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.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Oscar Isaac, notable natural find as musician, actor and cat protector  in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
By Dominique Paul Noth

It wouldn’t be a Coen Brothers movie if they didn’t take an American era they have deep affection and admiration for – and then douse it in acid soaked in sarcasm and their own artistic comments and sensibilities.

Such is “Inside Llewyn Davis,” which many have taken as ode to the folk music scene of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s.  But a lonesome traveler through those times will quickly see something more, as should today’s general audience.

I for one just came off a personal tribute to Pete Seeger and a theater tribute to the folk movement’s political mentor, Woody Guthrie. I can readily validate firsthand that the purist approach to folk music had a strong intellectual grip on that society yet its own laughable side beyond those bulky clannish sweaters the Clancy Brothers wore to produce an oxymoron -- Irish harmony.

As subtly echoed throughout the film, there were other forces at work to dismantle the folk scene. The radio dial and the big bucks record labels kept sneaking in other forms of music to dilute the folk appeal – rock, jazz, effete early music, demi-folk and more to pull attention and royalties away.

Some aspects of that 52 year old scene are re-created well -- the dark hallways of the eerily alike walk-ups, the constant search for any acquaintance with an apartment whose couch you could flop on, the frequent hitchhiking and endless road trips across the US to the lure of the Village, the casual sex (long before Roe vs. Wade and frankly hardly confined as in the movie to the coffeehouse culture as any urban dweller of the time can tell you).

But there is also considerable gauze wrapped around the Coen memories. For instance, no cockroaches, which actually ruled those walk-ups, dank halls and the club scene more than any Village visitor would like to admit. More importantly, while there was some warmth and camaraderie among fellow acolytes to this music and culture, there were intense rude rivalries, crazies roaming the streets and rank ugliness in and around the café scene.

The absence of much of this can be called poetic license to better riff and rip through the storyline.  Joel and Ethan Coen, screenwriters as well as directors, are also much better at thrust and parry than the inhabitants of that era  were in slicing their opponents with salty dialog and attitudes.

In the pressure of those times and the sheer number of musicians eager to be a part of the scene, new music was built on the folk heritage. Even traditionalists such as Seeger sought ways to embrace the newcomers as part of the inevitable cycle of the people’s music. But some couldn’t and that is emphasized in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”  Like the central character  these musicians could grab a buck doing a commercial gig (a funny sidelight is how Davis takes the money rather than the royalties for what will clearly be a gimmick hit) but resent watering down purist instincts for the wheeler dealers.

The story plays off that artistic discontent, the awareness of the need to scramble and the awareness of the need to maintain integrity. Typical of the Coens’ vision, comedy lurks within  despair and self-doubt.

Stark Sands, Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake
 performing “500 Miles” in “Inside Llewyn Davis.”
The film lives on this seesaw because of Oscar Isaac, whose natural gifts as singer and reactive participant are essential to our participation.  As Davis, he moves from confusion over his singing partner’s suicide  to anger at society’s cruelty toward  his talents, to balancing his mooching needs for a couch to sleep on with guilt over shacking up and his automatic instinct to rescue a straying cat.

The Coens have put mammals ahead of music. The cat becomes a connector for the character even more than the historically faithful tunes. 

The film-makers were very very loosely inspired by Dave Von Ronk, a musician of that era who was actually much more rooted in real-life than this fictional Davis, though his career reflects how fellow musicians respected his talent more than the money labels did. 

Making a film about those times in our time allows some gently wicked asides by the Coens  – such as a young Bob Dylan taking the stage after a Davis set or John Goodman as a heroin addicted jazz artist whose pretenses clearly  should be skewered, yet he gets abundant screen time to skewer folk music.

Isaac is the presence to remember, but the movie’s promoters are correct about one thing. Whether it’s this movie or another – he’s in several of the top films of 2013 and was important in the films that won in 2011 and 2012 -- Goodman is too big and versatile an actor to have so long been overlooked by his peers. 

But the Coens always have a knack for writing memorable vignettes solidly cast. Consider country bumpkin in uniform Stark Sands, a subtle caricature of an up and coming singer. Or Max Casella as a typically slimy nightclub owner.  Particularly, note how Carey Mulligan puts scorn for herself and all men into Jean, the object and participant in every folk-singers’ lust and, it turns out, a key to their employment.  She is another player in the betrayals that Davis must face and conquer. 

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a satisfying film visually, musically and in its acting, but I wouldn’t classify it as the Coens’ best. Except in the sense that it best reflects what they can do in an imaginative reflexive way – to look deep, get inside and comment. Their films don’t need a pedestal, just an audience.

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.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska.” “Dallas Buyers Club,” “12 Years a Slave,” “Blue Jasmine”  and “Captain Phillips.”   Check them out and add your comments.