Rob Harmon’s Picks 5/19/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebBig Eyes (dir. Tim Burton, 2014)

Not all great artists, writers, or directors become the inspiration for words in the English language: for example, there are no such words as Leonardoish, Hemingwayian, or Truffautian — not officially in the dictionary, anyway. (These words, besides, are a little clunky!) Other artists, however, achieve such a degree of iconicity, either by creating a new brand of art or by coming to embody one that already existed, that inventing or coining an adjective to describe that art, or one particular aspect of it, becomes practically imperative, as in Rubenesque, Aristotelian, or Hitchcockian.

Still, as speakers and as writers, we tend to invent words all the time – whenever convenient, really – boiling the essence of something down to a single adjective or verb, a sort of shorthand referring to something or someone’s most salient aspects. Cineastes do this all the time with directors: for example, if I were to tell you that a certain film was “Carpenter-esque, Lynchian, and Wilder-esque,” you might understand this to mean: a film – possibly horror – with a minimal, widescreen visual aesthetic, and equally minimal music – probably synthesizer-based (à la John Carpenter); which, further, is surreal (David Lynch); and features strongly-written characters and a scathingly acerbic sense of humor (Billy Wilder).

Burtonesque is not in the dictionary (I just checked, although one website offered up this priceless definition: “a general feeling of mystical and somewhat dark wonderfulness”), and may never be, but for those who know movies well the word evokes rich and potent images: a darkly Gothic and comic, fairy-tale-like atmosphere; the subtle satire of suburbia, middle-class values, and the dysfunctional family unit; the aesthetics of Edgar Allan Poe, Roger Corman, and England’s Hammer Studios; the campy-but-endearing theatrics of Vincent Price; wounded, child-like heroes cast adrift in a world they never made; and, of course, the hauntingly innocent musical stylings of frequent-collaborator and composer Danny Elfman (former frontman of legendary band Oingo Boingo; for more on this “other” side of the versatile Elfman see 80s midnight classic THE FORBIDDEN ZONE in our Cult section!).

Director Tim Burton achieved such astonishing success early in his career (PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, BEETLEJUICE, BATMAN, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, ED WOOD) that he had solidly established a house style – call it “Burtonesque,” if you will – at a point when most other filmmakers are still struggling to find their voice.

Yet, for a time, all of that seemed to work against Burton, as he fought to stabilize his career after the days of heady, early success. As he labored through a seemingly endless array of remakes and remodels, Tim Burton seemed to be forever in the shadow of… well, his younger self. Tim Burton – the wunderkind who shook up Hollywood with his whip-smart comedy/horror pastiches – now seemed a shadow of his former self, an illustrator of others’ ideas, his patented Burtonesque house-style forced into servitude. Not long ago it would have been legitimate to ask: “Whatever happened to Tim Burton?”

2844957BIG EYES is based on the life of painter Margaret Keane, beginning in 1958 in a typically-ordered and candy-colored Burtonesque suburbia somewhere in northern California, as soft-spoken housewife Margaret Ulbrich (Amy Adams) works up the courage to walk out on her stifling, loveless marriage. With young daughter Jane in the back seat she drives to San Francisco and sets up a new life as a single mother (San Francisco in 1958? Shades of VERTIGO, anyone?), struggling to find employment, before, ultimately, succeeding.

Additionally, fueled by the energy of the city around her, she channels her latent artistic impulses by going to art fairs on the weekends and applying paint to canvas: her pet theme the portrayal of children – inspired by her daughter – with eerily large and disproportioned eyes. The windows to the soul, she says. It is while rubbing elbows with the bohemian set that she meets the larger-than-life Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), an artist and all-around-operator, whose secret that he is actually a well-off real estate agent proves to be only the tip of the iceberg. Walter and Margaret are married and Margaret continues to develop her portraits of destitute and lachrymose, staring waifs. Recognizing that the rapidly-growing middle class has a healthy appetite for the snobbery associated with art, Walter hits upon new, undreamt-of ways of promoting Margaret’s paintings to the masses, even taking his role as salesman to another level by assuming credit for his wife’s work once it begins to sell… and sell and sell…. Ultimately, of course, as Keane Mania sweeps the nation, attracting the supercilious derision of the critical establishment, the fraudulent enterprise becomes ever more difficult to keep under wraps….

BIG EYES was written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, a team best known for biopics, such as Miloš Forman’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT and MAN ON THE MOON, as well as Burton’s exceptional ED WOOD. BIG EYES is well-acted, particularly by the two leads Adams and Waltz.

Proving that there are second acts in life, Burton’s BIG EYES manages to be: a smart and subtle parable about art and the artistic process; a send-up of the unholy marriage of art and commerce; a pseudo-feminist statement, as Margaret struggles to find her voice in a patriarchal society, with daughter Jane’s staring eyes (and, by extension, the eyes of her painted subjects) calmly recording the abuses which mother is subjected to; as well as a meditation on the greater values of cheap, mass-produced “art” (as in, *ahem*, movies…): all-in-all, an understated work from a matured director – one whose career has already seen its fair share of ups and downs.

Burton clearly recognizes Margaret as a kindred spirit in kitsch, a fellow creator whose private obsessions may too easily be dismissed or written off as specious. Burton seems to also identify, up to a point, with husband Walter, a sort-of P. T. Barnum of the art world, whose business savvy ignites a firestorm of demand in the belly of Middle America. Margaret and Walter are presented as two halves of a duality, as yin and yang, two forces who can’t seem to live together or apart: a powerful metaphor, indeed, for the creative process.

For more “Burtonesque” works check out our Tim Burton section in Best Directors!

New Releases 5/19/15

Top Hits
American Sniper (war drama, Bradley Cooper. Rotten Tomatoes: 73%. Metacritic: 72. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “As a young boy, which is to say before he grows up into a burly, bearded Bradley Cooper, Chris Kyle receives a lesson in life from his strict Texan father. The world, according to Dad, is divided into sheep, wolves and sheepdogs, those rare, righteous souls called to protect the innocent from the wicked. It’s a tough, stark view of the order of things, one that guides Chris in his subsequent career as a Navy SEAL sniper and one that has, with some modification, informed much of the work of Clint Eastwood, the director of ‘American Sniper.’ Faithful in shape and spirit to the real Chris Kyle’s memoir, ‘American Sniper’ also reaffirms Mr. Eastwood’s commitment to the themes of vengeance and justice in a fallen world. In the universe of his films — a universe where the existence of evil is a given — violence is a moral necessity, albeit one that often exacts a cost from those who must wield it in the service of good.” Read more…)

New Blu-Ray
American Sniper

New Foreign
Leviathan (Russia, Oscar-winning drama, Aleksey Serebryakov. Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Metacritic: 92. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “As its imposing title suggests, the Russian drama ‘Leviathan’ is something of a monster movie. It turns on a modern-day Job who endures trials and tribulations in an Arctic town in northern Russia. Some of his miseries are self-inflicted — he’s a boozer, not the pious soul of the Bible story — but many of his agonies originate with corrupt authorities, including the local mayor, a Hobbesian brute who sits at his desk under a photograph of Vladimir V. Putin. The director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, has a heavenly eye but a leaden hand, and his movie is as heavy as it is transporting, filled with stirring shots of the natural world and deep dives into a human realm flooded with tears and vodka.” Read more…)

Girlhood (France, drama, Karidja Touré. Rotten Tomatoes: 95%. Metacritic: 85. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “Céline Sciamma’s ‘Girlhood’ can be described (like so many movies these days) as a coming-of-age story, and it honors the genre, and its main character, with exemplary sensitivity and sympathy. But even as she stops at familiar stations on the road to maturity — problems at home and school, new friendships and first love — Ms. Sciamma revels in the risky, reckless exuberance of adolescence and in the sheer joy of filming it.” Read more…)

The Blue Room (France, drama, Mathieu Amalric. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 72. A New York Times Critic’s Pick, From Manohla Dargis’ Times review: “There’s a shot at the start of ‘The Blue Room,’ an elegant psychological freak-out about adultery and other madness, of a vacated hotel room. The calm gray-blue walls and understated furnishings paint a tranquil scene. Yet it’s here that Julien [Mathieu Amalric] and Esther [Stéphanie Cléau] have routinely broken their marriage vows in a frenzy of tangled and sweat-slicked limbs. With its covers thrown back, the large bed that dominates the room seems less empty than ravaged. It looks like a stage after the final performance. It also looks like the scene of a crime.” Read more…)

The Last Sentence (Sweden, historical drama, Jesper Christensen. Rotten Tomatoes: 76%. Metacritic: 60. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “It’s plausible that Torgny Segerstedt, a crusading Swedish journalist, was every bit as heroic, freethinking and sexually irresistible to women as he is portrayed in ‘The Last Sentence.’ But you will need to take it on faith even after seeing this stultifying movie, a fictionalization of how Segerstedt [1876-1945] positioned himself on the right side of history by writing an editorial that declared ‘Herr Hitler is an insult.’ Hermann Göring sent a telegram objecting to this boldly tossed gauntlet, one of many such complaints that challenged Segerstedt’s lonely fight.” Read more…)

New Television
Orange Is the New Black: Season 2 (TV prison drama series. Rotten Tomatoes: 97%. Metacritic: 89. From Mike Hale’s New York Times television review: “But there’s a lot to be said for smart entertainment. I suspect I’m not the only viewer who looks back with nostalgia, after less than a decade, to the macabre whimsy of HBO’s ‘Six Feet Under’ [or, more recently, Showtime’s ‘Dexter’] and wonders when cable drama got so grim. ‘Orange Is the New Black’ reminds me in spirit of ‘Six Feet Under,’ except that it’s better and funnier.” Read more…)