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.