Tuesday, July 14, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth
Executive producers Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan during
NY filming of  their 'Jim Gaffigan Show."

The preview reviews are flooding in for "The Jim Gaffigan Show" with its  July 15 debut of its 10-week season on TV Land (Central Time 9 p.m., check the channel number with your provider)

In an era when many viewers still only expect smart sophisticated comedies from the bigwig traditional networks or maybe HBO and Showtime, newspaper reviewers coast to coast not known as pushovers were provided multiple episodes and are clearly startled. Several are  forced to confirm that an unlikely source, TV Land, is making waves built around the Gaffigan show, which was filmed with full blown cast and crew on the streets of New York City in the spring. Hitherto, though attempting their own sitcom or two, TV Land has been best known on cable for recycling sometimes generations-old syndicated sitcoms, not with the  possible exception of  “Younger”  creating modern forward looking  comedy series.

In the case of “The Jim Gaffigan Show,” taking advantage of the tremendous popularity of his concert stand-up tours and the successful specials and two best sellers written with his wife, the episodes will be repeated each week on Comedy Central (7 p.m. Thursdays in Milwaukee). 

Newsday flatly calls the result the smash sitcom of the summer

The New York Times is not far behind, putting it miles above the other TV Land sitcom premiering July 15. 

The Minneapolis Star Tribune says the series means TV Land "slides neatly up to the grown-ups' table“ with “sharp and sophisticated" turns and guest stars. These include, depending on episode,  Chris Rock, Janeane Garofalo. Steve Buscemi and others (some still surprises). 

Executive produced and written by Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan, up-playing their marriage and downplaying their writing teamwork, the series is based on his stand-up career  and their raising five children in a two bedroom New York apartment in the Soho region before moving to a bigger place last year.

 (The television version of Jeannie, played by Ashley Williams, who gained a TV following on “How I Met Your Mother,” was cast, both Gaffigans have said, because her high energy, maternal instincts and flair for their brand of comedy. Jim has joked he remembered selling her to the money folks by saying, ‘This woman could come at Jim with a chainsaw and still be likable.")

West Virginia's Herald Dispatch, after receiving a preview of three episodes,  raves that the "The Jim Gaffigan Show" "is incredibly funny and has a really fresh look for a family sitcom. Within five minutes, you have to wonder why another network didn't think of doing this one any earlier." 

Well, the networks sort of did – and many  reviewers now are wondering aloud  why the  networks passed this up .  That touches on a history the Gaffigans are open about, stretching back years as he succeeded in many films and TV shows while becoming one of the nation’s most successful concert stand-up solo comics. The journey heated up when they had four children (they now have five, the oldest 11 years old). NBC saw a script.  Then with a different cast, CBS actually filmed a pilot, ordered recasting and rewriting  and then commissioned another. 
Consulting during filming.

The Gaffigans have recounted that history in several interviews, quite candidly discussing the process and how once  granted full creative control and a network budget  they became part of a rebranding effort by TV Land. 

The  history of the development is complicated and while it makes for great reading in Vanity Fair explaining  the couple’s meeting and  mutual comedic  affinity, the nature of the  relationship still  seems to confuse some journalists. So it is no wonder that while praising the results ("a sunnier look than Louie")  the Washington Post reviewer screwed up the actual development curve, not recognizing how many of the episodes that are emerging are totally new and jointly written by the couple.

Philadelphia's prestigious philly.com did  recognize that TV Land is making a serious inroad into innovative new half hour comedy.  It singled out "The Jim Gaffigan Show" as the channel’s new quality  hallmark because "Gaffigan chooses not to play it safe. He tweaks both his nice-guy image and the family-sitcom formula just enough to make his show feel new - yet he retains the sense of familiarity that beckons viewers and keeps them watching."

The Detroit Free Press joined the parade of analysis and high expectations: "A solid supporting cast (Michael Ian Black, Adam Goldberg and Tongayi Chirisa) and a willingness to stay true to Gaffigan’s low-key sensibility are among the many pleasures of the series. Given time, it could rise to the height of a very tasty soufflé."

"Everyone is so gosh darn likeable," noted The San Francisco Chronicle in calling the show "a blessing."

The Colorado Gazette, while suggesting that one episode won't give viewers the full weight of the delight,  was also impressed. "Gaffigan plays an endearing and playful everyman. When someone else teases him, Jim gives as good as he gets. Much of the humor consists of the behind-closed-doors verbal sparring I imagine professional comics have with each other, without the cursing. Jim happens to be the butt of most of the show's humor, but he takes it in stride and viewers laugh along with him, not at him."  

The raves keep coming. "Really really funny" says Nebraska's Journal Star. 

"Sharp-witted, funny,  unafraid,” said  the Salt Lake Tribune. "Absolutely hilarious." And July 15 all were joined by the Los Angeles Times calling the show "a humane, human comedy, fun and funny." 

Frankly, I’ve held off writing on how good this show is because of a family connection well known in Milwaukee where Jim packs the Pabst Theater in shows around New Year’s Eve, coming back to the city where he and Jeannie became engaged.  She is my daughter so their children are my grandkids and I visited them in New York and was on the set many times during filming.  I was smart enough to watch, laugh and say nothing.  They were filming with a large expert crew on the streets of  New York City, knew what they were doing down the millisecond  and clearly didn’t need some old-timer butting in.  

Now normally such family connections would keep me silent, following long-standing journalistic practice,  and I have been.  But now that  the nation’s reviewers  who don’t know me or my past as a journalist started shouting from the rooftops, I figured no one could blame me for joining the parade of positive reaction. I'm just a tagalong.  It is no longer family pride, unless Jeannie and Jim have a lot more relatives in journalism than I ever knew about.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.  And by the way, Jim gave him  that T-shirt.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne met the real
Stephen Hawking during making of
"Theory of Everything."
All night Sunday Feb. 22 at the Oscars, ABC unspools its red carpet fashions and its pageant of celebrity presenters, plus newcomers who have movies waiting in the wings -- and that  launches a game I have played for 50 years with curiosity, derision, shock  and agreement.

For the last 40 years much of that game has been in writing, guessing who will win compared to what I WANTED to win.  Other people play along at home or with smart remarks on social media, but I’ve long dared to put it out there in analytic critiques based on actually seeing the movies and incorporating the reviews.

Seldom has there been so much outside pressure and talking heads scoffing  about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  In essence, though, little has changed. The Oscars in their 87th version remain primarily a movie industry publicity stunt now leaning more to seem artistic oriented than celebrity oriented.  What I wrote  a year ago still largely applies:  “Movie industry campaigns, studio pressure, media bustle, box office receipts and drawing power are still a big part of the game, a combustible mixture of tendencies to honor the most creative of peers and the sensibilities to promote, highlight and showcase friendships.”

This time there is, frankly, no best movie. There are two visionary choices carved out of directorial minds and probably too extreme for Oscar’s tastes. There are two topical choices mired in sideshow controversies and several other choices of mixed quality, one of which will probably win. 

If the best picture race is the most vulnerable to hidden politics and hardest to predict, many   other contests played their politics in the selection process. These categories are more predictable and reflect quite respectable choices, though the coverage has been dominated by grumbles about omissions. 

Tom Wilkinson as LBJ and David Oyelowo as King in the
"Selma" controversy that brought scholarly fire.
Let’s pump right into that.  Supporters of black artists have made an enormous point that “Selma” while nominated for best picture, was passed over for its female director -- Ava DuVernay, authoritative in crescendos and competent in other arenas -- and its lead actor, the charismatic David Oyelowo who has some of the mightiest words in the English language to wrap around. Don’t think the voters didn’t take that into account. They relish originality of scripts. 

The lack of their nominations – and of Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King who almost deserves a spot in a crowded supporting actress category – renewed charges that the academy members are too white and biased. 

No, actually, they are too male and much older than the moviegoing norm.  Sixty-six percent white, right or wrong, reflects not just national makeup but the heritage of who made enough money in this world and became prominent and successful enough to join – and maybe keep others at bay.  That’s capitalism.  Right now it’s white and older male American. But just wait.

I question how many powerhouse PR, execs  and agent types are labeled film artisans and how slow the academy has been to lure in minorities and the female majority (they are the majority,  you know, both in population and movie-going) though I suspect that overall the awards will recognize mature women other than giggle starlets in many categories.  Meanwhile black artists will again dominate the televised performances.

It is a complicated issue because if anything a year ago the importance of black subjects, from slavery to revenge drama, dominated the Oscars. This year all sides can take some blame. Whose fault is it that so many black hopes centered around one civil rights film, “Selma”? Otherwise there was catering to comedy stereotypes or pop music icons financed by black and white producers alike. It’s not so much that the ceiling closes in on  blacks and older women (though it does) but the case for profits has to be sold first in academy prestige. Don’t let the pretense that artistry  and fairness come first fool you.

Yet I think it is quite likely that “Selma” may cause what became known two years ago as the “Argo” backlash. That was a good thriller whose director and star were snubbed in the nominations, so industry fans took revenge in the best picture race over the film that will actually live in artistic legend, “Lincoln.”  The same anger about snubbery could elevate “Selma” to the top prize.

Bradley Cooper inserted nuance into
"American Sniper."
If box office power were the only factor, upset at backlash would have done the same for “American Sniper,” which has raised such controversy that I reviewed it twice.  First I tried to point out the more thoughtful elements of the movie while not hesitant to criticize its Blackhawks DC Comics simplicities.   There ought to be some way to reward the nuances about  self-delusion Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood inserted into the story  of Chris Kyle, since only his later  death confirmed that insight into the  price warriors pay for being sheepdogs cut loose from their leashes.

But my second review exploded with disgust at how gung-ho the box office response had been because I didn’t think it was about the nuances but the ennobling of the war mentality.  That was my interpretation and could be questioned. It has been. But there has been a surge of anti-Muslim attitudes in the wake of a film that never explains the false assumptions that even Texan Chris Kyle brought into battle after seeing terrorist bombings on TV in Africa and New York and not questioning, in fact applauding, where his country was sending him.  

Now Eastwood and company are doing a fictionalized slice focused on the impact on American soldiers, so they cannot be held responsible for a misguided war, nor for capturing so well that “my country right or wrong” machismo.  Except virtually everyone now acknowledges it was a misguided foray into Iraqi villages where Kyle made his sniper bones and there is no direct sense of that in the film. There are still people who question the reality that Saddam Hussein wasn’t involved in 9/11, and I admit worrying that most of them flocked to the theaters.  But it does seem most people now understand that America’s overwrought response has something to do with the current surge of ISIS, and if you grasp that you have to react negatively to much of the film’s metaphor about sheep and sheepdogs.

The moviemakers now respond that the film is bringing important attention to the plight of returning veterans with damaged psyches, and that is good but I don’t think good enough to rescue an Oscar. The failure to question why Kyle and Americans felt so proud of the war against villages  has created a gap in understanding that  is too fresh in our minds to be overlooked by an Oscar community that gives heavily to political causes on both sides.

“Selma” could also be accused of historical simplicities as my review explains in detail.  But it bends toward restorative justice and serves as a needed reminder to a younger audience that is failing the vital lessons of history. For those reasons and the distance in time that diminishes fictionalization,   it could flourish beyond the likelihood that “Glory” will win best song.

That unexpected win could happen because the Oscars often need a sense of social conscience in its decision. There are two best picture nominees that speak to the visionary individuality that should be the height of movie achievement but they are so removed from today’s central events that they  may be too big a jump for these voters -- “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” a manic comedy that embodies Wes Anderson’s flair for originality, and the stylistic comedy fantasy “Birdman.”  I would be astounded if Oscar went to either, though I would prefer “Budapest” and believe Anderson ought to take best director over “Birdman’s” remarkable Alejandro G. Iñárritu.  I don’t think any of that will happen.  Two other films, “The Imitation Game” and “Whiplash,” strike me as placeholders to bring the final best picture field up to eight.

A younger Ellar Coltrane in "Boyhood."
The one I fear will get the best picture nod is “Boyhood.”  It was in effect a daring 12 year stunt of following one character and his growing, aging and changing family, improvising a script around their struggles, social climbing and family values. Richard Linklater, who is also likely to win best director, found optimistic echoes of how people climb past drunkards and broken homes to security – with so many familiar notes that both critics wholesale and Hollywood types in abundance have raved about its verisimilitude. 

I don’t agree. In fact, in my original review I speculated at length why the critics overreacted. I think the dialog and story wind up contrived, some good actors cover for the clichés, and the insights into Americana are comforting but weak and narrow.  But in a year of controversy it will probably be the compromise pick.

I actually prefer in this environment another film I think has holes but also more profound acting and a more magnificent understanding of the hope of the human spirit, “The Theory of Everything.”  Along those humanitarian lines I would actually settle for “Selma” -- as long as the word “best” was not attached.

Many other categories offer quite respectable choices and probably some clear winners for both artistry and sentiment.

J.K. Simmons, my choice and I think Oscar's
for "Whiplash."
Take best supporting actor. There is not a broken egg in the bunch.  Robert Duvall of “The Judge” is again more powerful than the film.  Mark Ruffalo is an astonishingly good actor in a good movie, “Foxcatcher,” that deserves more notice. Ed Norton is outstandingly Methody  manic in “Birdman,” the competent Ethan Hawke is Ethan Hawke on steroids in “Boyhood.”  That’s already a strong field but my sentimental and artistic pick is J.K. Simmons, who has worked with everyone in the film and TV vineyards and deserves this shot at the sun for “Whiplash.”  I reviewed it early but my predictions about its power are holding up.

There are also good choices in the best actor race. Michael Keaton displayed nonstop virtuosity in “Birdman,” Steve Carell exudes restraint and quality and may win by a nose (inside joke) in “Foxcatcher,” Cooper brought stature to “American Sniper” however the movie is finally judged, and  Benedict Cumberbatch is a  proven great actor and emerging  star attraction somewhat overused in “Imitation Game.”   For subtlety of acting skills and for drawing out emotional sympathy in unlikely ways as ALS crippled Stephen Hawking, my choice is a young actor I expect even greater things from, Eddie Redmayne.  But there is considerable fever for the resurrection of Keaton.

Like most audiences and many of the voters, it is hard in the best actress race to talk about Marion Cotillard, a strong actress in past films, since hardly anyone has seen “Two Days, One Night” (a hit in Europe barely visible in America).  The presence of Reese Witherspoon in this category for “Wild” is nigh impossible to justify on acting depth in a  well meaning but tiresome movie.  There is also a good actress in a ridiculously twisting and  inflated role, Rosamund Pike of  “Gone Girl.”   I think Felicity Jones will be an also-ran here but she is a perfect acting complement to Redmayne and found intriguing nuances in “Theory” that should be noticed somewhere sometime.

Oscar and I should agree on Julianne Moore
in "Still Alice."
But I think there is a runaway choice both in long-term proof and immediate artistry, Julianne Moore. While some critics have dismissed “Still Alice” as a Lifetime cable movie fabrication about illness, they didn’t look hard enough. This is a profoundly deeper take than past showcases. In remarkably detailing the advances of Alzheimer’s, Moore haunts us with a woman losing her mental faculties with no hope of redemption, though she uses every trick a superior mind can think of to fight the inevitable. I know the topic sounds like a downer, but she not only deserves the award --  the movie deserves the attention that prime time TV once upon a time delivered to Hollywood. I think this time the Oscars will.

The wrong winner is pre-ordained in the best supporting actress category though she is an actress I like. Patricia Arquette could have been nominated where she wouldn’t be a shoo-in -- for best actress for “Boyhood” (she has been so designated in other awards shows). But  the fever for the movie is so high I think she is going to run away with this, with only upcoming star of the big eyes, Emma Stone of “Birdman,” peeking in from the outside rail.  Why Keira Knightley is nominated for “Imitation Game” escapes me and the always likeable Laura Dern is mainly there for the luminosity she brings to “Wild.”

My best supporting actress will not be picked
-- Meryl Streep.
The best performance in this category is a misfit, since the Oscars have never quite known what to do with musicals and certainly with fantasy or where to place these standouts. Even insiders find it hard to separate fairytale impact from melodramatic realism, though both are enhanced by cinematic methods.  If they could and if they do, Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl again) of “Into the Woods”  should win this category hands down. Does anyone want to seriously compare how Arquette chats with children in bed to the whirlwind difficulty of singing, dancing and driving the tale that Streep brings to the woods? 

But I am sure she is prepared to dutifully smile and applaud for the likely Arquette.

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

Julianne Moore in "Still Alice."
Disease has almost become a movie genre of its own, creating showcases for good actors and for fading stars who use onscreen suffering to redeem reputation.  But the actual genre  requires the sort of disease that lets the human spirit rise above adversity and actors who catch us in the spiritual journey upward. 

But what if the illness has nothing but a downward intellectual spiral and no rescue for the mind of man? What if it actually destroys both logic and memory, the essential tools that actors need and that man uses to elevate himself above the Earth’s other species?
No wonder the topic of Alzheimer’s in books, plays and movies so seldom focuses on the victim but more on those coping.  No wonder it sounds depressing rather than mesmerizing to movie audiences.

It will be hard to reboot that thinking, but I would love to transport everyone in the nation to “Still Alice” and watch their emotions flow.  It stands as one of the master achievements in using acting creativity to impale our beings – not just with disease but with the human condition. 

It is far more than a touching portrayal of a perfectly normal family undone by the illness. That is almost a side reality that is happening with more than 5 million victims in the US and more than 200,000 under age 60.

“Still Alice” drills in on the victim. It would not be possible without this magnificently observant and rawly honest demonstration of screen acting from Julianne Moore. She studies a part with great fidelity, unfolds it without artificial flourish or fanfare, justifies each scene and nuance step by step and allows the spontaneity of her emotional immediacy to grab us by the throat.  The painful intimacy of watching is balanced by the power of the recognition she forces us to share.

Moore plays Alice, an American upper middle class whiz of domestic and work achievement – a renowned linguistics professor, a kitchen and organizational master, model for her three grown children, a wizard of computer word games, adored by her similarly bright and workaholic physician husband.

Until she starts dropping a train of thought here and there or loses track of time and place when jogging. 

Now all of us as we age – particularly those particularly reliant on mastery of language -- worry when we drop a word or misplace a key, which is normal. But something worse is happening to Alice and she senses it from classroom to kitchen. She is bright enough to realize a deeper problem and she turns to the most advanced doctors – a professionally compassionate neurosurgeon played with telling calm and sympathy by Stephen Kunken – to realize the worst.

This is early onset Alzheimer’s, in her case at the height of her career and attractiveness but more devastating because it is also the hereditary strain that will creep up on her children. 

When Alice bluntly tells her husband she wishes it were cancer, we are dumbstruck with agreement. People survive heart attacks and each hour brings new treatments for cancer.  But Alzheimer’s, in which the memory, mind and bodily functions diminish in odd fits at frightening speeds, is inexorable.  It is the ultimate fear -- that the common act of remembering events and people will remorselessly disappear while the vacant body is the last to go, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.  

Adaptive as well as bright, Alice clings to mental tricks and outguessing her watchers. She previews the antiseptic housing warehouses for the empty shell she is becoming.  She analyzes the medical data.  She speaks eloquently to others about what is happening, underlining her thoughts with yellow marker so she doesn’t mess up.  She even uses her computer skills to plant “eggs” and video messages to steer the crumbling Alice she knows is coming into how to kill herself. Her panic and efforts at self-control may seem plucky, but what is the use when soon you can’t remember where the bathroom is or which daughter you’re talking to.

Family fabric is built into every moment of decline. Kate Bosworth perfectly delineates in behavioral glimpses the older daughter, loving but prickly and combatively self-centered.  The younger daughter, Lydia, defensive about her independence, determined to make it as an actress without college, proves more emotionally attuned to her mother.  

The Lydia part, the major secondary role, calls out the best so far in the calculated brooding style of actress Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame.  But this is not consistently great work since Moore’s intensity in dialog – and her insight into how maternal authority survives even as the mind fades -- spurs Stewart to her best moments.

Playing off an explorative actress elevates everyone. In fact the film is unintentionally a crystal demonstration of the difference between competent and great.  Stewart reads from and performs in plays in moments that should leap off the page back into the heart of the story, but they stay on the page.  Moore rips those old arguments about euthanasia out of the textbooks and out of the pulpits into a frighteningly believable option that makes our hearts jump. 

Alec Baldwin reminds us that he can be a pinpoint actor in character exposure as Alice’s husband, disbelieving that this creature he adores for her mind and body is wasting away, caring and politically correct in his supportive role. But Baldwin lets us see glimpses of what Alice even in her growing remoteness and self-loathing senses. His work ethic is a more selfish mirror of her assumptions in the past and while he would never openly abandon her, he is pulling away – in a way most spouses would.

Moore deserves the attention but she has a well constructed and observational road map that is not getting sufficient praise. There is the thoughtful mind-opening best-selling book by neuroscientist Lisa Genova. And then Richard Glatzer (himself an ALS victim) and Wash Westmoreland, co-credited as director and screenwriter, have fashioned an intelligent plot with faithfulness to the material and skill with cinematic methods.  Where their input and Moore’s fidelity and acting instincts merge may be unclear from the outside but the merger is profound.

Despite the quality of the script, I can name on one hand the film actresses who could come anywhere close to the impact of Moore as Alice.  It’s not just how Alice lashes out at what is happening or accedes to what is happening or attempts self-control as she wastes away before our eyes until there is nothing left to control or learn from. It is all illuminatingly combined. 

It would be small compensation for how she guides our understanding and involvement to get every acting award in sight. It may have started. She has already been honored by her peers in the Screen Actors Guild.

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

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Sunday, January 25, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Friday, January 23, 2015


By Dominique Paul Noth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Film and drama critic for The Milwaukee Journal for decades, Dominique Paul Noth began his journalism career in the 1960s, first as international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then an editor at the Green Sheet, then combining criticism with stints as arts editor and later senior features editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combined Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and to serve as the first online news producer. He left voluntarily to run online seminars and write about Internet journalism and online newspapers, then served from 2002 to 2013 as editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and its online portal, milwaukeelabor.org.  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.