Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2014)

17. Big Eyes

The films of Tim Burton have met with financial success all over the world. “Beetlejuice” was a sleeper hit, “Batman” created the modern superhero movie, and “Alice in Wonderland” is, inexplicably, one of the most successful films of all time. The director can count his box office failures on one hand. Despite this wide-reaching commercial success, Tim Burton has not always been a critical favorite, especially recently. Occasionally, Burton will step away from blockbusters and make a prestige film, in hopes of scoring some Oscar gold. It never works. His latest stab at a character-driven drama, “Big Eyes,” was totally snubbed by the Academy. This is a shame since “Big Eyes” is probably the director’s best film in years.

“Big Eyes” is a biopic about painter Margaret Keane. Keane’s life is especially ripe for a film adaptation. Leaving behind her husband in the late fifties, she moved to San Francesco with her daughter, hoping to find work as a painter. Her portraits of children with large eyes did not get her much attention. That is until she caught the eye of another artist named Walter. The two quickly married, Walter’s marketing savvy helping his wife’s work gain local popularity. Unfortunately, Walter also claimed credit for Margaret’s work. The paintings became wildly popular, especially through the sale of cheaply produced prints, making the Keanes rich and famous. All the while, Margaret allowed her husband to take credit for her work. After a decade, she had enough, divorcing him and suing for the rights to her own creations. The court case climaxed dramatically in a paint-off between the former husband and wife. With such a film-ready ending to the story, I can’t believe Keane’s story is only now being brought to the screen.

Keane’s story has an obvious appeal to Tim Burton. “Big Eyes” re-paired Burton with the screenwriting duo behind “Ed Wood.” Both films have a similar concept. Just as Edward J. Wood’s films are dismissively considered the worst ever made, Keane’s paintings are usually mocked as kitsch specimens. Both films look into the personal life of honorably dubious pop culture figures. It’s also not surprising to read that Burton was already a collector of Keane’s work before making the film. One can draw comparisons to Burton’s films and the pale skin, bleak surroundings, and doe eyes of Keane’s paintings. Moreover, Keane’s story drips with Burton’s trademarks. Margaret moving from the suburbs of Tennessee to the east coast art scene provides the director an oppretunity for the fish-out-of-water humor he loves. Keane also has elements of the Burton-esuqe outsider, for her eccentric beliefs and oppression from her husband.

“Big Eyes” is ultimately a story about the struggles of being an artist and where artistic inspiration and commerce meets. Throughout the film, Margaret repeatedly references how her paintings speak to something deep inside of her, how the creation of art is an incredibly personal process. Her work ethic is impressive, painting every day, producing hundreds of paintings in very short amounts of time. Keane didn’t paint her big-eyed waifs in hopes of becoming trendy or hip. She did it because this was what inspired her. Walter, meanwhile, is an opportunist that’s in the art world for profit. He’s very good at selling himself and makes the two very rich, seeing the potential of Margaret’s work. In order to meet the demands of her husband’s whims, Margaret cranks out paintings every day, her work becoming increasingly soulless. She enters a Mephistophelian pact with Walter, gaining financial stability but loosing her personal, artistic fulfillment. The film becomes a story of her regaining this and reaching a personal compromise, all on her own, between success and happiness.

“Big Eyes” also presents Margaret Keane as an unlikely feminist hero. Keane begins the film as a single mother, escaping an unhappy marriage during a time when such a thing was not accepted. Though charmed by Walter’s antics, she marries himself mostly to provide for her daughter. The film follows her struggle to break away from one restrictive man after another and live her own life. Considering the story takes place around the same time period as the women’s lib movement, I can’t imagine this was unintentional.

Mostly though, “Big Eyes” is about two extraordinary performances from two of our best actors. Amy Adams has routinely given great performances in films beneath her talent level. In “Big Eyes,” she is sensitive, quiet, but shows a subtle determination. Adams plays Keane as someone slowly growing and emerging out of their own shell. By the film’s last third, when Margaret has finally strike back at Walter, the audience has grown to love this character. The scene where she finally leaves her abusive husband, crying while holding hands with her daughter, is quite touching.

Walter Keane, meanwhile, is an ideal part for Christoph Waltz. In the beginning, Keane is incredibly charming. Waltz, who is always funny and compelling, can play this easily. Even though he puts off the vibe of being a shyster and a con artist, we can’t help but like Walter Keane. In time, Walter reveals how manipulative and mean-spirited he can be. Waltz is really good at playing this too. The German actor has quickly made a career out of playing kindly smiling, utterly charming devils that, eventually, show their true faces. There’s nothing in “Big Eyes” that Waltz didn’t already do in “Inglourious Basterds,” and better, but he’s still dynamite on screen and utterly fascinating to watch.

“Big Eyes” supporting cast is filled out with great character actors. Krysten Ritter, in a bit part as Margaret’s sole friend, is a lot of fun to watch. I can’t believe Tim Burton is only now working Krysten Ritter and fully expect her to appear in future films of his. Jon Polito does his thing as the sleazy owner of the nightclub where the Keane’s first display their artwork. His interaction with Waltz is especially amusing. Terence Stampe is, likewise, perfectly cast as a cold critic that dismiss Keane’s work. Jason Schwartzman has a bit part as the hipster art gallery owner that also turns his nose up at Margaret’s paintings. All of this is spot-on casting, the actors excelling in parts designed for them. Most surprising is Delaney Raye and Madeleine Arthur, who both play Margaret’s daughter Jane at different ages. Both, with their huge blue eyes, look like one of Keane’s paintings and both give fine performances. And, look at that, not a single Johnny Depp in the whole movie.

If you have any doubt that this was a Tim Burton movie, “Big Eyes” begins with a shot of clean, multicolored suburban homes in an oppressively cold neighborhood. Burton’s eye is sharper then ever. “Big Eyes” is film about a painter so it’s very colorful. The blues are very bright and the greens are quite deep. At times, it almost looks like it was shot in Technicolor. This is how you do color correction right, as it not only adds depth to the frame but also reinforces the film’s concepts. Mostly, the director holds back on his usual stylistic excesses. “Big Eyes” features no black-and-white spirals or gothic, expressionistic sets. The only time Burton’s usual whimsy puts in an appearance is during a notable sequence where, while at the supermarket, Margaret begins to hallucinate the people around with her with the big eyes of her paintings. And this moment is appropriately strange and off-putting then funny or amusing.

In the past, I’ve been quite dismissive of the typical prestige biopics. “Big Eyes” both subverts the conventions of the genre while also occasionally playing them straight. It cleverly skips over the tedious montages devoted to showing Margaret and Walter’s rise to fame. Instead, we simply get a quick flash of newspapers and photographs. Other times, the movie does what is expected. Danny Huston, playing reporter Dick Nolan, provides an occasional, and mostly unnecessary, voice-over, adding some unneeded context to what’s happening. The film concludes with the expected info card letting us know what happened to the film’s subjects after the story’s end. This is also unnecessary. “Big Eyes” brushes up against being an unusual biopics but does indulge in many of the things we associate with the genre.

The drama inside “Big Eyes” escalates throughout the film. Even though this is truly a “truth is stranger then fiction” story, some of the things that happen on-screen strain believability. In a drunken rage, Walter chases Margaret and Jane through their house, flicking matches at them. That’s a little over the top, don’t you think? As you’d expect, the film concludes with the dramatic court case, as cinematic an ending as I’ve ever read about. While Walter’s behavior during these scenes are true to the facts, it’s so outrageous. Waltz is at full strength here, hamming it up, pushing the character to the level of cartoonish supervillainy. While the moment still provides a solid ending, “Big Eyes” stumbles a bit in its last act.

This is a Tim Burton movie so, of course, Danny Elfman provides the score. Some of Elfman’s music is effective and stirring, especially during the film’s more quiet moments. Too frequently, however, Elfman’s score suffers from a bad case of what I call “indie-soundtrack-idist.” It’s hard to describe, though listening to NPR for a while might give you a good idea. The music is designed to put the audience in a certain quirky mood. Does it work? I suppose so. Is it still an overused style? Definitely. Is Elfman capable of better work? Obviously. Pop star Lana del Ray contributes two songs and both are horribly out of place in the movie. Music from the actual time period the story is set in probably would have worked better.

That “Big Eyes” failed to impress the Academy maybe isn’t a surprise. It’s more charming then impressive, more pleasant then mind blowing. However, Adams probably did deserve a nomination, as she’s excellent. “Big Eyes” won’t usher Burton into a more serious portion of his career. (Considering his next film will either be a return to whimsical family fantasy, it obviously won’t.) However, it’s a mature, thoughtful, beautifully assembled, grounded film from the director and one that I’m likely to return to. If nothing else, I bet it’ll sell a whole bunch of Keane's paintings. [Grade: B+]

No comments: