Saturday, February 6, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant' (Tom Hardy in
background left). Is this really deserving best actor?
“The Revenant” is a gripping wilderness revenge drama pretending to be about something more than revenge. It has a special look and verisimilitude of agony that warrants some attention from the Oscars, where it leads (mostly in technical categories) with 10 nominations.

But let’s avoid if we can one of the big awards -- the travesty of rewarding Leonardo DiCaprio as best actor. He is a versatile movie performer whose output and personality deserve accolades and who handles this role of Glass quite grimly and convincingly. But I’d plead with his believers to wait for another outing.

He is the Las Vegas odds-on favorite for best actor in a season where others have done better work. His competition for Oscar doesn’t really reflect this strong year. It  includes Matt Damon for “The Martian,” which I cannot yet judge, Michael Fassbender in “Steve Jobs,” which I honor as precisely modulated in a modulated reading of the Apple guru written by Aaron Sorkin; Eddie Redmayne, a true champion of physical and vocal acting unlikely to win two years in a row for the transgender nuances of “The Danish Girl,” and Bryan Cranston who is wonderfully human and immediate in a film likely to be overlooked (I’ll review this “Trumbo” at the end of this piece).

It’s painful for me to oppose DiCaprio especially since I sense Hollywood feet stampeding toward rewarding him after passing him over in countless other roles where he could have been considered. And here is a film trailing excellent credentials and box office response – what the blurbs love to refer to as “gut-wrenching” “rip-roaring” “blood and bones” frontier western. So why not use it to honor someone who actually is a practiced accomplished film actor not to mention a major heartthrob at the box office?

Because I totally disagree with the Washington Post, which called the prospect of his losing an “unthinkable fraud.” It would be quite thinkable fraud like “Butterfield 8” (1960) in which Elizabeth Taylor was rewarded with an Oscar because the academy had failed to do its job with her in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” two years earlier and  because a reaction to scandal had turned to sympathy when she became ill. So the voters went for a lousy outing in a lousy film to make amends.

In this case, “Revenant” (the title quite accurately means someone returned as if from the dead) is not lousy but it is just not my idea of all the aspects of great acting that should go into the industry’s top honor.

The physical agony that DiCaprio (and the entire company) went through in Canadian wilderness filming was brutal and riveting. It uses every facet of screen magic surrounded with barren expanses of running river water, ice, savages gnawing on raw meat, entrails and untamed animals spilling everywhere. It is a visual feast apparently shot with all natural light by amazing cinematographer Emmanuel (Chivo) Lubezki, who seems to have played with incredibly wide lenses and advance edge camera.  

The movie will get attention for the extensive bear mauling that DiCaprio as Glass endures (watch out, the bear comes back!), his burning his throat with gunpowder to heal a wound, his climbing inside a dead horse (shades of “Rob Roy”) and other believably done re-creations of early 19th century primitive survival – and this is aside from the stark portrayal of Indians and trappers.

The makeup for DiCaprio’s face, hands and decaying body is remarkable and he occupies it in full glory, also whispering and croaking his love for his son affectively and wearing grimaces, spitting drool and hatred for the paid companion who abandons him. It’s effective ferocity. But it is normal ferocity for film actors that begins to fade with repetition toward the end.

In fact, combining dialog, poetic nastiness and sly bile as the hard-bitten scoundrel of the piece, Tom Hardy is closer to deserving the Oscar supporting actor nomination he received, though I still lean toward Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies,” if you want to see what a great actor can do with the flick of the eyes and the subtle sarcasm of tone.

“Revenant” particularly benefits from the cinematic intensity of director Alejandro Iñárritu, last year’s winner for “Birdman,” here showing a complete command of more traditional genres.  “Birdman” had a totally urban feel and emulated the idea of unfolding in a single cinematic shot while dazzling us with virtuoso.  “Revenant” is different but still virtuoso, with the camera hugging the water and then peering up at the skies as arrows fly in and bodies fall in some of the most stylistic tracking shots since Michelangelo Antonioni, followed by rapidly cut sequences. There is relentless attention to retaining a storytelling style of deep detail. There is a constant stereo soundtrack in which voices whisper in the ear as if from the minds as well as the voices of the characters and the ghosts they conjure up. 

The music punctuates. The mists off the mountains gather and fly at us. The landscape seems untouched by human hands, totally primitive with sudden symbolic bursts that, quite frankly, in lesser hands would seem corny since they lack emotional weight beyond the sense of constant corpses being piled on. The screenplay has wonderful scenes and maudlin moments where Iñárritu seems tugging too hard to find a deeper meaning in tragedy and trauma, as if the pull of revenge can somehow be contradicted by poetic comments on the limitation of the vengeance, though it is this sense of vengeance that drives the film.

The director’s techniques and his ability to evoke total commitment from his actors and crew are praiseworthy, but he is sort of like a visionary shaman trying to suck the Hollywood out of Howard Hawks’ 1952 “The Big Sky,” also about trappers fighting natural elements though in those days it was on a soundstage and certainly lacked such brutal realistic exactitude. 

DiCaprio certainly should be applauded for both surviving this shoot, maybe even relishing it according to stories  and accomplishing it so well, but I am not comfortable with so much camouflage of makeup, blood squibs and costumes and so many broken sequences of bodies crawling and suffering to stand in for exceptional acting.

I found myself thinking more and more of what sort of screen acting I think deserves such attention – and quite frankly, given what DiCaprio has said in the past about naturalness, he might agree if Oscar honors weren’t involved.  I think particularly of how Bryan Cranston makes writing screenplays in a bathtub so endearing as “Trumbo” and also finds that moment of disappointment and forgiveness at the sudden flight to the dark side of friend and threatened star Edward G. Robinson (performed well and without impersonation by Michael Stuhlbarg).

Bryan Cranston in 'Trumbo.'
I have been reluctant to write about “Trumbo” though I saw it in late November.  because Dalton Trumbo is one of my heroes in fighting the blacklist of the late 1940s and early 1950s, not only winning Oscars under pseudonyms when the industry joined the barring of writers deemed by McCarthyism to have Communist leanings (many of whom wrote the most American films of World War II and some of the best screenplays of the ‘30s and ‘40s).

So I was fearful that my well-known affection for how Trumbo stood up in that horrifying era would get in the way of watching the film as a critic, and I was particularly aware of where the film bent the truth for dramatic impact.  I think if anything such knowledge made me dismiss it, as I fear many in Hollywood will since the movie does feel a bit like Hollywood admiring its later morality. Over time it is sticking in my memory, not just for Trumbo and the lessons he represents but because of Cranston.

It was Trumbo who penned forgettable B movies under false names, even creating an army of such blacklisted writers (an episode that movie has a little too much fun with) and then finally helped blow the lid off the blacklist when he was named as the screenwriter for films like “Exodus” and “Spartacus” while the blacklist was still technically in effect.

Cranston softens the abrasive edges of Trumbo’s  personality without denying them – he does better than the screenplay here --  and emphasizes what many in the movie industry still fondly  remember about him: His energy even fever to write and write and write,  his curious courtesy toward enemies, his willingness to park his ego on the shelf if he could make money, his  combination of abrasive wit  (he memorably called those who testified for HUAC “the time of the toad”) and yet willingness to forgive and work with those who failed to meet his principles. 

So it was hard to be objective about the film. I confess to having a fondness for the archival footage and the parade of actors doing a nifty job imitating big names (David James Elliott as a surprisingly nuanced John Wayne, Dean O’Gorman as a remarkable lookalike Kirk Douglas and most deliciously, Helen Mirren as a nasty Hedda Hopper).  There is also the family Trumbo including nice turns by Diane Lane and Elle Fanning as wife and daughter. 

Director Jay Roach does not have an Iñárritu reputation. He is better known for films like “Meet the Fockers” and “Austin Powers,” but he understands the period, the style and what his actors can do with John McNamara’s “then Trumbo did this” script.  But it is Cranston who holds it all together with a performance of significant natural power and he wears makeup as comfortably as DiCaprio and spreads a human warmth out from under the mustache and constant cigaret.  

In many ways, his performance is more worthy of honor for rising above circumstances, though I suspect it is not his turn or time even after both theater and television have recognized him. I’m just sad Grand Guignol is what DiCaprio will be honored for.

ALSO ABOUT OSCAR: A discussion of the strange Oscar year pulling out for inspection “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl” and “Carol.” Make “Room” for a thrilling film.

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,  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Sunday, January 31, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in "Room."
“Room” is a fine film that grips veteran moviegoers with panic and identification one moment and tears of anger and recognition the next. It is a small film in production terms  that crept into Oscar consideration – a longshot for best picture and best director, a more likely winner for actress Brie Larson whose believability and determined protective nature as a lonely mother  is a model of controlled presence and is certainly as good as any of the competition in this category.  This is an example of film acting in which behavior and natural reaction are difficult to achieve and brilliant when pulled off.

It is also one of those films that reviewers should tell you as little about, plot-wise, as possible. Much of its success comes from our naturally identifying with mother and child without quite knowing how and why they are caught in such a dilemma. Lindsay Abrahamson’s direction is spot-on in keeping us off balance with claustrophobia constantly in the frame. Yet even as the  behavior and cast of characters spread out, the audience is still trapped in a focus  on  a desperate mother and a five year old she has kept sane and natural by keeping in the dark.

The story goes through many shifts – so that we wind up as scared and apprehensive of the adult invasion as the child is.  It does in a tight story what far more sweeping epics have failed to accomplish. It holds our attention when the real world intrudes and the ugly simplicities of social attitudes are revealed.

This is a good point to reveal that a story that feels factual is fictional.  Emma Donoghue has precisely adapted her best seller and while many could argue the events are inspired by many real life cases, she  has compressed and illuminated a rare but real horror that waits outside our door.

Half of whatever awards Larson wins should be shared with 
Jacob Tremblay, now 9, a member of a family of actors who seems the most natural and independent-minded member of the ensemble. Her accomplishment of playing off him is considerable, but so is his natural behavior as determined by the director.

 Normally, a reviewer would be  skittish of praising a film that relies so heavily on a child, but Abrahamson – employing whatever tricks and psychology he could muster – marries the performance to a constantly purposeful editing method in which continuity is never lost and even enhanced though it is actually being chopped up. The Irish director whose previous work few know has come out of nowhere to reflect a mastery of the director’s art.

There is also a performance by the excellent Joan Allen that should be worthy of Oscar consideration.  As her husband, the fine William Macy is given an almost impossible moment of tension that is in spirit true to the character but in writing is the one false shortcut note in Donoghue’s excellent screenplay.

Embrace the caution of scant details in talking about the movie – and see it.  I doubt if the Oscar ceremony will spend a lot of time on it, but audiences should.

ALSO ABOUT OSCAR: A discussion of the strange Oscar year pulling out for inspection “Spotlight,” “The Danish Girl” and “Carol.” 

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,  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.

Saturday, January 30, 2016


By Dominique Paul Noth

This is the most confused, unpredictable, self-immolating Oscar contest in my memory.

If Oscar had an ensemble category, the cast of 'Spotlight" (from left
Michael Keaton, Liev Shreiber, Mark Ruffalo. Rachel McAdams
John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James) would be shoo-ins.
And my memory goes way back to that studio monopoly era when box office and big stars more than artistic merit signaled the winners—and then came the era when, in bursts of conscience and artistic salute, Oscar tried to marry artistic achievement with celebrity, recognizing that a Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, for Stanislavsky’s sake, actually were great actors and not just box office draws.  

Well, artistry is somewhat an inbred given  into the award these days, but 2016 has succumbed into erratic impulses in all directions. Artistic merit, yes,  but boy do  box office and studio intrigue hover!  The self-interest that long embraced the Oscar ceremonies seemed in recent years to finally strike some balance worthy of intellectual debate.  But this year I am primed to abandon the journey of self- improvement that Oscar once seemed capable of.

A new style of gamesmanship abounds in how studios try to sneak entries into awards categories. Threatened by a host of other celebrity ceremonies, all of which enjoy good ratings, the Oscars no longer know who to honor – and how to distinguish Oscar from the multiple other accumulations of stars drinking champagne and laughing at each others’ jokes.

 The categories represent a  mumble of uncertainty about standout accomplishments and values commercial or cultural. Along with triumph of arts and crafts come the salutes to cgi wizardry and similar technical fancies, to auto chases and the visceral dash of great editing.  It is impossible even for experts to watch a movie scene these days and separate the computer from the human --  and industry insiders have good reason to think they know better about what expertise was involved than either critics or the public. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (awards telecast Feb. 28) seems confused exactly where to draw the line on nominations and honors, on valuing the past and anticipating the present – and cinema has become a marketplace where millions know the stars of “Mad Max” and millions others could care less.

 The audience has expanded (fragmented)  into more than 16-30 yahoo boys looking for a thrill. There is now  a regular older audience, a female audience, a politically provocative audience,  but how do the movies recognize true diversity in age, audience and ethnicities? Are they confusing socially meaningful topics with good films? Is time spent at theaters as good a time spent on Netflix, Amazon or cable TV? Why are some movies sold to a sliver of the audience and upset when a more critical audience pays attention?

Those films  that dominate awards categories  have to contort themselves to fit categories of Oscars’  own making that don’t reflect the reality of what is on the screen. 

 Which brings us to the hoopla that no black actor or actress was recognized this year despite some notable cutting edge work – and despite the  huzzahs of recent years for “12 Years a Slave” (good film) and “Selma” (important topic that sometimes felt like a civil rights subject more deserving awards recognition than execution, leading black film makers to hype the film beyond its worth). Yet this was the year of “Straight Outta Compton,” “Chi-Raq” and “Beasts of No Nation.”

Somehow a white actor, Sylvester Stallone, resurrecting his Rocky role as the trainer of a young  black fighter in “Creed,” ends up emerging as the almost black almost traditional supporting actor winner, which is going to be a disfavor in sheer acting chops  to the better work of Mark Rylance in “Bridge of Spies.”

The absence of black artists  brings commentaries from all side – and rule changes to encourage diversity that some see as signs of ageism on the industry’s part,  dissing its own elders to make a contemporary point. 

 Actor Michael Caine rightly points out that someone should never win for just being black, while Danny De Vito acknowledges it just proves racism really exists. Others comment on how slow the industry has been to embrace the real variety that has occupied the local cinema. Ian McKellan suggests  that older women and gays have also been treated shallowly by Oscars. The more one looks at the boycotts and reluctant participation it seems we have returned to treating the Oscar ceremony as an opportunity for social commentary not because of accomplishment but because of  absent values. 

Truth is, this year the industry is having great difficulties marrying its  sense of importance and broad reach with its actual grip on the public’s imagination.  There are more than ever a range of stars millions have never heard of competing with ranges of stars that have been names for generations. 

Consider the film not nominated as best picture that would win hands down if it were.  That’s my bet.  It  drove audiences to the theaters to receive full satisfaction – the return to the “Star Wars” of imagination. “The Force Awakens” ruled the box office, satisfied customers and has probably launched a new wave of hits, but in nominations it has been limited to technical Oscar awards. I suspect it could win best picture in a walk were it among the magic eight.

Oscar must wish this year it could emulate the Screen Actors Guild, which  offers an award for best acting ensemble.  It has one clear such  standout in “Spotlight”  -- and some long to honor “The Big Short” in this way, though I am deeper into the “Spotlight” camp.

As it stands now “Spotlight” is the most balanced and insightful movie of the year, with a fidelity of purpose and execution worthy of honor. I would hesitate to call it best picture of the year, but by default it ought to be. It portrays the Boston Globe investigative team exposing not just the culpability of the Catholic Church in pedophilia but the range of culpability within the whole of society. It is  focused on the system more than the victims, thus making the victims all the more real in the bargain.

Among the standout performances are  Liev Schreiber as the buddha cool editor, Mark Ruffalo as the journalistic hot-rod and Stanley Tucci as the suspicious lawyer. Solid  character work is magnified by director Tom McCarthy’s driving soft-spoken writing and almost seamless sense of moving from place to place.  The movie takes time to let an actor’s look land and hold the audience  – bravo!

‘The Big Short” is also done well but a bit more tortured (even winking at the audience)  in explaining the financial crisis that buried the US. To make it accessible to the average audience it uses building blocks and extended examples of how Wall Street types bundled mortgages into disaster, and in showing how individuals either did the dirty  or realized the dirty. It  combines comedy with horror relying on some strong performances. But there are too many explanatory devices,  semantic games in the unfolding, and some weird examples of how the studios managed to fit the actors and technicians into Oscar’s nominating categories. (Christian Bale as supporting actor when he carries the flavor of the  film?)

No, Oscar nominations are all over the map and it is hard to pick one picture or one performance for that matter as the standout. Maybe that is as it should be and will be for the future.  But it all came together this year   Many compare Oscar’s confusion to the lost direction of the Republican party, once at least a distinctive part of the American firmament. Just don’t ask folks today what being a Republican means. 

But here is the strange thing.  Oscars this year are speaking piecemeal – in individual offerings --  to the full humanity of the human experience, something that dramatic films can do well.  They just don’t realize how in total they’ve become schizophrenic.

Yet there are  two movies that are standouts in humanity. They  might initially be accused of sensationalism since their topics are pointedly controversial – transgender  impulse and lesbian attraction.  Indeed the topics may be why they got financing.

How on earth can these be among Oscar’s leading  meaningful explorations of the power of love, romance and commitment? Can they really represent the central personal impulse of society toward love and sacrifice? 

Yes.  They are  “The Danish Girl” and “Carol,” both relishing a period style in order to allow the potency of human relationships to emerge in full passion and meaning.  In very different methods, they reflect the power of love and human commitment beyond the fabric of what society deems customary.

Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in "The Danish Girl."
“Danish Girl” has to concoct it own special world to allow this. Loosely based on history of the first male to risk gender shifting under a knife, it is set in a high European  Bohemian world of the late 1920s, the color yellow dominating as the wind whips through the alleys and wharfs. It is  rife with sensitive artists, ballet costumes, high fashion  and silk fabrics as young lovers and young painters Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander are aroused in their most  basic senses.  And make no mistake, their physical attraction to each other as man-woman is intense and erotic). They are surrounded.  even imbued by a palette of special allure, of oval faces carved out of their living spaces (the camera keeps moving in to blur the normal rectangle of the screen), of  gestures and poses as controlled and alive as life itself.  

He prefers abstracts of nature, she is a portrait artist --  and she  teases him into dressing like a woman,  only to see him seized by a powerful sense of being reborn in his female personality. It makes no rational sense, but “Danish Girl” creates a world in which rationality gives way to mental desire, to even pores attacked by where the mind is taking the characters.

Normally this transgender grip is something foreign to most humans and indeed most moviegoers, surrounded as we are not just by Puritan values but inherited revulsion within the standard modes of society. But director Tom Hooper has created a world which this impulse to changing skin  is not particularly foreign or aberrant but almost a consequence of feeling so sensations so deeply. His most profound observation is that Alicia’s love for Eddie surpasses any sense of where he physically started – wherever he’s headed, whatever the doubts of established society, she will observe him and go with him – no matter how this may undo their  original relationship. Her willingness to journey with him forces the audience to examine any reluctance it may have. 

Let’s not pretend this is only a love story. It is edged with profound sadness. It raises dimensions for the actors and for the audience that require a suspension of disbelief. It is the soul more than the transgender world that is being uplifted.   The artistry of the two in conveying the  relationship, the doubts and impulses, the ugly confrontations and the underlying warmth, require the director to tastefully frame their faces, bodies and dress and for the actors to engage in some extraordinary moments of self-recognition and self-doubt.

This is actually one reason the Oscar division of nominations angers me.  Redmayne is nominated as best actor, deserving in his minimal gestures and mastery of behavior,  though I don’t think he has a chance of winning given how the academy is likely to deal with his gender change. 

But to sneak Vikander into an awards category as best supporting actress! As opposed to equal!  This fails to recognize some fine work indeed and makes her nomination a farce not an honor.  She carries the movie in direct weight to him and should be honored for that.

Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in "Carol."
Something similar has happened in “Carol,” set in the 1950s and involving a lesbian relationship between Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara – and a recognition that society regarded this as a taboo of such power as to represent moral banishment. In fact the two actors make their relationship such a meeting of the minds that while the film has its mandatory bedroom scene, even done tastefully, it is  completely unneeded so strong to we feel the pull between the characters.

 But here again to sneak into Oscar consideration, Blanchett is best actress and Mara best supporting actress. Yet the whole film requires the  two to be balanced  – Blanchett as the alluring, perfectly coiffed rich housewife whose simply motion under furs and within perfume fills the senses of Mara as  the shopgirl,  who not only waits on her but feels a completely mutual attraction.  Yet there is in the Mara character an  almost hypnotic pull but the story goes out of the way to show she is a willing partner – expecting the danger and accepting  the full range of responsibility.  That, given the trauma both grow through, is essential.  So it becomes shameful to nominate an equal actress in a lesser category.

Director Todd Haynes does careful character work to suggest that Mara is more than the department store  doll Carol has found, and offers Carol's relationship to her young daughter fully vital as any mother would fee. Slowly Haynes reveals Blanchett as  more an emotional volcano under wraps than the outline of the story initially suggests.  But Oscars clearly robbed Sarah Paulson of a likely nomination as best supporting actress (she plays an understanding former lover), substituting Mara in that category. That is a hard twist to take for a mere award -- and probably means no one from this film  will walk away  with a victory.

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,  The culture-focused Doms Domain has a political counterpart, domsdomainpolitics, and he also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee.