Tuesday, January 28, 2014

WHY HANKS AT TOP OF HIS GAME IN TENSE ‘CAPTAIN PHILLIPS’

Tom Hanks enduring captivity as "Captain Phillips."
By Dominique Paul Noth

“Captain Phillips” proves how superbly Hollywood can fashion a taut thriller from the headlines. It bends to our emotional fulfillment more than to accuracy in its depiction of that famous 2009 incident when skipper Richard Phillips’ unarmed cargo ship was hijacked and he was kidnapped by Somali pirates and then rescued in a swift SEALs assault.

It hits all our buttons for tension.  It fashions human conflict to support an abundance of technological excitements on the high seas, dazzling with rapid cuts and outbreaks of action.  It is in the hands of masters, from an excellent production crew to especially director Paul Greengrass. From “Bloody Sunday” to the best Bourne movies, Greengrass has demonstrated a knack for documentary underpinnings in wrenching conflict. 

This is also the best we have seen Tom Hanks in years, and I have a theory about that. Hanks is the envy of every other movie star for his runaway likeability factor – plus A in every movie poll ever taken. He is a nice guy -- apparently off the screen as on – and a smart guy in his knowledge of films. Yet he always seems better in movies that force the trained actor in him to park that nice-guy persona in the backseat.  It must be a struggle, since studios know Mr. Likeable is enough to lure audiences. (Witness the current “Saving Mr. Banks.”)

So there was a nice guy but a real actor  underneath his excellent AIDS victim in “Philadelphia” and inside the efficient combat veteran who really just wants to get home in “Saving Private Ryan” --  and particularly when the movie doesn’t ride on his shoulders, such as the character acting in “Catch Me If You Can.”

“Captain Phillips” does ride on his star power, but he fools the expected with his talent to play down niceness. Sure, we want him to win – we always want the hostage to win – but he lures us with skills. He creates a gentle New England accent, a homebody persona, a businesslike efficiency on deck, a calculated preparation for trouble and a psychological control in handling the attackers. Only a salvo of berserk violence snaps his tight professionalism into heart-stopping desperation and humanity.

Along the way, the audience cheers patriotically at the majestic intercession and determination of the Navy and the SEALs. But it also gets a sidelight into the tribal realities that drive the Somalis to piracy, fueled by their fierce fantasies of wealth and commitment to warlord tactics.


Barkhad Abdi leads the Somali pirates
 onto the captain’s ship.
They are led by “Skinny,” the cunning but childlike pirate leader who is always chewing khat (a stimulus plant popular in Africa) and dreaming of big loot.  He is a dangerous uncontrollable adversary suspicious of Phillips’ Yankee logic and superior seamanship.  And that makes his mental combat with pragmatic Americans unpredictable and frightening. It has brought deserved understandable attention to first time actor Barkhad Abdi, but it is a one of a kind role insufficient to prove he merits long-lasting supporting actor honors.

The film has generated historical controversy.  Phillips’ torturous experience clearly had heroic elements and his daring rescue was a highlight reel of US military superiority.   But to drive the tale, the movie makes the captain more heroic than the facts and tries to signal his astuteness, always anticipating the outcome.  Hanks handles the role with admirable honestly whatever the demands imposed by script and star draw.

Still, Hank is not quite on par with his competition at awards time.   They had parts, often historically based as well, that allowed more natural subtleties or more explosive insights. But it is Hanks better than the role in a movie that is better than it had to be to rivet us to our seats. 

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 Milwaukee 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” and “Blue Jasmine.”   Check them out and add your comments.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

MARVELOUS CATE -- BUT MARVEL ALSO AT WOODY IN ‘BLUE JASMINE’

By Dominique Paul Noth


Cate Blanchett as "Blue Jasmine."
No one in the acting categories can even think of approaching Cate Blanchett’s luminous manic in “Blue Jasmine,” not just the performance to beat at awards time but the performance to emulate in all times.

But that’s the easiest statement.  What will be forgotten is why. “Blue Jasmine” didn’t spring magically from her imagination or even from her immense talents, polished on the stage to be sure and now confirming her along with Meryl Streep as one of those rare chameleons of truth and technique we are blessed with.

No, the forgotten man in all this is Woody Allen.


Woody Allen directing Blanchett
 on the San Francisco streets for “Blue Jasmine.”
He has made several clinkers as well as gems among 48 movies in 49 years. At times he should have had a fairy godfather to rip the pen out of his hands, so prolific was his mania. Except the world benefited from such fidelity. He grew, thought and changed along the way while creating astounding films and memorable roles for men and, as many have noted, especially for actress after actress, the women who pray every night that someday he will call them out of the blue and offer a role.

In “Blue Jasmine” his formula is workmanlike but quicksilver with nuance, never abandoning that impulsive affection for recognizable characters, always with a great ear for the way people talk.  Now the old Woody would have fallen back on great one-liners or facile jests when in trouble, or indulge a fantasy escape into more inviting periods or cultures for his literary and artistic proclivities. No need here, since the film is deeply rooted in a modern social dilemma and contemporary observation.

It is hardly all about having a wonderful interpreter in Blanchett. No one will notice how much of her is him. Expect Woody to be barely mentioned as best director or for best film (he is notorious for avoiding personal appearance at awards). But film lovers should never overlook how dexterous, fresh yet invisible he is in mood reversals, how complex in time-shifting storytelling without ever calling attention to his directorial gifts.

He is commenting better than Obama on income equality and class anxiety and he has cast slyly around Blanchett.   (Why is Sally Hawkins not up for best supporting honors?  Would it be too much for Oscar to acknowledge that an Aussie and a Brit have nailed the dialog rhythms of American women?) 


Blanchett and Alec Baldwin in “Blue Jasmine.”
“Blue Jasmine” achieves the unlikely, seamlessly circling the comic and tragic in Jasmine’s descent toward madness. Jasmine is the ultimate in high-class wasteful, the antithesis of American productivity, the lip-service to a work ethic she has never bothered to adopt. She has fallen incuriously and as if it were owed her into shopping, world travel, cocktail parties,  Park Avenue – luxuriating in the credit card attention of a wealthy husband (the perfectly cast Alec Baldwin) who turns out to be a combination of Bernie Maddof and serial womanizer.

When the FBI and prison bring that life tumbling down, she is forced to San Francisco (first class ticket, of course)  to move in with her divorced sister (Hawkins) and two ferocious kids – the sister she scorned in her other life as a grocery clerk loser and sucker for the wrong and always vulgar man.  Ginger takes her in but can’t resist twisting the verbal knife into the once high and mighty. Their personalities are so set and the pathologies so deep that nothing rubs off either way.

Allen has taken a “Through the Looking Glass” approach to Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” with Jasmine as the Blanche full of her own dreams, allure and increasing loss of mental control, and sister Ginger as Stella, with her own blunt bull Stanley (in this case Chili, played relentlessly by Bobby Cannavale as a basket case of libido loose-cannon saying whatever he wishes whenever he wishes). 

But “Streetcar” is just a starting point for Allen to twist rather than echo. Normally, watching a woman mentally unravel is hardly fun and tough to make poignant.   Jasmine like Blanche could be a field day for indulgent acting. Which makes Blanchett all the more remarkable. The hooded eyes and vacant stare signal a woman falling apart, yet she pulls herself back into sophisticated mannerisms as she fights to regain status and control.

Blanchett never lets us see the actor’s brain at work or doubt the naturalness of  these mood swings. Jasmine the compulsive liar and self-deceiver remains full of touching airs. Her patrician breeding still lures the upper crust male while causing scorn in the lower berths.  Her fight for normalcy and sanity leads to an ugly groping encounter with a dentist. Her bouts of talking to herself scare strangers but mesmerize Ginger’s children in one of the most devastating babysitting scenes in film history.


Bobby Cannavale and Sally Hawkins in “Blue Jasmine”
Allen twists the plot to reveal Ginger’s shallowness and Jasmine’s bitter deceptions. Coincidences catch Jasmine in a web of her own making, but her crippling weaknesses never defeat our sympathy for her plight.  That’s acting but it is also great directing.

An afterword: Allen’s presence on a movie title serves as invitation for jazz lovers to revel in his vintage scores.  In “Blue Jasmine” these Allen musical signatures are back, but as a foot-tapping counterpoint. The character herself is out of time and out of sync, caught in memories and melodies past.

Still, what an excuse to hear Louis Armstrong and King Oliver! And the late great Creole two-language blues of Lizzie Miles serving up the pointedly ironic "A Good Man Is Hard to Find."  Like the best of Allen, “Blue Jasmine” is a pleasure that just happens to be meaningful.

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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.


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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

DON’T LET HYPE KEEP YOU FROM ’12 YEARS A SLAVE’

These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

Chiwetel Ejiofor masters restraint as Solomon Northup in “12 Years a Slave.”

By Dominique Paul Noth

No movie can be as good as the commercials and gushing interviews that surround it at awards time. Sometimes the insistence that this is the best film, the best performance, the best supporting performance, the best ensemble can artificially inflate expectations and do disservice to work better served creeping over us.

This is happening to a major contender in the Oscars sweepstakes, “12 Years a Slave.”  The movie is a compelling journey, a revealing artistic reminder of a historic episode (I would argue an ongoing episode) of the horrors that the ruling class inflicts on fellow humans in the name of property rights and racial domination. But some viewers take that call to conscience as a turnoff, labeling “Slave” as one of those Politically Correct shout-outs to sell a topic they expect to be heavy-handed.  You can hear that reaction on social media. 


But for now it is more essential to validate the film-makers.


Despite the gushy publicity, this is a forward-moving chapter in film literature.  It allows actors and cinema artistry to carry the bulk of a persuasive story that,   whether you are PC-overburdened or not, adds to our understanding of what America was and is.  Best of all at its center is an indelible restrained performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.


There has also been too much emphasis in the discussions around the film over its raw depiction of violence.  The casualness of the beatings and killings of slaves are upsetting – but factual. The cavalier speed with which a white mistress insults and maims a black rival is a pointed demonstration of jealousy unchallenged and a stomach-turning choice in storytelling.


But there’s more than brutal reality here. The elongated scenes of common whippings and demeaning field work are matched by elongated periods of introspection as the characters grab moments of eating, sleeping and dreaming  in the woods – or stealing a gesture of defiance where possible. The plotting reinforces the crushing weights upon the slave, that sense of inescapability that a modern public cannot grasp and certainly can’t accept (because these days we think we can escape anything). 



Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
The best actors have also seized this insight -- that the pain for these slaves didn’t stop when the director yelled “Cut!” Director Steve McQueen (no, not that McQueen, this one is British, black and a considerable artist) provides a screen equivalent of how Mark Twain as novelist suggested psychological flight in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” There the Mississippi River became an interlude of flowing mental refuge until the cruelty and foibles on land crashed back in.

Similarly, the placid swamps,  the  cane and cotton fields, the antebellum mystique  provide brief respite from overseer brutality – and then  plantation  children romp  around a black man hung up for punishment.


It is this contrasting tone set by the director and the best of the acting that allows such contradictions and images to convey the internal turmoil, rather than descending into false nobility or romanticism. McQueen is fascinated by the sexual politics at play in this era, but he most frequently resists the temptation to impose our modern sensibilities and sense of superiority on the characters.  


Viewers may long for more redemptive revenge action a la Bourne legacies, rather than perpetrators and victims trapped in their own times and circumstances.  There is an amusing recognition of how those well-mannered Southern whites can pout in sympathy for displaced blacks before demanding their next beating.  Occasionally you catch screenwriter John Ridley pointing too hard in his choices of episodes and dialog and even toying with pamphleteering.

But mostly the film is full of largely subtle indications not of white cruelty but their misapplication of religious fervor, their dominant insistence on human property as economic chattel, their incapability to question their own sense of privilege. 

A needed historic note: Northup was a free man drugged into slavery in 1841 and then sold to a series of plantation owners in Louisiana until rescued by friends. His memoirs were a pamphleteering best seller among abolitionists in the 1850s and then virtually disappeared from prominence in black literature with the news that it had been co-authored by a white man.   In recent times, its verisimilitude and Northup’s untarnished remembrances have gained immense stature. While the dialog and some incidents are imagined, most of what takes place in the film is unbelievably true, since Northup fought  a white man attacking him and for years disguised his own sophistication, both usually causes for instant lynching in the South. 


Ejiofor captures a beaten captive reluctant to fully identify with the subservient blacks around him yet clearly sympathetic to their suffering.  Determined to survive, fearful of revealing his education and intellect, he still can’t hide his capabilities. So he is constantly on edge between the whites looking for him to slip and the blacks looking to him for solace.


With the funeral singing of “Roll Jordan Roll” we recognize the powerful line Northup has walked – never accepting being a slave yet never fully accepting the fate of the blacks around him. The awards may not notice that staggering acting revelation within a simple spiritual, but those are the moments the set the film apart. 


A similarly intense actor’s motor drives Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, born a slave and riddled with melancholy, awareness of her sexuality yet fearful of the white interest. The performance is drawing huzzahs about a new ingĂ©nue to light the screen, particularly because of her impact during a bloody beating, but her honest approach is sometimes tested by the film’s desire to show her off.



Adeporo Oduye as Eliza in a scene with
 Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
There are equally powerful performances going unrecognized, notably Adeporo Oduye as Eliza, the slave who can’t forget the children taken from her. Alfre Woodard supplies a wickedly shrewd vignette as Mistress Shaw, the black matron who has used her appeal to secure her fortune.

There are too many cameos by established actors to call this a triumph of ensemble acting.  But there are winning impacts by Benedict Cumberbatch as a well-meaning but cowardly landowner and Paul Giamatti as a ruthless slave trader.  Well acted but overdemonstrative in incidents chosen for explosiveness are Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson as the slave-owning couple from hell (or someplace even south of that).


In history, there was a deus ex machina of Northup’s salvation, a white worker named Bass who risked his own life to send word north of Northup’s plight. As Bass, Brad Pitt (also a producer) falls into an abolitionist call to arms far more than the plot device the film required.


But Ejiofor is a triumph and given room to plummet depth, from survivor’s triumph to survivor’s guilt.  Yes there are faults and too much hype, but your heart and mind will overcome that.  “12 Years a Slave”  certainly does.


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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler," “Nebraska” and “Dallas Buyers Club.”   Check them out and add your comments.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

TRUE GRIT KEEPS ‘DALLAS BUYERS CLUB’ ABOVE ITS MISSTEPS

Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club."
These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

By Dominique Paul Noth

It could have descended into a Hollywood stunt. Certainly the entertainment tabloids almost put it there. Only in the past few years, they breathlessly write, has Matthew McConaughey been treated as an actor.  Before then he was most famous for taking off his shirt onscreen to show how buff he was.

But now how brave that he dropped 50 pounds and is making waves and winning acting awards as a  gauntly beautiful rodeo boozer, gambler and womanizer, the natural leader to his gay bashing friends in rowdy Texas partying.  And then his character, Ron Woodruff, is staggered that unprotected sex has made him an AIDS victim with only a month to live according to the hospital expert in this new medical field, cavalierly advising him in 1985.

That is the premise – and those are often the media headlines used to sell “Dallas Buyers Club” – and that’s just the start.  Jared Leto, the musician and TV series heartthrob, dropped 30 pounds (!) to mince about as the drug-addled transgender who befriends the cowboy despite Woodruff’s toxic attitude toward “faggots” as he calls them.  Yet as Rayon, Leto not only becomes the cowboy’s business partner but also his friend and surrogate naughty child.

Yup, it sure could have been a stunt. It isn’t helped that the makers can’t resist some typical Hollywood twists to the storytelling.  There is that mandatory attractive and sympathetic female doctor, played straight in a lost cause by Jennifer Garner. There is a finale rodeo resolution to make us feel good.  There is some unneeded heartstring tugging in what is actually a legitimately emotional story if only they’d just let it flow.

But a couple of things keep “Dallas Buyers Club” in the top ranks of movies this season.  First, both McConaughey and Leto have far more acting chops than tabloid-thrilling weight loss. Both are subtle and explosive, and McConaughey in particular is a coiled dynamo that rivets the eyes. What they communicate is the ferocity of the dismissed and abandoned  – the desire to live, to beat society’s rules and expectations as AIDS devastated the nonconformist communities in the 1980s.

The other thing the movie does unveil is the agony too long hidden in media coverage – the same sort of tabloid misdirection as demonstrated in the weight loss hoopla.  It is past  time to  remember -- and I speak as someone turned back by the establishment in pressuring to cover  the human pain, family tragedies and actual truth of AIDS victims and the underground help they had been forced to turn to out of social fear in the 1980s.

Even beyond that, few in power wanted to admit that the underground help, wrapped in so-called low-lifes, often did more good with more compassion than the system.  And no one wanted to face up to the measures anyone would take when confronted with a death sentence by an illness few understood.

McCounaughey’s character is based on an actual AIDS victim turned hustler for survival and activist for the sufferers. Ron Woodruff was indeed a partying animal and gay basher, though not as wild as the movie depicts. What did open his eyes a little was when his homophobic friends turned their backs on him for fear of contamination. What really opened his eyes was determination to live. Even to learn if he had to. He early realized that heavy-dose AZT approved by the FDA was destroying him, so he began smuggling illegal pills and better advice from Mexico to aid himself and other victims and then made money forming a buyers’ club where members paid to get all the new dosages he had uncovered.

It’s a temptation with some truth that the film falls into -- to paint the government as the villains and the hustlers as the heroes.  But this was a confusing era where no one had it right and society did seem to impose bullying rules about who lived and died. The film successfully conveys that, with enough resonance and fever in the story and acting to carry the audience along.

Hollywood shouldn’t be honored for finally confronting the early days of AIDS head-on, but doing so does seem to translate at awards time into extra credit for moral courage. It really should be a reminder of the courage society long lacked.

The ferocity to live, to trick and lie if needed, to scream and curse if called for, drives the screen.  Undoubtedly left on the  cutting room floor are the excess moments the cast trotted out to reach those wrenching human chords. But audiences can only judge what is left on the screen, and here McConaughey  is remarkably vivid and unstinting, from emotional uppers to desperate physical collapses, from smooth cons and violent profanity to increasing muscular feebleness.

Leto actually provides the transitional key.  Rayon (a totally invented character by the way)  bridges our understanding of  how Woodruff could remain the same Texas conman  but rise in determination to help all victims.  Leto’s  transgender role opens up a vulnerability and humanity the story needs.

Yet even here, “Dallas Buyers Club” can’t escape missteps of inflating the emotional codas surrounding death.  It was almost as if  respected director Jean-Marc Vallee – or the tons of executive producers, producers and advisers shaping this film – never quite trusted the audience or the actors.  But they should have.  It’s the difference between a needed contemporary drama  and a great movie.


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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," "The Butler" and “Nebraska.”  Check them out and add your comments.




Wednesday, January 22, 2014

QUALITY FILM-MAKING SNEAKS OVER US ON THE ROAD TO ‘NEBRASKA’

These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.


By Dominique Paul Noth

Bruce Dern and Will Forte on the road in “Nebraska.”
There is no flash, bang and crash of cymbals in “Nebraska.” It possesses a comedic yet elegiac elegance that dooms it at awards time.  But at least the movie community had the courage to recognize its humanistic honesty.

The central character, Woody Grant, is unlikeable and even pitiful – a taciturn, cantankerous, retired mechanic muddled by years of boozing and bare subsistence in Montana. He’s like American Gothic drawn by Charles Addams. In his partial senility and unfailing stubbornness, he becomes convinced that a magazine sales come-on actually will bring him a million dollars if he can get to Lincoln, Nebraska.  Despite his family’s recognition that he has been duped, he wanders off determined to find his own way. Only his least successful son (as society measures success) decides to humor the old man and accompany him on his fool’s errand.

“Nebraska” is a throwback to an observational time of moviemaking.  A road movie, no less. In black and white, no less. With guitar riffs floating us past signage, monotonous highways,  side-roads, decrepit houses  and crumbling stretches of rural America – without car chases or false punctuation.

How, you may well ask, can so unpretentious a story about so unsteady a character keep us growingly interested?  But build it does.  Chuckle we do. There is a sneaky comic vision of the greed, boredom and buffoonery of the relations and old friends Woody encounters, of how the neglected way-stations of America carry generations of meaning. The son uncovers unexpected snippets from Woody’s past that quietly unravel this uncommunicative beer guzzling grizzled wreck who lacks any interest in defending himself or any ounce of poetry to reveal his soul.

Director Alexander Payne has that poetry. When not being too clever, so does screenwriter Bob Nelson, who finds humor in the articulate as well as the vulgar. It is through such skills, including remarkable cinematographer Phedon Papanichael, that Woody emerges.  But the soul of Woody, without any showiness, is occupied by Bruce Dern, and that is everything.

Bruce Dern was an uncredited extra in Elia Kazan’s “Wild River” (1960), the sailor attacking a child in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” (1964).  The wild-eyed cowboy who tries to hang Clint Eastwood (1968) and actually kills John Wayne (1972).  The suicidal combat victim of “Coming Home” (1978).  It took eons for Dern to be elevated from psychotic and weirdo to offbeat leading man and then sought-after character  actor.  But those who watched him maneuver over six decades through good roles and bad ones understood what Hollywood often didn’t -- the artistry under the antic ability that got him cast.

No antics here.  Finally a devotion to the truth of simply occupying a character that had long been Dern’s relentless pursuit as an actor. He never tries to push with Woody. He just is, and that is precisely what the role needs – a natural hypnotic presence. Perhaps honor at his achievement will break the awards lockout for “Nebraska,” but Dern fans shouldn’t hold their breath.

There is one brief moment, not Dern’s doing, where the film breaks its remarkable wall of observational tension to satisfy the audience’s desire to strike out at those who take advantage of Woody.  But the fact that we so want to strike out and defend a character we started out barely tolerating simply emphasizes how Dern got  Woody inside our heads without artifice.

June Squibb as Woody’s abrasive overbearing wife reveals more depth than the harridan we take her for. But even better, since we see things through his quiet empathetic manner, is Will Forte as the son.  Yes, the Will Forte of SNL who here finds the rapport with Woody and never lets us see him seeing the humor of it all.

No, “Nebraska” won’t win awards.  It is too quietly paced and does require attentive patient viewing. But it steadily catches you up, reels you in and reminds you forcibly of the insights possible through humanistic cinema.

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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other movie reviews in this series include "Saving Mr. Banks," "American Hustle," and "The Butler." Check them out and add your comments.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

OPRAH ASIDE, ‘THE BUTLER’ FAILS TO SERVE

These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

By Dominique Paul Noth

Oprah Winfrey and Forest Whitaker
 as the Gaineses midway through "The Butler."
Film buffs and Internet historians have pretty much decided on their own, as I do here, that the name of the movie is “The Butler” rather than the contractually insisted insertion of the director’s name in the title.

Have you also noticed that despite the hoopla that surrounded its release, and extensive TV interviews around the memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr., the movie has been shut out in the major Oscar nominations announced January 16? 

This was not only a sign of box office disappointment, which always affects the Oscar choices despite the aura that artistic quality is the decider. It was also a sign of artistic disappointment in an epic everyone wanted to succeed – a survey of 75 years of America’s struggle to rid the dominant white culture of what MLK among others described as a white sickness, not intrinsic white wickedness. (Though a horrifyingly vicious sickness.)

In one case, that Oscar snub is unfair.  Oprah Winfrey’s supporting performance -- the butler’s wife devoted to middle class status, recipes, sewing, dancing and even drinking and sexuality until she lashes out as ferocious mother and appreciative defender of her husband -- is a remarkable series of spot-on vignettes. She captures again and again the various styles and chameleonic nature of the times.  

It’s far more than the cultural shock of “Good Lord -- Oprah’s smoking!” She should have been the movie’s dramatic touchstone, as should the other behaviorist performances of Terrence Howard and particularly Forest Whitaker communicating the butler’s two faces: Dignity and naturalness as a house servant and anger as the father treated as a paycheck Uncle Tom.

In fact, Whitaker struggles to return the film to its best basic concept:  A butler human in his behavior but trained to maneuver as unnoticed observer at the White House without direct response or political reaction to tumultuous events. Except the movie keeps inserting incidents where he is a participant, a trigger, a victim or out of touch older citizen in the turmoil of civil rights.

Even if you were empathetic through these decades, even if you respect those brief insights into how an entire race camouflaged true feelings and functioned on despite establishment attitudes, the movie is a distinct disappointment. It fails to consistently and progressively get underneath and inside, leaving us clinging to those acting vignettes where screenwriter Danny Strong, an actor himself, and director Lee Daniels gave the cast some room to behave naturally.  

Neighbor Terrence Howard attempts
 to seduce Oprah Winfrey in "The Butler."
But then Strong with heavyset words and Daniels with heavy-handed cutting take away those very insights. This is a Classics Comics treatment of important history, a gaseous fueled headline assault that seldom knows how to relax and let internal realities tell the tale. The production must underscore and punch hard every historic incident to the point of turning off both white and black audiences.  Yet no punch is needed to make us feel the power of Eisenhower stepping in to protect black schoolchildren or JFK getting shot. 

The defiance in the younger generation can’t just be perceived by the moviemakers. It has to clobber us. Butler Cecil Gaines’ oldest son must embody every flavor of rebellion – sit-ins, jailbird, Freedom Bus rider escalating into Black Panther and then “reformed” college student and member of Congress. In a telegraphed inevitability, the younger son laughs it all off and is killed in Vietnam.  

If there is dignity in house servants, if there was any refutation of bigotry in the ethics, skills and pride of the butler class, it has to be explicitly explained to the rebellious son in MLK’s motel room, of all places.  The audience must be told what to think, not allowed to think.

Profound moral contractions can be communicated without pounding social placards into the audience’s chest. If you doubt that, revisit the British “Remains of the Day” of 1993. It’s subtle to be sure, but fascinating how Anthony Hopkins as the devoted butler to an English lord playing footsie with the Fascists makes us fume with outrage at his indifference. It relies on good acting, quiet screenwriting and the audience’s intelligence.

“The Butler” is based on the true tale of Eugene Allen, a butler to eight presidents (truncated for time, thankfully, into five, with major acting names imitating the presidents – the real acting chops under the makeup falling mainly to Liv Schreiber as LBJ).  It correctly explores the historic emotional discipline and conduct code needed at the White House – (“You hear nothing. You see nothing. You only serve”). But even the White House echoes with pejoratives and pay discrimination.  The plot ties the characters’ progression to the major decisions being made and overheard by the butler from Eisenhower to JFK to LBJ to Nixon —concluding with how Ronald Reagan’s resistance to sanctions on South Africa’s apartheid regime finally brings  the butler’s family together again.

Liv Schreiber as LBJ
It is all too pat, a disservice to the controlled anguish of black society of all strata, a constant effort to rub our noses in the obvious injustices. There was a reason why it took a Washington Post story in 2008, when Obama was on the verge of becoming president, that we only then learned about the black butler who succeeded through humanity and invisibility to White House longevity, an admirable example but not an activist player.  

The director, who insisted this film be called “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” has clearly put the wrong people first, and not just in the title.  If the movie had worked it didn’t need his name.  The film hurt its best acting moments, not because Oscar is forgetful but because the awards recognized Daniels’ failure to let tension speak for itself or grasp the difference between art and polemics. 

That explains the Oprah snub and why moviegoers and awards voters have gravitated toward the truer slice of history in Chiwetel Ejiofor (best actor nominee) and “12 Years a Slave” (best picture nominee), blocking out the deeply respected Whitaker and the steadily disrespected “The Butler.”

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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Other current Noth movie reviews on this domain include “Saving Mr. Banks” and “American Hustle.”

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

THE BEST (SOCIALLY DECEPTIVE) ‘HUSTLE’ ON THE BIG SCREEN

These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams having
 a bizarre confrontation in “American Hustle.”
By Dominique Paul Noth

As I watched Christian Bale as con artist Irving Rosenfeld  diligently minister to his elaborate comb-over and hair patch, for the first time in my life I felt a pang for Donald Trump and what his ego and self-image must go through every morning to face the world.

This is not a cheap joke at the expense of The Donald and his coif.  It is really the gift of director David O. Russell. He guides our empathy toward the most unlikely, quirky and self-obsessed characters, forcing us to rethink our priorities and social conventions.

 In “American Hustle,” hair becomes a society metaphor of how the imperfect present themselves to sucker, con or manipulate those with even less confidence or more desperate greed. From the immense pompadour flourished by Jeremy Renner as a baby-kissing 1970s mayor not above some under-table corruption (a still current metaphor for New Jersey apparently) to the huge hair curlers of Amy Adams as a just clever enough wannabe preparing to fool the marks, from the puffed hairdo and artificial suntan of queen bee Jennifer Lawrence to the permed Brilliantine locks and tiny rollers of FBI agent Bradley Cooper, the movie loads up on follicles as Freud.

The fact that the actors are in real life beautiful people mocking the need to be beautiful people is just a layer upon a layer of the hustle.

Russell is great at this.  The movie constantly turns upside down our attitudes about nutty behavior and appropriate conduct, mocking our belief in traditional values, nastily upending our establishment ideas of appropriate ethical norms.  It has a comic spin and sense of outsized grandeur and con, but it also strikes true.

The movie is an actor’s paradise of improvisation and outrageous behavior, from Adams indicating submission to sex and then  peeing and howling in a nightclub stall to Lawrence dancing madly to “Live and Let Die” after setting the mob loose on her wayward husband.   But there is a wacky enduring romanticism that permeates this commentary on Americana values, as in many of Russell’s outings.

In the 1960s the academic auteur theory often went too far. It correctly noted how pervasive a powerful director’s style and themes could be (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock) but ignored the collaborative nature of moviemaking.

But among the handful of modern directors who fit the auteur theory – yet embrace teamwork and improvisation -- and whose unique (in this case cockeyed) vision of humanity dominates (“The Three Kings,” “I Heart Huckabees,” “Silver Linings Playbook” and now “American Hustle”) Russell is right up there – and according to industry reports as beloved, hated and outspoken as many of those directors of yore.

One reason why the love affair at the heart of “Silver Linings Playbook” carried so much weight is we were forced to rethink the boxes we put couples into. Here were two people (again Cooper and Lawrence) wrestling for control of their mental faculties yet somehow closer to love and trust than the rest of us.

Similarly, down to the mad dance motif, “American Hustle” and its bizarre leads are hardly what society regards as normal. But that same money-crazy society that would question their mores is clearly a pushover for their methods.  Bale with his pot belly, self-absorption and a heart condition interrupting his sexual entanglements and Adams with her desire to flaunt her British accent along with her body are hardly models of decent behavior.  Bale's  street scam,  built around dry-cleaning and fake art, is modest crime until he is forced by the FBI into a million dollar wire hustle that fills him with personal and emotional doubts – along with guilt over  who he is targeting while becoming a target.

Yet we root for him. And for Adams, who is manipulative, shrewd and strangely honest, which contrasts her with Lawrence, who turns every bizarre behavior into a justification of her impulsive personality.

There is a curious code of fidelity among thieves missing in the establishment world of FBI, prosecutors, politicians and even the Mafia (Robert De Niro blisters the screen through dangerous presence in an uncredited cameo).  Crooked politicians and gangsters would normally be the targets of comeuppance, and the law would normally be the agents of justice, but the movie turns that expectation on its ear. 

In a plot too bizarre to explain, but based quite loosely on the infamous ABSCAM (fake Arab sheik scam)  of the 1970s that netted several payola politicians, the story reverses comedically the people we want to see punished, with a satirical point of view that resonates with viewers.

Despite some overhype at awards time, in contrasting ways Adams and Lawrence have never done as good work, and Bale and Cooper are great fun.

The finale is a bit of loose-ends wrapping up of escapist romanticism. Some of the antics along the way can mainly be explained as letting actors cut loose.  Still, “American Hustle” is a vision of America that needs a hearing, a slyly original piece of storytelling that still echoes the values of humanistic cinema. It is one of the most satisfying movie journeys of the year.

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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoastdaily.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

DISNEY’S DIG FOR GOLD – can these Hollywood self-embraces finally cease?

Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks going round
 and round to promote Disneyland and
 “Mary Poppins” while starring in “Saving Mr. Banks.”
These movie essays on current releases are not for the thumbs up thumbs down crowd but for those who want their brains teased with what and why.  Please join the commentary at the end.

By Dominique Paul Noth

The Golden Globes gave cool reception January 12 to a much touted film timed in its release to woo insider votes. But “Saving Mr. Banks,” may turn hotter with Oscar nominations – since thousands of the Academy voters have close affiliations with Disney Studios, which has been pressuring for the film. 

But here’s hoping not. Here’s hoping “Saving Mr. Banks” writes finale to the movie industry’s fetish for wet sloppy kissing itself in presenting its accolades.

Two years ago there was considerable artistic motivation when Oscar honored “The Artist” – and it was easy to be swept up in the acclaim.  Few wanted to believe that statuette success was primarily about Hollywood in a self-congratulatory fever.

The positive finale from “The Artist”
But ask yourself – how was it possible that a silent film in black and white from a foreign director could seduce thousands of motion picture industry veteran cynics so readily?  While expertly done and using the best storyboard techniques of cinema, “The Artist” was an emotional pat on the back for Hollywood’s self-importance in world culture and its redemptive power.

The story of how the arrival of sound did indeed humiliate and destroy silent film artists seemed at first an attack on the ugly side of the studio system, only to flip in its concluding huzzahs into a triumph of Hollywood righting itself – the big hearts of stars and studios recognizing talent and using the magic of big screen enchantment to reverse suicidal depression.   Forget what MGM did to John Gilbert and Judy Garland, forget Warner Bros suspending Bette Davis. Hollywood corrected its tendencies. Just like real life.

A little self-indulgent glee is natural in the movie industry, but worse was to come. In my view the 2013 Oscars and Golden Globes will long regret passing over the “best film” that will prove immortal, “Lincoln,” to honor “Argo” – but that sad story has more to do with insider agencies and political advertising than artistic judgment.

In fairness, “Argo” had some built-in justifications for its Oscar and Golden Globes wins. One of the rationales behind the “Argo” sweep was the grave snub to Ben Affleck, wrongly passed over for Oscar best director nomination.  It was a better made fictionalization of a true story of heroism than “Zero Dark Thirty” -- and had the advantage of time passing as well (the rescue from Iran in 1979 of Americans trapped in the Canadian embassy using the ruse of a mythical Hollywood film). “Zero’s”  hunt for bin Laden was too close an event to compress and controversially  fictionalize.

Hollywood insiders John Goodman (left) and Alan
 Arkin (center) with Ben Affleck toasting “Argo.”
But few outsiders realized that “Argo” with its canny storytelling and good production values was a ready occasion for Hollywood to again embrace itself in its own virtues, this time for helping save democracy. A few of the community’s leading specialists  (including the late makeup artist John Chambers whom I once interviewed) helped sell the ruse and then kept quiet about it for decades, a rare case of moviemakers keeping a secret.  “Argo’s” best lines and performances are all echoes of that “inside Hollywood” affection -- so clever, so good, so deserving more pats on the back at awards time.

Now,  timed to awards season,  comes “Saving Mr. Banks” -- also based on a true back-story of how “Mary Poppins” author P.L. Travers proved a splintery British nut for Walt Disney Studios to crack in her determination to preserve her “Mary Poppins” creation from Walt’s manipulations.  The movie spends endless time retracing Travers’ childhood hardships in Australia and the roots of her Poppins fantasy, but it  hardly gives credence – just tons of screen time -- to her prickly nature and suspicion of Walt.

Inevitably, “Saving Mr. Banks” concludes
 with Travers attending the “Mary Poppins” premiere.
The whole exercise ends up serving as the longest indirect trailer the original 1964 film ever had.  It makes us long to see “Mary Poppins” again, a truism reflected in the final credits -- backstage photo memories from the original production.

The highlight reel for “Saving Mr. Banks” should consist completely of the catchy movie tunes and alluring story boards for “Mary Poppins” that Travers so unreasonably resists, until she finally taps her toes. The Disney creative forces imagined by actor Bradley Whitford (with Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the musical Shermans) are the best things in the film, underscoring that Disney’s creative people are the greatest gift to America since the invention of the refrigerator.

The always expert Emma Thompson broods magnificently and with devastating acerbic flourishes as Travers, only to literally melt into Mickey Mouse’s fuzzy embrace for no apparent reason.  Walt Disney in the arms of affable Tom Hanks is almost painfully pleasant, assured, temper controlled, always caring of others. That’s unlike the real Disney, admittedly a PR expert and visionary – but frequently ruthless to rule so huge a dominion.

No tantrums here.  This is father Disney painted by Disney Studios in a major studio promotion as the boss and guru everyone loves.  In reality, the relationship of Travers and Disney has been fictionalized. Disney already had bought the film rights and left her the more problematic script approval rights. Walt wisely left most of those conflict debates to his team, as a final audiotape in the movie amusingly reveals.

Yet the movie still turns Walt into the Carl Jung of Hollywood psychotherapy, figuring out the ego-id secrets behind Travers giving him such a hard time. He explains it all to her and the audience in florid sentences that suggest his love of children and storytelling embody the true genius of our age and anyone who resists his goodwill is a self-abusing silly.

No doubts flights of imagination and the powers of memory are central in all artistic creation, which lends charm to the young Travers (lovely child actress Annie Rose Buckley) and her unstinting  adoration of her wayward father (the ever appealing Colin Farrell).

But “Saving Mr. Banks” is a turgid exercise, beautifully filmed and surprisingly seriously paced, that makes nonsense of a genuine strain in artistic creativity.  Does anyone remember “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1945)?  It is a similar theme of an imaginative child whose resilience and creativity are enhanced by a drunken, doting poetic father.  This was standard in 20th century literature. Countless authors and screenwriters quietly turned childhood hardships into positive insights, though the best hardly used this to crassly promote one studio and one film.

“Saving Mr. Banks” is the Hollywood pat on the backside so blatant it should slap the industry back into common sense.


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 Milwaukee historical pieces at thirdcoast.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Why politics lurked but never struck an unsullied Milwaukee judicial race

By Dominique Paul Noth
Janet Protasiewicz

There are reasons when local races don’t erupt into extremist gridlock.  Usually unreported. Journalists are more consumed by outbreaks of actual gridlock.  But sometimes the best political stories are about why combat doesn’t happen.

One that didn’t happen involves the April Branch 24 election for Milwaukee County Circuit Court, where highly qualified Janet Protasiewicz is now running unopposed by the wealthy forces that spent big against her in spring of 2013.

Yet for weeks, Madison insiders were abuzz with how the conservatives in the Capitol were pushing Gov. Scott Walker to appoint his own incumbent for the seat after the November retirement of feisty maverick Charles F. Kahn Jr.  The Walker administration even accepted applications and held vetting sessions to find a foe to the announced Protasiewicz.  

Technically nonpartisan, judicial races from the Supremes on down have drawn toxic high campaign money and vehement ideological claims for a decade, often backfiring on governors in both parties.  Both Doyle and Walker have lost this game because the public likes to elect their own judges and only then give them virtual lifetime tenure.

But appointed judges carry the taint of any governor’s politics. Experienced lawyers are flattered by the offers from the governor’s people to apply but increasingly wary of the political fallout, several told me.  Right now an image of leaning toward Walker may be what the conservatives want and what Walker once bought into, but this time he was balking over Branch 24.

It was the Walker taint in 2012 that helped propel peppy bilingual Carolina Stark – also a better campaigner – to oust Walker appointed incumbent Nelson Phillips III and take the Branch 17 judgeship.  When a year later Walker appointed Rebecca Bradley as incumbent to another vacant seat, Branch 45, he didn’t trust his personal clout for her incumbency alone could help her survive against a far more court-experienced field (including hard-charging Protasiewicz). So he doubled down.  It took a full blast of talk radio and $167,000 in TV ad buys by Club for Growth to help Bradley win in April 2013.  Walker was an eager player because then he wanted the right-wing financiers to know whose side his bread was buttered on.

But this time Protasiewicz is back – a 25 year veteran of the DA’s office, a workhorse of the courts, courteous and tough as nails, supported by court experts across the political spectrum. Yet some Club for Growth powers in Madison continued to press Walker to appoint someone to oppose her despite no political reason or ammunition.  Even Phillips was interviewed by the governor’s minions. So was another assistant DA, plus two more candidates.  When I spoke with them, none would talk about being offered the job, but then again pointedly, none accepted.

For weeks, while Walker must have felt like the cat being played with by the right-wing mice, Protasiewicz felt like the mouse being played with by the gubernatorial cat.  She was in, but was anyone else? She was highly qualified -- but would she have to face the big spenders Walker has encouraged before, particularly with Judge Bradley, former head of the Milwaukee chapter of the Federalist Society who used big money and political attitudes to retain her seat?

Walker was balking not out of conscience but weighing the timing, according to Madison insiders.  Nothing looks more intrusive than the governor leaning on the local judicial scales, though this is just where heavily biased unreportable money loves to lean. He has been running around the country proclaiming he is about economic not social issues – and definitely not mucking with local control or politics. (Though of course that has been his signature.)

Now he cannot look like a double-dealer in national eyes and also needs every conservative dollar he can muster for his own race. Should he waste gunpowder on Protasiewicz?

Weeks went by. The start of the Dec. 2 five-week countdown to raise 1,000 signatures for an opponent came and went.  Yet Walker stalled and then finally announced, in a remarkable switch in tone December 13, that he “would let the people decide.”  He never revealed he had previously called for applicants and actually had four to choose from.

His belated response assures that Milwaukee County  will now have only the most qualified and popular candidate, Protasiewicz, to decide for.

But the decision has more to do with fear of stirring the electorate pot negatively before his own November election – because honestly, when has the governor avoided stepping into Milwaukee politics?  

The race that never was winds up telling us a lot about the governor’s race that will be.