REVIEW: “Big Eyes”

BIG EYES POSTER

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

THE TOP 10 FILMS OF 2012

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Folks, its time for the big one! The 2012 movie year is over and done so that means its Top 10 time. This is my favorite part of the movie season – a chance to reflect back on the past year in movies and heap praise on the films that I think are the 10 best. 2012 started off a little slow but ended up being a pretty strong year for both the big blockbusters and for small independent cinema. But enough with the buildup. (Imagine a small but steady drumroll) May I introduce The Keith & the Movies Top 10 Movies of 2012…

Before I get to the 10 best, I do want to mention three films that I desperately wanted to see before making this list. Unfortunately it’s not going to happen for another week or so. They are “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Rust and Bone”, and “Amour”. I would also like to throw out a few honorable mentions. These were fantastic movies that I loved and that just missed the cut (click their names for full reviews)…. “Damsels in Distress’, “The Hobbit“, “The Kid with a Bike“, “Bernie“, “Looper“, “Delicacy“, “Les Miserables”

Frankenweenie#10 – “FRANKENWEENIE” – I’m as shocked as you. The idea that a Tim Burton picture would be on my Top 10 list amazes me. I’m not a Burton fan but “Frankenweenie” is an animated delight. It’s one part tender tale about a boy and his dog and another part the Frankenstein story and it works beautifully as a collective whole. It’s also an old school horror movie homage with tons of fun references to everything from the monster pictures of the 1950s to the classic Universal horror films. But the key reason it works is that Burton wisely focuses more on telling a good story than promoting his unique style. The result is a fabulous animated treat that I adored.

Prometheus#9 – “PROMETHEUS” – I know this will be a controversial pick just judging by the variety of differing opinions about this film. But I gotta say that I loved “Prometheus”. I loved the universe. I loved the special effects. I loved most of the cast. I loved its open-endedness. Are there holes in the logic here and there? Sure. But for me Ridley Scott supplied me with another exciting sci-fi experience that may not answer all the questions as it advertises, but it still reminds me of what an intelligent and visionary filmmaker he is. I stand firmly beside “Prometheus” and sincerely hope that the $400 million box office was enough to ensure us a follow-up.

Lincoln#8 – “LINCOLN” – Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” is a movie that may surprise a lot of people. While there are a few Speilberg overindulgences, as a whole he really dials it back and it works beautifully. This isn’t a film steeped in huge set pieces and heavy melodrama. This is a performance driven drama with possibly the best ensemble casts of the year. Daniel Day-Lewis reaffirms his status as the greatest working actor with a fine performance. Critic Leonard Maltin called the performance miraculous and I have to agree. He loses himself in this towering historical character and I was hooked on every line and every mannerism. That’s the biggest reason the film worked so incredibly well.

Impossible#7 – “THE IMPOSSIBLE” – There have been many disaster movies that have made their way onto the big screen. But none has ever gripped me and affected me the way “The Impossible” did. This is one of the most poignant and powerful pictures I watched all year. It’s also a draining and at times difficult movie to endure. But the reward is overwhelming as we watch the best of people come out in a truly devastating circumstance. This is an intelligent and respectful film about the Indian Ocean tsunami and it’s aftermath. Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor give stunning performances and newcomer Tom Holland should garner a lot of attention. Don’t brush this movie aside as just another disaster film. It’s so much more.

SKYFALL#6 – “SKYFALL” – It wasn’t until Daniel Craig took the reigns of 007 that I became a huge James Bond fan. Now I’m hooked. “Skyfall” is a wonderful action thrill ride from director Sam Mendes and is arguably the best Daniel Craig Bond picture yet. It’s loaded with the expected blow-your-socks-off action shoot-outs and car chases. But it also fleshes out Bond more as a person, something I really responded to. Javier Bardem, while underused, is a blast and it was great to see Judi Dench’s role expanded. “Skyfall” has raked in over $1 billion dollars worldwide but it’s well deserved. This is just more proof that big budget films can and should knock it out of the park.

ARGO#5 – “ARGO” – For my money Ben Affleck has proven himself to be an incredibly capable director. “Argo” is a shining example of his abilities behind the camera. This sizzling picture set during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979 is an edge-of-your-seat thriller anchored by a fantastic cast, sharp direction, and Chris Terrio’s slick and intelligent screenplay. It dramatizes the absurdity of the real life hostage rescue in a way that had me glued to the screen. And the perfectly realized sense of time and location just seal the deal. It also features what may be the best opening 20 minutes I have seen in several years. I love “Argo”. It’s storytelling at its finest.

AVENGERS4 – “THE AVENGERS” – It has become the norm for Hollywood to release several big budget superhero movies each year. But very few are as good as “The Avengers”. This was one of the most ambitious projects and it had potential to be a disaster. It was far from that. “The Avengers” was one of the most well-conceived and well-executed movies of the year thanks to the clever and often times hilarious screenplay from Joss Whedon. Loud laughs and thunderous applause filled the theater during both of my big screen viewings and I was right there with them. In terms of sheer fun at the movies, “The Avengers” was tops and that makes up for any tiny flaw it may have otherwise.

MOONRISE#3 – “MOONRISE KINGDOM” – It’s safe to say that I have evolved into a full-blown Wes Anderson fan. “Moonrise Kingdom” solidified that for me. This is a film that perfectly encapsulates Anderson’s special brand of humor and style. There’s a beautiful and sensitive story of eccentric children’s puppy love and their feelings of not belonging. But there’s also the story about the adults within a small New England community and all their imperfections. And then there’s Anderson’s razor-sharp script – some of the best writing of the year. Great performances, hilarious moments, perfectly quirky music, and an artful 1960’s aesthetic are all spread across Anderson’s gorgeous canvas.

BEASTS#2 – “BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD” – This is a movie that I didn’t catch up with until later in the year. Suffice to say it really blew my mind. This was clearly the biggest surprise of the year for me as well as the most moving and emotional film of 2012. A first time director and two first time performances create an experience that pulls you into the isolated and poverty-stricken world of a 6-year old girl named Hushpuppy. It’s sometimes heartwarming and sometimes deeply unsettling, but it’s riveting cinema throughout. This is small and little known film that is finally getting an audience and stands above most every film of 2012.

DARK KNIGHT#1 – “THE DARK KNIGHT RISES” – No other movie of 2012 combined the thrill of adrenaline-fueled action with the art of pure cinematic storytelling. Christopher Nolan wrapped up his phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy with yet another sharp and layered movie. Tom Hardy is a brute presence and Ann Hathaway makes Selina Kyle (a.k.a. Catwoman) a much more grounded character. The entire film is laced with a tinge of realism but it’s still a rousing superhero experience. Some have had issues with this film but I found it to be brilliant and the perfect ending to one of my personal favorite trilogies. This is also Nolan’s third straight film to end up as my year-end #1. Bravo!

So there they are, my 10 Best Films from the 2012 year. What are your thoughts? Where did I go wrong? What’s your favorite film of 2012?

 

*After writing this I was able to catch up with “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Amour”. Let me say that both would make my Top 10 without a doubt!

“Frankenweenie” – 4.5 STARS

It’s October so it makes sense that we have a new Tim Burton movie. Burton is one of those filmmakers with an undeniably unique style in both the look and tone of his films as well as the subject matter he dabbles in. But while you can always recognize a Tim Burton film, it is fair to say that he is a polarizing filmmaker. You either like him or you don’t. I happen to appreciate when a filmmaker can inexorably define themselves with their work. But from a purely entertainment point of view, I’m not one you would categorize as a Tim Burton fan. Seldom are his movies as good as advertised and I find he often sacrifices quality storytelling for style. But he definitely has a following which is evident by the loads of money studios are willing to pay for his creations.

Now we have Burton’s latest concoction, in theaters just in time for Halloween. “Frankenweenie” has its roots in a 30 minute live-action short that Burton did in 1984 before his career took off. Here he adds an hour’s worth of story to make it a feature-length film. He also ditches the live-action and goes with stop-motion animation. This is familiar territory for Burton and you can see his fingerprints from the opening scene to the ending credits. But surprisingly there are some things that separate this movie from Burton’s past efforts – movies that didn’t work for me. More specifically, “Frankenweenie” is a rare film where Burton embraces his style but never allows it to overwhelm his story. Even more, I would go as far as to call this his best film since 1989’s “Batman”.

At its core, this is the story of a boy and his dog dressed up as a classic horror movie homage. Victor Frankenstein is a young introvert with an affection for science and movie making. He has no friends to speak of with the exception of his extremely loyal and loving dog Sparky. But one day Victor is devastated after Sparky is hit by a car and killed after chasing a ball into the street. Inspired by his eccentric science teacher and true to his last name, Victor sets out to use the power of electricity to bring his canine companion back to life. He succeeds but he soon learns there are some pretty serious consequences that effect the entire town.

It doesn’t take long to see an almost childlike enthusiasm from Burton that permeates every scene of this movie. There’s a playfulness to both his story and presentation that I’ve never seen from him before. But the movie also has a lot of heart as it deals with topics such as reclusive children and a child facing loss. It’s an incredibly straightforward and honest look as these issues that are comfortably nestled in Burton’s ghoulish and amusing landscape. But I have to admit that I was impressed with his heartwarming narrative and I can see where this film may connect with audiences unlike any of his other pictures.

But don’t think for a minute that “Frankenweenie” doesn’t have the dark, eerie aesthetic and offbeat imagination that you would expect from Burton. It’s very much a light-hearted horror film sprinkled with dashes of humor. There are so many nods to old horror pictures from the original 1931 “Frankenstein” to “Gremlins” to “Godzilla”. And perhaps my favorite tips of the hat comes through the assortment of side characters. There’s the strange girl next door named Elsa Van Helsing. There’s Victor’s creepy (and hilarious) hunchbacked classmate named Edgar E. Gore who sounds just like Peter Lorre. And then there’s my personal favorite Mr. Rzykruski, Victor’s science teacher who’s an animated carbon copy of the great Vincent Price. Another big plus is the gorgeous, crisp stop-motion animation. I’m a big fan of the technique and here it shines especially in Burton’s glorious black and white.

I loved “Frankenweenie”. It’s a compact and well conceived movie that should strike a chord with all ages. I was absorbed in its authentic emotion, clever social satire, macabre sense of humor, and appreciation for the horror classics. I laughed, I jumped, I teared up. What’s most impressive is Burton’s creative self-control which allowed him to create a wonderful story while maintaining his own wacky sense of style. There’s just so much to like about “Frankenweenie” and it’s a particularly pleasurable experience for moviegoers like me who aren’t always fans of Tim Burton’s work. Sure it’s weird, spooky, and goofy. But it’s also beautiful, imaginative, and nostalgic and it’s a prime example of why we go to the movies.

THE THROWDOWN : Christian Bale vs. Michael Keaton

Wednesday is Throwdown day at Keith & the Movies. It’s when we take two movie subjects and pit them against each other and see who’s left standing. Each Wednesday we’ll look at actors, actresses, movies, genres, scenes, and so much more and see how they stand up one-on-one. And it’s not just my opinion that counts. I’ll share my take and then open up the polls to you. Visit each week for a new Throwdown. Vote each week to decide the true winner!

This week’s Throwdown is a Bat-Battle to the death between Michael Keaton and Christian Bale. Both of these men wore the cape and the cowl and were undeniably the best that did so. This isn’t measuring which had the better movies. This is all about who was the better Batman and whose performance you liked the best. Forget Kilmer and please, please, please forget Clooney. These two guys WERE Batman. Now you vote and decide who was the best.

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Christian Bale was a fantastic choice to help revive the Batman franchise after Joel Schumacher’s disastrous “Batman and Robin”. Director Christopher Nolan took Bale and built a more grounded and believable Bruce Wayne and took him through some pretty dark places during his immensely popular trilogy. But it’s Bale’s performance that’s key. He unquestionably gets better and better with each movie and by the end of the trilogy he made the character his own. He also has the physical abilities to sell it all. Bale was a wonderful Batman and there’s an easy argument to make that he’s the best caped crusader to hit the big screen.

It may be easy for some people to dismiss Michael Keaton’s two movie tenure as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. But for those of us who remember standing in line in 1989 to see Tim Burton’s “Batman”, we most certainly appreciate how well the actor embodied Bruce Wayne. I’ve always been a fan of Keaton’s but I wasn’t sure about him taking on this role. He was a pleasant surprise and he’s a key reason that the first film worked so well. He’s a much different Batman that Bale but that’s in large part due to the material. Even in the second picture “Batman Returns”, a movie I’m not crazy about, Keaton shines. He left the role just before the franchise was destroyed but his stint still holds up today.

So who is it? You’ve got two very different actors giving two very different depictions of Batman. Forget their movies. This is about the men behind the masks. Bale or Keaton…your votes decide.

“DARK SHADOWS” – 2 1/2 STARS

Director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp’s history of collaborations could graciously be called a roller-coaster. The two have worked together on a total of eight movies, each to some degree sharing the same Tim Burton gothic quirkiness. Burton’s style is unique and specific and it’s easy to see how someone could be turned off by it. He’s also known to dabble in the same general themes and his movies often have the same look and tone. “Dark Shadows” is no different and you almost instantly know you are watching a Tim Burton picture. But to be honest, I’m not the biggest Burton fan and I’m rarely attracted to his films. But there was something about “Dark Shadows” that caught my attention.

The trailer and TV spots showed what could potentially be a hilarious dark comedy based on the “Dark Shadows” vampire soap opera from the late 60’s and early 70’s. Depp plays Barnabas Collins who finds his life turned upside down after breaking the heart of a witch named Angelique (Eva Green). The Collins family had moved from Liverpool, England to Maine and started a fishing village. They called it Collinsport and built the huge Collinwood Manor on top of a hill overlooking the town. Angelique was part of the Collins’ work staff and immediately fell for young Barnabas. But he never notices her especially after finding the love of his life Josette (Bella Heathcote). Taking the ‘woman scorned’ idea to new levels, she uses her black magic to cause the deaths of Barnabas’ parents and Josette. To take things even further, she turns Barnabas into a vampire then buries him in the forest in a chained up casket where he stays for almost 200 years.

But his casket is accidentally unearthed and Collins is eventually freed. The problem is that the year is 1972 and things certainly aren’t how they were when Barbabas was buried. At this point the movie seems set up to be another absurd fish-out-of-water story. In fact, that’s exactly what it was advertised as. And while there are some genuinely funny moments when Barnabas clashes with his new 1972 environment, it’s far from the meat and potatoes of the story. “Dark Shadows” actually plays things straight for much of the film and I often found the comedy to be back-burnered. To me Burton squandered a lot of potential by not spending more time on laughs. One minute he and Depp are winking their eye and having fun with the old show. The next minute they’re taking the story in a more serious direction. I found the absurdity of the comedy to clearly be the most fun.

After being freed, Barnanbas connects with the dysfunctional Collins descendants now living in the rundown Collinwood manor including Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Roger (Jonny Lee Miller). He also meets Carolyn (Chloe Moretz), a rebellious teenager and David (Gulliver McGrath), a young boy who believes in ghosts. Helena Bonham Carter plays a boozing psychiatrist living in the house supposedly to help David. He also meets Victoria Winters (also played by Heathcote) David’s governess who has a striking resemblance to Josette. Barnabas finds that his descendants have allowed their family fishing business to fall apart. He takes it upon himself to rebuild the business back to prominence especially after seeing that the rival fishing company is run by an incarnation of none other than Angelique.

One thing you instantly notice is that the film looks fantastic. Even when the story sputters, the visuals never do and the movie features some gorgeous camera work and fantastic makeup and costume design. Burton also does a nice job a recreating a believable 1972, an unusual time in American history that strangely fits a Tim Burton project. I loved the selection of 70’s pop and rock songs chosen for the film and there are several funny jokes involving things such as lava lamps, hippies, and The Carpenters. And while we’ve seen comedies that focus on misplaced people before, here it works pretty well. But unfortunately we only get snippets of it scattered throughout the picture. It’s mixed in with the more serious and straight-laced narrative which often times causes a frequent and almost distracting change of tone throughout the film. This isn’t so much due to Burton’s direction, but to the structure of the story.

Depp plays weird really well and here he gives his usual solid performance. His comfort level with pasty-faced Burton roles is evident and his own quirky sense of humor shines through. His goofy facial expressions and sometimes exaggerated line delivery really sells the Barnabas Collins character even during the times where the main story feels lifeless. Depp can get a laugh from the audience just by lifting an eye brow at the right moment and his performance was one of my favorite things about the film. Most of the other cast members are good particularly Jackie Earle Haley in a fun role as the Collinwood caretaker. There are no glaringly bad performances and to be honest, it’s Depp’s show.

“Dark Shadows” is a genre-jumper that moves between comedy, horror, drama, romance, and action yet never feels grounded in any of them. An argument could be made that this is a typical Tim Burton picture and if you’re a fan, you’re probably going to like it. And I certainly won’t deny that Burton’s fingerprints are all over the movie. But I just didn’t find myself as interested in the main story as I hoped to be. The comedy works and there are some truly clever and funny gags that you have to appreciate. Depp carries many scenes and makes them work just by his stiff and unusual character presentation. Things like this really work in the film. In other words, “Dark Shadows” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, it’s far from it. But it is an inconsistent movie and one that I have a hard time embracing. I may like the film more after a second viewing, but right now it feels like a movie that had great comedic potential but only gave us a sampling of it.

THIS WEEK IN MOVIES (May 11th)

“DJANGO UNCHAINED”

“Django Unchained” is the highly anticipated next movie from director Quentin Tarantino. The director has had the ability to line up all sorts of acting talent to star in his films….at least until now. The movie has been plagued with cast members dropping out of the project. Early it was reported that both Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Kevin Costner had to drop out of the film due to conflicts. This week we found out that Sacha Baron Cohen has left the film. It turns out his role was fairly small but the other bit of news is a bigger problem. Kurt Russell (who has signed on to replace Costner) has now bowed out of the movie. No reasons were given but his role was much more important than Cohen’s. This is pretty unusual since Tarantino is known for his great casts. I’m anxious to see how this affects the film and it’s release.

“THE AVENGERS”

Well, I can’t help it. I have to throw in another bit of Avengers news. “The Avengers” shattered the record for biggest opening weekend previously held by the last Harry Potter picture. It brought in a domestic total of $200.3 million shattering the previous record. Those are monster numbers but that doesn’t even consider the money it’s brought in overseas. The movie has made almost $750 million worldwide easily justifying it’s $220 million budget. Is it any surprise that news also came out of the planned sequel?

NEW IN THEATERS (May 11th)

  • “DARK SHADOWS” (PG-13) – Comedy
  • “FOOTNOTE” (PG) – Drama/Foreign

It’s a light week at the theaters as everyone is scared to take on “The Avengers” even in it’s second weekend.