Skip to main content

What's with the big, crazy eyes?

Big Eyes
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Tim Burton’s second biopic may not reach the dizzying, adoring and infatuated heights of Ed Wood, but it’s his best picture since his other Big, Fish, more than a decade ago. He probably won’t be returning to such “plucked from life” territory in a hurry, though, no matter how offbeat the subject matter, since Big Eyes sits at the bottom of his grossers next to Ed Wood (ironic, or telling, since it’s his best film by some margin). The story of Margaret Keane, her weird and unadorable portraits of children with huge eyes that made her name, and the husband who took all the credit, is rich material, and it frequently takes flight, albeit it is much more grounded as a whole than typical Burton fare. Yet even with eccentric fare such as this, Burton succumbs to the linear shortcomings of the biographical movie.


Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewksi historically have something of a knack for bucking the trend in so-so and so respectful biopics. They were behind Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Auto Focus (concern the peccadillos of Bob Crane, of Hogan’s Heroes fame). Less assuredly they also penned the Andy Kaufmann picture Man on the Moon (still, more of deserving of praise than it often gets), but it should be noted – and looked forward to – that on the same lines they have a true crime anthology series starting next year (American Crime Story), which taking the “true” tack is able to both mimic True Detective’s new cast/story a season format and strike out on its own.


Margaret (Amy Adams) and her daughter flee her first husband, only to arrive in San Francisco where she falls for another shady character. Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) is all charm and flair, an instant showman with a gift for selling himself.  While Burton’s picture offers the morsel of defence that Walter wasn’t initially selling Margaret’s art as his own, it’s also evident that he had no qualms about taking the credit once the first mistake was made. When we discover that Walter, who has inveigled himself on the art scene and made connections and conquests there, invented both his painterly credentials (he paints his name over pieces he has bought) and his time in France, it comes as little surprise (the clues are there early on), but it’s fuel for Margaret to finally decide to leave him.


That she doesn’t immediately, and that she puts up with the deceit (attempting to keep the truth from her daughter, well played in young and old versions by Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur respectively) over the course of a decade is a point handled with a degree of believability by the writers. The truth is, there isn’t one clear answer. Living in fear of Walter is cited (and his threat to kill her) but we never really get that sense (the scene building up to their leaving, where he is throwing lit matches at Margaret and Jane, is rather absurd in the disproportionate fear it elicits from mother and daughter). Her place at the time as a woman in a patriarchal world where such creativity is the provenance of men is also given its due (a Catholic priest advises her Walter probably knows best), and psychologically presents an understandable reason for submitting to Walter’s domineering behaviour.


There’s an early scene where she has the opportunity to push herself forward and announce herself as the true author of her work, but she hesitates too long and Walter takes charge. There’s a sense that it is just easier for her (she gabbles on about her fascination with numerology to an increasingly confused potential customer of “her own” paintings); as she graciously offers to her ungracious (then ex-) husband in court, he was “very good at being charming” and a “talented salesman”. It’s unlikely that, on her own, Margaret would have ascended to the level of success she did (which her real life counterpart readily admits). It’s Walter who has the acumen to display her paintings in a jazz club attended by the great and good (owned by an entertainingly blustering Jon Polito) and the inspiration to sell copies of her work to the public rather than the real thing (the difference between making $500 on a single piece or selling a million cheap reproductions, anywhere, everywhere).


It’s also Walter whose hubris (if that’s the right word, since it’s the result of pride in something he isn’t even the force behind) leads to Margaret submitting a piece for the 1964 New York World’s Fair (with this and Tomorrowland, there’s evidently a vein of nostalgia being tapped for the event, presumably because it represents an era of noble motives without any of that ugly cynicism – no doubt unless you were actually there at the time and involved in it). Art critic John Canaday duly eviscerates it (Terence Stamp, who may be prone to doddery old remarks about immigrants but still has it as an actor), and in terms of the picture this signals the split with Walter (he becomes apoplectic and threatens Canaday with a fork, prior to the match incident) and the subsidence of Margaret’s heyday. Her work is dismissed as “an infinity of kitsch” by Canaday, who refuses to lower himself to call it art, and its unclear the extent to which this explosion of gaudy bad taste in the early ‘60s was followed by the tail-off that now looks on it as a bizarre curiosity of a bygone age.


If that’s a failing, it’s surely in a part a by-product of Alexander and Karaszewski playing fast and loose with the timeline of Margaret’s life; the trial itself didn’t take place until 1986. Such dramatic compression largely works for the picture, though, and it means the sunny ‘60s Hawaiian setting is shown off to good effect (it’s like Burton’s taken happy pills; one can just imagine him on location, with a fog machine on hand to keep him suitably overcast). The downside is that it makes the picture a little to neat and linear, something that is particularly emphasised by Burton’s buttoned-down approach.


Burton collected Keane’s work, such that he had commissioned her to paint a portrait of then other half Lisa Marie during the ‘90s (Krysten Ritter, who plays Margaret’s best friend in the picture, could almost be Burton’s next generation gothic muse). One might have expected him to shrink from criticism of her work accordingly, but he appears to have no problem embracing the polar responses to her idiosyncratic art. There’s the question of why, for starters, which comes down to a period of deafness as a child and the rather hokey windows-on-the-soul explanation (notably, her more despairing tone becomes upbeat when she becomes a Jehovah’s Witness – you go, JWs!) But really, it’s preferable to the kind of pseudish responses to art Burton’s keen to skewer elsewhere (Canaday’s only really to be commended for crushing Walter). There’s also an amusing dig at Walter’s attempt to justify his assumed role also (“Maybe you have an unhealthy obsession with little girls?” suggests Margaret).


Canaday is self-evidently wrong not to call Margaret Keane’s works art; it just isn’t his kind of art. Which is why there’s the Warhol quote prefacing the movie, presumably; Keane’s painting must be good because people like them (which sounds like the most poker face comment ever, but it’s definitely one Michael Bay would relish). To Canaday it’s a fad; “He’s like the hula hoop. He just won’t go away” he says of Walter and, by implication, his wife’s work. The conclusion to be reached is, appropriately for her prevailing subject matter, that art is in the eye of the beholder (in Sleeper, Woody Allen awakes in a future world that sees her as one of the greatest artists ever, this being the same world that has learnt smoking and fatty, high cholesterol diets are good for you).


The sympathy in the picture is always with Margaret, and Adams’ performance is pitch perfect, subtly emphasising her retiring quality and rehearsal of the mores of the period with regard to the domestic place of women, but also the grief that comes from trapping herself in a lie she helped create. 


The picture is Waltz’s to steal, though, and as in Django Unchained he duly does just that.  This is Waltz doing a Depp, so if you’re easily annoyed by hammy or affected performances, it really isn’t for you (his accent is very curious also). Walter is a gift of a role; loud, charismatic, self-serving, an inveterate liar (Margaret doesn’t even know about his daughter until she shows up at the door), deluded and yet perceptive enough to back a winner and a realist enough to understand supply and demand (people… “buy art because its in the right place at the right time”).  Walter doesn’t even have the diligence to find out what his wife has been painting with (“Oils? But isn’t that acrylic?” he is quizzed), and is utterly shameless in employing Margaret’s suggestions to invent motivation for painting when he appears on a TV show to justify himself. Walter’s perhaps too much of a buffoon for his threatening side to ever take believable hold, though.


The highlight, and a dream for Waltz no doubt, is the climactic court case where Walter represents himself (his self cross-examination is obvious, but no less funny for it) to the increasing, entirely understandable, exasperation of the judge (James Saito). As with the ’86 trial, the paint-off sees Walter do nothing besides protest an injured shoulder, while the end title note he persisted in claiming authorship until his death.


Typically of a Burton film, the side-lines are populates with entertaining faces. The versions of Jane appear to be partly cast for their big eyes, while Jason Schwartzman has an amusing cameo as a gallery owner and Danny Huston gives good (if, perhaps, slightly unnecessary) narration as the reporter who indulged Walter and then learned the truth. Burton’s now-regular cinematographer Brune Delbonnel lends a suitably bright and poppy colour palette, while Danny Elfman’s score is less memorable than usual (for a Burton movie). 


Burton himself appears to be on best behaviour, rarely indulging in weirdness (there are a couple of scenes where Margaret sees big eyes in the real world, either out shopping or in the mirror). This does make the picture, for all its weird subject matter and bold characters, seem oddly restrained and respectful.


That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it seems to underline that a biopic needs something more if its really going to escape the limitations of its genre. Both Ed Wood and Larry Flynt did that by embracing the subject matter and running with it. Burton appears caught between deference to Margaret, quite understandably, and a desire to indulge the possibilities of big, broad vulgar Walter. Nevertheless, this is a welcome change of course after umpteen pictures based on familiar properties (even his own familiar properties). He’s back on safer turf again next, with Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (read, Burton – or his agent – feels his bankability needs confirming since its five years since Alice). After that, let’s hope he can remember the anarchic sensibility that fueled him nearly thirty years ago if he takes on Beetlejuice 2. I’d like to see him go there, but he last showed that kind of sensibility way back in the ‘90s.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Dude, you're embarrassing me in front of the wizards.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
(SPOILERS) The cliffhanger sequel, as a phenomenon, is a relatively recent thing. Sure, we kind of saw it with The Empire Strikes Back – one of those "old" movies Peter Parker is so fond of – a consequence of George Lucas deliberately borrowing from the Republic serials of old, but he had no guarantee of being able to complete his trilogy; it was really Back to the Future that began the trend, and promptly drew a line under it for another decade. In more recent years, really starting with The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings stands apart as, post-Weinstein's involvement, fashioned that way from the ground up – shooting the second and third instalments back-to-back has become a thing, both more cost effective and ensuring audiences don’t have to endure an interminable wait for their anticipation to be sated. The flipside of not taking this path is an Allegiant, where greed gets the better of a studio (split a novel into two movie parts assuming a…

I don't like bugs. You can't hear them, you can't see them and you can't feel them, then suddenly you're dead.

Blake's 7 2.7: Killer

Robert Holmes’ first of four scripts for the series, and like last season’s Mission to Destiny there are some fairly atypical elements and attitudes to the main crew (although the A/B storylines present a familiar approach and each is fairly equal in importance for a change). It was filmed second, which makes it the most out of place episode in the run (and explains why the crew are wearing outfits – they must have put them in the wash – from a good few episodes past and why Blake’s hair has grown since last week).
The most obvious thing to note from Holmes’ approach is that he makes Blake a Doctor-substitute. Suddenly he’s full of smart suggestions and shrewd guesses about the threat that’s wiping out the base, basically leaving a top-level virologist looking clueless and indebted to his genius insights. If you can get past this (and it did have me groaning) there’s much enjoyment to be had from the episode, not least from the two main guest actors.

When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention.

Twin Peaks 1.5: The One-Armed Man
With the waves left in Albert’s wake subsiding (Gordon Cole, like Albert, is first encountered on the phone, and Coop apologises to Truman over the trouble the insulting forensics expert has caused; ”Harry, the last thing I want you to worry about while I’m here is some city slicker I brought into your town relieving himself upstream”), the series steps down a register for the first time. This is a less essential episode than those previously, concentrating on establishing on-going character and plot interactions at the expense of the strange and unusual. As such, it sets the tone for the rest of this short first season.

The first of 10 episodes penned by Robert Engels (who would co-script Fire Walk with Me with Lynch, and then reunite with him for On the Air), this also sees the first “star” director on the show in the form of Tim Hunter. Hunter is a director (like Michael Lehman) who hit the ground running but whose subsequent career has rather disapp…

An initiative test. How simply marvellous!

You Must Be Joking! (1965)
A time before a Michael Winner film was a de facto cinematic blot on the landscape is now scarcely conceivable. His output, post- (or thereabouts) Death Wish (“a pleasant romp”) is so roundly derided that it’s easy to forget that the once-and-only dining columnist and raconteur was once a bright (well…) young thing of the ‘60s, riding the wave of excitement (most likely highly cynically) and innovation in British cinema. His best-known efforts from this period are a series of movies with Oliver Reed – including the one with the elephant – and tend to represent the director in his pleasant romp period, before he attacked genres with all the precision and artistic integrity of a blunt penknife. You Must Be Joking! comes from that era, its director’s ninth feature, straddling the gap between Ealing and the Swinging ‘60s; coarser, cruder comedies would soon become the order of the day, the mild ribaldry of Carry On pitching into bawdy flesh-fests. You Must Be Joki…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Well, who’s going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?

Enemy of the State (1998)
Enemy of the State is something of an anomaly; a quality conspiracy thriller borne not from any distinct political sensibility on the part of its makers but simple commercial instincts. Of course, the genre has proved highly successful over the years so it's easy to see why big name producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would have chased that particular gravy boat. Yet they did so for some time without success; by the time the movie was made, Simpson had passed away and Bruckheimer was flying solo. It might be the only major film in the latter's career that, despite the prerequisite gloss and stylish packaging, has something to say. More significant still, 15 years too late, the film's warnings are finally receiving recognition in the light of the Edward Snowden revelations.

In a piece for The Guardian earlier this year, John Patterson levelled the charge that Enemy was one of a number of Hollywood movies that have “been softening us up f…

Luck isn’t a superpower... And it isn't cinematic!

Deadpool 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps it’s because I was lukewarm on the original, but Deadpool 2 mercifully disproves the typical consequence of the "more is more" approach to making a sequel. By rights, it should plummet into the pitfall of ever more excess to diminishing returns, yet for the most part it doesn't.  Maybe that’s in part due to it still being a relatively modest undertaking, budget-wise, and also a result of being very self-aware – like duh, you might say, that’s its raison d'être – of its own positioning and expectation as a sequel; it resolutely fails to teeter over the precipice of burn out or insufferable smugness. It helps that it's frequently very funny – for the most part not in the exhaustingly repetitive fashion of its predecessor – but I think the key ingredient is that it finds sufficient room in its mirthful melee for plot and character, in order to proffer tone and contrast.

You're going to need a nickname, cos I ain't saying that every time.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)
(SPOILERS) I had a mercifully good time with Solo: A Star Wars Story, having previously gone from considering it a straight-up terrible idea when first announced, to cautious optimism with the signing of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, to abject pessimism with their replacement by little Ronnie Howard, to cautious optimism again with the advent of various trailers and clips. I have numerous caveats, but then that's been par for the course with the series ever since Return of the Jedi, whichever side of good or bad the individual entries end up falling. The biggest barrier to enjoyment, judging by others’ responses, seems to be the central casting of Aiden Ehrenreich; I actually thought he was really good, so the battle for my allegiance was half won right there. No, he isn't Harrison Ford, but he succeeds admirably in making Han Solo a likeable, brash, smug wannabe scoundrel. Less so at being scruffy looking, but you can’t have everything.

It looks as i…

Whoever comes, I'll kill them. I'll kill them all.

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) There’s no guessing he’s back. John Wick’s return is most definite and demonstrable, in a sequel that does what sequels ought in all the right ways, upping the ante while never losing sight of the ingredients that made the original so formidable. John Wick: Chapter 2 finds the minimalist, stripped-back vehicle and character of the first instalment furnished with an elaborate colour palette and even more idiosyncrasies around the fringes, rather like Mad Max in that sense, and director Chad Stahleski (this time without the collaboration of David Leitch, but to no discernible deficit) ensures the action is filled to overflowing, but with an even stronger narrative drive that makes the most of changes of gear, scenery and motivation.

The result is a giddily hilarious, edge-of-the-seat thrill ride (don’t believe The New York Times review: it is not “altogether more solemn” I can only guess Jeannette Catsoulis didn’t revisit the original in the interven…