REVIEW: Big Eyes

27 12 2014

Big Eyes

Director Tim Burton (“Alice in Wonderland,” “Dark Shadows“) is accustomed to working on canvases larger than life.  But in his latest directorial outing “Big Eyes,” he has a hard time creating an environment that feels true to life.  The film is the rare Burton picture not set in any realm of fantasy or imagination, and he feels uncomfortable in the domain of average human beings.

His response to every question that arose in production, it seems, was to opt for exaggeration.  “Big Eyes” has the tense spousal dynamic of “The Color Purple” where the exploitation in the marriage is artistic rather than sexual.  Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz) aspires to be a renowned and revered artist yet cannot achieve such status with his own paintings.  Thus, he claims the resonantly kitschy big-eyed paintings of his wife Margaret (Amy Adams) for his own and forces her into a glorified form of indentured servitude.

Burton uses a narrator to constantly remind the audience that this all happened “back then” as if the whole thing were some kind of fairy tale.  Yet “Big Eyes,” sadly, derives its strength from the nagging sensation that this could just as easily be happening in 2014.  The kind of cultural diminution and symbolic rape committed in the film is still endemic in today’s society, but Burton seems content with hermetically sealing it in some kind of dolled-up past.

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REVIEW: Dark Shadows

2 10 2012

I’ve been critical of Tim Burton’s artistic choices over the past decade or so, taking material already marked with an inexorable aesthetic and cultural stamp to put a slight Burton refinishing on the top.  With the exception of “Big Fish” (and “Corpse Bride,” I guess – but that movie was just atrocious), the last 15 years have been one big long commercial for a peculiar visionary, a selling out and a selling of the soul.

I’m not even a big fan of “Edward Scissorhands” or “Ed Wood,” Burton’s two most acclaimed movies that are renowned mainly for their originality and peculiar personality.  So calling “Dark Shadows” a return to form isn’t exactly the phrase I’m looking for, because it still falls into the typical Burton pitfalls.  But it’s a flash of vintage Burton, a film with winning personality and a sharp sense of macabre humor.

That’s largely due to the fact that he draws a fantastic performance out of his choice surrogate, Johnny Depp, whose been acting in a bit of a fog for the past decade.  He’s not the first superstar who’s fallen victim to becoming a great imitator of himself, and he certainly won’t be the last.  Save perhaps Sweeney Todd, we’ve been seeing 50 shades of Jack Sparrow for movie after movie, and that’s really selling Depp short.  His delivery is deliciously deadpan, his period acting totally self-assured in “Dark Shadows,” and that alone makes for a surprising amount of fun.

Depp’s baroque sensibilities as Barnabas Collins, a wealthy heir in the early United States turned immortal vampire, are uproarious when juxtaposed with the 1970s in which he reawakens.  Burton’s version of the decade, a gloriously campy nostalgic pop song, is a fantastic character in and of itself.  It serves as a marvelous foil to Barnabas, unaware of just how different the times have become (and how at times they can be eerily similar).

The script does Depp and the decade a disservice by being clunky, unfocused, and a bit too dragged out.  It inundates us with an ensemble – including the siren who bit Barnabas turned business rival of the Collins family (Eva Green), an austere matriarch (Michelle Pfeiffer), a moody daughter (the ubiquitous Chloe Moretz), and of course Helena Bonham Carter as … um, Helena Bonham Carter – that are never quite sure of how they fit into the story.  That’s particularly true of the governess Victoria Winters (newcomer Bella Heathcote), who begins the film as a lynchpin of the plot only to disappear for nearly the entire movie.  (But don’t worry, she’s back for the climax!)

I would not go as far as to call the screenplay a mere stringing together of events that holds the funny moments together, but those moments are what make the movie memorable and entertaining.  Burton has still yet to make a truly great movie in my estimation, but the man sure can direct some riotous scenes.  B





REVIEW: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

22 06 2012

Back in 2008, Timur Bekmambetov came bursting onto the Hollywood stage with “Wanted,” a badass hitman thriller that both excited and entertained because the director seemed to understand a few things that Michael Bay and his merry band of pyromaniacs seemed to have forgotten.  Mainly, it helps to not take yourself so seriously.  You are not directing the sequel to “12 Angry Men” when you make the latest “Transformers” movie, so stop trying to serve me some BS drama and riddle the screen with bullets!

A few days ago, I probably would have said that was the only lesson that action-thrillers could take from “Wanted.”  But now, after having seen Bekmambetov’s latest, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” I learned that he fell into a typical pratfall that he avoided the last time around.  Stock style without substance is an empty void, one that is inherently undeserving of being watched – no matter how cool the slow-motion blood effects are.

Seth Graeme-Smith’s book, which I hear is actually quite clever and enjoyable, is transmuted by the Hollywood machine into a campy lowest common denominator summer popcorn flick.  The allegory gets muddled as a thoughtful portrait of the Abraham Lincoln (Benjamin Walker, looking like a young Liam Neeson) is lost to one-note horror and one joke comedy.  So by all means, if you could be entertained for 100 minutes by nothing other than dramatic irony – Harriet Tubman’s appearance supposedly funny to us because the characters in the film don’t realize how famous she will be – this might be your movie.  And if you can be scared without losing your sanity by “BOO! VAMPIRE OUT OF NOWHERE!” accompanied by crescendoing strings, then by all means, you are going to be cheering in the aisles.

But for me, the laziness just made me wistfully remember one evening in July when I went into “Wanted” expecting mindless entertainment and coming out clapping.  Instead of applause, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” inspired me to roll my eyes while our sixteenth President slew hoards of pasty-white vampires alongside his mentor Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper) and childhood compadre Will Johnson (Anthony Mackie).  What was once mind-bogglingly cool to me was quickly destroyed by soulless repetition.  A revisionist history works when you have Quentin Tarantino’s panache (see: “Inglourious Basterds“), but it’s really not worth the effort when it merely provides the backdrop instead of the backbone of a story.  Bekmambetov needed the cast of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” – (Daniel Day-Lewis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tommy Lee Jones, among many others – to compensate.  C-





Oscar Moment: “Alice in Wonderland”

30 10 2010

I’m sorry, did someone say “Best Picture nominee ‘Alice in Wonderland?'”  Are we talking about the Tim Burton version?

I don’t know what they are smoking over at Disney’s awards department, but apparently someone thought it was a good idea to launch an all-out awards push for “Alice in Wonderland” for Best Picture.  As some blogger put it, “I guess a billion dollars does buy you anything.”

If Disney had put out an FYC ad asking voters to remember the costumes, the visual effects, and the set design of the movie, I would be just fine.  But an ad asking voters to consider the movie for Best Picture and other major categories?  Get real.  This is a movie that was completely dismissed by critics, scoring a 51% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 53 on Metacritic.  I gave the movie a generous C, which in retrospect may have been too lenient.  Here’s an excerpt from my review to give you a slight taste of my feelings about the movie:

Burton said that his intention was to “try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events” because he never felt an emotional connection between the characters in the original.  In this respect, his version is an utter disaster.  I saw exactly the opposite of what he intended: Alice wandering from place to place with absolutely no plot building.

Just because “Avatar” was a good-looking movie that made a lot of money and got a Best Picture nomination does not mean that the formula works for every good-looking movie that makes a lot of money.  “Avatar” was a good movie, certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and reached universal acclaim status on Metacritic.  Disney has a bona fide Best Picture contender in “Toy Story 3,” and it could very well win if their cards are played right.  Why on earth they feel like wasting a penny on a movie that I think has no shot in hell at receiving an Oscar nomination is totally beyond me.

I expect the movie to pick up a few tech nominations and maybe win a few guild prizes.  However, if “Alice in Wonderland” gets a Best Picture nomination, it will be the final nail in the Academy’s coffin of irrelevance.

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Makeup, Best Visual Effects

OTHER POSSIBLE NOMINATIONS: Best Picture (?)





REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland

21 03 2010

No matter your opinion on director Tim Burton, it can’t be denied that the man has some true creativity.  This spark is what gained him notoriety in the late ’80s and early ’90s with hits like “Beetlejuice,” “Edward Scissorhands,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”  Recently, however, Burton has seemed to have found that creativity isn’t always synonymous with originality, and has mainly spent the past five years retooling other people’s work.

But while Burton puts his own unique spin on these projects, I have felt that each of them has lost a very distinct part of their original identity.  With his remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the movie lost most of its original charm and fun.  His film adaptation of “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” dropped a sizable portion of Stephen Sondheim’s songs, and the story lost a great deal of character development.

Unfortunately, “Alice in Wonderland” falls into the same pattern.  This time, Burton has stripped the movie of a lot of its sense.  Granted, this is a fairly non-sensical story, so this isn’t the worst movie to receive this treatment.  But Burton makes it lose even the most basic coherency, and no movie can be excused for that.

It’s hard to describe what exactly Burton’s take on “Alice in Wonderland” actually is.  It is not a remake of the Disney animated classic like I assumed it would be.  But it is not any sort of sequel, prequel, revamping, or modernizing of anything we have ever seen.  This version is just off in its own little world, reminding us of our favorite characters but never giving us any reason to fall in love with them again.

The story follows Alice (Mia Wasikowska) at the age of 19, once again drawn by the white rabbit into the magical world where the impossible is very possible.  The land is now being ruled by the ruthless Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), whose reign of terror is enforced by the fearsome Jabberwocky.  Alice becomes public enemy #1 whenever it is foreseen that she will slay the beast.  To ensure that her head stays on her shoulders, Alice enlists the help of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) along with a few other oddballs including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

Burton said that his intention was to “try and make Alice feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events” because he never felt an emotional connection between the characters in the original.  In this respect, his version is an utter disaster.  I saw exactly the opposite of what he intended: Alice wandering from place to place with absolutely no plot building.

On the acting side of things, this is obviously Mia Wasikowska’s big moment, and this movie is obviously going to get her noticed.  I’m sure this is only the beginning of many movies that we see this young talent in.  As for the old pros, the only person that seems to be having any fun is Helena Bonham Carter.  She makes the character her own, and it works.  Not to mention, she made me chuckle every time she spat out the Red Queen’s trademark phrase “off with her head!”  Johnny Depp can’t seem to make any more sense out of the Mad Hatter than we can, and in Anne Hathaway’s brief moments on screen, she seems to be fascinated only with twirling around the set like a ballerina.

In fact, the only thing about “Alice in Wonderland” that was executed exceptionally well was the mischievous Cheshire Cat, voiced by British comedian Stephen Fry.  Striking the perfect balance between cute and dastardly, I found myself consistently begging for the blue smoke to materialize into the devilish kitty.  But most of my wishing was not rewarded, much like my wishing for the movie to become something other than a mess.  However, it is a mess that is distinctly Tim Burton – whether that’s good or not is up to you.  C /





Shameless Advertisement #10 – March

1 03 2010

And now, the moment you have all been waiting for … it’s MAAAAAAARCH (as if Oprah were screaming it)!

The poll results yield four one-vote getters: “Green Zone,” “She’s Out Of My League,” “The Bounty Hunter,” and “Hot Tub Time Machine.”

However, with three votes, the most anticipated movie of March 2010 is…

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What To Look Forward To in … March 2010

12 02 2010

There’s more to March than just the Oscars.  Finally, March arrives and we can stop dwelling on 2009.  In my opinion, March is usually a pretty decent movie month.  This year’s crop looks especially promising with new movies from Tim Burton, Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Ultimatum”), and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”).

March 5

After almost 3 months, “Avatar” will have to cede those illustrious 3-D and IMAX screens to Tim Burton’s twist on “Alice in Wonderland.”  The titular character is played by relative newcomer Mia Wasikowsa, who will look quite a bit older than the Alice you remember from Disney’s 1951 animated classic.  If that’s not a big enough draw for you, surely Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter (who will hopefully channel more of his glorious Jack Sparrow than his Jacko-esque Willy Wonka) will suffice.  No?  How about Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts?  Or Anne Hathaway as the White Queen?  Perhaps Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar?  No doubt about it, this is one exciting cast, and I’m sure Tim Burton won’t have any problem distinguishing himself from the numerous “Alice in Wonderland” rip-offs that have sprouted over the past few years.

“Brooklyn’s Finest” is directed by Antoine Fuqua, helmer of “Training Day,” which was enough to get me interested.  However, it really looks to be little more than a mash-up of every cop movie ever made.  But hey, that may be your thing, which would make this your potpourri.

March 12

I’m excited for “Green Zone,” which looks to be a smart political thriller. See my previous post at the release of the trailer for more info.

On the indie side of things, Noah Baumbach looks to return to Oscar form after “Margot at the Wedding” underwhelmed with “Greenberg.”  The movie stars Ben Stiller as Greenberg, the grouchy misanthrope who finds a reason to be pessimistic about everything.  However, a special woman comes along and begins to melt his heart.  I’m looking forward to a double-edged performance from Stiller, one that can show off his dramatic chops but also give us plenty of hearty laughs.

Seth Rogen’s four roommates in “Knocked Up” were equally as funny as he was. Each of them have slowly gotten their “moment”: Jonah Hill in “Superbad,” Jason Segel in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall.” Now, it could be Jay Baruchel’s turn. “She’s Out of My League” pits him similar situation: the uncomely guy getting the smoking hot babe. Hopefully Paramount gives this the push it deserves, maybe making Baruchel a breakout comedic star of 2010.

Could “Remember Me” get Robert Pattinson the Razzie for Worst Actor? After narrowly missing the cut for his two performances as Edward Cullen, this could finally be the one to get him the kind of awards attention he deserves.

Forest Whitaker is an Academy Award winning actor. What on earth is he doing in “Our Family Wedding?” For that matter, America Ferrera has won SAG and Golden Globe awards, and Carlos Mencia was once actually funny! This looks not only insufferable but almost racist. Plus, didn’t I see this movie in 2005 when it was called “Guess Who?”

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