Tuesday 24 March 2015

Big Eyes (2015) - Movie Review

It’s fan-boy time again, this time looking at the newest film from Tim Burton, one of my favourite directors. Of course, openly admitting to such things isn’t exactly the safest of prospects considering his more recent output like Alice In Wonderland and Dark Shadows, some of his older work like Charlie And The Chocolate Factory and Sleepy Hollow or even just the fact that his style is just that recognisable that, quite frankly, an awful lot of people are getting sick of seeing it, especially given how influential it has become. But I couldn’t give a monkey’s about any of that: I grew up watching his films from Beetlejuice to Sweeney Todd, I’ve always dug his garish yet Gothic style and I genuinely think that his cinematic sensibilities helped make me the person I am today… although, to be fair, that might just give readers another reason to hate him for all I know. Not to say that all of his films follow his usual aesthetic, as today’s film will no doubt attest ; this is the first Burton film I can remember seeing that wasn’t playing at a mainstream cinema and after seeing it, I kind of get why.

The plot: Margaret (Amy Adams) is an artist in San Francisco who paints portraits of waifs with large eyes. After meeting fellow painter, and eventual husband, Walter Keene (Christoph Waltz), they decide to try and sell their paintings together. However, once Walter starts selling Margaret’s works under his own name, the big-eyed paintings start getting extremely popular, causing Walter to want to monetize on it as best he can and Margaret is forced to keep quiet about who the real artist is. But as the lies grow deeper and Walter’s actions get worse, Margaret starts to crack under the strain of it all and wants to see proper recognition for her work.

As I said in the intro, this film doesn’t really look or feel like a typical Tim Burton film, aside from the ever-present and always-good Danny Elfman on music duties. In fact, this might be one of Burton’s most surreal pictures purely because it differs from Burton’s usual aesthetic. However, while this doesn’t have the dark and moody lighting nor the bright pastels of his more recognisable work, this does fit in with his previous work with writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski: Ed Wood, another one of Burton’s more standard ventures. There’s a certain feeling of specialisation involved here that echoes the sensibilities of Ed Wood: Whereas that film was shot and edited so that it looked closer to the 1950’s schlocky B-movies of the time, even down to the black-and-white camera stock, the cinematography for Big Eyes is very picturesque and evokes images of paintings, almost like a Peter Greenaway film. Burton’s choice to stick with his lesser used cinematic methods was a smart move, as the story of Margaret Keene could have easily been overshadowed by Burton’s usually very pronounced and noticeable style. Given Burton’s respect for Keene and her work, having commissioned a painting by her himself back in the day, you can definitely see that on display with how much care was put into the film.

While we don’t get any of the Burton Street Regulars this time around (which may well be a selling point to some audiences), this film sports a pretty good cast spearheaded by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz as the leads. Waltz, put simply, is kind of insane in this movie, all manic energy and a special brand of sliminess which he has built his current reputation on with films like Inglorious Basterds and The Green Hornet. He’s fairly over-the-top for the most part, but when he’s supposed to be taken as charming initially he pulls it off as well. Then again, his more overblown moments fit the tone of the film without going too far, as this is a pretty surreal story as is. He can also get very intimidating at the drop of a hat, and… yeah, it may bring on a few nightmares.

Amy Adams, on the other hand, portrays the tragedy and mental strain of her role beautifully, showing naivety while keeping it within the realms of reality, which is apparently not as easy to accomplish as it seems if every other film is anything to go by, as well as strong force of will and determination. Aside from our mains, we also have Danny Huston as a journalist. Now, Huston has a real knack for playing complete twats on films, whether it’s in comedies like How To Lose Friends And Alienate People or in more serious works like The Number 23 and 2012’s Hitchcock. This is why it came as a surprise to me that here, where he is playing a character literally called Dick, he is at his most restrained in that department. He’s a bit of an arsehole here, but ultimately, his character is just looking for a good story.

While this film didn’t immediately make me think ‘Tim Burton’, the main story did make me think of another certain eccentric director while I was watching it: John Waters. Specifically, his 1981 black comedy Polyester. Now, I might be a stick in the mud here, but I honestly see Polyester as less of a comedy (regardless of how dark it was meant to be in that regard) and as more of a tragedy; I seriously felt for Divine’s Francine Fishpaw and all the terrible shit that happened to her over the course of that movie. I bring this up because, with all that happens to Margaret Keene in this film, it evoked a similar reaction and one that I haven’t felt this strongly since seeing Polyester. Sure, a lot of the events happening are at least partially of Margaret’s own doing, but between Burton’s fantastic direction that show off his skills as opposed to his idiosyncrasies, Adams’ great acting and Alexander and Karaszewski’s blunt yet accurate writing, this gets seriously emotional during a lot of it.

Whether it’s from showing just sadistic and vile Walter is to both Margaret and her daughter, to seeing how badly her situation is affecting her and the psychology damage it’s no doubt causing her, this greatly shows what I consider to be the difference between good depressing and bad depressing: Bad depressing is where a film is engineered solely to get the audience to feel sad without any real reasoning behind it; good depressing is where a film makes the audience sad but it actually has a pay-off to it and doesn’t just exist for its own sake. With that in mind, though, the climactic courtroom scene where Waltz has to defend himself is absolutely hilarious, showing off Waltz at his Waltziest and James Saito playing a very reactionary judge that only adds to it.

The film opens on a quote from Andy Warhol talking about Keene’s big eye artwork: “It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” Now, I have my own issues with some aspects of the pop art movement, namely that it gave way to far too many ‘performance artists’ to stare blankly at a wall on a theatre stage in the name of artistic expression; just because it’s art doesn’t make it good by default. However, I do agree with Warhol’s idea that high art shouldn’t held up on a pedestal above all other forms of art, a mindset that this film champions. Through Terence Stamp’s portrayal of a high art critic, we see an example of the cultural elitism that has never ceased to drive me up several walls with its arrogance; largely, it involves him denouncing the big eye pieces in favour of the Abstract Expressionism of the time, something that the film directly makes fun of through Jason Schwartzman’s snooty museum curator Ruben along with the frequent hipster onlooker.

However, even though Stamp could be seen as a high art straw-man, this is probably one of the few times when a critic has been shown in a relatively realistic manner because he actually has a relevant point when criticising Walter’s (read: Margaret’s) work, even if it may not be intentional. Margaret Keene’s work is indeed art, of what calibre is of no real importance, but once Walter took control and turned it into the full-fledged business that it became, it stopped being art; and no, I’m not saying this as some statement that monetising art is a bad thing, because I live in the real world and I understand that, for better or for worse, money keeps society going.

Art, at least as I define it, is any form of artistic expression that shows some aspect of the artist’s mindset; Walter Keene’s adoption and subsequent distribution of Margaret’s work made it cease to be genuine art and became just another means of commodity; it could argued that it’s still art, but it’s being done for all the wrong reasons. While Stamp may be commenting on how kitsch isn’t art, his words also have a double meaning that the product of forceful coercion also isn’t art, which all of her paintings had become. Considering this, it’s kind of fitting that the trial ended on the note that it did, both in the film and in reality.

All in all, while it carries the hallmarks of quite a few biopics of late, and yes that includes the obligatory slideshow during the credits, the acting is on-point with Waltz and Adams doing amazingly well and keeping this fairly melodramatic story from coming across as such, the music is by Danny Elfman (no need for elaboration on that one) and the writing holds a lot of weight behind it, all brought together by Burton showing exactly what he is capable of when he gives himself room to maneuver in and not restricting himself to his typical Gothic methodology: His best cinematic effort in years. Even if you’re not a fan of Tim Burton’s work, considering how much this differs from his regular fare, I would still highly recommend checking this one out.

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