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:

 

 

 


THE ART OF THE STEAL (2013)

March 16, 2014

art of the steal Greetings again from the darkness. Heist movies are a staple film genre that we can depend on to deliver plot twists, back-stabbing and misdirection. The best ones can make us chuckle along the way as we try to keep up, knowing full well we are a step behind.

The movie begins with a bit too much voice over from Kurt Russell’s character Crunch Calhoun. We learn that Crunch is a wheel man for a group of art thieves, and he was double-crossed by his brother Nicky (Matt Dillon). After serving his sentence in a Polish prison, Crunch becomes a stunt performer on motorcycles who makes a few extra bucks creating spectacular crashes for the spectators.

As you would expect, Crunch is soon enough drawn back into the world of stealing art … for the proverbial one last job. As the old gang assembles, it’s clear Crunch still doesn’t trust brother Nicky. But his need for money compels him to participate.  The rest of the gang consists of Kenny Welsh as Paddy, Chris Diamantopoulas as Guy, Katheryn Winnick (Crunch’s girlfriend), and Jay Baruchel as Frenchie (Crunch’s apprentice).

Writer/director Jonathan Sobol has solid instincts but would have definitely benefited from a script doctor, and more importantly, someone to stand up and rescue the mega-mismatch of Jason Jones (a bumbling Interpol Agent) and Terence Stamp (a parolee assisting with the investigation). Stamp is sadly underutilized here, though the film’s best scene has he and Russell facing off in an airport. Too bad the film couldn’t find a way to match these two up a couple more times.

The stylish direction would have been more effective if the stabs at snappy dialogue had been just a tad bit funnier and crisper. Baruchel helps with this some, and Russell still knows how to deliver a line, but this is not in the same class as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or The Usual Suspects. Heck, it’s not even Ocean’s Eleven. Still, despite all the things it’s not … it does provide some decent entertainment during the winter doldrums of movie releases.

It also gets bonus points for a creative use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams”, and for having a Canadian filmmaker’s use of the line “Canada.  America-lite“.

**NOTE: I’ve long been a fan of Kurt Russell and have often written of my disappointment in his movie choices. He has the looks, charm, screen presence and talent to have been a much bigger star had he only chosen his roles more carefully.  I’m convinced losing the Bull Durham role to Kevin Costner soured him on acting to the point that he has since refused to take acting too seriously again.  Crunch does not make up for missing out on Crash.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you enjoy most any heist film and appreciate the old school greatness of Kurt Russell and Terence Stamp.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: your expectations are at the level of Guy Ritchie or The Usual Suspects.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbqvELZ1-P8

 

 

 


THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU

March 6, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Philip K Dick was one of the more prolific sci-fi writers and his works include Blade Runner, Minority Report and Total Recall. He also wrote The Adjustment Team, the short story upon which this film is based. The premise is fascinating: the “bureau” is a team who influence/adjust the timing of simple events so as to lead mankind toward a predetermined future.

Matt Damon plays David Norris, the rising young star in New York politics … that is until a college prank is exposed and scandal ensues. On election night, prior to his concession speech, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), the girl of his dreams.  It struck me how rare the occasion that one meet’s the girl of their dreams in a men’s restroom. Their charming banter and immediate connection lead Norris to make a heartfelt speech that thrusts him right back into the hearts of the voters.  Turns out this meeting was a planned adjustment.

 When David and Elise meet again, this time by chance on a bus, a mysterious force begins to reveal itself. David is exposed to The Adjustment Bureau and told to stay away from Elise, lest he ruin both his dreams and hers. Of course, this isn’t really a sci-fi thriller in the traditional sense. It’s much more a love story … a love story for two people who seem pre-destined to be together. And therein is the conflict.

The story is really a debate between fate and free will. Does destiny lead us down the path or do we make our own way? Can we have it all … the life we want, with the partner we want? The Chairman of the Bureau is clearly a reference to a God-like power, but his “angels” have powers limited to shortcut door portals, slight adjustments to thinking patterns, and looking good in hats.

 While writer/director George Nolfi creates an interesting-to-look-at cityscape and an usually smart romantic film, it actually falls a bit short on overall effectiveness when it devotes so much running time to the explanation of how the bureau works. I would have much preferred more debate and examples of how adjustments affect free will and maintain the path to destiny. Instead we get a crash course on the inner-workings of this odd team. That said, there aren’t very many better faces and voices than that of Terence Stamp, who plays The Hammer for the bureau. He is a fixer who uses less than forthright tactics in his moments of influencing David.

I am probably being a bit harsh on this one considering that it is quite a bit more clever than the average studio release, but I can’t help but believe it was capable of so much more.  And I so wish the clash of sci-fi and love story had not spun off on such a silly and cringe-worthy path.  It doesn’t ruin the good parts of the movie, but it certainly prevented the film from reaching its potential.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you long for that rare film genre – a Romantic Thriller

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for the cool shortcuts through NYC – sorry, but the whole hat and door knob thing doesn’t really work.