BIG EYES (2014)

December 22, 2014

big eyes Greetings again from the darkness. Based on the true events of artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter, the latest from director Tim Burton is the closest thing to reality he has produced since his only other biopic, Ed Wood (1994). But fear not, ye fans of the Burton universe, his style and flair remains ever-present with a stunning color palette on this trek through the 1950’s and 60’s.

If you have never heard the story, Margaret Keane is an artist with a unique style that features exaggerated eyes of her subjects, hence the movie title. When she first met Walter, she fell hard for his charm and his exuberance and professed love of her work. What happened next seems impossible to imagine these days, but this was the 1950’s. Walter began to market and sell her paintings as his own … in fact, the real marketing was himself as an artist. The empire of Keane paintings, postcards, posters, etc literally exploded forcing Margaret to paint in silence and solitude while her husband inexplicably took public credit, sighting his defense as no one will buy “lady art”.

That may sound like the description of an “issues” film – one that digs into the male dominance of the pre-women’s movement era, or possibly even a look at artistic integrity or the battle of popular kitsch versus critical acclaim. Instead, this is more of a relationship film and a character study. We witness how Walter (Christoph Waltz) lures Margaret (Amy Adams) into this trap and truly undervalues her as an artist or a person. She is merely a means to his financial and public success. Margaret feels trapped right up to the point where she doesn’t.

There could have been real fun in the exploration of Dick Nolan (played by Danny Huston) from the “San Francisco Examiner” in his role as cheesy journalist contrasted against the socially revered serious art critic John Camady (played by Terence Stamp). Instead, both the relationship aspects of the Keanes and the tabloid battles of the critics come off as a bit lightweight, though right in line with Mr. Waltz’ incessant smirk through most of his lines. Fortunately, the film is filled with subtext … each scene carrying the weight of multiple issues.

Many will enjoy the deliciously evil approach Waltz takes for the role, but I mostly felt sad that a woman as apparently smart as Margaret would fall for this obvious shyster and his over the top self-promotion. Still, her battle for independence and ownership is quite interesting given the times and the hole that was dug. Adams is terrific in the role, and she is one of many actresses who bring their own “big eyes” to the picture (Krysten Ritter and Madeleine Arthur are others).

The film never attempts to answer any social issues or even take on the question of “what is art?”. The lack of a stance doesn’t change the fact that it’s beautiful to look at, and brings to light an incredible true story. The set design and costumes are wonderful, and composer Danny Elfman delivers a complimentary score. For those wondering, neither Johnny Depp nor Helena Bonham Carter (both Burton staples) appears in the film. However, the real Margaret Keane is shown sitting on a park bench while Ms. Adams paints in one scene. So if you are after a good-looking film that doesn’t (on the surface seem to) ruffle many feathers, the battle of the Keanes is one that should satisfy.  If you are willing to dig a little deeper, there is much to discuss afterwards.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy the “truth is stranger than fiction” stories

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the Burton bizarre style

watch the trailer:

 

 

 

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THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS (1993)

December 21, 2013

nightmare1 Greetings again from the darkness. Somehow it’s been a full 20 years since this groundbreaking film was released. It’s a rare combination of cult and holiday, and even all these years later, it’s incredibly entertaining. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the lead character is a societal misfit who means well. After all, the story is based on a Tim Burton poem.

While watching the film, what strikes me is that this was a totally unique and creative world designed by Burton and director Henry Selick. Mr. Selick is a stop-motion expert known also for Coraline (Oscar nominated) and James and the Giant Peach. Complimenting the fantastical look and characters are the witty songs penned by Danny Elfman. Mr. Elfman is now one of the most prolific and successful composers working in the movie industry. At the time, he was better known as the front man for the party band Oingo Boingo (his Batman score changed that!).

nightmare2 Since Pixar began it’s (well earned) domination of the animation world in 1995, we have come to expect major stars as voice actors. However, we landed inn Halloween Town prior to Pixar, so instead of big stars, we get Danny Elfman (singing) and Chris Sarandon (speaking) teaming up for Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town. Catherine O’Hara is effective as Sally, Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman) stands out as Lock (of Lock, Shock and Barrel). The two most outstanding voice performances come from the late William Hickey as Dr Finkelstein (mad scientist), and Broadway star Ken Page as bad guy (and worm-infested) Oogie Boogie.

There has been debate on whether this is best served as a Halloween movie or Christmas movie. The desire and hope to bring positive change to the world seems to fit the Christmas spirit, but the goblins and ghouls are sure to provide a nightmare3nice scare for young kids. Especially fun are the “new toys” created by the work crews in Halloween Town as they prepare for a good will holiday they don’t quite understand.

Whatever your preferred time of year, this one is to be appreciated for it’s creative look and imaginative story and songs. Rather than being created to sell toys, this 3 year production changed the standards for animation films … that’s the gift that keeps giving every year!

Instead of my usual posting of the movie trailer, I thought you might enjoy this rendering of the original Tim Burton poem that inspired this movie.  As an added bonus, it’s recited by the great Christopher Lee:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbPCwc_Cdz0


OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013)

March 10, 2013

Oz1 Greetings again from the darkness. It seems appropriate that anyone discussing or commenting on this movie should provide upfront disclosure regarding their stance on the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939). Having watched director Victor Fleming’s original more than thirty times, I have no qualms in classifying myself as an unabashed fan. So it’s understandable that trepidation accompanies every Oz fan into the theatre to watch director Sam Raimi’s prequel.

Mr. Raimi’s career thus far has included two extremely popular special effects-driven franchises: Spider-Man (2002-07) and The Evil Dead (1981-92). His feel for imaginative visual effects remain in full force, and are evident from the opening credits. Unfortunately, Mr. Raimi was working with one hand tied behind his back thanks to the legal constraints that protect intellectual property. Author L Frank Baum’s original children’s books are public domain; however, Warner Brothers owns full rights to the 1939 film. This means the filmmakers had to tread lightly so as to avoid the legal whammy that goes with “borrowing” artistic rights. This is the reason we see no ruby slippers, and only tangential references to Dorothy oz2Gale, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, etc. Still, don’t be surprised if the news soon breaks of a lawsuit brought by Warner Bros against Disney.

The film opens with an homage to the original. Filmed in black & white and presented in original Academy screen ratio (square picture), we are introduced to Oscar (James Franco), a conniving carnival huckster who dreams of being a great man like his inspiration Thomas Edison. Oscar, nicknamed Oz, is seen as a womanizer with twisted character and lacking moral fiber. He briefly reconnects with Annie, a past Kansas fling played by Michelle Williams. She informs him that John Gale (clearly a relative to the future Dorothy) has proposed to her. We also meet Frank (Zach Braff) who is Oscar’s loyal assistant and the target of his abuse after allowing Oz to be humiliated by the parents of a wheelchair bound oz michelle williamsgirl (Joey King). This segment lays the foundation for the rest of the story as we see what kind of man Oz is; and, we will soon cross paths again with the other key players.

Of course, the story and movie really take off as Oscar is swept away in a twister (via stolen hot air balloon) and crash lands in full color and widescreen Land of Oz. His arrival plays like it’s a planned ride at DisneyWorld … complete with waterfalls, giant colorful flowers and buzzy little water fairies. Soon enough, Oscar meets a lovely local witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis). She and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) explain the legend of the Wizard and how Oz can assume the throne, and its accompanying wealth and power, by killing off the Wicked Witch who destroyed the previous king.

oz5 Oz travels with a talking, flying monkey (voiced by Zach Braff) who just wants to be friends, and a broken china doll named China Doll (from Chinatown, voiced by Joey King) who wants her family back (lost in a witch attack). Though this is supposedly the story of the transformation of Oz from a bad guy to a good guy, the best parts revolve around the three witches: the two sisters noted above and bubble-riding Glinda (Michelle Williams).

The visuals in the movie are outstanding. My favorites include the Wicked Witch riding the smoking broom, the scary flying baboons, the smoke-and-mirrors climactic spectacle, and the amazing effects of China Doll. Michelle Williams is perfectly angelic as Glinda, and Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis work wonders with their script-limited roles. Of course, capturing the menace and wonder of the great Margaret Hamilton from the original is a cinematic impossibility. So while the script is less oz4than enthralling, the visuals and characters prove worthy to the source material. My only significant issue with the film is that I found James Franco to be distracting and miscast. Knowing that Robert Downey Jr was Raimi’s first choice was like a jab in the ribs every time Franco’s goofy and toothy approach marred a moment.

Some of the tributes to the almost 75 year old original film include a gingham dress, the witches crystal ball, a bunch of singing munchkins, the wicked witch’s cackle, horses of a different color, fire balls, the poppy field, crows of caution, Glinda’s bubble, creepy wicked green skin, a lion and creative use of scarecrows.  Knowing that this is a Sam Raimi film, keep an eye out for Bruce Campbell as the Winkie Gatekeeper who gets slapped around.  The score is easily recognizable as the work of Danny Elfman.

My guess is that “purists” will be appalled by the thought of a prequel, while a whole generation of youngsters will be gleefully overwhelmed.  Here’s hoping their parents will seize the opportunity to introduce the Baum books and the Fleming movie!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original and open to a complimentary sequel OR you’d like a preview of the next ride to open at Disney World.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  you hate the original OR you love the original and see no need to tinker with perfection OR Kramer’s Mary Hart seizures are minor compared to what you experience when James Franco is on screen

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_1NGnVLDPog


HITCHCOCK (2012)

December 5, 2012

hitch Greetings again from the darkness. Here goes: John J McLaughlin wrote this Hitchcock screenplay based on Stephen Rebello‘s book “Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho”, which was based on the filming of the Psycho screenplay from Joseph Stefano, which was loosely based on Robert Bloch’s book, which was based on the grizzly real life crimes of Ed Gein. Whew!

It’s kind of interesting that Alfred Hitchcock is hot again some 36 years after his final movie.  His Vertigo recently displaced Citizen Kane as the all-time greatest film. HBO is still running their recent production of The Girl, which is based on Hitchcock’s making of The Birds and his unhealthy connection to Tippi Hedren. And now, we get this Hollywood production, supposedly based on the master of suspense. I say supposedly, because this film plays like it was written by the heirs of Alma Reville, Hitch’s long time wife and collaborator. We all knew she worked on his films and hitch2contributed ideas, but the film wants us to believe she was the real genius behind the public genius.

The movie is entitled “Hitchcock” and is based on the making of Psycho, but in fact, it’s more the story of Alma and her husband. While there is nothing wrong with that story … in fact, it is quite interesting and entertaining … it’s also a bit of false advertising.

Helen Mirren portrays Alma, and instead of the mousy woman who usually faded into the background, we see a fairly strong and talented woman who goes toe-to-toe with Hitch in her best scene. Sir Anthony Hopkins dons some facial appliances and a fat hitch3suit and does a solid job of capturing the odd, creepy, leering, disturbed, insecure genius we recognize as Alfred Hitchcock. He comes across as louder and more in-motion than what we have previously seen. And while director Sacha Gervasi makes it clear that Hitch is not a “normal” guy, he doesn’t dwell too much on the blond fixations.

The emphasis on the skills and importance of Alma would be fine were it not so exaggerated. Surely every great director and writer and artist has a muse and/or support system; and, there is no question Alma was a very talented lady, but her strength here bordered on distracting to the overall picture. Especially needless was the storyline of Alma being attracted to screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston), who wrote Strangers on a Train for Hitchcock.

hitch4 The Hitchcock humor is allowed to shine through (“call me Hitch, hold the cock”) and his battles with Paramount Studio head Barney Balaban (Richard Portnow) and the censorship board (Kurtwood Smith) are excellent. Hopkins finds the humanity under the fat suit and is especially good in his work with Scarlett Johansson (as Janet Leigh) and Jessica Biel (as Vera Miles). I also got a kick out of James D’Arcy as the affected Anthony Perkins and all his quirky mannerisms.

Though this barely qualifies as a story on the making of Psycho, it was chilling to watch the addition of Bernard Herrmann’s iconic score added to the shower scene. In fact, Danny Elfman does a nice job of subtly adding a Herrmann-type score to this film. I’m not sure if the film will play well with all Hitchcock aficionados, but if you can forgive the Alma slant, it’s actually quite interesting and entertaining and kind of a sweet film at its core.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see what would happen if Alfred Hitchcock took personal advice from serial killer Ed Gein OR you want to see two great actors (Mirren, Hopkins) having a really good time OR you want to see Scarlett Johansson play Jamie Lee Curtis’ mother.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you expect to learn much about the making of Psycho

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3rQuRLERl6A


FRANKENWEENIE (2012)

October 15, 2012

Greetings again from the darkness. Being a huge fan of Tim Burton’s 1984 short of the same title, news of a feature length feature was very exciting. It’s obvious from both films that director Mr. Burton holds the story and project close to his heart. The obvious guess is that young Victor Frankenstein has much in common with the enigmatic director’s childhood experience … a social misfit who finds joy in less than popular outlets (science, sci-fi, filmmaking).  Burton then adds the crucial elements of nostalgia and fun.

The story begins simply enough, Victor – a socially inept boy, whose only friend is his loyal dog Sparky, quickly connects with the new science teacher, Mr. Rzykroski (who bears a striking resemblance to the late, great Vincent Price). Victor’s parents try to get him more engaged and that leads to a tragic accident that kills Sparky. Victor is heart-broken but his scientific mind leads to a shocking development thanks to a local lightning storm. Soon enough, Sparky is back! Of course, the secret gets out and the Science Fair takes on quite a competitive nature.

Burton really treats the film as an homage to old monster, horror and sci-fi films. We get tributes to Frankenstein, The Mummy, Dracula (complete with Christopher Lee), Godzilla, Bride of Frankenstein, Gremlins, Jurrassic Park and others I certainly missed on first viewing. But this is so much more. Mr. Rzykroski gives a less than PC speech to the local townspeople, and though it is straight to the point, that point is lost on these fine folks. The importance of science and learning and accepting the differences of others is all touched upon, but not in a preachy way.

 The voice work is stellar thanks to Catherine O’Hara, Martin Short, Winona Ryder, Charlie Tahan, Martin Landau and Atticus Shaffer (Brick on “The Middle”). The style and texture of the film is extraordinary. The shadows and lighting provide an atmosphere that adds just enough creepiness. The detail involved with the characters and setting is remarkable for stop-motion animation. Not just that, but how many movies have you seen recently that include a cat-bat, sea monkeys, and a giant turtle? The suburban setting is almost identical to the neighborhood seen in Burton’s Edward Scissorhands, just without the 1960’s color palette.

 This is excellent movie entertainmentand FUN for adults and children alike. Unfortunately, the black and white presentation has meant a lack of interest from today’s kids. Sure it has some darkness to it, but the PG rating means nothing too heavy. This is Tim Burton at his finest … and without Johnny Depp or Helena Bonham Carter! Also, Danny Elfman’s score perfectly compliments the story and characters, and stay for the credits to hear a very odd Karen O song.

 

** NOTE: don’t miss the opportunity to compare the original short with this updated feature length version. The creative differences really show the technical advances over the past 28 years.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy fun movies and a tip of the cap to old horror films OR you want to see Tim Burton in peak form

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you refuse to believe a black & white animated film can provide any entertainment value

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2luLW-9ySw


DARK SHADOWS (2012)

May 21, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. If anyone ever asks “What was the name of that late 60’s goth, supernatural soap opera with the cult following?“, it’s safe to assume they mean the TV series “Dark Shadows“. It ran from 1966-1971 for a remarkable 1225 episodes. For those who remember it, the image they recall tends to be actor Jonathan Frid as Barnabus Collins … the first vampire most of us ever saw outside of a Friday night horror film. The series made quite an impact on two young boys in particular: Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

There are many reasons that movies get made. Pet projects or labors of love are not as common these days because of high production costs. But that’s exactly what this movie is – a pet project for Burton and Depp. They clearly have fun with the characters, and the film dallies ever so closely to the parody line. The initial set-up is brilliant and dark and ominous, leading us to believe this film will be in line with Burton’s Sleepy Hollow or Corpse Bride. Instead, the rest of the movie is more in line with Beetlejuice. Definitely not a bad thing – just different than what we were prepped for.

 Johnny Depp gives a wonderful performance as Barnabus Collins, the rich young man cursed by Angelique, the witch he spurns in love. His curse is to be turned into a vampire and buried alive. When his casket is discovered 196 years later, the world of 1972 is quite different than the one he left. He comically struggles to fit in and make sense of it all … not the least of which is his remaining family. At his beloved Collinswood Manor lives Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Michelle Pfeiffer), Roger Collins (Jonny Lee Miller), Carolyn Stoddard (Chloe Grace Moretz), David Collins (Gulliver McGrath), the live-in child psychiatrist Dr Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter), and their recently hired nanny Victoria (Bella Heathcote). While he was buried, the wicked witch Angelique (Eva Green) becomes the most powerful figure in town.  Ms. Green holds nothing back in her over-the-top jealous witch fun.

 Burton does a nice job poking fun at the 1970’s with comedy that won’t mean much to today’s youngsters, but will hit home with those from the era. The art direction and sets are terrific, especially Collinwood Manor. The music of the 70’s is used to comic effect, including a live performance by Alice Cooper. Michelle Pfeiffer does the best job at capturing the look and feel of the original series, but her daughter’s character (Moretz) takes an unnecessary turn as Burton tries to cram as much in as possible. In fact, the film is actually quite fun to watch, but is lacking real substance in the story department … not dissimilar to the original series.

 This is the 8th film collaboration between Burton and Depp. They make a wonderful team, and Depp has added another entertaining character to his Captain Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, Mad Hatter legacy. His movements and speech pattern are especially entertaining as we are mesmerized by his milky white complexion. His dialogue (written by Seth Grahame-Smith) demands attention and is both comical and majestic simultaneously. Burton’s tribute to the TV series includes cameos by four of the original actors: Kathryn Leigh Scott, Lara Parker, David Selby, and the recently deceased Jonathan Frid (pictured left) as guests at the ball. It’s a classy touch. Danny Elfman’s score is a bit overwhelmed by the use of numerous 70’s classics, and it was disappointing to hear The Killers version of “Go All the Way” rather than The Raspberries as the closing credits rolled.

Burton is one of the more visual directors and even though the story is a bit lacking, each scene gives us plenty to absorb. The ghosts are especially well done, as is the fishing town of Collinsport which was built just for the movie. It has many similarities to Bodega Bay, which film lovers will recognize as the setting for Hitchcock’s The Birds. Lastly, Burton gives us another scene with the great Christopher Lee – this time as a boat captain caught between Angelique and Barnabus. Good stuff.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the original TV series OR you enjoy Burton/Depp collaborations OR you “get” 1970’s humor

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: in your mind, the 1970’s have as much relevance as 1870

watch the trailer:


THE WOLFMAN (2010)

February 14, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness (and fog). OK, I admit it. I love this stuff. As a kid, I watched Frankenstein, Dracula and Wolfman movies again and again. The 1941 version with Lon Chaney Jr as the Wolfman is classic horror. Of course, the film itself wasn’t really so scary … instead, it’s the possibility of the transition from man to monster and then back again! Director Joe Johnston (Hidalgo, The Rocketeer) stays true to the original story and shows us how far stunts, special effects and make-up have come in the last 69 years. Add in another terrific score from Danny Elfman and you get a few good jumps in your movie seat.

Benecio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins are absolutely perfect casting for the cursed father and son. Their transformations work well given their “natural” features … especially Del Toro, who looks as though he was born for the role.

Emily Blunt is the token eye candy, and Hugo Weaving (The Matrix) is the Scotland Yard detective on the hunt. Neither are really given much to do, but it doesn’t matter. The fun starts when the full moon arrives.

The down side is that the CGI are a bit weak when the creature is on all fours running, jumping and leaping tall buildings. But that’s a minor quibble when you consider the set design is breath-taking. Horse and carriage, cozy English pub in a quaint town, and a run down-once majestic castle that houses Mr. Hopkins and family.

I applaud the director for remaining true to the roots of the story and not “updating” it ala Twilight to show high school students in 21st century NYC as werewolves. Go in with the right attitude and this one will make for a fun Valentine date.