of a trend in 2014 movies that raise their heads at awards time.

There is a strange parallel to another recent outing, “The Judge,” which is an unabashed vanity vehicle for Robert Downey Jr., whose antic sardonic talents are best taken when hidden behind the name Sherlock or within  a suit of Iron, but here are indulged as a nasty lawyer forced to help his Indiana clan.

But this overblown family drama combined with courtroom thriller relies on secrets and twists in plotting far less convincing than “Wild.” And it leans even more heavily than “Wild” on holding back revelations and on our affection and admiration for the acting skills of Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio and vignettes from Denis O’Hare, Ken Howard and Billy Bob Thornton.

An important message about family reconciliation and handling grief becomes an excuse for extended catering to our time and money with charismatic actors struggling to manufacture characters out of cardboard. It is another tug-at-the-heartstrings trend we can do without.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews at

Friday, December 12, 2014


By Dominique Paul Noth

It flew in and out of Milwaukee theaters in November and doesn’t return to the popular but subsidiary DVD and cable markets until February 2015. Such is the fate of many small intelligent dramatic films that lack the cgi flash, big names and lavish studio budgets and public relations prestige of the competition.

J.K. Simmons as the legendary jazz teacher in “Whiplash.”
But suddenly thanks to one of its actors who has long deserved recognition, combined with the assured creativity of young director-screenwriter Damien Chazelle and his hyper interaction of jazz and psychology, “Whiplash” has emerged into prominence – a strange prominence because as the name of the film is bandied about on TV shows, the Midwest public must be asking “huh?” and “why can’t we see it?” 

Yet industry peers and critics have made it a presence in the televised awards previews and sweepstakes as the campaigns for best films of 2014 begin.

The deserving name –- a rare chance for a veteran character actor to show his chops on multiple fronts -- is J.K. Simmons. He has already been nominated for a Golden Globe (announced Dec. 9 for ceremonies to be telecast January 11) and has to be considered in the race for the Oscars and other major industry honors.  It is an absorbing presence so matter of fact as to be doubly potent -- a dominating music conservatory tyrant whose sadistic profanity and blind dedication to band excellence at any price should never be allowed near the eager budding talents that he prowls like a tiger does its dinner.

J.K. Who?  Does he really have a chance against such likely opposition as the better known Edward Norton in the year’s most honored film to date, “Birdman,” or against the always scary at awards time Robert Duvall in “The Judge” or any number of other so-called “supporting actors” who have full-bore studio ads behind them?

Actually, yes, because almost everyone in the industry has worked with Simmons and they pick the winners. Over three decades actors, crews and critics have learned to appreciate his easy power.  Simmons moves seamlessly, landing big moments of comedy and drama in ensembles for such films as “Up in the Air,” and “Juno” while anchoring countless TV outings -- the shrugging “either or” psychologist in “Law and Order’s” best years on TV;  the grumpy police chief on “The Closer”;  the bulging biceps menace of HBO’s “Oz.”

If that hasn’t made him inescapable to the public, there are also his commercial pitchman roles, currently for Farmers Insurance.

Another Simmons face promoinent
 in TV ads hawking Farmers Insurance.
He has been such a smooth veteran in countless sojourns that the industry insiders are heavy in his corner, delighted he finally has a role that is getting the spotlight. “Whiplash” also requires his particular gifts to ingratiate and explain himself even as he shreds his charges with his intellectual nastiness and domineering manipulation and profanity.

It’s not just that he makes a Marine drill sergeant seem like a pussycat in comparison. The cleverness with which he operates keeps us suspended in belief that so brutal and self-centered a talent could stun classrooms into obedience.  But anyone who has tried to become the best and has faced domineering excess personalities as influential mentors understands the attraction of such perfectionist flames. His moth in “Whiplash” is a 19 year old drummer with Buddy Rich desire and skill, driven past his apparent naive belief in his artistry to agony, self-adulation and arrogance.  Newcomer actor Miles Teller will have to wait his turn for awards recognition but surely lands as good as he gets in a role where his hands are bloodied from devotion to drumming and his mind is warped, manipulated and watchful simultaneously.

There are side performances here that are quietly revealing of the transformation -- Paul Reiser as the drummer’s loving father who senses what is happening, Melissa Benoist as the girlfriend rejected in his determination to be great. The drummer has cut off their human concerns with a cruelty that outdoes his teacher's, and that sets up the dramatic tension of who is really the manic out of control.  Has the teacher found his future great jazz star or his match in manipulation to achieve recognition? 

The movie understands the psychology and catches us up in the game. Simmons’ performance, different from how so many know him, makes us simultaneously loathe and understand the magnetism. Director Chazelle skillfully integrates editing with dialog and pounding music.   The only question on his future is whether there is another such tale within him, because this story of obsession with excellence has clearly taken over his life – first as a short film in 2013 to win funds at the Sundance Film Festival for the full version that opened the 2014 festival and now is being distributed by Sony. 

The film has the professional orchestral complexity associated with “Glee” without the clichés of the TV series, though it doesn’t totally escape the stagey  dramatic license of compressed confrontations.  Even students at a great musical conservatory wouldn’t allow such open frequent abuse though there is a sports arena motif in band competition that the film well understands.  There is an appreciation of jazz that combines excellence with horror at the power of  legend, and it is used to great emotional impact  in  the  7/8 “Whiplash”  time chart by Hank Levy  and Duke Ellington’s extended “Caravan.” 

It’s a film that deserved more public heralding and that may justify its sudden awards attention after so fleeting a national exposure.  Along with that, the public should appreciate what the movie peers apparently understand – it is Simmons' talent that helps keep us hypnotized by this battle of wills.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including theater reviews  at

Tuesday, February 25, 2014


My favorites for diverse reasons are  “12 Years a Slave,” “August: Osage County,” "American Hustle" and  “Blue Jasmine.”   Also notable are  “Nebraska,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis. ”    Also reviewed in this series  are  "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Butler," “Captain Phillips,”  “her,” and “Labor Day.”  Check them out and add your comments.

By Dominique Paul Noth

In a tight supporting actress race, the writer's nod goes to Jennifer
Lawrence over Lupito Nyong'o
Back in the 1970s as movie critic for The Milwaukee Journal I was approached by editors with a command to predict in print the winners of the next Oscars.  No, I said. What I want to do is predict what I think will win and alongside that what I think OUGHT to win.

So be it, they agreed. That began a regular and well-read yearly game picked up by my successors that I continue to play ever since, in words when possible and in my mind if I haven’t seen sufficient movies to participate.  Over the past few years as the current reviews on this blog indicate, the game is back to writing.

I would like to believe the need has evaporated,  that the purpose of this  two-edged game has lessened since those years when Hollywood fell all over itself to prefer box office celebrity to artistic attention, and then reversed itself in a mea culpa the following year (“Rocky” followed by “Annie Hall” as one example of that seesaw remorse).  

I do think that over the decades the Oscars have become more artistic oriented and less celebrity oriented.  That is certainly the view of an articulate and thoughtful member of the academy board of governors, screenwriter and director Phil Alden Robinson (“Field of Dreams”), who may be a bit self-serving but has conviction that his 6,000 plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (artists and artisans, producers, studio executives and public relations officials) have grown up and actually grown a bit more modern and less star struck.  No longer, in this view, can they be stampeded by the studios they work with, the associates closest to them, the celebrities they long to sit with and so forth to the point that their intellects and emotions can be bought off by inauspicious pressure tactics or friendship issues.

I’m not so sure.  A critic’s view of the separation between artistry and sensationalism is still necessary.  Trade campaigns and media bustle, box office receipts and drawing power are still a big part of the game, which makes the Oscars (this year March 2 on ABC-TV) a combustible mixture of tendencies to honor the most creative of your peers and the sensibilities to promote, highlight, show friendship and please an enormous fan base.

This year, there are outside controversies working their way inside that also could cause bumper-car collisions defeating the academy’s best instincts.

For instance, controversy could drive awards to or away from “The Wolf of Wall Street.” In one camp it is condemned as glorifying bad corporate behavior and unstoppable foul mouths. In another it is praised for exposing bad corporate behavior and foul mouths.  I can hope moviemakers will respond with decisions based on artistry ahead of  media buzz, but let’s not pretend the world the voters live in won’t have an impact.

So as the Oscars unfold I will continue my two-way game – my personal favorites on the basis of artistic merit and social value (what ought to win) and what I think will win when all the elements weave together in the votes.

Dustin Hoffman's memorable Oscar acceptance speech
 for "Kramer vs Kramer."
Sometimes they do match. Sometimes they are inevitably close calls (talents are hard to separate in a collaborative art form). 

Sometimes good work is victimized by artificial category definitions. Actors from Marlon Brando to George C. Scott to Dustin Hoffman (“I refuse to believe that I beat Jack Lemmon . . . I refuse to believe that Robert Duvall lost,” he reminded the audience in his memorable acceptance speech for “Kramer vs Kramer”) have all pointed out that artificiality.  Anthony Quinn actually suggested that all five nominated best actors should tackle the same part and see who was better – that would be fairer, he said. (But then, if all five played Zorba, he knew who would win, so that doesn’t quite work either.)

Jane Wyman's forgettable "Johnny
Belinda" win.
Perhaps the most blatant days of star worship have departed. Frankly there were few other reasons than “look what a big name is willing to do to prove she can act” to give the best actress Oscar to Jane Wyman in the long-forgotten “Johnny Belinda” (1948), playing a deaf mute who is raped. Granted it was quite a juicy part based on a Broadway play (and repeated on television by a young Mia Farrow) but Wyman’s performance was nothing special, just voters falling all over themselves for the heroism of her descent from glamour into plainness and physical deficit.  On the other hand, Daniel Day-Lewis provided remarkable acting in “My Left Foot,” so honoring disability is not an automatic sign that Hollywood voters have lost all reason.  Sometimes the interaction of the physically less fortunate with the regular world makes quite compelling exploration of empathy.  The Oscars have always been seduced by that.

More recently, whatever the cinematic values, there has also been a self-congratulatory tone within the ceremony -- “The Artist” in 2012 and certainly in “Argo” as best picture in 2013 over the film that I believe will last in time, “Lincoln.” Even here, Day-Lewis had to be recognized as best actor for “Lincoln” yet “Argo” took the biggest prize. It was assuredly the year’s most successful thriller but it was also based on Hollywood participation in an actual spy adventure, so that suckered in the voters as did the sense among many of a snub to Ben Affleck, passed over as a director nominee. So personal vendetta, box office interest and star luster can mix even in this vaunted move toward artistic merit.

There is already an echo of those other influences this year in honors passed over and nominees included.

One of the year’s best films in terms of emotional power, dissection of family relationships and certainly ensemble acting is “August: Osage County,” not even nominated for best picture. But I understand. It is refined from a much honored  stage play so it clearly already had legs, precedents in how other actors were received in these parts and other aspects that don’t spell individuality as best pictures are supposed to do (yet so often don’t).

But acting!  None better, top to bottom. The academy had to honor Meryl Streep as the central foul-mouthed harridan. She is unavoidably powerful. But the film has only one other nomination and that is Julia Roberts as supporting actress, though her role is every much as central and sizeable as Streep’s.

But come on!  Would you put box office star Roberts against actress Streep in the best actress category?   There is still horrible fallout from passing Meryl over in ‘”Julie &  Julia” in 2010  for the star feistiness of Sandra Bullock in the  now forgotten  “The Blind Side,” a tale of football parents that was all the media rage. Nothing against the appeal of Bullock, who is up for best actress again this year against Streep in “Gravity,” but let’s not pretend her abilities are in the same league.

Cate Blanchett (left) with Sally Hawkins in "Blue Jasmine." Hawkins
is nominated but unlikely to win supporting actress.
Roberts in fact is quite good but she is not even the standout supporting actress in the “August” ensemble that includes Julianne Nicholson and Margo Martindale.  Nor would I argue that Streep is the best actress in her category. She’s assuredly neck and neck but the originality and luminous edge goes to Cate Blanchett in “Blue Jasmine.” 

The only way Cate can’t win on merit is if the anti Woody Allen campaign gains traction, which has nothing to do with the Oscars though clearly timed to undercut any honors to his films, however you feel about resurrecting that domestic accusation from long ago. But passing Blanchett over because of bad vibes about Allen would be an ugly disservice to a fine actress. It would also instantly justify Allen’s historic avoidance of participating in such awards hoopla.

If Blanchett doesn’t win, I don’t think the prize will go to Streep or the other neck and necker, the uncanny Judi Dench, like Streep familiarly great but even more striking in “Philomena.” There she stays casually and so movingly within character, a simplistic Irish woman gently leading us through her underlying faith and undying love for a long lost child to anger and compassion. 

 But my guess is that if Blanchett is robbed, the winner will be Amy Adams and that won’t upset me. She’s been a neglected bridesmaid in this category whose growing versatility as an actress is on full display in “American Hustle.”  I still think it should be Blanchett and if there is fairness in the academy it will be.

As supporting actress, I lean slightly to Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle” as the likely winner and the one I also want, though quite close behind (and coming up on the outside in the votes) is newcomer Lupito Nyong’o in “12 Years a Slave.”  I think Lawrence is a magnetic screen actress surviving high-paid efforts to drag her back down to mere modern sex queen in a tiring but wealth-inducing “Hunger Games” series, but in “Hustle” she takes dynamic acting chances far beyond the Yale training that Nyong’o has clearly mastered in “Slave.” In Nyong’o case I want to see more and more before serving up the accolades.

If it’s neither of those, I think name recognition leans toward Roberts, though Sally Hawkins as the country mouse sister in “Blue Jasmine” gives a better performance. But my preference and Oscar's ought to be Lawrence over Nyong’o by a nose.

I like “American Hustle” for its individuality and improvisational exploration of the American character.  I won’t be upset if it wins best picture but my personal choice and I believe Oscar’s is “12 Years a Slave” not only for telling the cruel story of America’s past but doing so mainly through matter of fact details and storytelling to drive the drama home.

Note how many films this year have been inspired by true events but how the unfolding of these stories reveals a lot about the nature of the artists involved (fanciful in “American Hustle,” fidelity in “Slave,” thriller dramatics in “Captain Phillips,” confrontation of the AIDS indifference and will to live in “Dallas Buyers Club,” and verisimilitude providing its own social twists in “Philomena”).  This makes the final choice difficult but probably honorable if “Slave” edges out “American Hustle.” What would upset me is if the voters split and box office luster allowed “Gravity” to sneak in.

The tossup category could be best supporting actor.  The voting edge will likely go to Jared Leto for his gender-bending work in “Dallas Buyers Club,” quite striking, though my personal preference is Bradley Cooper as the preening duped FBI agent in “American Hustle,” a role requiring more versatility and emotional range.

In the best actor race, I worry again about that “look at how daring the handsome star is being” attitude.  Oscar could easily choose Matthew McConaughey, hypnotic in “Dallas Buyers Club” and also a hot property in TV’s “True Detective,” plus notable in dropping his hunk image to prove his acting chops. Given other recent awards, he seems to have an inside track. Close behind, especially if inside tracks matter,  is another screen icon abandoning his looks for comb-over hairdo and pot belly in “American Hustle.” But Christian Bale clearly never pursued hunk status and relishes this opportunity for improv naturalism as a dedicated small-time con artist. 

If nostalgia plays a role, and it often does even for me, there may be some pressure to honor 40 years of fine work culminating in Bruce Dern’s most imposing role in “Nebraska.” This is the category where favoritism seems hard at work. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave."
Personally I would put all that aside and honor the best acting, and that is Chiwetel Ejiofor, our eyes and our hearts in the year’s best film,  “12 Years a Slave.”  Mine is just one opinion, but I openly believe that Oscar has the sense to go along with me here.

I haven’t seen enough of the foreign films or documentaries to decide, so I am largely guessing on knowledge that “Frozen” will win best animated feature while “The Wind Rises” probably should.  But where I have seen enough to know, I expect I will be parting company with Oscar’s final decision on director and writers.

For director I expect the Oscar nod will go to Steve McQueen for “12 Years a Slave,” perhaps as compensation for low expectation in a few other categories. Certainly worthy.  But I personally think the best directing was the on-the-fly freedom and precise visionary imagination displayed by David O. Russell in “American Hustle.”

Woody Allen directing "Blue Jasmine," for which he
should win best writing award.
Best original screenplay will probably go to “American Hustle,” which won’t annoy. But the best writing by far in this category gave room for inventive actors and impish storytelling – Woody Allen in “Blue Jasmine,” who for reasons suggested won’t win.

Best adapted screenplay is likely to go to “12 Years a Slave,” but contrarian that I am, for cinematic skill and keeping us on edge it should go to Steve Coogan (also co-star and producer) and Jeff Pope for “Philomena.” This is one of those films that I can’t give away why. You have to see it to understand my preference.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014


My favorites for diverse reasons are  “12 Years a Slave,” “August: Osage County,” "American Hustle" and  “Blue Jasmine.”   Also notable are  “Nebraska,” “Dallas Buyers Club,” and “Inside Llewyn Davis. ”    Also reviewed in this series  are  "Saving Mr. Banks," "The Butler," “Captain Phillips,”  “her,” and “Labor Day.”  Check them out and add your comments.

Above: Making a peach pie (Gattlin Griffith, Josh Brolin and Kate Winslet)
 is actually one of the tastier parts of  “Labor Day.”

By Dominique Paul Noth
I’m always curious about movies involving honored names that rapidly disappear from public view.  Sometimes they’re just failures, sometimes the studios were too busy peddling other wares, sometimes the buzz was right, sometimes wrong, sometimes invisible.

“Labor Day” just lay there – and that was curious.  It hit all the major festivals at the end of 2013 to qualify for awards but most moviegoers never heard of it. Its director, Jason Reitman (son of Ivan), has been much admired for quiet observation of  the American fabric in the fine “Juno” and “Up in the Air.” 

And is not Kate Winslet a big name and honored actress?  Josh Brolin is no slouch either. The supporting cast may not be household famous but always do strong work and are most recognizable – Brooke Smith first hit attention as the kidnap victim in “Silence of the Lambs”  and is one of the few actresses who can be appealing in her nastiness.  JK Simmons is all over TV (“Law and Order” and “Oz”), featured in a new series (“Growing Up Fisher”), tireless in insurance commercials and effective in multiple character roles. 

Yet “Labor Day” for all that settled for a thin Golden Globes nomination for Winslet, was shut of the Oscars and didn’t even show up in Milwaukee until January.   Part of the problem was a misleading sales pitch – “love, passion and betrayal as seen through the eyes of an adolescent and the man he becomes” made it sound voyeuristic. 

The movie is actually a quiet, almost murmuringly quiet portrait of  lonely people in rural America, drawn together by unlikely circumstances (unlikely is an understatement) to bond as a family while hiding the magnetic stranger from the law. They must fool preying eyes in a world that  immediately identifies unlikely affection as sexual criminality run amuck and romantic desire as depravity. 

Good intent is the road paved to you know where and it sure doesn’t salvage  “Labor Day.”  These are pretty smart people involved. Reitman has a nice observational style -- even the guiding commentary and intrusive flashbacks are more about developing a mystery than artificially agitating.

The actors play it natural – Winslet as the watchful depressed mother drawn to a fugitive, Brolin as the fugitive more menacing in expectations than in actual behavior, Gattlin Griffith as the teenage boy confused about how to protect his mother as he finds the fugitive a more acceptable father figure than the “normal” upright  citizen who  abandoned them for a new family.

Unless you’re a good guesser, we are two-thirds through the movie before the “Labor Day” title is explained.  Nor does Reitman spell out the poetic metaphysics behind the quiet style and late revelations.  It’s sort of like a Wallace Stevens poem. If your  mind is working, and you don’t fall asleep at the pace, you’ll discover that the  central lovers are both prisoners. She’s  a victim of her own body and domestic expectations. He’s  a murderer on the run with far more traditional family values than those pursuing him. One is trapped by biology, the other by the criminal justice system.

In a cameo, Simmons as the intrusive neighbor next door is quietly scarier than the fugitive.  Smith is the mother who doesn’t hesitate to hit her handicapped child.  Reitman is suggesting these are part of the normal but endlessly intrusive people who eventually twist the son’s thinking --  until he matures into Tobey Maguire.

All that would be nice and philosophically viable – if the movie were psychologically viable. Try as the actors and director do, the story remains unbelievable.  Brolin’s fugitive is too good to be true, a Mr. Fixit, baseball coach and expert pie maker eager to learn the tango and take his new family across the border. Winslet subdues her natural fire to act like a mentally disturbed  docile mother, seriously unconvincing in such complacency.  The story takes its time to unfold and then scurries through to conclusion.  To his credit, Reitman seldom gooses it, but he never brings it to life either.

There are far better pieces of storytelling and dramatic insights out there.  That doesn’t mean that  several years from now, someone won’t find “Labor Day” on late-night television and wonder why its quieter meanings were so ignored at the box office.  In today’s sunshine, the  competition is simply better.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Reviews in this current series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine,”  “Captain Phillips,” “Inside Llewyn Davis”  and “her.”  Check them out and add your comments.

(Photo above:  Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep in remorse and combat in “August: Osage County.”)

By Dominique Paul Noth

Forget every praise you’ve heard in current commercials about ensemble movie acting.  The best of the lot has been largely unheralded because of hoopla salesmanship around a virtuoso name. 

But “August: Osage County” dominates the eye and the emotions because the cast knows better than to chew the scenery.  They are the epitome of ensemble. In a searing drama that hypnotized Broadway, they just become the family, without pretence or avoidance, not showing off but working together. 

And that winds up flooring us with gasps of laughter, disgust, heartbreak and desperate desire to see them escape their circumstances.

John Wells, no stranger to drama as the helmsman behind “ER” and “West Wing,” has not embraced the modern cinematic fashion of making his directorial presence felt. He just makes the Weston family felt.  He knows how to trust this cast and the dark and light corners they can capture.  He actually disguises how cleverly he has moved the camera and edited the film to follow the actors around a stifling Oklahoma farmhouse in August as they cope with domestic tragedy. Even the dinner for 10 where family fury and secrets spill out features more break-in close-ups and flowing cuts than the riveted audience realizes. 

Wells and Pulitzer winning playwright (and noted actor) Tracy Letts have cunningly excised the most obvious melodramatic segments from the play and wisely trusted the fire and ice of the character interactions. That rides us past the unfolding coincidences and revelatory twists that in lesser hands would make our conviction falter.

I haven’t mentioned Meryl Streep at the center.  It’s Violet’s house and Violet’s ugliness that drive the story -- a foul-mouthed pill popping harridan spewing crazed extremes of spitefulness and sentiment.  Violet’s eruptions unsettle and unleash the family gathered around her and force them, one by one, to face her cancer-ridden mouth and their own vulnerabilities. 

It’s no surprise anymore, not after more than four decades of acting variety on stage and screen, that Streep is amazingly good.  But it’s worth a pause to explore why.  She herself jokes that her talents have been so honored that her name itself has become boring to the public.  I suspect she is as much at a loss as anyone to explain her “acting method,” but just itemize the elements inside her technique.

Julianne Nicholson, Streep and Margo Martindale
 share a happier moment of family memories
 in “August: Osage County.”
She has a brilliant analytical mind for literature and characters, a total mastery not just of accents but of vocal range and mimicry when needed, an observational talent for how humans and even animals behave.  Her hands, her body, even her eyebrows are quicksilver immediate. Wigs and makeup are a detailed second skin. Her instincts dominate her planning and lead her to inhabit but never hide the character, nor duck any flamboyance called for. 

In acting there is such a thing as feeling the character’s thought process, the way continuity erupts in the character’s head. But we never want to see the actor’s process, the way he or she is making it work.  I am one of the few critics to ever call out the young Streep on this, since there were moments in “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” where I saw the actress control the timing she usually makes seem seamless.

But hardly ever since has this happened – and given that she is still the same familiar body in front of us, given the range of her work, given both understanding and insensitive directors she has had to cope with, given the variety of depth in the scripts, given the stop-and-go acting required in making films, this is extraordinary. It’s not just that she’s earned the mantle of “greatest living actress.”  Only in television interviews does she acknowledge that reputation. Give her a part and she fights for the role and the purpose of the story, not her aura of infallibility.

The determination to disappear within the character but never be quiet, never be anything but convincing as well as riveting, sets her apart, and it apparently caused  similar devotion throughout the  “August: Osage County”  cast.  In a role that most wouldn’t even expect her to embrace, she makes us doubt that anyone else could ever be Violet.

Streep is only the top of an interlocked pyramid.  Letts’ play is quite observant and insightful in its own right, but he must know that the quality of these actors makes the entire difference between a dramatic comedy we admire and a dramatic comedy that mesmerizes and forces us to lean in to every development.

Julia Roberts -- as the oldest daughter full of the interior tempest and take-charge willpower that echoes her mother even as she fights against being like her – is as focused within the role as she’s ever been. It’s a case of belonging in a first-class league without dominating it, though the movie is tempted to play up her screen reputation, such as a finale moment not as dark as the script drives toward. 

Chris Cooper with Benedict Cumberbatch
 as his son in “August: Osage County.”
Others beside Streep must be particularly singled out. There’s the magnetic Julianne Nicholson as Ivy, the shy daughter with fierce misplaced determination.  Margo Martindale as Mattie, the domineering balloon of a demanding aunt whose bossiness contains some startling reversals.  Chris Cooper as Mattie’s husband, the apparent milquetoast who erupts in powerful defense of his son.  Benedict Cumberbatch as that son, a social weakling whose inability to fight for himself makes the audience long to fight for him.

Keeping pace in this concert of observation are Juliette Lewis, Abigail Breslin, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney and Misty Upham.

In an age where pyrotechnics and computerized graphics tend to dominate the box office, I do worry about the drawing power of so straightforward and self-contained a film. My fondness for movies that take apart the human condition doesn’t lower my knowledge that many such films are correctly  regarded in the public mind as heavy or even turgid. This one isn’t – it sails along. But even praising its insights into the family genetics we all can’t escape and even honoring the virtues of its farmhouse ensemble may be doing a commercial disservice.

So I venture a guess. Whatever the entertainment tabloids proclaim over the next months, thirty years from now when we pull out the film of 2013 that had a lasting impact on our American psyche  and best  demonstrated  the enduring human power of cinema, it will be  “August: Osage County.”  (Just don’t wait 30 years to prove me right.)

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014


Joaquin  Phoenix copes with “her,” an intuitive operating system that loves him.
Reviews in this current series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine,”  “Captain Phillips” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”   Check them out and add your comments.

By Dominique Paul Noth

Step too hard in one direction and writer-director Spike Jonze  could have concocted a derivative   “Dr. Strangelove” satire on society’s self-deceptive rush toward destructive trust  of technology.

Too much the other way and it would become just a creepy romance  about a lonely guy jilted in real-life and falling for a bodiless computer system he jokes with, flirts with, relies on and even takes to bed.  

To describe “her” either way (retaining the e e cummings no-capitalization device made famous by the poet and pointedly kept “her”  by the film) might prevent audiences from even going. Or from  recognizing that,  if Jonze could have pulled it off, this was an innovative imaginative concept and darned provocative.  Yes,  it is a needed reflection on modern man’s emotional isolation within an inviting  drone-screen-cellphone environment. Yet “her” emerges almost maniacally devout in its vision, where it should be more a carnival mirror than a cult treatise.

What keeps us long in the game are the great humanistic elements– an expert team of casually  blending actors, an excellent ear for the cadence of modern dialog, and a sort of sad recognition of the aspirations for love in all of us.

But while Jonze walks the line between the sci-fi extremes, we still see the lines and question the unfolding. There is too much of that Narada style New Age music treated as the ultimate in human creativity. In deliberately dark photography or suggestive murmurings, there are overdoses of Jonze’s throw-away repartee, too many somnoletic revelations while dozing off.  (The sleep state is wondrously restful but it’s called sleepwalking for a reason.)

And are we to take seriously that there is great artistic virtue hidden in Theodore Twombly because he works for a website writing personal letters about the lives of other people, letters so touching that his boss adores him and a publisher wants to buy his work? Is that just an observation on how we all live vicariously these days? Or is that really supposed to be sufficient justification of his rapport with both humanity on the streets and the computer operating system he becomes jealous of? 

There’s too much walking the beach, dancing through the mall, or drinking until giddy. But understand, these are the necessary humanizing devices inserted in the script. Without these moments, and  others validating his sensitivity and value as a human being, we might dismiss him as a jerk. The actors work mightily and the editing maneuvers craftily to keep Twombly from seeming remotely lost in technology, to make more believable the concept of a guy falling for his smart phone – but man,  what a SMART phone!

Something else helps. The voice may be bodiless, but we mentally impose a body for 
Samantha – the actress playing her and not so coincidentally the No. 1 hit on the Internet sex image parade, Scarlett Johanssen. (Hey, the young audience thinks, that Twombly ain’t so dumb!)

In case we miss it, the movie even inserts a blonde Samantha surrogate who looks like Johanssen (Portia Doubleday, no kidding, that’s the actress’ name). Even the computer realizes this was a dumb idea. Wish the filmmaker had as well.

Amy Adams plays Phoenix’s understanding friend in “her.”
This is not fair to Johanssen, because in the breathy pauses and natural beats of Samantha, she may actually be providing some of her finest, most believable acting, even if invisibly orchestrated by Jonze to fit the breathing and acting patterns of  Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore.

I’ve often thought of Phoenix as overrated, a sort of mannered Brando echo of naturalism. But this is an exceptional controlled acting job, making us root for the romance by creating a human puppy dog of willing belief, hypnotized by and yet questioning the bodiless relationship.  His commitment to Samantha is balanced by hesitant questioning of why “spooning” with an absent her is so pleasurable. He even revisits  (a smart touch by Jonze) his failed marriage and desire for life-form sexuality. Rooney Mara captures well the alluring yet bitter ex, and Olivia Wilde turns niftily from the too perfect rebound date to the too desperate huntress for the perfect catch.

Phoenix  carries the audience through a lot of behavior that traditionalists might balk at and young Net acolytes might relish. He is clearly enamored of ear bugs and  virtual video,  deeply into porn images (but  using a pregnant soap star, which is a character hint) and phone sex (which curiously echoes his later sex with Samantha).  Sick as that may sound in cold words, it  is one of the film’s canny observations that he is not much different than the rest of us.

Phoenix has a screen anchor in the brilliant rapport and acting affinity provided by  Amy Adams (is there anything this actress can’t do?) as the friend who understands his obsession and deals brightly with her own.

The ending, which I won’t give away, syncs with the human vs. machine issues,  with computers that get too smart for their creators yet are stuck in the same existentialist databases. 

There was a danger in the early reviews at the New York Film Festival of overpraising Jonze because of the boldness of the journey.  I think there are  diversionary elements that even e e cummings would consider pretentious.  But  credit Jonze with the intellectual courage to contemplate the near future and a comprehensive grasp of cinematic tools. 

Olivia Wilde is the date that starts out fascinating before events change.
More than 45 years ago  I was part of a panel of notable science fiction writers and semiologists discussing  Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” and other space movies. The argument typically turned to what is the best science fiction film, and more typically to defining what is a science fiction story. Obviously any film that relies on something not actually known or  yet fully in existence qualifies, but was not just space journeys untaken or asteroids not quite hit to these experts. It’s  where medical research, robotics  or computer  inventions may be headed but are not quite there. (We know a Samantha is not yet  here – just talk to any phone system, Siri or so-called intuitive OS these days and be deeply disappointed.) 

The surprising winner in our debate was a movie people didn’t even think of as science-fiction – “The Man in the White Suit” (1951) starring Alex Guinness and directed by Alexander Mackendrick. It imagines an indestructible white cloth invented by a chemist that sends the world garment industry into convulsions.  “her” is actually more such  a comedic observation than a life-shattering epic.  If only Jonze could have stuck closer to Guinness than to H.A.L.

The author was film and drama critic, then senior editor for features at The Milwaukee Journal, then a leader in online news forums and editor for a decade of the Milwaukee Labor Press. He now writes regularly for several publications on politics and culture, including occasional theater reviews and historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.