Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Help me meet the sunshine in the mourning

Jesus Christ.

This year. This goddamn year.

God. Damn. Maybe the Mayans were off by a digit.

OK, maybe that's too much, but this certainly wasn't one of the better years, that's for sure.

Anyway, fuck that shit. Lady and gentleman, instead let me ramble about the latest film the North Koreans didn't want you to see, Big Eyes, starring The Adorable Amy Adams and some other people. Those Commie motherfuckers, they see someone as talented and brimming with non-actress sincerity as Ms. Adams and it drives them nuts because only Dear Leader can be so awesome. But that is their problem.

Here in the United Muthafuckin' States of Muthafuckin' America (UMSMA), where one can go buy as many tickets to Big Eyes as they want -- provided they don't, like, run into the cops and make the mistake of not automatically bending over -- we don't go for that stupid bullshit. Here we worship celebrity and wealth, not some asshole in power. We are better than that.

Big Eyes is Ed Wood director Tim Burton getting together with Ed Wood writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski again and telling another strange-but-true story about some interesting individuals. In this case, the I.I.'s are Margaret and Walter Keane, an artist couple who became famous in the 60s because of these paintings of children featuring -- wait for it -- their big eyes. Except it was really only Walter Keane who got famous because he took all the credit even though it was his wife who painted those giant-eyed waifs. Her fame was more of a secondary kind, the residual fame-by-association.

This poor Margaret, she already left one bad marriage with daughter in tow, looking for greener pastures in the city by the bay, San Francisco. She then met up with Walter, who I have to admit is a real charmer; I like how Burton and company set up the first act of the film as a damn-near storybook romance, with Margaret being swept off her feet by this guy. He ends up proposing to her, and in response she gives out that wonderfully peculiar bow-tie smile of hers. That's our Amy, folks.

It turns out that Walter is a very successful realtor and it doesn't surprise me because this Austrian-accented dude from Nebraska has the gift of gab. I can see why Margaret first agrees to his idea of letting him take the credit because he is very convincing as a business partner and as a salesman. She, on the other hand, isn't as verbally adept; there's one scene where Margaret tries to talk to some dude checking out her artwork in a gallery and it's so fuckin' awkward because she's rambling on about numerology and it becomes clear he's more interested in banging-ology and it's just...oh man, poor Amy -- I mean, poor Margaret.

This Walter Keane turned out to be a real son-of-a-bitch, at least based on this film. The paintings become more and more popular and the Keanes make tons of dough off of them (you have to give it up to Walter for his idea of selling copies of the paintings), but he's the only one who gets to enjoy the success. Meanwhile, Margaret gets to stay cooped up in a locked room turning out painting after painting, like so many hotcakes -- which is exactly how these paintings are selling. Like muthafuckin' hotcakes. Slathered in butter. Drizzled with maple syrup. Oh man, I can go for some right now -- Keane paintings, I mean.

These paintings were popular but the critical consensus was one of Good God These Are Terrible, and leading this hate brigade was John Canaday, art critic for the New York Times. He's played by Terence Stamp, and he can't stand how successful these paintings are getting. At one point, he throws down a Time Magazine issue featuring a story on Keane, declaring that it's "absurd", while apparently not noticing that the front page is about the Watts Riots -- because there's also real life & death shit going on out there but fuck that, it's all about art, you know?

There's a tense moment between him and Walter that ends in an action that I don't believe happened in real life, but hey, when you have General Zod the Limey in a film, you have to have him do something kinda badass. There's also a line in that scene where Walter says something to the effect of "Critics have to criticize because they don't know how to create" and Canaday just about yawns it off with "Oh, that moldy chestnut." TAKE THAT, BIRDMAN!

Big Eyes opens with a quote by Andy Warhol, giving Keane props and basically saying that if the paintings were no good they wouldn't be selling so many of them. I mean it's cool that Warhol wasn't a snob about this shit, but I mean that shit could also be said about assholes like Thomas Kinkade -- or if you want to move it to movies, you can say the same about Michael Bay and his Transformers series. Millions of motherfuckers ponied up the dough for all of that shit (myself included). But I guess we each have a breaking point as to what we'll consider art and what we'll consider cynically-made garbage directed with contempt towards the people who would pay to see Optimus Prime be an asshole for almost three hours. I reached mine halfway through the second Transformers flick.

What am I talking about here? Oh yeah, OK, I'm back on track; while the film is pretty evenhanded about the quality of her work, clearly Burton is on the side of Keane's paintings being genuine Art. They just seem like something he would be into, know what I mean? I'm not sure about the writers, I would guess that maybe Alexander and Karaszewski aren't fans of the paintings but they are definitely behind the artist -- much like with Ed Wood, a film about a filmmaker whose films were godawful but goddammit you have to admire the man for what he was trying to do and for having the balls/gumption/spirit to pull it off.

And in the case of Margaret Keane, regardless of what you might feel about her work, it's hard to deny that she is putting her soul into them. I don't think she's pulling a Kinkade/Bay with any of her paintings, she's sincere, and that's probably one of many reasons that those ten years of marriage to Walter were hell (he was also a mean asshole drunk): she was in this fucked up situation of being forced to paint paint paint and it didn't matter whether she was inspired or not. At one point, Walter tries to compare her situation to Michelangelo taking that Sistine Chapel gig and she's all like "Yeah, and it took him four years" because she certainly doesn't have that luxury of time.

Now, for the real question -- how is our Amy here? Well, the fact that you would ask that question automatically makes you suspect in my eyes. Your faith is lacking and you should know better. But that's OK. Anyway, she's really good here; her Keane is someone who is quick to smile but does not outwardly express her negativity, but that's not to say that she completely hides those kinds of feelings. She just doesn't put up much of a fight during her weak attempts at standing up for herself. Every once in a while, she'll let out a smart remark or sarcastic comment and I think that's her way of letting out a little pressure from the boiler, but that's as far as she'll go. I suspect this way of Dealing With Shit was something she developed during her last marriage so her kid wouldn't be a witness to her misery.

But that's the problem -- as far as Oscar gold is concerned. Because Adams is playing someone who tends to stay in Internal Mode, that means we don't get that all-out showstopper (preferably right before the third act) where she finally decides that Enough Is Enough and starts throwing vases and stabbing holes into her paintings (to the protestations of her husband) while screaming out loud some bullshit like "I'M TIRED OF BEING FORCED TO SELL MY SOUL IN 12x16 FRAMES! YOU CAN HAVE MY MONEY AND MY FREEDOM, BUT THESE WILL ALWAYS BE MY BIG EYES! I'VE ABANDONED MY CHILD!!!" and that's too bad because stuff like that is what gets the Academy hard.

That's too bad, because if you can judge good acting with something else other than the Pacino Scale, you'd see that she's doing a great job here. For the record -- had Reese Witherspoon played this role and given the same performance, I'd have the same opinion. Because I am not viewing this film through Amy Adams glasses (which would present the film in AWWW-D).

But you know what? Fuck Oscar. If I were to meet The Adorable Amy Adams, I would tell her that. I would tell her that she doesn't need an Oscar, she has something better than that -- she gets to be Amy Adams. Then she would smile at me and hold out a ticket stub and tell me that hers is the red Volvo.

I'd sooner believe two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz getting a nomination for his role as Walter Keane, because his is the kind of really good performance that also has plenty of vocal/physical flourishes that the Academy licks up the way I lick up the rest of a chili bowl. It also helps his chances that the film more or less becomes his for the majority of the running time, or at least it felt that way to me.

It's an interesting format for this film; the first act is Margaret's, then the second act is really more about Walter with the occasional moment of cigarette-smoking Margaret intensely painting those big eyes, then in the third act Margaret realizes she has to take a stand and take the movie (and her paintings) back. Honestly, she probably has a better chance at Oscar attention if her performance is submitted to the Academy under Best Supporting Actress.

Overall, I liked the film. It's an interesting story told in an entertaining manner -- which I guess is my nicest way of saying that it was good-but-not-great and I was a tad underwhelmed. And I'll be honest with you, man, I wouldn't have been able to pick this out of a lineup as a Tim Burton joint, let alone one written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. The writers don't really use the same style that they used in their biopics like The People vs. Larry Flynt or Man on the Moon -- which I understand, I mean, most artists abhor the idea of repeating themselves, right? Even Margaret Keane wanted to try some new shit that didn't involve some big eyed kiddies.

But goddamn, I really liked what they did in the past. I liked the scope of those screenplays, those motherfuckers were rife with detail and dense and all-out overflowing with interesting characters and situations. Not so much with this one; it really is only the Margaret and Walter show, with occasional appearances by a critic, a gallery owner, or a friend who may be a wee bit jealous. There's also a reporter/narrator played by Danny Huston who I found absolutely useless in this film, except for the amusing fact that Huston now sounds a little like his dad and will probably sound more like his dad as he gets older.

Compared to their previous screenplays, this has more of a slow burn approach; in their other works, the absurdity of the situation presented itself front and center and never went away. These dudes are nothing if not masters at telling tales that are so strange, they can only come from Real Life. But their script for Big Eyes is stingy with its No Fuckin' Way Did That Happen points and waits for the last third of the film to finally redeem those motherfuckers. At least that's how it felt for me, because I didn't know the whole Keane story until I watched this film. If you already know how this all played out, then maybe none of this will raise your Give A Shit level past a two, maybe three.

It also doesn't really look or feel like a Burton movie either, except for maybe the use of overly bright colors for the suburban neighborhood scenes at the beginning of the film (not too far off from the neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands). Also, Krysten Ritter is in this film as Margaret's only friend, and she looks like a Tim Burton creation come to life -- more specific, she looks like the real life person they based Winona Ryder's character in Beetlejuice on, had she existed in real life.

Speaking of which, if they ever make a Beetlejuice sequel, I can see Burton pull some coldblooded shit and recast Ryder's role with this chick. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised at all if it turns out that Ritter and Burton become an item -- it wouldn't be the first time he fell in love/lust with an actress on one of his films and dumped his former lady as a result. Lisa Marie, meet Helena Bonham Carter. Helena Bonham Carter, meet Krysten Ritter. And so on, and so forth -- until Burton drops dead or is shot dead by one of his former friends of the female persuasion. Which is what he deserves for calling each and every one of them his muse (based on nothing whatsoever but my own imagination).

I don't mean this as an insult, because more often than not you have quality shit coming from this place, but the end result really felt to me less like a film made for the big screen and more like an HBO movie -- some lower budgeted project Tim Burton took to remind people that before he became the aging gothic hipster schmuck who makes overly expensive/critically trashed Johnny Depp movies, he was once the young gothic hipster schmuck who made a not-very-expensive/critically acclaimed Johnny Depp film. Well, Big Eyes doesn't measure up to that 20-year-old film, but it is better than Ed Wood in only one respect -- Amy Adams is in it.

Oh, also there's a judge in the film and he's played by The Shredder from the 1990 film adaptation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which Ed Wood sorely lacked.

In conclusion: Fuck you and die, 2014.