Tuesday, August 8, 2017

BARBARA COOK -- HEAR WHY SHE IS SUCH A LOSS

By Dominique Paul Noth

Barbara Cook circa 2016
Thank God for YouTube! Were it not for this time machine open to all on the Internet, there would be generations that could never understand the self-transformation of Barbara Cook and why she earned legendary stature in vocal artistry. 

At age 89, Cook died August 8 of respiratory problems – and that was only six years after being honored by her nation and today’s most famous Broadway divas at the Kennedy Center honors, with then president Obama and first lady Michelle watching. 

It was two distinct careers that brought Barbara Cook that prominence. The second evolved after a decade of what she describes as a broken marriage and alcoholic slovenliness. The brilliance of her return in the late seventies, at an age when most singers expect a downward arc in their careers, has added to the awe. She battled poundage all her later life, but decided that artistry conquered weight, and she knew how to control the artistry.

YouTube lets us dip into both worlds of Barbara Cook. The first is the sudden and almost unbelievable way she captured Broadway in the 1950s and 1960s with a lyric soprano that combined clarity and delicacy with an attractive, perky farm girl naturalism and the power to pin audiences to the back wall.

Composers were aghast and  clamoring – including Rodgers and Hammerstein  for revivals of “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.”  Without subscribing to special music services,  YouTube has excerpts from several original cast albums  including “I’ll Show Him” from “Plain and Fancy.”  


Perhaps most enduring is the high standard she set in a box office flop that is  now regarded as a virtuoso showcase,  Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” in 1956. Under Bernstein’s direction, Cook originated the role of Cunegonde and its ungodly difficult “Glitter and Be Gay.” It demands a flair for comedy and for impossible coloratura trills isolated at Bernstein’s insistence note by note, something like cough by cough.

Musical training has advanced in 60 years, so teachers offer “Glitter and Be Gay” where most singers in the 1950s wouldn’t dare, some of today’s singers can and most really ought not try.   Singers escape by camping up the comedic elements and sliding by the singing.  (In my experience, only Kristen Chenoweth seems to combine the ham and vocal power to carry it off as something casual).

"Music Man" in the 1950s
During this early period Cook leaped to fame as the original Marian the librarian in “The Music Man” opposite Robert Preston. Her original album greatness can be found, not only in a duet with the Buffalo Bills but also “Goodnight My Someone”   and “Till There Was You.” 

She was so good and so appealing she was  considered by Hollywood for the 1962 film. Typically producer Jack Warner wanted stars --  Cary Grant instead of Preston. But Grant violently declined, so the movie celebrity as well as singing attention  went to Shirley Jones.  YouTube has a Bell Telephone Music Man medley by Cook that may also have served as Hollywood audition in 1960.  No offense to Shirley Jones, who can sing and  acted the part notably well, but Cook would have sung it better. 

In the 1960s she was still in demand, originating the lead in “She Love Me,” a musical recently revived on Broadway, live-streamed on the Internet and moved to London.  (She has revisited the music on her concert tours.)

By the late 1960s and throughout the early 1970s, as she has related, the bottom dropped out of her marriage and her self-confidence, finally resurrected in the late 1970s by pianist Wally Harper, now deceased.

Her voice may have darkened somewhat over time but if anything increased its power and Cook now turned to the cabaret world and a masterful ability with lyrics. She now preached getting inside the lyrics and the mood as essentials. The big and gentle voice was still there. It requires, of course,  the sort of vocal talent she has, to dip and soar at will, combined with  the life experience she earned to know what the composer was trying to say and how to say it. 

“Masterful,” incidentally,  is no hyperbole because premier music schools such as Juilliard turned to her to teach master classes to their professionally-minded students. Since appearance or sex appeal matters so much in popular culture, her artistry has been limited to cabarets, Broadway appearances and in these days of music services, audio listeners everywhere.

Her albums drew more fans as did her Carnegie Hall concerts in 1980 and 2006,  along with a  PBS hour from the 1980s still rousing on You Tube. 

Believe me, we are not exhausting YouTube on Cook selections, plus you can learn more if you like reading -- it was only last year that she co-wrote her life story: “Then and Now: A Memoir.” Or you can hear the other famous singers pay tribute to her repertoire.

But on her own, learn how smooth and easy she was with Gershwin  and why so much of  her fame stems from status as the definitive interpreter  of Sondheim. She became central to his Broadway musical showcases even into  recent years

I can only think of two singers who have had such live performance impact over 70 years and they are quite different except for work ethic and determined self-improvement  – Tony Bennett, who still performs, and Barbara Cook, who remains alive to me because of the Internet.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee. 


Thursday, August 3, 2017

SAM SHEPARD, THE O’NEILL AND 1969

By Dominique Paul Noth

Shepard in his 20s
The death of Sam Shepard brought back the summer of 1969 when my bride and I were housed on the same dorm floor as Shepard, then in his 20s and already a force in experimental circles though his most famous  plays – “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child” and “True West” -- were still a few years away. In his New Yorker tribute, critic Hilton Als rightly describes Shepard as close to being America’s first hip-hop playwright.

Even then, coming from Ellen Stewart’s off-Broadway stew at La Ma Ma, he was something of a sensation at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut – dressed in black with a cowboy hat, handsome and taciturn. The handsome and taciturn he kept all his life as playwright and actor. 

I was flattered to be invited because I was merely the second-string drama critic at The Milwaukee Journal.  (In those days, no one at our newspaper had any title, much less first or second string, but I only got the theater reviews the music critic Walter Monfried didn’t want and since he didn’t want Harold Pinter, Brecht, Ionesco, Becket or that “dreadful French pervert” Jean Genet, I was much in reviewer heaven – making enough of a mark that the now defunct New York Theater magazine tapped me as a correspondent). 

The most memorable event of that year was my marriage. Part of our extended summer honeymoon was being invited to the O’Neill where I sat in and contributed to meetings with Philadelphia’s Ernie Schier, New York Herald Tribune’s Judith Crist (then noted movie critic but previously, as she put it, “Second string to God” – God being Walter Kerr) and several others who were supporting the National Theater Institute and would later found the American Theatre Critics Association.

I enjoyed running into Shepard in the hallway but cannot say I had  intense conversations with him. I don’t think many critics ever had. I also found the young writer John Lahr hard to approach, but I did speak with a newcomer actor named Michael Douglas (attending with his mother) and also had some delightful chats with New York stage actor Earle Hyman, later best known as the Huxtables grandpere on “The Cosby Show.”

My memory going back is somewhat blurred because I am not sure if Hyman was there for some scenes that were staged by O’Neill artistic director Lloyd Richards or was  part of the Trinidad troupe gathered by late poet and elegant conversationalist Derek Walcott – whom I was also in awe of.  Here I witnessed the first US production of his “Dream on Monkey Mountain,” still a great work of poetry and drama but then unknown to the assembled critics.  I recall liking it with an enthusiasm others blamed on my Midwest roots. 

I confess being most impressed at the welcome as an equal by theater writers whose names I knew well – Henry Hewes, Eliot Norton, several others  and Schier, who was inordinately kind to me and Louise. Even Crist put up with my disagreements about movies.

Why did these memories flood back with Shepard’s death? I’ve interviewed enough celebrities that I am long past name dropping.  Besides, with the exception of Douglas, most of these names would mean nothing to outsiders.

Partly it was because I wish I had the foresight to get to know Shepard better and that twinge of regret was there when I last saw him in a movie, where the brevity of his role perfectly fit the story but had me wishing for more, “August: Osage County” (2013).

I recall those 1969 times because of what they represent of the American theater scene in what were then my salad days and the shaping environment for so many who made theater vital to their lives. 

The regional theater movement was taking root, experimental playwrights of quite different weight like John Guare, Edward Albee and Shepard were trying their wings, and theater  reviewers were being challenged nightly to stay with or stay ahead of what was happening in theater (not to mention film). And what was really happening was, like in modern music, often more daring than their editors were willing to hear about.

Today we are going through a remarkable Renaissance of writing talent streaming onto the stage from many mediums. They are not all designed to be as memorable as the touchstones of the past but it will be hard to say now which  will endure in the future.  All seem sturdily connected to the pulling threads of our society even as our society is being pulled apart in terms of cultural icons. 

We may never again be as uniform in our judgment of art or great theater, but I recall how in 1969 we leaped toward the unknown, really without knowing what would endure.  We  have to do that even more today.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for Urban Milwaukee












Friday, February 17, 2017

THE SILENCE SURROUNDING ‘SILENCE’

By Dominique Paul Noth
Liam Neeson in "Silence."

On paper, everything about “Silence” grabbed the wheelhouse of my interests – a favorite director, important novel, serious cinema and global moral dilemma.

It is faithful to the intentions of a renowned novel from 51 years ago -- the master culmination of the themes of Japan as a swampland of repression written by celebrated Japanese Catholic author Shusaku Endo. 

Or should that more clearly be Catholic Japanese? Because Endo reached into 17th century Japan with a semi-historic novel to make his emotional and theological point – unspeakably cruel rejection of Christian villagers (but not too cruel for the cinema).  They were forced into secret cults and then boiled, beheaded, crucified in the ocean or hung upside down like pigs to die.  Yet this was nothing compared to the elaborate physical and  mental torture inflicted on the Portuguese Jesuits who attempted to minister them, so ferociously did the dominant Japanese society reject the faith of the outsiders and compromise its leaders.

The mental chess match between priests and inquisitors, using the Jesuits’ own intellect and agony against them, becomes after the first hour the centerpiece of the film. So it was onstage in 1995 when the Milwaukee Rep collaborated with Japan’s Subaru Acting Company.  That production of “Silence” also asked whether a western religion could take root in Asian soil (much like people today ask if our western form of democracy can take root in the Middle East) and whether there wasn’t self-destruction in a religion built around blood and suffering. 

The priests of the story are seduced by their own concern for the lives of the faithful.

Another lifelong attraction is director Martin Scorsese, who has been exploring the nature of guilt and defiance since I admired his first film more than 40 years ago, “Mean Streets.”  Endlessly versatile, enamored of American and Japanese film history, Scorsese provides a nearly too perfect sheen of fog, unforgiving landscapes and grubby villagers, trying to marry the postures of Japanese behavior to the depths of physical discomfort the Jesuits – played by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver – must submit to in missionary zeal. 

Liam Neeson has an elaborate cameo as the fallen priest they have come to rescue – a mouthpiece for the nobility of compromise. The Japanese co-stars are effectively cast for looks and behavior, both malicious and noble. Tadanobu Asona, an incredible one-man theater comic, is a standout as the amusingly grim Inquisitor. The movie has its own Judas figure who again and again encapsulates the internal dilemma of the devout Christian’s belief in forgiveness while standing firm when God himself remains silent.

So in depth of purpose, nobility of style, cinematography that is its lone Oscar nomination and intent, the film cannot be questioned.  But as a film it can be questioned.

It is laboriously long, more to be studied than felt. Despite the brutality of its images the movie keeps us inspecting its protagonists more than sharing their conflict and pain.

At times, such as the head of Jesus shimmering in the water, the directorial choices can be misrepresented as selling Catholicism when the attempt is to dig inside the minds of the Jesuits.  It is something like Alfred Hitchcock thinking that superimposing opening doors in the head of Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound” was saying something the actors couldn’t, but it still comes off as way too obvious.

“Silence” is a spectacular exercise in admiration more than the dive within characters that marks the best of Scorsese’s work.

No strong audience has found this film, though its hopes for coronation were high. It wasn’t even released until two days before Christmas of 2016 to be Oscar eligible and then generally released in January.  Within weeks despite the names involved, it disappeared from the nation’s main screens.

Other recent film reviews include “La La Land,” “Moonlight” and “Lion,” “Florence Foster Jenkins,” “Jackie,” “Hidden Figures,” “Fences,” “Manchester by the Sea,” “20th Century Women” and “Loving”.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 



Tuesday, February 7, 2017

HOW LOVING AND FRIENDSHIP HAD LITTLE PLACE IN OSCARS

By  Dominique Paul Noth


Ruth Negga is the lone Oscar nod despite Josh Edgerton's strong
performance in "Loving."
One measly nomination for “20th Century Women”? That  was not the intention of producing companies Annapurna Pictures, Archer Gray and Modern People, as this reviewer has discussed

It’s awards that help keep East Coast financiers interested in an era when most films need these multiple sources.  That’s  why most movies’ introductory logos convey a multitude of unknown investment companies, many of whom are also doled out “executive producer” credentials.

It takes a lot of cooperative money -- sometimes strange money. As hedge fund manager, new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin invested some $500 million in films, but he also  used the fortune he amassed on Wall Street, and  working for Goldman Sachs,  and running his own bank,  to finance other movies well into 2016, earning constant executive producer designations.

He actually has  one film in the Oscars – a sound editing nomination for “Sully,”  directed by Clint Eastwood. It also clearly had broader Oscar hopes and pumped in vain for Tom Hanks as best actor.   

The “20th Century Women” partners carefully released the film in New York and Los Angeles in December before turning to  general release the following year -- clearly hoping for deeper Oscar  recognition at the last minute for more nominations than the one they got.

Similarly  “Loving” chose a November release though ready six months earlier.  Its Oscar hopes were barely realized, not even a best picture nod in an expanded field of nine despite director-writer Jeff Nichols’ previous credentials and an entertaining cast.  

Joel Edgerton is remarkably good as the strong silent type --  Richard Loving, a reticent reluctant public figure even when sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for interracial marriage. But only Ruth Negga landed an Oscar nomination as his wife in a performance of luminous compassion and determination – and recognition that she is a star in the making. 

Negga’s Mildred, as seen by writer Nichols, is factually  fabricated to make her environment  friendlier and her heritage not the partial American Indian the real Mildred claimed in interviews but more outspokenly “black.” But the performance contains its own truths about human behavior even more than about the landmark Loving  case.

The Lovings couple took their 1950s  legal troubles to the Supreme Court in the 1960s and won an end to miscegenation laws nationwide -- certainly a timely reminder of the importance of the courts in social progress. The acting, the historical significance and the truthfulness of government indifference have kept the film around, which is not the fate of other 2016 entries that failed to win big respect at the Oscars.

(Looking back and being blunt, the producers of “Captain Fantastic” -- a July release that landed a best actor nod for Viggo Mortensen --  and crime thriller “Hell and High Water,” August release yet four Oscar nods and strong box office, are probably wishing they had pushed Hollywood voters even harder.)

Documentary and foreign film specialists can probably signal Oscar overlooks (though bravo for the documentaries including “I Am Not Your Negro”). But credit the Academy voters generally for coming down to mostly respectable choices (except for the strange placement of star Viola Davis of “Fences” in the supporting actress character and inserting Octavia Spencer there, the weakest performance but biggest female name in “Hidden Figures”). 

Never pretend there isn’t a lot gamesmanship behind the scenes -- nor how obvious it is  when studios give up despite positive sounding press releases.  A case in point is  “Love & Friendship” despite the awards  track record of films based on the  works and late blooming popularity (after more than two centuries!) of Jane Austen (“Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice”). The clarity of that times’ class structure and the pertinence of Austen’s verbal skewers always hold out great opportunity for film-making.


Kate Beckinsale as the venom-dipped Lady Susan.
Faithfully adapted by director Whit Stillman from the Jane Austen novella “Lady Susan,”  the production promised elegant 18th century fashion and humorous dissection of the battle of the sexes, focused on an endlessly scheming penniless widow who uses her looks and shy daughter to force a lucrative outcome.

It was plugged hard in June . . . then  quietly  moved to Amazon’s DVD market by September. The industry pretty much knew then  the  producers had given up hope that either well-known Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan or Chloe Sevigny as her gossipy confidante would gain awards  attention. 

Quite right, too, because Beckinsale is concerned more with elegant style than internal conviction about  Lady Susan’s powers over men, an essential dramatic element even in comedy. Sevigny’s amused arched eyebrows are similarly not enough.

The film cannot be saved by some inventive visuals to keep the complicated plot from tangling – or  even by those delicious Austen bon mots. (Lady Susan’s vicious wit is on constant display: one targeted husband is  “too old to be governable and too young to die”; a miscarried scheme brings the Trump-like complaint, “Facts are horrid things.”) 

The epigrams cluster like locusts but except for Tom Bennett’s amusing turn as a rich ignoramus, what should have been a comedy of manners becomes a comedy of mannerisms.

Recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie, Hidden Figures, FencesManchester by the Sea and 20th Century Women.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Sunday, February 5, 2017

OSCAR SENSIBILITIES AND 20TH CENTURY WOMEN

By Dominique Paul Noth

The curious but understandable Oscar neglect of Annette
Bening in "20th Century Women."
A release date reveals a lot of what producers and studios are thinking about Oscar nominations – or lack of them.

Not seasonal perennials of course. The “Star Wars” franchise routinely locks up the family holiday audience ever year in December, not expecting much from the Oscars (good thing, too -- only a visual effects nomination for “Rogue One”). Action and superhero films think similarly, throwing in Thanksgiving. 

But more serious, explorative  and  socially comedic  films are given release times that will help them leap out of the pack and force industry Oscar voters (and the foreign press association, and the Screen Actors Guild and other much televised exercises) to pay attention.  These releases are often placed at the end of 2016. The studios don’t have much belief in their own industry’s attention span.  

Such was “Nocturnal Animals,” given a limited sneak peek for New York City and Los Angeles in November  (this big city  release is a condition of the Oscars) before entering general release December 9.  Try to find it now.

Supposedly a suspense film in which a violent rape in a novel affects the writer’s former wife, forcing her out of her  cocooned luxury, Tom Ford’s film is flat pretentious in its visually elegant stylings  and only partially believable in plot. 

That did result in one surprise and rather strange  Oscar nomination (supporting actor Michael Shannon as a cancerous quixotic sheriff) and an equally surprising  Golden Globe for Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a showy sometimes naked extreme villain, a role any good actor would kill for (figuratively).  There is strong screen presence from veterans Jack Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams (Amy in particular keeping us interested in a boring woman). But the film’s producers clearly hoped for much more.

Amy Adams (in "Arrival") failed to register with Oscar
in two films.
It is Adams’ misfortune that another Oscar hopeful starring her also  opened in November, partly to stir Oscar but mainly for Thanksgiving sc-fi attention  – “Arrival,” something of a cross in plot between “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

Adams’ work in that seemed Oscar bound -- a linguistic professor with guts and curiosity (and a hidden mental insight) willing to risk exposure to alien visitors. Her acting keeps the movie palatable even more than the extensive visual effects – and remember, she has been much nominated in previous years.  This time she came a cropper despite (or maybe because of) two films in the crucial final months.

 The film got recognized in the best picture, best director, best director and five technical categories, but it wanted Oscar to fall in love with Amy, who one day will win one of these things.

But Adams is not the one cited as Oscar’s major oversight. That belongs to the frequently nominated   and always interesting Annette Bening. Her tabloid fame may come from domesticating Warren Beatty but her acting prowess has made her the most reliable inhabitant of diverse characters next to Meryl Steep.

She picked a doozy keeping  “20th Century Women” humorously afloat – as a mother who came of age well before feminism and open talk about sex in the 1970s. Clinging to old habits (chain-smoking Salems) she seeks to help adolescent son Jamie (played engagingly by Lucas Jade Zumann) safely navigate this raucous new world of punk dress and music,  jackass stunts and promiscuity. 

Director-writer Mike Mills has long tapped his personal experience and added playful memories. (A humorous moment comes when a devoted punk artist captures every moment in her day with her Polaroid, something hardly unique  today --  everyone has  a smart phone.) The movie dances among visual extremes (fast motion, acid blurrings and straight naturalism) with some blunt dialog that won Mills the film’s single Oscar nomination  in a category where he is outranked (best adapted screenplay).  Would you like to go up against Fences, Lion, Hidden Figures and Moonlight?

Elle Fanning (with Bening) in "20th Century Women."
Neglected were  pleasant but mainly behavioral acting exercises from Greta Gerwig as the punk artist and Elle Fanning as the object of Jamie’s unfulfilled desires.  Billy Crudup circles the feminist and documentary undertones as a securely hippie and hedonistic handyman. But the film becomes lost in episodic incidents and overly obvious social commentary. Where it should fly it swoons and even a final image intended to keep the film afloat drags the audience down to earth.

For these reasons, I don’t consider the general exclusion of “20th Century Women” a mistake --  though it is curious that Meryl Streep is again nominated for a film that is already on pay TV, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”  But hers  was a more impressive acting job. 

Bening’s character is a  less attractive acting challenge -- as much an object of helplessness as intended hopefulness.  The actress loved unearthing the contradictions and invests meaning even when there doesn’t seem much of a purpose. I would have preferred her in a New York minute over Natalie Portman, but the mystique of  Jackie won Oscar voters over the slightly comic portrait of a confused 1970s mother.

Recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie, Hidden Figures, Fences and Manchester by the Sea.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com


Saturday, January 28, 2017

MANCHESTER MORE A DIRECTOR'S TRIUMPH THAN AN ACTOR'S

By Dominique Paul Noth

Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck in "Manchester by the Sea"
Manchester by the Sea is being touted as an actors' movie (particularly one actor,  Casey Affleck), as a sad but gripping  excursion through a lost soul redeemed by having to care for his nephew, a meaningful and highly rated film about overlooked everyday reclamation.

Missed in that description is that it  is really  a director’s film  -- Kenneth Lonergan. It only works so well because he refused to gussy up the story with dramatic flourishes, letting the quiet reality unfold in flashbacks and careful revelations, trusting the audience to do the empathetic work. It is rooted in working class values so we can feel the New England cold, the drudge of snow shoveling, the blocked toilets, the gray highways,  the pain of a common hospital ward where sad news is delivered.

He keeps the cast and a fine technical crew completely at the service of the mood and the  writer –  Lonergan – staying true in story choices and interaction. This invests small variations  in character Lee Chandler’s focus that bring him not to redemption  but to the hint of changing back into a mensch (the Yiddish word for a good person). In other words, a truly believable reluctant change. 

We watch Lee (Affleck), a stoic uninvolved Boston custodian clearly smarter than his circumstances,  emptying trash and fixing plumbing in walled off manner, occasionally erupting over beer into fistfights -- clearly a lost human being with a dark hidden side.

Then his brother dies and leaves him sole guardian of 16 year old nephew Patrick (played by Lucas Hedges), at which point we get touches of his past life and tragedy that led him to this state of isolation and self-imposed emptiness.

Only in contemplation do we realize his late brother’s motivation (a role of observant watcher played  in flashbacks by Kyle Chandler, in quite a departure from TV’s “Friday Night Lights”). Only after absorbing Affleck’s haunted eyes and locked off behavior do we comprehend the depth of the  family tragedy and self-loathing that have driven him to this stoic façade and his determination to stay there.

The story was apparently suggested to Lonergan in a down period  by friend and now an executive producer on the film, Matt Damon, who couldn’t star and suggested Casey Affleck (younger brother of Ben).  Damon couldn’t have made a better suggestion because Affleck becomes Lee with his vacant eyes, darting subdued looks  and hesitant hand gestures, refusing to break  open but clearly tempted to when encountered by his ex-wife (naturalistic fine work by Michelle Williams).  He has the stillness, the accent and the man of few words delivery needed for Lee.

We reach the point of understanding a more life-loving Lee in his past,  an indulgent belief in life that may have led to his tragedy.  We long for a smile to break that sullen face. That elevates our intensity in watching the performance. We are finally satisfied only when Lee is out on his family boat --   on the life-enhancing sea, the smooth glass ocean off of Manchester that fulfills the story’s contrast with Lee’s emptiness.

Never overlook how carefully director  Lonergan (also Oscar nominated) has modulated these performances, never stop appreciating what he left on the cutting from floor. The observation of people and of landscapes is expertly achieved by  cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes  and delicate film cutting from Jennifer Lane (neither are Oscar nominated).  

The film has also earned a supporting actor nomination  for  Lucas Hedges, who at age 20 perfectly captures the insolence, rebellion and budding sorrow of nephew Patrick.  I think the votes  in that category are going to lean to the screen magnetism of Mahershala Ali of Moonlight or rising star Dev Patel of Lion. But the largely unknown  Hedges deserves to be in such company.

Affleck is also nominated for best actor, amid some controversy because of  past sexual allegations that had been settled out of court.  Despite media comparisons to Cosby and Trump, it should be his performance that matters not speculation,  and he has been reputable in the past. But I’m not sure this isn’t a perfectly orchestrated one-off. I prefer the proven gifts and realizations of Denzel Washington in Fences

Other recent film reviews include La La Land, Moonlight and Lion, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie and Hidden Figures.

About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 



Friday, January 27, 2017

‘FENCES’ BREAKS US DOWN WITH POWERHOUSE PERFORMANCES

By Dominique Paul Noth 


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis in "Fences"
Fences is a hybrid -- transferring a stage giant to the big screen while retaining the structural outlines of the stage. That may work against it in the “best film” sweepstakes where originality is honored but it is working for it in terms of epic sweep and general audience response. 

Director Denzel Washington’s fidelity to the power of August Wilson’s play, adding  perfectly placed visual images, street scenes  and editing to deepen the overall poetry, deserves considerable recognition. Being Oscar nominated reflects that even though it also speaks to the Academy’s sensitivity to racial correctness.    

It could well mean a best actor Oscar for Washington, who invests 1950s garbage-man Troy with a defiant garrulous ego battling  weakness of the flesh, fighting against God and his own humanity as he tries to control the  world. Or rather his home, which he rules as a castle.

His backyard becomes a place to drink gin and subdue souls. His compassion and greed combine in his treatment of his brain-damaged brother, played full throttle by Mykelti Williamson.  His refusal to bend to human instincts is demonstrated in his treatment of sons by different mothers, played with straight honesty by Jovan Adepo and William Hornsby.

You don’t realize until the end how much desire, decency, loss and tragedy have been exposed in this journey. 

But he has a co-star. Rose as his wife doesn’t just move in his shadow though the production starts that way. She comes to dominate the screen with her natural manner and caring nature --  from amused tolerance to angry victim to accepting mother.  No one in the Oscar supporting actress category comes anywhere close  – definitely assuring a win for Viola Davis, though I think her presence in this category is something of a travesty. 

There are good performances here – Naomie Harris as the addicted mother in Moonlight, Nicole Kidman as the adoptive mother in Lion, Michelle Williams as the ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea and as a nod to Hidden Figures by picking Octavia Spencer, but they pale against Davis.

Trade reports say she chose  the supporting category. Perhaps she didn’t want to oppose good friend Meryl Streep, or new media sensation Emma Stone of La La Land,  though in that case she would have won hands down on degree of difficulty.  Certainly there is threat in the luminescence of Ruth Negga,  an emerging important actress in a neglected film, Loving, and certainly a bit of Oscar celebrity fawning for a performance I didn’t flip over, Natalie Portman as  Jackie.   The leaves two acting greats to consider – foreign legend Isabelle Huppert in the little seen Elle and Streep, who discounts herself as I have. Huppert could now sneak away with a category  Davis deserved to be in.

Her performance carries “Fences” as much as  Washington’s  – and more, in terms of liking and believing in him. Washington’s dissection of Troy – from a great ballplayer who missed his moment in the sun to a wannabe family man to an easily tempted ladies man and then into painful episodes as demanding and demeaning father – has as an inescapable rhythmic baseline in Wilson’s  language and insights. It’s a part that rivals Willie Loman of “Death of a Salesman” in dimension but with an added muscularity. 

As an actor even more than a director (who serves his cast with sensitivity)  Washington embraces and lives the human being that reveals  Wilson’s greatness. It is an acting performance that serves as  a welcome change from his recent screen persona,  which has become somewhat repetitious of late.

The price of fidelity to a role he also played on Broadway is some of the staginess cannot be disguised and the director cannot resist giving extra weight to the secondary deeper meanings (Troy’s fight is as much against the heavens as it is his own weaknesses; his brother’s trumpet and calls to St. Peter have a larger than naturalism purpose).

With  easy warmth and knowing directness, Stephen Henderson as he did onstage with Washington plays Bono, the best friend and good advice giver who by the end has learned to keep his distance.  It is because of Davis’ performance that we don’t similarly pull away.

The strength of this movie really comes from Wilson, lovingly transplanted by Washington and company.  Whenever we drift into contemplating the characters or merely admiring the artistry, the film leaps into a moment of raw power that wrestles us into submission. 

Other recent film reviews include La La Land, Lion and Moonlight, Florence Foster Jenkins,  Jackie and Hidden Figures.


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 




Tuesday, January 24, 2017

‘HIDDEN FIGURES’ RELIES ON HIDING REALITIES FOR A WILLING PUBLIC

By Dominique Paul Noth

From left: Octavia Spencer, Taraji Henson and Janelle Monae in
Hidden Figures.
Unquestionably the surprise feel-good smash hit,  congratulatory slap on the American back and elevation of  black pride currently at the movie theaters  is  Hidden Figures, which has leapt to the forefront of national  attention and even awards consideration.  Sure,  La La Land  may win the Oscars and dominate the world box office,  but not far behind and winning the comfort vote of American self-satisfaction is  Hidden Figures.

It is a sign of how well the movie has absorbed the lessons of Hollywood’s narrative past and how desperate we are to believe in the fictional simplicities of re-shaping historical events into an acceptable formula of climax after climax. 

In 1960s America it was unusual for a major daring initiative – launching man into space – to seek help even in the  much maligned and neglected African American community for “human computers,” people so good with numbers and mathematical calculations  that the skin color did not matter as much as their science.

NASA was pioneering on many fronts and certainly could not afford to be petty on this one. This is the view of America we like to think of – that ability, content of character,  respect for the brain – outweighs all else.

There is actually a historical basis for Hidden Figures – black women whose talents fit into NASA’s needs to send Alan Shepard and John Glenn into space.  Katherine Johnson was  a whiz with numbers.  Dorothy Vaughan had a knack with mathematical  programming. Mary Jackson was determined to become NASA’s first black engineer. All have plaques and even buildings named after their work.

From such examples,  Hidden Figures has built a powerful myth – three black women escorted  into work at high speed by a white patrol office who momentarily out of patriotism sets aside his instinctive belligerence toward blacks.  Setting aside belligerence in the face of ability is the fiction the movie rides to death.

There is some justification in elevating a forgotten chapter in history, but it is a fabrication to suggest it deeply changed society, unless you are living in a different society than I am.

Romance  blossoms at a church picnic where a feisty black woman intellectually puts down a handsome officer to the amusement of her fellow workers. (At least this justifies the presence of another remarkable acting name to emerge this season, Mahershala Ali who is also in Moonlight.) 

The movie is built of little set pieces like this that proclaim the characters' worth, the indignities they suffer usually at white hands, how they persevere and on and on in clever but artificial elaborations of what was quiet pioneer heroism. It is how facts become legends, to paraphrase legendary director John Ford, whose movies preferred the legend but also showed the facts.

Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson in invented sequences of being forced to run to the colored woman’s restroom in a nearby building every time duty called, or confronting sympathetic but hard-nosed supervisor Kevin Costner about the demeaning treatment – which he rewards by offhand singular meetings and approval.  Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan not just as the trainer of numbers  teams but as the only person capable of figuring out the enormous IBM database of the time.  Janelle Monae, who also has  an impressive turn in Moonlight, is the sassy Jackson (at least sassy in this version) determined to become a combination engineer, matchmaker and liberated woman.
  
The actresses deserve credit for going right at the material. Henson conveys an intensity about her work that rides through all the diversions into Hollywood romantic territory.  Spencer cracks wise and knowing almost to the point of annoyance.  Monae may have been best known up to now as a singer and model but not anymore. Her screen magnetism and acting chops are going to be her hallmark from this moment forward.

All of this is enjoyable – in the sense of making the audience feel great about how openly and hard these women fight against prejudice and how the suspicious white world, mainly in the form of Costner and ever doubtful assistant Jim Parson, eventually bends to the value of these black women.  Of course, the hostility is exaggerated as is the acceptance.

If you trust the film, only because of these women’s involvement does Glenn make it around the world in space and return safely.  Only because of their programming expertise does the IBM computer kick out reliable data.  The film is smart enough not to say this directly but the images certainly imply that level of importance.

Director Theodore Melfi has absorbed well the lessons of movie construction of the past, how to build individual life lessons into an audience pleasing fairytale.  In seeking to glorify these women by exaggerating their circumstances, the film may be doing a disservice to them and to history. That certainly is the reaction on reflection, though I think audiences will enjoy being led down the  garden path of this vision of   the 1960s era.  Other movies set in the present are forcing reflection on a more genuine state of humanity


About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com. 


Saturday, January 21, 2017

DID MERYL CREATE A METAPHOR FOR OUR TIMES?

By Dominique Paul Noth


Meryl Streep as Florence Foster Jenkins
Pretty sure that the most difficult and successfully executed acting job of 2016 will not win the Oscar, though it might well be nominated. Also convinced, as Meryl Streep herself has suggested in interviews, that the most celebrated film actress of all time and the most ever nominated will not ever win again and certainly not for what was a fully realized performance in a not so fully realized film, Florence Foster Jenkins (first released in August but making the rounds again in Oscar anticipation).

Editor's note: And a good guess that re-release was. Streep landed her Oscar nomination January 24 and given a quirk in the nomination formula actually has some but not much chance to win.

A shame, too, because the movie and her character in some ways are  a metaphor for our times.   Here we have a woman who loved to sing, and did it so abominably in the 1940s as to inspire  laughter even as her celebrity commanded the stage. She was able through sheer financial prominence and the protection of sycophants  to force her way into Carnegie Hall and into legend. 

If this is not a metaphor for our age, the ability of money and conviction to rise to prominence despite realities, I don’t know what is.

There is a profound difference.  In pure acting ability Streep – a fine singer herself – captures without sarcastic comment the hilarious near misses of Jenkins and the sense of assurance that her love of music will  triumph over her inability to achieve it.  The shrills of her aria are chalkboard grating and just off the mark enough to be hysterical. She is somewhat aware of what she is doing but so absorbed in her self-worth that she plows ahead despite the obstacle of no real ability.

This is a difficult comic and human line to walk, and in her portrayal of a rich woman permanently damaged by youthful  exposure to syphilis, kept together by makeup and wigs to put on a public face, Streep makes most of the audience care for the human being  despite her faults and preposterous self-delusion.  The candor with which she approaches physical deterioration and camouflage serves as constant corrections to our sense of superiority – and yet does not stifle our desire to laugh.

The rest of the film does not rise to her level – and that may be the fault of director Stephen Frears realizing how good she is and trusting that would carry along the rest of the casting and shaky story development. 

Hugh Grant plays her husband who constantly has us on the edge of whether he truly loves her or is using her. It is among the better things Grant has done, since his self-contained British manner and aloofness fit perfectly the character, but it is still not convincing because the doubt about the character is more an intellectual mystery than a revelation from  the actor.

There is unabashed muggery from Simon Helberg as pianist Cosmé McMoon who takes the Jenkins’ job for money with full realization of the horror she is visiting on opera.  Helberg, a big success from TV’s “Big Bang Theory,” has the job of giving the audience the excuse to laugh and employs the bug-eyed reactions famous from the TV series, providing much mirth for a TV trained  audience visiting the movie theater.  I suspect he is a good actor directed into emphasizing his shtick but it does pull the film out of the reality of the times and personality that Streep has so effortlessly established.  (Effortless in the sense of how we accept her – the work that went into this is nigh impossible to imagine.)

Someday, years from now, an actor will come along to interpret Donald Trump with a combination of hilarity and understanding that will force a re-evaluation from supporters and foes alike. He should right now start praying that an actor of the self-effacing character and insight of Meryl Streep will take him on and re-interpret his reputation.



About the author: Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at milwaukeelabor.org.  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  He also reviews theater for urbanmilwaukee.com.