REVIEW: “Big Eyes”

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At one time director Tim Burton was on top of the world and his ghoulishly gothic style seemed fresh and unique. But recently his career has been marred by several flops and people seem to be growing tired of his darker approach and constant Johnny Depp collaborations. Personally I had been off the Burton bandwagon for a while, but his 2012 animated gem “Frankenweenie” won me back a bit. His latest film is “Big Eyes” and Burton is one step closer to having me back in his corner.

“Big Eyes” is a biographical drama that tells the story of American artist Margaret Keane and her husband Walter. Margaret (played by Amy Adams) was a talented sketcher and painter whose work came to prominence during the 1950s through the 1960s. It was a time when little thought or consideration was given to “lady art” (as her husband so insensitively puts it in one scene). Her art style was uniquely her own and featured children with big, wide eyes.

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The film begins with Margaret leaving her first husband and moving to San Francisco with her young daughter Jane. We see Margaret as timid and unsure of herself. She finds her one true emotional release in her art. Enter Walter played by the always fascinating Christoph Waltz. He too is an artist and he woos Margaret with his charisma and exotic tales of his time spent in Paris. The vulnerable Margaret, needing a whole filled in her life, marries Walter.

At first their life together is fun and free, but we see the first ripple when Walter sells one of Margaret’s paintings as his own work. What followed was a 10 year ruse that saw Walter taking the credit for the paintings while a guilt-ridden Margaret did all of the work behind closed doors. Her naïve and timid personality was no match for Walter’s manipulative and shameless character. In essence he was a snake oil salesman both as an art dealer and a husband. The popularity of the art grew and grew, but behind the scenes a much more personal struggle was taking place.

This is truly a strange and compelling story and I love the way Burton and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski tell it. It’s written in a way that allows its two top-tier stars to form these characters through their performances. Interestingly enough Adams and Waltz have two very different approaches. Adams is quiet, serious, and reserved. Waltz is big, energetic, and hyper-charismatic. It may sound like the performances clash, but that’s not the case because they are perfectly in tune with the characters. Margaret is subdued and unassuming. Walter is a showman and a salesman.

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And I tip my hat to Tim Burton for stepping outside of his routine and showing nuance in his filmmaking. A sensibility and thoughtfulness takes the place of his normal macabre style. It’s a much lighter touch yet there are still a number of subtle Burton signatures. Quirky bits a humor shake the tone up a bit and Burton does several things with his camera that hearkens back to some of his earlier films. But overall it’s a refreshing turn from a filmmaker who a short time ago had found himself in a rut.

I can see people having problems with “Big Eyes”. I can see people bothered by the shifts in tone and what they perceive as clashes between the two lead performances. Not me. I was locked into the story from the start, I appreciated the visual representation of the 1950s and 1960s, and I loved the performances. Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Reynolds were first attached to the film, but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing better than Adams and Waltz. Add in a much different Tim Burton approach and you have a very entertaining film that tells a truly surreal story.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “American Hustle”

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I may not be a card-carrying member of the David O. Russell fan club, but there are several things you have to give him. He has a knack for creating and developing raw and thoroughly engaging characters. He is also able to put together incredible ensemble casts perfectly in tune with his characters. Both of these strengths are the key reasons why Russell’s new film “American Hustle” works. The movie has several of his same indulgences that don’t always work for me but it’s the characters and performances that makes this film so intriguing.

The movie is set in 1978 and is loosely based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation. It’s a time of good music, big collars, and really bad hair. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a con artist who joins up with and falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams). The two run a small time but controlled loan scam that is bringing in some nice cash. Things are going well until they are caught up with by an ambitious FBI agent named Richie Di Maso (Bradley Cooper). But Richie doesn’t want small time cons. He wants the career-boosting big fish. So he forces Irving and Sydney to work for him and entrap bigger targets, namely politicians and government officials.

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Irving doesn’t like his circumstances at all. He likes things small and low-key. He also doesn’t like Richie and his constant changing of the rules. He feels that going too big will jeopardize the whole operation. But the biggest threat to their plans may be Irving’s loose cannon wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence). She’s loud, volatile, and she knows Irving has a thing for Sydney. That’s a pretty lethal cocktail. Another complication comes in the form of a New Jersey mayor named Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). He’s a popular and seemingly well-meaning guy who develops a friendship with Irving. The trouble is he becomes one of Richie’s prime targets.

This interwoven web of ‘who’s conning who’ could have been an utter mess but it actually plays out in an entertaining and fairly cohesive way. Much of that is due to the sharp script penned by Russell and Eric Warren Singer. It’s not perfect. There are lulls along the way and I couldn’t help but feel that they stretched the story to its limits. There are also a few glaring questions that remain unanswered. They don’t cripple the story the way major plot holes do, but they did stand out to me. Still, in terms of delivering a slick and stylish story, Russell and Singer pull it off.

But getting back to a previous thought, neither the direction nor the script are the film’s strongest point. The movie’s true success lies in the performances. It starts with Christian Bale. Armed with pretty much the same voice that he used playing Dicky in “The Fighter”, Bale was the most compelling character of the bunch. While he may sound like Dicky his physical appearance was quite different. In “The Fighter” Bale lost over 30 pounds to convincing depict a crack addict. In “American Hustle” he gained nearly 50 pounds which we get a good look at in the film’s opening scene. But Bale delivers much more than just a physical transformation. He gives us a character who is funny, selfish, crooked, pitiful, sympathetic – all encapsulated within a wonderful performance.

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I also liked Bradley Cooper, an actor who has gotten surprisingly better over time. His character is a little hard to gauge at first but as the story unfolds so does Richie’s personality and ambitions. Cooper gives an hearty performance that does at times get a tad too big but is still impressive. And speaking of big, Jennifer Lawrence is also good as the powder keg Rosalyn. She has already raked in a ton of critical acclaim but I wouldn’t call this her best work. The character is loud and abrasive by design so the performance has to be big. But it isn’t until later in the film that Lawrence is actually allowed to show her range. On the other hand Amy Adams (goofy split-up-the-front blouses aside) is fantastic. Her character isn’t a ‘take home to meet the parents’ kind of girl, but there is a sad and needy underlying thread to her. Adams never misses a beat. And I can’t forget Jeremy Renner who has a smaller role but to me was just as good as anyone else.

I can’t say that “American Hustle” has any kind of staying power and I don’t think I’ll remember it as one of the great films. But there is something about these generally unlikable characters that draws you to the screen. In typical David O. Russell fashion they are a little too abrasive for my taste. But each is fascinating in their own right and each truly desires something more: Irving – to be a more successful con, Richie – an FBI superstar, Sydney – British royalty, Rosalyn – a loved and appreciated wife, Carmine – a legendary mayor. Most of the credit for this goes to the performances. “American Hustle” is more of a showcase of great actors than it is great storytelling, but it still keeps you glued to the screen as you watch them do their work.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

TOP 5 SUPPORTING ACTRESS PERFORMANCES OF 2012

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It’s that time of year again. People are reflecting back on the 2012 movie year and throwing lists together. The Golden Globes are done and the Academy Award nominees are announced. Last week I looked at the movies and listed my Top 10 Films of 2012. This week I’m looking at the performances. As I did last year, I’m going to break down the four major acting categories and list my personal Top 5 performances of 2012 from each. I’m a firm believer in ladies first so today we start with the Top Supporting Actress Performances of 2012 (according to me).

#5 – AMY ADAMS (“The Master”)

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I’m a big fan of Amy Adams and throughout her career she has shown a great range. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master” she plays Peggy Dodd, the wife a philosophical sect leader. While her husband seems to be in control and it’s his flash and pizzazz that gets all of the attention, there are several scenes where Peggy looks to be pulling the strings. Adams embodies this mysterious and sometimes calculating character and she has no problem holding her own with the other heavyweight performances.

#4 – JUDI DENCH (“Skyfall”)

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We all know Judi Dench is a great actress. She is one of those performers who you know is going to deliver regardless of what she’s in. One of her most recognized roles is “M” from the James Bond films. In “Skyfall” she reprised that role but, unlike the previous Bond appearences, here she is given a lot more to do. Dench gets to flex her acting muscles as her “M” character is fleshed out a bit more. We also get to experience a better look at her relationship with Bond. Dench is fantastic and she doesn’t miss a beat.

#3 – SALLY FIELD (“Lincoln”)

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I remember when I heard Sally Field was going to play Mary Todd Lincoln a smile spread across my face. And as expected she doesn’t diappoint. This was a tough role, not just because she was playing the wife of Abraham Lincoln, but because she was sharing scenes with the great Daniel Day-Lewis. But Field is spectacular in “Lincoln” and the on screen chemistry between her and Day-Lewis is undeniable. Field uncovers the uniquenesses and complexities of her character with great craft. This was a spot-on performance and certainly worthy of praise.

#2 – CECILE DE FRANCE (“The Kid with a Bike”)

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I don’t know how many people have seen the touching French and Belgian film “The Kid with a Bike” but more people should. It’s a beautifully crafted and deeply moving film from the Dardenne brothers about a young boy unable to accept that his father has left him. The performance from de France is an absolute joy to watch and you never doubt her character’s sincerity or tenderness. It’s unfortunate that her great work has flew under the radar but I can promise that if you watch this film you’ll be blown away.

#1 – ANNE HATHAWAY (“Les Miserables”)

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I’ve been a luke warm Anne Hathaway fan for a while now. But I’m slowly growing more and more impressed with her work. My excitement reached it’s pinnacle after seeing her in “Les Miserables“. Talk about a heartfelt and devestating performance. From her physical acting to her beautiful voice, Hathaway stole the show and had me wishing her part was bigger. For me, this performance was the whole package – the voice, the expressions, the emotions. It all flows naturally out of Hathaway. I felt for her and I cried with her. This was the best supporting performance by an actress from 2012.

Day 1 is done and my favorite supporting ladies have been given their due. So which performances did I miss? What was your favorite? The guys are next. Tomorrow I’ll throw out the Top 5 Supporting Actor Performances of 2012.

“THE MASTER” – 3.5 STARS

The last time we saw acclaimed director Paul Thomas Anderson was in 2007 with his sensational drama “There Will Be Blood”. With it he solidified his position as a film critic’s favorite. Now he’s back with his next movie “The Master”. As with every other feature film Anderson has made, he both wrote and directed this audacious drama that can sometimes be completely captivating and other times utterly frustrating. There are some award worthy performances and loads of ambition, just as you would expect from a Paul Thomas Anderson feature. But just as there were moments where I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, there were also times when the story seemed to bog down in the deliberate pacing and slight self-indulgence that keeps this from being a true classic. Nonetheless Anderson presses all the right critics buttons so this will be a contender come awards season.

No one can deny Anderson’s filmmaking skills. “The Master” looks every bit of an epic, landmark film. There are a number of scenes that stand out due to their framing and camera work alone. Anderson uses several amazing tracking shots sometimes shifting focus three or four times while still maintaining a single fluid shot. He also uses several fantastic locations and captures them with his stylish and precise camera work. I also have to mention the way he recreates America in 1950 both narratively and visually. The wardrobes, hairstyles, furnishings, etc. all work perfectly right down to the smallest details. Anderson takes no shortcuts on selling the audience on the period and that’s one of the reasons it’s so easy to attach yourself to the story.

It’s in this 1950 America that we are introduced to Freddie Quell. He’s played by Joaquin Phoenix who gives the performance of his career. While not as breathtaking as Daniel Day-Lewis in “There Will Be Blood”, Phoenix is magnetic portraying a man emotionally scarred from his time in World War 2, or at least that’s what I presume. Freddie’s life is in shambles. He’s a raging alcoholic who resorts to drinking his own concoctions made from paint thinner and any other chemical he can get his hands own. He also has a twisted sex disorder that pops up here and there. His alcoholism shows to be a burden that’s destroying his life and in turn plays an important part in the film. On the other hand, his sex addiction felt terribly underwritten and only contributed by adding a handful of uncomfortable scenes that quite frankly I could have done without. But as I said, Phoenix is brilliant and there’s no way he should be denied an Oscar nomination for this bold performance.

Freddie ends up crossing paths with a charismatic leader of a group called “The Cause” named Lancaster Dodd (wonderfully played by Philip Seymour-Hoffman). Dodd is a self-proclaimed philosopher and intellectual with a steady and devoted group of followers. He also has a way with words and Freddie is drawn to Dodd and his movement. Dodd takes a special liking to Freddie at one point calling him his guinea pig but clearly growing more fond of him later. Dodd is able to suppress Freddie’s mental issues to the point where Freddie begins to buy into his teachings. But his inner turmoil resurfaces on several occasions making him more and more conflicted.

The story often moves with an amazing rhythm and Phoenix and Hoffman share some mesmerizing scenes together. But for such a hyped picture, I was surprised to see the overall lack of plot. I mean “The Master” features some of the best scenes you’ll see in the theaters this year, but honestly, there’s not a lot that happens in the long running time. But a bigger problem with “The Master” is that for the entire film Anderson keeps the audience at arm’s length from what we are seeing. We’re never allowed to fully get to know the characters who truly are the driving forces behind the entire picture. Anderson wants us to do a lot of guesswork and come to our own conclusions. But for me, a little less ambiguity and more intimacy with the characters would have been a big plus.

I don’t mean for this review to have such a negative tone. There are some really good things to like about “The Master”. Anderson’s style of filmmaking is about as good as you will find and it really shines here. The movie looks and feels right at home in post-World War 2 1950 and the cinematography will blow you away. The film is also helped by tremendous performances from Phoenix and Hoffman and I didn’t even talk about Amy Adams’ strong work. Expect to hear all of their names when the Oscar nominations are announced. But while Anderson’s story is good, it doesn’t pack the punch of some of his other pictures particularly “There Will Be Blood”. It’s fascinating to watch these characters but I couldn’t help but want more. That combined with a few pacing issues and a couple of scenes I could have done without keep this from being the Best Picture frontrunner that many are touting it as.

“THE MUPPETS” – 3 1/2 STARS

The Muppets have been missing in action for years now making them complete unknowns to a new generation of children. Now they are back in a feature film simply titled “The Muppets” and in many ways, it’s a fun and nostalgic step back in time. It’s based off “The Muppet Show”, a parody-driven variety program which ran from 1976 to 1981 and branched out into several full length movies. The whole cast is back and the result is a family-friendly experience that will bring back some fond memories for parents while introducing these wonderful characters to a new younger audience. And while the movie certainly retains that Muppet magic in places, it’s not without it’s problems.

Jason Segal wrote and stars as Gary, a human and brother to Walter who is a puppet. The two are incredibly close and as adults still live together. Throughout the years, Walter has become a huge Muppets fan. He watches all of their old shows, has a Kermit watch, and has a bedroom wall plastered with Muppet posters and stickers. Gary and his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) plan a romantic vacation to Los Angeles to celebrate their 10th anniversary. Walter ends up coming along and gets an opportunity to visit the old Muppet Theater. There he overhears the plot of an evil oil tycoon, appropriately named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), to tear down the theater and drill for oil in it’s place. Walter makes it his mission to save the theater by convincing the Muppets, who have long since parted ways, to get back together for one last show to save the theater.

Both Gary and Mary are simple and sometimes cheesy characters and for the most part that’s ok. Segal and Adams make them both likeable even though their cluelessness is sometimes overplayed. Chris Cooper is a lot of fun as the stereotypical cold-hearted businessman and he hams it up without short-changing the character. But the Muppets are the real stars and while there are a few different voices, they all pretty much have the same personalities I remember from the show. They’re all here and I was surprised to see how much I remembered about them. Being this is a fairly concentrated movie, I was disappointed that some didn’t get as much screen time as I wanted but there’s not a lot you can do about that.

The story, while straightforward and predictable, does offer some pretty good laughs. There are several musical numbers throughout the film some of which are quite fun. Cooper’s bad guy rap is hilarious and works so well due to it’s absolute absurdity while others fall pretty flat and add little to the movie. But often times jokes are made at the song’s expense and they’re actually quite funny. “The Muppets” features several scenes that are like nostalgic flashbacks but it also has a few dull moments. The story drags in places and doesn’t maintain a steady pace. These lulls certainly don’t kill the picture but keep it from being as good as it could have been.

“The Muppets” may not be a great movie but it did leave me feeling like I had stepped back in time. I really enjoyed seeing these characters that I loved as a child back together again and there were several instances where I gave a hearty laugh at the genuinely funny jokes. There are also some fun cameo appearances by James Carville, Emily Blunt, Mickey Rooney, Selina Gomez and several more. While the movie hits a few speed bumps along the way, overall I did have fun and I guess that’s all that counts.