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