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 4/14/15

Top Hits
Big Eyes (Tim Burton-directed drama, Amy Adams. Rotten Tomatoes: 71%. Metacritic: 62. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “A horror movie tucked inside a domestic drama wrapped up in a biopic, Tim Burton’s ‘Big Eyes’ tells the story of Margaret Keane, an artist whose characteristic style is summed up in the title… ‘Big Eyes,’ directed in Mr. Burton’s coy, heavily pictorial manner, and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, never quite achieves the full measure of psychological intensity promised by the spooky interior lighting, the low camera angles and Danny Elfman’s hysterical score. The element of Margaret’s personality that allowed her to remain under Walter’s spell for so long remains opaque.” Read more…)

Maps to the Stars (comic thriller, Julianne Moore. Rotten Tomatoes: 63%. Metacritic: 67. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “If the Oscars have left you with a residual hatred of Hollywood or a renewed appreciation of Julianne Moore, ‘Maps to the Stars’ may be just what you need. Suavely directed by David Cronenberg from an elegantly waspish script by Bruce Wagner, it belongs to the venerable tradition of movieland self-loathing. The film, tipping its hat to Nathanael West’s ‘The Day of the Locust’ and Mr. Wagner’s own novels, imagines Los Angeles as an inferno of narcissism, greed and sexual perversity. The radiant sunshine has a sinister glow, and the blossoms on the trees are surely poisonous.” Read more…)

The Homesman (western, Tommy Lee Jones. Rotten Tomatoes: 82%. Metacritic: 68. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “Set in a flat, unforgiving stretch of the American frontier in the decade before the Civil War, ‘The Homesman’ is both a captivating western and a meticulous, devastating feminist critique of the genre. Mr. Jones, who rides alongside Ms. Swank as a whiskery ruffian known as Briggs, uses western iconography to dismantle a familiar set of romantic myths. Most basically, the journey Briggs and Mary Bee undertake is not further into the West but back toward the East. It is a trek that originates in failure, passes through frustration and concludes on ambiguous notes of sorrow, resignation and cynicism.” Read more…)

Kidnapping Mr. Heineken (thriller, Anthony Hopkins. Rotten Tomatoes: 20%. Metacritic: 33. From Manohla Dargis’ New York Times review: “The sole object lesson in the true-crime drama ‘Kidnapping Mr. Heineken’ is that not every crime deserves its own movie. That much becomes clear in the director Daniel Alfredson’s dreary, uninvolving fictionalized take on the real 1983 snatching of Alfred Heineken, chairman of the company bearing his family’s name.” Read more…)

Foreign Letters (coming of age story, Noa Rotstein)
Ragamuffin (Christian bio-pic, Michael Koch)

New Foreign
Goodbye to Language (France, Jean-Luc Godard-directed drama, Heloise Godet. Rotten Tomatoes: 86%. Metacritic: 75. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From A.O. Scott’s Times review: “[Director Jean-Luc] Godard has a habit of blending gravity with whimsy. His latest film, a 70-minute 3-D visual essay called ‘Goodbye to Language’ (‘Adieu au Langage’), exhibits the formal and philosophical mischief that has been his late-career calling card. It is baffling and beautiful, a flurry of musical and literary snippets arrayed in counterpoint to a series of brilliantly colored and hauntingly evocative pictures — of flowers, boats, streets, naked bodies and Mr. Godard’s own dog, a mixed-breed scene-stealer identified in the credits as Roxy Miéville.” Read more…)

New American Back Catalog
Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell (1968, comedy, Gina Lollobrigida)

New British
Foyle’s War: Set 8

New Documentaries
Antarctica: A Year On Ice (nature, photography. Rotten Tomatoes: 84%. Metacritic: 69. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “The extremes of ‘Antarctica: A Year on Ice’ might seem routine to fans of nature documentaries, but the photographer and director Anthony Powell produces some dazzling imagery in his droll study of isolation way, way down under. His varied tour of Antarctica’s scientific stations and their long-term residents is like a jokey, expertly shot slide show from another world.” Read more…)

New Gay & Lesbian
Such Good People (comedy/romance, Lance Bass)

Rob Harmon’s Picks 2/17/15

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksROB HARMON’s PICKS 2/17/15

Top 10 Movies of 2014

The red carpet is being rolled out, the statuettes polished up, and the envelopes sealed, but what speaks “closing the book on movies of last year” like a good ol’ fashioned Top 10 list? Let’s take a look (all are available on DVD/Blu-ray unless otherwise noted):

10. WHIPLASH (dir. Damien Chazelle, available on DVD/Blu-ray Tues., Feb. 24th)

Films about the act of artistic creation seemed to be a major theme of last year (see BIG EYES, THE WIND RISES, and MR. TURNER below) and it was hard to ignore the sheer visceral power of this story of up-and-coming jazz drummer Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) incessantly butting heads with Machiavellian teacher-from-hell Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons). Aside from the great lead performances, WHIPLASH was one of the best written and most tightly-edited pictures of the year.

9. NIGHTCRAWLER (dir. Dan Gilroy)

Exploring dark material is nothing new for actor Jake Gyllenhaal but he seems to especially be on a roll of late, with last year’s kidnapping drama PRISONERS and this film — a remarkable slice of L.A.-set neo-noir. NIGHTCRAWLER — one of the most breathtakingly shot films of last year — seems perennially set in that moment just after the sun has set in the desert, when the warmth of the sun can still be felt on the skin but darkness has quickly moved in. Gyllenhaal plays Louis Bloom, a chillingly amoral blank slate, who drifts from one place to the next, attempting to nose out job or economic opportunity from his bleak surroundings whilst spouting strange business-ese and corporate-isms until he chances upon his destined avocation: enterprising and unscrupulous cameraman for the “if it bleeds, it leads” local news cycle. Needless to say, Bloom takes to it like a fish to water: NIGHTCRAWLER is a fascinating hero’s progress for our time.

8. BOYHOOD (dir. Richard Linklater)

Much has been said and written in recent months about Richard Linklater’s ambitious drama about one boy’s (Ellar Coltrane) growing up. Though large and unwieldy — due to the film’s unprecedented structure (cast and crew assembling to film for only a few weeks each year, over a 12-year period!) — BOYHOOD is really a marvel and gets better as it goes, with the final half being easily the strongest of the movie. This should come as no surprise: Linklater’s stock-in-trade are characters who move freely (usually either walking or driving) and talk, so it makes sense that BOYHOOD would not really take off until its protagonist has finally “grown up” and wrested control of the film from the half-baked subplots which held the film hostage early on.

7. SNOWPIERCER (Bong Joon-ho)

Based on a French comic book about a dystopian future world which has been encased in ice and snow after a climate-engineering accident, SNOWPIERCER is set on a state-of-the-art juggernaut of a train which endlessly circles the earth and contains the final remnants of the human race, living in a strictly class-divided society and battling for survival. In spite of its bleak and strange scenario, SNOWPIERCER – the English language-debut from Korea’s Bong Joon-ho (MEMORIES OF MURDER, THE HOST, MOTHER) – proved to be one of the most thrillingly visual films of last year, a marvel of effects and production design. As an added bonus, Tilda Swinton chews the scenery, in what was easily the scene-stealing role of the year.

6. BIG EYES (dir. Tim Burton, available on DVD/Blu-ray – April?)

Destined to be overlooked this film award season is Tim Burton’s latest, about artist Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), whose paintings and mass-produced prints of sad-eyed waifs in the late 1950’s and 60’s became the essence of American kitsch and whose work was for years claimed to be that of her husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz). While the film is — in typical Burton fashion — a brightly-colored, comic book-ish, and, yes, even googly-eyed evocation of time and place, it is hard not to see that Burton sees in Keane a compatriot. BIG EYES is a clever, understated, and warm tribute to the artistic impulse and the need to create, even when the value of one’s labors is a little in doubt.

5. THE WIND RISES (dir. Hayao Mizazaki)

Is this Miyazaki’s swan song? I hope not, but if it is, he picked an excellent, and fitting, note to end on. THE WIND RISES tells the story of Jiro Hirokoshi, designer of Mitsubishi aircraft used during World War II, which at first seems like strange subject matter for a committed pacifist like Miyazaki. What emerges, though, is a portrait of an obsessive artist and one man’s struggle for meaning through the years – themes which Miyazaki would naturally take to heart. THE WIND RISES is an all-around lyrical and beautiful film about the value of persistence.

4. MR. TURNER (dir. Mike Leigh, available on DVD/Blu-ray – April?)

Mike Leigh — best known for kitchen sink realism of the likes of LIFE IS SWEET, SECRETS AND LIES, and NAKED — has made occasional forays into period drama (TOPSY TURVY, VERA DRAKE), which he here returns to with his portrait of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), famed 19th century British painter of seascapes. Many of Leigh’s troupe of favorite actors are on display, as is the gorgeous cinematography of frequent Leigh collaborator Dick Pope. A slow and ponderously-paced film, that – in typical Leigh fashion – builds to an emotionally powerful, though quiet, climax.

3. GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL (dir. Wes Anderson)

Part rollicking buddy movie, part paean to lost love and the vanished past, GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was the most fun one could have at the movie theater last year: a sickeningly-sweet confection, a treat that can’t be beat!

2. GONE GIRL (dir. David Fincher)

Perhaps the most talked-about film of last year was also one of its best, and certainly the twistiest and most serpentine of thrillers, proving that David Fincher is still in top form. Adapted from the novel by Gillian Flynn GONE GIRL details the fallout over the apparent murder of wealthy housewife Amy (Rosamund Pike) by her bored, philandering alpha male husband Nick (Ben Affleck) in a middle-class Missouri neighborhood. A stylish and moody evocation of the desert of modern emotional life GONE GIRL really gets under the skin (not to be confused with Under the Skin, see below). Pike’s Amy emerges as one of the most complex female characters in recent memory, while Nick and Amy themselves may just be the cinematic couple for our time.

1. UNDER THE SKIN (dir. Jonathan Glazer)

Mind-blowing, strange, and eerie to the max, UNDER THE SKIN was also the most substantial film of last year. Jonathan Glazer’s whats-it about an emotionally-detached alien vamp (Scarlett Johansson), nocturnally roaming the streets of Scotland and searching for male victims, is far more than it initially seems: a sustained and austere meditation on the search for identity in a modern, scorched landscape.