Image of the Day

Screencap from Address Unknown
Address Unknown (1944)
[Via DVD Beaver.]

Posted in Film | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Poster for A Most Violent Year

I saw J.C. Chandor’s previous film, All is Lost, and thought it was a very effective adventure story, so I was interested to see what he’d do next. A Most Violent Year is quite different. In fact it’s quite an eccentric story, and in some ways it defines itself by what it is not. Which is to say that it has all the hallmarks of being a gangster story, but it studiously avoids actually becoming a gangster story.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a Colombian immigrant who has taken over his wife’s father’s heating oil distribution business in the New York City area. The year is 1981. His wife’s father, we gradually learn, was a gangster. The heating oil distribution business is apparently rife with criminal elements, and Morales’ trucks are being hijacked by his competitors, although he doesn’t know which ones. He’s also being investigated by a district attorney for various forms of fraud. All of this is happening while he’s trying to buy a riverside terminal that will allow him to expand his business massively. If he can’t come up with $1.5 million dollars in the next thirty days, he will lose his down payment and basically lose his whole business. Morales is pushed and pulled to opt for a violent solution to his problems, but he does all he can to resist the forces at work.

The film has the look and feel of, amongst other things, the Godfather films, and many people have said that Isaac plays Morales very much in the mode of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. (The other thing you see in many review is comparison of Morales’ wife, played by Jessica Chastain, to Lady Macbeth.) Chandor seems to court this comparison, but then he heads in a completely different direction. This ends up not being much of a gangster movie at all, and the pervasive air of political corruption and criminal activity seems, in the end, almost metaphorical more than anything. Most of the conflict is verbal or institutional rather than any kind of overt violence. There’s a dark, menacing mood, but the tension doesn’t lead where I expected it to.

At times I thought maybe it was a bit self-indulgent or arch in the way it played this game, but I always found it engrossing. It looks great, and the cinematography by Bradford Young is outstanding. He’s not the only connection with Selma either, oddly enough, as David Oyelowo and Alessandro Nivolo are in both films. Chandor has created something strange here in the way that he uses genre to generate tension but then works steadfastly against the grain. His main character and his approach to the story have much in common: they are both pushed in a certain direction but do everything they can to fight the tide. The result is an ambivalent take on the American Dream.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Selma (2014)

Poster for Selma

I always have trouble with fictional treatments of history, but this one handles it about as well as you can. It has been compared to Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), because both films are ultimately about the passage of a law. In fact, Selma is almost a kind of sequel to Lincoln, because Lincoln is about the law that liberated the slaves, while Selma is about the law that gave the descendants of the slaves the right to vote in the South. As others have pointed out, the struggle continues, and this film is timely in a period when voting rights are once again (only 50 years later) under attack.

I saw this on MLK Day, which I thought was appropriate. The portrait of MLK offered is complicated. He is shown to doubt his own strategy, and he is shown to feel aggrieved by Malcolm X’s criticism of his strategy. He is shown to be an adulterer. Perhaps above all he is shown to be a part of a community, not as a lone hero. As much as he inspires others, he is inspired by them. His leadership is part of a group effort. This is true to life, although it also makes him dramatically a somewhat passive figure.

The portrayal of LBJ has been criticized, and I don’t know enough of the history to judge the criticism, or to judge how other parts of the story are handled. There were events portrayed in the film that I don’t remember hearing about (e.g., King’s decision to turn back the second time the protesters try to cross the bridge out of Selma), but I can’t say whether the portrayal is true or not. What I took away from it, however, was that all decisions were contested and debated. Nothing was clear to the people struggling for their democratic rights.

It’s a good film, and a very moving one, although I have to say that the documentary Eyes on the Prize, which covers the Civil Rights movement at much greater length (14 hours worth), is the better, deeper film. There’s something in me that resists the personalization of history that films like Lincoln and Selma represent. Rather than pull me into the drama, it pushes me out, because the personal stakes seem a distraction from the political ones.

 

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Blackhat (2015)

Poster for Blackhat

I’m a little confused by what the release of his Michael Mann movie in the midst of the Academy Award season means. Is it really being dumped by Universal as a loser, or are they hoping to make a splash in what is usually a dead period? All indications would seem to point to the former, but I’m amazed that a Michael Mann film would be treated that way, especially one that strikes me as a solid and stylish thriller. However, it has been getting some pretty negative reviews (the Seattle Times gave it 1.5 stars), so maybe I’m out of step with general opinion here.

The movie starts with hacker attacks on a Chinese nuclear power plant and an American commodities exchange. A Chinese intelligence agent named Chen Dawai (played by Wang Leehom, whom I recognized from My Lucky Star) comes to the US to investigate and requests the release of his old college buddy, Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), who is serving time for hacking into a bank. Nick and Chen wrote the code used by the terrorist hacker, and Chen argues that Nick is therefore the only one who can solve the puzzle of who the hacker is. Joined by FBI agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis) and Chen’s bright and beautiful sister Chen Lien (Tang Wei, who was so impressive in Ang Lee’s Lust: Caution), they are soon jet-setting around Asia trying to track down the mysterious mastermind behind the attacks.

I suppose the characters aren’t much to write home about, but the point of this kind of thing is the intrigue, the exotic locations, and the action, all of which are handled very well. Mann uses the cyber elements to have fun with some abstract, arty imagery involving chip circuitry and representations of data and code. His shots of city architecture are moody, sleek, and densely patterned. Everything flows very smoothly and effectively, and I was reminded at times of David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The frequent use of reflected neon reminded me of the so-called cinema du look. Everybody’s always wearing sunglasses, although not the mirrorshades of old school cyberpunk.

This is Mann’s first feature film since 2009’s Public Enemies — a film I didn’t care for very much, as I recall. I liked this one better, even with some of the rote characterizations. It’s a minor movie, but it looks great and achieves its simple goals without undue fuss. I really don’t understand why this was dumped into the theatrical doldrums or why it’s getting such rotten reviews. Maybe people have loaded expectations of Mann? Very strange.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Zhì qu weihu shan, 2014)

Poster for The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Tsui Hark’s latest cinematic spectacular is based on an episode in Qu Bo’s 1957 novel, Tracks in a Snowy Forest, as filtered through the Peking Opera called Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy. Grady Hendrix’s review of Tsui’s film has a lot of great background on the novel and the opera. The gist of it is that these are Maoist works celebrating the struggles of the People’s Liberation Army to take control of the ravaged country after World War II. The episode adapted into the opera and the film concerns a platoon of PLA soldiers taking on a camp of bandits who are ensconced in an abandoned Japanese fortress built on Tiger Mountain. One of the PLA soldiers infiltrates the fortress as a spy.

This is a war movie, and it’s the kind of war movie that’s about a plucky band of outnumbered soldiers going up against a bigger, better armed group. The Taking of Tiger Mountain indulges in just about every formula you’d expect in such a movie, from the tragic deaths of beloved heroes to an orphaned child adopted by the soldiers to death-defying acts of derring-do involving ropes over a rocky abyss. There are reluctant villagers who don’t want to help the soldiers but come to love them. There are sudden revelations that threaten to expose the spy, who is engaged in a battle of wits with the wily bandit leader, Hawk (Tony Leung Kar-fai). There’s a brave nurse who falls in love with the stolid captain. There’s a scene of soldiers defecating in the snow, just like Raoul Walsh used to do in his Errol Flynn war films at Warner Bros.

Or maybe that’s just Tsui. Tsui deploys the formulas with great skill, and he builds up to the epic battle set-pieces with character development that makes the battles matter. As corny as much of it is, it’s also very exciting and vivid. The political set-up is complicated, if not convoluted, and some of the blink-and-you-miss-it exposition about the various factions reminded me of wuxia films of yore, as does some of the over-the-top characterization, especially of the bandits. Tsui makes it more nationalist than Maoist, but I’m not sure I see the subtle critique of communist self-congratulation that Grady Hendrix sees. Still, the framing story about a young Chinese man named Jimmy, studying in the US in the present, who becomes fascinated by the history behind the Peking Opera version of the story certainly is deployed to good effect to provide commentary on what an audience wants from stories, from history, from family, and from national pride. A lot of American reviewers seem to think that the coda in which Jimmy imagines a different climax to the story is Tsui flailing around trying to find the right ending, but that completely misses the playful depiction of the movie audience’s desire for something more spectacular and, as Hendrix points out, more heroic and self-aggrandizing.

This film builds on what Tsui has been doing as he makes the transition from Hong Kong genre provocateur to a creator of populist spectacles for mainland audiences. As much as I liked the two Detective Dee films, this one is the best of the lot so far. (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, on the other hand, was pretty dire.) The framing story gives Tsui an extra layer of complication to the shifting perspectives on outrageous events, so the flying debris and plummeting falls aren’t the only source of vertigo. The way the final title cards connect the story to the real people that Qu Bo’s novel was about is the final fillip in the narrative play, both grounding the overblown genre fantasy in history and subtly reminding us that in real life even heroes can’t overcome all odds.

I believe this is a Chinese New Year film, as it ends with a traditional Chinese New Year feast. It’s certainly an invigorating way to start the new year.

Also, let me just emphasize that you should read Grady Hendrix’s review. It’s full of chewy goodness.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Predestination (2014)

Poster for Predestination

This Australian production by the brothers Michael and Peter Spierig is an extremely faithful adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s solipsistic time travel classic, “–All You Zombies–“. Heinlein’s 1959 story, which I’ve read only once, is one of the best attempts at exploring the paradoxes inherent in the very idea of time travel, and to his credit he takes it into sexually taboo areas that still feel very daring. Heinlein’s flouting of sexual taboos in his late career fiction often feels merely perverted (in a dirty old man way), but here he uses it to drive home his high concept. The Spierig Brothers don’t duck the taboo, and if anything they ground it more in human feeling, for better or worse.

The basic scenario is a standard science fiction trope: There is a Temporal Agency that attempts to prevent crimes. I believe the implication is that it’s only time crimes they care about, and the specific crime that the agent played by Ethan Hawke is after is trying to solve involves a terrorist who plants bombs at various points along the timeline. This is the main addition to Heinlein’s story, from what I can tell, and it’s probably a commercial consideration that allows the film to be marketed as a thriller. In any event, in the course of his investigation Hawke’s character takes up a job as a bartender in the ’70s, and he thereby meets a gender ambiguous customer who turns out be a man with an interesting story.

As I perhaps implied above, the terrorist-thriller aspect of the plot seems a little extraneous to the main purpose of the story, which is still the exploration of paradoxical causation. Since I don’t remember Heinlein’s story very well, I’m not completely sure that the film fleshes out the main characters as much as I think it does, but for sure it has an updated take on issues of gender and sexuality that were still relatively new areas for popular culture to explore in 1959. It’s hard to get into the nuts and bolts of the story without spoilers, so I’ll leave it at that. Along with the faithfulness to Heinlein’s story, the other thing about this film that struck me as catnip to an old school science fiction fan like myself is the portrayal of the gender-ambiguous man as an extremely bright social misfit — the very prototype of a fan. To that extent, the film might be an act of fan service, so caveat emptor if you don’t identify with such characters.

It’s a handsome production that always looks interesting, and Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook deliver very good performances. As a respectful, intelligent adaptation, it’s hard to find much wrong with the thing, although as with all time travel stories it probably doesn’t hold together if you think about it too much. Like Heinlein’s story (and using his exact language at key points) it stills strikes a nerve of solipsistic melancholy that I found irresistible.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inherent Vice (2014)

Poster for Inherent Vice

I read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Inherent Vice, last summer. It’s the third of his novels I’ve read, along with The Crying of Lot 49 and Mason & Dixon, and I’m still not exactly a convert. Inherent Vice seemed rambling and hoary to me, although I liked the concept of Raymond Chandler in Hippieland and the focus on the dark underbelly of the ’60s American counterculture. Indeed, by the end of the novel I was beginning to see depths to what Pynchon was up to that I hadn’t noticed at first, and I reread the first 50 pages and found them richer than I had the first time. The final scene of driving on the freeway in the fog seemed like a perfect image for the American Dream.

Now comes Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation, which tries to squeeze Pynchon’s rambling series of druggy digressions into a two and a half hour timeframe. While I enjoyed bits and pieces of it, ultimately I came away feeling dissatisfied. However, this is probably a film that I need to see a second time before I can really dig into it. One thing I would say is that the other PTA film I’ve seen, The Master, benefited from focusing on two very strong characters, whereas Inherent Vice suffers from both a protagonist, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who isn’t very interesting (possibly an intentional cypher at the heart of an indefinite mystery) and a large cast of characters who never really come into focus at all.

The film is getting a lot of comparison to Robert Altman’s private eye pisstake, The Long Goodbye (1973), and that might be another problem for me, because I don’t care for the Altman film at all, despite the screenplay by Leigh Brackett. There’s a shambolic quality to both The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice that doesn’t seem to work for me. Altman feels more improvised than Anderson, but both result in a sense of awkward silliness that doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe the childishness is trying to tell us that all of this serious business is just play pretend by people who are essentially lost, I don’t know.

That said, there were many moments in Inherent Vice that did work for me, and the uncomfortable sex scene between Doc and his ex, Shasta, was one. It felt awful in ways that seemed pretty realistic to me. And maybe that’s what the film is up to: an attempt to deflate any romantic pretensions and reveal the ugliness beneath the dreams. Maybe I resist such deflations. The sexual dimension of the film ranges from the juvenile to the sordid. There’s not much beauty to be found, and what beauty there is soon reveals itself to be sordid. In the end, maybe I’m just not the right audience for such a bleak view.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movies in 2014

I saw 58 movies in the theater in 2014, and I thought it was a very good year. As in past years, what I’ll offer in lieu of a “best of” list is a list of movies I was compelled to see more than once in the theater, but this year more than others there are a bunch of films I only saw once that I would happily recommend. There are a number of these that I will undoubtedly watch again when I get the chance, although these days my viewing schedule is so clogged it’s harder than ever to re-watch new or old favorites.

So let me start off with the two films that I saw three times in the theater, and which I’ve been calling my two favorites of the year since I saw them. (There’s a third film that seems to be joining this list soon, but I’ll get to that later.)

Screencap from The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel – As I’ve said before, I had mixed feelings about Wes Anderson up until Moonrise Kingdom, which is a film I love whole-heartedly. Same goes for Anderson’s next film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. I’ve tried to analyze what it is about these two films that I prefer to his earlier ones, and I think it’s mainly that the damaged narcissists he has always focused on have either been sidelined, as in Moonrise Kingdom, or given actual heroic qualities, as in the concierge M. Gustave in The Grand Budapest Hotel. This is a deeply tragic story that’s told as a farce, which is a pretty incredible balancing act.

Still from Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer - It was a great year for science fiction in the cinema, and this was the best of a very good lot. It’s a ferociously intelligent dystopian blockbuster about the problem of power, and South Korean director Bong Joon-ho handles the transition to an English language international all-star production with ease. Tilda Swinton was in three of my favorite films of the year (she was also brilliant in Only Lovers Left Alive), and she is a total hoot as the sniveling toadie to the train’s godlike Engineer in this one. This is a work of satirical genius on many different levels. (See further comments about Bong’s filmography below.)

And so we come to the films I saw twice in the theater. This is more or less the order in which I saw them.

The Best Offer – This English-language film by the Italian director Giuseppe Tornatore came out of nowhere as far as I was concerned, but I was captivated by the almost gothic atmosphere of the estate house and the finicky performance by Geoffrey Rush as the neurotic art appraiser called in to assess the belongings of an even more neurotic heiress. I hadn’t seen anything else by Tornatore, and this one got me to watch three more of his, none of which was quite as good as this, although all were interesting in their different ways. I still haven’t watched Cinema Paradiso, which is probably his most famous film.

The Wind Rises – Hayao Miyazaki’s alleged swan song didn’t do very well in the United States, possibly because it’s aimed more at adults than kids or teens. Some American (and Korean) critics also seemed to think that Miyazaki was glorifying his protagonist’s part in building the Japanese war machine, but I think they completely missed the point of this tale of a dreamer who is oblivious to the cost of his dreams.

Screencap from Under the Skin

Under the Skin – I’m generally not a fan of horror movies, but sometimes science fiction horror films will get past my defences. This one certainly did. It was still hard to watch, but it was also one of the most beautiful films of the year. A lot of people saw Kubrick in this, but I saw more Nicolas Roeg. It borders on the avant garde, so don’t go in looking for a plot-driven action film.

The Congress – Yet another science fiction film! This loose adaptation of a Stanislaw Lem novel is a strange hybrid — half-live, half-animated — and I thought the animated sections were some of the most amazing stuff I saw on the big screen this year. It’s a difficult film with a mysterious ending, but a second viewing convinced me that it’s a gem. A wonderful role for Robin Wright, and it’s a shame she hasn’t gotten more recognition for her performance.

Gone Girl – I came out of the theater the first time thinking it was fun but largely inconsequential, but it grew on me over time. The discussion amongst various critics was also fascinating. Rosamund Pike’s psychopathic Amy is widely considered a misogynistic caricature, but I thought what gave this one satirical bite is the way that she and the narcissistic Nick (Ben Affleck) actually do make a perfect couple of sorts.

Screencap from The Zero Theorem

The Zero Theorem – Terry Gilliam’s latest — more science fiction! — barely got distributed in the US and has been dismissed by some as a pale shadow of Brazil, but I thought it was a fascinating exploration of religious themes. I actually got a great comment on my review of this one from someone signing as ky: “i assumed qohen had dual personality and he was Gods alter ego, rats were the movie reviewers, churchs former owners was judaism, buying the church at a cheap price was old testament, black hole was order in chaos referring to gods necessity, zero theorem was quantum mechanics referring to gods death and the ending was his acceptance on being a god whom humans no longer need.”

Into the Woods – Okay, here’s the one that I can easily see myself watching a third time in the theater. Disney’s adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim fairy tale mash-up musical simplifies the story somewhat and cuts or reduces characters and songs, but it largely retains the themes (“wishes come true, not free”) and the heart of Sondheim’s brilliant music. I found it deeply moving. The two kid singers are terrific, and Emily Blunt is surprisingly good in the pivotal role of the Baker’s Wife.

Screencap from A Field in England

As I mentioned above, there are a number of other films I’ve seen only once so far that I’d happily recommend, but since most of them are ending up on lots of top ten lists, I’ll just mention one that hasn’t gotten so much attention: A Field in England. This is a bizarre black and white fantasy set during the English Civil War and featuring several deserters involved in a struggle over lost alchemical secrets. The thing plays out like a fever dream or drug trip, and in my review I described it as Monty Python Meets Alejandro Jodorowsky. Cult movie, for sure, and I’m very much looking forward to director Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of Ballard’s High Rise, due out in 2015.

In these year-end reviews I try to mention a film or two that I hated, so in that vein let me mention Cold in July. This was promoted as a kind of film noir, and I thought it started out interestingly enough, with a home owner killing an intruder by mistake. Gradually, however, it morphed into macho fantasy about shooting cartoon bad guys in slo mo in a burning house. Totally ridiculous, adolescent crap.

Screencap from Memories of Murder

Memories of Murder

In case you think I do nothing but watch movies in theaters, well, I’m here to tell you that I watched 101 movies at home last year. The closest thing I came to the Bunuel fest I indulged in last year was an exploration of South Korean movies that I started after being blown away by Snowpiercer. I watched the rest of Bong Joon-ho’s films (I’d seen Mother previously) and was wowed by Memories of Murder and The Host. I also caught up with more of Kim Jee-woon, whose The Good, the Bad, the Weird has become a favorite, and I was particularly struck by his twisty, atmospheric horror film, A Tale of Two Sisters. Park Chan-wook is the other genre director from South Korea who gets a lot of love from American film fans, but while I thought Sympathy for Mr Vengeance and Old Boy were works of obvious genius, they were way too violent for me. In fact, my interest in exploring South Korean films was derailed by a number of violent films I watched (Save the Green Planet was the straw that broke the camel’s aback), although I really think it’s mostly that exploring a national cinema is just too big to do as a splurge. It’s something that has to be done over time. The one SK film that I really loved that I don’t think is widely known over here is Take Care of My Cat, which is about a group of high school girlfriends entering the wider world and finding their friendships tested. Really warm, well-observed movie that reminded me to some extent of the Japanese film Linda, Linda, Linda, and not just because both films feature the great Doona Bae. Highly recommended.

Screencap from Take Care of My Cat

Take Care of My Cat

I saw a lot of other great movies at home, too, but that’ll do for the year end review. I’m still catching up with highly anticipated 2014 releases, with four films opening last Friady that I want to see. The film industry is going through massive changes, but plenty of good films are still being made all around the world. Can’t wait to see what 2015 has in store.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Into the Woods (2014)

Poster for Into the Woods

I’m not intimately familiar with Sondheim’s Broadway musical, Into the Woods, although I’ve been listening to the original cast recording non-stop for the past few days. I’ve also watched the 1991 American Playhouse version of the musical a couple of times, so I have some sense of what’s been cut from the Disney film version of this fairy tale mash-up. The cuts simplify the story, and this may well be to its detriment. Because I’m familiar enough with the original version, I’m uncertain whether this cut version works as a coherent narrative. All that said, I really loved the movie on a first viewing. Sondheim’s excellent, complex music and songs are presented in precise and energetic form, the bristling cast of strong fairy tale characters is well-played (I even liked Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother better than the one in the Broadway version), and the enchanted forest is a cinematic and atmospheric gem.

Film adaptations of stage musicals are always tricky, and Into the Woods is interesting for the ways it both “opens up” the closed world of the stage and how it embraces the stagier aspects of the show, particularly with the songs. Songs are where the action stops, and that somehow seems more artificial in a movie than on stage, perhaps because the audience for the songs is implied rather than present. This film doesn’t dodge the artificiality, and I thought it mostly worked. The attempts at greater naturalism, or at least more convincing special effects, does occasionally jar with the staginess, but sometimes (as with the giant) it also produces a more powerful sense of otherness and danger. In any event, the songs are often presented in closeup with the characters singing to the camera, which makes it seem as though the audience is being addressed directly as in the theater.

The cast is pretty great all around, with the kids playing Red Riding Hood and Jack being particular standouts. Meryl Streep was at least adequate as the Witch, even if she doesn’t quite reach the level of Bernadette Peters. I usually find Emily Blunt vaguely annoying, but she’s just fine in the key role of the Baker’s Wife, working in the shadow of Joanna Gleason’s award-winning performance in the original. Really, the only actor other than Streep who I thought was probably not as good a singer as the original was Chris Pine as the Prince, and he’s also perfectly fine. As for Johnny Depp, I don’t understand the complaints about his performance as the Wolf. I thought he nailed it, and his singing was far, far stronger than it was in Sweeney Todd.

Sweeney Todd is the only Sondheim musical that I am intimately familiar with, and coming from that one I find Into the Woods surprisingly earnest and sentimental. I mean, it’s complicated, and it contains its own knowing ironies and satirical elements (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere”), but songs like “No More” and “No One Is Alone” verge on the treacly to my ears. “No More” has been cut from the film version, leaving a strange and perhaps unsightly scar. Does it also disfigure the musical’s meaning? Probably not as much as the version for children’s theater that apparently cuts the second act entirely and thus stops at the happily-ever-after first act finale. Sondheim and his scenarist (and writer of the screenplay), James Lapine, are obviously open to tinkering with their work. My initial impression is that the tinkering in the film version has produced something powerful in its own right.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Big Eyes (2014)

Poster for Big Eyes

It’s true: This is the least fantastic film Tim Burton has ever made, with the possible exception of Big Fish (2003). Well, and Ed Wood (1994), but even that was far more stylized than Big Eyes. The PR for this movie has mentioned Ed Wood a lot, partly because it’s a similar biopic of an artist widely considered to be a hack and because Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wrote both screenplays. The films felt very different to me. Ed Wood is a whimsical portrait of a creative dreamer who doesn’t actually have much talent but who compensates with a sort of innocent belief in himself. Big Eyes is more of a social commentary that draws our attention to the plight of a female artist and single mother in mid-century America who is finagled by a charming manipulator into surrendering control over her art in exchange for security for her daughter and herself. It’s not quite as focused on its protagonist, as it gives equal time to the charming fraud who is her husband.

The question of whether Margaret Keane’s art is kitsch junk or expressive of a sensitive artistic sensibility hovers over the film, and it’s perhaps to Burton’s credit that he doesn’t feel compelled to make a strong case either way. He’s more focused on the issue of social power. Still, he opens the film with a quote from Andy Warhol: “I think what Keane has done is terrific!  If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” It’s a populist view, and Warhol is referenced again in the film itself, when Walter Keane argues that Warhol’s Factory is an imitation of the industrial approach that Keane has taken to promoting and mass-producing the big eyed waifs painted by his wife. One of the structurally awkward aspects of the film is that the two biggest critics of Keane’s work — Jason Schwartzman’s smarmy art dealer and Terence Stamp’s wonderfully imperious and disdainful New York Times art critic — are not well-integrated into the story. They are just naysayers who observe from the sidelines, and their critiques are not given much depth.

Biopics are one of my least favorite film genres, but Big Eyes at least avoids some of the rote aspects, perhaps at the cost of dramatic tension. Actually, one interesting thing about the story is that while Walter is a manipulative jerk, he really does succeed at creating an artistic empire out of his wife’s work, and they go from rags to riches. The cliche that’s avoided is the idea that the riches are a problem. The problem is power, and one of the other interesting twists is that it takes Margaret’s conversion to Jehovah’s Witness for her to find the strength to take Walter on. This bit actually reminded me of another recent biopic about an outsider artist who became an evangelical Christian, The Notorious Bettie Page. Again, Burton doesn’t really punch this too heavily, and a good example of the kind of bemused comedy he achieves is the scene where Margaret’s daughter asks whether Jehovah is okay with suing somebody.

The film is powered by the performances by Amy Adams as Margaret and Christoph Waltz as Walter. Adams is a wonder, implying Margaret’s struggles with self-esteem without overplaying it, and Waltz is an energetic, gleeful figure who almost comes across as a trickster. I’m not sure this will hold up as one of Burton’s best films, but at first glance it at least seems like the best thing he’s done since Sleepy Hollow (1999). It’s an odd little film, and along with the feminist perspective it also gives an insight into the business side of the art world that I found quite fascinating. I really didn’t (and don’t) know that much about Margaret Keane’s career, and I appreciated this window on an eccentric real life figure and the husband who made her famous despite himself.

Posted in Film | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment