Big Eyes – A Review

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The last few years, director Tim Burton has seemed to be stuck in something of a creative rut. His movies have seemed to follow the same basic formula:

Step one – Select a project that allows him to indulge his goth/off-kilter tendencies

Step two – Sign up Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter

Step three – Make sure that Depp looks as pale as possible

Step four – Use either a dark or insanely colorful palette. There is no in-between.

Step five – Ground your story in as little reality as possible.

There are the occasional exceptions to these rules – Planet of the Apes is something of an aberration – but for the most part the last ten years this has been the necessary components of a Tim Burton movie. An early version of this template was set with Beetlejuice and then refined with Edward Scissorhands and it’s basically been wash, rinse, repeat ever since. The result has been a series of movies that are diminishing returns; I almost walked out of Dark Shadows because it was so dreadful. I sincerely worried that Burton had broken Depp, an actor that I have long enjoyed but who has seemed to cultivate his own weird side since he started collaborating with Burton. I desperately wanted the holy trilogy of Burton, Depp and Carter to take some time away from each other and try different things; I didn’t necessarily mean that Burton and Carter had to end their personal relationship, but I guess I wasn’t specific enough. So I was very excited when I heard that Burton would be directing Big Eyes and that neither Depp nor Carter were involved. Perhaps this was the shake-up that they all needed. The true story behind Big Eyes was hypothetically kitschy enough to play to Burton’s strengths without letting him go full oddball. Weirdness, but restrained weirdness.

Unfortunately Big Eyes did not live up to the promise that I had for it. While this movie is the closest thing that we’ve seen in a while to a restrained Tim Burton operating in the real world, it also indicates that Burton’s ability to portray actual people is rusty. Big Eyes isn’t a terrible movie – the actual story is too fascinatingly bizarre to not be interesting and draw you in – but it isn’t really a good movie either. A surprisingly off-key performance by the usually enjoyable Christoph Waltz is distracting as he and co-star Amy Adams don’t appear to be on the same page tonally for the duration of the film. Not the worst Tim Burton, but definitely not his best.

Big Eyes tells the story behind this hideous “big eyed waif” paintings that were popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I know that art is subjective, but seriously – can you believe these paintings were actually a big deal?:

Imagine this hanging in your living room

Imagine this hanging in your living room

C’mon now….that is hella creepy.

For years people believed that the paintings were the artistic brainchild of Walter Keane (Waltz), since he was the loud spoken and charming man who took credit for these creations. But the true artist was Walter’s wife Margaret (Adams); Walter’s true talents were in being a con-man. What he lacked in artistic ability, he made up for in his ability to know how to seize and opportunity and squeeze every last penny out of it. Meek Margaret begrudgingly goes along with the charade; while Walter is wine and dining folks and reaping the perks of celebrity, Margaret is basically locked away in a sweat shop, pumping out paintings for which she receives no accolades and lying to her daughter. The deeper that they get into the fraud and the richer they become, the more controlling Walter is and Margaret feels more uncomfortable and trapped until she’s finally had enough.

Now that’s a pretty interesting story on a lot of levels and the so bizarre it has to be true source material is one of the real strengths of the film. This may not be the most in-depth telling of the story – they seem to gloss over a lot – but at the bare minimum you are quickly engaged with what’s happening on screen. I had a vague idea how this story would play out, but I still was intrigued enough to be invested in the film. If you didn’t know that this was based on what happened in real life, the narrative of Big Eyes could easily be dismissed as simply to outlandish and weird to be realistic. When you have a story this fantastically bizarre, it glosses over a lot of faults. But that doesn’t mean that you still don’t notice the cracks in the structure.

For me, the biggest problem with Big Eyes was the casting of Christoph Waltz. He’s a great actor, but sometimes a person just isn’t the right fit for a role and I think that’s what happened here. I’m willing to overlook the movie never explaining his accent – the real Walter was from the Midwest, not Austria – but the way that he and Burton interpreted the character only exasperated how ill-suited Waltz was for this role. While Amy Adams’ depiction of Margaret is ground in realism, Waltz is way too hammy and over the top for what is going on in the rest of this movie. It’s a weird story in and of itself and it doesn’t need such scenery chewing. He borders on cartoony and it doesn’t complement Adams’ performance at all. In fact, you’re not even sure why the two of them ever got together to begin with – this sad lonely woman and this carnival barker don’t make any sense. Walter is so ridiculous that you have to believe that Margaret isn’t very bright to be with him or going along with his ideas. I just don’t think Waltz was the right person for this role and Burton doesn’t make the necessary adjustments to rein in the performance. Waltz’s Walter would have been more at home in some of Burton’s other movies, which makes me think that Burton simply couldn’t see what was needed here. Just a little bit more restraint or subtlety and it might have worked, though I still think that Waltz just wasn’t the right man for this job.

Some other thoughts:

  • I also had some issues with the use of Danny Huston as the gossip columnist that helped Walter promote their work. I have no idea why his character would even be remotely interested in Walter or these god-awful paintings, let alone help make him a star by writing about him. This is San Francisco – you’re telling me there wasn’t anything else to cover for the society page? Plus thanks to Huston’s work on American Horror Story: Coven, I kept waiting for him to take an axe to Walter’s head.
  • Look for Jason Schwartzman and Krysten Ritter in small roles.

In short, I found the story that inspired Big Eyes to be far more interesting than the execution. I’ve spent the last few day since I saw the movie looking more into Walter and Margaret Keane and less thinking about the actual movie. Big Eyes is a mediocre Tim Burton movie that coasts too much on the inherent kookiness of true events and a nice performance from Any Adams, but that doesn’t do much else. Waltz and Adams are in two different movies and this mismatch weakens the effectiveness of the overall film. A slightly less cursory look at this story and some different acting choices and this might be a much better film. Big Eyes is probably not worth seeing in the theater, but worth watching at some point just because of the incredulity of Walter and Margaret’s story.

 

Big Eyes is currently in wide release.

 

Her – A Review

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I have an unhealthy attachment to my cell phone.

I feel like I’ve been writing this blog long enough and that you people “know” me so I am comfortable making this kind of confession. I have a wholly unhealthy relationship with my phone; if I leave it at home, the level of anxiety that I have rivals that of a mother that doesn’t know where her child is. The whole day I am off kilter, obsessing about its whereabouts. I know because this happened last week, when I innocently forgot to grab my phone when I left for work. It was a stressful day, which is ridiculous since I not only had a desktop computer at my disposal, but also my tablet and a desk phone. But, of course, none of those devices can send or receive a text message and the thought that I was missing something important was almost too much for me to handle. Now, keep in mind that I can count the number of really important texts that I’ve received in my life on one hand. But the idea that I was missing out on something drove me to distraction.

Yes – I have issues.

However, as much as I love my phone and the technology that it puts at my fingertips, I am not in love with my phone. That concept was initially something of a hard sell for me, despite my proclivity to have my cell by my side at all times. When I first saw the previews for the film Her, where Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system, I was a little skeptical. It all seemed kind of ridiculous and I remember people laughing after the trailer had ended at the sheer lunacy of the premise. I remember one person turning to their companion as asking if that was a fake trailer.

Nevertheless, I have complete faith in director Spike Jonze so while I had my doubts about the concept, I had confidence in his execution. The fact that he also wrote the film was a mark in the film’s favor as well; Jonze is a pretty creative guy and if anyone was going to stick the landing in this film, it would be him. An impressive cast was the final component that won me over. By the fourth time that I saw the trailer, I was legitimately excited for the film and saw the potential for a compelling story in what I had first dismissed as nonsense.

My change of heart was absolutely warranted as I truly enjoyed Her; though the love affair is between a human and an inanimate object, it is still one of the more poignant and touching stories about love and romance that I’ve seen. Jonze and his actors completely sell the story and within moments of the story unfolding you forget that this is a tale that on paper sounds outlandish at best.

A lot of the credit for the beauty of Her belongs to Phoenix, who gives a wonderful and heartbreaking performance. This is one of my favorite roles of his in a while; he is so vulnerable and multifaceted that you just want to give him a hug. His loneliness and inability to connect with the real world in the wake of the dissolution of his marriage are relatable and believable to anyone who has been through a rough breakup. In his hands Theodore Twombly is a sweet guy who has regressed into himself and transforms once he connects with his operating system Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Theodore slowly blossoms and Phoenix masterfully handles this subtle transformation; you not only completely believe that Theodore is in love with Samantha, but he manages to make it not seem weird or too abstract. You believe that this is a real relationship and you find yourself happy that Theodore is happy, despite the unconventional nature of his romance. Since Samantha is only a voice, a lot of the heavy lifting in the movie falls to Phoenix, who more than rises to the challenge. It has been an especially stellar year for lead actor performances in films, but Joaquin Phoenix absolutely deserved to be recognized by the Academy for the work he does in Her. His full commitment to the role and his artful depiction of Theodore falling in love with Samantha was like nothing else that I saw this year. In a lot of ways, he had a higher level of difficulty because the role was so unique and creative; while Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio, Bruce Dern and Chiwetel Ejiofor are all stellar, most of them are portraying real people and all are portraying very real situations. The role of Theodore could have easily become one note or a joke, but Phoenix finds the true humanity in this story and it’s a shame that he couldn’t find his way into the crowded field for some recognition.

Scarlett Johansson also has an interesting handicap in her portrayal of Samantha as she has to convince the audience that an operating system could develop feelings for a person. She mostly nails this, though I did eventually grow a little weary of her voice by the end of the film. You do believe, however, that Samantha is an equal partner in this relationship; this is not simply the story of a lonely guy who channels his despair into a delusional obsession with his phone. Samantha evolves as well, and in many ways this is the even harder part of the film to make believable. Johansson is ultimately able to pull this off, without the benefit of any emotion other than what she can convey in her voice. The lead roles in Her are unique, but when done as well as Phoenix and Johansson they create an interesting and surprisingly relatable look at relationships and the inherent joy and struggles associated with them.

Of course, without a well written script or helpful direction, Phoenix and Johansson would be limited in what they could accomplish. Jonze provides them with a solid foundation in his script and his direction is 100% on point in the film. Jonze is a true visionary and can somehow take some of the more off the wall ideas – like someone having a portal into actor John Malkovich’s head in the film Being John Malkovich – and make them seem completely logical yet still maintain their whimsy. He just has a knack for this kind of filmmaking so his association with Her really is a perfect marriage. There aren’t a lot of directors that could pull off this film with the depth of emotion and humor that Jonze is able to coax out of his stars.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • Amy Adams, Chris Platt and Rooney Mara all have small roles in the film as well and do nice work in their supporting parts. Adams is completely dressed down and mousy as Theodore’s best friend, a complete departure for the glamour of her other big role this year in American Hustle.
  • While none of the actors were recognized for their fin work, I’m glad that film at least squeezed in as a best picture contender. Jonze also has a real shot in the Best Original Screenplay category.
  • It is kind of amazing to think about how much your phone or computer really “knows” about you; it might be a good thing for a lot of people that our electronic devices keep our secrets.
  • Just in case you were wondering – the day I left my phone home, I had zero text messages waiting for me. All that agitation for no good reason; I am clearly not as popular as I like to believe.
  • I also really dug the music in Her; Karen O from Yeah, Yeah Yeahs received a Best Original Song nomination for “Moon Song”

 

I really enjoyed Her and its interesting and unique premise; though I first dismissed it as a trifle, it easily would make my list of best films of 2014 thanks to an incredibly strong performance from Joaquin Phoenix. If you have previously enjoyed Spike Jonze’s directorial work, you will be impressed with what Her has to offer. I encourage those that are dismissive of the plot to take a chance on this film – I think it will win you over. This is a sweet and touching film about alienation, love and connecting with others. It is a love story for our times – the emotions are real, but the conditions are very modern. Joaquin Phoenix is not everyone’s cup of tea and seems to go out of his way to be unpleasant, but this just may be the film that reminds people that underneath it all he is one hell of an actor. Spike Jonze and his actors bring an unlikely love story to life.

Sneak Peek – American Hustle

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The 1927 New York Yankees were dubbed Murderers’ Row because of their spectacularly stacked batting lineup. The first six batters in particular – Earle Combs, Mark Koenig, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bob Meusel and Tony Lazzeri – were so good and effective at the plate that they could kill any pitcher that was unfortunate to throw them the wrong pitch. Anyone of them could get you; if you were lucky enough to strike out Keonig, you still had to face Ruth and Gehrig. That team was blessed with an inordinate amount of talent and could do some devastating damage at the plate.

I bring this up not because I am a Yankees fan, but because David O. Russell’s new film American Hustle reminds me of the 1927 Yankees. Russell has taken the great actors that the worked with in The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook and has brought them all together to create the acting equivalent of Murderers’ Row: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. No director should be so lucky to have all these amazing actors to play with; this acting lineup is so good that you have Louis CK and Robert DeNiro in this film “batting” sixth and seventh. I honestly didn’t even know either of them was in the film before I went to a preview earlier this month. American Hustle is like my dream cast assembled.

Of course, you can have all the acting talent in the world in your movie and it doesn’t mean a hill of beans if you don’t know how to properly use it. American Hustle had a lot of potential, but could it live up to the caliber of actor that had been amassed. The answer is a resounding yes; American Hustle is the most fun that I’ve had at the theater in a very, very long time. Though I saw this film in the beginning of December, I haven’t stopped thinking about it. It was so good that I may have to go see it again when it is finally released this weekend. For once, there is a movie that lives up to the hype.

If you have seen the previews for American Hustle, you know that this film takes place in the 70s – that much is evident from the clothing, hair and music that are used. What you may not know is that the film takes place against the backdrop of the Abscam scandal, though the film is very upfront about the fact that it is playing fast and loose with the facts. This film isn’t Argo; it gets the decade right but everything else is questionable. Irving (Bale) and Sydney (Adams) are small con artists that are partners in love and hustling. When their scheme is uncovered by ambitious FBI Agent Richie DiMaso (Cooper), they are forced into working with him to bring down larger targets to earn their freedom. One such target is Carmine Polito, the mayor of Camden, NJ who is willing to make some questionable deals to bring back his city. They are all thrown down the rabbit hole of Jersey politics and Mafia connections and it isn’t clear who is being loyal to whom. The real wildcard in their elaborate con is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Lawrence), who is so unpredictable and volatile that she could easily destroy everything.

Every actor in this film is absolutely tremendous; they are like kids in a candy store and go for broke in each and every scene. It is so clear that they are having fun with the juicy material and they work incredibly well with one another. Bale is almost unrecognizable with his balding hair and paunch, but he is so charming and smart that you understand why both Adams and Lawrence fell in love with him. This film is a good reminder that Bale is capable of way more than being The Dark Knight; it’s the best I’ve seen him in a while. I have always adored Amy Adams and she is at the top of her game in American Hustle. Sydney brings her own baggage to the table and of all the characters in the ensemble she is the one whose motives are the hardest to determine. She’s just great and looks amazing doing it. Cooper is so good as DiMaso; though he’s made a name for himself lately as a more dramatic actor, American Hustle shows that he can knock it out of the part when he’s given a well written comedy. DiMaso’s ambition makes him reckless and Cooper’s increasingly erratic behavior and inflated sense of importance are a fascinating transformation to watch. He really becomes unhinged. Renner’s previous roles tend to require him to be hard and scowling, so it is nice change of pace to see him smile as much as he does during American Hustle. He artfully demonstrates Polito’s heart and love of community, making the character more nuanced than the typical target of a scam. His Frankie Valli pompadour is really a sight to behold.

And then there is Jennifer Lawrence, who even among this beautiful and talented cast is able to pretty much steal ever scene that she is in. This woman has no right being as good at her craft at such a young age, but she nails every scene that she is in. She is so very funny and so ridiculous that the movie kicks into a different gear every time she appears on screen. She just continues to be amazing in everything that she does and Russell brings out the absolute best in her.

The story has so many twists and turns and shifting allegiances that I really had no idea who was playing whom at any given time or how the film was going to resolve itself. It’s a real rollercoaster ride and the film zigs when you expect it to zag. Between the mesmerizing performances and the dazzling camera work, the audience never knows what is going to happen. It’s just whole lot of fun and outrageously entertaining.

The one knock that I’ll put on American Hustle is that I’m not sure how much the story actually holds up under close scrutiny. Because the audience is so disoriented and overstimulated from all that is going on, it is quite possible that we are getting hustled as well. I was enjoying the ride so much that I didn’t have time to analyze what I was actually seeing (unlike The Desolation of Smaug, where I had plenty of downtime to think about plot holes and weaknesses). Ultimately, I don’t really care if this film is actually just a dressed up trifle; it was such a sharp and exciting film that I was completely satisfied with the finished product.

Some other thoughts:

  • I have a weird fascination with the 70s, so I totally ate up all the fashion and the music in the film. I think half the reason I was so excited to see American Hustle was their use of Led Zeppelin in the original trailer.
  • It is worth plunking down your hard-earned cash just to see Bradley Cooper in curlers. That perm deserves its own Academy Award.
  • Russell also knows how to get the best out of Robert DeNiro; his role is small, but he’s great as well. And Louis CK is just perfect as Cooper’s exasperated supervisor.
  • The microwave over scene in the film absolutely KILLED at my screening. That may have been the hardest that people laughed in the entire movie. Have I said Jennifer Lawrence is the best?
  • If you enjoy seeing Bradley Cooper dancing – and who doesn’t – you won’t be disappointed.
  • There is a definite Goodfellas vibe to the film, which is probably the highest compliment I could give it. Russell channels his inner Scorsese in more than a few shots.

I just straight up loved this movie – between the performances and the camera work and the awesome retro costumes it was an exhilarating ride. I can’t say that it is the best film of the year, but I can say that it is probably my favorite (sorry Mud – you had a really good run). It isn’t a serious film, but it was a really pleasurable movie going experience. The sign of a good movie is that as soon as I see it I want to talk about it; with American Hustle, I was barely out of the theater before I was texting people to make sure that they saw this movie when it came out. David O. Russell makes the most of his dream team cast and delivers a spectacular film.

 

American Hustle opens nationwide on Friday December 20th.